JULY, 2007


The moment I set foot on Shiretoko soil I was on tenterhooks.  In Ainu lore the slender, fingerlike peninsula lined with its knuckles of volcanoes is evocatively regarded as the ‘End of the Earth.’  The thing that had my innards inverting into knots however, was the fact that the World Heritage listed peninsula had become home to Hokkaido’s largest concentration of brown bear.  Yep, that’s right folks, Shiretoko is the haunt of the Higuma.

These buggers are the real deal.  Apart from the notorious Osaka Obachan they are the most feared creature to be found over the length and breadth of the Japanese archipelago.  They’ll rip your head off and tear your heart out and drop kick your scrawny arse into the bamboo bushes all for the measly Snickers bars you’ve got stuffed into your hip pocket.  The young bloke manning the front desk of my lodgings at the Iwaobetsu Youth Hostel calmly dispensed with some sage advice should I come face to face with one of these fearsome beasts.

“Don’t run.  Don’t scream.  Don’t break eye contact,” he said.

I nodded, intently staring at a long, brown, beetle struggling across the floor at my feet and then all of a sudden realised what the bloke had in effect said:

“Stand there.  Don’t call for help.  Observe it slowly lumber up to you and proceed to tear you limb from limb.”

Luckily, with over a month on the road under my belt, my brain was going through a healthy decluttering process, disconnected as it was from the daily doses of diarrhoea dished out by television and newspaper.  I filed his indispensable advice away in a dark nook in my cranium alongside such bear avoidance gems as:

“Run down hill, not uphill because bears’ front legs are shorter than their back ones,” which translates as: “Run down hill.  The bear will trip over, tumble like an enormous hairy brown snowball and conveniently squash you into a human pancake for its children and grandchildren to enjoy.”

Or how about:  “Let it approach you then give it a good old blast of pepper spray, right between the eyes.”  Bloody hell, have you seen a drunkard sprayed with that shit?  Imagine squirting that stuff on something ten times the size, juiced up to the eyeballs, twenty gallons of fermented bamboo shoot sloshing around in its gut.  Christ, spare yourself the trouble of getting to Hokkaido; go outside and jump in front of a truck.A 12 gauge, shotgun, pump action, chamber chock full of solid slugs was more along the lines of what I had in mind.  Though I dare say slinging something like that over my shoulder and traipsing into a World Heritage area might have caused a spot of consternation amongst the locals.   Bear bell it was going to have to be.  Yes, that dinky little hiking accessory that announces to all hungry Higumas near and far that dinner’s out wandering the trail.  I reckon it’s something akin to the old barefoot housewife belting the bottom of the iron pot with the ladle as she hollers, “Come and get it!”  But then, what else could I do?  The only other choice I had was to dump the bell altogether.  The catch 22 being that if I decided to silently wander the trails and happened to a startle mama bear with junior at her side, I was running the risk of donating my hip pocket full of Snickers’ to the Higuma cause and at the same time replacing them with a few chocolate creations of my own.

Sightings were a daily occurrence on Shiretoko during the warmer months.  Sections of the peninsula open to the public were regularly shut down due to roaming bear activity.  It seemed an encounter was as inevitable as getting your head flushed down the toilet on the first day of high school or being shagged in the arse on your first night in the slammer.  Even Daisetsu-san hadn’t been as nerve wracking bearwise.  There on Shiretoko however, I feared that at best, I was going to get the fright of my life whilst, at worst, be carted out of the place in a body bag or two.

But we’re missing the point.  Lost amidst all this consternation was the real reason I’d come to Shiretoko in the first place.  I was there to get up and down Rausu-dake, the highest mountain on the peninsula.  Mountain number twenty in my Hyakumeizan quest.  The one fifth mark of the adventure.  The point I’d targeted a couple of weeks previously on Rishiri for my next shave.  All this ballyhoo about bears was in reality, a side show, albeit one I was resigned to experiencing at some point on the climb.

After dinner in the cosy, bug infested hostel I returned to my dormitory room, a lurking dread settling in my stomach for the night like an impenetrable Shiertoko sea fog as I climbed on to my top bunk bed, lay back and stared at the ceiling.  I was sharing the room with a bunch of Dutch boys who, whilst chatting away in their mother tongue, annoyingly  swore like troopers in English.

“Bloop de doop di kloop di fucking woop,” one would say.

“Ahh, shit da.  Woop di bloop di flop ze noop,” said the other

“Fucking bastard de snoop de poop,” added the third.

And they carried on like that for hours the annoying buggers. Don’t the Dutch have swear words of their own?  I mean, the way the Germans treated them just a while back you’d have thought they must have built up a pretty good cuss bank.  The curious blending of languages did manage to distract me from the lurking dread however and I lay there counting cusses to put myself to sleep…

Thank God I didn’t take the gun.  As twitchy as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, I would have blasted half a dozen frogs, four birds, two hikers and a deer to smithereens.  And would you bloody well believe it?  Not one bear.  On the way up or down!  Not bloody one!  I’d been cheated.  Robbed.  Shystered.  I wanted my money back!

But I did come close.  Following a young bloke up from the trailhead and into the forest, he suddenly turned to me, mere minutes into the hike, at the apex of a switchback, held up a cautionary hand and reached for the bottle of pepper spray that I suddenly noticed strapped to his belt.

“Oh jeez,” I thought, “The sheriff was in town.  This was only going to end in tears.”  Survival instinct kicked in.  If he was going to be a hero I decided it was best the bears had their way with him and him alone.  I sidled back around the bend behind me and waited for the telltale sounds of snapping bones and popping entrails.  The fella was mad.  It was like a caveman trying to stop a pterodactyl with fly spray, the silly sod was going to be Higuma sport.

In the end though, he just whacked his hiking pole on the side of a tree a couple of times to scatter the creatures and as I poked my head around the corner, he signaled to me the all clear, inviting me to go ahead.

“Bugger that,” I thought as I politely declined and insisted he continue in the lead.  Until he got torn to shreds I was not taking over.

To add to the drama the weather was deteriorating and deteriorating fast.  Earlier, beneath a slate grey sky at the bus stop outside the youth hostel, the wind howled over the mountains from the Pacific side of the peninsula and I watched long talons of black cloud eerily wrap themselves around Rausu, only to be torn from its heights to be tossed out over the Sea of Okhotsk as more swept in from behind.   On such a day as that not many hikers were destined to be on the trail ahead of me scaring away the bears – or filling them up.  The wind dancing ferociously in the tree tops above me drowned out all the efforts of my bell to alert any Higuma in the area of my approach.  The young bloke collapsed exhausted onto a rock.  With nineteen mountains under my belt I was still feeling good, if I continued to hang behind him I’d be on the mountain all bloody day so I left him and stepped into a world of adrenalin laced dread.

In the grip of a fear more imagined than warranted I was rearing up at anything that crossed my path and was left wanting to come down on it like the hammers of hell.  Eventually I left the woods and climbed a steep ice choked ravine to a high flat saddle, a deer skittering over the rocky path ahead of me.  The wind howled across the flats of Rausu-daira and a cold, stinging rain began to fall.  Mountain tops were hidden by thickening cloud and I made my way hurriedly along a brushpine lined trail to the rocky summit of the mountain.  Up there I caught up with a group of hikers persevering in the miserable conditions, passed them and rock hopped over to the summit marker where I hastily got off a proof shot and left, grim faced and ready to run the gauntlet once more.  This time, at least, I’d be heading in the preferred downhill direction.

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