Going Wild: Japan’s Native Animals and Where to Find Them
by Mamiko Kim
When I taught English in Japan several years ago, I tasked a handful of my elementary school students to guess what types of animals might live in our region. These clever 7- and 8-year-olds were quick to name off a long list of potential candidates, including accurately naming deer and snakes, but they also had some interesting guesses, like wild boar and monkeys. The biggest shock to me, however, was that they struggled to think of one that is so commonplace here in Washington, D.C. that the Washington Post has an annual local photography contest of these creatures. Can you think of what animal it might have been? You likely see one of their kind outside your window right now.
The students were able to correctly guess that eagles were in our region. Mr. President, a male bald eagle that shares his nest at the National Arboretum in NE Washington, D.C. with a rotating number of First Ladies, is a minor local celebrity with a 24/7 live cam.
The answer is squirrels.
I later learned how very smart and logical my students had been in their responses. Later that year, an announcement was made over the school intercom. “Do not exit the building, as it is dangerous,” it said. “There is a monkey wandering the school yard.” Monkeys may have been an occasional visitor to these students’ schools, but squirrels were a sight rarely, if ever, seen.
Animals are neighbors that we sometimes take for granted, and it is fascinating to think how the animals we see every day are not common elsewhere, and vice versa. Japan has a rich diversity of animals, and luckily there are means for travelers to learn more about them. Here are a few native Japanese animals and where to find them:
Also known as the snow monkey, the Japanese macaque is perhaps the most famous Japanese native animal outside of the country. Measuring as long as 2 feet, these macaques live across the Kyushu, Shikoku, and Honshu regions, ranging from subtropical to subarctic climates. In fact, among nonhuman primates they live the farthest north and in the coldest climate in the world, surviving temperatures as chilling as -4° F (-20° C). With such blistering cold weather, it may be no surprise that these characteristically gray or brown furred, red faced, and stubby tailed monkeys have found ways to adapt. In a country that takes pride in its natural hot springs and bathing culture, Japanese macaques can be found soaking in hot springs as warm as 109° F (43° C). These ingenious creatures have been observed inventing new behaviors and sharing them with others in their group as well, including washing food in rivers, seasoning sweet potatoes in salty sea water, and making snowballs for fun.1) With their high intelligence and human-like behavior, they are a popular character in Japanese folklore and even appear in Japanese Shinto and Buddhist religions.
The Wise Monkeys originated from Japan (source 2), with “mi-zaru, kika-zaru, iwa-zaru,” or “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” being a play on words for the Japanese word for monkey (s/zaru). The monkeys carved here are on the Nikko Toshogu Shrine, opened in 1617.
Jigokudani Yaen-koen, established in 1964, is perhaps the best place for visitors to see a wild Japanese macaque up close. The park is in Nagano Prefecture within the monkeys’ natural habitat, which encompasses several kilometers of the surrounding mountain forests and valley. Within the park is a man-made hot spring, which is a popular spot for the monkeys seeking a warm soak during the winter months. While they have become accustomed to seeing humans, the park is not enclosed, and the monkeys come and go as they please. The macaques may be found in the mountainside as well, but are more apt to keep their distance, so the park truly gives the greatest opportunity for visitors to take photographs.
Meanwhile, travelers can also enjoy the natural hot springs in the area themselves with two old-fashioned resort towns nearby, Shibu Onsen and Yudanaka Onsen, which boast a wide range of historic guests, from samurai to poets, and Japanese-style inns as old as 400 years.3) The monkeys do come into the villages as well at times but prefer their own hot spring. Only a 5–10-minute bus ride from the park, the towns offer a respite after the monkey-watching of the day.4) No monkey business here- just honest relaxation for human and macaque alike.
Steller’s Sea Eagle
As the boat captain tosses the prepared butchered fish onto ice, you hold your breath. You’ve come to see the Steller’s sea eagle, one of the least observed or understood birds in the world due to it only being found in the remote reaches of Siberia Russia and northern Hokkaido, Japan.5) These migratory birds, the largest sea eagle and the heaviest eagle in the world (wingspan up to 8 feet/284 cm and weighing up to 21 pounds/9.5 kg), only come down to Japan during the winter where they follow the Pacific cod and Alaska pollock so important to their diet.6) While generally wary of humans, they’ve been known to walk within a few feet of fishermen that they’ve seen before, and even feasted on deer killed by huntsmen. In Japan, they come close to boats and as many as 20-30 can be seen at a time. This would be a rarity in Russia, where the birds breed along cliffs and spread out into pairs as they nest, making them more elusive. You hope today’s venture will be fruitful, and you are soon rewarded. A dark brown bird is spotted, and as it gets closer you can see the white tips along the ridge of its wings and on its tail. It lands gracefully among the pieces of fish laid about and begins to enjoy the prepared spread.
The Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido is registered as a World Heritage site, specifically as it is a winter nesting ground for several rare birds, including the Steller’s sea eagle, which has been named a Japanese National Treasure and is protected. Winter cruises depart from the town of Rausu on the peninsula for wildlife observation expeditions, and along with the Steller’s sea eagles, Blakiston’s fish owls, white-tailed sea eagles, spotted seals, ribbon seals, and clione (sea angels), may be seen. February and March are the best months to visit the peninsula, as drift ice floats into the Nemuro straight, essentially cutting it off from the ocean, constructing a calm surface where the wildlife gathers. If visitors come any later, these rare birds will have flown back to their breeding grounds, and hopeful bird watchers will have to try again the following year.
A size comparison between a white-tailed eagle (left- about the size of the American bald eagle) and the Steller’s sea eagle (right). Both birds nest at the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido over winter.
Japanese Giant Salamander
If you were walking by a river, and saw something move, what would you do? Would you be intrigued and go closer, or back away in caution? Now, what if that something was almost the same size as you? If you are lucky, you may have caught a glimpse of a Japanese Giant Salamander, who have captured the public imagination for generations.
The Japanese giant salamander can be found in rivers in southwestern Japan, growing to 5 feet (160 cm) and 55 lbs. (25 kg), and living to nearly 80 years in the wild. Without gills and with poor eyesight due to its small eyes, one may wonder how well it can survive submerged, but its skin has the remarkable ability to absorb oxygen in flowing water and is also covered in hair-like sensory cells that detect vibrations. This characteristic is helpful when the salamander hunts insects, frogs, and fish at night, and its brown and black spotted skin also makes for excellent camouflage during the day when it hides under river rocks. Its name in Japanese, Osanshouo (大山椒魚), or Giant Pepper Fish, also gives a hint to another hidden talent it possesses, which when threatened, can excrete a strong smell reminiscent of Japanese peppers.
"Beware of the Yokai!" from Discovery Channel Magazine June/July 2009 issue.
Calligrapher: Ai Tatebayashi
It is no surprise that Japanese giant salamanders have inspired legends and curiosity for ancient and modern Japanese people alike. Within Japanese mythical folklore, it is thought that the idea for kappa, or river monsters, may be based on them. With webbed hands and feet, a turtle shell on its back, and a plate on its head, kappa were dangerous creatures who were blamed for drownings. It must have given ancient Japanese people a fright to see a vaguely human-sized figure in rivers, though of course we know now that Japanese giant salamanders are generally ambivalent towards humans. More recently, the world-wide famous Pokémon franchise took an interest to Japanese giant salamanders, which were the inspiration for the cartoon creature Quagsire. Quagsire is described as carefree swimmer who likes collecting round objects, which are lucky if found by others. This certainly is an image upgrade!
Quagsire from Pokémon
The Japanese giant salamander’s habitats are under threat from development, with scientists estimating that further destruction will lead to the animals’ extinction (they are currently labeled as vulnerable). With this in mind, in Tottori Prefecture the Nichinan Town Office, the Daisen Oki National Park, leading Salamander Researcher, Dr. Sumio Okada, and regional expert, Richard Pearce have formed the Nichinan Japanese Giant Salamander Conservation Experience, an educational opportunity bringing participants along to assist Dr. Okada as he surveys the salamander population. Surveys are done in an ethical manner, with locations specifically selected and rotated to leave the salamanders as undisturbed as possible. Furthermore, no such expeditions are made during the breeding season (late August to mid-September). The price of the experience includes a donation to the Tari Hanzake (Giant Salamander) Conservation Group, which will further assist in conservation efforts. With the salamander’s welfare placed first in importance, travelers participating in the experience can feel good about giving a helping hand in preserving one of Japan’s important endangered creatures.
These are just three of Japan’s native animals, but there are many, many more. For animal lovers, Japan offers a grand escape to see many animals up close. Including the wild animals listed above, Nara is famous for its deer that come up to ask for snacks, Okunoshima has a large population of rabbits that will hop along after you, and lounging foxes can be photographed at the Zao Fox Village in Miyagi. Of course, tame animals offer companionship in the many various cafes throughout Japan as well, including cat cafes and Shiba Inu cafes. Regardless of your length of trip, there is always an opportunity to see Japan’s native animals.