Recently there have been sightings of bears in a couple of popular sightseeing spots in Fukushima Prefecture, including Goshiki-numa Ponds.
It made me realise that I had no idea what to do in the event of coming across a bear when travelling around the Prefecture. So I decided to make this simple guide, using information I found on the websites for the Shiretoko Nature Foundation and the Ministry of the Environment of Japan.
I hope you find this post useful. It is incredibly rare to come across a bear in popular sightseeing spot. But it’s always good to be prepared!
Here’s a list of the contents of this post:
- What kind of bears are there in Japan?
- How to avoid meeting a bear
- What to do if you come across a bear?
- Situation 1: You see a bear far off in the distance
- Situation 2: There is some distance between you and the bear (100m)
- Situation 3: an unexpected encounter at between 20m and 50m
- Situation 4: an unexpected encounter less than 20 m away
- Situation 5: A bear is rushing at you
What kind of bears are there in Japan?
Both brown bears (higuma) and Asian black bears (tsukinowa-guma) can be found in Japan.
Brown bears are only found in the northern-most island of Hokkaido, whereas Asian black bears are found in many regions of Japan, including Tohoku.
This blog post will mostly be focused on Asian black bears.
Features of Asian Black Bears
- Asian black bears are smaller than brown bears.
- Adults are between 1.1 m and 1.5 m in length, and weigh between 80 kg and 120 kg.
- They are easily recognisable due to the white mark on their chest. Other than this mark, their fur is dark.
- Asian black bears have a great sense of hearing and smell, but, just like brown bears, their sense of sight is not that great.
- They have strong claws for climbing trees, digging holes etc.
- Asian black bears can swim well and can run faster than humans (can run at 40 km/h)
- They move around at night but are also active during the day.
How to avoid bumping into bears
1) Be aware of bear sightings
Check for signs warning of bears in the area, and ask at local tourist offices about recent bear sightings.
2) Be on the look out for signs of bears
Be aware of bear dung, claw marks, foot prints, and other signs of nearby bears. If you see any of these things, turn back.
3) Be aware of your surroundings
If you’re taking photos low down surrounded by weeds, or concentrating on something like bird-watching etc., you might forget to look around you. Make sure not to get too sucked in to what you’re doing.
Make sure if you are by a water source such as river or waterfall that you remain aware of your surroundings even if the sound of the water is impeding your sense of hearing.
In bad weather, or very bright sun, be aware that your sense of sight can be impeded. This is also true of a bear’s sense of sight, so take extra care to be aware of your surroundings.
4) Do not leave any trash
Take all your trash home. Anything that humans find tasty, bears find tasty too. Leaving rubbish and letting local bears develop a penchant for human food can lead to bears encroaching further and further into areas with lots of people.
5) Never run in areas where bears are often around.
If a bear sees something running, they will assume it is prey and chase it.
6) Make potential bears in the area aware of your presence
Attach bear bells to your bags or play a radio or music to alert any nearby bears to the fact that you’re walking around.
7) Don’t go off the main hiking tracks.
8) Never be afraid to turn back and head home if you are worried about bears potentially being around.
9) Do your best to avoid startling bears.
Due to their bad sense of sight, bears can be easily startled, which leads them to be defensive, and even aggressive.
What to do if you meet a bear
When you come across a bear, it is necessary to quickly judge the situation you are in and act accordingly. For this reason, I recommend you read the information below carefully.
In addition to the info below, there are 3 things you need to remember:
- Never run away from a bear.
- Never show your back to a bear that has noticed you.
- Never try and attack a bear.
Also, please note that there is no full proof-way of avoiding an attack in these situations below. The information below is official advice is based on advice given by the Ministry of Environment.
Situation 1: You see a bear far off in the distance
Calmly and quietly move away from the area. Make a little bit of noise to alert the bear to the presence of humans nearby.
Situation 2: You notice a bear (There is around 100 m between you and the bear)
If the bear hasn’t noticed you yet:
Retreat away from the bear carefully so as to not alert it to your presence.
If the bear looks at you, or appears to be ignoring you despite noticing you:
Keep looking at the bear while slowly retreating away from it as quietly and as possible.
If the bear is slowly approaching you:
It might not be aware that you are a human, and may be approaching you out of curiosity. In order to alert the bear to the fact you are human, slowly wave your arms in a big motion while speaking to the bear in a calm voice.
Tip: Be on the look out for baby bears
If you see a baby bear, it is certain that the parent is nearby. If you get close to the baby bear, the mother is likely to attack you aggressively in order to protect her baby. Make sure to never approach a baby bear.
If the bear has noticed you, and is slowly approaching you:
If the bear continues to approach you, it is possible that it is approaching you out of curiosity, but also it may be intending to hunt you.
Retreat while keeping your body facing the bear. Get inside a building or a car. If that isn’t possible, climb a tree.
If the bear gets around 50 m away from you (and it’s pretty clear that the bear knows you are a human), if there is no where that you can flee to in time, get bear repellent spray ready to use, or prepare to get into a defensive position.
It has been known to be the case where putting down whatever our holding, including a bag, while retreating can stop an attack from happening.
However, it is also useful to have a backpack close at hand to protect your body in the event that you are physically attacked by the bear.
Situation 3: an unexpected encounter at between 20m and 50m
If a bear has appeared out of nowhere or is slowly standing up on its feet:
- Make sure to keep calm.
- Raise both your arms and wave them slowly, while speaking to the bear in a calm voice.
- Slowly retreat to a position in which a tree comes between yourself and the bear, in case the bear tries to charge you.
If the bear is standing on its hind-legs, or if it is sniffing around while on all fours, you can assume that it is doing this in an attempt to try and identify what you are.
If the bear appears to be ignoring you after you do the things written above:
- Even if the bear is ignoring you, it is likely that the bear still is aware of your presence.
- Make sure to keep facing the bear and keep your eyes on it while slowly backing away from the bear.
- Make sure not to appear as if you are glaring at it in a threatening way though.
If the bear doesn’t move despite you do the things above:
There may be a reason that the bear isn’t leaving the spot, (for example, it may plan to feast on the nearby carcass of a deer, or perhaps its baby is close at hand).
- Do your best to slowly inspect the area with your eyes to try and identify such a reason.
- While making sure not to approach anything that might be causing the bear to stay put where it is, slowly retreat away from the bear while facing it.
- If possible, try and position yourself so that a tree comes between you and the bear.
Sudden movement can cause bears to get aggravated and intimidated, so make sure to move very slowly.
If you don’t move at all, the bear may take this as a indication that you are trying to threaten it to attack it.
Situation 4: an unexpected encounter less than 20 m away
Stay calm. Be quiet. Don’t run.
Do not suddenly start running, or screaming. This will only surprise the bear, making it stressed and leading it to attack you out of fear.
Stay calm. Be quiet. Don’t run.
- Slowly raise both your arms above your head and wave them slowly while speaking to the bear calmly.
- If there are any potentially obstacles around you such as trees), if possible, try and slowly move to a position in which the tree comes between the bear and you (in preparation for the very rare case in which the bear might charge you).
If you try to run away…
Bears react to things that move quickly. If you start to run away, the bear will likely chase you, and it will catch you, since it can run at 40 km per hour.
Situation 5: A bear is rushing at you
If a bear is running at you aggressively:
- First of all, stay calm.
- Often, this kind of charge is what is known as a “bluff charge”, during which a bear will start rushing towards something, only to stop half way.
- In this situation, speak calmly to the bear, and try and place an obstacle between yourself and the bear. Try and move away when it seems safe.
If you have bear repellent spray, get it ready at this point.
When a bear is charging at you, it is impossible to tell whether the charge is a bluff charge for the purposes of intimidating you, or if it is a real charge. There are different ways to react depending on which types of this charge it is.
In the case of a real attack (when a bear doesn’t stop approaching you and is between 3 to 5 m away):
If you have bear repellent, aim it at the bear’s eyes and nose, and spray the enter thing at it at one time once it reaches 5 m away from you.
When using bear repellent spray, be aware of the following things:
- By using bear repellent spray you can expect the bear to be driven back.
- The spray won’t be as effective if you spray it while being in tall undergrowth.
- You shouldn’t entrust your life in the effectiveness of the spray. It should be used as a last resort.
- Be aware of the way the wind is blowing to make sure the spray doesn’t spray at you.
In the event that you don’t have any spray, or that the spray appears to be ineffective, roll over and brace yourself in a defensive pose.
Bracing yourself in a defensive pose
Lie on your front with your face to the ground to protect your face and stomach. Alternatively, roll up in a ball with your face in to the ground.
Hold your hands over your neck to protect it. Your backpack will act as a barrier. Even if the bear attempts to move you, make sure to return to this position.
Asian brown bears often run away after striking the thing they are attack one time, so protect your head, neck and stomach as best you can.
Resources: I got the information for this article from the following websites:
- Ministry of the Environment Pamphlet – Living Together with Bears
- Ministry of the Environment Manual
- Shiretoko Nature Foundation
Here is another useful resource:
I hope this post was useful.
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