Wildlife Spotting in Japan

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  • The natural beauty of Japan is not something that immediately springs to the minds of many. Instead, we conjure up the image of the busy streets and shopping modernity of Tokyo, and not the mountain ranges, fresh streams and open forest. And yet, the landscape of Japan boasts all these things and more. For its size, Japan’s natural beauty is truly amazing, but what is more surprising is its abundant range of diverse wildlife. In my travels I have had opportunities to interact with this wildlife, photographing their splendor and gaining an appreciation of what lies beyond the “man-made” structures of urban Nippon.

    The Japanese macaque

    Author’s Photo

    Perhaps one of the most famous natural images of Japan is that of the macaque, as he relaxes in a hot spring with snow falling all around him. Located within the Joshinetsu-Kogen mountain range of northern Nagano, the journey to access this classic shot is a relatively easy one. Taking a train to Nagano, then a bus and a short 20 minute walk into the mountains, visitors can access a series of hot springs, where an abundance of monkey families willingly pose and warm their bodies, while the human photographers that surround them, freeze. For the more adventurous there are smaller pathways further into the mountains (past the signs warning trackers to take care), where these animals roam freely through snow covered woodlands.

    Author’s Photo

    I managed to capture these images while travelling in the Arashiyama Iwatayama range, west of Kyoto.

    The monkey is not limited to snow mountains. The species is very adaptable and can be found throughout three of the four islands of Japan. Japanese monkeys can consume more than 200 species of plants, as well as meat and food left-overs by humans. Thanks to this wide dietary range, their population in the wild is about 130,000. Their strength and relative boldness makes them unafraid of human contact and, when photographing them, it is important to be aware of this. They are attracted to shiny objects and anything that looks edible.

    The Japanese bear

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    Perhaps the most dangerous animal in Japan (with the exception of the boar), is the great Japanese bear. The Ainu have always incorporated bears within their culture and have historically hunted them for food, fur and bone tools. The Lyomante Ritual, for example, honors the mountain by sacrificing a bear and her cub.
    The Matagi, a traditional hunter group of Tōhoku, also continue to hunt bear as part of their tradition.

    There are two species of bear in Japan; the Asiatic black and Ezo brown bear. Black bears are found throughout Honshu (especially Tohoku and Nagano) and Shikoku, whereas browns are found primarily in Hokkaido. There are about 20,000 wild black bears in Japan and only about 8,000 brown bears. While black bears have a diverse habitat, brown bears tend to be confined to mountains and woodlands – although in times of trouble, they seek food in urban areas (occasionally visiting outskirt Sapporo).

    Most Asiatic bears weigh around 70kg. They have very good hearing and smell but relatively poor eyesight. They are excellent diggers, tree climbers and swimmers. They can outrun a person, so escape is not really an option if the need arises. Feeding primarily on nuts, fruits, and insects, they will also eat meat – although this is usually in the form of an already dead carcass. They tend not to kill for food. Brown Bears on the other hand are not so peaceful. Hunting is part of their psyche, especially fish, but they will hunt Yezo deer and other large animals. Brown bears in Hokkaido usually hibernate from mid-December to late March. They are most active after hibernation, and during the autumn months when they stock up on food – these times are the best times for sightings. A Japanese brown can grow as big as a Kodiak (300kg to 400kg). Protective of their young, they will pursue a perceived enemy a great distance. Yet, do not let this dissuade you. If you are seeking adventure, tracking bear is a wonderful experience.

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    The best place to see a Brown is within Shiretoko National Park in far Eastern Hokkaido. The park is home to the most bears per km and a wondrous region. For a controlled adventure, there are several boat safaris that traverse down the Iwaobetsu River. It is also possible to hire a canoe and explore the lake ways within Shiretoko National Park. Even if you don’t see a bear, the natural landscape is amazing and the rivers offer an opportunity to see some of Hokkaido’s diverse bird life.
    From the safety of the boat you can observe bears wonder the shore-line in search for food. However, if you want to push the adventure envelope, you can hire a car and enter the mountain tracks yourself. I got lucky – but please use extreme caution. It is really important you act responsibly, as bears are both beautiful and dangerous. Keep your distance, and use a long telephoto lens. I recommend at least a good 30metres or more. If you feel you might be in danger, slowly retreat to a safer distance. Do not threaten the bear and remember always, you are in their territory; respect their space.

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    Before venturing into the mountains, check with the ranger stations to get maps of the terrain, current bear sighting information, and bear protection equipment – spray and bull-horn. The bull-horn is extremely effective and should always be your first option. While the spray is effective, it is a close range tool and unless you are skilled it can cause problems (if you fumble or the wind changes directions, the spray may enter your eyes). Be careful while driving as a large bear can push a car over. When walking into bear country remember to take extreme care. While tracking bear is not so easy, there are things to look for. Bears have set territories, their ‘poop’ is easy to spot and they use trees as scratching posts, so look for bark and branches similar to the images I took below. It is illegal to encourage bear with food. Food paste can attract them unintentionally (rangers provide sealed containers for personal food – use it).

    The Japanese crane and hawk

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    The red-crowned crane (tsuru) is another of Hokkaido’s treasures. A symbol for longevity and fortune, it too can be found within the deep mountain regions of Shiretoko, as well as parts of Eastern Hokkaido. The tsuru is a migrating bird and is best seen during the months of January and February. These beautiful birds have a red-crowned on their heads, indicating maturity. Their gracefulness is a sight to behold. Adult birds grow to 155cm with a stretched wingspan of 130cm. Red-crowned cranes usually feed on crops, buckwheat, fish and amphibians. Immature cranes do not have a red mark on their heads and stay with their parents until maturity, where upon they are forcefully evicted to fend for themselves. Many teenagers object to this sudden independence, and it is fascinating to observe parents chasing their offspring away.

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    The best way to see crane is with a guide, as their natural habitat is within the glazier range of the national park. However it is possible to venture on your own, with bird habitat centres offering tourists information about the best places to visit.

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    Another bird that dominates the Japanese skies is the mountain hawk-eagle. Second only to the colourful Steller’s Eagle in magnificence, a typical hawk has a wingspan of 170cm and can be seen in diverse landscapes across all four islands. I have even seen them as close as Enoshima, however they typically dwell in forests and open fields.

    Tanuki – The Japanese Racoon Dog

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    The Japanese raccoon dog or tanuki would have to be my favourite Japanese animal – although they are not always looked upon with such love, especially by Japanese farmers who consider them a pest. I took the images above in Eastern Fukui.

    Tanuki are known in Japanese folklore as mischievous shape-shifters – and (unlike smart foxes), a little bit gullible. The tanuki are also said to have large genitals which they use to fly and carry things in. On a more scientific note, tanuki are not actually related to badgers or raccoons, they are Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus. While mainly nocturnal, but they are known to be sometimes active during daylight. They have a “call”, similar to an angry domestic cat and run in packs. Despite their great numbers, tanuki have a good ability to hide from humans, while at the same time living close to them. Tankui have black “masked” faces with small rounded ears and a pointed muzzle. An adult grows to 50cm and weighs 5kg. They feed on insects, rodents, fruits and berries and are synonymous with West Tokyo, thanks to their role in the Ghibli film Pom Poko.

    Serow – The Japanese Mountain Goat

    Author’s Photo

    The Japanese serow or Japanese mountain goat, is a unique animal. Again considered a pest by farmers, the Japanese goat-antelope, can be found in woodlands across Japan. An adult weighs around 60kg and is 1metre tall. They have short horns, and a very distinguishing “devil-like” head shape. They are usually active at dusk and dawn, however I tracked the one pictured above enjoying Fukui’s afternoon sun.

    The serow is a solitary animal and hunted to extinction before it was deemed a protective specie. However, this ruling was challenged by hunters and farmers who felt serow encroached too much upon farmland. Thus, currently serows are protected in 13 areas over 23 prefectures. One of most primitive members of the goat-antelope family, serow can trace their roots back 35 million years! They usually inhabit steep mountains but also enjoy woodlands with dense vegetation, feeding on leaves, fruits and flowers. If you are keen to see them, head to the mountains and woodlands of West Japan.

    Japanese deer

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    Perhaps the easiest wild animal to see in Japan is deer – especially in Nara where these usually timid animals wonder aimlessly, being fed by hoards of keen tourists.

    Deer were both an important source of food and a symbol of worship for the ancient Japanese. The deer in Japanese are called Shika and can be found throughout Japan. Despite their innocent looks, deer cause their fair share of problems – destroying crops, eroding landscapes and creating accidents. In Nara, hungry deer sometimes attack people and every year, herds of deer need to be dehorned.

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    The average shika grows to 150cm and weighs 70g – although males can grow taller and heavier – around 100kg. Deer are easy to track due to their eating habits, distinct “poop” and hoof prints. There are approximately 3 million deer in Japan, which also helps. Deer are herd animals and national park offices have information about the best places to sight them. I was searching for deer within the autumn mangroves of Kushiro, Hokkaido when I stumbled upon the curious family pictured above.


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    So there you have it. The information in this article is just a sample of Japan’s rich natural diversity – I haven’t even mentioned wild boar or fox! From its rich forests to snow-capped mountains, Japan has an abundance of wonders to explore. With animals a plenty, all you need is a little planning, some luck and a good camera, and you too can immerse yourself into a more “natural” Japan.

    Featured image: Author’s Photo