6. Flying Squirrels （モモンガ・ムササビ "Momonga/Musasabi"）
Many foreigners come to Japan expecting a dose of quirky and a dose of cute, but little did you know this can be found in the wildlife, too! Look no further than Japanese flying squirrels. Often mistaken for bats, these are really just cute furry squirrels with stretchy skin between their limbs which allows them to glide through the air.
There are three species: the Japanese dwarf flying squirrel and Japanese giant flying squirrel found from Honshu through to Kyushu, and the Ezo dwarf flying squirrel endemic to Hokkaido and some parts of Siberia.
Giant flying squirrels are found only in Asia. They’re so unique they draw wildlife enthusiasts around the world to Japan. The Japanese giant flying squirrel grows up to 50cm in body length and can glide up to 160m! Meanwhile, despite their 30cm length, the two types of dwarf flying squirrels can glide up to 50m. That’s like a ruler propelling itself across half the length of a football field!
Flying squirrels are considered common throughout Japan. They make their nests in holes in large, old trees, so it’s possible to find their nest by searching for these holes. Additionally, you can look for flying squirrel poop at the base of trees or the remains of their food. Once you’ve identified a nest, you may have to wait up to an hour either before sunrise or after sunset for them to emerge. They come out of the nest every night for food no matter the weather conditions, so as long as you find a nest you won’t miss them.
However, finding a nest isn’t always easy, and takes time and perseverance. After emerging from their nests, you may struggle to keep your eyes on them as they dash through the trees in low light conditions. Flying squirrels are nocturnal and arboreal (they live in the trees), so they’re considerably difficult to find and watch without the help of a guide. Thankfully, there are great guided options available.
The most affordable tour with a 98% sighting rate is again at Picchio Wildlife Research Centre for 3400 yen or US$32, featuring the giant flying squirrel species. While there are currently no tours available for the dwarf flying squirrel on Honshu and Kyushu islands, Lodge Lucky Field provides tours for the Ezo dwarf flying squirrel (and other wildlife) of Hokkaido. These are longer, costlier tours at over 13,000 yen per person. The more people participate in the tour, the cheaper it gets. An English-speaking guide is available.
7. Deer （シカ "Shika"）
Deer can be found all over Japan. Although “sika” deer are endemic to Japan, since the country’s wolves were hunted to extinction in the early 1900s, deer numbers have propelled so high that the Japanese government now incentives hunters to control them. If they didn’t, sika deer could wipe out entire plant species and therefore ecosystems.
In any case, this means that for animal fans, there’s no shortage of opportunities to spot deer. Although they can be found in any decent-sized forest in Japan (usually active in mornings and evenings), most people flock to the city of Nara to see, feed and photograph very tame deer. That’s right, “Nara Park” is a famous go-to spot for many foreign tourists and the place is full of the animals. They’re so used to humans that they even sneak into the bathroom sometimes!
If you want to see deer a little more on the wild side, you can head to Hokkaido, where the “Ezo sika” subspecies lives. Deer are often seen on roadsides here. My favourite spots are any of the hiking tracks in Shiretoko National Park, and Wakkanai Forest Park Camping Ground, located up a hillside in the northernmost city of Hokkaido. Deer are often seen in these areas and while you probably won’t get within touching distance like in Nara, they’re indifferent enough to let you get a good look.
If your travel itinerary doesn’t include Hokkaido and you want a more secure chance to see true wild deer, you could take a night safari tour with Picchio Wildlife Research Centre in Karuizawa, just north of Tokyo. Deer are spotted most nights and occasionally boar, foxes, serow and other wildlife are also seen.
8. Tanuki/Raccoon Dog (タヌキ "Tanuki")
Another important, and rather mischievous, character in Japanese folklore is the raccoon dog, endemic to Japan and other East Asian countries. Despite their name and similarly masked face, they are more closely related to foxes and dogs than raccoons. Tanuki are nocturnal and are perhaps the most elusive Japanese animal, especially when you consider they are the most common and widespread of them all. That’s right, tanuki can inhabit even metropolitan areas like in Tokyo. Despite this, many people in Japan have never seen a wild tanuki, including wildlife photographers who go out of their way to track down animals. Those that have seen them usually spot them for a very brief flash on a road at night, and in fact driving in Japan you will see, along with deer and boar signs, warning signs with racoon dogs on them.
There is not yet a tanuki spotting tour or a tanuki park. While keeping an eye out at night will increase your chances of seeing a tanuki, to guarantee a sighting, I can only recommend Asahiyama Zoo.
9. Pika (ナキウサギ "Nakiusagi")
Everybody has heard of Pikachu, but not many know of the creature he’s based on—the pika, native to the Tokachi mountain range in Hokkaido. Although mouselike, they’re actually a relative of the rabbit. Like their cousins, pikas live in burrows underground; although they prefer to dig these in the rocky scree of the mountains. Although there are no tours are currently available in English, for those of you able to book in Japanese or with Japanese friends who can guide you, it may be worth trying this photography tour, which one can request to include pika habitat.
10. Blakistons Fish Owl (シマフクロウ "Shimafukuro")
It was difficult to choose which of Japan’s unique creatures to add last to this list. It was a fierce competition between sea eagles, salamanders, boar and the wild cats of Okinawa, but the owl eventually made the cut!
Actually, Japan is home to several species of owl. However I want to give special mention to the Blakistons Fish Owl. This just so happens to be the rarest owl in the world; and it is found only in a small area in Siberia, and Japan—specifically Hokkaido.
Not only is it the rarest owl, it is also the largest with an adult body length of 60-72 cm (24-28 in). It's an impressive creature to watch as it hunts fish up to the size of adult salmon and pike!
In Shiretoko National Park, Rausu, there is an inn where the owls can be seen every night. You have the choice of spending one or more nights at the inn and spotting for owls from the comfort of your private room. Or you can sit and watch from the stools along the windowsill in the communal area for a cheaper fee for all or part of the night, depending on how late you can stay up or how many times you want to see an owl. Inside the communal area there is a diary recording all the sightings of the owl/s each night. Often there are multiple sightings a night, and they vary from 6pm in the evening to 6am in the morning! You can see prices and more details here
And there we have our Top 10 Japanese Animals. Japan really has a lot of nature to discover, and this list is just an introduction. Hopefully this inspires you to try wildlife watching in Japan and start experiencing Japanese nature to the full.
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