Flora in Japan
Around 4,000 to 6,000 species of plants are naturally found in Japan. The vegetation varies greatly from subtropical forest in the south to coniferous forest in the north.
In the subtropical zone there are mangroves, cycads and tree ferns. In the warm temperate climate of Kyūshū, Shikoku, and southwestern Honshū, the dominant vegetation is evergreen broadleaf forest with many oaks. To the north Honshū and to the southwest Hokkaidō the climate is cool temperate with broad-leaved deciduous trees, including the Japanese beech (Fagus crenata) and oaks such as the konara (Quercus serrata).
Conifers are dominant in much of Hokkaidō and in the mountains of central and northern Honshū with spruce and spruce growing. In the higher mountains there is a zone of arctic-alpine plants including the low-growing Siberian Dwarf Pine (Pinus pumila).
Coniferous plantations have replaced natural forest in many areas. The most common trees are hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa), Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora), Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii), and Japanese red cedar “sugi” (Cryptomeria japonica). The latter is the tallest conifer in Japan, reaching 40 meters in height.
Bamboo grows abundantly in Japan with around 400 to 500 different species, including the dwarf bamboos known as sasa and the taller types called take, which can reach 20 meters in height.
Many plants have been introduced to Japan from the Asian mainland, including important crops such as rice and garden plants such as chrysanthemums. Since the Meiji Restoration, an increasing number of plants have come from Europe, North America and elsewhere. Native food plants include water celery (Oenanthe javanica) and wasabi (Wasabia japonica).
The seasons are a main theme in Japanese culture. Flowers are like mirrors of the seasons, reflecting the passage of time. Not surprisingly, flower viewing is a very popular activity in Japan, as can be seen in the annual festivities surrounding, but not limited to, cherry blossoms. These are the 11 most popular Japanese flowers (with approximate flowering time and city):
- Japanese apricot (Ume): mid-February to late March (Tokyo)
- Japanese Cherry Blossom (Sakura): End of March to end of April (Tokyo)
- Tulip: early April to early May (Tonami, Tomaya)
- Phlox subulata (Shibazakura): early April to late May (Fujigoko)
- Wisteria (Fuji): in May (Tokyo)
- Pink (Bara): in May (Tokyo)
- Hydrangea (Ajisai): mid-June to mid-July (Kamakura, Hakone)
- Japanese Iris (hanashōbu): June (Tokyo)
- Sunflower (Himawari): early July to early August (Hokkaido)
- Lavender: mid-July to early August (Hokkaido)
- Autumn Colors (Koyo): Mid-September to early December (the whole country).
Wildlife in Japan
When you think of Japan, the images that come to mind are probably of big cities full of people, but there is also a lot of nature. Most of Japan is made up of rugged mountains, covered in dense forests. As this does not create a very hospitable environment, most Japanese live on the coastal plains, leaving vast tracts of pristine natural environment largely untouched by humanity.
Add to this Japan’s impressive geographic reach – its northern shores lie just south of Russia’s icy east, while its southernmost islands reach almost to the tropics – and it’s perhaps not surprising that Japan is home to such a diverse of wildlife. There are about 130 types of land mammals and more than 600 species of birds. Here are some of the most interesting and unique species.
Wild Tanuki on Sensuijima Island in Hiroshima Prefecture. Tanuki are a species of raccoon dog that can be found in most of Japan. Folklore says that they can shapeshift into human form, or to disguise themselves as everyday objects.
They have a reputation for being mischievous and cheerful, but also a bit forgetful, and not very trustworthy. Despite this, most Japanese people regard them fondly, and their statues are often placed at temple entrances to bring good luck.
Wild boars are found throughout Japan, except for the northern island of Hokkaido.
A red squirrel on the island of Hokkaido, northern Japan. This is the same species of red squirrel found in Europe – its range extends through Asia, but in reality, the red squirrels of Japan are more gray than red.
There are species of flying squirrels, such as the Siberian, found on the Japanese mainland, including the Japanese giant flying squirrel that can glide more than 160 meters through trees. Although they are quite common, you will be lucky if you see them, since they only come out at night. They spend the day hiding in trees to avoid predators.
The largest wild animals in Japan are bears. Black bears can be found in the mountainous areas of most of Japan, including around the borders of Tokyo.
Japan’s other bear species is the brown bear, found only on the northern island of Hokkaido.
The Tsushima leopard cat is only found on the island of Tsushima in western Japan. It’s critically endangered, so you’ll be lucky to see it in the wild.
The Iriomote cat is another species of wild cat, this time found only on the remote island of Iriomote, southwest of Okinawa. It is also critically endangered, with fewer than 250 individuals in the wild.
Martens were once found all over Hokkaido, but now they only live in forested areas in the north and east of the island.
Melampus martens are relatives of the sable and are found throughout Japan except for northern Hokkaido and some of the smaller islands.
Japanese folklore attributes great wisdom and powerful magic to foxes, particularly the ability to take human form. Sometimes they are devious, but more often they are faithful friends, or even lovers. If you think someone you know might be a fox in disguise, you might be able to see their true form by looking at their reflection in a mirror or at their shadow.
The Japanese serow is found in dense forests in most of Japan. Usually lives alone or in pairs, and is distantly related to domestic sheep and goats.
The sika deer is native to Japan, other parts of East Asia, but will be familiar to many visitors as it has been introduced to many other parts of the world, including Europe, the United States, and Australia. Since the extinction of their main predator, the wolf, more than a hundred years ago, their numbers have increased dramatically, and there are now around a hundred thousand individuals living in the wild.
In various places in Japan, tame deer roam urban areas, making them one of the easiest native animals to see in the wild in Japan.
The Japanese macaque, or red-faced macaque, is native to Japan, living further north and in a colder climate than any other primate except us humans.
Two types of weasel inhabit Japan. The native Japanese weasel is found throughout the country, while the closely related Siberian weasel has been introduced, and is now found throughout western Japan.
There is the green pheasant, a bird found only in Japan. In 1947 the Japan Ornithological Society declared it to be the national bird of Japan, but this designation has never been officially recognized.
Another bird often considered the national bird of Japan is the red-crowned crane. It is an endangered species, with only about a thousand birds in the wild in Japan, and another two thousand in China and Korea.
Giant salamanders live in streams throughout most of Japan, where they feed primarily on frogs and fish. They can live for nearly eighty years and grow up to 1.5 meters long, but are now endangered due to overhunting and habitat loss.
Japanese Giant Hornets
They are the largest hornets in the world, and can be more than four centimeters long, with a wingspan of more than six centimeters. Statistically it is the most dangerous wild animal in Japan, with around forty people dying each year from anaphylactic shock after being bitten. But please don’t let this put you off visiting Japan – you’re highly unlikely to come across one, and even if you do, they rarely sting you unless you do something that annoys them.
One of the most spectacular sights in Japan is the fireflies in flight. Fireflies spend most of the year as larvae, before pupating, eventually emerging as flies for two weeks of adult life. This means that they are only around during the breeding season in early summer, when they can be seen blinking as they fly around trying to find a mate.
They are most numerous in mid-June and are found near clean running water and rice paddies, as this is where they live during their larval stage.
If you can’t go to the countryside, an alternative is the annual firefly festival in Fussa, west of Tokyo. On a Saturday in mid-June, hundreds of captive-bred fireflies are released as the centerpiece of a local festival.
The spider crab is perhaps the scariest animal of all the animals in Japan. It is the largest arthropod in the world, and when its legs are extended it can reach more than 3.5 meters. The good news is that it lives at the bottom of the sea at depths of between fifty and three hundred meters, so you are not likely to come across one on the beach or swimming in the sea.
The most common snake in Japan is the venomous mamushi, whose bite is occasionally fatal. The yamakagashi is also poisonous, but is more likely to run away or hide when confronted by humans, so it’s not very dangerous.
The really dangerous snakes are the highly venomous habu snakes, but luckily they only live on the southwestern islands of Japan. The Okinawan habu likes to hide in caves and old graves, but will also enter houses looking for mice and rats. Unlike the yamakagashi, he is not afraid of humans, and can attack with lightning speed if disturbed.
If medical treatment is received promptly, bites are usually not life-threatening, but can still cause permanent injury. Strangely, the Okinawan habu is hunted for use in making a rice-based spirit called habushu, which is said to have medicinal properties. Some manufacturers sell this in bottles with whole habu intact inside!
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