The firefly season is upon some of us, depending on where you live in Japan. In the Kanto area, the rainy season is upon us, and fireflies come out during the rainy season in the evenings, usually between mid-June to July depending on where you are. I have taken my kid firefly-watching for years at a nearby small satoyama-park. See our photos here. It is always an exciting experience.  Catch one, bring it home, turn out the lights and fall asleep watching your firefly. 

Nearly every Japanese kid knows the children's song that goes like this:

Listen to the music here:

There are several kinds of firefly (hotaru in Japanese): the genji hotaru firefly / Luciola cruciata Motschulsky (see image below on the left) and the heike firefly / Luciola lateralis Motschulsky (middle image) and the hime firefly / Luciola parvula Kiesenwetter (image on the right).


Genji Firefly.               Heike Firefly.        Hime Firefly

Genji female is 18 millimetres long as opposed to the 15 millimetre male while the Heike female is 10 mm long to the 8 mm male. The hime firefly is only 5 mm in length. Only the males have lights, a ploy to attract willing females.

For a really good site to visit and print out for science data and info on the two types of fireflies is The Fireflies of Arimagawa.

Combining firefly viewing/hunting (firefly locations suggested at the bottom of post), a science investigation into what makes the insect glow and a couple of age-appropriate readings and you will have a neat and fun summer educational unit.
Have the really young set of kids read Fireflies (Reading Rainbow) by Julie Brinckloe (694 yen) or Emily and the Firefly: A Christmas Tale Herbert Pinnock ... while elementary kids can read Fireflies (Early Bird Nature Books) by Sally M. Walker 3,000 yen from Teenagers and youths can read "The Firefly Hunt" a chapter from the Japanese novel and masterpiece Sasameyuki, III, 4 by Tanizaki Junichirosee -- see excerpt at the bottom of the post.

Firefly hunting is a traditional activity for the Japanese, and not just for Japanese children either.

Fireflies are not only part of the Japanese kigo seasonal vocabulary (visit the World Kigo Database  to read more on this), but also an integral part of Japanese literature, poetry (Issa comes to mind), history and folklore. The very names of the two species of fireflies, Genji Firefly and Heike Firefly suggest the historical the great historical symbolism behind the firefly. In some places where the Heike Battles were fought, folklore says the Genji fireflies are the ghosts of the samurai warriors who fell in battle. I have heard the Japanese adults tell the kids not to try to catch or hurt the fireflies ... out of respect for the departed souls might be why.

In the olden days, the fireflies were said to have medicinal properties, to render all poisons harmless and to have the power to drive away evil spirits. Fireflies are not surprisingly thus often released at temples (given their association with funerals and rituals for the dead).

But fireflies are also in many Japanese plays or theatre associated with the passion of lovers. For a literary experience, read the chapter entitled "The Firefly Hunt" from Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology by Donald Keene (in English) or better in the original Japanese novel from Sasameyuki, III, 4 by Tanizaki Junichiro (nee 1886). It is a beautifully evocative novel and in this "firefly hunt" account three sisters together with the daughter of Sachiko who is the second sister, are visiting a family named Sugano who live in the country. I am posting an excerpt below (tr. by Edward Seidensticker

Excerpt from Modern Japanese Literature: An Anthology by Donald Keene:

It was a strange hourse, of course, but it was probably less the house than sheer exhaustion that kept Sachiko awake. She had risen early, she had been rocked and jolted by train and automobile through the heat of the day, and in the evening she had chased over the fields with the children, two or three miles it must have been … She knew, though, that the firefly hunt would be pleasant to remember … She had seen firefly hunts only on the puppet stage, Miyuki and Komazawa murmuring of love as they sailed down the River Uji; and indeed one should properly put on a long-sleeved kimono a smart summer print, and run across the evening fields with the wind at one’s sleeves, lightly taking up a firefly here and there from under one’s fan. Sachiko was entraced with the picture. But a firefly hunt was, in fact, a good deal different. If you are going to play in the fields you had better change your clothes, they were told, and four muslin komonos–prepared especially for them?–were laid out, each with a different pattern, as became their several ages. Not quite the way it looked in the pictures, laughed one of the sisters. IT was almost dark, however, and it hardly mattered what they had on. They could still see each other’s faces when they left the house, but by the time they reached the river it was only short of pitch dark. … A river it was called; actually it was no more than a ditch through the paddies, a little wider perhaps than most ditches, with plumes of grass bending over it from either bank and almost closing off the surface. A bridge was still dimly visible a hundred yards or so ahead …

They turned off their flashlights and approached in silence; fireflies dislike noise and light. But even at the edge of the river there were no fireflies. Perhaps they aren’t out tonight, someone whispered. No, there are plenty of them–come over here. Down into the grasses on the bank, and there, in that delicate moment before the last light goes, were fireflies gliding out over the water in low arcs like the sweep of the grasses … And on down the river, and on and on, were fireflies, lines of them wavering out from this bank and the other and back again … sketching their uncertain lines of light down close to the surface of the water, hidden from outside by the grasses … In that last moment of light, with the darkness creeping up from the water and the moving plumes of grass still faintly outlined, there, far, far as the river stretched, an infinite number of little lines in two long lines on either side, quiet, unearthly. Sachiko could see it all even now, here inside with her eyes closed. … Surely it was the impressive moment of the evening, the moment that made the firefly hunt worth while. … A firefly hunt has indeed none of the radiance of a cherry blossom party. Dark, dreamy, rather … might one say? Perhaps soething of the child’s world, the world of the fairy story in it. … Something not to be painted but to be set to music, the mood of it taken up on a piano or a koto. … And while she lay with her eyes closed, the fireflies, out htere along the river, all through the night, were flashing on and off, silent, numberless. Sachiko felt a wild, romantic surge, as though she were joining them there, soarin and dipping along the surface of the water, cutting her own uncertain line of light. …

It was rather a long little river, as she thought about it, that they followed after those fireflies. Now and then they crossed a bridge over or back … taking care not to fall in … watching for snakes for snake eyes that glowed like fireflies. Sugano’s six-year old son, Sosuke, ran ahead in the darkness, thoroughly familiar with the land, and his father, who was guiding them, called uneasily after him, Sosuke, Sosuke.” No one worried any longer about frightening the fireflies, there were so many; indeed without hthis calling to one another they were in danger of becoming separated, of being drawn apart in the darkness, each after his own fireflies. Once Sachiko and Yukiko were left alone on one bank, and from the other, now brought in clear and now blotted out by the wind, came vices calling, ” Mother.” “Where is Mother?” “Over here.” “And Yukiko?” “She is over here too.” “I’ve caught twenty-four already.” “Don’t fall in the river.”

Sugano pulled up some grass along the path and tied it into something like a broom to keep the fireflies in, he said. There are places famous for fireflies, like Moriyama in Omi, or the outskirts of Gifu; but the fireflies there are protected, saved for important people. No more than anyone. The two of them, father and son, went boldly down to the very edge of the water, and Sugano’s bundle of grass became a jeweled broom. Sachiko and the rest began to wonder when he might be ready to think of going back. The wind is a little cold; don’t you think perhaps. … But we are on the way back. We are going back by a different road. On they walked. It was farther than they had thought. And then they were at Sugano’s back gate, everyone with a few captured fireflies, Sachiko and Yukiko with fireflies in their sleeves. …”

–end of excerpt–



Where to go:

 The nearest wooded park with - a water source like a pond, marsh, satoyama rice fields, river or lake is a must. A rainy night gives the best conditions. Make your way there after an early dinner and the fireflies should float out surreally probably right around 7.30 or 8 onwards.

In mid June from 9 am - 9 pm at Uji Shokubutsuen botanical garden in Uji, Kyoto.Visitors can observe fireflies from sunset to 9.30 pm depending on weather conditions 500 yen     0774-399387

4-21-1 Takashimadaira, Itabashi-ku. Itabashi Ward’s firefly-breeding facility shows rare species of fireflies (this time: Genji fireflies) including natural treasure Genji Hotaru. Rare kind of fireflies not seen in Tokyo area anymore are being bred in asemi-natural environment at this facility. Two hours from 19: 30 to 21:30 during the night time special opening will take place. 7:30-9:30pm. You can observe protected specie, Genji Hotaru, in a glass-walled confined areas with man-made shallow river "Seseragi (Purling brook) inside. Please enjoy this early summer evening full of Japanese atmosphere. Heike Hotaru will be seen to the public at this facility in late July. The observation takes places for two hours in the evening. It was on July 10 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. last summer (2006).

Santo Town is a famous place for watching fireflies in the Kansai area.

Nurturing Natural Treasures
River of Genji Fireflies
From early to mid June each year, fantastic light shows produced by multitudes of Genji fireflies can be seen on the riverbanks of Santo Town. A protected species designated by the national government, the fireflies grow in the Amano River, one of the clearest streams in the prefecture. To protect the fireflies, the town enacted the Firefly Protection Ordinance in 1972 and amended it in 1997.

The town’s rivers and waterways have been designated as firefly reserves, and the catching of firefly larvae and melanian snails, food for the larvae, is prohibited. River dredging operations are required to exercise special care to protect animals and plants, by preserving the shoals and reedy banks, for example, so that river improvements also preserve the ecosystem. The entire town is working to protect the water for Genji fireflies.

Planning and Promotion Section, Santo Town Office
TEL 0749-55-2040

Source: Kansai Window, The River of Genji Fireflies here River of Genji Fireflies

Firefly watching event at Otomeyama Park, which is a 10-minute walk from JR Takadanobaba Station.


Further reading:

Sara Lewis, Silent Sparks: The wondrous world of fireflies


-- Aileen Kawagoe