After a few weeks at home, my mom and I took off again for a week and a half trip to Tokyo and the north island of Japan, Hokkaido. I trained and wrestled with Japanese Olympic wrestler, Sunny Abe, and a recent Olympic gold medalist, Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu, at the Japanese Olympic training center in Northern Tokyo. We stayed at a nearby hotel, the Mokkoan, which has been a private home for over 300 years. Staying in a local hotel with a remarkable history offered us some unique cultural experiences we would not have found in more touristy areas, like a traditional breakfast, including salads and pear jelly eaten with chopsticks, and sleeping on traditional Japanese beds on the floor.
Training at this facility helped me develop new skills and learn some new techniques specific to Japanese wrestlers. My favorite wrestling technique was a shot invented by Tatsuhiro to defeat a particular opponent he faced in the Olympics. He was able to identify the weaknesses of his opponent and create a way to exploit them. After training each day, we visited a variety of sites throughout the Tokyo metropolitan area, like the Sensoji Temple, that was once destroyed by Allied bombers during World War II.
Sunny also took us to several local restaurants, and one particular soba noodle place was traditional and extremely delicious. Many people sat on the bamboo floor and ate from traditional plates, which are strung together by bamboo and bound by a red wooden rim. On our last night, cruising on a local boat down the city’s central river showed the immensity and vibrancy of the city.
We left Tokyo for Hokkaido, the much colder north island of Japan. This island has long been renowned as the residence for the red-crowned crane and the tree’s brilliant fall colors. Beginning in the Shiretoko Peninsula, we visited some of Hokkaido’s most beautiful national parks, like the Goku Five Lakes and the Kushiro Wetland.
The Shiretoko area, in particular, is home to one of the world’s highest density of brown bears and has many conflicts between bears and humans. Bears frequently appear next to roads, and many tourists will get out of their cars simply to get a good picture. They often get too close to the dangerous bears, and the habituated animals start to become comfortable around people. Usually, the forest department will have no choice but to kill the habituated bears, because they often enter human communities and become a major threat to the local people. The forest guards try to avoid these interactions, typically by making the bears fear humans. Using smoke grenades and rubber bullet guns, they drive the animals away from uneducated tourists and give the bears incentive to stay deep in the forest, away from busy roads. To discuss these ongoing issues, we met with a forest ranger that developed the system. He talked about new education methods for tourists and the importance of keeping a respectful distance during a wildlife encounter.
After the bears, we traveled south to another area of Eastern Hokkaido that harbors many cranes. The cranes were decimated by hunting and habitat loss around World War II, and their population was reduced to 33. They repopulated through global efforts, like the International Crane Foundation, and now more than 1,000 live in Eastern Hokkaido. Many sanctuaries were set up for their continued breeding. They are often spotted on farming fields in the area, where their food is more accessible. The cranes and brown bears of Hokkaido still need protection from the rapid growth of civilization and the elimination of their habitat.
With the pressures of creating an advancing modern society and a tumultuous nuclear threat, protecting nature is not the primary focus of many people. Even so, the Japanese are doing an excellent job conserving some of the most beautiful natural wonders of the earth through land preservation and public awareness. Even with the challenges Japan has faced, they have made great strides in their conservation movement.