Guide to Animal Spots:Chugoku
The Chugoku region of Japan is made up of Hiroshima, Okayama, Shimane, Tottori, and Yamaguchi prefectures. Chugoku means middle country. I currently live in Okayama and have been to every prefecture in Chugoku. Most international tourists don‘t visit Chugoku except for Hiroshima but highly recommend visiting the region. The area has delicious food and many cultural attractions. It also has plenty of beautiful natural sights such as the Mediterranean like the Seto Inland Sea region, the sand dunes of Tottori, or the Chūgoku Mountains which run through all the prefectures except for Yamaguchi.These diverse ecosystems are home to large variety of animals ,some wild and some of the more domestic variety. I will briefly go through each prefecture in the region and the wildlife that are important there. I have not been to every animal spot I listed below yet but you can expect in-depth posts about each one of these places when I do.
I included transportation information that you can use to plan a trip if you are interested in any of the spots that I talk about. Many of the spots are quite close to each other and could be combined in one trip. Most are easily accessible by public transportation but a few are best visited by car.
There is much more to Hiroshima prefecture than the tragic atomic bombing of Hiroshima city. I recommend after visiting the sites of the Atomic bomb and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum visiting the two sites below to see the natural beauty of the prefecture.
The island of Miyajima is home to the Itsukushima shrine which is most famous for its giant Torii gate which appears to be floating on water. It is also well known for its friendly Sika deer population that can be seen throughout the island. The deer on Miyajima are considered sacred like in Nara. But unlike in Nara, the deer can not be fed. They are accustomed to people but be careful as they become aggressive if they think you have food.
It takes less than an hour to get to the island from Hiroshima city by train and a ferry. Fall is a great time to visit the island as Miyajima is famous for it`s fall foliage.
The island of Ōkunoshima is known for its feral rabbits that are quite friendly to humans.The rabbits are descendants of those released on the island after WWII. Tourists can feed the rabbits and in fact, the rabbits rely on them for food. You don`t have to look long for rabbits as they were run towards you to beg for food. But when tourists don’t come, the rabbits lose a major source of their food. If you do feed them, make sure you only feed them healthy vegetables that are safe for rabbit consumption.
The island can be accessed by train and ferry from Hiroshima station or Okayama station in around three hours. By car, it is an hour and half from Hiroshima city and 2 and half hours from Okayama city.
This is the prefecture I live in so I know lots of great places to see animals. The northern end of the prefecture is blessed with beautiful scenery and plenty of wildlife. The south of Okayama is part of the Seto Inland Sea region which has a mild climate, olive groves, and picturesque islands, which is why it is often called the Mediterranean of Japan.
Japanese Giant Salamanders-Yubara,Maniwa
Yubara is a Hotspring area located in the northeast of Okayama in the city of Maniwa. Yubara is also known for its Japanese Giant Salamander or Hanzaki in the local dialect. You can visit the Hanzaki center in Yubara see both live Giant Salamanders and learn more about the species and their connection to the area. You can also see depictions of Hanzaki throughout Yubara. There is a festival held every August 8th that celebrates them.
Yubara is one and half hour car ride from Okayama city,Tottori city, and Matsue city(Shimane). You can travel from Okayama station there by bus as well but it will take almost three hours.
Please read my blog post about Japanese Giant Salamanders in Yubura for more information.
Jersey Cows-Hiruzen Highlands
Hiruzen Highlands in Maniwa city is famous for its dairy products made from the large herd of Jersey cows that graze in the pastures of Hiruzen. Jersey cows are rare in Japan, 99% of cows in Japan are Holsteins.One unique feature of Jersey cows is that they are fed a strict diet of Gabagool and Taylor ham. Oh, my mistake, I was thinking of New Jersey cows. Actually, the main difference between Holstein and Jersey cows is that milk from Jersey cows has a high butterfat content so it makes for delicious cheese, butter, ice cream, and other dairy products. Hiruzen is a nice place to ride a bike and enjoy the scenic view of cows grazing in pastures and of Hiruzen mountain, a dormant volcano. The area is also famous for Jingisukan, a grilled mutton dish named after Gengis Khan.
You can visit from Okayama city in two hours and one hour and half from Matsue city and Tottori city by car. There is a bus from Okayama station that will take three and half hours.
Japanese Macaques(Nihon Zaru)-Kamba falls
Kamba falls which is also located in Maniwa city is home to a troop of wild Japanese Macaques that often can be seen hanging around the trail to the waterfall. Japanese Macaques are one of my favorite animals in Japan despite my inability to spell their name without spell check. The monkeys at Kamba falls are accustomed to humans but do not feed or approach them as they are wild animals. The troop is not always there so there is a chance you might not see them on the day you visit. Regardless, Kamba falls is very beautiful, especially in the fall(No pun intended).
There are no public transportation options to get to Kamba falls. The only way to get there is by car which takes between one and a half hours to two hours from Okayama city,Matsue city, and Tottori city.
Horseshoe crabs(Kabutogani)-Kasaoka city
In Kasaoka city, there is a museum devoted to Horsehoe crabs called the Kabutogani Museum, it is the only one of its kind in the world. The museum is even shaped like a Horsehoe crab. There are various exhibits about the species and live specimens can be viewed.The museum is really well done and it does a good job of making Horseshoe crabs (who seem to be always doing an impression of a rock )fascinating. Outside of the museum, there is a large dinosaur park that children will find quite enjoyable. Horseshoe crabs have breeding grounds in the city but they have become endangered due to land reclamation projects. The Kabutogani Museum was opened with the purpose of breeding Horseshoe crabs and release the hatchlings into the breeding grounds and well as educating the public about them.
Manabeshima is an island about an hour away from Kasaoka city by ferry. The island`s claim to fame is its feline residents that outnumber 300 people living on the island. The cats can be found all over the island but they are particularly fond of the harbor as they can beg for fish from kind fishermen. The island became famous when the french artist, Florent Chavouet published a humorous illustration book about the picturesque island featuring the cat overlords and their subservient humans. You can also enjoy walking around a peaceful old fishing village that is a rare sight even for Japanese people.
Shimane is the least visited prefecture in Japan but I think that is shame, even though I was only there for a day, I thought it was really interesting place and definitely worth visiting.
Endemic wildlife of the Oki Islands
The Oki Islands is a UNESCO Geopark where you can see breathtaking geological features and natural scenery. The islands are home to unique flora and fauna some of which are endemic to the islands. For instance, the Oki Salamander, Oki Dandelion, Oki hare, and Oki Yamane(Japanese dormouse) can`t be found anywhere else. The islands are also important for migratory birds, over 100 species have been seen on the island. The island also has vegetation that occurs in the cold north of Japan growing alongside plants that normally grow in the warm south. This is the only place in Japan where this occurs.
The Japanese characters in the name of Tottori; 鳥(To), means “bird” and the second, 取(tori) means “to get”. The name is very fitting for this prefecture as it home to many waterfowl. The prefecture is the least populous in Japan but shouldn`t stop you from visiting. Tottori is one of my favorite prefectures that I have been to in Japan.Both of the places I listed below can be visited by car from Kamba falls,Hiruzen Highlands, and Yubara in less than one and half hours.
Tundra Swans(Kohakuchou) -Yonago Waterbird Sanctuary,Yonago city
The Yonago Waterbird Sanctuary is the largest wintering ground for Tundra Swans in western Japan. They can be seen from late October until March when they return to the Tundra. This large wetland area is home to around 10,000 birds of 100 different species. The Yonago Waterbird Sanctuary is one of the best places to see wild birds in Japan. It also has a very scenic view of Mount Daisen,the highest mountain in Chugoku.
It is a 20-minute bus ride from Yonago station and then it is a 15-minute walk from the Nokoshi bus stop.
Mandarin Ducks(Oshidori)-Oshidori Kansatsu-goya,Hino town
The town bird of Hino and the prefectural bird of Tottori is the Mandarin duck. The name of these bird is a misnomer as Mandarin ducks actually speak Cantonese not Mandarin.The best time to see these colorful birds is from November to March from dawn to 8 am and from 4 pm until sundown. There is an observation hut, Oshidori Kantasu-goya where you can observe Mandarin ducks as well other birds on the Hino river.
The hut is only three-minute walk from Neu station. It only an hour and a half by bus and train ride from the Yonago Waterbirds Sanctuary.
I had the chance to visit Yamaguchi when my Fiancé was in Yamaguchi for work. I went to the city of Ube and Shimonoseki. Shimonoseki is very close to Fukuoka prefecture, there is a tunnel that pedestrians can use to walk from one prefecture to the other. It is a bit tiring but the tunnel is completely underwater so it’s a one-of-a-kind experience.
Pufferfish (Fugu)-Shimonseki city
Shimonoseki is most known for it`s Pufferfish. While Pufferfish has a dangerous reputation due to the danger of poising if cut improperly, it is perfectly safe to eat as chefs are required to get extensive training to prepare. Shimonoseki catches the most Pufferfish in Japan. There is a good Simpson’s episode where Homer tries Pufferfish and like him you will be perfectly fine if you eat it. The city is also famous for its fresh seafood like anglerfish, sea urchins, and Swordtip squid. Go to Karato Market to try all different kinds of fresh seafood. Just keep in mind, this market can become very crowded but the high quality and reasonably priced food makes up for it.
If you use the Shinkansen, you can visit the city in an hour and a half from Hiroshima Station and two hours from Okayama Station by using the Shinkansen to Yamaguchi and then taking a normal train for the rest of the way. The city is also very close to Fukuoka prefecture on the island of Kyushu if you are interested in exploring the Kyushu region as well.
White Snakes(Iwakunishirohebi)-Iwakuni city
No, Iwakuni city is not a kind of nature reserve for 80`s hair bands. The White Snakes that I am talking about are Albino Japanese white snakes that are the only ones of their kind in Japan. They are designated as a national treasure in Japan. Normally ,Albinism only lasts one generation but the offsprings of the Iwakuni White Snakes all inherit Albinism from their parents. Unlike in western countries, Japan reveres snakes, especially white snakes. The Japanese goddess of arts and financial success, Benzaiten is accompanied by a large white snake. Since the Edo period, people in Iwakuni regarded White snakes with reverence as house guardian deities who could bring good fortune. Today, you can see white snakes at the Imazu White Snake Observation Facility(Imazu Tenjin Shirohebi Shiryokan), they breed them both indoors and outdoors. There are 5 facilities in Iwakuni that are dedicated to protecting and breeding White Snakes as their Albinism makes them easy targets for predators in the wild. There is the White Snake Museum that is close to the famous Kintaikyo Bridge, a wooden arched bridge with 5 arches. The museum has exhibits on the history of the snakes in Iwakuni as well as live specimens to view. The last place related to White Snakes that I will talk about is the White Snake Shrine(Shirohebi Jinja) which, is perfect for seeing the religious importance of our pigment lacking slithering friends. It is located next to the Imazu White Snake Observation Facility. The shrine is dedicated to Benzaiten and people visit there to pray for blessings regarding financial and business matters. The shrine is centered around the white snakes and that can be seen in statues and decoration around the shrine grounds. You can also purchase white snake-themed charms and other goods at the Shrine`s store.
If you click here you can get more information about White Snakes in Iwakuni. The website is in Japanese so use google translate on your browser to translate it to English.
One last thing, you can also see Cormorant fishing on the Nishiki river if you come during the summertime. This is a 300-year-old method of fishing where the Commorant catches fish for the fisherman and is now done primarily for tourism. But Keep in mind, there is a ring around the birds` neck to prevent them from swallowing large fish which you may find cruel.
Iwakuni is 50 minutes from Hiroshima station. It is 1 hour and 45 minutes from Yamaguchi station by train and bus.
Firefies(Hotaru)-Toyota Town and Yamaguchi city
Yamaguchi in general is famous for fireflies. This was surprising for me because I thought Owl city was the most famous place for Fireflies.But in all seriousness, the prefecture is well known throughout Japan for it`s Bioluminescent bugs. When my fiancé was working in Yamaguchi a middle-aged co-worker hit on her by asking her to go see fireflies with him. I laughed when she told me because it was such a bizarre way to ask someone out. I still to this day, will imitate him and ask her to go see fireflies to make her laugh. In Yamaguchi, there is a species of firefly called Genji Fireflies(Genjibotaru), they are only found in Japan, and going to see them is a common summertime event. You can see them in June. In Toyota town, you can take a scenic boat ride down a river while fireflies illuminate the night sky. In Toyota, there is also a Firefly museum which has different exhibits on fireflies that will surely interest your children. It has extended hours in June so you can observe fireflies in their garden. The town also holds a festival dedicated to these special bugs sometime in June every year. You can also see Genji fireflies on the Ichinosaka River just a 15 minute walk from Yamaguchi station in Yamaguchi city. Toyota and Ichinosaka river are the two most famous and beautiful spots in Yamaguchi to see Genji fireflies.
Toyota town can be accessed train and bus in one hour from Shimonoseki station. It takes the same amount of time by car. Toyaya town is a one hour drive/ three hour train and bus ride from Yamaguchi city.