When it comes to wildlife, some people just don’t know how good they’ve got it! In Kyoto, I once saw a family of Japanese macaques making their way through the woods. To me — a Scotsman from a country where we cut down all the forests for sheep farms — this was an amazing experience. To my Japanese friend, it was about as noteworthy as seeing a flock of pigeons.
I guess it’s just because Japan is so packed with fascinating wildlife that many of the locals grow used to being surrounded by amazing nature. However, that doesn’t mean the Japanese are complacent when it comes to wildlife conservation. A lot of government and charity money is put into helping Japan’s 90,000 or so species of animal thrive. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be itching to discover some of these fascinating creatures for yourself.
So let’s take a look at some of the critters which call these islands home, and discover the best ways to go about seeing them with your own two eyes.
Common Japanese Animals
Some animals you’ll find all over Japan, from the southern tip of Kyushu to the northern tip of Hokkaido — a real credit to the nature-loving culture here. Depending on where you’re from, these might be extremely exciting or pretty mundane!
Some of the most famous animals of Japan are the cute little ‘snow monkeys’. These macaques can be identified by their bright red faces. They typically grow to about 50-60cm in height, and live in troops of around 100 or more.
You can sight these intelligent little guys in a lot of places, but it’s probably easiest at Arashiyama in Kyoto. The monkeys of Mt Arashiyama make a decent living begging (or thieving) from tourists at the monkey park.
To catch the snow monkeys at their most photogenic, head along to Joshinetsu Kogen National Park in the Japanese Alps. You might already be familiar with this place from TV, because it's where the macaques spend the colder months bathing in volcanic hot springs for warmth!
Hot springs are total bliss in winter, for monkeys and humans alike.
Deer are another common sight in any major wooded area of Japan. The fully wild ones tend to shy away from humans, so you’re only likely to catch fleeting glances of them when you go hiking. To get up close and personal though, you should head to the city of Nara.
Less than an hour south of Kyoto, this city’s central park is home to a population of over 1500 semi-wild deer. They’re literally everywhere in that area, lounging among shrines and monuments, or eating the ‘deer crackers’ fed to them by tourists. If you buy a pack of crackers, the deer will request them by coming up to you and politely bowing.
Just be a cautious though. If you leave them hanging or otherwise irritate them, they might resort to more forceful means to part you from your snacks. In fact, there are usually over 100 deer-related injuries reported every year!
These deer don't mess around. If you don't give up the goods, they'll make their feelings known.
The red foxes of Japan are much the same in physiology to the foxes of Europe and America, however the cultural attitude to them here is very different. In Western countries, they’re often hunted and hated. But in Japan, they hold a mythical significance which commands respect.
The kitsune (Japanese for ‘fox’) are said in folklore to hold magical powers and great intelligence. It's traditionally thought that they grow extra tails as they age, up to a total of 9. They’re primarily thought of as messengers for Inari, the god of rice, so you’ll see hundreds of their statues at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto.
For a chance to see some cute real foxes (with no magical powers or extra tails), head along to Zak Fox Village in the mountains near Sendai. This is a zoo-cum-sanctuary for over 100 red foxes, where you can wander among the animals in their wide, open habitats.
Surely there's no way you're gonna pass up meeting this guy face to face.
Another animal which is surrounded by heaps of Japanese folklore, you’re probably less familiar with these Japanese ‘racoon dogs’. Despite the name, they’re not actually related to raccoons; they’re part of the canine family.
But to hear Japanese folklore tell it, these cute little wild dog creatures are actually magical shapeshifters who have gigantic multi-purpose testicles and love getting plastered on sake. Amazingly, none of the words in that previous sentence were typos — that’s genuinely how they’re portrayed.
In reality, they’re cute and peaceful little creatures who value family bonds, make excellent parents, and often mate for life. They also hibernate during winter, which is completely unique among canines.
If tanuki really looked like their mythological portrayals, I'm pretty sure I'd want them as my spirit animal.
Amateur ornithologists can have a total field day in Japan with the number of bird species here. In the inner cities, you’ll obviously find the usual suspects, such as pigeons. In Tokyo, you’ll also find thousands of large Japanese crows, which are a menace or a blessing (depending on who you ask).
If you head to Kyoto or Kamakura, the crows and pigeons will also be joined by large kites! These large birds of prey put on some pretty impressive aerial displays, and live relatively peacefully with the locals. Just don’t hold your snacks too high in the air, unless you’re happy losing a finger.
In the more rural areas, you can hope to see birds like woodpeckers, doves, and herons. That barely even scratches the surface of wild birds in Japan, so take a look at our separate article to learn more about the sheer variety out there.
Despite their associations with death, and reputation as a noisy nuisance, crows are among the most intelligent birds in the world.
Dangerous Japanese Wildlife
Less common than the more peaceful creatures listed above, but still quite abundant, these are the animals you’ll want to keep a watchful eye out for if you go wandering in the Japanese countryside.
Despite a relatively jolly nickname — the ‘white-mustached pig’ — these hefty animals have actually earned a reputation as violent troublemakers in Japanese culture. In the Meiji Era, it was thought that keeping a piece of their hair on your person would bring prosperity.
Nowadays however, the boar seem determined to bring chaos instead. Japan’s small countryside towns have been increasingly emptied of their young folk in recent decades, meaning the older populations are having trouble stopping the boars encroaching upon human territory!
On Shikoku Island in 2017, one of them went on a crime spree through a shopping mall, and another attacked a woman in her own garden the year after! I say we just surrender the countryside to them, and pray that they don’t march on Tokyo too.
Yamamoto Kansuke Kills the Wild Boar (1868) by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. If modern boars ever reach that size, it's game over.
Depending on your opinion of these reptiles, you’ll either be excited or terrified to hear that Japan has 47 species of snake. Most are totally harmless to humans, although if you spot them you might still be inclined to run for the hills. The aodaishō (Japanese rat snake) is a common type, which can grow up to 3.5 meters in length.
On the flip-side, you do have some seriously life-threatening varieties here too. Walking trails often feature warning signs on how to spot a mamushi (Japanese pit viper) — the most dangerous snake in the country. The venom of these snakes breaks down solid tissue into liquid, which is as painful as it sounds for the 2000-plus bite victims each year (5-10 of whom die from the effects).
By the time you've spotted the well-camouflaged mamushi on the forest floor, it might already be too late!
Japanese Giant Hornets
These gigantic airborne psychopaths are also known as ‘murder hornets’, and — like anyone with such a black-metal nickname — you want to stay as far away from them as possible. They tend to nest in trees in rural areas, and can grow up to 2 inches long.
Some farmers see them as friends due to their genocidal capabilities, meaning they can clear out huge numbers of crop pests. For example, a small number of these hornets can totally decimate an entire colony of standard honey bees, numbering in the tens of thousands. It’s not just bees that have to watch their back though; these creatures also kill around 40 humans per year due to the sheer volume of venom they deposit with each sting.
Statistically about as deadly to humans as sharks, and it can fly. You'd best bring bug spray (or a tennis racquet/suit of armor) if you're heading to the countryside of Japan.
Rare and/or Unusual Japanese Animals
We've covered the animals you're likely to see on your travels in Japan, and the one's you definitely don't want to run into. Now let's take a look at some of the weird and wonderful creatures that you'll need luck on your side to spot.
Japanese Giant Salamander
Probably winning the prize for most bizarre Japanese animal, this amphibious creature inhabits the shallow rivers and streams of central Japan. They use their keen sense of smell and vibrations to hunt fish and other water-borne animals. They can grow up to 1.5m in length, and are thought by some to be the inspiration for the kappa river imps of Japanese folklore.
Giant salamanders breathe not with gills, but through their porous skin. If threatened, they excrete a milky-white substance through these pores often said to smell like pepper. That’s probably too pleasant an assessment — the liquid is apparently so pungent that it would deter even the hungriest predator from taking a bite.
These captive salamanders only grow to a fraction of their maximum size in the wild, but are no less bizarre to look at.
Japanese Dwarf Flying Squirrel
Moving swiftly on from Japan’s ugliest animal to its cutest, let me introduce you to the Japanese flying dwarf squirrel. This little ball of fur uses its wing membranes to glide for up to 100m throughout the forests of Honshu and Kyushu. The feed mainly on insects, fruits, and nuts.
As they're nocturnal, they have large eyes to help with night vision, which have the added effect of multiplying their cuteness tenfold. You’ll probably struggle to spot one during the day, as they tend to stay hidden inside their tree hole homes. If you’re lucky, you might get to see them emerge around the national parks at sundown.
You'd have to be really lucky to see one of these gorgeous little creatures this close in the wild.
The second largest animal in Japan behind their brown cousins in Hokkaido, the Asiatic black bear grows up to 130cm in height and sports a unique white patch on its chest in the shape of a crescent moon (hence the nickname). They live in the forests of Honshu and Shikoku, and there area an estimated 15,000 still left in the wild.
They have a mostly vegetarian-friendly diet and are not usually dangerous, but some conflict does occurs between human and bear when they descend from higher altitudes from May to August. In general, they’re very clever creatures, even capable of building feeding platforms for themselves high in the trees.
Unfortunately, these friendly-faced animals face threats from traditional Chinese medicine due to the incorrect belief that their bile has curative properties.
The serow is a bit like an antelope, a bit like a goat. It’s difficult to place exactly which they more resemble, but regardless, they’re an important part of Japan’s natural heritage. They’re generally quite solitary, and spend their days wandering alone lazily through the mountains and forests, grazing on leaves. They have a stout and strong frame which means they can traverse most terrain with ease.
Because of that, you might have trouble spotting one unless you leave the hiking trails and wander off into the wild (which we do not recommend). Your best bet for catching sight of one without risking life and limb is at Joshinetsu Kogen National Park, which a relatively large population of serow call home.
Reclusive and robust, these creatures thrive in the rougher parts of the Japanese countryside.
Giant Japanese Spider Crab
No, it’s not the title of a SyFy original movie, this is a real Japanese animal. It’s the largest of its kind anywhere in the world in terms of leg-span, reaching over 3.5m in some instances! They’re typically found pretty deep in the ocean, at depths of 50m or more, where they can live for up to 100 years.
Although giant, ancient crabs of the deep sound like the stuff of H.P. Lovecraft’s nightmares, they’re actually a popular winter delicacy in Japan. You can expect to find them on the menu at many fancy kaiseki restaurants around that time of year.
There's a lid chance this deep-sea horror creature will live longer than all of us, unless he finds himself in a Michelin-starred dish first.
Final Tips for Amateur Naturalists
As you’re now well aware, the natural heritage of Japan is incredibly rich, and tied up with a culture of mythology and veneration. For those who like to stay away from zoos and experience animals in their natural habitat, the country presents endless opportunity.
However, as commendable as much of the conservation efforts of the Japanese are, the country is experiencing as much of a crisis of biodiversity as the rest of the world. Practices such as over-hunting and modern agriculture have had some catastrophic effects on the animals which call these islands home.
With than in mind, there’s really no time like the present to go out and see these amazing Japanese animals for yourself (except the murder hornets — stay the f*@% away from the murder hornets). What are you waiting for?