Wild Vacations in Japan

Go Wild in Japan

Daniel Allen

Famous for its crowded, bustling cities, Japan is actually a wildlife paradise. From the icy north to the tropical south, the country boasts a captivating range of landscapes and fauna.

Sea turtle.
Sea turtle

Towering skyscrapers and crowded subways are some of the first things that come to mind when you think of Japan. Yet in reality the country is home to an incredibly diverse range of birds and animals.

From north to south, the Japanese archipelago boasts a wide range of climates, from the frozen extremes of Hokkaido to the coral reefs and steamy jungles of Okinawa.

With much of Japan mountainous, forested and uninhabited, there's plenty of space for wildlife. Iconic species include the Japanese macaque, leopard cat, red-crowned crane, Steller's sea eagle and Ussuri brown bear.

World class national parks dot the archipelago, such as Honshu's Joshinetsu Kogen and Hokkaido's stunningly beautiful Daisetsuzan. Lovers of marine life should head to Okinawa's Kerama - with its pristine coral reefs, it's a paradise for divers and snorkellers.

Wild Animals in Japan

Brown bear
Unlike the black bears in the rest of Japan, the bears in Daisetsuzan are Ussuri brown bears. Thought to be the ancestor of the North American grizzly, they're much bigger and more aggressive.

Steller's sea eagle
One of the largest birds in the world with a wing-span of up to 8 feet. In winter the eagles hunt for abundant Pacific cod amid the pack ice - the best time to see them is early February.

Japanese macaque
Also known as the snow monkey, the Japanese macaque is the most northern-living, non-human primate. With grey-brown fur and a scarlet face, they often take refuge from winter temperatures in hot springs.

Red-crowned crane
The red-crowned crane is a symbol of Japan and a conservation success story (having recovered from near extinction). With its own feeding station, Akan is one of the best places to see cranes in winter.

Sea turtles
There are seven species of sea turtles in the world - of these, three nest in Okinawa and two more pass through Okinawan waters during their migration. Kerama is a fantastic place to dive with green and hawksbill sea turtles.

Iriomote leopard cat
With less than 100 animals alive in the wild, the critically endangered and largely nocturnal Iriomote leopard cat is only found on Iriomotejima Island. The size of a domestic cat, its diet includes fruit bats, birds and insects.

Get close (enough) to a grizzly

No Japanese animal gets the heart racing like the Ussuri brown bear. Also known as the black grizzly, it is one of the largest brown bears in the world - up to 2 metres high and tipping the scales at more than 300 kg. It is very similar in appearance to the Kamchatka brown bear, though it has a more elongated skull and less elevated forehead. An omnivorous animal, its diet includes mammals, fish, birds and insects. Brown bears typically inhabit remote areas, and generally prefer to avoid human contact. A typical day's activity, outside of winter hibernation and the mating season, is to hunt, move around and rest. 

There are an estimated 2,300 brown bears in Hokkaido, with many of them living in Daisetsuzan National Park, which covers an area of over 840 square miles and includes 16 peaks over 2,000 metres in height - many of them active volcanoes. One of the places where hikers are most likely to see bears is the eastern base of the Takanegahara Plateau. All visitors to Daisetsuzan must take a training course at the park's Brown Bear Information Centre so they know the correct way to behave if they encounter a bear.

Steller's sea eagle.
Steller's sea eagle

Photograph an eagle in flight

With its dark brown and white plumage, white, wedge-shaped tail and heavy yellow bill, the Steller's sea eagle is one of Japan's most impressive and photogenic birds. Found in coastal northeastern Asia, they mainly prey on fish and water birds. It is one of the heaviest eagles in the world - large adults may have a wingspan of 8 feet and approach 10 kg in weight.

Breeding along the Okhotsk Sea coastal region in the Russian Far East, about 2,000 eagles overwinter in Hokkaido every year. The majority leave again in February, although some juvenile birds may remain in Hokkaido right through until May.

In the past, when the local cod fishing industry was prospering, there used to be a tremendous concentration of sea eagles around the town of Rausu in Shiretoko. Today the town's residents throw scraps of fish onto the ice to attract eagles, in order to keep the concentration of birds high for tourists. The birds that gather here are still a magnificent sight, especially when the sea is covered with ice floes. A number of Rausu sightseeing companies offer eagle cruises, affording photographers and wildlife enthusiasts great close-up views of eagles against a backdrop of ice and mountain.

More than wildlife - Bathe naked

There is something very Japanese about stripping naked for a soak with strangers. In fact, the Japanese have been using communal onsen, or natural hot spring waters, to clean, relax and heal for centuries. There are thousands of onsen dotted across the country.

Check out a temple

Temples are the places of worship in Japanese Buddhism, storing and displaying sacred Buddhist objects. Virtually every Japanese municipality has at least one temple, while large cultural centres such as Kyoto and Nara are home to several hundred.

Sample shinrin-yoku

Shinrin-yoku, or the "medicine of being in the forest", is incredibly popular in Japan. There are now over 60 official shinrin-yoku accredited forests in Japan, where people can escape civilization and engage in mindful forest relaxation.

Take a hike

Japan is one of the world's best hiking destinations. You can go hut-to-hut in the Japan Alps, traverse the 'Big Snow Mountain' of Hokkaido, climb volcanoes in Kyushu, or saunter the hills around Kyoto.

Go skiing

With its mountainous terrain and reliable, heavy snowfall, Japan offers some of the best powder skiing in the world. There are more than 600 ski resorts, with top sites, such as Hokkaido's Niseko, well known to the international ski set.

Japanese macaques, or snow monkeys.
Japanese macaques, (snow monkeys) enjoy a hot spring bath

Monkey around with macaques

Is there are more iconic Japanese wildlife shot than a troop of Japanese macaques, or snow monkeys, escaping the winter cold in the steaming waters of a natural hot spring pool? Native to northern Japan, this monkey species is the most northern-living non-human primate, surviving winter temperatures that can plummet to below -15°C. With grey-brown fur, a red face, hands and bottom, and short tail, they spend most of their time in forests feeding on seeds, buds, fruit, invertebrates, berries, leaves and bark.

One of the best places to see Japanese macaques is the Jigokudani Monkey Park in Joshinetsu Kogen National Park. Located in the Yokoyu River valley at an elevation of 850 metres, the area is called Jigokudani ("Hell's Valley") because of the steep cliffs and steaming water that emanates naturally from the ground. It may seem like a harsh environment, but is actually paradise for the couple of hundred monkeys who live here.

Red-crowned cranes.
Red-crowned Cranes in Hokkaido

Revel in the majesty of red-crowned cranes

Is there anything more magical than a pair of graceful red-crowned cranes in full display, their black wings and red crowns contrasting sharply against a white wintry backdrop? Also known as the Japanese or Manchurian crane, these large, elegant birds were almost hunted to extinction for their stunning plumage. Today they remain one of the the rarest cranes in the world.

The Akan International Crane Centre on Hokkaido is the only research facility in Japan dedicated to the red-crowned crane. A feeding site known as the Akan Crane Observation Centre is located next to this facility. During the winter months feeding time is scheduled for 2 pm every day, during which time around 300 red-crowned cranes descend on the site. In addition to the cranes, visitors also have a chance to see white-tailed eagles and Steller's sea eagles that sometimes drop by in search of an easy meal.

Hokkaido's "furry" five

Ezo Momonga

The ezo momonga is a type of flying squirrel unique to Hokkaido. With its huge eyes and little paws it has become a local mascot, appearing on the regional railway's rechargeable pass cards.

Shima Enaga

The Shima-Enaga is a type of long-tailed tit that lives only in Hokkaido. Unlike the Northern long-tailed tits in the rest of Japan, its face is completely white (although not quite furry).

Hokkaido red fox

On Honshu, red foxes tend to be completely nocturnal and shy, but the Hokkaido red fox (a sub-species) is diurnal (even in winter) and not particularly shy.

Hokkaido red squirrel

The Eurasian red squirrel has spread far and wide throughout Asia and Europe, but Hokkaido has its own sub-species. Search for them in Nopporo Forest Park.


The lizuna, or least weasel, belongs to a sub-species that prefers the northern climates of Hokkaido, Siberia and northern Scandinavia. The animal's coat turns white to camouflage it in winter.

Japanese giant salamander.
Japanese giant salamander

Sidle up to a giant salamander

The incredible-looking Japanese giant salamander is endemic to Japan. With a length of up to almost 1.5 metres, it is the second-largest salamander in the world. Widespread across rivers in southwestern Japan, they may live for up to 80 years. While usually active at night, a lucky few may spot one during the day.

Track down a leopard cat

Japan is home to two critically endangered subspecies of leopard cat - a kind of wild cat roughly the size of a domestic cat, distinguishable by its leopard-like spots and distinctive facial markings. The Iriomote cat is found exclusively on Iriomote Island in Okinawa, where there may be fewer than 100 of these beautiful felines left in the wild.

Swim with sea turtles

Encountering a sea turtle while diving or snorkelling is a truly special experience. Home to three nesting species - the green, loggerhead, and hawksbill sea turtles - Okinawa is the best place in Japan to get up close to these gentle giants of the ocean. Olive ridley and leatherback turtles have also been sighted in Okinawa waters.

The majority of a sea turtle's body is protected by its shell, which is divided into two sections. Sea turtles have a more streamlined body than their terrestrial or freshwater counterparts - this reduces drag in the water, but means they are unable to retract their head or flippers. The Kerama Islands of Okinawa, which were made a national park in 2014, are a favourite haunt of turtle enthusiasts. Part of the Kerama group, Zamami Island is a major turtle spawning ground, with all three nesting species coming ashore to lay eggs here from April to September.

Take a peek at a pika

The northern pika, also known as the Japanese guinea pig, is a species of pika found across mountainous regions of northern Asia, from the Urals to northern Japan. It resembles a small rabbit with shorter ears and less prominent hind limbs. On Hokkaido it inhabits rocky areas, particularly exposed and stable boulder scree slopes, where it occupies cavities between the rocks. It feeds on the leaves and stems of a wide range of plant species, and has a distinctive high-pitched call.

Wonder at wild horses

Who would have thought that you could see wild horses running free across Japan? If you're up for an adventure in Aomori, a prefecture in northern Honshu, Cape Shiriya might fit the bill. The horses here are known as kandachime, meaning "horses that stand in the cold". They can often be seen grazing around the historic lighthouse at Cape Shiriya, with an equine herd making a very scenic picture. Although these horses are wild, they will frequently let humans approach to within a few feet. 

What you need to know

When to go

With its huge variation in climate, Japan is an all-year-round destination. Try to avoid travel during Japanese national holidays (April, mid-summer and at New Year) or book well ahead.

How to get there

Japan has many international airports, as well as one of the world's finest train networks. Fly direct to Tokyo from the UK, or indirect to cities such as Osaka, Fukuoka and Nagoya

What to take

Check the terrain and climate of your destination and work backwards. Those exploring national parks will almost always require proper hiking gear.

What the weather will do

Winters in southern Kyushu and Okinawa are mild, while summers in northern Hokkaido are cool (winters are both harsh and incredibly spectacular). A rainy season during June typically ushers in the heat of summer.

What you'll see

Japan boasts an eclectic range of wildlife. Those prepared to travel can experience everything from from bird watching in Hokkaido to coral reef diving in Okinawa.

Enrich your experience

Book a rail pass

If you're going to be travelling a lot by train, save money by booking the foreigner-only Japan Rail Pass. This must be booked outside of Japan before your trip.

Observe local etiquette

Japan is a welcoming country, but it's worth learning a few dos and don'ts. Bow politely when you meet someone, remove footwear where necessary, and don't leave chopsticks standing upright in your rice.

Forward your luggage

Eliminate the hassle of heavy bags by using Japan's excellent luggage forwarding services (takuhaibin in Japanese). You can send your bags onwards to a hotel or any major airport.

Who to travel with


Walk Japan

Hokkaido Hike
A fully guided 10-day tour from £3380 per person, excluding flights. Includes a number of days in Daisetsuzan National Park.



Snow Monkey Tour
A fully guided one-day tour, departing from and returning to Tokyo, from £220 per person (adult price). Includes shinkansen travel, lunch and guaranteed Japanese macaques.


Royle Safaris

Japan Endemic Wildlife Tour
A fully guided, 17-day tour showcasing some of Japan's most iconic and unusual species. From £6995 per person, excluding flights.

Map Key
1 Daisetsuzan National Park
2 Shiretoko National Park
3 Joshinetsu Kogen National Park
4 Akan National Park
5 Kerama Shoto National Park
6 Iriomote National Park

Wild Japan map.
Wild Japan map
Wild Japan map.
Wild Japan map

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