It would probably surprise most people to find out that bears live in Japan. It certainly surprised me. I was prepared for the earthquakes, typhoons and volcanoes but nobody warned me about the deadly hornets, wild boar or bears.
You’ve got understand, I come from the U.K. The only dangerous animal one might encounter here is an angry bull and the only dangerous weather condition is the possibility it might rain so much you get trench foot. Or possibly kill yourself because you’ve forgotten what the sun looks like. Moving to a country where the ground might shake uncontrollably was something I had to mentally prepare myself for, the possibility of being eaten by a bear completely side swiped me.
Of course I’m exaggerating. Brown Bears only live on Hokkaido, the most northern of the main islands and whilst there are some smaller black bears on Honshu they are incredibly rare and usually confined to mountainous areas. Also they’re not man eaters, they’re not really even meat eaters and have a primarily vegetarian diet only eating meat when opportunity arises or their regular food sources become scarce.
But yep, bears live in Japan. And more to the point the Japanese eat them. And being a person that likes to try unusual foods I had to seek out some bear meat to try for myself.
The eating of bear comes from the Ainu. Who the Ainu are takes a little unpacking. Briefly, they’re an ethnic group in Japan almost totally confined to Hokkaido and smaller northern islands. More complicatedly they’re probably the last link to the indigenous population of Japan. The indigenous people of Japan are known as the Jomon (pressed cord referring to their practice of patterning pottery by pressing ropes into) and shockingly little is known about them. They were supplanted almost entirely by the Wajin or Yamato, what we would now consider to be Japanese people, who came originally from China. Though obviously there was some strife and warfare there was a long period of intermingling between the Wajin and the Jomon until eventually the Wajin emerged as the dominant cultural force in Japan and remained that way until modern times.
The Wajin though were mostly based on the main islands and in the far south and the far north the Jomon culture evolved and developed in a different fashion. In Hokkaido the Jomon became the Satsumon and the Satsumon merged with an ethnic group leaving what we now call Russia known as the Okhotsk. This merging became the Ainu.
If you see an Ainu now they look pretty much like any Wajin Japanese* but that’s due to inter breeding. Look at a photo from around a hundred years ago and you’ll see more European eyes and big thick beards Japanese men struggle to grow. The clothes are also more reminiscent of Mongolians, or arctic cultures like the Inuit or even some Native American cultures, especially those in Canada. In fact there is some archeological evidence and even genetic evidence to suggest that the Jomon people were amongst the first to settle North America.
The Ainu were animists meaning they ascribed souls and divinity to natural features like mountains and to animals. Bears were of particular importance to them. To the Ainu the bear is a messenger from the mountain god himself, his gift to mankind in the form of flesh that they can eat and skins that they can wear. Bears feature in a lot of Ainu myths and are usually benevolent figures and they feature in one of the Ainu’s more notorious religious practices, that of “Iomante” or “sending off” the bear.
I’ll let Wikipedia explain it.
Trappers set out to the bear caves at the end of winter, while the bears are still hibernating. If they find a newborn cub, they kill the mother and take the cub back to the village, where they raise it indoors, as if it were one of their own children. It is said that they even provide the cub with their own breast milk. When the cub grows larger, they take it outdoors, and put it into a small pen made of logs. Throughout their lives, the bears are provided with high-quality food. The cubs are treated as, and traditionally believed to be, gods.
After the cub reaches one or two years of age, they release it from the cell and place it in the center of the village, where it is tied to a post with a rope. The males in the village then take shots at the cub with bows and arrows. Even at the age of two years, the brown bears are quite large, and it usually takes numerous shots before they fall. After the bear has been weakened from numerous arrow strikes and is too weak to defend itself, one villager will approach the bear and shoot it in the neck point-blank, to ensure that it is dead. The villagers then slit the bear’s throat and drink the blood. The bear is skinned, and the meat is distributed amongst the villagers. Its bare skull is placed on a spear, which is then rewrapped with the bear’s own fur. This “doll” is an object of worship for the villagers. The bear has now been “sent off” to the world of the gods.
I’m going to let that description stand for itself and let you make up your own mind.
So, Hokkaido has a history of eating bear and you can still do so today. In high end restaurants you can find bear paw as a delicacy and for those with more normal budgets there is bear curry.
Yup, bear curry.
You might be asking me why I’m eating this now? Well I actually bought this when I visited Hokkaido back in 2010 and it made the trip home with me to the U.K. but it has sat in a cupboard looking accusingly at me ever since. It’s not so much the bear part that puts me off but the tinned curry part. Have you ever eaten tinned curry before? It’s not the best food guys. Too salty and too sweet and composed of mostly sauce with few meat or vegetables. It’s pretty much is a desecration of a beautiful thing. So I’ve been in no rush to eat it. So much so that this is waaaaaay past it’s eat by date. But it’s a tin, those can last for decades. The eat by date just stops the manufacturer from getting sued.
Anyway, enough stalling; how does it taste?
Well as a curry it isn’t fantastic but it isn’t the worst. Those that have had Japanese curry before know it has a milder taste and is much thicker in consistency than any Indian curry. It’s basically a spiced brown roux with vegetables and meat added. But it is delicious in its own special way. Remind me to talk about Co-Co Ichibanya on this blog one day, that place is fantastic and serves only Japanese curry. This is a so so Japanese curry but it’s adequate.
The bear meat isn’t something you get a lot of. I counted 2 chunks in my entire tin so clearly one bear is being stretched out pretty thin. The meat was nice although nothing particularly original. It most closely resembles beef in appearance and texture but is surprisingly sweet, noticeably so even with the curry spices, and slightly gamier than beef. It also has a really dark brown colour bordering on black. I expected it to be chewy as most carnivorous animals are reputed to be but it is actually very tender. It’s chewier than beef, sure, but much tenderer than I’d have thought. I guess it’s because the bear rarely eats meat and mostly lives on vegetation.
One final thing, I have no idea how the bear gets into the tin. I’ve tried to research this but can find nothing on the internet explaining how we go from wild bears to bear meat curry. There certainly aren’t any bear farms as far as I know so I assume this is from wild bear being hunted but I wouldn’t have thought that you could sustain a processed food like this with those practices. If anybody does know please enlighten me.
*(which is a slightly racist way of putting it I’m afraid, Japanese people would probably say Ainu-Japanese and Japanese-Japanese but that to me seems no better. It’s hard when you’re talking about ethnic groups in Japan to avoid racially charged language since it is still such a racist country)