The Nature of Japan

Darling Range Branch meeting, February 2012

“The Nature of Japan” was the subject of our first meeting for 2012 and it was presented jointly by Hirono and Mike Griffiths. Following their recent visit to Japan in October 2011, Mike and Hirono conducted us on a travelogue from a Naturalists’ viewpoint.

We were introduced to some of the interesting flora and fauna and scenery of Japan through a series of maps and many images. We learned that, with a population of 128 million, a land mass that was 1/20th of the size of Australia and with 70% of the country mountainous, the islands had only 14% of land available for agriculture. However, this makeup presented a scenically attractive backdrop with 67% of land under forests.

Japan is an archipelago of 3000 islands, although the majority of the country is made up of four main islands (Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu). Japan’s mountains result from its geologically interesting but unstable position at the intersection of three tectonic plates; movements of these plates have produced the volcanoes and mountains (with Mount Fujiyama as the iconic example), the thermal springs (tapped by both macaques and humans) and periodic earthquakes (as we are aware from the 2011 tsunamis).

Climatically Japan experiences many zones with their associated ecosystems stretching from humid subtropical in Southern Japan to cold temperate in the north with warm summers and long cold winters experiencing abundant snow (scenically advantageous).

Hirono gave us a few statistics to compare flora and fauna with WA. Japan lists over 6000 vascular plant species of which 1950 are endemic, WA lists a similar number with approximately 5700 species of which 4,500 are endemic; Japan’s mammals number 188 species, WA’s number 60. Bird and freshwater fish species in Japan number 665 and 200 respectively, far greater than WA’s counts of 280 and 20. With population pressure and limited area for urban spreading it is inevitable that Japan’s natural biodiversity is constantly under threat from increased habitat fragmentation. Amongst the critically endangered species are the Okinawa woodpecker and the Japanese macaque. The spectacle of these ‘snow monkeys’ bathing in warm thermal waters would be familiar to us all.

Our travelogue included commentary on both the nature and social make-up of Japan and we were all interested to hear what to expect in a traditional Japanese hotel room by way of layout, en suite facilities, furnishings and foods on offer. We were also instructed on the complexity of the recycling formalities with Mike’s image of a regiment of expectant bins, with instructions in Japanese.

Bird sightings at sanctuaries local to Osaka featured the Eurasian kestrel (catching sparrows), an egret and an osprey, and of special interest at the local aquarium were a whale shark and a sunfish.

Mike took us on a visit to Iriomote Island, one of the small islands at the extreme southern part of Japan, where mangroves are established and the Iriomote cat is endemic. This interesting mammal is critically endangered and it is thought that about 100 remain on the island. The cat, with a body length of up to 60 cm, thrives on skinks, snakes, frogs, bats, crustaceans and insects. Mike, working with the co-operation of local naturalist officials, was able to set up one of his night-viewing cameras and successfully captured images of this beautiful creature, as well as the pygmy boar, in the wild. Treks through the local forests were illustrated with images of butterflies, bristled caterpillars, millipedes, lizards and frogs against a floral understorey with mosses, aspleniums, liverworts, fungi and lycopodia. Larger flora included the sago palm (Cycas revoluta, native to the island) and fig trees.

Back on the main island we were “whisked” by bullet train from Osaka to Nagano via the Japanese Alps. The mountain regions were snow-covered and sported many waterfalls and in parts supporting white birch. The Japanese larch (Larix kaempferi) also features, unusual as it is the only deciduous pine species. Spa villages in the region such as Shirahone, a remote village in the valley of the Yugawa River, feature both indoor and outdoor spas of warm calcium and magnesian-rich spring waters. Architecturally the buildings are in traditional style with rooms furnished with tatami mats, futons and paper screens (in place of curtaining). More unusual culinary fare featured a square-formed persimmon and nashi pears, with octopus, raw fish and burdock also on offer.

At the Kamakochi highland resort in the Japanese Alps, where visitors arrive by public shuttle buses or taxi as private vehicles are not permitted in many regions of the Park, there were boardwalks into forests areas where Sagisuge (Eriophorum gracile) and maples (Acer palmatum) are established as well as many sights of waterfalls and clear waters of the Azusa river. Many of the mountain slopes are reinforced in public areas with fencing as a protection from landslides. Kamakochi is a National Park and since 1909, plants and animals have been protected.

In other mountainous areas, at higher altitudes, ski resorts are established and conditions are subalpine and often foggy. A 2 km long cable car facility takes visitors to the ski slopes. Soils (derived from volcanic rocks) of these regions are poor but support Rhododendron japonicum and cranberries. We were also shown an example of a wildlife bridge built high above a roadway to ensure the safe passage of small animals, such as dormice and squirrels.

The final scenic visit was to Mount Fujiyama (3,776 m), with its classic volcano-shaped form, and images of icicles, forest areas and Shinto shrines. A local special delicacy is a colourful cake, shaped in the form of this iconic mountain.

Following the talk, Hirono introduced a large selection of traditional Japanese foods for us to taste and savour.

Susan Stocklmayer