School Alert: Watch out for BEARS!

After finishing class, I received a “Public Announcement” letter from the local Board of Education. Using my limited kanji ability, I was able to decipher that I definitely needed to improved my kanji ability, and that there was a bear wondering around the local area.

Being from the UK, the only animals that “terrify” the British public are either the rogue foxes attacking babies or false widow spiders, both making “appropriate headline news” for the tabloid press. Here in Japan, mother nature seems a bit more hostile and sinister. From giant huntsman spiders to hissing centipedes, or the abundance of mosquitoes and the occasional venomous viper, Japan isn’t all kimonos, cherry blossom and cutesy characters. In fact recently, Japan’s population of bears has made the headlines, and not for doing something adorable. 

Japanese Bear Sign

There are believed to be around 10,000 “Japanese Black Bears” currently living in the country. Known as herbivores, they have shown increasing omnivore behaviour as they roam into towns and campsites searching for food. Over the last couple of years there has been a rise in the number of bear sightings and attacks. The latest being an elderly woman who was killed in Akita back in May.  Akita Prefecture saw four bear-related deaths in a three-week period last year. Prior to that, the region had only seen eight lethal encounters since 1979. Officials have linked the increase in bear incidents to climate change and deforestation, which is understandable. Throughout the countryside, improvements to Japanese infrastructure have taken priority meaning forests being cleared for houses, solar farms and expressways. 

When I asked my teacher about what you should do when confronted by a bear, she worryingly didn’t really know. As a precaution, schools in the local area have been lending bells to students. The effectiveness of a ringing bell when faced with a 1.5 m tall bear is somewhat questionable. Though supplying each student with bear spray would be a slight over-reaction. I always get confused with what the experts say. Is it play dead? Make yourself look big? Is that for black bears or grizzlies? In any case, I’ll just have to stay on my guard. 

Hiroshima and the Momiji Manju

If you have lived or traveled around Japan, then you will have undoubtably sampled Japanese wagashi at some point. Usually enjoyed with green tea, wagashi are traditional confectionary that have been an iconic piece of Japanese food culture since the Edo Period (1603-1868). There is a dizzying amount of variety, ranging from Dorayaki to the bewildering world of Mochi, far from the realms of Butter Shortbread and Victoria Sponge Cake found back home.

As I previously explained, Hiroshima is famous for its variation on okonomiyaki. But when it comes to sweet treats, there’s nothing more popular than momiji manju. Every time I board the afternoon train, I can expect to see at least five people carrying bags containing souvenir boxes of them. And if you happen to be a salaryman taking a business trip to Hiroshima, you’ll definitely be expected to bring some back to the office. I usually buy them as a gift when travelling to friends’ houses. It’s a safe option if you’ve no idea what to get. 

But taking a step back, manju are a ridiculously common wagashi found everywhere. Each prefecture or even city will have their own variation. Whether that be shape or the colour, you’ll seem them in every souvenir shop, station and tourist hot-spot. For Hiroshima, it’s the shape of the momiji manju’s that is its most distinguishing feature. “Momiji” is the name for the Japanese maple leaf tree which famously and beautifully changes colour during the Autumn period. It’s because of its iconic shape that this sweet has become so popular in Japan.

Momiji Manju
Fujiya’s Momiji Manju are my personal favourite.

The momiji manju is believed to have dated back to the latter half of the 19th Century, particularly during the late Meiji Period (1868-1912) . Most information points to Takatsu Tsunesuke as the creator of the confectionary, who took inspiration from the maple trees scattered around the island of Miyajima. Apparently, 1906 has been labelled as the year Takatsu “perfected” his creation.

Traditional recipes use wheat, eggs, sugar and honey to create the castella-like sponge.  Like with the majority of Japanese wagashi, the traditional filling is sweet red-bean paste known as anko. Don’t be fooled by it’s chocolate brown appearance. My father and my brother aren’t fans of it and nor are many foreign visitors, so other fillings have become increasingly available; cream cheese, green tea, chocolate and custard. Some companies offer seasonal flavours such as chestnut, orange and sesame, while other stores have decided to add a unique spin to them, either by deep-frying or adding ice cream……..And people say Japan is one of the healthiest countries in the world.