During my very first time in Japan, I was staying one day in a Japanese Inn in the country side when I heard one of those announcements for the population made by the public hall.
It said: “Your attention please! A Circus is in town tonight and the main entertainment of the show will bears!…” Later on, when I asked the owner about where and when this exciting performance would take place, he grinned at me and said: “Wild bears have been seen in the area today, It was just a warning”…
This story is certainly shameful but it shows how unlikely was the existence of wild bears in Japan for me at that time, in complete opposition with my people-crowded image of the country. Fortunately, my Japanese skills are a bit better now, and in the meantime I have learn that Japanese wild life still hosts many of those animals too.
Since I live in Togakushi, in the Joshinetsu National Park, my knowledge about the so called “Tsuki no Waguma”, the most common Japanese bear, as well as chance to meet one of them became definitely higher. I know that some are living not so far from the house and I have got a few calls from my neighbors to tell me to be careful when I go for my daily walk, because they have seen a bear on that day. This perspective might be frightening, but bear rather fear humans, and wearing a bell when you are taking a walk is the best way to announce your presence and give him time to go away.
The best season to avoid such an encounter is winter, because as everybody knows, bears are hibernating. But surprisingly, winter is also the best season here in Togakushi, to know more about the customs of this animal. One of them is what local people here call Kuma-dana, literally “Bear shelf”. You might see some when you go on a back country tour (Some Telemark ski schools offer such tours).
Kuma-dana is a pile of broken branches on top of a tree, easy to notice during the cold season when no leaves remain. In order to eat berries and nuts of trees he likes in particular, a bear climbs up in the highest part, bends the branches to reach the fruits, and one after the other makes a seat of the “used” branches. It looks from the ground like a kind of huge bird nest.