When one thinks of animals in Japan, the deer in Hiroshima and Nara or the tanuki or wild monkeys might come to mind. However, there is another less famous wild animal that may surprise even Japanese people: horses. Japan is actually home to 8 purebred Japanese horses as well as other breeds that have been crossbred with Western horses. While these animals are rare, there are places where you can see the horses roaming freely; in Miyazaki and Aomori, the horses are essentially wild though they are looked after. If you want to see horses in a more central location, Nagano also offers a chance to see and ride domesticated Japanese horses.
While not an animal typically associated with Japan, horses have a long history here. They arrived from Mongolia in the Kofun era (250-538). Horses were especially revered in the Ryukyu Kingdom (modern day Okinawa), where they were seen as a national specialty, as well with the Ainu people in Hokkaido. During the Meiji period, the relatively small Japanese horses were bred with western horses to create a bigger breed to work as draft horses. Pure Japanese stallions were ordered to be gelded while the mares were bred with foreign breeds. Due to this, many Japanese breeds died out. However, the breeds in northern and southern capes and islands escaped, leaving us with the 8 remaining pure breeds. Additionally, there are other crossbred breeds found only in Japan.
The eight pure Japanese breeds are Kiso uma (Nagano), Misaki uma (Miyazaki), Taishu uma (Nagasaki), Noma uma (Ehime), Tokura uma (Kagoshima), Miyako uma (Okinawa), Yonaguni uma (Okinawa), and Dosanko (Hokkaido). These horses all share some characteristics; Japanese horse breeds are smaller than western breeds and some are actually classified as ponies. They are relatively short and stout. Due to their hard hooves, Japanese horses are rarely shod though sometimes they are given straw boots to protect them in colder areas. Despite their designated status, horses are rare and the Hokkaido horse is the only one not endangered. In 2002, there were only 2400 pure Japanese horses left, over half of which were Hokkaido horses. In response, many have also been designated prefectural treasures in efforts to save these breeds from extinction.
While some of these horses have been domesticated, others are considered wild. There are a few places in Japan where you can see these horses roam freely. The most famous spot to see wild pure Japanese horses is in Miyazaki. The Misaki uma can be found in the south part of the prefecture in Cape Toi, the tip of the Nichinan Kaidan. The Misaki uma have been in the area for 300 years, and they have been allowed to breed and graze naturally. The park they call home is also a national park, and the area itself is beautiful with lovely views of the sea and many walking paths. While the horses are used to humans, they are wild animals. Due to this, one should use caution around them; you are not allowed to touch the horses, and you should never approach a horse from behind or surprise them. There is a visitor’s center where, for a small fee of ¥310, you can get a tour and an explanation for the horses behavior and lifestyle. As someone who was really only familiar with domesticated horses and even then only marginally, it was interesting to learn about wild horses. For example horses, much like lions, live in herds with usually only one adult stallion to multiple mares. Stallions also fight each other for dominance. I was surprised to learn that these horses really are wild and follow different sets of behaviors than domesticated horses. Unfortunately, the information is only given in Japanese, but if you can understand Japanese, the stop is worth it. Nearby you can also find the Cape Toi lighthouse, the only public lighthouse in Kyushu. Additionally, if horses aren’t enough for you, it is 30 minutes by car to Koujima, which is also home to countless wild monkeys.
Cape Toi is rather remote. You can take a train to Kushima station, which will take at least two hours from Miyazaki, but then it is a 40 minute drive. The easiest way is by car. It’s about a two hour drive without tolls from Miyazaki (and only a few minutes faster with tolls) and 2 hours and 40 minutes from Kagoshima.
If you are on the opposite part of the country but still want to see wild horses, Cape Shiriya is a great option. It is located on the northeastern tip of Honshu near the town of Mutsu in Aomori. While Shiriyazaki is the most famous spot for wild horses in Japan, these horses are not pure Japanese breeds as they have been crossbred with Western horses. That said, the Kandachime, named for their ability to withstand the cold, are also designated national treasures, and they share the short, stout build of pure Japanese horses. These horses were extremely endangered, and the population dropped down to only 7 horses in 2009. Fortunately, due to increased protection, there are currently around 40 horses. Similarly to the horses in Cape Toi, they are used to people and are given the freedom to roam. They also do not seem to mind contact, and I had a curious foal approach and nudge me. Shiriyazaki is also home to a picturesque lighthouse that is over 100 years old.
These horses are slightly easier to access and there is a bus stop (Shiriyazakiguchi) that lets you get off at the gate. It takes about an hour from Mutsu. However, it is still far easier with a car. It’s a 2 and a half hour drive from Aomori, and since it’s only 50 minutes from Osorezan, it is quite easy to combine the two if you have a car. Keep in mind that Aomori gets a large amount of snow. Due to this, the area is closed from January to March and the horses are moved to the nearby Ataka area in December.
If you can’t make it to either Miyazaki or Aomori, Nagano is home to the only pure Japanese horse that is native to Honshu. Much like other breeds, the Kiso horse was severely affected by the Edo mandate to geld stallions. However, one stallion who belonged to a shrine escaped gelding, thereby preserving the breed. Kiso Uma no Sato is a center dedicated to the breed and while the horses are not wild, you can still see and even ride them. The 30 horses can be seen grazing, weather permitting, from 8 until 4:30. Riding is a bit expensive with a 2 minute ride costing 500 yen and a 5 minute ride is 1000. For these courses, the horses are guided by a lead, making it something kids will surely enjoy. For 2000 though you can also ride by yourself for 15 minutes. They also offer 15 minute horse drawn cart rides for 1000 yen as well as sleigh rides in the winter. While this is not the same as seeing wild horses, it offers a rare chance to interact with the horses.
While both Miyazaki and Aomori are rather remote, it is well worth a stop to either to see these beautiful creatures, and increased tourism can help these endangered breeds. It is especially worthwhile in the spring or summer where you can meet the adorable foals! The thick winter coats are also interesting to see so the horses are worth a visit no matter the season. Horses are a little known designated treasure so you will surely be able to avoid crowds too; I only encountered a handful of people. If you are an animal or nature lover, you will not be disappointed by any of these destinations.