Ever since I was a small boy (yes, even I was small once), I have been dreaming of seeing a Japanese Giant Salamander in the wild. These massive, ancient and enigmatic animals have been fascinating me for long, while a chance of seeing them seemed far away. But then an opportunity came by and as always with these things, it came in the form of something completely unexpected. This time in the form of a Pain Neuroscience Conference... Laura had the chance to attend this conference for work related purposes and we both started fantasizing about seeing Japanese Giant Salamanders. Laura thought of the possibility to arrive a bit earlier to search for these living fossils and all I could think was: "Well, not without me!" At work I told the schoolboard about my plans. Knowing about my passion, they understood the utter necessity for me to join in on this adventure. My interns could take over my classes so it was no problem and I had permission to book this trip in the middle of the school year. Holy paddy field, I am going to Japan!
Of course winter arrived in Japan (like in the rest of the northern hemisphere) and two weeks prior to our arrival the area we visited had its fair share of snow and frost already. We knew herping would be hard and many species would be out of bound. Our main target however is active almost year round and even in late autumn/early winter they can still be found. During the trip our premonition proved right and many herp species were already hibernating except for the river giants who were still roaming through their streams...
24/25 November 2014 - arrival, Sasayama and first Giants
The day after celebrating my birthday Laura and I both flew from Amsterdam to Osaka on a direct flight. With the time difference we arrived a day later in the morning after sitting in a plane for
twelve hours. After collecting our luggage we immediately went to collect our rental car which was also quickly done and headed of in the direction of Ikuno where we would spend the night in the
Marutsune. Our first stop however was the city of Sasayama, where we searched the rice paddies for a range restricted subspecies of the Japanese Fire Belly Newt (Cynops pyrrhogaster
sasayamae). This newt species was relatively easily found next to a few Japanese Grass Lizards (Takydromus tachydromoides) and a single Japanese Tree Frog (Hyla japonica).
In the late afternoon we arrived at the tiny town of Ikuno where the owners of the Minshuku were already waiting for us. The friendly Masumi and Tetsuro Kuroda showed us where we would stay the
first three nights in Japan and immediately we were struck by the lavishly decorated guest house, typically Japanese with Tatami mats on the floor, a Kotatsu with heating underneath and rooms
seperated from each other by Fusuma, the typical sliding panels. After enjoying a lovely Japanese dinner made for us by Masumi we went for our first Hanzaki search. Already a few meters
downstream of the Minshuku we were lucky enough to find our first two Japanese Giant Salamanders (Andrias japonicus) foraging next to a rapid. In the end we managed to find no less than
seven of these living fossils making us as happy as little schoolgirls. Also many, many Japanese Fire Belly Newts were seen in the more calmer parts of the river.
26 November 2014 - Mount Dangamine
We had some problems waking up this morning, not only by the joy of the previous (late) night but also the jetlag turned out to be a bit bad. The huge breakfast however made us wake up a bit more
and we enjoyed the mash-up of Japanese (rice, veggies, fish) and western (scrambled-egg, toast) style breakfast. Mount Dangamine was waiting for us however and we were hoping to find two of our
most wanted terrestrial salamander species here. Timing in the year and weather conditions however were not on our side and of Japanese Clawed Salamander (Onychodactylus japonicus) we
could only find one larvae sadly. The stream did boost a healthy population of Tago's Brown Frog (Rana tagoi) that were found in good numbers despite the cold. A pity the salamanders
remain a reason to go back to Japan but it was to be expected. But what a habitat, to search in these archaic, eerie forests with Japanese Cedar trees towering high above the forest stream, lined
with ferns, mosses and small bamboo grasses is just a delight.
In the evening we had another fabulous meal after which we drove to several bigger pools a bit further downstream. Here we searched the torrents for more Japanese Giant Salamanders of which we
found four. What an experience to see these creatures lying dormant at the stony beds of the river, waiting for fish to come close enough for them to snap at them, bats shooting over the water to
capture insects while Sika Deer (Cervus nippon) were staring at us from the shore. Unforgettable! While driving back to the Minshuku we saw more deer, a Wild Boar (Sus scrofa)
and we were lucky enough to have a close encounter with a Japanese Badger (Meles anakuma).
27 November 2014 - Hanzaki institute and more Hanzakis
Tetsuro had arranged a visit for us at the Hanzaki institute which is a base for Hanzaki researchers, a sanctuary for Hybrid Giant Salamanders (Andrias japonicus x davidianus) from the Kyoto region and an educational centre for school classes. We had the delight to visit here at the same time the Toyooka Elementary school was visiting and we audited a lecture from the owner Takeyoshi Tochimoto together with several curious school children. The highlight however was feeding time. In the bassins outside the institute a small hundred Giant Salamanders live, mainly hybrids with the Chinese Giant Salamander that occur in the wild outside Kyoto but also a few pure Japanese Giant Salamanders. No matter the species, a very cool thing to let half a fish dangle into a pool full of meter long salamanders that snap at the food like young puppies. While it was lunch for the school children we got a guided tour though the institue, learning more about the research being done here and about the natural history of the region. After saying goodbye to the children and the friendly Mr. Tochimoto we went to the same pools as the night before and we found a Giant Salamander, attracted to the sausages we had for lunch. A great opportunity for some daytime photography. Before nightfall we pictured the omnipresent Japanese Fire Belly Newts and searched upstream this time to find four more Japanese Giant Salamanders and a Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) before falling asleep.
28/29 November 2014 - Kyoto
With pain in our hearts we said goodbye to the Minshuku, the magic stream full of Hanzaki and our wonderful hosts Masumi and Tetsuro. What an earthly paradise they have here and certainly we will
come back one day! Only with some more stroopwafels for our hosts this time... After a two hour drive through the fantastic Japanese countryside we arrived in the hustle and bustle of Kyoto City
where we had some problems to find the lovely Ryokan Ikoi-No-Ie where we would stay for two nights but in the end we managed. With public transport we arrived without stress at the mountain
Arashiyama where free roaming Japanese Macaques (Macaca fuscata) can easily be observed as they are used to humans. A great view on the city and a great time to observe these primates in
the wild as well. After descending the mountain we visited the famous Sagano Bamboo Forest, had a noodle dinner in the inner city and through the small alleys of the old city we arrived back in
29 November 2014 - Kyoto
The next morning the rain was pouring down like mad. So we weren't really in a hurry, took it slow and had a nice breakfast at the Lawson's after which we went to the gift shop of the Kyoto Aquarium. Some serious Hanzaki souvenir shopping followed and a few Yen poorer we dropped the stuff at the Ryokan and took the bike to Fushimi Inari. Cycling was a bit tricky with thousands of people making their way thorugh the narrow streets at this busy time of year. The whole of Japan flocks to Kyoto for autumn leaf viewing and the tranquility of Ikuno seemed far away. But while hiking up the mountain the steady flow of people got less and we could enjoy the endless torii (gates), Kitsune (fox statues) and Golden Orb Spiders (Nephila clavata) more and more. At a Kaiten Sushi we had a cheap but delicious lunch and had enough energy to cycle on again towards the massive Kiyomizu-Dera Complex. We also thought to photograph the structure in the blue hour but seeing the queue to go back in again at dusk we decided against. I kid you not, a kilometer of people where waiting to go there in the evening hours, insane... Instead we had a relaxing evening at the Gion District, having a close encounter with two geishas, visiting several smaller and less frequented temple complexes and got our kitty fix in the Cat Cafe Wan Nyan Chu. At the Sukiya we had dinner before going back to the Ryokan.
30 November 2014 - Osaka
After enjoying our supermarket breakfast in the sun we drove on to Osaka to visit the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan. This huge complex consists of several smaller aquaria build around one massive tank
which is home to several huge rays and one Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus) as the main eye catcher. A stunning fish but sad to see it in captivity, but this goes for all the animals held
here. Nonetheless, the exhibits are fantastic and the aquarium really worked out the theme well. They reconstructed a Japanese river ecosystem (including Giant Salamanders), a coral reef,
mangrove forest and open ocean to just name a few. But after two hours we went on to have sushi in a Kaiten Sushi restaurant next to the Aquarium. You really taste that the animals had a nice
life in the Aquarium! Also the price was very good - it costed as much as 15min. in a cat cafe. Afterwards we tried to find the hotel in downtown Osaka. What a mess that was... All in all we
managed to find the hotel, drop of the luggage and drive on to Kansai airport to return the rental car on time and move back into the city with public transport for a relaxing evening. In
the America-mura district and the adjacent Dotombori bridge we had a nice evening of people watching and great views on the city lights. After a meal at the McDonalds (which costed as much as
10min. in a cat cafe) we went back to the hotel and slept like babies in our western bed, after sleeping on Futon mats for the past week this was such a treat!
1 December 2014 - Back to Holland and back to work
In the morning we took the train from Sakai station to the Osaka Kanzai airport where I would catch my flight back to Holland. Laura would attend the conference in Osaka and would stay for an
additional five days. After the eleven hour flight I landed safely in Holland and went straight to work. In the evening there was a parent evening scheduled and from 18:00 until 21:30 I was
talking to the parents of my students about their grades. A tough day and it goes without saying I went straight to bed afterwards.
But what a trip. I fell in love with Japan. The kindness of the people, the relaxed atmosphere in the Hyogo Mountains, the stunning scenery and lush vegetation of cedar trees, bamboo, ferns and palms. The delicious food, how easy and cheap it is to travel, all the luxurious accomodations we could enjoy, the rich culture and fantastic wildlife. On top of all that the country is technologically way more advanced with the fastest GPS reception I ever experienced, wifi practically everywhere and heated toilet seats. The Japanese people are always up to make a couple picture and you don't even have to ask them, they offer themselves and actually make great pictures! All these things make me want to go back there and I am already feeling melancholic when I think of the everyday life that Laura and I had for a short time in Ikuno town.
Japanese Giant Salamander (Andrias japonicus)
Japanese Fire Belly Newt (Cynops pyrrhogaster)
Japanese Clawed Salamander (Onychodactylus japonicus) larva
Japanese Tree Frog (Hyla japonica)
Tago's Brown Frog (Rana tagoi)
Japanese Grass Lizard (Takydromus tachydromoides)
Many thanks to Tim Johnson, Joachim Nerz and Sebastian Voitel for their valuable intell, Takeyoshi Tochimoto for the interesting tour through the Hanzaki
Institute and also a massive thanks to Masumi and Tetsuro Kuroda for being the best possible hosts!