Wild Japan II
On the Fringe of Civilization: Honshu & Kyushu
The Japanese Archipelago has been settled for many millennia. Mythology tells us that the origins of the world were in Japan and the origins of Japan were in Kyushu, at Kirishima, where the descendents of the sun goddess Amaterasu came to the newly formed Earth and ultimately founded the Japanese imperial dynasty that continues until this day.
History tells us that settlement proceeded by means of waves of ancient settlers arriving via the Korean peninsula into Kyushu and then in to Honshu. Hokkaido, that wild frontier land at the northern end of Japan, was different and most likely settled from the north.
Millennia of agriculture of cultivation, of regional warfare and refined civilization, have all left extensive marks across Kyushu and most particularly Honshu, the island that supports the bulk of Japan's current population. Despite that long settlement and enormous human impact there remains a wildness to Japan that is there for the adventurous to explore.
With the greatest altitude range of any of Japan's islands, Honshu supports the greatest range of environments. At its northernmost extent its mixed forests of deciduous trees and conifers resemble those further north in Hokkaido, while in the far south the evergreen laurel forests are similar to those in the sub-tropics.
Winter snows are heavy and deep along Honshu's spine of Alpine mountains, while a dry Pacific climate dominates much of the rest of the island during winter. In the south and west of Honshu in particular, long hot, humid summers are preceded by the heavy rains of the rainy season and followed by the powerful typhoon season.
The combination of Japan's seasonal and regional climatic patterns dictates the distributions of plants and animals, making travelling around the island off the beaten track interesting at any time of year.
Amidst the many thousands of kilo metres of urban and ribbon development, only the hardiest and most flexible species survive in a landscape almost completely dominated by man.
Brown-eared Bulbuls, Feral Pigeons and Large-billed Crows seem ever-present even in the heart of the largest of Japan's cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, but leave those cities behind and escape into the countryside, and especially the mountains, and you will find a fascinating diversity of natural wildlife.
Honshu shares links to the south with Kyushu and Shikoku, but endemic species have evolved here too. Honshu makes up the main part of the range of the endemic Japanese Macaque and a winter visit to the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, in particular to Hell Valley (Jigokudani) above Kambayashi Onsen, provides a unique opportunity to watch them bathing in hot-spring waters.
The goat/antelope-like Japanese Serow is an animal of forests where snows are deep in winter, and in the same region, in fast-flowing, cold rivers there lives one of Japan's most extraordinary creatures - the Japanese Giant Salamander. This, the largest of the world's amphibians, is a lie and wait predator in a habitat that would be occupied by otters elsewhere.
High in the Japan Alps around Kamikochi one finds not only spectacular views, but also a wonderful array of alpine flowers and alpine butterflies, and an unexpected relict from the last ice age - a small population of Rock Ptarmigan, a grouse-like species known locally as the Thunder Bird, living above the tree line.
It was thanks to the pioneering antics of the Reverend Walter Weston (1860-1940), that word of the splendor of Japan's mountains was released to the world in the late 19th century, through his book Mountaineering and Exploring in the Japanese Alps (1896). Though Weston did not coin the name 'the Japanese Alps,' it was he who made the pioneering expedition-style hikes amongst those mountains that helped make them so famous and now a Mecca for mountain hiking aficionados.
Japan's southern main island of Kyushu has a pleasant temperate climate for much of the year, only in the high mountains is snow frequent, and in summer the island is almost sub-tropical. To the northwest lies the Korean Peninsula, to the east Shikoku, and to the northeast Honshu and the remainder of Japan. Kyushu's natural history shares links and similarities with both those areas to the northeast, and with the islands of the Nansei Shoto to the southwest.
Its early settlement and its fertile volcanic soils have turned this, the southernmost of the four main islands, in to Japan's "market garden" region, but nevertheless nature survives here in the forested mountains, in the coastal wetlands and on the offshore islands. Intensely volcanic, Kyushu has distinct highlands and there one can find unique species of azalea and apple and other shrubs and flowers known from nowhere else in the world.
Along fast-flowing mountain streams the enormous Crested Kingfisher can be found, while during summer in the humid mountain forests of the south one can still find Japan's most colourful bird, the Fairy Pitta or Yairocho (literally eight coloured bird). On migration, the wetlands of Kyushu are crucial resting and foraging sites for large numbers of shorebirds travelling between Siberia and southeast Asia.
Each winter one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in Asia occurs here in Kyushu. More than 10,000 cranes gather from their breeding grounds in northeast China and Russia to spend the winter, feeding in safety in the low-lying fields of Arasaki, near the city of Izumi in Kagoshima prefecture.
It is the diminutive, sooty grey and white Hooded Cranes that form the bulk of the flock, but inter-mingled amongst them are good numbers of the taller, more elegant White-naped Cranes.
A handful of Sandhill and Common cranes usually join them and occasionally individuals of rarer species, such as Demoiselle and Siberian cranes, appear from further west. The stirring sight and sound of this enormous flock of birds as it gathers at dawn and dusk at the feeding and roosting grounds is a never-to-be-forgotten experience, and draws Japanese and other Asian visitors by the coach load as they pass through the prefecture.