Japan is a nation composed of 6,852 islands. It is no wonder that many fascinating and unique wildlife species can be found there. Given the country’s broad range of climactic zones, the variety of Japan’s wildlife is immense.
Here are a few of the Japanese wildlife native to Japan:
Japanese dwarf flying squirrel (Pteromys momonga; ニホンモモンガ; Nihon momonga) – a type of flying squirrel only 14-20 centimeters long and weighing about 150 to 220 grams. These little creatures are grey or brown in color with white bellies, large eyes, and flat tails. They are nocturnal and love to nestle in tree holes during the day to sleep. They eat seeds, fruits, leaves, bark, and buds. The Japanese dwarf flying squirrel soars by means of its patagium, gliding membranes that works as wings and allows it to glide from tree to tree.
Japanese dwarf flying squirrel. | Takashi Hososhima
Short-tailed Albatross (Phoebastria albatrus) – a medium-sized rare bird that was nearly brought to extinction by the trade in its feathers. These birds were hunted down on an almost industrial scale in the mid 19th century. By the 1930s, the only Short-tailed Albatross population was on Torishima. The Japanese government finally banned hunting of the species, and they are now found to nest on the islands of Torishima, Muko-jima, and Minami-kojima in the Senkaku Islands.
Juvenile Short-tailed Albatross. | USFWS Endangered Species
Amami Rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi; Amamino kuro usagi; アマミノクロウサギ 奄美野黒兔) – also known as the Ryuku rabbit, it is a dark-furred rabbit found only in the small islands of Amami Ōshima and Toku-no-Shima. They are considered living fossils because they are believed to be living remnants of ancient rabbits from the Asian mainland. They are nocturnal forest dwellers that breed in late March–May and September–December. They have a bulky body and short hind legs and feet with large curved claws used for digging and climbing. They have smaller eyes and ears than other hares and rabbits. Amami rabbits were trapped and hunted, causing their numbers to decline. In 1963, the Japanese government declared the species a special natural monument, thus protecting them from being hunted and trapped.
Amami rabbit, stuffed specimen. | Momotarou2012
Each month brings exciting festivals in Japan. These festivals are a wonderful way to get to know the Japanese culture and way of life.
Here are a few Japanese festivals in March:
Dai Himonjiyaki – a month-long fire festival held every March around the area of Mt. Aso in Kyushu. The most anticipated event of Dai Himonjiyaki takes place on the 2nd saturday of March on a mountain slope in Ojo-dake where giant Chinese characters (measuring about 350 meters) signifying “fire” are lit. Hifuri Shinji, a ceremony offered for a rich harvest, is the celebration of the union of the gods. Locals and visitors alike light pine torches and wave them in the air, creating rings of fire for a spectacular sight.
Aso fire festival. | Josh
The Yama-no-kami Matsuri (Mountain God Festival) is held at the end of March in the neighboring village, Nishihara. Part of the festival is the process called no-yak which involves setting fields around the area on fire to keep the grass in the pasture land in prime condition. You can try delicious delicacies such as the Aso beef barbeque in styles that vary by town and secret age-old family recipes. You can also visit Hana-Asobi (Aso Agri Square) near Aso Station, home to Japan’s only Tofu Museum.
Omizutori (お水取り) – an annual Japanese sacred water-drawing Buddhist festival that takes place in Nara. Omizutori is the final rite of a two-week long observance of the Shuni-e ceremony (Second-Month Service of the lunisolar calendar). The purpose of the festival is to cleanse the people of their sins and to usher in the new year. During the evening ceremony called Otaimatsu, monks wave burning torches and draw large fiery circles in the air. Local belief is that whoever witnesses the ceremony and is showered with sparks is protected from evil, harmful things.
Omizutori. | Realmonkey
Sagicho Matsuri – also known as Omihachiman no Hi-matsuri (Omihachiman Shrine fire festival), this event is held in Shiga, every mid-March. It was first celebrated in the 16th century when new settlers to the district organized a grander festival than the one being celebrated in April. Elaborately decorated Sagicho floats are gathered at Himure Hachimangu Shrine. These are made with pine torches woven from straw and topped with a long bamboo pole decorated with numerous strips of red paper. The center of each float is mounted with an animal representing the one for that particular Oriental Zodiac year. A poll is taken to determine the best float, after which they are paraded through town with people carrying mikoshi (portable shrines) shouting “Cho yare, yare yare!”
Red paper strips on a Sagicho float. | ORAZ Studio
Pearls are similar to fingerprints in that each one is unique. They are highly prized gemstones and coveted heirlooms passed on from one generation to the next. A pearl is produced in the mantle of a living shell mollusk such as an oyster. It is made of minute crystalline calcium carbonate deposited in parallel layers. An ideal pearl is perfectly round and smooth, but there are many other pearls in different shapes.
Mikimoto Kōkichi (御木本 幸吉, 1858–1954) was a Japanese businessman known for creating the first cultured pearl and establishing the Mikimoto luxury pearl company. One of Japan’s top 10 inventors, he has received several awards and accolades such as being inducted into the house of peers by imperial decree. He has been awarded the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure, and the Mikimoto Company is a world renowned luxury brand. Mikimoto Kōkichi is also the founder of Mikimoto Pharmaceuticals, a company specializing in beauty products with pearl calcium.
In 1888, Mikimoto Kōkichi, together with his wife Ume, began the first pearl oyster farm at Shinmei inlet in Ago Bay, Mie prefecture, Japan. After sever failed attempts, in 1893 he was able to create hemispherical cultured pearls which he debuted at a marine products exposition in Norway in 1897. This was the beginning of his export business. Using “Mise-Nishikawa method,” where a piece of oyster epithelial membrane with a nucleus of metal or shell is inserted into the oyster to form a pearl sack and create round pearls, Mikimoto’s business took off.
Mikimoto bracelet. | kristi-san
Mikimoto Pearl Island (ミキモト真珠島 Mikimoto-Shinju-Jima) is a small island named after Mikimoto Kōkichi. Located in Ise Bay, it is touted as the birthplace of cultured pearl aquaculture. The island belongs to Mikimoto Pearl Museum Co., Ltd. The island has many visitors each year. It contains a fascinating exhibit of pearls and pearl crafted goods and has a show that features ama divers.
Mikimoto Pearl Island. | Miyuki Meinaka
Cats are often the stuff of legend–they embody mysticism. It is no wonder that cats have been culturally significant for many nations. Their relationship with and influence on humans is as old as civilization itself and can be traced back to over 9,500 years.
In Japan, cats are revered for giving good luck and other positive results. The popular Japanese cat figurine maneki-neko (招き猫, “beckoning cat”) is typically believed to bring such blessings. The figurine is often of a cat with its paw in an upright position as if beckoning. According to Japanese legend, a landlord witnessed a cat waving a paw at him. Intrigued by this gesture, he came close to the cat when suddenly a lightning bolt struck the exact place he was previously standing in. The landlord believed that his good fortune was because of the cat’s actions. Hence, the beckoning hand became a symbol of good luck. Maneki-neko are mostly found at the entrance of shops, restaurants, and other business establishments. They can serve as other more useful and portable things such as keychains and piggy banks.
Makeni-neko. | Sarah
Japan’s history indicates that cats have played an important role in Japanese culture and society, hence the number of shrines and temples dedicated to cats in the country. Here are some of them.
Nambujinja – located in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, a mythical cat-like creature known in Japanese folktales is revered at this temple. Local residents are confident that cats will always keep harmful rodents away.
Konoshimajinja – in Kyotango City, Kyoto, a statue of a cat with its paw protectively on its kitten’s head greets people who enter the city. Kyoto, Japan’s former capital, originally was the center of high culture and aristocracy. The city was home to prominent silk producers who believed that cats kept the number of rats to a minimum and enabled them to work continuously to produce the finest silk possible.
Nekojinja – literally means Cat Shrine. Fishermen from the island of Tashirojima in Miyagi Prefecture are said to be able to predict how big a catch they would get from observing the behavior of the many cats on the island.
Cat shrine. | Mary-chan
I love Japanese and Mexican food. But I never thought of combining tacos and rice to create a delicious marriage of two of my culinary favorites and end up something so unique and delicious. Taco rice truly embodies fusion cuisine.
A taco is a traditional Mexican dish made from a wheat or corn tortilla that is either soft or crunchy, with fillings like chicken, beef, pork, seafood, vegetables, beans, and cheese. The tortilla is folded or rolled so as to eat it like a sandwich. Garnishes like avocado, salsa, cilantro, guacamole, lettuce, and onions add to the flavor and make the taco even more irresistible.
The taco predates the arrival of Europeans in Mexico. Anthropological evidence indicates that indigenous people who lived in the lake region of the Valley of Mexico already ate tacos filled with tiny fish.
Taco rice (タコライス takoraisu) is an Okinawan dish made of taco-flavored ground beef, and oftentimes, shredded cheese, lettuce, tomato and salsa, served on top of rice. Takoraisu is a favorite among many Okinawans and is often served for school lunches. Taco rice was created by Matsuzo Gibo in 1984 and was initially served at two of his cafes, King Tacos and Parlor Senri, located close to the main gate of Camp Hansen, the U.S. Marine Corps Base in Kin, Okinawa. Needless to say, takoraisu is a favorite dish among military personnel stationed in Okinawa. Taco rice is so popular that in 1996, KFC included it in their menu in all the branches in Japan. Yoshinoya, a popular Japanese gyudon fast food chain, also added taco rice to their menu in their branches in Okinawa since 2004.
Taco rice. | t-mizo
What makes taco rice Japanese is that, aside from the Tex-Mex flavor, mirin, sake, and soy sauce are added. This gives it the extra flavor that makes takoraisu even tastier. Sometimes it can be served with rice in a tortilla roll. Another variant of the dish is called “taco rice ball” where all the usual ingredients like meat, rice, and cheese are combined, dipped in batter, deep fried then served with salsa or tomato ketchup. Oishi!
Taco rice. | goodmami
Mermaids have long held mysticism and fascination for many. They are believed to be aquatic creatures with the upper body of a human female and a fish tail instead of legs. The first tales of mermaids can be traced back to ancient Assyria, where the goddess Atargatis was driven by remorse after she accidentally killed her human lover and then transformed herself into a mermaid. In Greek mythology, mermaids are considered the alluring sirens of the sea. Christopher Columbus also believed he had seen mermaids while exploring the Caribbean, and more sightings were reported in the 20th and 21st century from around the world.
Ama (海人, women; 海女, men 海士) are Japanese free divers known for collecting pearls. Most ama divers are women who seem to have lungs of steel. Ethno-historians believe that they initially traveled with the currents from continental Asia across to southern Japan where they were divided into two types of nomadic communities. One group traveled to the coast of the Pacific Ocean, and the other, to the north Japan Sea coast. According to legend, one group was carried away by a typhoon to the north and was shipwrecked on the shores of Noto Peninsula on the Japan Sea. Even today, descendants of the original women ama divers still practice the ancient tradition of free diving. They continue with the semi-nomadic customs in the village of Osatsu along the coast of the Ise-Shima region in Mie Prefecture. Pearls from oysters are no longer the prized catch for the modern day women ama divers. Rather these are snails, clams, local abalone, and sea urchins, depending on the season.
Ama at Mikimoto Pearl Island. | Shenghung Lin
Women divers were first mentioned on an ancient scroll from 927. The rich and colorful ama divers’ history is showcased at the Mikimoto Pearl Island Museum in Toba, which has a collection of ancient tools (like bone knives) found on the sea floor of the nearby areas that date back 3,000 years. Ama women divers do not need any modern day apparatus like what helps help deep sea divers breathe and stay longer underwater. With their graceful movements, and garbed in their traditional white uniform believed to keep sharks away, an ama diver can make any lonely sailor see a gorgeous mermaid emerging from the depths of the ocean.
Click image or here: http://youtu.be/H_NwUPd8Hhc
Many consider February the love month because of Valentine’s Day. Every 14th of February, the Feast of Saint Valentine is observed in many countries. It began as a liturgical celebration of Saint Valentine of Rome who was said to have been imprisoned for ministering to persecuted Christians and for performing weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry. Legend tells us that Saint Valentine was able to heal the sick daughter of his jailer.
Valentine’s Day was first associated with romance during the High Middle Ages when Geoffrey Chaucer made courtly love popular among his circle of friends. 18th century England saw Valentine’s Day as an occasion when lovers showed their love for each other by giving flowers, confectionery, and greeting cards known as valentines. The tradition of Valentine’s Day is still observed in very similar ways today.
Valentine chocolates. | Bert Kimura
Valentine’s Day in Japan is mostly observed by women who give presents to men, usually chocolates. But not all presents given on Valentine’s Day entail romance. “Giri-choko” (義理チョコ, courtesy chocolate) are chocolates given to men who are either friends, colleagues, or bosses, and these symbolize friendship or gratitude, while “honmei-choko” (本命チョコ, chocolates of love) are given to men when romantic interest is involved. Other popular restaurants and fast food chains are getting into the Valentine’s spirit. For example, Domino’s Japan is offering the “Happy Valentine’s Day Pizza” from February 7 -14. It is a cute heart-shaped pizza topped with tomato sauce, pepperoni, and mozzarella cheese.
Domino’s Valentine Pizza poster (cropped). | kristi-san
In 1977, the Ishimuramanseido confectionery company based in Fukuoka marketed marshmallows to men on March 14 and initially called it Marshmallow Day (マシュマロデー Mashumaro Dē). Several confectionery companies followed suit and began creating white chocolate specially made for March 14, which became known as White Day. This is a relatively young concept that started in Japan in 1978 by the National Confectionery Industry Association as an answer to Japan’s Valentine’s Day tradition. The idea was that on White Day, men who receive either the giri-choko or the honmei-choko on Valentine’s Day should return the favor to the women by also giving them gifts such as marshmallows, white lingerie, jewelry, cookies, and white and dark chocolate.
White Day gifts. | Danny Choo
For many centuries, Japan has venerated Shinto and Buddhist crossroad deities or guardians of the road, known as dōsojin. These deities are believed to protect villages against bad omens and evil spirits as they stand guard over certain areas. Dōsojins are similar to Japan’s phallic stones placed at village boundaries to ensure the fertility of the land.
Dōsojin (道祖神), also known as Dōrokujin, Sae no Kami, or Sai ni Kami, are usually represented by male and female stone statues or stone markers with simple inscriptions. Shinto stone dōsojins are often enshrined in hokoras, small Shinto shrines along street corners, bridges, and village borders. Dōsojin can also be revered as the deity (kami) of marriage and fertility and, in some localities, they are worshipped as the kami of trouble-free childbirth. Japan’s Fire Festivals, also known as dōsojin festivals, are held sometime in mid January each year for a bountiful harvest and good health.
Dōsojin in Matsukawa Village, Nagano. | 掬茶
Traditional Buddhist stone markers have vague origins. Jizō Bosatsu is a well loved Japanese deity. When Jizō Bosatsu was introduced in India sometime in 500 B.C., he became known as the guardian of travelers and pilgrims. Statues in his image and likeness were seen along pilgrimage routes and mountain paths from India to Southeast Asia. In modern Japan, groupings of six Jizō statues are a common sight standing guard at busy intersections and high roads. The groupings of statues represent the Six States of Karmic Rebirth in Buddhist traditions. Solitary Jizō figures guard some streets, as well.
Dōsojin at Karuizawa, Nagano. | 663highland
Street food is easy for us to grab when we are on the go. Sold in streets and public places that have a lot of people traffic, these are mostly finger foods or easy to eat viands cheaper than most restaurant meals. Street food gives us a glimpse of the unique gastronomic delights of a particular country. It is a great way to get to know cultures and traditional tastes from all around the world.
Street food has been around for a very long time. During the excavation of the ancient Roman ruins of Pompeii, evidence of street food vendors was found–chickpea soup was a common meal. In ancient China, street food generally catered to the poor, but the wealthy usually sent their servants out to buy street food so they could enjoy it in their own homes. The Aztec marketplaces showed indications that vendors sold almost 50 kinds of tamales with a broad range of meats such as rabbit, gopher, fish, turkey, frog, and other ingredients such as maize flowers and eggs.
Food stall in Fukuoka. | Luc Byhet
Street food in Japan is a sight to behold, and if only taste buds could sing, they would belt out a tune of delight. Japanese street food is also known as yatai (屋台), the word for a small, mobile food stall. Fukuoka Street in Fukuoka Prefecture is considered Japan’s street food mecca. Over 150 food stalls riddle the area close to the water–a perfect place to enjoy all the delicious food.
Some of the more popular street food you can enjoy from Japan:
Oden – a Japanese hot pot, popular in winter. You can choose various ingredients such as daikon radishes, boiled eggs, fish cakes, yam cakes, and many more. The recipes, ingredients, sauces, and broths vary by region.
Takoyaki – octopus in a dumpling ball. They are usually made with pickled ginger, okonomiyake sauce, fish shavings, and rich and creamy Japanese mayonnaise.
Takoyaki. | SteFou!
Gyoza – popular in Japanese restaurants all around the world. They are fried dumplings filled with vegetables and meats with a tangy soy-vinegar dipping sauce.
Yakitori – bite sized pieces of chicken on bamboo skewers, barbecued over a hot charcoal grill.
Okonomiyaki – savory pancake made with a number of ingredients such as meat, flour, eggs, yam, seafood, vegetables, and sometimes even cheese. It is topped with Worcestershire sauce, seaweed flakes, pickled ginger, and Japanese mayonnaise.
Gyoza. | verygreen
The first quarter of the New Year ushers in a number of festivities to look forward to in Japan. Here are some of the exciting festivals in February.
Sapporo Yuki-matsuri (Sapporo Snow Festival)–a week-long annual winter festival held in Odori Park, Sapporo, every second week of February. Millions of people visit Sapporo to see the hundreds of ice sculptures and snow statues. Sapporo’s International Snow Sculpture competition has been a much anticipated event since 1974, but the Snow festival itself began in 1950 when six high school students built snow statues at Odori Park. In 1955, The Japan Self- defense Forces from the nearby Makomanai base joined and built massive snow sculptures that made the event famous, and the tradition continues today.
Snow sculpture of Hamamatsu Castle. | hirotomo
Setsubun Mantoro (Lantern Festival)–the 3rd of February marks the transition from winter to spring in Japan and is known as Setsubun. In Nara, at the Kasuga Grand Shrine (Kasuga-taisha), over 3,000 stone lanterns are lit up from usually from 6:30 to 9 in the evening, a sight to behold. The lighting of the lanterns only happens three days in the whole year: every 3rd of February, and on the 14th and 15th of August for the Obon Mantoro Festival. It’s been a tradition for about 800 years.
Kamakura Snow Festival–held every 15th and 16th of February in Yokote City. In Japan, carving out a mound of snow to create a room is called a kamakura. The Kamakura Snow Festival has more than 100 miniature and regular-sized kamakuras. The festival is a 400-year-old tradition that dates back to the Japanese practice where New Year decorations are returned to the gods by burning them as well the custom of children chasing away birds that damage crops. The kamakuras have altars that are set up to honor the water gods to bless the people with plenty of clear water. People also offer sake and rice cakes to the gods and children invite visitors to come inside the kamakura for some sweet fermented rice brew.
Kamakura. | Shibuya246
Saidai-ji Eyo Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Festival at Saidai-ji Temple)–every 3rd Saturday of February in Okayama. Thousands of men wearing only loincloths grapple each other hoping to get a pair of lucky sacred sticks that are thrown into the crowd by a priest. The man who is able to thrust the sticks in a wooden box filled with rice is considered the lucky one who will be blessed with a whole year of happiness. There are a number of other lucky items tossed into the crown of half naked men. But trying to get them for yourself among a crowd of thousands is quite a task.