Encounters with bears and flying squirrels

21 May 2019 in On The Move

Take an ecotour in the forests of the Japanese Alps to seek out the unique local wildlife.


The popular image of Japan is one of soaring skyscrapers, urban buzz and ultra-modernity. Yet over 70% of the country is uninhabited by humans, dominated by thick forests and snow-capped mountains – and populated by an astonishing array of wildlife. The country boasts a rich biodiversity accommodating over 90,000 animal species, from the Yezo Brown Bear of sub-arctic Hokkaido to the Habu snake of sub-tropical Okinawa.


Getting up close to Japan’s wildlife doesn’t require you to wander too far off the beaten track. Situated just over an hour from Tokyo by shinkansen, HOSHINOYA Karuizawa lies in the foothills of the Japanese Alps, overlooked by mighty Mt. Asama and bordered by forests dominated by larches and water oaks.


Resort booking banner EN HOSHINOYA Karuizawa

In partnership with the Picchio Wildlife Research Center, the resort offers guests a wide range of ecotours, taking you to the heart of Japan’s wilderness. From flying squirrels to the native mountain serow, you’ll encounter animals you may never even have heard of!

Mountain retreat

HOSHINOYA Karuizawa is a hot spring resort set in expansive gardens complete with rivers, falls and colourful footbridges. From your private villa, you’ll be able to contemplate this classic Japanese landscape.



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This is a place where tradition is seamlessly intertwined with modern comfort, where you can leave behind the stresses of everyday life, and where nature reigns supreme.

Within the resort’s park, you can treat yourself to exquisite kaiseki dining, pamper yourself with a massage, or soak your body in the natural hot spring baths.



Outside the resort, forest trails lead you into stunning Alpine scenery.

The Picchio Visitor Center is located just opposite the main entrance to HOSHINOYA Karuizawa, within a National Wild Bird Sanctuary. Walking circuits are marked to let you get a feel for the forest and even spot some local birds.


But the best way to seek out the wildlife and understand it is by signing up for one of Picchio’s organized tours.

Flying squirrel

One of the most popular tours is an outing to spot the Japanese giant flying squirrel. Officially named musasabi, these extraordinary animals are native to Japan and are among the largest flying squirrels in the world. As they are nocturnal, the tour begins at dusk.



The Picchio team has built wooden houses for the local musasabi population. As the sun starts to fade, you’ll see them poking their heads out – and then suddenly leaping into the void, opening out their “wings” (a membrane between their front and back legs) and gliding elegantly through the sky.

It’s a unique spectacle and Picchio reckons you have more than a 90% of seeing the squirrels in action.

Serow sighting

In autumn, the conditions are ripe for spotting the Japanese serow, a protected species often described as a “goat-antelope”. Your Picchio guide will lead you deep into forest trails on the volcanic slopes of Mt. Asama, where you’ll reach Kamoshika-daira, a plateau reputed as one of the best local spots to view serows.



Positioned at an altitude of 1900 metres, you’ll have a view of rocks and grasslands – the preferred terrains of serows, who pass their time climbing and munching grass.

Bear patrol

The Asian black bear roams this part of Honshu – and, while you’re relatively unlikely to bump into a bear, Picchio can tell you if any are nearby. The Center runs a bear management program to promote the safe coexistence of bears and humans in the area.


Bears that venture near the city are captured and tagged with a radio-collar so their movements can be tracked. Specially-trained dogs then chase off the bears with loud barking to dissuade them from returning. The dogs can also scent the migratory paths of the bears, helping Picchio to further reduce potential conflict between bears and humans.


If you take a Wildlife Night Drive with Picchio, you’re likely to spot sika deer, Japanese hares or red foxes – and your guide may well bring out a radio antenna to track any bears in the vicinity.

Tours for all tastes

Other Picchio tours include an outing to spot some of the 80 species of birds in the sanctuary, including the native Japanese Green Woodpecker and Copper pheasant. Or how about a mountain bike tour to the Ryugaeshi Falls?



However you choose to experience the Karuizawa forest, Picchio and HOSHINOYA Karuizawa will ensure you do it in the very best conditions and have every chance of coming face-to-face with the unique local wildlife.

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