If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ll know that I’ve seen my fair share of strange things in this country. You’ll probably also recall that I’ve eaten a variety of strange animals including whale (a highly endangered species), puffer fish (a highly poisonous species) and wild boar (a highly delicious species). So when I tell you that the adventure that I’m about to relate to you possibly takes the cake for both strange tourist attractions and unusual local cuisine, I hope you’ll know well enough that I mean business. [Editor's note: It's worth noting that the following account includes only animals sighted outside of Aomori prefecture and is in no way intended to step on the proverbial toes of Operation Bear Watch
As you might recall, I’ve been involved in a Japanese conversation course for some time. The class is held in Hachinohe once a week and aims to offer local foreigners with various levels of Japanese language ability an opportunity to practice their conversation skills. My class usually consisted of myself, the lone American, the infamous Scot Ewen
, local English hooligan Charlie Tyack
and between two and three young Chinese women who lived and worked in the vicinity of Hachinohe.
Well, one day during class, we had managed to go off on some sort of tangent (as we were wont to do, especially after Charlie and Ewen joined the class) and were discussing odd types of cuisine that we had sampled. I related my story of Momoishi’s canine culinary secret
and someone forced Ewen to describe haggis. Then, one of the Chinese girls in our class, Eiko-San (I’m sorry if I’ve horribly mangled the Romanized spelling of your name here but since you don’t speak a word of English, I don’t assume you’ll be reading this site anytime soon, so it’s probably rather irrelevant anyhow) remarked that she had eaten bear meat in Akita prefecture. Without a minute of hesitation, our teacher rushed to debunk this claim, stating that “Japanese people don’t eat bears". Japanese people don’t eat any strange animals, this was simply a case of a Chinese person trying to disparage the Yamato race. Of course
. Eiko-San, however, insisted that it was true and even told us that she had eaten the meat on a bear farm (kuma bokujyou
) in a small town called Hachimantai.
Well, Eiko-San wasn’t the type to take being accused of lying lightly. A few weeks later, she came into class armed with two road maps and a number of flyers from the farm (pictured at left). She pointed out the exact location of Hachimantai on the map and gave us specific directions to the bear farm. Our teacher looked at the flyer, paused as if mulling things over in her mind and then announced that yes, this bear farm must indeed exist. Encouraged by the flyer, images of bears both tiny and massive frolicking in the hills danced through my brain. I was intrigued, to say the least.
Thus it was decided that on a particularly pleasant Saturday in July, we should make the nearly four hour journey into our southern neighbor Akita, to see this bear farm for ourselves and to dine upon the succulent meat of this fearful creature. Of course, no adventurer, no matter how brazen, can eat the meat of a bear without adequately preparing his or her palate. Thus it was decided that on the Friday night prior, we would convene in Hachinohe at my favorite bar Hanbey— purveyor of whole grilled canaries, frog legs and other such oddities.
As luck would have it, the chef’s specialty of the night was fried scorpion.
Here we see the ever-daring Leo sampling the sumptuous invertebrate as Megan looks on in either horror, admiration or (most likely) a combination of the two. According to Leo, the scorpion tasted like “fried”.
The following morning, we all convened again in Oirase, hung-over and in no shape for a four-hour car ride. Onward ho! Along the way, we saw this rather amusing sight: a farmer spraying his crops using a large, remote-controlled helicopter. Charlie took a brief video of it that will hopefully appear on his blog
at some point. File another one under “only in Japan”.
At long last, we arrived at the bear farm, which was, thankfully, exactly where Eiko-San had said it would be.
After paying about 400 yen and stepping inside, we were greeted by this sight; a number of large pens, containing any number of bears of various species.
Of course, this wouldn’t be Japan were there not some measure of danger involved in a family attraction. So of course, you can walk within a few feet of the bear pens, separated from the beasts by only a short fence and a paltry rope net.
Aw, he’s so friendly! Just like Winnie the Pooh!
Despite their ferocity, we managed to befriend a number of bears, including Vincent Van Bear, missing an ear and underappreciated during his own lifetime;
the Notorious B.E.A.R., who was, seemingly, too corpulent to move;
Bear, who enjoyed nothing more than a dip in the hot springs;
and finally, Standing Bear, who was not a Native American but rather, an actual, standing bear.
After walking around a bit, we decided that it was time to see what these bears were made of. After depositing a few hundred yen into a machine ominously labeled “bear snack” (kuma no oyatsu
), we received a bag of…bread? Surely no bear would be interested in something as plebian as bread?
We were however, quite wrong in our assumptions. At the sight of the bread, the bears started performing various tricks in order to get our attention. These included clapping, gesturing, standing and what appeared to be primitive bear speech.
The bread even incited a few fights. Yikes!
Chicago baseball fans can rejoice, as cubs were also in no short supply at the farm.
Here we see Charlie Tyack looking nervous in front of the massive Kodiak bears.
Toward the outer reaches of the farm, Matt discovered this caged bear. Why was this lone bear enclosed in a cage all by himself? Bad behavior? Preparation for the equivalent of bear veal? There was no way to be sure.
Well, after about 15 minutes, we had exhausted our options in terms of looking
at the bears. Now consider this: we were young, stupid, unsupervised and provided with an almost limitless supply of bears. Our next course of action was clear: it was time to do what man had long dreamed of doing. It was time to shake hands with the bears
Matt, being the bravest and most foolhardy among us, decided to go first. Holding a small piece of bread, he extended his hand toward the cage. The bear grabbed the bread with his paw and surprisingly, did not attempt to tear off Matt’s arm.
Tyack was next, locking his hand in a tight grip with the bear’s. Before long, we had all shaken hands with the bears, in a demonstration of cross-species solidarity.
Here we see a close up of Tyack and the bear. As you can see, that bear isn’t letting go of the bread any sooner than Charlie does.
Not one to be outdone (read: a genuine idiot), Matt decided to perform two more feats of bravery: feeding a bear bread and touching the inside of a bear’s mouth
. Thankfully, no one else in our entourage was stupid enough to attempt to duplicate either feat.
After making friends with and shaking hands with so many bears, it was quite clear that the time had come to eat a bear. I mean, what else can you do with a bear? Luckily, there was a restaurant across the street from the bear farm that was created expressly for this purpose. While we waited for our food, Matt grappled with a grizzly in an apron…
…but then hugged and made up. Awww!
Meanwhile, Megan showed off some Korean pride.
At long last our food arrived: a washoku
(Japanese-style dinner platter) featuring bear stew (kumanabe
). How did it taste? Well, the meat was quite soft and tender, not at all stringy. In terms of flavor, it was similar to other red meats like beef or buffalo but had a certain flavor all its own. In a word: delicious!
After a grand adventure, we bid farewell to our bear friends and returned to the cold, white north. So long, bears!