Tag Archives: Japan

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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The Double-edged Sword of Firefly Ecotourism

I believe that firefly ecotourism is poised to take off all over the world within the next few years. It’s already quite a popular activity in many Asian countries. For centuries, traveling to the countryside to admire the slow, floating flashes of Genji fireflies has been a favorite summer past-time in Japan. Over the past several decades, the synchronous fireflies that stretch out along the mangrove rivers of Thailand and Malaysia have spawned a thriving ecotourist industry.

catching fireflies woodblock

In Taiwan, the government has recently been promoting firefly tourism, and now each year over 100,000 visitors climb up into the Alishan mountains to view the summer and winter fireflies that thrive there. In other places, firefly tourism remains in its infancy. As my earlier post describes, visitors to firefly ecotourist sites in Nanacamilpa, Mexico have skyrocketed since 2014. In the United States, places like Elkmont, Tennessee and North Carolina’s Dupont State Forest are becoming increasingly popular destinations for their firefly-viewing.

Photo by Radim Schreiber (Radim Photo)

Synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains

Yet firefly ecotourism carries both opportunities and challenges. On the positive side, it offers tangible benefits to local communities by promoting sustainable economic development. It’s also a terrific opportunity to educate visitors concerning the behavior, ecology, and habitat requirements of these beloved insects.

On the other hand, ecotourism carries challenges. It brings hordes of people into natural areas that are often far too fragile. In the case of fireflies, artificial light must be minimized, as it can interfere with fireflies’ luminous courtship signals. Some firefly species have flightless females, and these easily get trampled by people walking through their habitat. To minimize harm to natural firefly populations, thoughtful habitat management needs to be combined with environmental education.

As humans, we have a long history of taking our natural resources completely for granted. All too often, we regretfully note their demise only after they have vanished. Great auks, giant sequoias, Alishan’s hinoki cedars, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are but a few of the treasures we’ve already lost.

Maybe it’s time to pause a moment. Let’s decide what parts of the natural world we truly value. What kind of world do we want to leave for our children and our grandchildren? Then let’s get busy protecting those places and those creatures before it’s too late.

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.