In Search of the Okinawan Rail
A visit to Yanbaru in the north of Okinawa makes a great getaway from the more populated and busy central and southern areas of this beautiful island. Yanbaru is different from almost anywhere else in Japan as subtropical rainforest can be found alongside rugged cliffs with stunning views of both the East China Sea to the west and the Pacific Ocean to the east. Many endemic species of animals and plants can be found here but it is actually a species of bird that is its most famous resident. The Yanbaru kuina, or Okinawan Rail in English, is a beautiful, charismatic but very elusive bird. Keep your eyes on the road though and not up in the trees as it is flightless and can be seen waiting in trepidation to cross the road. Despite this, after it gets dark they can somehow climb up to high overhanging branches in the hope of escaping the threat of potential prey, namely the Okinawan Habu, a highly venomous snake, or the introduced Asian Mongoose.
Almost as difficult as seeing the bird is finding another person who has actually seen one. Despite ubiquitous road signs making drivers aware of their presence, actually seeing one is far more tricky. This is a bird thats existence was only confirmed in 1978, and this along with its evasive nature combine to create a bird of an almost mythical status. Most Okinawans are interested in the bird and often talk about its notoriety, however the closest most ever come to seeing one is passing the twenty-foot-high statue on Route 58 welcoming visitors to Yanbaru, or the even bigger wooden statue looking out over the ocean from Cape Hedo, Okinawa’s most northern point.
Early morning or around dusk are the best times for a chance encounter but one needs to be very lucky or have some prior knowledge of the best locations where these birds can normally be found. If a lucky driver happens to see one dash across the road, they probably wont have time to grab their camera, as once they scamper across to the other side of the road like an avian Usain Bolt, they immediately seek cover and then they are gone, not likely to reappear until all signs and sounds of cars and bikes have long disappeared. On the very small chance that one is lucky enough to have a brief glimpse of this charismatic rail, it is truly a wonderful experience knowing that you have seen a critically endangered bird that only exists in this very small area, in the far north of Okinawa’s main island.
Make sure to be careful not to mistake it for the much more common Moorhen. (This does happen from time to time judging by some videos on YouTube.) However, if a sustained look at the bird can be achieved, one can see its unmistakable long red beak and its lovely black and white plumage. Many Okinawans believe the Yanbara Kuina is nigh on impossible to find, as if it were akin to the Loch Ness Monster or the Abominable Snowman. This isn’t the case, as those who travel up to the very north of Yanbaru on a regular basis have probably seen the bird on several occasions, and even if they haven’t, the fun part is the search and the initial drive up to a place like no other in Japan, where mountainous jungle and rainforest make up the landscape. Up here one forgets the hustle and bustle of a typical Japanese city, leaving behind the drink machines and neon lights, and can immerse themselves in nature in its rawest form. A day trip up to the north of Japan’s most southern prefecture provides a wonderful and unique experience but that small chance of also coming face to face with a truly rare and fabled creature fills each visit with that little extra excitement. So the next time you are in Okinawa with a day to spare and want to do something different, venture to the north of the island in search of the Yanbaru kuina.