Our final stop in Japan was decided almost on a whim really whilst finding a route back to Sapporo. We needed something that was near to the middle of the island around half way back and the short description of this place in the guide book sold it to us. Until now we had only caught one brief glimpse of the brown bears that inhabit Hokkaido. Fortunately that glimpse in the wild was at a good distance and while we were in a car. Wanting a closer look, but without it being the last thing we ever see, we set off to Bear Mountain. This reserve has around 12 adult brown bears in its enclosure that is a bit like a jungle safari park.
We had a nice surprise when we arrived and found out that despite it not being advertised anywhere we got a hefty discount just for having a hire car. That quickly made the decision of which way to go through the enclosure. There is a choice to just use the raised walkway 5m above the floor or to pay a bit more and get on a heavily armoured bus and travel through at ground level to the end of the walkway. Obviously we chose the second option.
Entering the compound is like going into Jurassic Park, passing through a big double set of gates in a huge fence that encircles the patch of jungle. It really speaks of ‘ you don’t want to meet what’s in here face to face’.
The trail the bus used was surprisingly rough but the bus lumbered on through bouncing around like an American car on British roads. It really does let you get up close with the wee little beasties. These particular beasties are anything but wee or little however, weighing around 350-400kg and definitely not under-fed.
The bus journey ends at a small building inside the main compound where you get out of the bus and can get up close and personal with the bears who enjoy a splash around in the pool separated by a thankfully thick layer of toughened glass. “I just want to cuddle one”… “no, you really don’t”
Dissuaded from actually wanting to cuddle something 5-6 times Jethro’s own we headed up to the walkway. We wandered it’s short length a couple of times and spent quite a long time up there, while a few more busses came and went, glad that we’d not just done this bit. We were watching with some curiosity why some of the rangers in their pickup trucks were hanging around the area beneath. It didn’t take long to find out. While one bear had dug itself a nice little ditch to have an afternoon nap in down by a stream another bear was wandering down the same way. The stream was also out of reach for the rangers in their slightly battered pickup trucks so they were shouting and flinging the occasional stone towards wandering bear. It didn’t take long to find out why. As the second bear approached the napping one he up quickly and after a brief pause to size each other up the ran at each other. The word doesn’t really do it justice but needless to say we were very glad to be five metres up in the air at that point. The fight moved out of the stream bed as one bear was trying to get away and they to directly under the walkway. They had also ended up where the rangers could get in close but despite the loud revving of engines and even being nudged by the trucks they barely noticed (groan). The ranges then emptied what must have been most of a can of bear spray at the combatant creatures. I can imagine what that must be like to something with a sense of smell like a bear but up on the walkway it was still potent causing us to back off coughing and spluttering. Even then it took a good while for the bears to find the spray more of a nuisance than each other. They did eventually break apart at that point and retreated back to different parts of the stream to cool down and clean their wounds, but mostly they were immersing their faces in the water to try and drown the effects of the spray. “Still want to cuddle one?”
With the over we wandered back along the walkway to the entrance feeling relieved that we hadn’t one of these really quite aggressive animals out in the wild but very glad we’d made the trip here to see them up close. A fantastic, and sobering, way to finish our time in Hokkaido and Japan as a whole. Next up is three weeks in the tropical paradise of the Philippines for lots of S’s, sun, sea, sand, snorkeling and surfing.