Japanese commuters can buy an impressive array of items from the country’s ubiquitous vending machines, including edible insects, hamburgers, boiled eggs, beer, hot ramen and—thanks to a new automat installed last fall at a train station in the Akita prefecture town of Semboku—bear meat.
The machine is stocked with meat harvested by members of a local hunting club who participate in a carefully regulated hunt for the country’s modest population of Asiatic black bears. Plastered with pictures of lean and fatty cuts of bear meat, the machine is maintained by the Soba Gora restaurant, which is located near the Tazawako Station, a stop on the country’s celebrated bullet train network. Passengers snap up 10 to 15 packs of bear meat a week, according to an account in The Mainichi, a Japanese newspaper, and calls for more are coming in from as far away as Tokyo. The meat sells for 2,200 yen per 250-gram pack, which is roughly $17 for half a pound.
“(Bear meat) tastes clean, and it doesn’t get tough, even when cold,” a Soba Gora representative told the newspaper. “It can be enjoyed in a wide range of dishes, from stew to steaks.”
Japan has more vending machines per capita than any other country—about one for every 23 people in 2000, when the number of machines peaked at 5.6 million. The selection has dipped a bit since then, according to the Japan Vending System Manufacturers Association, to around 4 million in 2020. That’s still way more machines than bears. Various estimates put the country’s population of Asiatic black bears at between 10,000 and 20,000. Even rarer Ezo brown bears, which are closely related to Siberian brown bears and more distantly related to North American grizzlies, are thought number around 3,000.
Japan has a storied tradition of bear hunting dating back to medieval times. Traditional winter hunters known as Matagi would band together for group bear hunts in the mountain forests of northern Japan. Those hunts continue today in Akita and other northern prefectures by special license. Reports of encounters between bears and humans have been on the rise in recent years, quadrupling since 2009, with two deaths and 158 injuries reported in 2020—the highest in a decade. The run-ins are attributed to a decline in the bear’s beech forest habitat and an abandonment of farmland brought on by rural depopulation in the country. “There is less to eat in the mountains and that is why they are coming down into villages,” Yuko Murotani, president of the Japan Bear and Forest Society, told the Guardian. “If they can’t find enough acorns in the mountains, they will inevitably search for them in places where there are people.”