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I have been to Japan three times. I first visited Japan in October 2007, when I had a spare weekend during a work trip to Korea and went to the Alps. I returned to Kyoto for a conference two weeks later, and went back to do some more work in Kyoto and Tokyo in 2009.
Like many people, I hadn't thought about visiting Japan for tourism or mammals,and was under the impression it was largely built up and totally expensive. But when I started reading about the place, I realised that there was a good deal of wildlife to see including some nice endemics.
Kyoto and Nara
Nara is about 50 minutes on the train from Kyoto. I had been in touch with Professor Kishio Maeda from Nara University of Education, one of Japan's foremost bat experts. He was proof that the friendliness of bat biologists extends to Japan and although he was busy arranged for three of his graduate students to meet me at the station and then take me to see some bats.
Nara University Bat Students
We drove about an hour and a half out of Nara into the mountains via the small and quirky Asian Bat Research Institute Museum which was very nicely layed out with specimens of the Japanese species and all manner of bat-related paraphernalia.
Our destination was a long abandoned road tunnel which ran for about 70 metres before it had collapsed or been filled in. Several species of bats use it as a hibernacula and it is used year round by others. We caught and banded two endemic species - Eastern Bent-winged Bat (Miniopterus fuliginosus) which are a recent split from M. schriebersii; and Little Japanese Horseshoe Bat (Rhinolophus cornutus). Big-footed Myotis (Myotis macrodactylus) are usually present but we couldn't see any.
Back at the bat museum we picked up what was probably a Japanese Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus abramus) feeding near the river on the bat detector but couldn't see it. Sika Deer are common in the parks in and around Nara as are Raccoon Dogs (I saw roadkill but didn't go looking for them at night). Many thanks to Prof. Maeda and his excellent students!
Japan's customer service is legendary and Chie was no exception. After I explained I wanted to see some of the area's mammals she must have phoned about 30 people to get advice on where to go, what to look for, and where to stay. Her English is perfect and she answered my messages within a couple of hours despite the 7 hour time difference. Japan 1 - France 0.
I got into Nagano Station at 8.04 (precisely of course), met Chie and we drove for about an hour to the car park near the Jigokudani wild monkey park, home to a large population of Japanese Macaques. The wild monkey park is the place where the famous Snow Monkeys bathe in the hot springs. The park is essentially a small area around a hot spring where the monkey's gather each day. The animals are wild and live in the surrounding forest but they are - I understood - fed by the people from the park. When we arrived there was just a lone macaque sitting on the roof of the Jigokudani hotel. About 40 minutes later at least 50 macaques came out of the forest.
The hotel and park are a 20 minute walk through the forest. Japanese Serow are quite often reported from here though I didn't see any. I did find a dead white-toothed shrew sp on the trail though.
Karuizawa is a 2 hour drive from Jigokudani and it is also on the Bullet Train route from Tokyo ( about 20 minutes closer to Tokyo than Nagano). Its a popular place for birdwatchers and seemed like a good place to stay for the rest of the weekend. I stayed at the Shiotsubo Onsen hotel. A nice spot at the edge of the forest where Japanese Squirrels (Sciurus lis), the Karuizawa town animal emblem, often visit the bird tables. The squirrels, it seems, are not very active at least at this time of the year. they are asleep by 4pm and most likely to visit the bird tables between 8 and 10 am. I was only at the hotel in the late afternoons and very early mornings so I guess it wasn't surprising that I didn't see any squirrels
A nature tour/research company called Picchio are based in Karuizawa. As well as running group tours through the forest they do some research including monitoring some of the 19 radio collared Asiatic Black Bears in the area.
Picchio run a dusk walk at the weekends which is mainly aimed at young children and was excellent, not least because Japanese Giant Flying Squirrels are virtually guaranteed. There are several squirrel nestboxes around the Picchio offices each of which can be monitored by CCTV, so they know which are occupied. At dusk the tour begins with a wait outside an occupied nest box to watch an animal emerge. They don't allow flash photography hence the crappy picture below, but the animal itself was superb.
After we watched the squirrel emerge and glide into the forest we visited a small pond up the road. Using bat detectors the Picchio people were confident that the common species skimming the pond were Big-footed Myotis (Myotis macrodactylus) . Another species was probably a Bird-like Noctule (Nyctalus aviator) and certainly sounded like a Noctule species on the detector. The guide was not completely confident because it was apparently rare in the area.
There were two other species I particularly wanted to see around Karuizawa: Japanese Martens and Japanese Serows, neither of which are uncommon. Chie took me for a spotlighting drive around the area after dark but it was cold and I was tired and all we saw was a Field Mouse bouncing across the road. Japanese Hares, Raccoon Dogs, Japanese Flying Squirrels and Sika Deer are some of the other species around.
The hotel didn't mind me setting a few Elliot traps around the edge of the car park and the next morning I had caught two Large Japanese Field Mice (Apodemus speciosus). Apparently Small Japanese Field Mice (Apodemus argenteus) are also quite common but they are smaller and have a tail longer than the head-body (the larger species I caught had a head body length of about 110mm and tails about 95mm long).
I spent the rest of the day on a Picchio guided walk up Mt Asama, an excellent place to see Japanese Serow. Eight of us were on the tour and the two guides both spoke pretty good English and were knowledgeable about the fauna. They had been running the tour for several years and Serows were also virtually guaranteed. They had seen few other mammals on the walks.
The weather was great and the trail easy going. The Serows hang out about 3km up the mountain near the shelter. We saw three animals close up and another one distantly. They were habituated to people and so very approachable.
Another spotlight drive deeper into the mountains that evening went through nice habitat but we didn't see a single animal (but later that same week I saw a Japanese Marten in South Korea).
The next day we took a trip to Taga-cho, a 2 hour drive north east of Nara. The Kawachi No Kaza-Ana Cave is 15 minutes out of town and is open to the public with a small charge to enter. Several species of bats use the cave but the Hilgendorf's Tube-nosed Bats (Murina hilgendorfi) are the most interesting. This species has from time to time been though to be synonymous with Murina leucogaster, but most (if not all people) now consider it a full species in its own right. A small population starts to build up from early February, peaking in late April and disbursing by the start of June. Fewer than 200 bats use the cave.
The bats were easy to see and roosted in ones and twos on the roof and walls, sometimes within touching distance.
Several other species use the cave and we saw Greater Horseshoes, Eastern Bentwings and a couple of Japanese Large-footed Bats (Myotis macrodactylus).
A sincere thank you again to Kishio Maeda for indulging me in sushi and species.
The Japanese Martens were in Aomori prefecture which is at the northern end of Honshu, at a guesthouse (hot spring baths) called Yachi Onsen:
Elsewhere in Japan
According to Richard Webb, Mi-ike near Kagoshima is a good spot for bats (they roost in shelters along the trails) and he saw a Japanese Marten there. He has also seen Iriomote Wild Cat on Iriomote Island (the jury still seems to be out about whether this as a sub-species of Leopard Cat or a full species).
Japan is a great country - diverse wildlife, friendly helpful people, good food and cool trains ....
Thanks to Susan Myers, Chris Cook, Kaz Shinoda and Richard Carden for their advice on where to go in Japan.
Other People's Trip Reports
Japan, 2012: Michel Watelet, 2 weeks & 8 species including Japanese Squirrel and Largha Seal.
Japan -- Chubu Region, 2012: Coke Smith with several mammals including Japanese Serow and Japanese Squirrel.
Summer in Japan, 2010: Morgan Churchill, notes from a 2 months stay in Japan with species including Finless Porpoise, Pygmy Killer Whales, Japanese Squirrel and Japanese Marten.
Taga-Cho Bats, 2010: Damon Mitchell's blog post on the cave at Taga.
Northern Japan: Coke Smith, notes and photos from several trips. The mammals include a Japanese Serow and Japanese Field Mice.