While if you`re living in one of the big cities in Japan the urban landscape can seem to stretch on forever, there are large parts of Japan which are covered with forest and are the perfect habitat for some interesting wild animals…
Photo : popopopo kokoko on FlickrWhen you think of wild animals in Japan, Hokkaido is the first place that comes to mind. This is because, particularly in areas like the Shiretoko peninsula and up north, wild brown bears are often seen at night coming down from the hills to pick through rubbish bags for food. The very mascot of Hokkaido is a roaring bear, and you can see its face on basically any souvenir for sale in Sapporo (there are also some stranger souvenirs which mix the face of the bear with a fruit or veg Hokkaido is famous for – corn and melon are particularly popular).
Photo : Hajime NAKANO on FlickrIf you are planning a hike/cycling or camping trip in Hokkaido it is important to know about the bears which live in Hokkaido (called `Higuma` and `Ussuri`) and to know how to prevent an encounter. One of the main preventative measures you can use is to wear a `bear bell` on your rucksack if you are a hiker (or even, if you`re really, really worried, on your bike if you`re a cyclist) – this noise will tell a bear that something is near, and, despite misleading news reports, bears do not want to encounter humans. You can buy bear bells in most mountain/sports shops in Hokkaido (i.e. Mont-Bell).
Other preventative measures you can take include using `bear canisters` - basically large containers with screw-on lids – to put your food in at night. This way the bear will not be able to smell the food and make a surprise visit to your camp. Some experts recommend not only just using a bear canister, but stringing it up in a tree so the bears can`t get at it if they do happen to find it. Here`s a last tip – if you`re really scared about meeting a bear, Mont-Bell and a few other mountain/sports in Sapporo sell `bear spray` - a repellent spray a bit like pepper spray that you can use in the case of a bear attack. You can only use the spray if the bear is a few meters in front of you, so do not use this spray as a preventative measure (i.e. don`t go using the spray on your tent as chances are all that will happen is that it will get in your eyes).
Chance is, you`ll not meet a bear in Hokkaido, so don`t freak out over this article – it`s just always better to be prepared. A different species of bear, the Black Bear, can also be found in Tohoku, so carry out necessary precautions if you are hiking/camping in this area as well.
Photo : jasohill on FlickrSome other wild animals in Japans which are less dangerous but more meddlesome and numerous include the tanuki (raccoon dog), kitsune (fox), and nora-neko (stray cat). While these animals will not attack you, they will absolutely rummage through your rubbish bags if you leave them outside your tent at night. While this is not the case with kitsune and nora-neko, tanuki are known for stealing things other than food (i.e. shoes), so make sure to keep all of your important things inside your tent at night. Kitsune and nora-neko are easily scared, and so will probably run as soon as you open your tent, whereas the tanuki are a little bolder.
As you move further south in Japan, deer (`shika`) can also often be seen in the wild. Nara is known for its large numbers of deer – however, as these deer are fed by tourists every day, they are not as wild as you might think. Hokkaido is also known for its wild deer which can be seen in the deep countryside, as well as well as for its (rarer) reindeer. There is even a reindeer farm in a town called Horonobe way up north which you can explore if you’re ever in the deep countryside looking for something random to do!
Inoshishi (wild boar) are usually seen in south Honshu and Kyushu. Occasionally they have been seen even as far up Honshu as Hakone. These are very large, very fast, very smelly beasts who are not, unlike kitsune, nora-neko and tanuki, afraid to attack. These meddlesome creatures are well known in Japan for ruining crops, using their oversized snouts to dig up root vegetables and bulbs to eat. In fact, this was the cause of a famine in Japan in 1749! Watch out for these guys as they are dangerous and will attack if you get too close.
Photo : kimubert on FlickrLastly, Japan is also known for its monkeys, particularly those which inhabit the area around Nagano and use the hot springs as their own personal baths. From about Nagano downwards, monkeys can be occasionally seen in the countryside. The most southern tip of Kyushu (Cape Sata) is another place where you can easily see wild monkeys.
Next time you`re camping in Japan, make sure to take precautions to avoid the more meddlesome and dangerous of these animals for your own safety. However, most animals you`ll see will be harmless, so enjoy your awesome camping trip in Japan and don`t stress too much!