Birds, monkeys, and amphibians, oh my!
Japan might be known for its blend of both ancient and modern culture, exceptional food, and innovative technological inventions, but what rarely gets recognized is its incredibly diverse and fascinating wildlife.
While you might not find native Japanese animals wandering the neon-lit streets of Tokyo or trying to get to the other side of Shibuya Crossing, you only have to travel to Japan’s expansive mountainous regions, or its dense forests to find a wildlife world worth exploring.
From the cheeky Japanese macaques to the elegant sika deer, we’ve put together a list of the 8 native Japanese animals to try and spot on your next trip to Japan, known as the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’.
1. Japanese Macaque
Probably the most recognizable native Japanese animal is the macaque – a snow monkey found in the mountainous regions of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu islands. Extremely sociable and friendly creatures, these monkeys are characterized by their long, thick hair and little red faces and usually travel in packs of 20 – 30 monkeys.
While there’s a chance you could spot these delightful animals in the wild if you’re travelling around the forested areas of Tokyo, the best place to interact with them is at the Jigokudani Monkey Park located in the Nagano Prefecture.
2. Red-crowned crane
Known to symbolise luck and longevity, the red-crowned crane is an aquatic bird that spends its day foraging for food in the pasturelands of eastern Hokkaido. Dining on small fish and rodents, amphibians, snails, and plants, this bird is beautiful with its largely snow-white colour and distinct red patch on the top of its head.
At one point there were fears of extinction for the Japanese icon but due to strong conservation efforts, the population of birds is starting to show signs of recovery. Phew.
3. Japanese giant salamander
Sounding as if it belongs between the pages of a fantasy novel, the Japanese giant salamander lives nocturnally at the bottom of streams or rivers filled with cool, fresh water. Looking quite intimidating in its appearance, this monstrous amphibian can grow to a size of 1.5 metres and expels a powerful, pepper-smelling, milky-like substance when threatened.
With a brown and black skin that helps them camouflage perfectly against the murky river bottoms, these swimming creatures are super hard to spot – largely because they live underwater – so you’ll need to do your research properly before setting out to try to catch a glimpse of one.
4. Sika deer
You won’t have to look very hard for this next native Japanese animal as there are large numbers scattered throughout the main islands of Japan, so get your camera out and start snapping. Positively thriving due to its only natural predator, the wolf, having been extinct in Japan for a century, these delicate and graceful creatures can grow up to 1.2 metres in length and can jump a surprisingly high 1.7 metres.
Getting its name from the Japanese word ‘Shika’ (meaning Japanese deer), these harmless animals feed on naturally growing vegetation as herbivores and are characterized by the white spots dotting the length of their bodies.
5. Japanese marten
Guaranteed to be one of the cutest animals you’ve ever laid eyes on, the Japanese marten can be found in the luscious forests of mainland Japan – specifically the Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu regions. Recognised by their dark brown, yellow, and cream pelage, these slender and agile creatures come alive when the sun goes down, staying up to hunt food, before sleeping in tree hollows and shallow dens during the day.
If you happen to come across a Japanese marten in the wild it’s best to steer clear of it, not because they’re particularly vicious animals that might hurt you, but because it’s considered to be bad luck if a marten crosses in front of someone in Japanese folklore.
6. Japanese serow
Hunted to near extinction in the 20th century, the Japanese serow is now well and truly thriving thanks to a 1955 law that recognizes them as national monuments, making it illegal to pursue these animals for their fur. And thank goodness because spotting these goat-antelope like creatures in the woodlands of the Honshu region will surely be one of the highlights of your trip.
Featuring long legs, bushy multicoloured fur, and curved horns, these native Japanese animals are not only seen as a symbol of Japan but also as good luck for their sure-footedness, with serow hoof print charms bought by students sitting exams.
7. Japanese spider crab
Taking the title of one of the scariest-looking animals in Japan, the Japanese spider crab can reach up to 3.7 metres with its spindly legs and scurries along the seabed in search of marine plants and small fish. While these monstrous-looking invertebrates are bound to have a starring role in your next nightmare, Japanese spider crabs are actually known to be gentle giants and can live up to 100 years old.
However, the chances of you coming across a Japanese spider crab in the wild are pretty low as they live at a depth of 160 – 2,000 feet. If you are intent on catching a glimpse of its gangly legs and orangey body, they can be found in seafood markets along Japan’s southern coast.
8. Japanese black bear
Boasting the title of Japan’s ‘largest land animal’, the Japanese black bear is one of the more breathtaking yet dangerous animals you’re likely to come across during your travels around the country. Very common in mountainous regions (and the fringes of major cities such as Tokyo), these bears have an excellent sense of hearing and smell, using their senses to find their next meal.
They’re also at their most active in the early mornings and early evenings – looking for breakfast and dinner perhaps? – so make sure you’re being extremely careful and not getting too close. Remember, these powerful animals can run faster than humans and are five times stronger, so if you think you can outsmart a bear, no you can’t.