Bears in Hokkaido

Posted on Aug 1, 2018
25 13
Posted on Aug 1, 2018
25 13
Hokkaido is home to the Ussuri brown bear, a slightly smaller cousin to the grizzly, but much larger than the Japanese black bear on the mainland of Japan. They are generally a very shy animal, and if you are lucky enough to encounter one, you'll more likely see its rear-end as it scampers off, deathly afraid of your presence. That said, they don't like unexpected encounters with humans in close quarters. It is up to us humans to reduce the likelihood of such an encounter, so here's a few tips on how to keep you and them on good terms.

Last updated Apr 16, 2023

We’ve lived in Hokkaido for over 10 years now, and we’ve only seen bears a couple of times in the wild here. A few of our friends and acquaintances have also seen bears, but the encounter has always ended amicibly, mainly due to distance between said friend and bear. When talking about brown bears in Hokkaido, it’s important to stress that as a hiker or general outdoor recreationalist, it’s very rare to have an encounter with a bear. See a deeper dive here.

That said, whether you’re on a bicycle in Hokkaido, taking in some quiet forestry road routes, or hiking anywhere on the island, it is best to take some basic bear precautions while traveling and camping.

  • Make some noise. If a bear can hear you, they’ll quite happily leave very quickly. Carry a bear bell either on your pack, or if cycling, on your panniers or handlebars. You might want to buy one that you can turn off when traveling through more open areas – that ringing (and that of every other hiker on the trail) can get annoying after a while.
  • Don’t feed the wildlife. Bears have a keen sense of smell, so don’t leave any food around, either at a campsite or on the trail.
  • Keep food separate from your tent. For the vast majority of campgrounds in Hokkaido (if not all), you won’t need to to bother with hanging food or cooking away from your tent. If you’re cycling a forestry road and find yourself wild-camping far from civilization, however, you’ll want to be more vigilant. Cook away from your tent, and put foodstuffs in a bag and hang it high in a tree.
  • Don’t approach a bear. Bears don’t like to feel threatened. If you see a bear, quietly and calmly return the way you came.
  • The likelihood of being attacked by a bear is laughably low. A much more real threat takes the form of the Japanese giant hornet, contracting lyme disease from ticks, or getting an echinococcus parasite from drinking untreated water from streams (see our advice here). If you do happen to encounter an aggressive bear in close quarters, follow the advice of the Internet.
  • Do I need bear spray? If you live in Hokkaido, it doesn’t hurt to invest in some bear spray – with a harness, you’ll pay between 10,000 to 14,000yen (this is a good brand). If you’re just visiting Hokkaido, it is possible to rent bear spray if you’d like that peace of mind (e.g. here). However, it’s not an absolute must.

Below are some photos of some happy-ish bears, and the closest most of us will ever get to a brown bear in Hokkaido, at the Sahoro Bear Mountain Research Center (the only decent, approaching-humane bear park in Hokkaido).

Furano-Biei Cycle Touring (Hokkaido, Japan)
Furano-Biei Cycle Touring (Hokkaido, Japan)
Furano-Biei Cycle Touring (Hokkaido, Japan)

Comments | Queries | Discussion

13 thoughts on “Bears in Hokkaido”

  1. I have a carving on my mama and baby Hokkaido bears I bought a military PX when I was in Japan for part of 1948 all of 1949 and part of 1950. It is approximately 6 inches high and 9 inches long.. I believe the stamping is of the artist. Is there any value to these oldies.? Thanks.

  2. I have a carving of a mama and cub Hokaido bears that I bought in the PX in Japan and 1948. It is a beauty. It is totally about 6 inches high and eight or 9 inches long. Years ago on antique roadshow I saw one being displayed, that the appraiser stated that it if it had the finer hairs instead of the gouged hairs, it would be much more valuable. Mine are the finer hairs. Any thoughts on it would be appreciated.

  3. Hi!

    First of all, thank you for your very informative article. If it’s okay, I have some inquiries.

    I’m a young and small solo female traveler and I’m going back to Japan this September. This time, I’m planning to hike and camp for the first time in rural Kyushu with only my backpack and tent (and some snacks and hygiene kits for the evenings). I was originally planning to keep my bag with me inside the tent for easy access on the evening. However, upon reading articles about bear encounters in Japan, do you happen to know if rural Kyushu is safe from bears? I’ve been searching online and I have yet to see an article regarding this.

    I know that most bears won’t harm me but if I can avoid their common locations then that’s much better (because I honestly don’t know if I’ll have it in me to stay calm if I see them and I think I won’t win in a fight).

    Also, will I be safe inside my tent or do I really have to bring some sort of weapon or bear spray?

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Katrina, the bears in the rest of Japan are Asian black bears, a different species from the Hokkaido brown bear. As far as I know there are very few, if any, left in Kyushu so no need to worry.

        1. Hello Katrina,
          I just spent a little over three weeks cycling through the mountains in Kyushu. Never saw a sign, warning about bears in the area. I felt much more relaxed than when I cycled three weeks through Hokkaido. There I saw several signs regarding bear sitghings.

  4. Hello Rob, japan has opened up to foreign tourists again. I have already hiked many times in the northern and southern alps as well as on Yakushima. I’ve never been to hokkaido and I’ve been planning for several years, only either the weather was bad or the pandemic prevented it. I always travel with my own provisions in the form of freeze-dried pots. I have to carry the package with me all the way, but it will attract bears. How is this problem solved or what is your experience with it.
    Regards Adam

    1. Hi Adam. You don’t need to worry too much about smells from food attracting bears. Freeze-dry foods in particular are not a worry. Encounters with bears at campsites and along trails are exceedingly rare in Hokkaido. When sleeping in a tent in the backcountry, it would be wise to leave your pack under your tent fly outside your tent, and preferably cook either outside your tent or a few paces away, but other than that, I wouldn’t worry about it. Just enjoy the trails 🙂

      1. That was my mindset 2 days ago. So i started my first hike in hokkaido and after 10 minutes, i saw a bear ^^ I was afraid first but then just backed up and the bear went away 🙂

  5. hi Rob,
    I am planning ski-touring in the Shiretoko peninusula and Akan National Park in the period 26 febr – 4 march. Due to possible bear encounters, do you suggest to go using the precautions as per your article, or to give it up ? I have read reports of skiers who just did not dare to go ?! Are there any restrictions / prohibitions by local authorities ?
    thanks,
    Filippo
    ITALY

    1. Hey Filippo, spring is a fantastic time to ski in Shiretoko. Yes the bears are starting to wake up, but it’s no problem. Just take the normal precautions and you’ll be fine. In fact I would say in early March you’ll still be very lucky to see a bear (still early in the season). I say lucky, because they’re amazing creatures, and very timid. If they see you, they’ll run away if you make plenty of noise (clapping hands etc). Some ski tourers in eastern Hokkaido will start carrying bear spray from around mid-March onwards, just in case. There are no restrictions by the authorities regarding access.

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Bears in Hokkaido Difficulty Rating

Category

Grade

Points

Strenuousness

Vertical Gain

D

25

Time ascending

D

0

Technicality

Altitude

D

0

Hazards

D

Navigation

D

Totals

25/100

GRADES range from A (very difficult) to D (easy). Hazards include exposure to avalanche and fall risk. More details here. Rating rubric adapted from Hokkaido Yukiyama Guidebook 北海道雪山ガイド.