Tag Archives: hotaru

Gratitude: Finding fireflies & friendship in Japan

For the most part, my friends politely tolerate my firefly obsession. Some even share it, for which I feel quite fortunate. But I am eternally grateful to one particular friend and kindred spirit, Hiromi Hirata. Smart, beautiful, and energetic, she has guided, accompanied, and translated for me as I’ve tried to learn about Japanese fireflies.

Toyko Firefly Breeding Institute

Visiting Tokyo’s Firefly Breeding Institute with my dear friend Hiromi Hirata and the director, Dr. Norio Abe

Some years ago, Hiromi  brought me to visit Tokyo’s Institute for Ecosystem & Firefly Breeding, a nondescript building hidden away in Itabashi-ku. There we met the crazed yet charming director, Dr. Noria Abe, who  spends months patiently raising thousands of  Genji fireflies through their entire life cycle. When they finally become adults, Abe-san releases his newly-hatched fireflies into a greenhouse where he’s constructed a complete indoor firefly habitat (really, a stream runs through it). Every June, for just a few nights, he opens wide the Institute’s door and invites the public to come experience the spectacular lightshow.

Tokyo Intitute for Firefly Breeding

The indoor light show in Itabashi-ward (photo by Norio Abe)

And Hiromi brought me to see the Insectarium at Tokyo’s Tamu Zoo. There, I  got to see first-hand how enthusiastically Japanese kids embrace insects!

One May we traveled together to Moriyama, a once-famous tourist destination for firefly watching. Situated on the picturesque shores of Lake Biwa, Moriyama still hosts an annual Firefly Festival (ホタるまつ). But, as described in an earlier post, by the early 20th century Moriyama’s firefly populations began to dwindle. What on earth became of all of Moriyama’s fireflies?

The surprising answer was revealed during a visit that Hiromi arranged to Moriyama’s Institute of Firefly’s Woods. This tiny museum houses a veritable treasure trove of primary sources explaining the history of Moriyama’s fireflies. With typical foresight, Hiromi also arranged for us to meet the director, Mr. Michio Furukawa. While Mr. Furukawa narrated our guided tour, Hiromi’s husband, Dr. Yukio Hirata, kindly translated.

I won’t retell the fascinating story here (it’s a powerful cautionary tale); if you’re interested, you can read about Moriyama’s fireflies in For the Sake of Their Glow. Instead, here I’d like to share some photographs from Moriyama, and to express my deepest gratitude to Hiromi & Yukio Hirata, my wonderful friends who made this trip possible!

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Japanese Fireflies: Harvested for Beauty

While fireflies were harvested for their light-producing chemicals in the U.S., in Japan fireflies were harvested for their beauty.catching fireflies print In Japan’s Shiga Prefecture, many firefly merchants set up shop very summer from the early 1800s through the 1920s. They hired hunters to collect genji-botaru (Luciola cruciata) fireflies, which they sold to clients in Osaka, Tokyo, and Kyoto. Hotel and restaurant owners released these wild-caught fireflies into their gardens, where customers would pay to  enjoy their luminous beauty.

By some estimates, firefly vendors sold three million wild insects to city folk every June and July. Soon, firefly populations began to dwindle due to over-collecting, river pollution, and habitat loss.

Silent Sparks describes the ecohistory of Japanese and U.S. fireflies, including some successful conservation efforts.

 

Fireflies in Japan

In Japan, fireflies are called hotaru (ほたる) and they’re a summertime insect just like in the U.S. Although about 40 different firefly species live here, Genji and Heike fireflies are the most popular.

hotaru_005

Luciola cruciata

Unlike U.S. fireflies, these two species have an aquatic larval stage, so they are commonly found around rivers and streams (Genji fireflies) or rice-fields (Heike fireflies). They’re so popular they even appear on stamps & manhole covers!

Little Green Stars (from Robert Brady)

I love this story about Japanese fireflies (from a 2003 PureLandMountain blogpost) –

Tonight we chased a sliver of a moongrin across the big bridge over the Lake to take Kaya (2 1/2 years old now) to a famed hotaru (firefly) stream … down through the deep dark to the firefly kingdom along the stream in its place beneath the tall trees, where the even deeper darkness was lit like a microstarry night with nothing but wisping flights of limegreen, surprisingly bright flashes rising, swooping, curving, softly floating, flitting here and there going on and off, sparkles resting in their hundreds on the leaves or falling sudden to the ground, kids, mothers, fathers and grandfolks trying to coax the little green stars to their hands, everyone glowing with the mysterious green fire that reflected in the eyes, the faces lit with awe and Kaya too was wide-eyed watching light walk in her hand.