One of my first ever hikes in Hokkaido was a memorable one. Not only was it my first outing with my father-in-law, but I also came across something I hadn’t seen in all my years hiking and trekking in New Zealand.
As I was working my way up the trail, I could hear an odd song far away in the distance, but I just couldn’t work it out. Another kilometer up, I heard the sound again but, this time, I thought It was something in my ears, because I was sure I could hear a ringing, like the sound of bells.
I was about to ask my father-in-law but thought twice about it. My Japanese was very poor at that time, and I wasn’t sure how I would communicate to him. If I tried using hand signals and gestures, he would have thought I was completely off my rocker.
A few more meters up, and the sound was getting louder. I was now sure it wasn’t my ears. I was positive I could hear bells and knew it couldn’t be Christmas in July—even in Japan.
Just then, we ran into a couple of other hikers working their way down, and each of them had bells attached to their backpacks, but I couldn’t work out why. When I got home, I asked my wife if she knew the reason for the bells. That’s when I discovered another thing about hiking in Hokkaido that was a complete surprise to me—bears—and brown bears at that.
In New Zealand, we really don’t have to worry about any dangerous animals. I was told Japanese hikers wear the bells to warn the bears that people are nearby. For those new to the column, I have been in Hokkaido more than 11 years and work as an English teacher and trekking guide.
Since that trip, I have heard the sounds of bells more than I can count. For the first few years, I really hated bear bells and just couldn’t understand why people would use them. Why would people prefer to listen to that constant ringing instead of the beautiful sound of nature?
Over the years, I’ve grown to understand why people use bear bells here. For one, it makes people feel safe; and two, I think it does work. I have never heard of any bear attacks on any hiking trails or popular hiking areas here in Hokkaido since I’ve been here.
I’m not saying there have never been any; I just have never heard of any, and I’ve spent years asking. The only attacks I know about in Hokkaido have been people looking for mountain vegetables wandering in the mountains.
A long time ago, an old Japanese guy who is a very experienced local hiker and mountaineer explained it like this: “The bears know where the people are and know that people use the trails because of the bells, and that’s why there have been no attacks.
He adds, “We give up a small piece of our peace and quiet to keep the bears safe and to let them know we are around, so we don’t surprise them. It gives them time to get out of our way.” In a sense, it puts the ball in the bear’s court.”
Here in Hokkaido, there is a one-strike rule. If a bear does get itself into trouble, it is shot; no questions asked. Many hikers in Japan also think it is irresponsible if you don’t use a bell. I for one still have a love/hate relationship with bear bells, but I do use them.
Pig Tip : What I do is I keep mine very handy and easy to get at while hiking. Usually it is tucked in somewhere, so it can’t ring, but if I see some fresh bear signs or if I just feel uncomfortable, I will bring it out and have no problem using it.
Puzzled Pig: One thing I can’t understand. I have seen groups of 10 to 20 people hiking together in a line and everyone has a bell, so you can hear them up in space. Why does everyone need a bell?