Japanese wildlife: Four unique experiences

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Authentic Japanese Wildlife Experiences

Every month, our Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist Amy Tadehara brings us insider knowledge on how to access semi-impenetrable experiences, avoid crowds, and find hidden delights well away from those tourist-worn pathways.

Amy’s extensive experience of Japan includes four years teaching English in Sendai where she got a chance to truly become immersed in the country. This month, she’s giving you advice on where to find the rarest Japanese wildlife…

amy japanese wildlife
 

 

When most people think of Japan, they conjure images of the snow-capped peak of Mt Fuji, of neon-soaked science-fiction cities, of pink blossoms tumbling on a light spring breeze. They think of graceful monks in ancient creaking temples, of sunlight glinted from razor sharp samurai swords, of swaying businessmen with ties around their heads, scream-singing into karaoke microphones. What is often overlooked, however, is the bewildering breadth of Japanese wildlife that spans the country. Below we’ve picked out some of the rarest examples out there, waiting for you to discover them.

Japanese Giant Salamanders

japanese wildlife giant salamander
Just look at that vacant stare and shapeless mouth. Adorable.

What on earth is a Japanese giant salamander?

Unknown to most visitors to Japan, the rivers and forests of the remote Nichinan area are home to one of the most fascinating creatures native to Japan: the Japanese giant salamander. These freshwater-dwelling beasts can grow up to 4.5ft in length, can live for over a century, and boast a biology that has remained unchanged for millions of years, earning them a reputation as ‘living dinosaurs’.

Why’s it worth your time?

Visiting Nichinan is an unforgettable experience. It allows intrepid and curious nature enthusiasts to embark on a very special guided journey into the lair of the Japanese giant salamander, combining science and ecology with off-the-beaten path adventure.

How can we help?

Salamanders are aquatic and nocturnal, which makes observing them in the wild extremely difficult; for the average nature enthusiast it’s virtually impossible. We work with the world’s leading Japanese giant salamander specialist who has devoted his career to researching, observing, and tagging these remarkable animals in order to help ensure their continued survival. Visitors will be able to accompany the specialist as he conducts his research, and have the unique chance to see these shy, rare creatures in an ethical manner.

You’ll be deep in rural Tottori, and this experience has a heavy emphasis on conservation rather than Instagram-worthy snapping; this is serious ecological work, in which you’ll head out with the researcher himself. If you’re interested in mindfulness, nature and sustainability, this one’s a surefire hit.

When should you go?

Between April and November. Typically this experience takes one whole day – you’ll be out in the field from mid afternoon until the evening, so allow time for travelling there and back!

How do you get there?

Nichinan, Tottori Prefecture. Nichinan is about 70km south of Matsue, the capital of Shimane Prefecture. The best way to get to the town is by car; from Okayama, the drive is less than three hours.

(Experience for ages 7+)

 

Red Crowned Cranes

red crowned cranes dancing
If only human courtship was quite so elegant.

What exactly is one?

Hokkaido is home to the rare and majestic red-crowned crane (‘tancho’ in Japanese), who can be found on snowy plains of Tsurui throughout the winter months. Rise before dawn to witness one of Japan’s most magical natural events; pairs of red-crowned cranes performing intricate and miraculously synchronized mating dances together. The birds stand up to 5 ft tall, with a wing span of 8.5 feet. It’s an amazing sight, and you can be privy to it at the Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary in Hokkaido.

Why’s it worth your time?

Tancho are believed to represent longevity, as the mythology surrounding them states that they can live for thousands of years. They have long played a special part in Japanese mythology, granting favors in return for acts of sacrifice, and are consequently much-loved and close to the heart of the nation. By observing the otherworldly spectacle that is the annual red-crowned crane mating dance, you’ll be witnessing something truly unique – something that very few human eyes will ever see.

How can we help?

These enormous birds are famously difficult to find in the wild without a guide. That’s why we’ll hook you up with a certified Hokkaido guide and Japanese wildlife photography expert based in Tsurui who can ensure visitors have the best bird watching experience possible. We can also help you add other experiences around Hokkaido to your itinerary – after all, Hokkaido is Japan’s wildest areas, packed with snowy mountains, vast blue lakes, volcanic hot springs, sweeping plains, cliff-lined coasts and more.

When should you go?

Winter, ideally in February (although it’s possible to see red crowned cranes in sanctuary year-round).

How do you get there?

To see these birds in nature, head out into the wild expanses of Hokkaido when it gets chilly; the birds usually nest around wetlands and rivers, and in the colder months you’ll find them grouped together on flatlands and paddy fields. The sanctuary at Tsurui is a 2-hour drive from Abashiri or a 4.5-hour drive from Sapporo.

 

Loggerhead Turtles

japanese wildlife loggerhead turtle
Who’s a good loggerhead?

What’s so cool about loggerhead turtles?

Loggerheads turtles born on Yakushima grow to over 3 feet long, and migrate thousands of miles around the Pacific Ocean before returning to the island to give birth to the next generation.Explore the tangled fairytale forest of Yakushima Island as over five hundred loggerhead turtles come ashore at Inakahama Beach to lay their eggs in early summer. Later in the season, you can see the newly hatched infants make the perilous scramble down the sands into the ocean.

Why’s it worth your time?

 

Yakushima is a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site off the coast of Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, and is covered with primeval rainforest – including some of the world’s oldest trees. For any anime buffs among you, Yakushima also served as the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Princess Mononoke. And then, of course, there are the real stars of the show: the turtles.

The island is an important breeding ground for loggerhead turtles, and if you visit at the right time of year you can watch the mothers laying their eggs – or the babies hatching! Under the supervision of local conservationists, visitors to Yakushima can watch as the turtles come to lay their eggs, or even – if they’re especially lucky – see the tiny baby turtles as they hatch and make their way down to the sea. This is a phenomenally rare event to witness, and especially poignant when you consider the great oceanic odyssey that lies before the hatchlings if they themselves hope to reproduce.

How can we help?

Yakushima is a firm favorite in the InsideJapan team: we’ve hiked the trails, we’ve watched the turtles, and we we’ve dived the depths of the sea. We couldn’t be better equipped to give personal recommendations and build tailored itineraries that are sure to hit those Yakushima must-sees!

When should you go?

The turtles lay eggs on the island from May to July, and the hatchlings make their way to the sea from July to September.

How do you get there?

The island is located in the south of Japan, a few miles off the coast of Kyushu. It is accessible by ferry from Kahoshima in Kyushu, as well as by air from several mainland cities. Once on the island, it is possible to get around by public transport. However, buses on the island do not run the full circular route as the road that runs through the World Heritage area is too narrow. We therefore recommend renting a car or a bicycle to get the most out of your stay on Yakushima.

 

Cat Island

japanese wildlife cat island Tashirojima
Fluff.

A cat island? No way.

Way. The small island of Tashirojima, Miyagi prefecture, is home to a disproportionate number of feline inhabitants; they outnumber humans six to one!  Mostly found around Nitoda Port on the southeastern side of the island, they freely roam the streets, seemingly enjoying the attention that they get from the tourists who photograph and play with them.

The feline domination of Tashirojima dates back to Japan’s Edo Period—from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century. At that time, residents of the island raised silkworms for their textiles. Cats were valued because they chased away the mice that preyed on silkworms. The cats are endeared to the hearts of the locals, believed to bring good luck (doubly so if you feed and care for them). Thus, the cats are treated like royalty, and although most are feral because keeping them as ‘pets’ is generally considered inappropriate, they are well fed and well cared for.

Why’s it worth your time?

Cat Island is a great taste of the quirkier side of Japan. In addition to the purring masses, the island is also home to a small cat shrine, and the island’s prominent Manga-themed building is embellished with a pair of pointy ears as a tribute. If you like cats and/or Japanese wildlife in general, you’re set.

How can we help?

Transportation is very fiddly to and from Cat Island; many of the locals, though friendly, speak limited English, and ferry times are written in Japanese. Don’t fret though; our Japanese-fluent travel experts can help you arrange transportation, accommodation and sightseeing. Purr-fect! (sorry).

How do you get there?

Tashirojima Island is quite a way off the beaten track. We’d recommend basing yourself in Sendai and taking the train to Ishinomaki Station, from where the ferry terminal is a 30 minute walk or a quick taxi ride. The ferry can take you to Odomari and Nitoda ports. The one way trip takes about 45-60 minutes and costs 1230 yen to either port. There are four departures per day.

 

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Like Amy, each of our dedicated experts at InsideJapan Tours has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for years. We are continuously revisiting and testing in order to offer you intimate knowledge and expert care that other tour operators simply cannot offer. Our exclusive, fully tailored itineraries feature personal, behind-the-scenes, one-of-a-kind opportunities, and moments that will leave you awestruck. With a regional ops center in Nagoya and a field office in Tokyo, we can offer clients assistance in real-time. Leave it with us; we’ll pull off the seemingly impossible, and spare you the logistics.

Feel like checking out some of these experiences in more detail? Take a look at our Winter Highlights and Kyushu Adventure tours!

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