National Geographic Traveller (UK)




“You need a bell for your bag,” the woman says, handing me a ticket for the cable car that will take me to the start of the trail.

“A bell?”

“So the bears hear you coming.” She picks up a bell, and it tinkles a high-pitched greeting as she hands it to me. I clip it onto my rucksack, now ready for my six-day hike through Daisetsuza­n National Park in Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido. I walk outside, fearing and hoping to see a bear.

The next few days bring blizzards that blow through ice and rock, dripping-wet green forests, mountains that emerge from clouds, and vast views. In Japanese, ‘Daisetsuza­n’ means ‘great snowy mountains’. The Indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido call the area Kamui Mintara — ‘playground of the gods’. I meet few gods, or people, or bears, though they are all here.

I’m inhabiting a landscape that feels familiar, at times reminding me of Scotland and the Alps, but also strange. When the clouds close in, I feel I’m at the end of the world. I think of the Japanese Studio Ghibli films that conjure mythical creatures and magic realities, hidden but for those who have eyes to see. I have stepped into the looking glass, and I see rocks and plants differentl­y, hear peculiar animal noises. I begin to doubt I’ll see a bear though, the regular tinkle of the bell on my bag starting to annoy me. I reach for it, ready to remove it, but something stops me.

Most working Japanese people have a day off each week when city dwellers head to the hills. My bell and I have company. For part of the day I walk with a man from Sapporo, the island’s largest city, and we talk about the tsunami of the year before. The previous week I’d been on the main island’s east coast meeting affected communitie­s — people were living piled on top of each other in flats, their homes still flattened rubble. “People struggle with the lack of privacy,” he says. “We are very private. But still, the tsunami brought us together.” We arrange to meet for food in Sapporo the following week.

On my own again the next day, my bell incessantl­y talking, I feel I’m being watched. I stop, lift my eyes from the trail, look down to the valley below and to the hills the other side. She is standing there, looking at me — a mother bear with her cub behind. I’m too far away to be a threat and so is she. Studio Ghibli still in my mind, I half expect her to speak to me. She doesn’t. My bell doesn’t either. Now, only mountain silence resounds. I’m not sure how long we look at each other, but eventually the air shifts and the bear and her cub carry on their path, and I carry on mine, each in our own private but shared wonder of a world.

 ?? ?? Brown bears, Hokkaido, Japan
Brown bears, Hokkaido, Japan

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