The Invisible Bears of Ome

One intrepid explorer ventures into 'the wilderness' on the outskirts of Tokyo and has a close encounter with 'a bear'

Feature by Thomas Gisborne | 02 Jul 2018

‘Beware the bears’
–  Tokyo Metropolitan Council

This might sound odd to you. It sounded odd to me too that, on the outskirts of Tokyo’s metropolis, I was being told to be vigilant of bears. Not just bears in fact, but snakes and wilds boars, which unfortunately turned my delightful stroll in the country into a scene from The Revenant.

OK, it wasn’t exactly The Revenant, for one thing, I don’t look like Leonardo DiCaprio (yet). For another, I’m wasn’t savaged by a bear, I didn’t witness my son’s murder and Tom Hardy was nowhere near…OK, you get the idea. What I’m trying to say is I found myself on the outskirts of Tokyo and, apparently, there are bears.

Tokyo is a humongous metropolis which basically engulfs the Kanto prefecture. To put that into context, if Edinburgh was the size of Tokyo, Glasgow would be a suburb (albeit a very outspoken one). Spanning from the Pacific Ocean to the forested mountains of the east, it’s an incredibly large mosaic of once independent cities and villages that have merged together over the years to form a concrete sprawl.

Yet, on the edge of this sprawl was me, looking at a sign that said ‘Pooh’ wasn’t just here for honey – and he might maul my face off.

I suppose the whole thing was my fault. I should’ve known better, or checked, or listened to what supposed ‘experts’ said about the place. The key word here was outskirts. I was on the outskirts of Tokyo, not a central tower block – but to me, when I heard “Tokyo for hillbillies,” I still thought Tokyo.

Ome (the location) isn’t exactly a party town. It’s completely out the way, famous for absolutely nothing and the only reason I was there was that I fancied a walk. Depending on where you look, Ome is beautiful. If you look in, you see just another city centre. It’s not a slum, but it’s hardly easy on the eye. Looking outwards though, you’ll see mountains and thick forests blooming with dark green cedar trees.

When I arrived I had no plan, I just pointed at a hill and decided to climb. It was cherry blossom season and pink blooms littered the surrounding area. I walked through the town, which has old, derelict wooden houses next to giant tower blocks. For some reason, there’s also a park which has a railway museum right next to it. After a short while, I entered the woods.

If you were to ask someone Japanese whether this was ‘wild’ they’d probably say “No.” I would also say no. On this route, you’re only 500 metres roughly away from the town. However, you’ll still find yourself in a completely dense forest, cut off from everything city – which, believe me, I was grateful for. Living in Tokyo, I’d missed the fresh air, the smell of trees and the random sounds of a (hopefully) distant chainsaw.

As I trekked, however, I noticed something. Across from me was a hut. Specifically, a hut with a map. I had already come across a concrete dome and a Buddhist shrine, but the map (for whatever reason) excited me. It provided a chance to follow the trail and see the ‘crown of Ome’. “Gee whiz!” I said, punching the air, “an actual crown!” It wasn’t an actual crown. Instead, it was a view of the local eyesore, a snow peaked mountain that was supposedly very big and very impressive. I was disappointed, but the picture looked nice and I was enjoying the stroll. So, off I went.

As the hours ticked by, I soon began to notice how dark it’d become. Suspiciously, the further I walked, the shadier the trees became. Soon, I was surrounded by thick undergrowth, looming trees and a sense of forboding usually reserved for my job. Checking the map, I noticed that I was still nowhere near this famous mountain and instead was wondering in an increasingly darkening forest. As I turned the corner, my heart stopped.

“Oh my god! Bears? BEARS!”

To clarify, this wasn’t an actual bear. It was a sign. Not a sign from God, but a sign warning me that '"Bear" something something kill you'.

OK, I’ll level with you, I couldn’t read the rest of the sign, it was in Japanese.

Having grown up in Edinburgh, bears were never really on my radar. Charity fundraisers? Sure, I hate having to walk across the street just to avoid them, but bears (the animal)? Not a threat. The truth is I didn’t know how to react. I especially didn’t know how to react when there was a sign for snakes and wild pigs as well, so, even though I was shaken, I decided to go on, reckoning that it couldn’t be far anyway. Yet, as I moved further forwards, the forest seemed to come alive. Trees began rustling and there was movement in the undergrowth. Suddenly I heard a growl, a rumble, a hoot. Crows circled overhead spelling out bear in the sky. As I turned, a large shadow moved behind a tree and before I could see what it was, I’d done a U-turn and legged it, screaming as I went (but in a decisively manly way).

As I turned down the darkened path, I turned to see what was behind me. Shadowy shapes followed me with the patter of paws and rustling leaves. I sprinted all the way until I landed back into town, where, breathing deeply, I burst into a department store to get a new pair of pants.

I don’t know what it was. In hindsight, it was probably my mind. But who knows, if I hadn’t taken the fearful, but extremely wise decision to flee, I may not be here today to tell the tale. So, if there is a moral to this tale, it’s that the author of Paddington is a malevolent sociopath who doesn’t understand the nature of these violent, feral animals and frankly, I’m never going hiking again.