The first time I ever ate a bear was in the winter of 1960-1961 when I was on the Arctic Institute of North America Devon Island Expedition. A polar bear had been trying to get into our winter base hut, so I shot it, otherwise the bear might have eaten me. Polar bears are carnivorous. We had been mostly surviving on canned and dried food, so bear meat was a welcome addition to our diet. I knew that polar bear liver is so rich in vitamin A as to be toxic, so that got stuffed down an ice crack, out of the way.
Yesterday (as I write this) I was sitting in my living room, enjoying the fading light in the woods around my house, sipping a glass of chilled white wine, when the telephone rang. It was a local friend.
"Nic-san, would you like some bear meat?"
Ten minutes later he came with a bag full of meat, still warm. The bear had been caught in a live trap and shot. This always makes me feel sad, but when bears raid cornfields they are liable to be dispatched this way. Unfortunately, once bears learn to raid human crops they tend to keep on doing so, even when efforts are made to scare them off and dissuade them from coming back.
I welcome the bears that come to our woods, and in the 33 years that we have been nurturing woods here in northern Nagano, the only trouble we have had with bears is when they raided and destroyed our beehives. No matter how we tried to protect the hives, the bears would get at them. It would seem that honey and bee grubs are like a drug to a bear, so they just can't resist.
Bears frequently visit our woods because they are rich in their natural foods, but even though we have various programs for children and older students, we have never had any trouble with them. Normally, bears avoid humans, so the only times we see bears are when we are alone, usually in the early morning or evening.
It has been 30 years since I quit hunting and left the local hunters association, but even still, when a bear is taken, I get offered a share. Sharing is a common characteristic of most hunting cultures, and despite what most city dwellers might believe, the hunting culture of Japan is very old indeed.
The meat of our "moon circle" bears (so named because of the white patch that most of them have on their chests) is not so strong in taste of that of a polar bear. Our bears eat mostly insect grubs, nuts, acorns and vegetables; only rarely do they eat the flesh of other animals. Long ago, when the Japanese rivers were full of returning salmon I am sure that, like Canadian bears, they ate a lot of fish too, but sadly, due to the terrible way that natural rivers have been treated, not so much nowadays.
Local housewives in particular have a prejudice against bear meat, believing it to be tough and gamey. Having eaten bear together with local hunters I can understand this, because they just roast it, making the meat as tough as boot leather. When I cook bear I use wine, herbs and spices, and simmer for a few hours until the meat is tender. Bear is rich meat, so you don't need to eat a lot of and it really warms you up. I recommend cold beer to go with it.
I have served bear stew to all kinds and ages of people, Japanese and foreign, and nobody has turned their nose up at it. I just got enough meat to feed at least 20 people. Some folk from Kyushu are coming to visit, and they don't have any bears down there anymore, even in Kumamoto, so I wonder if they would like to try it? It should go well with shochu.
("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)