The Japanese Alps — Can you see it? Quick! Look! Behind the trees!! That is one of Japan’s living national treasures — the Japanese serow or kamoshika” as the natives call it. It is the only wild bovine ruminant in Japan and with nicknames such as “phantom beast” or “cow demon,” you can almost feel the mysterious and somewhat magical atmosphere around it that gives this animal its reputation. The auspiciousness of this animal doesn’t stop there, as its hoof prints can also be seen marking Japanese omamori charms to help students pass their exams.
The Japanese serow is an animal that has appeared in pop culture as well. It has been seen in the soccer based game and anime, “Inazuma Eleven GO”, and it is also said that the Ghibli character, the “Forest Spirit” in its deer form from Director Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke is based on the Japanese serow. Even the ever-so-popular Pokemon that a lot of us grew up watching has a character representation of this animal.
What is the Japanese Serow?
With such a well-known animal in Japan, it would be customary to think of it as a common animal that one may find quite easily. This is not the case however, as the Japanese serow is usually found in the dense mountain woodlands of Japan and as such, their early morning and late afternoon meals consist mainly of young plants, acorns, and the leaves of alder, sedge, Japanese witch-hazel, and Japanese cedar. Studies have however shown their diet to be flexible as they are able to survive harsh winters with little to no negative impact on their food intake. With the extinction of Japanese wolves in 1905, it is likely that its sole predator is the Japanese bear.
Due to being hunted to near extinction in the mid-twentieth century, the Japanese government passed a law, deeming it a “Special National Monument” in 1955. This law protected the Japanese serow from poachers and as it already had few natural predators, its numbers greatly increased. Since then, the law has been repealed, leaving the Japanese serow with protected status in just 13 designated protected areas spanning over 23 prefectures in Japan, with the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals now currently ranking it at “least concern”.
Adult serows stand at about 80 cm tall, and weigh about 30-45 kg. There is little difference between the genders as both males and females have horns. Their body size, growth and even feeding habits show little difference and scientists use genitalia and mating behavior to distinguish between the two.
Where Can You Find the Japanese Serow?
As they live in the mountainous forests of Japan, they are generally only spotted by hikers. They show little aggression towards people, and are often very observant as to when they’ll decide to calmly exit the perimeters. Those who are lucky enough to spot one however are keen to keeping a respectable distance as one should do with any wild animal.
If looking to see one on a hike however, the conservation areas where these animals are protected are in the Akita, Aomori, Fukui, Fukushima, Gifu, Gunma, Ishikawa, Iwate, Kyoto, Mie, Miyagi, Nagano, Nara, Niigata, Saitama, Shiga, Shizuoka, Tochigi, Tokyo, Toyama, Wakayama, and Yamagata prefectures. They are however, frequently spotted in the Japanese Alps — especially in the Minami Alps (Southern Alps), and the Kita Alps (Northern Alps). Hiking in Nagano Prefecture’s internationally renowned ski resort town, Hakuba, also has many spotting this animal.
There are also some zoos in Japan that host the Japanese serow. At Nagano’s Chausuyama Zoo, you can see a few enclosures with mountainous slopes and lots of trees which are dedicated to housing a few Japanese serows. A sign board at the zoo also has sightings of animals that peruse the surrounding mountainous forests at night, and in one still shot is the Japanese serow.