I had set my alarm the night before for 5AM thinking I’d be the first one up, the first one showered, and the first one on the trail. The middle aged Japanese man I had not said a word to somehow had me beat. By the time I rolled over and turned my vibrating phone off, he was throwing on his jacket and walking out the door. Much respect to that guy.
It only took me about thirty minutes to shower, eat, and step out myself. I was met with a beautiful morning fog, and a refreshing mountain morning chill, the kind that makes you feel suspended in air as you cut through it. From ryokan to the base of the mountain is about a five minute inclined walk. I dint see anyone on the road with me and took it as a good sign that the trail would be sparse as well. Right at the base of the hike, you have the option to take a cable car up, or hike the beginning. I asked the guy behind the counter on the second floor if the beginning hike was special or worth seeing. “No,” he replied, “It is more populated with bears though.” “1 ticket for the cable car please,” I casually requested as I thought for the first time of the potential of seeing a bear. I had just missed the first cable car of the morning and the next one wasn’t for another twenty minutes so I had time to spare.
I walked back downstairs to check out the small store they had and buy some hiking snacks. Walking around, I found it quite odd that there were so many bells. “Do the locals like to ring each other as they pass by on the trail?” I thought to myself. I grabbed some water, rice snacks, and some sugar gels and proceeded to the counter. I set my items down, and there, at the counter, were more bells. The lady began ringing my stuff up and I had to ask, “kore ga nani?” She chuckled and pointed to a small picture of a large bear. “So they can hear you,” she smiled and practiced her seldomly used English. I could tell she was just eating up the confused, startled look on my face. “Would you like to buy one?” “Ah…no, irimasen,” I unconvincingly replied. “Ki o tsukete ne!” I thanked her and returned up to catch the cable car. The bear bell was ten dollars…I’m sure it was just a store sale tactic…I doubt I need a bear bell…at that, so a bear can hear me?
I boarded the cable car and was pretty impressed. Everything seemed very modern and the view was amazing. Two very friendly Japanese hiking women asked me where I was from and why I was in Hokkaido. We talked for a bit about the hike and they mentioned that there were two paths. The path to the left led to a flower hike, where you could see flower species located only in Hokkaido (and only on that mountain I believe, but cant recall exactly). The path to the right, they told me, led to the peak of the mountain, and they recommended that route to me since I was a “strong foreigner.” “Right it is,” I replied, commended them for their great English, and thanked them for their advice.
Once the cable car got some altitude, the fog rolled back in. I had never seen so much fog in my entire life, but all I could think of was, “I wonder how many bears are down there…”
I don’t remember the last time I felt such a concoction of excitement and fear as I did when I stepped off the cable car. I saw a few people with me that were just starting their hike as well. All of my senses were running at full speed. The lack of depth caused by the fog somehow seemed to diminish my sense of hearing.
I took a few steps and was still in awe of everything I couldn’t see, if that makes any sense. And then it hit me. There was this chorus of pings going off. “Ping, ping ping, ping, p-ping.” “Are these all bells? Does everyone seriously have bells?! IS THE BEAR THREAT SERIOUS?!?” I nervously thought to myself. I grew up in Virginia Beach, far from the country side. I had never seen a living bear, let alone worried about one chasing and mauling me down. “I should have bought a damn bell,” I mentally slapped myself. “Well….I have this change in my pocket from the store……what if I hold it in my hand…and shake it as I walk……” I laugh now thinking back, but that’s exactly what I did, for the entirety, of the hike… I was not prepared to see a bear that day. I guess a bear seeing me first and not being startled is the better of the two options.