Monkeys and Bears and Boars, Oh My!

Wild things roam the land of the rising sun

From time to time attention-grabbing headlines such as “Radioactive wild boars rampaging around Fukushima nuclear site”, “Parents left seven-year-old son in bear-infested woods as punishment,” and “Warning after four people killed in bear attacks in Japan,” burst the urban bubble of daily life in mega-city Tokyo, and remind me, among other things, that Japan still has a surprising amount of nature scattered among its 3,000-plus islands.

I’ve already written about Japan’s wild places in ‘Ka Chou Fuu Getsu: Flower Bird Wind Moon.’ In fact, the chance to explore such unique and photogenic places as the smoking volcanoes of Kyushu and Hokkaido, the Jurassic Park interior of Iriomote’s rain forest, and the alpine fastness of the main-island Alps, are part of what have kept this Canada-boy in Japan for going on two decades now.

But landscapes aren’t the only wildness in Japan. A whole bestiary of critters fly and swim and stalk and slither through these jungles and mountains: giant, shovel-headed salamanders, “living fossil” wild cats, raccoon dogs, goat-bearded serows, snow-loving monkeys, and perhaps the king of them all, Hokkaido’s higuma grizzly bear. Plus, of course, those radioactive boars…

Really, though, as in most places I’ve trekked, wildlife encounters in Japan are few and far between. In my two decades in-country, I’ve seen little more than the occasional fox or deer, a muddy grizzly print, and a family of macaques at play. “Nature red in tooth and claw” has, to date, touch wood, meant little more than plucking a partly-engorged tick from my friend’s back, and flicking a giant — and admittedly very toxic — mukade Okinawan centipede into the sea as it made a dash into my pant leg. Other than that, it’s been junpumanpan, smooth sailing. So, you know, this post isn’t a collection of animal-attack porn. Just saying.

Honestly, I don’t give potentially dangerous animals much thought when I grab my boots and head for the mountains and forests of this lil bejewelled archipelago we call home. I hardly even bother with bear bells any more — don’t rangers in Canada call them “dinner bells?”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t creatures to be aware of. So take the following list as one hiker’s anecdotal experience of wildlife encounters real and imagined in Japan’s great outdoors. In this post I’ll focus on mammals: poisonous snakes, insects, and parasites will have to wait for another post…

Higuma Ezo brown bear aka “grizzly bear”

I spent the first four years in Japan living on Hokkaido, the remotest, least developed of Japan’s five main islands. Undoubtedly the king of the forests and mountains is the higuma grizzly bear, which approaches Alaska’s Kodiak grizzly bear in size: over two meters tall and over 500 kilograms. Although the estimated population of 3,000 concentrate in the Shiretoko peninusla area of eastern Hokkaido where people are fewest and rivers still run thick with salmon, they also inhabit the central mountain areas such as around Daisetsuzan National Park where I did much of my hiking. This part of Hokkaido, however, is thick with dense sa-sa bamboo grass, and it’s easy to imagine that there was more than one bear coyly hiding in the undergrowth trailside. Are they dangerous? Well, apparently there were 86 attacks and 33 deaths in Hokkaido from 1962 to 2008, with possibly more since though I haven’t found any numbers. Then there’s the notorious Sankebetsu brown bear incident, when around 100 years ago a single bear terrorized a village for several days and killed seven settlers.

Tsukinowaguma Asian black bear aka “moon bear” or“crescent bear”

Although black bears also inhabit Hokkaido, as far as large and predatory mammals go it pretty much has main-island Honshu to itself — other than humans, of course, who sometimes like a nice bear stew as comfort food in Japan’s surprisingly cold, snowy winters. The name comes from the distinctive crescent-shaped patch of white fur on the chest. Sounds cute and all, especially given that the Asiatic black bear tends to be smaller — more like a big dog — than other black bears, but in fact they are quite aggressive and attacks on people are more frequent. At risk of tipping this post into the animal-attack-porn category, one recent news report from the Hakone area, just outside Tokyo, carries the stomach-churning headline “A Bear Is Ripping Off My Nipple” — definitely not a read for the squeamish (trigger alert: I found the story fascinating, but I also couldn’t finish the read as it literally made me sick to my stomach).

In Okutama, an area just under an hour’s fast train trip from here, and where R. and I often go hiking, the Visitor’s Center updates a bear sightings page. I note with some trepidation that koyo autumn leaves season, when the mountains are full of hikers and photographers, have by far the highest incidents of bear sightings. Perhaps this is why the mountains of japan are a-ring with the constant sound of bear bells. Of course, whether or not they work as intended is another question…

Nihonzaru, Japanese Macaque

Monkeys, specifically the “snow monkey” macaques which winter-over in the hot springs near Nagano, are Japan’s most famous large mammals and, until recently, lived near fields and villages, relatively close to humans. They also figure prominently in Japanese religion and folk tales, where they have played the roles of companion, mediator, and trickster.

Macaques are still a common site in the mountains in many parts of Japan — except Hokkaido. Yet, surprisingly, I hadn’t see any in the wild until encountering several individuals and a small troop along the Azusagawa River in Kamikochi in the Japan Alps. They seemed oblivious to us, which is a good thing since they do sometimes attack people. Fortunately, for what it’s worth, back in 2007 Michelle Tsai published on Slate an article “How to Fight Monkeys“. Her report focuses on the long=tailed variety of macaque found in places like Bali and the cities of India. The gist of it? Give ’em your snack, or bop ’em on the head with a stick.

Inoshishi, Boar

Anyone who has seen Studio Ghibli’s animated Princess Mononoke won’t be surprised to learn that in Japan the boar is a fearsome beast, reckless and brave at the same time. Lonely Planet’s Hiking in Japan guide calls them ferocious, though doesn’t elaborate…

This may be why boar/people encounters are on the increase, as people push further into their native forests and the hard-pressed boars come into town to scavenge food. The boar population is also apparently exploding, as are the populations of other large mammals once hunted by the now-extinct Ezo wolf. The number of hunters in Japan is also on the decline — except apparently among women in their 20s and 30s in Hokkaido…

Unfortunately, all this means an increase in the number of boar attacks in forested areas, especially in Hyogo prefecture around Kobe.

Kita-Kitsune, Northern Fox

Of all the larger animals in Japan which the trekker should worry about, perhaps the common, gregarious red fox found on Hokkaido is the most threatening — although not directly. Turns out, these cute little guys — a common site along roads and trails — are host to a variety of tapeworm, scientific name echinococcus, which they pass through their feces into the water supply. These parasites are truly disgusting — and life threatening to people. People still dye today of undetected parasitic infection. Trigger alert: don’t read up on these suckers before bedtime. Seriously, they’re a real danger and you must take precautions while out of doors on Hokkaido: always always always boil river and lake water — any water source found in nature — before drinking.

So there you are. Japan is full of surprises. Just outside mega-city Tokyo, there is still plenty of nature to explore and encounter. Just make sure you boil your water. And wear a bell. Or not…

How about you? Any wildlife encounters in the land of the rising sun? Leave us a comment about it!