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).