- Visit Miyagi to see fireflies
- When to see fireflies
- Firefly viewing tips
- Firefly festival at the local shrine
- Five spots in Miyagi to see fireflies
- 1. Masubuchi river: One of Miyagi’s best-known firefly spots
- 2. Osaki City: Minami-hara Firefly Village
- 3. Kakuda city: Kouzouji temple firefly village
- 4. Aoba district, Sendai city: Jo-gi firefly festival
- 5. Sendai City’s Aoba district: Shinkawa firefly village
- Fun firefly trivia
Japan is blessed with a scenic landscape that dramatically changes according to season. During the weeks leading up to summer, most of Japan is wet. The rainy season may not seem like the best time to be outdoors, but there is reason to reconsider. It is the best time of the year to view fireflies. These delicate creatures live in unpolluted waters and only come out at night when the weather conditions are right for them.
This article takes you to Miyagi Prefecture, in northern Japan, where our local writer has all the details on the best firefly viewing spots, and helpful advice on how to make the most of your encounter with the glowing insects.
Visit Miyagi to see fireflies
Hotarubashi (firefly bridge) over the Masubuchi River
Fireflies are harbingers of early summer in Japan. Fireflies live in warm environments, so it may be surprising that one of their best habitats in Japan is Miyagi, in the country’s north. Unlike its cooler surrounding prefectures, Miyagi has hot, humid and cloudy summers -- the perfect climate for fireflies.
The insects thrive in Miyagi’s in bucolic landscapes filled with lush greenery and babbling streams. Such images evoke nostalgic feelings among many Japanese people.
Japan's time-honored love of fireflies
For more than a millennium, Japanese people have cherished the changing of seasons. The wonders of Mother Nature are quintessential themes of poems and other forms of Japanese literature, which often feature fireflies. These include the eighth century poetry collection of Manyoshu and the 11th century masterpiece, The Tales of Genji. The 11th century essay Makurano-soushi, or the Pillow Book, also describes the beauty of fireflies glowing in pitch darkness on a moonless night.
Fireflies are synonymous with Japanese summers
Firefly viewing is a time-honored pastime that was first enjoyed by nobles during the Heian period during the late eighth to 12th century. The tradition lives on across modern Japan in the form of summer firefly festivals. These events offer a wonderful opportunity to see both fireflies and Japan's idyllic countryside.
When to see fireflies
There are more than 40 different fireflies in Japan, and two thousand types worldwide. But only a few of them actually emit light. Japan's Genji-botaru and Hei-ke botaru fireflies -- the ones fluttering around clear waters at night -- are rare species.
Genji-botaru fireflies are glowing species
The best time to see Genji-botaru fireflies is between May and July, while the months between June to August are the best for Hei-ke botaru fireflies. But in Miyagi, it is best to see them from the end of June to early July. Interestingly, these two firefly species are named after rivalling clans from the Heian period. Various firefly-related events are held in Miyagi during the firefly season.
The best conditions for firefly viewing
The best time to see fireflies would be after dusk, from around 7PM to 9PM. Fireflies are said to be most active in dark, windless places where there is little or no moonlight. Also, it needs to be hot and humid. Keep in mind that fireflies are said to be on the verge of extinction, so do not try to catch any.
Firefly viewing tips
The sun sets at 7PM during the summer in Miyagi. If weather conditions permit, the first fireflies start flashing about half an hour after sunset. But for a true firefly viewing experience, I suggest arriving earlier -- before it gets dark.
Take time to soak up the rural landscape that fireflies call home. Visit the lush forests and listen to the trickling of the gentle streams. As the skies gradually turn dark, the first fireflies of the night will appear. More will follow soon... and then magic fills the air. The fireflies flit and fly around in hopes of attracting mates. Their light is their only way to communicate, so try not to disturb them.
Snake warning installed at parking space along the Masubuchi river
Fireflies share the same habitats as venomous vipers. To avoid getting bitten, cover up your arms and legs and wear sturdy shoes or boots. The mossy ground is damp and slippery, so wear appropriate shoes, not high-heels or sandals. It is also good to bring a flashlight but use it only when you need to and never point it at the fireflies.
Important rules of firefly viewing
Help protect the magical creatures
Keep in mind that fireflies are threatened species. To make the most of your magical encounter with them, follow the simple steps below.
① Strictly no lights
Fireflies light up to communicate with each other. Never shine them with other light sources, such as smartphones, cameras and torchlights.
②Put away your phone
It is nearly impossible to capture the magic on your phone. Without taking photos, just take back the memories. It is hard to see at first, but your eyes will soon adjust to the darkness.
③ Keep habitats clean
Fireflies can only survive in unpolluted waters. Keep their habitats clean, and do not leave trash behind.
④ No catching
Fireflies have very short life spans. Some live only a few days as adults. Let them be and allow them to focus on their important task of reproduction.
⑤ Observe quietly
Most firefly habitats are located in the quiet countryside. Be mindful of nearby residents and keep the noise down when observing the fireflies.
⑥ Avoid wearing insect repellent
Fireflies are insects, so bug spray affects them too. To avoid bug bites, wear long sleeves without applying insect repellent.
Fireflies are ephemeral creatures, whose nightly appearances are largely affected by the weather. If conditions are right, they reward you with a spectacular dance of lights. Follow the simple rules above to enjoy a magical Japanese summer night.
Firefly festival at the local shrine
Tsubonuma Hachiman-jinja (shrine) is the oldest of Hachiman shrines in Sendai city. These shrines worship Hachiman, or the deity of archery and war.
Stone steps leading to the sacred Tsubonuma shrine
Lush greenery stretches beyond the Torii gate
For generations, residents have worshipped the Hachiman shrine as it is said to answer prayers for family safety, business success, and other good fortune in life. Praying at the shrine is also said to ward off bad luck, and bring about good health, household harmony, and good relationships. The deity is also believed to protect children, and all things related to farming. Simply put, the local shrine plays a role in everyday life.
The shrine holds various events throughout the year, attracting visitors from inside and outside the community. The shrine's goshuin stamps are popular mementos, as they feature illustrations drawn by the chief priest's daughter. A special stamp is issued during the summer firefly event.
The chief priest's daughter issues shrine stamps
Special stamp features drawings of a holy spirit inspired by fireflies
At the end of June 2019, I visited the shrine's firefly event. It was held for the 31st time.
It was the midst of the rainy season. Despite the rain, many local residents showed up. They told me they had been preparing for this day for three months, and rain was just something they had to bear with. The rainy season began later than usual and lasted longer in 2019, making it difficult to spot fireflies.
Food and goods stalls run by local residents, all dressed in yellow.
Many stalls were open within the shrine grounds, selling local produce and other goods. There was also a traditional lute performance. The lively atmosphere almost made me forget about the rain.
Stalls selling fresh, local vegetables
According to the event's original plans, participants were to walk to the forest and view fireflies in their natural habitats. This was cancelled due to poor weather. Instead of going out to see them, fireflies were brought to the shrine.
Fireflies displayed in a cage, with a sign reading "Fireflies are memories, not souvenirs"
Several fireflies were on display in a cage. They floated elegantly, flashing occasionally. There were panels installed in other areas of the shrine, where festival-goers could learn more about fireflies.
Genji-botaru fireflies glowing inside the cage
Sadly, I was unable to see fireflies in the wild. Nevertheless, I had a wonderful time thanks to the warm hospitality of local residents, not to mention a lot of delicious homemade food!
Five spots in Miyagi to view fireflies
Miyagi is home to many firefly habitat areas
Miyagi boasts a rich natural environment, and has many good places for firefly viewing.
The following is a list of the best, recommended by our Miyagi-based writer.
Fireflies are spotted at these places every year, and some hold special events.
All locations are easy to reach, making them perfect places to see wild fireflies for the first time.
1.Masubuchi river: One of Miyagi’s best-known firefly spots
The Masubuchi River runs alongside a hilly neighborhood in Tom-e city. The river is the northernmost habitat of Genji-botaru firefly colonies, and the insects here were designated as natural treasures in 1979. Wildlife ecologists say the river is an extraordinary example of fireflies thriving near human settlements.
Firefly viewing is largely affected by weather conditions. On a good night, more than 300 fireflies appear at the Masubuchi River.
In the past, downpours triggered flash-floods and washed away the freshwater shells that firefly larvae feed on. The villagers launched efforts to protect the fireflies and their habitats, including controlling the river flow. In 1989, the area was listed as one of Japan’s best 100 villages with wildlife.
A community-based group tracks daily temperatures and firefly numbers
The community installed an almost two meter high curtain along the roads and parking spaces near firefly habitats, to shield them from light exposure. During the firefly season, villagers take turns helping visitors navigate the area.
Take note that there are no shops nearby, so it might be a good idea to bring snacks and drinks.
2. Osaki City: Minami-hara Firefly Village
Narukokyo in Osaki city is a scenic gorge surrounding the famed Naruko Onsen hot springs. Fireflies can be observed during the summer in the lush fields of Minami-hara, which lies south of a national road.
Genji-botaru and Hei-ke-botaru fireflies coexist at Minamihara reservoir. It is uncommon for different firefly species to share a habitat. The area is also home to Hime-hotaru ("princess") fireflies.
3. Kakuda city: Kouzouji temple firefly village
Kozouji temple is nestled in nature-filled mountains. The temple is designated as an important cultural property. The temple’s Amida (Amitabha)-do hall was built in 1177 and is known as Miyagi's oldest wooden structure.
The hall is one of 26 buildings in Japan that date back to the Heian era. There are two other Heian structures in the Tohoku region -- the gold-gilt Chuson-ji Konjikido in Iwate and the Amida-do hall at Shiramizu Amida-do hall of Ganjo-ji temple in Fukushima.
Kozouji temple and its surrounding areas are included in a project called Kozouji Temple Firefly Village.
The temple hosts a firefly festival in late June. The event is part of efforts to raise public awareness about firefly ecology and their conservation needs.
Besides viewing fireflies, the event features music, story telling, and local food.
4. Aoba district, Sendai city: Jo-gi firefly festival
This annual event takes at Jo-gi Nyorai Saiho-ji temple. Visitors can enjoy fireflies along the temple street from July 1st to 15th, as the streetlights are switched off.
The 800-year old Saiho-ji temple is always packed with visitors paying homage to the deity Amida Nyorai, or Amitabha, who is said to answer even the most difficult prayers.
Fireflies once disappeared from this neighborhood due to pollution. The local community worked persistently to bring them back.
5. Sendai City’s Aoba district: Shinkawa firefly village
The Shinkawa area is about a 30 to 40 minute drive from central Sendai. Fireflies live in the clear waters of the Nikkawa River, which is also home to Kajika frogs and yamame trout.
The river is also famous for the nearby Nikka Whisky Distillery.
The local firefly festival is held every July. Throughout the firefly season, the community has a reception area to help visitors reach the firefly vantage points.
Fun firefly trivia
Before closing this article, let’s take a quick look at some fun facts about fireflies. Perhaps none of them will boost your chances of firefly encounters.... but as they say, a little knowledge can go a long way.
Hotaru-bukuro (firefly bag) flowers
Bellflowers grow near firefly habitats（Tsubonuma, Sendai)
These perennial bellflowers bloom around the same time as firefly viewing season.
The flower’s name is said to originate from its bag shape, which children in the old days used to place fireflies inside them. Some suggest that the name is linked to the flower’s lantern shape, as the ancient Japanese word for lantern was firefly.
Firefly ice cream
I stumbled across a piece of firefly-inspired merchandise at a roadside rest place in Tom-e city. The Genji-botaru firefly ice cream has been featured on TV and caused a stir on social media. The package features a rather unappetizing image of a large firefly. Under the lid is a sesame-flavored ice cream with a chocolate piece resembling a firefly…. well, almost. I will avoid going into further details, so you can find out for yourself what the buzz was all about.
Firefly ice cream is available at Tom-e city's "Rinrin-kan" roadside rest spot
Take an easy trip from Tokyo and visit Miyagi’s fireflies.
Sendai --the capital city of Miyagi prefecture -- is blessed with nature, and is known as the “forest city.” Trees are everywhere, even in the city center, and the suburbs are full of unspoiled nature.
Until around the 1980s, fireflies used to be spotted in residential areas near rivers and marshlands. Fireflies even flew into unlit homes at night, through open windows.
Firefly numbers have sharply decreased since then, but communities are working hard to bring the insects back. You can also play a part while observing them, by respecting a few simple steps deemed crucial for their conservation. Visit Miyagi to witness the fireflies’ ethereal glow.