Straight in the Eye by Mandy Huggins

Motoki saw him before we did. Without uttering a sound he thrust out his arm to form a barrier, forcing us both to freeze mid-step as though competing in a game of musical statues. Just below the ridge a black bear sauntered towards us from the edge of the tree line, hoary-muzzled and sleek-furred.

Like most mountainous regions of Japan, Kamikochi has a healthy population of bears, but no one we spoke to had seen one here. We’d noticed signs that chalked up details of recent sightings: ‘None’, and offered safety advice: ‘Please walk with the bear bell for giving bear notice!’ However, despite the plethora of jangling kumayoke suzu for sale in the camping shop, we had set off unarmed, having decided that the constant clanking would disturb the birds we hoped to see, and scare off the elusive little mountain goats known as komoshika.

Our day’s climb started at Taisho Pond, where withered trees reach up out of the clear water; a reminder that this lake was formed a hundred years ago by the last eruption of Yakedake volcano. Kamikochi mountain valley is one of the most beguiling places in the Japanese Alps, and according to ancient legend it is where the sea god, Hotaka-no-Kami, descended to earth. The first recorded mountaineer here was the Buddhist priest, Banryu, and our climb traced his steps across the Azusa river and up to the lower ridges of the Hotaka mountains.



We began our ascent through dense forests of larch and beech, following a trail marked by fluttering red ribbons tied haphazardly to branches and rocks. Shafts of sunlight pierced the canopy at intervals, intensifying the blaze of the autumn foliage and stirring the wings of late butterflies. Our footsteps were muffled by fresh leaf fall, and we breathed in the smell of damp, mossy earth. There was a sharp screech from above, a rustle of leaves and cracking twigs, and a family of macaques swung overhead.



As we climbed higher we heard distant birdsong and the tap-tap-tap of a pygmy woodpecker. There was a missed heartbeat as we crossed a narrow log bridge, gasping at the unexpected drop and the rush and tumble of white water cascading down the rock face. Eventually we cleared the tree line and scrambled up loose glacial scree, where the last alpine flowers clung tenaciously to the solid rock beneath. A bear bell tinkled faintly in the distance as a lone climber descended from the high ridge; a red splash against the grey of the rock.

We reached the mountain hut, where a plateau of flat-topped stones formed a natural viewing platform; an excellent place to stop for our well-deserved drinks and rice snacks. Still high above us were the snow-capped peaks of Hotaka, and below us the river flowed like mercury through the valley. Barely perceptible wisps of white smoke hung in the still air above the sleeping fire-dragon of Yakedake volcano.

As we gathered our belongings in readiness to leave, the climber finally arrived at the hut, waving a greeting and introducing himself as Motoki. He spoke little English, and our Japanese is basic, but when we ran out of vocabulary we communicated with nods and gestures. These quickly turned into wide smiles when he offered us warming shots of sake, which we gratefully exchanged for chunks of chocolate. We began our slow descent close on his heels, and in the companionable silence I contemplated the rejuvenating onsen baths that awaited us below and the promise of our evening camp fire.

Deep in thought, I was caught off guard when Motoki’s outstretched arm brought us to an abrupt standstill. As I looked up, my eye was caught by a dense black rock just above the tree line. It stood out against the pale scree, and when I re-focussed, the boulder became bear. I could make out the glint of his eyes, and the tilt and sway of his salt and pepper muzzle as he tried to catch our scent. When we stumbled to a halt there was a mesmeric moment as he continued to walk towards us. As he reared up onto his hind legs I swear he looked me straight in the eye; poised and sure; calmly weighing up his options. Then Motoki jangled the bells on his walking pole, and just as swiftly as he’d turned towards us, the bear dropped to the ground and loped away without looking back.
Dizzy with adrenaline, we remained motionless until Motoki gestured back towards the path. I scrambled down after him, happy to forsake sightings of bashful goats and timid wagtails, and to listen instead to the clamorous clanking of bells until we reached our log cabin.

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Mandy Huggins has been published in a number of anthologies, travel guides, newspapers and magazines, and her first collection of flash fiction will be published later this year by Chapeltown.

Her travel writing has won several awards, including the British Guild of Travel Writers New Travel Writer Award in 2014.


"Straight in the Eye" was highly commended by Graham Mercer, the 2017 judge of the I Must Be Off! Travel Writing Competition. He had the following to say about "Straight in the Eye":


'This is a well-written evocation of a nature-lover’s hike in a spectacularly wild (if occasionally threatening) setting. Another judge might have awarded it first place and if pressed I might find it hard to explain why I didn’t do so. All I can say is that judges are human. And expected to make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions. Whatever the case the writer, like the five others in this list, need have no concerns about his or her potential.

'In this piece he or she employs a device often used to great effect by writers of short articles and stories, beginning, as it were, with the ending. In this case the appearance of the black bear, which we don’t see again until the penultimate paragraph, thus maintaining suspense throughout the article.

'Meanwhile we are introduced to the quaint Japanese concept of the “bear bell”, a safety precaution that the writer and his or her companion(s) have (I am glad to say) ignored, so as not to disturb the other wildlife that they hope to see. As with all good travel articles we feel that we are there, amid the “snow-capped peaks of Hotaka” and “the sleeping fire-dragon of Yakedake”.'

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