Walking Japan’s Kumano Kodo trail feels like stepping into an enchanted kingdom. The whimsical forests and meandering rivers are home to an interesting variety of creatures that you may spot along the trail. Keep your eyes peeled for the weird, wonderful, friendly and perhaps not-so-friendly!
As you make your way along the ancient pilgrimage route you may discover that you are accompanied by graceful and delicate butterflies dancing through the air, in and out of the woodlands and valleys. The butterflies’ natural beauty has inspired many Japanese artists over the centuries. Butterflies can be found in motifs on kimonos, yukata, on family crests, in paintings and ukiyo-e woodblock prints, and pottery.
Japanese Freshwater Crabs
These striking little creatures can often be seen on a rainy day. They are easy to spot as they scurry away from the trail back to the safety of a nearby creek. They are the only freshwater crabs in Japan and can be seen in varying shades of bright orange to distinctive reds.
Japanese folk stories tell of of giant toads, two to three meters in height, that are found high up on mountain streams and are able to walk on their hind legs. According to legend they can breathe out great rainbows and use the rainbows to slide prey into their mouth. You are more likely to encounter regular toads measuring up to 15cm in length; a far cry from two to three metres!
Toads favour areas in woodlands and bamboo groves and commonly inhabit farming areas around shrines, temples and farmhouses. After hibernating in burrows through winter they emerge around early spring and gather in shallow ponds and ditches to mate, with competing males often engaging in wrestling matches that can last for days.
Snakes (small brown and pit vipers)
Known as mamushi by the Japanese, the triangle-headed pit viper sports a pretty body pattern that can be grey to reddish brown with yellow bands and speckled sides. It is a poisonous snake and although known to be shy and move off when they sense you coming, it is best avoided if sighted. Keep your eyes on the path!
Lizards & Skinks
Many of Japan’s lizard species, including the Japanese Grass Lizard are endemic, which means they inhabit here and nowhere else. The Japanese Grass Lizard is one of the most common you will see when you are out walking. Measuring around 15 to 25cm, the colour of their skin allows them to blend easily with the grass and are hard to spot.
Another lizard you may see on the Kumano Kodo trail is the Japanese Five-Lined Skink. They are very quick and agile, and the young ones sport a bright blue tail, which may serve as a diversion against predator attacks.
Because of their similarity in appearance to raccoons, the tanuki is sometimes referred to as the raccoon dog. While primarily a nocturnal species, it can sometimes be found foraging around in the daylight hours. A good scavenger, it does well in environments near human habitation. It often features in Japanese folklore and proverbs as shape-shifting spirits called Bake-danuki. Bake-danuki represent prosperity and economic growth, so you may see statues of these critters in local Japanese businesses.
Japanese Giant Hornet
The Japanese Giant Hornet (osuzumebachi) is endemic to Japan. It prefers rural and mountainous areas where it nests in and under trees. Adult hornets can grow to a huge 4.5cm in length with a wingspan greater than 6cm. A hornet is easily recognised by its size, large eyes and striking yellow, brown and black striped body. None of our staff has encountered hornets along the trail but they are considered very aggressive if provoked. Like other creatures, if you leave them alone, they will often leave you alone.
Hornets are active from spring through autumn and more aggressive in September and October during their breeding season. They tend to attack objects in black, so we recommend you wear white or bright coloured clothing. If you are known to have an anaphylactic reaction to bee stings, it is highly recommended you carry an EpiPen with you on the walk. Seek first aid if you are stung.
In many Japanese mountain villages the hornet is considered a delicacy when fried, if you dare try them!
When relaxing in your onsen in Kawayu, keep an eye out for the magnificent Black Kite soaring through the skies above the valley. This medium sized bird of prey has dark brown plumage, with scattered light brown and rufous markings, particularly on the head, neck and body. The tail is forked and gives the bird its alternative name of Fork-tailed Kite. They feed on small mammals, lizards, insects – especially grasshoppers.
Find out more about walking the ancient paths of the Kumano Kodo.