The Kansai region of Japan is very popular among foreign tourists with Kyoto and Osaka being the top choices.Kansai is made up of seven prefectures;Nara,Wakayama,Kyoto,Osaka,Hyogo, Shiga, and Mie. Most visit the region for culture, food, and history. But what about for those of use that love animals and nature? That is why I made a list of the must visit animal-related places in each prefecture in Kansai. I have previously wrote entire posts about the majority of the entries on this list, I have put links to them if you would like more detailed information.
Nara Park is one of the most famous animal spots in Japan. Scores of tourists come every year to see the 1,000 of wild sika deer roam around the park which includes the grounds of famous temple,Tōdai-ji, Kōfuku-ji, and Kasuga Shrine. Tōdai-ji has the largest bronze buddha statue so I would highly recommend visiting it along with the other religious sight while taking in the remarkable sight of wild deer in the middle of a city. The deer were considered sacred in Japanese religion and killing one was punishable by death until 1637. The deer are no longer legally sacred but are protected as national treasures. Harming one will result in months of jail time. They roam freely around the park and often can been seen napping in large groups. Though rice crackers are sold to feed them, I wouldn’t recommend feeding them as it can cause aggression and overreliance on humans.
Yamato Koriyama in Nara prefecture is known as the “city of goldfish” for its long history of breeding and selling goldfish. The 1960s was the peak of the goldfish industry in Yamatokoriyama, selling the little fish not only to other parts of Japan but to other countries. But the industry is still alive with 50 goldfish farmers in the city and 60 million fish are sold annually. Goldfish had and continues to have a profound role in the city`s economy.
As soon as you get off at Koriyama station, you will see the goldfish motif all over the city. Look down and you will see goldfish-themed manhole lids and there are many clever goldfish tanks such a microwave fish tank in electronics store , a lantern one on the street, and there is even a phonebooth tank .But the last one is controversial as the artist who made a phonebooth fish tank in Fukushima prefecture sued the group that created the Koriyama one over copyright infringement.
Koriyama Goldfish Museum
If you want to learn more about goldfish and their history in Yamato koriyama visit the Koriyama Goldfish Museum. 40 species are displayed here from common goldish to rare and expensive varieties. For art lovers, there are paintings, woodblock prints, ceramics, and crafts with images of goldfish.
Tama was a stray calico cat who lived near Kishi station and was fed by passengers and the unofficial station master. In 2007, Wakayama Electric railway was having financial problems so it was forced to get rid of all of its staff on the Kishigawa Line which includes Kishi station. Tama was appointed as the station master in hopes of increasing ridership and bringing publicity to the train line. Tama`s job was to greet the passengers and had her own office to do so. Not only need she increase passengers to the line but also significantly contributed to the local economy about 1.1 billion yen as many people would come to the area just to see the station master cat.
Tama passed away in 2015 at the age of 16 but she has not been forgotten. The station has been renovated to resemble a cat and there are three cat-themed trains. There is also a cat-themed cafe named for her and a souvenir shop selling goods with her image. She is so beloved that I live in Okayama which is several prefectures away yet there is a Tama bus that is themed around her. A cartoon version of her is plastered all over the exterior and there are paw print buttons that meow when you press them to get off at the next stop. I am always happy when I can ride this adorable cat bus and despite having done it countless times, It still brings me so much joy to press the little paw print buttons and hear the meow. Her position of station master has been taken over by her apprentice, Nitama(second tama ) who you can see when you visit the station(Ni-tama is off on Wednesdays and Thursdays).
Taiji is a small town in Wakayama that is infamous in the West for its annual dolphin hunts featured in the award winning documentary, the cove. The town has a a long history of whaling and was the leading innovator in the industry. Whaling and hunting for dolphins still brings in substantial income to Taiji residents. A major factor in why Taiji don’t want to give up the controversial dolphin hunt.In rural Wakayama, there are not a lot of other opportunities for work. While, I disagree with the capturing of dolphin for animal shows and with the fishing of any endangered species, I think the town is unique for its long history of whaling. The town has a whale museum about both the animals and about the whaling industry in Taiji.
Fushimi Inari Shrine-Foxes
Fushimi Inari and Inari shrines in general are devoted to deity, Inari. Inari is associated with rice, prosperity, and foxes. Foxes are the messengers of Inari and statues of them are all over Inari Shrines, most commonly in male and female pairs.
Fushimi Inari is ahead of Inari shrines and fittingly is the grandest. During your visit, you will encounter many different images of foxes from the pair statues to a Fox fountain. You will not however see lives foxes but up until the 1920s, some Inari shrines kept live foxes on the premises.
Next up is a shrine for couples, the Okazaki Shrine. The shrine was originally called Higashi-Tenno and was built to protect the emperor and his subjects from any danger or evil originating from the east. In the 1100s, an empress was successfully born which raised the shrine`s standing with the imperial court. The shrine after that point became associated with childbirth. Rabbits being well known for their fertility as they can have up to 168 babies a year were adopted as a symbol for the shrine. The shrine is a popular place for weddings as couples hope for a successful marriage and a healthy family. Rabbits are found on lanterns, charms, fortune slips and there is even a rabbit fountain.
Fujinomori Shrine- Horses
Fujinomori Shrine is an ancient shrine home to the god of horses and is known for its Kakeuma Shinji an event on May 5th, where traditional tricks on horseback are performed. The shrine is the originator of the precursor holiday to Children`s Day in Japan which is celebrated on May 5th. Because of the shrine’s association with horses, those who bet on the ponies often make a stop here in hopes the deity will let their horse win and in the process likely save their legs from loan sharks. Inside the treasure hall, horse figurines and other items related to them can be found, a large portion of them donated from the chief priest`s collection. On the temple grounds, there are statues of horses and horse-themed ema(wooded plaques with wishes written on them). And of course, there are horse charms and fortunes for purchase that could help you win the Kentucky Derby or just be a cool souvenir.
A high ranking offical named Wake no Kiyomaro was attacked and his Achilles Tendons were injured on his way to exile in Kagoshima. 300 wild boars rescued him and took away his pain and acted as his guardians until he made it safely to his designation. He would later finance the construction of the Goou Shrine. This is why Goou shrine is known as the boar shrine and has statues of boars instead of the more typical komainu(lion dogs in English). At the shrine, you can purify your hand in a wild boar fountain and then walk past several statues of boars.
Miyake Hachiman is a refreshing change of pace after you get temple/shrine fatigue from sites that are all not that different from one another. You will notice Miyake Hachiman`s uniqueness as soon as you walk past its pigeon guardians at its Torri gate in place of komainu.Pigeons/doves(the same animal) are the messengers for the shrine`s deity, Hachiman, Ironically the god of war. Not only is the shrine pigeon themed but there are live pigeons on the shrine grounds.
Arashiyama is located on the outskirts of Kyoto and it is known for its bamboo forest, river with scenic views, and for its monkey colony. It is very beautiful but be warned it is usually overwhelmed with tourists like many attractions in Kyoto. Take a 20-minute hike up Iwatayama mountain in Arashiyama and you will come across The Iwatayama Monkey Park. There at the top, you will find dozens of wild Japanese macaques resting, playing, and eating treats. There is a fenced-in enclosure where tourists can give the monkeys fruit. But I don’t think it is a good idea to feed them as it can lead to aggressive and unnatural behavior and foster dependence on humans.
The city of Uji in Kyoto prefecture is situated between the of Japan`s old capitals, Kyoto and Nara. Uji is one of only 13 places in Japan, where cormorant fishing or Ukai is still done. The cormorant is a coastal bird that is trained to catch fish which are then retrieved by the fisherman. You can see Ukai from July 1st to Sept 30th in Uji where Commorants fish for a river fish called sweet fish or Ayu under the light of a fire. The fire is used to attract the fish.
Cafe Neu-Ethical Cat Cafe
Most of us adore cats, I mean what’s not to love about their mischievous and independent personalities. So I was thrilled when I first heard about cat cafes in Japan, being in a room filled with cats, sounds like heaven on earth. But unfortunately, I come to understand the flaw in animal cafes, chiefly the animals being treated as a commodity even under the best conditions. In the worst cases, the animals are sickly or even die from stress or disease due to poor care by the establishment. That is why I like Cafe Neu as a better alternative to a traditionally cat café as their core interest is in the welfare of cats and finding good homes from them. The majority of cats are there are up for adoption which may not be an option for most travelers but you can still help by playing with them to keep them socialized and by paying the admission fee you are helping with upkeep and Cafe Neu`s rescue and adoption efforts. This is a cat cafe that puts the animals first and isn’t just about pure profit. If you wanted to visit a cat cafe but were concerned about the well-being of the animals, Cafe Neu would be a good choice.
Separate from the cat room, you enjoy a nice vegan meal further showcases the cafe`s approach to a cat cafe. There are healthy and vegan friendly desserts, dishes, and drinks . You can get a 500 yen discount if you use the cat room and get a meal. There are English menus available.
Soji-ji temple is in an unassuming and well off the foreign tourist path temple in Ibaraki city, a suburban city of Osaka city. But the temple is worth visiting for its unique association with turtles.So what does this temple have to do with turtles? Well the story goes that a man named Takafusa took pity on a turtle caught by a fisherman and released it back in the river. Later on the Takafusa `s wife throws her step son Yamakage , into the river but he is saved by the rescued turtle. The temple is said to have originted from Yamakage having a sculpture of Kannon, the buddhist goddess of mercy sculpted to show his gratefullness after his father passed. Today, you can see the Kannon staute riding on a turtle. There is a turle pond on the ground with native Japanese turtles are a rare sight due to competition with invasive species like red ear sliders which now outnumber native species.
For more information and pictures, here is a nice post about the turtle temple that I found on Kansai Odyssey.
Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork
Hyogo park of the Oriental White Stork is a conservation institute dedicated to bringing Japan`s population of the aformentioned bird. Oriental White Storks being raised in captivity both as chicks and those, not suitable candidates to be released can be seen here. There is a museum and information center on the grounds to give visitors information on these majestic birds and on the history of conservation efforts to save them. It is a popular place for couples wanting to have children as storks are a symbol of childbirth. For those wanting to see the storks in the wild, you have the chance at the nearby Hachigoro Toshima Wetland where many of the released call home.
Hachigoro Toshima Wetlands
Hachigoro Toshima Wetlands was created from converted rice paddies and is a Ramsar convention area. The artificial wetlands were designed to create habitats for the Storks. The area is unique because locals in the area have been active participants in converting ricefields into wetlands for the storks and the reintroduction project in general. This is a great example of community engagement leading to not just animals and people coexisting but local pride in wildlife that drives conservation efforts. Farmers have altered the flooding and draining of their ricefields for the storks as feeding grounds. The farmers benefit as well as they can sell the rice as premium “stork friendly rice”. The storks also bring in tourists and most importantly the tourist`s money to local businesses. The storks can be viewed in the wetlands in artificial nests tower near the mountains. There is an observation area for viewing the storks and other waterfowl, binoculars are recommended.
The city of Tamba Sasayama is a former castle town in central eastern Hyogo.The plethora of nearby mountains coupled with the isolation of the city make it the perfect breeding ground for boars so it one of the few places in Japan that have developed a culture around eating boar. The most famous boar dish is Botan Nabe, a boar meat hot pot and is the most well-known dishes from Tamba Sasayama.Nabe is the Japanese word for hot pot.Boar meat was called Botan or Peony flowers because consumption of meat was banned in the until the start of the Meji period(1868) and had to eaten and sold in secret. It said in the early 1900s the dish spread from Tamba Sasayama to other parts of Japan by soldiers stationed there who wanted to bring the dish to their hometowns. Botan Nabe is a popular winter dish that is sold at many restaurants in Tamaba Sasayama.
Lake Biwa-Endemic fish and Water Birds
Lake Biwa is located entirely in the Japanese prefecture of Shiga. Shiga borders Kyoto the previous capital of Japan from 794 until 1868. As a result, the lake often appears in literature, poetry, and historical moments. Today, it is a drinking water source for 15 million people in the Kansai region and a popular tourist designation as it makes a stunning background for many attractions that are near the lake.Lake Biwa is the largest and oldest lake in Japan. It is an ancient lake as it is 4 million years old, the 13th oldest in the world. Its size of 670.4 km(258.69 sq mi) and age has resulted in an incredibly diverse ecosystem.
Wildlife of Lake Biwa
The lake is designated UNESCO Ramsar Wetland to recognize and protect its unique flora and fauna. The reeds around the lake have given it a unique appearance and have a vital role in filtering water for fish and birds.1000 species/subspecies of animals live in the Lake Biwa ecosystem. The majority of them are as you would expect are aquatic. Because of the lake’s ancient age, it has 60 endemic species. One notable example is the Giant Lake Biwa Catfish, the top predator and largest fish in the lake. It is capable of growing over 1 meter ( 3 feet) and 30 kilograms(66 pounds). It`s the largest species of catfish in Japan.
The other star is the Biwa Trout which despite the name is a subspecies of the Masu Salmon. They are a delicious Shiga delicacy that only lives in Lake Biwa.
*Here is an excellent post about Biwa Trout and other delicacies in Shiga.
The lake is also an important area for waterbirds with 5000 different kinds visiting annually. The little Grebe like its name suggests is a small waterbird and can be frequently spotted hunting for small fish in Lake Biwa. It is Shiga`s official prefectural bird.
Lake Biwa Museum
Besides bird watching and fishing, there is another way to see the habitats of Lake Biwa. You can visit the Lake Biwa Museum, a large museum/aquarium with endemic species of Lake Biwa, and as exhibits on the ecosystem as well as on human`s use of the lake. As Lake Biwa is one of the world’s few ancient lakes, the museum also has exhibits on the biodiversity of other ancient lakes. It also is a conservation center that breeds endangered fish from all over Japan.
Ise-Shima National Park-Ise Ebi
The enchanting coast, bays, and islands of Ise-Shima National Park in Mie, Japan draws in millions of visitors each year. Pearl cultivation done by female free divers was once a major industry here and it still brings in tourists. The coastal environment has made Mie well known for its seafood, especially Ise Ebi(Japanese spiny lobster). The region was called Miketsu Kuni meaning the breadbasket of the Imperial court(paraphrasing) for the bountiful amount of food cultivated and harvested for the imperial court.
Go to Toba and Ago bays and you will encounter a flock of seagulls, for these seagulls no need to run so far away, instead observe black-tailed and herring gulls in their natural habitat. In the summertime, Loggerhead turtles come to the beaches to lay their eggs. The most unique animal to Ise is the Japanese Spiny Lobster. But the English name obscures the connection between this crustacean and the Ise area in Mie. In Japanese, it is named after the Ise, it is called Ise Ebi which means Ise Lobster. They can grow up to one foot in length. Like Maine lobsters in the US, Ise Ebi is also expensive and synonymous with high dining.