Tokyo is a city of many things, but “nature”? Not exactly a word that most associate with the metropolis. When it comes to the city’s animal life, most Tokyoites think meiwaku dōbutsu (迷惑動物, pests) rather than yasei-dōbutsu (野生動物, wildlife), associating animal encounters with mischievous karasu (烏, crows), skittering gokiburi (ゴキブリ, cockroaches), and the occasional dobu-nezumi (ドブネズミ, sewer rat) scampering by.
But Tokyo is a big place, and when spring comes to the city, so too does a surprising range of wildlife — if you know where to look.
The Japanese have an actual term for the first stirring of life after winter: keichitsu (啓蟄). There isn’t any direct English equivalent, but it means something like “the awakening of the creatures.”
Note I said “creatures” and not “animals” here, for keichitsu refers mainly to mushi (虫), which literally means “bugs” but in common usage can refer to all sorts of creepy-crawlies including konchū (昆虫, insects), mimizu (ミミズ, worms), ryōseirui (両生類, amphibians), and hachūrui (爬虫類, reptiles). Quite the catchall term. It occurs around March 5 or 6 — the day on which hibernating insects are said to emerge from the ground.
In fact, right around that time this year, I spotted my first sleepy-eyed specimen of Bufo japonicus, known to locals as the hikigaeru (ヒキガエル, common Japanese toad). These large amphibians, festooned with distinctive brown and white “racing stripes” (insofar as a toad is capable of racing), are commonly encountered in damp spots throughout the city. My wife even came face to face with one when she picked up a flower pot at the local hanayasan (花屋さん, flower shop) last year.
Now that the sakura (桜, cherry blossoms) have bloomed and fallen and we are well into spring, a whole host of other animals are taking wing and foot. One of my favorite hunting grounds is the Kanda River (神田川), which snakes east through western Tokyo before eventually joining the Sumida River (隅田川). Like many rivers in Japan, its banks are almost entirely sheathed in concrete, ostensibly as kōzui chōsetsu (洪水調節, a flood-control measure).
This has the unfortunate effect of permanently changing the kawa no biotōpe (川のビオトープ , river ecosystem) such that many once-common native species whose lifecycles depend on riverbanks, such as hotaru (蛍, fireflies), are now hard to find in Tokyo. But a handful of tenacious species cling on.
One of my favorites is the squishy suppon (すっぽん, soft-shelled turtle). These floppy reptiles with pig-like snouts can be seen rooting around shallow areas of the river. Hard-shelled kame (亀, turtles) are a more common sight, although sharp-eyed animal watchers will notice that the vast majority are aka-mimi game (アカミミガメ, red-eared sliders) rather than kusa-game (クサガメ, common Japanese pond turtles). The latter are native, while the former are gairaishu (外来種, introduced species).
Another easy-to-spot alien species in the Kanda River are amerika-zarigani (アメリカザリガニ, American signal crayfish). These clawed critters have all but displaced the native nihon-zarigani (ニホンザリガニ, Japanese crayfish).
Alien or not, small crayfish are a favorite food for a variety of bird life that can be found along the river. These include the graceful stilt-legged sagi (サギ, egret) and the sleek goisagi (ゴイサギ, night heron), both of which can be seen stalking the shallows for fish and aquatic insects. In deeper areas, oshidori (鴛鴦, mandarin ducks), kaitsuburi (カイツブリ, little grebes) are common. If you’re lucky, you might even catch sight of the occasional kawau (河鵜, great cormorant) drying its wings after a dive. (If you’re quick-eyed, you can sometimes even spot them from the left side of the Chuo Line (中央線) trains as they speed past the wide stretch of the Kanda River between Ichigaya (市ヶ谷駅) and Iidabashi (飯田橋駅) stations.
I’m running out of space and I haven’t even got to Tokyo’s land animals yet, its tanuki (狸, raccoon-dogs), hakubishin (ハクビシン, palm civet cats), kōmori (コウモリ, bats) and kabuto-mushi (カブトムシ, rhinoceros beetles). I’ll have to save those for a follow-up. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled. The warming weather is a perfect chance to take a local safari in the urban jungle.