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5 Animals Found Only In Japan and Where to See Them

Learn more about Japan's wildlife, from rare cats and wise goats to cute snowy birds and bathing monkeys.

By 5 min read 1

Japan is well known for its animal attractions, particularly “Rabbit Island,” or Okunoshima, and a couple of “Cat Islands,” namely Aoshima and Tashirojima. It’s hard to beat the appeal of being surrounded by cute cats and fluffy bunnies. But for animal lovers wishing to observe some native animals in their natural habitats, Japan has so much more to offer.

As an island nation, Japan is home to many species that cannot be found outside its home islands. Additionally, though it is typically seen as an urban country, Japan’s land is actually 70% undeveloped, leaving ample habitat space for many of its native creatures, particularly those that dwell in alpine regions. Conservation efforts have been implemented for its more vulnerable animals, allowing some to thrive again.

With that, here are five species you can find only in Japan and where you can observe them in their natural habitats.

Japanese Macaque

Photo:
Japanese macaques are used to humans but don’t get too close.

If you’ve seen the photos of pink-faced monkeys frolicking in the snow or bathing in an onsen (hot spring), that’s the Japanese macaque. Colloquially known as “snow monkeys,” they can be found in some particularly snowy places. In fact, this species lives further north and in a colder climate than any other non-human primate. It is also the only monkey species in Japan, so when Japanese people use the word saru, meaning monkey, they have these guys in mind.

Snow monkeys can be found throughout Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu, but a few “monkey parks” are popular for seeing and interacting with these monkeys in their natural environment. The most famous is the Snow Monkey Park in Jigokudani, a natural hot spring in Nagano Prefecture. They come down from the mountains to take a warm bath in winter. There are also monkey parks in Arashiyama in Kyoto and Kanzaki near Beppu in Oita Prefecture.

Snow Monkey Park

6845 Hirao, Yamanochi, Shimotakai District, Nagano Prefecture - Map
Arashiyama Monkey Park

61, Nakaoshitacho, Arashiyama, Nishikyo Ward, Kyoto - Map
Takasakiyama Natural Zoological Garden

3098-1 Kanzaki, Oita Prefecture - Map

Shima Enaga

Photo:
Hokkaido’s cute little puffballs.

The adorable shima enaga is a subspecies of long-tailed tit found only in Hokkaido. You can see them all year round in Hokkaido, but in cold weather, they puff out their feathers to keep warm, giving them their famous round, snowball-like appearance. The appeal of its cuteness has made it popular on social media and inspired lots of merchandise.

To see these cute little birds, you must go to Hokkaido; even then, these small birds can be difficult to spot. For this reason, getting a good shot of a shima enaga is a prized achievement for photographers. However, there are still plenty of places you can catch a glimpse of them. They are typically seen in forested areas, parks, and shrine grounds, such as Maruyama Park in Sapporo and Shiretoko National Park.

Maruyama Park

3, Miyagaoka, Chuo Ward, Sapporo, Hokkaido - Map
Shiretoko National Park

The Bird Watching Cafe

90-26 Rankoshi, Chitose, Hokkaido - Map

Tanuki

Photo:
What is this guy planning?

The tanuki, or Japanese raccoon dog, is one of Japan’s most familiar furry faces. Though not a close relative of the raccoon, tanuki look like brown raccoons and have the familiar “mask” pattern on their face. Tanuki are an integral part of Japanese culture, characterized as mischievous tricksters and cheerful but gullible. In folklore, they are masters of disguise and have shapeshifting powers. Because they are also said to have eight traits that bring good fortune, many businesses have tanuki statues outside their doors.

Tanuki are timid and can be difficult to spot. But keep your eyes peeled because they can be found all over Japan, from rural areas to urban centers. You can find them in city and castle parks, and they have even been spotted in populated areas of Tokyo. If you are really lucky, you may be able to spot a rare white tanuki. And while you’re keeping your eyes peeled, you’ll see plenty of tanuki statues along the way.

Zenpukuji River Green Space

1-30-27 Naritanishi, Suginami City, Tokyo - Map
Miyajima

Hatsukaichi, Hiroshima Prefecture - Map
Shirotori Garden

2-5 Atsuta Nishimachi, Atsuta Ward, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture - Map

Japanese Serow

Photo:
Like three animals in one!

This fuzzy goat-antelope was almost hunted to extinction in the mid-20th century, but its conservation status is now designated “least concern.” After it was declared a Special National Monument in 1955 to protect it from poachers, and with the help of reforestation efforts, the population of the Japanese serow has increased dramatically. Today, this mountain-dwelling creature is thriving and is considered a symbol of Japan. When the Chinese government gifted Japan a giant panda in 1973, Japan returned the favor with two Japanese serow.

The serow, with small horns and fluffy fur, looks like a cross between a goat and an antelope. It is a mysterious, solitary creature known for its dexterity and speed, even on mountain cliffs. It is native to central and northern Honshu and small parts of Shikoku and Kyushu, dwelling in mountainous and subalpine forests and grasslands.

Mount Asama

Kanbara, Tsumagoi, Agatsuma District, Gunma - Map
Minami Alps National Park

Hasesugishima, Ina, Nagano - Map
Bunao Mountain Observation Building

72-5, Ozou, Hakusan, Ishikawa - Map

Iriomote Cat

Photo:
Unfortunately, it is so rare this might be all you ever see.

Found exclusively on the island of Iriomote in the Yaeyama Islands of Okinawa Prefecture, the Iromote cat is a subspecies of leopard cat. It is a little bigger than a house pet, with mostly dark gray, light brown fur and amber eyes. It was not scientifically described until 1967, though its existence was known to the inhabitants of the island, who referred to the cat as yamapikaryaa, or “that which shines in the forest.” Its habitat on Iriomote is the smallest of any wild cat species in the world, and unfortunately, it is critically endangered—only about 100 of them remain in the wild.

However, since its official discovery, the Iriomote cat is now protected. It has been designated a national living monument and has become the mascot of Iriomote Island. It has even been given its own holiday in the Yaeyama Islands, “Iriomote Wild Cat Day.”

Though you’re unlikely to spot one, you can spot stone statues of them around the islands. But if you’re feeling adventurous enough, the cats mostly inhabit the coastal lowlands with mangroves and other subtropical forests. They prefer to be near rivers and forests and in low humidity.

Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park

Komi, Taketomi, Yaeyama District, Okinawa - Map
Iriomote Wildlife Conservation Center

Komi, Taketomi, Yaeyama District, Okinawa - Map
Nakama River

Have you gotten to see any of these animals up close? Which other interesting animals have you seen in Japan? Let us know in the comments!

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  • Sayaka Nakai says:

    Let me add Yamane or Japanese dormouse. Adorable forest rodent is related to dormice in Europe but only found in Japan. Because they hibernate in winter, people sometimes encounter them in their non-alerted forms.

    Another is Musasabi, or Japanese giant flying squirrel. This is the largest rodent in Japan in contrast to Yamane. Large rodents flying in the sky made them into one of monsters that appear in folklore. They are common in Honshu forests, and you can find tours to find them.

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