Bears: Stephen Colbert’s only fear. They’re big and scary, and Hokkaido is genuinely proud of them. Whenever I would discuss jogging with someone in Shakotan, they would inevitably warn me, “Be careful. There are bears.” Indeed, over the course of the summer, the IP phone warned several times about bear sights in the area. In fact, it was usually three bears sighted at once, a mother bear and two children. This family scenario, while sounding cute to me, was actually much more dangerous than encountering an adult bear alone. Mother bears held a well-earned reputation of fiercely protecting their young.
On Tuesday July 12th, my day got to an interesting start. Driving up to the JHS, I was surprised to see the Vice Principal outside of the school. He was looking down road, perhaps watching the students who were walking make their way to the school building. As I pulled into the parking lot, the Vice Principal made a monstrous, snarling face at me, complete with claw hand gestures, and quickly broke character with a big smile. Having no idea what that was about, I laughed to myself and chalked it up to yet another moment lost in translation.
When I had parked and got out of my car, I discovered that other teachers were outside as well, a group of them chatting right there in the parking lot. Yusuke explained to me that there had been a bear sighting this morning, this time fairly close to the school. The Vice Principal and other teachers were outside just to make sure that all the kids made it into the building safely. Yoshimura-sensei was even scouting the surrounding area on a dirt bike. It was then that the Vice Principal’s snarling face made sense.
Throughout the day, the school received many phone calls concerning the bear sighting. It seemed to be on everyone’s minds. I was told that the students and I could not play soccer outside because of the bears. I was disappointed, but safety first, I guess. As it turned out, we weren’t allowed to play soccer for the rest of the week. Am I Jack’s disappointed sports enthusiasm.
The Vice Principal and Yoshimura-sensei even joked about the prospect of having me face down the bear. Yoshimura imagined that I might be able to do some damage with jump kicks, potentially knocking the beast unconscious before I was inevitably mauled to death. The scenario was preposterously funny, but oddly reminiscent; the image of Hwoarang fighting Kuma in Tekken sprang to mind…
The bears aren’t the only wildlife in Shakotan that is potential dangerous. Teachers at Hizuka ES warned me that there are poisonous snakes native to the area. They are apparently especially prevalent on the Hizuka end of the peninsula. Unfortunately, I have no idea what the poisonous snakes look like, so I’ll just have to assume every slithering reptile I see is dangerous.
On Saturday July 9th, a pair of the local giant crows decided to make their presence known. I was minding my own business, walking back to my apartment from B&G (the community gym), when two massive crows started cawing at me. I supposed that I must have been near their nest, or maybe a young, still flightless bird was on the ground nearby somewhere, but I assumed that if I just ignored them and walked on by, everything would be fine. Mr. and Mrs. Crow didn’t see it that way. After I had passed them, they followed me; branch to branch, rooftop to rooftop, refusing to let me just walk away. One them flew to telephone wire slight ahead of me on the road, and then—I swear, he was trying to time is just right—nearly crapped on me. That’s so raven.
Even though the malicious defecation was irritating, I still tried to be the bigger man and let it go. But just moments afterwards, the other crow swooped down at my head. That was too much. All pumped up from my workout, the birds couldn’t have picked a worse time to try and intimidate me; I was ready for a fight. I mocked their cawing with an imitation of my own, and picking up a rock, I took aim and let it sail at one of them. I missed by a fairly wide margin. Quickly coming to my senses, I realized that anyone who saw this scene would think that I was a complete lunatic. Deciding on a new course of action, turned tail and ran away. Luckily they didn’t follow me further.
A week later, in a park nearby the road where the crows had harassed me, a pair of crows again made a lot of noise and followed me. I’m not certain, but I think it was probably the same couple of birds. Since I couldn’t find a bat, or any similar bludgeoning tools nearby, I simply walked on and they left me alone.
On July 21st, there was another bear sighting in the morning, which had become a common occurrence. This time however, a team of hunters set out in search of the animal. By 4:00pm, the hunters had shot and killed a large Hokkaido bear. I wasn’t in town that day, but I heard all about it later from Yamazaki-san.
Apparently the hunters brought the bear carcass to the town office. Yamazaki and several other employees took a break from their work to see the slain beast. I’m told that it was big, REALLY big. Yamazaki solemnly described the event to me, explaining that instead of making anyone feeling safer, the sight of majestic animal’s dead body just made everyone felt genuinely bad for it. It was possible, or even likely, that the fallen creature was a mother bear. If so, the cubs would now have to fend for themselves. Cue The Jungle Book’s “Bare Necessities”.