The Critters of Kyoto

An addendum to The White Prince.

Kyoto is a bit unique, as far as cities go. It’s a place where the old and the new exist in harmony; you’re as likely to see a shrine on a street corner as you are a 7-11. There are enough urban conveniences to make living here comfortable, but being snuggled in a bowl of mountains with two major rivers slicing it up, Kyoto City retains a lot of the rural feeling that nearby Osaka and Kobe have already given up. Nature, and all her little creatures can be found in abundance, without even leaving the city limits. Here are a few of the personalities which inspired me to write The White Prince.


There are two kinds of egret in The White Prince: the little egret (Egretta garzetta) which is common in and around Kyoto’s rivers, streams and canals, and the Chinese egret (Egretta eulophotes). The little egret isn’t technically migratory–they stay in Japan year round. However, I’ve noticed that they congregate in large groups at certain times of the year. In the breeding season, naturally, but also, curiously, in the winter for a brief period of time. For about a week in December, a flock of roughly thirty birds can be found at a very specific spot on the Takano River, and then they disappear again, leaving only one or two birds which appear here and there, until spring.

The Chinese egret on the other hand is migratory. Much bigger than the little egret, it winters in Japan from China, Russia and Korea.  I have seen them in the Kamo at other times of the year though, so I don’t know, maybe a bunch of them decided ‘to hell with flying across the sea’, and settled down.

Both egrets are lovely to look at, though they don’t tolerate human presence very well, and tend to leave the area quickly if spotted. Little egrets grow extra plumage on their napes and chests during the breeding season, making them look especially princely for a few months in late spring. The garzetta subspecies is distinguishable by its bright yellow feet that make it look like it’s wearing a pair of shoes.


Cormorants are an interesting sort of bird. Squat and black, they look like someone combined a duck and a pelican together. They’re diving birds, capable of holding their breath for long periods of time while they hunt for fish in the river. After diving, cormorants hold their wings out to the sunlight to dry them.

They’re pretty wide spread in the world, and as birds go, they’re rather smart. In Japan, cormorants have an important seat in history and tradition. Ukai (鵜飼) is a method of fishing in which a snare is tied around the neck of a trained cormorant. The snare makes it possible for the bird to swallow smaller fish, but not larger ones. When a cormorant has a fish caught in its throat, it’s brought back into the fishing boat where it spits the fish out. You can watch ukai on the Oi River, in Arashiyama, Kyoto.

Mandarin Ducks / Mallardsmandarin duck

Mandarin ducks are almost always found in breed pairs. For a while, this led people to believe that they were monogamous breeders. Like many other birds that were previously thought to mate with one individual exclusively however, this turns out not to be the case. At least, not entirely. They’re a mostly migratory bird in Asia, though they live year round in Japan. Mandarins aren’t as common on the Takano as mallards are, though I’m convinced that there’s no place on earth where mallards aren’t common. I’ll have to investigate Antarctica to be sure.


Sika (鹿 – literally ‘deer’ in Japanese) are the deer native to Japan, China, Taiwan, Russia and other parts of Asia. Of the deer in Japan, the Nara ‘bowing’ deer are most famous. For a very small fee, tourists can buy special crackers to feed the deer, which are protected in the city as messengers of the Shinto gods. Sika do not lose their spots in maturity, though in the winter when their coats thicken, the spots are less prominent.

It’s a rare but not unheard of treat to see a doe with her fawn walking in or along the Takano River. I’ve seen them four times during the time I’ve lived here. Like the egrets, they don’t tolerate human presence, but don’t quit the area in an excessive hurry if they’re spotted. I’ve never personally seen a stag outside of Nara, but they’re beautiful to look at, and if you get a chance to come to the Kansai region, a trip to the Nara deer park is a great family experience.

Rat Snakesrat snake

The green generals, ao-daisho are a species of non-venomous snake that live in most regions of Japan. Being a snake lover, I find them adorable. We found a juvenile sleeping under our front door last summer, and an attempt to relocate it to the garden ended with it slithering into our wall. I’m not all that worried. They’re a medium sized snake, with a dark yellow-green coloration. Like most non-venomous snakes, they’re shy, and would prefer not to interact with humans. They are also excellent swimmers and can be seen jetting from one bank of the Kamo to the other to escape predators in the summer months.

Kites black kite

For the longest time I thought these birds were hawks. They’re roughly the same size as a red-tailed hawk, but their color is more similar to a golden eagle. Kites are the dominant aerial predator in Kyoto. You can find them circling the Kamo year round, particularly around the bridge at Demachiyanagi Street where they can scavenge from the many people who congregate there. Kites are opportunistic hunters. They’ll more or less eat anything. If you’re planning on bringing a picnic lunch to the river, be prepared to defend it. Kites aren’t afraid of humans–in fact, Alex had her thumb scratched when a kite dove between us to steal her sandwich. Kites can be a lot of fun to watch, especially young kites practicing their flight agility. Roosting and perching kites have no problem posing for photographs, and like most other raptors, are only bothered by crows and ravens.


In addition to the egrets, grey herons also live on the Kamo. On my stretch of the river, there is one heron in particular which seems to have a favorite rock. Last year between October and March, every day when I passed the rock, it was there. I couldn’t tell you why. It looked rather cold. Technically, great blue herons don’t live in Japan, but for the purpose of the story the rock hoarding grey heron became a great blue. They’re very similar in appearance. As the name suggests, they’re more grey in color and lack the tan tint on their necks that grey blue herons have. They can be territorial, and don’t suffer other large birds on their turf easily. To humans they are ambivalent, making them easily adaptable to city living.


There are many more interesting animals in Kyoto, but four years of nature watching brought these few together into a story for me. If you’re interested in learning more, Wild In Japan runs a wonderful blog about all sorts of creatures, great and small. He knows a great deal more about the specifics of Japanese animals than I do. Go check out his page!

And if you haven’t read The White Prince yet, what are you waiting for? 😉



15 thoughts on “The Critters of Kyoto

  1. Wonderful birds and I liked the snake, too. My son had a pet snake named Anna – she was gentle and loved to be stroked. Snakes are generally very shy and more scared of you than you are of them, plus they are great for the environment. I have visited the deer park in Nara, where I was nipped in the rear by one of them while doling out the treats. Of course my husband caught it on camera!

    • I had a snake named Mouse. She was so shy, she would squeak when she was scared. She was afraid of her food. She refused to eat anything that was live, so we had to give her thawed mice instead. She was such a sweet snake. Loved hanging out and being warm around my neck. 🙂

      Yeah, those deer can be aggressive. I had a couple butt me in the behind while I was giving treats to other dear. But the babies are so adorable!

      • Would love to go back to see the deer. Anna the snake slept with us in a pillowcase one winter when the electricity went off and the house got really cold.

      • I had a friend who used to sleep with her pet snakes. Ball pythons are especially good for that. Mouse would never allow it. She loved her box best. Fortunately the power didn’t go off very frequently at our house. I don’t know what I would have done.

  2. Have you ever seen the Mandarin ducks in Kyoto? I haven’t! O.O I’ve only seen those ones with the ruddy faces, basically making them look like punk mallards. 😛

    I do need to go read your story. Soon, soon…

    • I’ve seen them before! There are more mallards than mandarins, but they’re there! Their the brown ones that have more stripes. They’re usually not in the middle of the river where the mallards are. Usually more on the side. I’ll point them out when I see them next.

  3. I found this post interesting. My eldest son, his Japanese wife, and their daughter live in Matsuyama, and have visited Kyoto. I will send him the link to this post. Perhaps he will follow up on your other posts. 🙂
    Thank you for following my blog. I do hope you find it of interest. 🙂

    • Thank you! Matsuyama is a beautiful place. I haven’t been yet, but I hope to visit it soon. Onsen, especially are one of my favorite things in Japan.
      And no problem! I look forward to reading your posts!

  4. How fortunate you are to live in a city that welcomes and protects the wildlife–and it seems you have a beautiful abundance of them. I’ve never been drawn to living an urban life mostly because I feel out of balance unless there is a higher animal to human ratio. But some cities of the world try to have both populations well represented. It sounds like Kyoto may be one of them.
    Could we throw in a few bear??

    • I don’t know if there are many bear living in or around the city. I’ve never seen or heard of them. I imagine if there were bear in the mountains, there would be bear in the trash cans too.

      There are tanuki, though, and wild boar, monkeys, and maybe some foxes. There are capybara in the river too, though they were someone’s pets that were released. There are special capybara police that patrol the river to try and catch them since naturally they are invasive and harmful to the ecosystem. But I’m like you, I need that interaction with nature as well. Living completely encased in steel and stone makes me claustrophobic.

  5. Thanks for putting names to familiar faces, this answered all my questions and more. I have stood at that bridge a few times watching those Kites circle above the willow tree lined river and really enjoyed it. Kyoto is a place i hold close to heart and it feels like my home in Japan when I visit. And wow, the size of the fish in the river! I was wondering if the Kite would go for them but they always seem to hide just under the the bridge. It truely is a peaceful scene, people there do seem happy and balanced.

    • I’m sure if the kites got hungry enough they’d go after a koi, but stealing food from the people picnicking along the river is much easier for them. I’ve never actually seen a kite hunting for other wildlife, at least not along the river. I’m sure they do it, but in my experience they’re mostly opportunistic.

      I love Kyoto. I regret having ever left, but life has to move on. It’ll always be my second home. 🙂

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