Hotaru (fireflies) are one of nature’s smaller, yet sublime occurrences. The tiny, 15-mm-long bugs live only two weeks after hatching, but are blessed with phosphorescent rear ends which make clusters of them a captivating sight on summer nights. Their almost-fluorescent glow also ensures the continuation of the species: During their short life span fireflies use that glow to court before mating, subsequently hatching eggs and then dying a few days later.
The bugs have long been considered a symbol of this season, and appear in countless poems extolling the simple pleasures of rural summertime. Early each June, firefly-watching events are held around Japan. These can be magical experiences: intimate quartets, for example, held in quiet forests and known to only a handful of people. Unfortunately, many events have a more adverse effect. Noisy crowds that arrive with glaring lamps and car stereos, leaving behind garbage and trampled riverbanks, frighten away every last firefly in the area.
Fireflies are found in verdant, unspoiled countryside with clean rivers, far from the bright lights and refuse of human settlements. After mating, eggs are deposited into these rivers, where they hatch into larvae and grow. The larvae crawl out of the river the following April, develop into chrysalides and then sprout wings in June, before beginning the mating process anew. Females are slightly larger than males and their glow is more intense, but they are fewer in number. They tend to fly lower, near preferred hatching zones such as moss and deep grass.
The most common species in Japan (of around 40 types) are genji-botaru and heike-botaru; a naming with an interesting history. It is said the souls of countless soldiers, killed in the Dannoura Battle of 1185 between the Minamoto (Genji) clan and their rivals the Taira (Heike) clan, turned into fireflies. The larger and more profuse genji-botaru fireflies were no doubt named after the winning Genji, and the smaller heike-botaru after the defeated Heike. Now heike-botaru, found in wet rice fields, are declining even further as the use of artificial pesticides and fertilizers increases.
Fireflies are traditionally seen on evenings before mid-June in natural areas throughout Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu. Humid (but not rainy) warm nights between 7:30 and 9 p.m. are best. Conditions vary each year, so it’s best to check with locals in the know. In Kyushu, forested parts of Miyazaki and Oita prefectures are well-known firefly harbors, but you can sometimes see them surprisingly close to cities.
One such place is the Mitsuse area, just west of Fukuoka City and easy to get to. About 25 minutes after leaving downtown Fukuoka, the road turns a corner, narrows, and all of a sudden emerald-green rice fields spread out between the suburban homes. Ten minutes later the road winds steeply up to the Mitsuse hills, a lush rural area. Mitsuse’s pure water reserves have long guaranteed prime firefly watching, aided by the locals’ care of the nearby Muromi River.
The area was featured in a book of Japan’s 100 best traditional natural areas, published by the Environment Agency in 1988. Tens of thousands of genji-botaru fireflies can be seen near the area’s natural rocky river surrounded by grasses, moss and lush trees, from early to mid-June. Even so, their decreasing numbers show they are threatened by the litter and noise brought by would-be firefly viewers. Some old-fashioned enthusiasts still trap fireflies to take home, which further contributes to their decline. So if you go, remember to maintain the peace, and take only your trash home with you.
Mitsuse still abounds in natural scenery, camping and hiking opportunities. Other attractions include Ryozanpaku hot spring which, apart from a large concrete tiger on the road outside and an exaggerated karaoke tower, is actually quite tasteful. Wood, bamboo and greenery link the various indoor and outdoor hot springs, and there’s not a scrap of astro-turf in sight. Further up the road, closer to Saga Prefecture, several gourmet establishments put Mitsuse’s pure water to delicious use — look out for the immensely popular Mitsuse Soba and Torikai Tofu shops.
Another area worth visiting to see fireflies is Hoshino, a hilly tea-growing region a good hour’s drive from Yame County in southern Fukuoka Prefecture. With the new tea freshly harvested, the area turns quiet around this time of the year and thousands of fireflies flit on either side of the narrow, rocky Hoshino River. Hoshino is also famous for its beautiful, clear skies. Hoshino Bunkakan, a modern hilltop observatory, is open until 9:30 p.m. and is an interesting place to visit year round. Down the road is the Hoshino Tea Museum and several cabins to stay in overnight, and that’s it. But that’s all you really need.
Old stories associated with fireflies in Japan and China tell of diligent but poor students, working by the light of fireflies. The Japanese words to “Auld Lang Syne” use images of fireflies and moonlit snow to convey the song’s original solemnity. Fireflies are associated with silence and simplicity. But they are a significant indicator that one is in truly clean, pure natural surroundings.