Leeches and Hornets and Bears (and Boars, and Monkeys), Oh My!

(06/17/16: I’ve posted a companion to this blog, ‘Monkeys and Bears and Boars, Oh My!’ at Big Sushi, Little Fishes on Medium.com)

Real monsters lurk in the forests and mountains of Japan, if you’re lucky enough to see them

A recent post by tokyobling, Walking Lake Okutama,  got me thinking about some of the hazards, in the form of wildlife, of hiking in Japan.

First, I gotta say: I’ve been hiking in Japan for over fifteen years, in all seasons, in all types of terrain from the semi-tropical rain forests of Iriomote and the Yaeyama islands in the far south to the alpine zones of Rishiridake and the volcanoes of Hokkaido in the far north, almost Siberia, and I have never had a dangerous encounter, not with plant nor insect nor animal…

Well, I did once pull a partly engorged tick off my buddy Derek, but other than that…

Oh, yeah: then there was the time I flicked off a giant — and poisonous — mukade Okinawan centipede  as it made a dash inside my pant leg, but other than THAT…

Four years of trekking through concealing head-high sa-sa bamboo grass on Hokkaido… nadda. Nothing. I knew the legendary story of the Sankebetsu Brown Bear Attack, and lost sleep before each trip into the mountains. But a fresh higuma brown bear track in a muddy trail in Daisaetsuzan was the closest I ever came to an encounter with higuma. In fact, the most dangerous animals I saw in Hokkaido were the kitsune foxes which spread tapeworms to people and so make wild water on the island undrinkable.

Now I’ve trekked and camped around parts of Honshu and other islands for 11+ years, and I’ve never seen anything more threatening than wasps drunk on hiker sweat and sugary sports drink. Bothersome, yes, but not much more than that.

Honestly, it’s to the point where I just don’t give dangerous critters much thought when I grab my boots and head for the mountains or forests of this lil bejewelled archipelago we call home. I hardly even bother with bear bells any more.

Until recently.

Lately, however, and I don’t know whether to take this as a warning from the tengu who daily watch over R. and I as part of a vow we made on our mountain-top wedding day, but that’s another story…

… lately I’ve come across a few head’s ups that’ve got me re-evaluating my whole relationship to Nature-the-Benign.

Nihonzaru, Japanese Macaque

First, a comment back in July by Wassatagain on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum got me thinking ’bout monkeys, specifically the Japanese macaques most famous for wintering-over in the hot springs near Nagano, but common enough even in the mountain forests around Tokyo. I know they’re around, but I’ve never seen one in the wild. Than, a couple of weeks ago on TV, I saw a report about a monkey attack in Miyakazaki. Really? Japan macaque attacks? Apparently it happens, though not often. Fortunately, for what it’s worth, back in 2007 Michelle Tsai published on Slate an article “How to Fight Monkeys“. Her report focuses on the long=tailed variety of macaque found in places like Bali and the cities of India. The gist of it? Give ’em your snack, or bop ’em on the head with a stick.

Yamabiru, Leeches

Then a group of students returned from an excursion to Tanzawa with reports of a land leech. A leech? On Honshu? I knew they were on the southern islands such as Iriomote in the wet season, even as far north as Yakushima, but here on main-island Honshu? In the relatively dry late summer/early autumn?

A bit of investigation — it didn’t take much — led to an unwelcome discovery: leeches! The Internet’s infested with them. See below for a couple of videos, including tips on how to remove the suckers…

According to this Reuters report, leeches have been hitching rides into town on deer and other animals since at least, like 2007. And they’re vicious little suckers(!):

“Yamabiru will climb into people’s socks and stay for about an hour, growing five to 10 times in size. Unlike with water leeches, people don’t immediately realize they’ve been bitten. Only later when they see their blood-soaked feet, do they realize what has happened,” said Shigekazu Tani, the institute’s director.

Tsukino Waguma, Asiatic black bear aka “moon bear” or “crescent bear”

Then I recalled a stomach-turning (nipple twisting?) article by Ed Hannam in the local magazine Outdoor Japan: a blow-by-blow account of one runner’s hand-to-paw battle with an Asiatic black bear in the tourist area of Hakone, an hour from Tokyo, and a place where R. and I have been many times: “A Bear Is Ripping Off My Nipple”.

Then I discover, by way of Wikipedia, that the asiatic black bear, “the most bizarre of the ursine species” for its ability to walk on its hind feet,

“Though largely herbivorous, Asian black bears can be very aggressive toward humans, and have frequently attacked people without provocation.”

In Okutama, an area just under an hour’s fast train trip from here, and where R. and I often go outside, the Visitor’s Center updates a bear sightings page. I note with some trepidation that Ocxtober and November, when the bears may be loading on fat for the winter and the mountains of Okutama are full of Koyo hikers, have by far the highest incidents of bear sightings.

Inushishi, Wild boar

Bears may be the scariest creatures in most people’s imaginations, but there’s another large and dangerous mammal lurking under the radar, so to speak, in Japan’s forests. See the stories and videos below for reports of pigs gone wild.

Screw it: no carnivore or parasite will keep us down for long. Heck, last weekend we hiked the muddy, typhoon-drenched trails of the Yamanshi Highlands to see the koyo autumn colours. This year end, same as we do every year, we’ll go to the mountaintop shrine near Okutama where we exchanged wedding vows and return at least a couple of times a year. But for now, for this weekend of hard research and video watching, we’ll stay local. No-one’s reported leeches on the sidewalks of Nerima. Yet.

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