The Bells of Daibosatsu

Mt. Daibosatsu (大菩薩峠 – 2,057 meters), in Yamanashi Prefecture, was my second hyakumeizan and also the second of my #100Summits* climbs.

The view from the summit of Daibosatsu

I was still learning a lot about the mountains, and myself, in May 2018. I had finished chemotherapy less than two months earlier, and had almost no experience on mountain trails.

I had purchased a basic set of hiking gear from REI before I left the United States, but was still missing an important piece of climbing gear: a bear bell.

The mountains of Japan have a healthy population of Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus), and although they don’t hunt hikers, people do occasionally suffer injuries (and, more rarely, death) after accidentally startling a bear on mountain trails. As a result, most Japanese hikers wear small bells that jingle to warn bears of their approach.

Bell-wearing hikers ahead of me on the forest trail.

The bells have a variety of voices, from faint jingles that sound like fairy chimes to deep, brassy ringing that carries across long distances. Some people find them irritating, but I love their happy songs.

After finishing my first climb, on Mt. Akagi, I had bought a tiny fish-shaped omamori (lucky charm) bell at Akagi Shrine; it was supposed to bring good fortune, and I hung it on my pack in the hope that it would keep away the bears. It made a faint but magical jingling sound that made me smile every time I heard it.

Lucky fish from Mt. Akagi

Unfortunately, the tiny charm proved far too small and silent for a bear bell (though I love the way it sounds, and it’s still hanging from my pack today).

As I descended from the summit of Daibosatsu, I listened to the voices of the bells on other hikers’ packs. The ringing grew louder as they approached and faded as the distance between us grew. Each time I passed, or was passed by, another bell-wearing hiker, I felt a surge of desire to find a bear bell of my own.

The deep green woods were the perfect environment for bears, and although Daibosatsu’s trails were busy enough to keep me relatively safe (because I could take advantage of the bells the other hikers wore), I had plans to hike in remote places and would need a bear bell of my own.

More importantly, I wanted a jingling bell to accompany my hikes with cheerful sound. And I wanted not only a bell, but the right bell–a bell whose voice I enjoyed enough to spend countless hours listening to it on the forest trails.

When I passed a mountain hut that offered food and gear for sale, I looked for a bell, but they were out of stock. However, I did acquire a summit pin–the second one I had ever owned (or earned).

Daibosatsu memorial pin

As it turned out, the “perfect bell” would elude me for three more weeks and five more peaks.

Where did I find it? That’s a story for another day.

*I tell the story of my 100 Summits adventure as a whole in CLIMB (Prometheus Books, June 2020); the stories I’m telling on the blog are the ones that didn’t make it into that book.