Where to see the Japanese giant salamander – well the first thing you will need is a guide, because without one your chances are almost zero… Not only that, but they live in rivers in rural Japan where almost nobody speaks any English, or any other language come to that and so you need a Japanese guide!
For my trip I was very fortunate to be helped by my diving buddy Martin, who lives in Tokyo and is fluent in Japanese having grown up with an American father and a Japanese mother. Martin put me in touch with Yoshihiro Ito, who is basically the Japanese “salamander whisperer” and one of the nicest guys you could hope to meet!
Ito san turned a life-long obsession with the wildlife of Japan in to his full-time occupation a few years ago – giving up a good job as a sales manager in the process!
To see the giant salamanders we had to to to the city of Gifu, the capital of Gifu Prefecture in the Chūbu region of central Japan – which required a journey of just over two hours on the excellent Shinkansen bullet train from Shinagawa station in downtown Tokyo.
Ito san met us at Gifu station and drove us up in to the mountains and the small village of Wara, where he knows all the spots the Japanese giant salamanders burrow down in to the rocks in the river bed of the local river.
Once kitted up in dry suits (the water is cold…) Ito san guided Martin and I to the best spots and we began our routines of watching rocks for about 25 minutes and then a few minutes of intense activity as the salamanders came up for air!
We spent two days around Wara and the on the third day Ito san took us to another river where he knew to find the regular “baby size” salamanders.
For me the opportunity to stay in a local Ryokan style country inn was nearly as good as the experience with the salamanders… It has been on my “to do” list for many years, but as my Japanese is limited to asking for a beer and saying thank you, it was just too hard to do – but traveling with Martin and Ito san made it all happen!
We ate Japanese style in the inn’s dining room with other travelers who were passing through the area and it was just great.
When To Go?
The very best time to see the Japanese giant salamanders is during their mating season in late August when the sexually mature adults migrate up stream into the mountains to spawn and lay their eggs in “dens”.
The larger males guard those dens and are known as “denmasters” and will mate with numerous females during the season, while smaller males will often to sneak in to the dens and fertilize the eggs.
How To Do It?
Basically you have two options and both involve Ito san…
You can go direct to him, but don’t expect perfect communication as his English is not fluent.
However you can absolutely rely on him to do everything possible to make sure you have a good trip.
Ito san’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Alternatively you can go with Andy Murch of Big Fish Expeditions who organizes trips to snorkel with the salamanders through Ito san. The logistics of these trips are basically the same, but Andy will be there to guide you through the intricacies of Tokyo and the Shinkansen etc.