On November 30th, 2021,
Hokkaido Wildlife Guide
Adventure Hokkaido Guide Kazu shares his favourite wildlife to see in Hokkaido, as well as tips on all the best spots in this handy Hokkaido Wildlife Guide for visitors.
One of the things that makes Hokkaido’s outdoors so special is the unique fauna that call this island home. With big bears, giant eagles, tiny airborne squirrels and mysterious fish, Hokkaido’s animal life is rich and varied.
Hokkaido has the lowest population density in Japan and we humans are outnumbered at times by our animal friends. In this Hokkaido wildlife guide, I will introduce what animals you can see in Hokkaido.
But first, I will introduce myself. Konnichiwa, my name is Kazu. I am one of the founders of and guides at Adventure Hokkaido. I have been living in Higashikawa at the foot of the Daisetsuzan mountains in Hokkaido since 2001.
I believe sustainable tourism is vital for the health of our environment. I want as many people as possible to enjoy our incredible outdoors, whilst protecting it for future generations.
Hokkaido is a paradise for wildlife watching. Long separated from the rest of Japan by the deep Tsugaru Strait, the wildlife in Hokkaido has more in common with that in Siberia than on mainland Japan.
Many of the animals I list in this blog are found only in Hokkaido or Russia’s far east. The distinct fauna in Hokkaido was first noted by an English naturalist called Thomas Blakiston, who lived in Hokkaido for many years. The difference in flora and fauna between Hokkaido and the rest of Japan is now known as Blakiston’s line.
Only in Hokkaido can you see these unique animals without spending days travelling into the remote wilderness. Here in Hokkaido, you can retire to an onsen hot-spring after watching the giant Blakiston’s Fish Owl outside your hotel.
What wildlife can I see in Hokkaido?
The Brown Bear, or Higuma, is one of the largest Brown Bears. Adult males weigh over 200kg. They are larger than the black bears found elsewhere in Japan.
The Ainu, Hokkaido’s indigenous people, know the bears as Kimun Kamuy, the god of the mountains. They play a significant role in Ainu culture, including iomante, a ceremony where villagers sacrificed a bear cub after raising it for two years as if it was their own child.
Some fear the Higuma; there have been attacks on humans in the past. However, Higuma are more likely to be found dining on wild plants or berries than hikers. With simple precautions to avoid startling them, I believe we can safely coexist.
Where are the bears in Hokkaido?
The Higuma lives throughout the island of Hokkaido. Bear sightings are especially common in the Shiretoko National Park and Kogen Numa, in the east of the Daisetsuzan National Park.
The hiking trail at Kogen Numa winds amongst alpine tarns and marshes full of the Higuma’s favourite plants, such as the Asian Skunk Cabbage. The patches of snow that remain into June at the top of the trail are my favourite spot for spotting bears at a comfortable distance. Access to the trail is carefully managed to limit the impact on the bear population. We are guests in their home here.
Top tips for spotting a bear in the wild in Hokkaido
- Where – Kogen Onsen in the east of the Daisetsuzan National Park.
- When – Early summer. It is easier to spot the bears traveling on snow patches. Sightings also become less common later in summer as the bears are thought to travel further looking for food. Once winter arrives the bears are tucked away hibernating.
- Time required – Full day – The trail takes about 4 hours but Kogen Numa is located in the remote eastern side of the Daisetsuzan Mountains.
- Probability of seeing – It takes some luck.
Higuma may attack if we startle them. Carry a bell or make noise as you walk to make them aware of you. They will move away long before you get close. We want to see them, but at a distance comfortable for both parties!
Our tour with the best chance of seeing wild bear in Hokkaido
The Japanese name for the Northern Pika, Nakiusagi, means “crying rabbit” and it is the squeaky cries amongst the rocks that give away the presence of these cute little pika.
The northern pika is thought to have come to Hokkaido from Siberia during the last ice age. Once the ice melted, they were cut off from their relatives and made their home on a few of Hokkaido’s rocky mountains.
Mt. Hakuunzan at the southern end of the Daisetsuzan National Park is one of the best places to see them.
The hike itself is one of my favourite routes in Hokkaido, climbing through the old forest above Lake Shikaribetsu. But the highlight is at the rocky summit. Crossing the boulder field, I pause and listen for the telltale “Kitz” cries. Once I hear them, I know I will eventually spot a fluffy Nakiusagi perched on a rock.
They apparently like raised rocks to get a good view, but I think they just like posing for photos!
Top tips for seeing the Northern Pika in Hokkaido
- Where – Mt. Hakuunzan in southern Daisetsuzan National Park
- When to go – Spring through Autumn – They don’t hibernate but are a lot harder to see in winter.
- Time required – A half day to a full day depending on how long you wait for the perfect pose.
- Probability of seeing – 50:50
Pika can also be seen at Senjokuzure just off the road at Shirakaba Pass to the south of Mt Hakuunzan; perfect if you don’t have the time (or energy) to hike to the summit. If you are staying near Biei, head to Bogakudai at the foot of Mt Tokachidake, where the rocky terrain next to the car park is also home to Pika.
Our tour where you may see the Northern Pika
The White-tailed eagle is one of the largest birds of prey, closely related to the Bald Eagles of America. Watching them take gracefully to the sky with their 2 meter wide wings is an impressive sight. There is a healthy population of the eagles living year-round on Hokkaido, with over 150 pairs known to breed here.
While you can see the beautiful birds on land, the best way to see them is by heading out onto the frozen ocean. Every winter the local fishermen head out amongst the drift ice to catch Alaskan Pollock. The eagles make the most of this opportunity and congregate on the ice, catching any fish that escape the boats. They have even been known to approach fishermen they trust and take fish off the boat.
The wildlife watching cruise from Rausu is captained by a former local fisherman. He pilots the boat through the drift ice so you can get an up-close look at these majestic birds in their natural habitat.
Top Tips for seeing Steller’s Sea Eagle in Hokkaido
- Where – Rausu, Shiretoko
- When to go – Late January to mid March
- Time required – Just a few hours – You will get cold!
- Probability of seeing – Pretty likely – The eagles are comfortable around humans, so gather around working fishermen.
Wrap up warm! You are heading out onto an icy sea with a biting wind. I recommend a thick down jacket with a wind and waterproof jacket, like a ski jacket, on top. Don’t forget a warm hat, warm shoes and gloves too. There is a heater inside the cabin, but you will want to be outside for the best views on the birds. If you are bringing a camera make sure you bring a spare battery and keep it warm, nothing is worse than missing the perfect shot because your battery is flat!
I am possibly biased towards these little white balls of fluff as they live practically in my backyard, the Kitoushi Forest where I run the Daisetsuzan Nature School. That said, with their big black eyes they are very cute and watching them glide up to 50m through the forest is a spectacle.
While they are active year-round, winter is the best time to see them. A Siberian Flying Squirrel (Momonga) viewing trip involves strapping snowshoes on your feet before heading out before sunrise into the freezing dark. The nocturnal Momonga head back to their holes as the sun comes up, giving us a chance of spotting one in flight.
Top tips for seeing Siberian Flying Squirrels in Hokkaido
- Where – Kitoushi Forest, Higashikawa
- When to go – Winter
- Time required – A few days – You are unlikely to see one on your first go so I would recommend spending a few days in Higashikawa going out each morning.
- Probability of seeing – You’re really lucky if you see one
Look for poo. Piles of poo and twigs around the base of a tree indicate there is a nest in the tree. Doing some prior research during the day can help you find them when it gets dark. Alternatively, you can leave the poo research to a local nature guide like myself!
The Blakiston’s Fish Owl is the largest living owl. They are very rare, with between 160 – 180 owls found only in eastern Hokkaido and Kunashiri Island. As a fish hunter, the Shimafukuro live in old forests that surround fish-filled rivers. Due to their size, they need large old trees to breed and deforestation has severely impacted their numbers. Fortunately, local conservationists are hard at work in Hokkaido preserving a habitat where the owls can breed.
The Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, also traditionally lived along the rivers of Hokkaido. It is no surprise that the owl is a big part of Ainu culture. The Ainu call the owls “Kotan koru Kamuy”, the god that protects the village. It features in many folk stories watching over the communities. As I explore the local forests, I often feel like a pair of big yellow eyes is watching me from somewhere.
Yoroushi Onsen area in northeast Hokkaido has hot-spring rivers that don’t freeze and dense old-growth forests. The perfect habitat for Shimafukuro. A local hot spring hotel, Yuyado Daiichi, even has a cozy warm viewing space where guests can shoot photos of the owls that visit the hotel’s backyard in the evening.
How to see Blakiston’s Fish Owl in Hokkaido?
- Where – Yoroushi Onsen, north east Hokkaido
- When to go – The owls can be seen year around, but are perhaps more common in the winter when other food sources are rarer.
- Time required – One night – The nocturnal owls visit during the evening so you will need to stay the night.
- Probability of seeing – 50:50
The owls visit at night, so you should bring a night spotting scope for the best chance of seeing them. Photographers should bring a tripod and also turn off their flash and focusing lights to avoid spooking the owls.
Our tour which stops for the night at Yoroushi Onsen to see the Blakiston’s Fish Owl
The Sakhalin Taimen is a large salmon, growing up to 1.5m long, that lives in the rivers and lakes of Hokkaido. The Itō is Japan’s largest freshwater fish and is nicknamed “Maroboshi no sakana”, the phantom fish. Habitat loss has seen numbers drop in many rivers. However, their stocks in some of Hokkaido’s lakes are healthy enough to be sustainable for catch and release fishing.
Despite a strong typhoon in 2016, the population has improved in Lake Kanayama, near Minami Furano in central Hokkaido. The sleek fish are popular with local anglers, especially in autumn when in spawning colours. Keen anglers head out onto the lake with fly lures, even as the snow starts to fall, looking to catch one of these elusive fish.
How to see Sakhalin Taimen in Hokkaido?
- Where – Lake Kanayama in central Hokkaido
- When to go – Autumn
- Time required – Full day
- Probability of seeing – It takes some luck, first you have to catch it!
The local fishing guides work with the town to sustainably manage the fish stocks in the lake. Heading out onto the lake with a guide is the best way to have a chance of catching one of these phantom fish.
These majestic white and black cranes have been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, they are the inspiration behind origami cranes. They form lifelong pairs and live for up to 40 years so perhaps we see some of ourselves in them. Although their elegant mating dances put my fancy footwork to shame! The Ainu called the majestic birds “Sarurun Kamuy”, the god of the marshes.
Sadly they were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century with only a few birds surviving in the marshes of eastern Hokkaido. Thankfully the numbers have rebounded due to diligent conservation efforts with over 1000 now living in Hokkaido, half of the global population. The cranes in Hokkaido are also the only resident population, travelling less than 200km between summer and winter habitats.
Crane spotting is one of my favourite winter trips. While the cranes disappear into the marshes to brood in the summer months, in winter they regularly visit farm fields, like those at the Tsurui Ito Tancho Red-crowned Crane Sanctuary. Originally the land of a farmer who fed the few remaining cranes to get them through the harsh winters, the sanctuary has been critical to the crane’s recovery. The now healthy crane population can be seen in the fields and streams around Tsurui and watching them dance and sing set against a snowy background is one of my favourite winter experiences.
How to see the Red-crowned Cranes in Hokkaido
- Where – Tsurui Ito Tancho Red-crowned Crane Sanctuary, 45 minutes from Kushiro in eastern Hokkaido
- When to go – Winter
- Time required – Half day
- Probability of seeing – It’s a sure thing in winter. The cranes will always come at feeding time at the sanctuary. With some searching you can also find them along the rivers around town.
If you can pull yourself out of your warm bed, I highly recommend heading to Otowa Bridge just outside town first thing in the morning. The morning mist settles in the Setsuri river and watching the cranes forage in the mist is a sight well worth the chilly start.
Our tour with the best chance of seeing Red-crowned Cranes
These migratory geese cover many many miles every year. In summers they breed in Siberia before heading south to escape the harsh winter. Some spend their winter holidays in Europe, others in the middle east while a sizable population winters in mainland Japan.
En route between the summer and winter homes, the geese descend on Miyajima Marsh, about 1 hour north of Sapporo, for a huge get-together. After spending the day eating leftover grains in the nearby rice fields, the geese return to the Ramsar designated wetland in the evening. The V-shaped flocks of geese in the sky remind me of my time in Sapporo, but watching flock after flock splashing down into the marsh at dusk is something else. Before long, up to 70,000 geese have filled the marsh.
At dawn the geese all launch back into the sky in a moment of avian chaos. The first time I saw it I thought there had been an explosion, but it was the sound of 70,000 geese all taking off simultaneously. Soon the whole flock is swooping away over the fields in search of food again.
How to see White-fronted Geese in Hokkaido
- Where – Miyajima Marsh, Bibai
- When to go – Dusk and Dawn in April and Late September to Early October
- Time required – Half day
- Probability of seeing – With up to 70,000 birds, they are hard to miss!
The dawn rush is the most spectacular event. Arrive about 30 minutes before sunrise, set up and wait for the lead goose to take off. Soon the rest of the flock will launch into the air in one go. Timing is key.
Another animal that has seen a resurgence lately is the Rakko or Sea Otter. Historically they used to be found along Hokkaido’s coastline. Rakko feature prominently in Ainu culture; one of the most famous Ainu stories, Kutune Shirka, is about a golden otter and the Japanese word for Otter is the same as the Ainu.
They have almost vanished from our shores in modern times. But encouragingly, the numbers on the shores of Cape Kiritappu have been increasing. I was excited to see 10 of them bobbing amongst the waves when I recently visited with my family. They are best seen from the walking path that leads along the cliff tops to the cape. With a bit of practice, you can quickly spot them hunting for Sea Urchin or climbing on the rocks.
How to see Sea Otters in Hokkaido
- Where – Cape Kiritappu in Hamanaka, Eastern Hokkaido
- When to go – Year around
- Time required – Half day
- Probability of seeing – 50:50
Bring binoculars as the otters are living at the bottom of 40m tall cliffs. While you might want to get closer, they are sensitive to humans, especially the mothers, so we need to give them space.
Our tour which includes a visit to Cape Kiritappu to see the Sea Otters
Every winter the Okhotsk sea around the Shiretoko peninsula is full of ice that has drifted down from the north. The plankton that is transported south by this ice makes the waters around Shiretoko incredibly rich with a variety of marine animals. Perhaps the most impressive of these is the Orca or Repun Kamuy – God of the ocean – in Ainu.
Each year up to 300 Orca visit the Nemuro strait, between Shiretoko and Kunashiri island. The Orca travel in family groups, with the same families returning every year. I always like trying to see if I recognise any familiar faces.
While the whales come close enough to shore that they can be occasionally seen from land, heading out on a nature cruise lets you see them up close and personal. The cruise company that offers the eagle watching cruises in winter also does whale watching in summer. The upper deck of the two-story boats has a great view of the surrounding ocean and the staff follow the whales’ movements and know the best spots to see them. I have also seen Minke Whales and Dall’s Porpoises on the cruise and have been lucky enough to see a Humpback Whale jumping out of the water.
How to see Orca in Hokkaido
- Where – Rausu, Shiretoko Peninsula
- When to go – May – July
- Time required – 2.5 hours
- Probability of seeing – It takes some luck. The strait is wide and deep, even with hundreds of whales there is no guarantee they will surface nearby.
If you want to spend more time hunting for whales after the cruise, grab your binoculars and head to Kujira-no-mieru-oka park. The park sits on top of a hill with unobstructed views across the Nemuro Strait. The local guides come here when they aren’t out on the boat to keep track of the whales.
These books are our own study source! Published by Japan Nature Guides, they help you discover more about the wildlife and nature of Hokkaido and Japan. The books are written by Dr. Mark Brazil who’s been sharing the wonders of Japanese birds and wildlife with the international visitors since the 1980s. They are available online or directly from the Japan Nature Guides team.
(From left to right)
Wild Hokkaidō: A Guidebook to the National Parks and other Wild Places of Eastern Hokkaidō
The Nature of Japan: From Dancing Cranes to Flying Fish
A Pocket Guide to the Common and Iconic Mammals of Japan
A Pocket Guide to the Common and Iconic Birds of Japan
Local knowledge helps you spot the wildlife in Hokkaido
Hopefully, this blog has inspired you to grab your binoculars and head out wildlife watching. With so much natural space, Hokkaido is a great place to see wild animals in their natural habitat. As well as lucky sightings of the rare animals in this list, we see other animals such as Japanese deer and Red fox almost every time we head out into the wilds. This island is truly teeming with life.
While you can’t guarantee seeing an animal on a given day (they are wild animals after all), travelling with a local guide who knows the habits and movements of these animals gives you the best chance of seeing one.
At Adventure Hokkaido we have years of experience searching out these creatures big and small. We have poured that knowledge into not only our wildlife tours but also our hiking and cycling tours. I hope to see you here soon and show you my favourite spots.
See our Hokkaido hiking, cycling & wildlife tours