Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Remembrance of Things Passed

Since leaving the ashram, I've been trying to avoid eating meat. Besides a couple special occasions like Chinese New Year and St. Pats (complimentary lamb stew courtesy of Tagh!) I've done pretty well. But I'd long wanted to go to Okariba, since first hearing about it a few years ago. The one year anniversary of Miki and I meeting seemed a good enough excuse to go.
The vibe was like the usual izakaya, but with funky log cabin walls, mounted dead birds, and various things hanging from the unfinished ceiling. This menu is infamous for being whatever the owner has killed recently, yet I was surprised at the variety. Miki and I chose wild boar, barbecued and served on skewers. (While eating, I kept wondering if this boar might have been one of the group that threatened us on the Path of Philosophy one autumn night.) We also had smoked duck, served cold, but a little too icy on this chilly night. (Colder than our beers actually.) The owner was friendly and this being a quiet Thursday, he had lots of time for us. And me, being non-Japanese as usual, drew out a certain amount of interest from him. Which, to a bar owner, is usually expressed in free food and drink. Besides the obligatory sake, he presented us with a plate of grasshoppers and bee larvae. The latter I've been wanting to try since my first month in Japan, when a student told me that it was the most disgusting thing she'd ever eaten. Coated in sugar and soy sauce, they were pretty tasty, so the distinction for my own worst food experience remains the boiled silk worms I had in the mountains of Korea. So, not getting the facial reaction he'd hoped for, the owner broke out the big guns. "Dig in," he said. I did. Chewy. Fatty. "Deer?" I asked. "Bear, " he said with a grin. From behind his back, he presented an uncooked chunk. It was a pyramid of white fat, with a small stripe of meat at the center. This bear, shot in November, appeared to have already bulked up for hibernation. The meat itself tasted less gamy than you'd think. It tasted more like deli meat; the salami of the predator world. And while not grossed out, I did feel guilty, due to my narrow escape in Hokkaido. That time ten years ago, the bear had chosen not to eat me. Today, I ate his cousin.

(Setsunai, at On Gaien Higashi Dori, printed my account of that encounter. I pirate it here.)

May 27, 2005

The Shiretoko Bear Story
A while ago,
Ted promised me a story on the time he encountered a Japanese Brown Bear on the remote Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido. True to his word, he sent the story today. Scary stuff with an interesting twist at the end. I don't think I would have ever been able to leave the tent. If you're ever up in Shiretoko, take those bear signs very seriously. And bear bells are good.

"I'd been walking for two days down the mountain range that serves as a spine for the Shiretoko Peninsula. Typhoons rarely hit Hokkaido, but a recent one had given the area a good soaking. I'd had a rough day, pushing along soggy trails, and it's entirely possible I'd nearly died a couple of times due to my own stupidity. I finally hit the trail end at dusk. In front of me was an observation point where cars can pull off the road, and between the guardrail and the cliff's edge I had enough room to set up my tent. With the fly facing the moon now rising over the sea, I'd have a lovely view with dinner. A half km up the road were some waterfalls, the water heated by the volcanoes I'd been hiking over. It was great place for a natural warm shower.
"The moon was up and full, so I used its light to make my way back to my tent. A few meters away, I saw something move above me on a slight ridge. A bear. Keeping my eyes on it, I slowly got into my tent, then into my sleeping bag for extra protection. I listened. Within seconds I heard a loud sniffing. Amazingly, this large animal had come down the ridge, across a gravel road, and over a guardrail within seconds, without making a single sound. I'll never forget the mushroom shape of its nose sliding against the tent wall. It moved around to the front flap. Ah! It was after my shoes, soaking and reeking after the wet slog. Suddenly, it fell down the cliff, breaking branches as it rolled down the slope. I started laughing with relief, but within a few minutes it was back. It lingered around for about ninety minutes in all. At first I was terrified. (They say that if you are within a fifty meters of a bear, you are as good as dead. These higuma (Japanese Brown Bear) are related to the killer grizzlies of both Alaska and Kamchatka.) After a while I began to get pissed off, wanting simply to eat and sleep after a long day walking. I reached into my bag for the bell I'd bought in Sapporo. At its first peals the bear tore off. Not long after I fell asleep, but not before ruining my water bottle since I was too scared to go outside to pee.
"The next morning cooking breakfast, I noticed that the water I'd collected at the falls was yellow with sulfur. If I'd drunk any the night before, I'd have become incredibly sick. The Ainu up in Hokkaido consider the bear to be a god. Had one come to protect me? I pondered this as I walked up the road toward town."

On the turntable: "Maximum Rock 'n' Roll radio, Spanish Punk Special"
On the nighttable: Charles Mingus, "Beneath the Underdog"

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