Again we woke up about 5:30am. My injured foot was really painful. I wasn’t sure if the tenderness was from it being crushed or from a developing infection but this had to be the last day of the hunt. However, I managed to convince my partner to allow me to continue searching for a few more hours before packing up and trying to get back to civilization.
When we got to the river, the water had receded further and was much more clear. Apparently the storm from the first day of the trip had impeded our search to a greater extent than we had realized.
We decided to go back upstream, noodling for the cryptic critters. I really felt miserable but I still had to smile a bit when we came across the toad we’d met the day before, in a still zen-like manner, sitting on the same in rock in the same position we last saw it in.
By 8:45 I became a bit nauseous and felt like I had a fever. It was definitely time to quit and try to find some medical treatment. Very reluctantly I began heading back to the tent.
At 9:24am, when we were about 1 minute from the camp site, right at the point we would be exiting the river, I saw it as my partner walked right past it. It wasn’t under a rock nor was it in a shadowy pool. It looked like a flabby brown infant as it was crawling right out in the open and straight towards me! I momentarily thought I was hallucinating. Finally, Andrias japonicus!
After directing my partner’s attention to it and some unintelligible happy yelling on her part, we sat and observed it for the next half hour as we basked in its cryptobranchid-ey awesomeness until it got swept out of sight by the current. I’d wanted to see one of these critters in-situ ever since I was 10 years old. The locals’ previous discouragement and repeatedly telling us it couldn’t be done made this find all the more sweet.*
Time for a post-giant-salamander-finding nap, then it's time to seek proper medical treatment.
We got up at about 5:30AM and immediately resumed searching for Giant Salamanders. The river was noticeably lower and a bit more clear than it was the previous day. Apparently it had been swollen from the torrential storm that hit the area a few days prior. We searched downstream of the site for about 3 hours before returning to the tent to eat a breakfast consisting of anpan, oranges, dried-meat, green-tea and coca-cola.
On the forest floor near the tent, we found Cynops pyrrhogaster Japanese Fire-Newt/イモーリ(Imoori). As a child, I had seen these many times in pet-stores and in Innai we had seen a few splattered on the road, but seeing a live one in-situ brought me the amount of joy roughly equivalent to consuming a bucket of KFC.
We returned to the river by 9:00AM and resumed the search. Continuing upstream, we came across a huge Bufo japonicus Japanese Toad/ヒキがエル(Hikigaeru) sitting on a boulder in a zen-like manner. This was easily the largest B.japonicus I’d ever seen firsthand.
While I was climbing up a small waterfall, a boulder dislodged and rolled backwards carrying me with it. In that instant, I wondered whether I was about to be pinned under water or have my head cracked open on a rock. The answer was neither. When it stopped, it was on top of my legs, but I had been spared of having any crushed bones thanks to a gap in the rocks. I heard my partner yell “Oh my God! I’ll never get that off you!” I sat up and, with panic-induced andrenaline-fueled idiot-strength, pushed the thing off of myself. My already-injured foot had taken the worst of it; it was bleeding a bit and it was obviously going to have some major bruising, but I could still walk on it.
About 5pm, we walked (limped in my case) back to Innai. Our first purpose was to find a bus stop and check the bus schedule because, planning ahead, it was pretty clear I wouldn’t be able to make the approx. 30km walk back to the train station in Usa in a timely manner. The second purpose was to get more junk food from the liquor store. However, after locating the bus stop, we found that that there would be no buses running in Innai for the next several days because they don’t operate when the local schools are closed. But on the bright side, we bought some bologna at the liquor store; bologna always makes traumatic near-crippling events better.
As we continued to walk from the village of Innai to the site, what happened next was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. We spotted a melanistic 4-lined Japanese Rat Snake E.quadrivirgata /カラスヘビ(Karasuhebi) by a ditch that was apparently flooded by the storm from the previous day. Upon seeing us, the snake slid into the water. After a few seconds, it emerged and approached us as we stood still. It seemed either unusually bold or very hungry (or both). As it investigated my shoe, a Tiger-keelback R.tigrinus/ ヤマカガシ(Yamakagashi) began moving towards us as well (I think it may have been chasing a frog). The E.quadrivirgata immediately turned and faced the Yamakagashi.
I will not describe what happened next in detail since an account of the event is currently in press in a herpetological journal, but I will say the encounter ended badly for the E.quadrivirgata.
We reached the site in the Amari Valley at 2:00pm. We set up the tent and finally proceeded to get down to the business of searching for Giant Salamanders (noodling, snorkeling and turning over rocks).
I’ve crawled over and around slippery stones in many rivers in my time, but I must say this one was particularly treacherous. It seemed the force required to shift about half of the damned boulders in the river was roughly the equivalent of my body weight. Within the first hour, I had a couple of near-misses before having one roll over my foot. It seemed be a minor injury at the moment, so I ignored it; I would regret doing so later.
After about 5 hours of searching we decided to make the walk back to the liquor store in Innai to replenish our stock of junk food (and do some road-side herping in the process). On the way there and back, I had my first sighting of an Asian keelback snake Amphiesma vibakari/ ヒバカリ(Hibakari), which slipped away before I could photograph it, and after nightfall we found numerous Schlegel’s Tree-Frogs Rhacophurus schlegelii hanging out on the road.
That morning we packed up our tent and resumed our trek at 6:30 am. Outside of Ajimu, we didn’t encounter many people in our walk, but whenever we did, we were always asked about what we were up to. Upon mention of the Giant Salamanders, reactions ranged from friendly to borderline-hostile, but we were always told one of three things:
1) “You can’t get to the site from here by walking.”
2)” The Giant Salamanders might be there but you can’t find them; you should look for them in Honshu.”
3)” Go see the specimen in the local museum.”
A few hours later we took a short rest at an old temple by the road.
Elephants in old Japanese art: its kind of like finding a french fry in an order of chicken nuggets; not really expected but not really unwelcome.
The temple was home to a Plestiodon japonicus Japanese Skink/日本のトカゲ(Nihon-no-Tokage).
An interesting feature of this area was 19th century bridges inspired by European designs.
Around noon we reached Innai, a village next to the site where the Giant Salamanders are said to be. The two biggest stores in Innai seemed to be a combination Post-Office/Cigarette-stand/Barbershop and a liquor store.
A Rhabdophis tigrinus Tiger-keelback Snake/ヤマカガシ(Yamakagashi). One of my favorite snake species. It might look like a mere garter-snake, but it’s a real bad-ass. Not only does it possess a hemolytic venom, it actually sequesters toxins from toads that it consumes, storing the poison in a nuchal gland behind its head for defensive purposes. After reaching Innai, we encountered these about once every hour.
After searching for mamushi/G.blomhoffii for another hour (and unnerving inquisitive tourists), I relieved my herping partner from watching our packs while she went to explore the shrine for herself.
While I waited under a pavillion, my sole companion was this duck. Though, as far as ducks go, he was pretty awesome.
After leaving Usa shrine and resuming our trek, we got caught in one helluva thunderstorm. With the way the clouds were rotating before the storm, I thought we were going to be treated to a tornado in Japan. It made me kind of homesick.
Eventually we made it to Ajimu, a tiny town that is very proud of their softshell turtles/スッポン(Suppon) Pelodiscus sinensis and their wine (As evidenced by the above statue depicting an alcoholic P.sinensis) . For the first night, we settled on setting up our tent in a campground here. The rain eventually let up and we decided to spend the rest of the evening exploring Ajimu and the surrounding area.
Statue of P. sinensis. The sign to the right is an advertisement for a “Suppon Center” where you can feast on the flesh of Ajimu’s beloved mascot.
A huge centipede Scolopendra subspinipes. Other than this guy, the only critters we managed to find that evening were froglets (mostly Hyla japonica and Fejervarya limnocharis).
At Usa Shrine there were literally thousands of froglets (mostly F.limnocharis) . Interestingly in the drainage ditches where many of the froglets could be found, there was an usually large number of spider webs. I’m guessing the spiders positioned their webs to take advantage of the abundance of frog meat. As I walked along the canal, I saw a couple of spooked froglets jump and get stuck at the periphery of the webs, but free themselves before the resident spider could reach them. Out of (somewhat mordbid) curiosity, I was half-tempted to toss a froglet in the center of one of the webs, but my conscience got the better of me.
After the froglets (and tourists), the most commonly encountered vertebrate at the shrine seemed to be Takydromus tachydromoides AKA the long-tailed grass lizard/カナヘビ(kanahebi). I have seen these critters in abundance throughout Japan, but at Usa shrine they were more easily approached than anywhere I’ve ever been. Being accustomed to humans doesn’t really explain this, because T.tachydromoides I’ve found in more heavily populated areas seem just about as flighty as the ones I find in the middle of nowhere (which is pretty darn close to Usa).
Around the shrine there were signs warning of Mamushi, the pit-viper otherwise known as Gloydius blomhoffii. I searched around stagnant bodies of water in the shrine to no avail (I’ll have more on fun with Mamushis in a later post).
Stagnant water and tons o’ frogs=Prime Mamushi habitat
Last year, I had a week off from work in the middle of August, which happened to coincide with the beginning of Japanese Giant Salamander breeding season. I didn’t have anything better to do, so I talked a friend into accompanying me on a trip to search for Andrias japonicus in Oita prefecture, the only region of Kyushu known to harbor these awesome caudates. I’d seen live specimens of A.japonicus, A.davidianus (Chinese Giant Salamander) and Cryptobranchus alleganiensis (the awesomely named Hellbender) in museums and zoos, but I was determined to observe a giant salamander in-situ.
Our plan was to take a train as close as we could get to the area where the salamanders are known to occur, walk the rest of the way (about 20 miles) to the site and camp out until we found the critters.
the route walked from Usa Station to our intended destination.
An hour into our walk, we came to Usa shrine. With ponds and plenty of vegetation, there was herping to be done.
Glandirana rugosa. Common names: Wrinkled-Frog , ツチガエル (tsuchigaeru)
Fejervarya limnocharis. Common names: Alpine Cricket Frog/ ヌマがエル(numagaeru)