Japan’s geography doesn’t quite get as much love as the other interesting aspects of Japan. For whatever reason, talking about wildlife and animals just isn’t as sexy as the fast-paced, sleek urban landscape of Tokyo, but you’ll find a lot of hidden gems on the many little islands that make up Japan.
Japan is, a big surprise here, an island country made up of 4 main islands (hokkaido, honshu, shikoku, and kyushu) and around 3,000 little islands. These islands can range from small completely uninhabitable pieces of rock to relatively large islands with medium-sized cities.
This unique situation has allowed things to develop independently, giving Japan a one-of-kind patchwork of cultures and interesting wildlife. If you are nature-lover, Japan has numerous little nooks and crannies to explore.
Okinawa was originally its own kingdom, called Ryukyu. Since it was situated between Japan and China, it prospered as a trading center between the two nations during the 15th and 16th centuries. It then became a tributary to Japan in 1609 (it had been in a tributary relationship with China since 1372). In 1879, the islands officially became a part of Japan.
Although, the islands are now Okinawa prefecture, the culture of the islands has an obviously different origin than the culture of mainland Japan. A lot of the beliefs and rituals that still take place on the islands today are very different than that of traditional Japan.
For example, one of the famous drinks you can get in Okinawa is awamori, a very strong drink (sometimes up to 120 proof), that is distilled from rice. Sake, on the other hand, is brewed from rice. This gives it a unique taste and it is famous across Japan as being that ‘strong drink from Okinawa.’
Another unique feature of Okinawa culture, are the turtle-shaped tombs that can be found on some of the islands. These tombs are more like burial vaults where several generations of a family are laid to rest. They can also be quite large – somewhere around 150 square feet in some cases.
Culture isn’t the only Thing
Some of the islands are home to small unique populations of wildlife that can not be found anywhere in the world. These living treasures can be a little hard to find, but are worth the effort for the true eco-tourist.
For example, one island of Okinawa, Iriomote, is home to a critically endangered subspecies of leopard cat. The aptly named Iriomote Cat is a house-cat sized version of a leopard. Their short, stocky build allows them to jump a lot higher than most cats. Since they are nocturnal, they can be pretty hard to spot though.
Another island, Yakushima, is also known as a popular eco-tourism spot. It has a unique species of deer and monkey that live exclusively on Yakushima, but the highlight of the island is Jomon Sugi. Nobody is quite sure how old the tree is. Although most scientists will agree that it is at least 2,000 years old, some believe it to be over 7,000 years old.
This final island is located farther north near Sendai, and it is also known for its ‘unusual’ wildlife, but for a different reason.
Tashirojima, or Cat Island, is a place where the cats out number the residents. Originally, islanders raised silkworm to make silk on the island. Mice are natural predators of silkworm, so to keep the mice population down on the island, the islanders used cats.
Later, during the Edo period, the area became a popular stop over for fishermen. The cats would come to the inns where the fishermen were staying and beg for scraps. The cat population grew over time and now the island has a large cat population. Dogs have been virtually banned from the island as well.
Which Island do you Want to Visit?
If you could visit any of the more remote islands of Japan, which would it be? Or if you’ve had the chance to visit an island in Japan, I’d love to hear your story! Let me know in the comments below.
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