It’s a Saturday in late March and many residents and tourists in Nagano Prefecture are savoring the last snows atop the region’s world-class ski resorts. Along the shores of Lake Nojiri, however, all eyes are fixed on the cold, gritty soil.

Therein lies a lost giant: Naumann's elephant, a species that roamed Japan over 40,000 years ago.

The cherry blossoms may be blooming elsewhere, but on this frigid afternoon the high country winter clings on. Listless, chilly fog curls around Nojiri’s mountainous parapet, regularly delivering rain and icy gusts to the excavators below. Behind them a torii gate sits far offshore, barely visible through the haze.