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Japan 2007: Honshu, Kyushu and Hokkaido - 18th February to 4th March 2007

Published by Ian Merrill (i.merrill AT btopenworld.com)

Participants: Ian Merrill, Martin Kennewell, John Wright and Graham Finch

Photos with this report (click to enlarge)

Japan
Japan

Sunday 18th February

At 09.00 four cheerful faces lighten the arrivals hall at a cold and miserable Narita Airport, Tokyo, relived that their reunion has not been blighted by flight delays. Martin Kennewell has flown in the previous day from his Singapore work base, John Wright is fresh from two months birding in Vietnam, while Graham Finch and Ian Merrill are not at all fresh following a 14 hour Lufthansa flight from Birmingham.

A hefty wad of Yen is withdrawn from the airport ATM, which proves to be a wise move as we soon learn that such facilities are surprisingly few and far between is this country where credit cards are still not widely accepted. MK has taken charge of the hire car on the previous day (we recommend ToCoo Travel for car rentals, url: http://www2.tocoo.jp/?file=rentcar_inbound/main ), thus independently starting the trip list at Chosi where highlights included the osculans race of Eurasian Oystercatcher.

Braving the torrential rain we load bags into the very impressive 4WD Mazda MPV hire car, which comes complete with a rear view camera to aid reversing, electrically operated sliding rear doors and a completely unintelligible Japanese-speaking satellite navigation system! With road atlas and itinerary at hand we hastily review the morning’s birding options and opt to abandon the planned visit to Ukishima due to the extremely inclement weather and instead head straight to the uplands of Karuizawa in the hope of more favourable conditions.

Navigating ones way through Japan can be an interesting experience and certainly induces a steep learning curve. Although almost all road signs seem to have an English as well as Japanese translation, the lack of road numbers on all but the most important routes makes the recommended ‘Shobunsha’ road atlas less useful than it may otherwise be. One important lesson in Japanese road travel which we soon learn is to avoid anything other than an Expressway, the Country’s toll motorway system, as far as is possible. All lesser routes are plagued by heavy traffic and a plethora of traffic lights, which seem to grace every single junction no matter how seemingly insignificant. The Expressways, on the other hand, are generally unconjested and allow ground to be covered at a high speed, though with obvious cost implications.

Our chosen route leads us through eastern Tokyo’s uninspiring urban sprawl, which is made all the less appealing under a grey rain-laden sky. We pass by rows of elevated advertising signs, whose neon glow creates a cluttered townscape from which it is often difficult to pick up the omnipresent red traffic lights. The Japanese passion for golf is evident in the numerous urban driving ranges, each surrounded by huge protective nets which tower several stories above the low rise concrete business and residential property and add to the visual eyesore; suburban Tokyo is not recommended for those with an interest in sightseeing.

Our chosen route takes us along the Tokyo Gaikan Expressway, the Japanese equivalent of the M25, and then north east on the Kan-Etsu Expressway that leads out of Tokyo and into the arable lands beyond. A stop at a roadside service station provides an initial taste of Japanese birding, as we obtain our first acceptable views of attractive Brown-eared Bulbuls and also a gorgeous male Dusky Thrush that feeds nonchalantly beside some waste bins; both species prove to be ubiquitous throughout the next two weeks.

A fork in the blue line on the road atlas leads us east, onto the Joshin-Etsu Expressway, and we start to ascend into scenic forested hills that flank the mountain range forming the spine of Honshu Island. The weather begins to improve and instantly large numbers of lineatus Black Kites take to the skies above the mixed woodlands and rocky hillsides. As we continue to climb, via a series of sharp hairpin bends, the temperature drops and a carpet of snow covers the ground between the bare deciduous trees. Continuing higher still we are enveloped by the dense foggy air of the low cloud base, with visibility dropping accordingly.

Our destination is the spa resort town of Karuizawa, which nestles in the hills at an altitude of around 1,000m. It has taken us just four hours to cover the distance from Narita, though the final few kilometres invoke a few wrong turns as we struggle to coordinate road atlas with the directions in Mark Brazil’s invaluable ‘Birdwatcher’s Guide to Japan’.

It’s a great relief to finally locate the recommended birding site in the vicinity of the Hoshino Onsen, a sprawling and expensive hotel complex in a landscaped valley bottom with extensive mixed woodland tracts covering the surrounding hillsides. A very helpful gentleman in the Nature Centre gives us a map of the trails, which run through the surrounding woodland, and is able to point us in the general direction of some of our target species with reference to a field guide; his English is sadly only a little better than our Japanese!

Oriental Greenfinch and a male Brown-headed Thrush are seen in the vicinity of the Nature Centre feeders, before we head off into the deciduous woodland through which low cloud continues to roll. The raw coldness of the overcast afternoon saps heat from ears and finger ends as we make our way along the snow-covered forest trails. Bird density is predictably low, but over a couple of hours we notch up Japanese Pygmy and Japanese Green Woodpeckers plus a lone Long-tailed Rosefinch. The distinctive local races of Great, Willow and Long-tailed Tits are all recorded in good numbers and a pair of Wild Boar run noisily through the trees after we startle them at their feeding spot.

As the light fades we set off in search of accommodation and chance upon the excellent Edohara Pension (url: http://www.karuizawa.ne.jp/~edohara/e-home.htm, e-mail: edohara@karuizawa.ne.jp), just five minutes ride from Hoshino. The spacious modern guesthouse is run by what proves to be a typically friendly Japanese family whose son, Dice, thankfully speaks excellent English. We rapidly acquaint ourselves with the custom of removing boots at the door and donning the slippers provided, so as not to soil the spotlessly clean wooden floors.

We have to eat out due to our unexpected arrival and are directed to the nearby Cowboy Grill, whose food is sadly Western-orientated and rather expensive. Such minor inconveniences are of little consequence however, as we toast the first of many new birds with the first of many Asahi beers.

Monday 19th February

Fuelled by a fine breakfast we are on the Hoshino forest trails by 07.00, having seen the only Japanese Squirrel of the trip in the Pension garden as we load up the car. Multiple layers of cold weather clothing make the experience infinitely more pleasurable than on the previous afternoon. Thankfully the weather has improved significantly and the sky is clear, though several degrees of frost have left snow and ice crunching loudly below every footstep.

We have only been walking the trail for ten minutes when a wonderful male Copper Pheasant is spotted stealthily creeping between the dense beech trunks, though his dark outline is relatively easy to follow against a snowy white background. For twenty minutes we stalk him though the atmospheric snowy woodland, admiring finely vermiculated copper-brown upperparts, deep red facial skin and long barred tail. We can’t believe our luck as this species is one of the site’s most elusive and sought-after residents and his appearance has given our trip a fantastic kick-off.

Brown Dipper, more ‘Japanese’ Pygmy Woodpeckers and various tit species are recorded as we walk the trails, with another highlight being the appearance of a Japanese Accentor at the side of a small forest stream; it would appear that this is a regular spot as both Japanese and German birders have directed us to this area, where the Accentor gives an admirable performance.

Around the Nature Centre we find our first Meadow Buntings and Pale Thrush, while a couple of bird feeders further down the main road play host to Varied Tits, Oriental Turtle Doves and Oriental Greenfinches. Here we also gain some sustenance from the local 7-11 store, visits to which are to become a daily feature of the trip; the fine array of canned hot coffee served in such outlets get us through many-a-cold-day in the field.

The last few hours of the day are spent in the landscaped grounds around the Hoshino Onsen and along the fast flowing Yukawa River. Japanese Green Woodpecker, both Black-backed and Japanese Wagtails, Bull-headed Shrike and five treetop Japanese Waxwings make for a superb end to the day, before we return to the Edohara Pension at dusk.

A truly stunning Japanese meal awaits us, with seven courses of various fish, meat and vegetable dishes all served with copious amounts of saki; superb!

Tuesday 20th February

Baked eggs, toast and fruit are a good start to any day. A brief early morning visit back to the Hoshino Onsen area produces yet another Japanese Green Woodpecker and a flypast from three Japanese Grosbeaks, but not the hoped-for Waxwings around the mistletoe in what is another cold but clear morning.

Today we have decided on a change of scenery and head south east towards a number of sites mentioned in Brazil’s site guide, all in the vicinity of the town of Yokokawa. As we follow the tight hairpins down through the bare deciduous trees an emergency stop is executed to give a superb vantage point onto a solitary Japanese Serow. This rather strange Bovid appears to be somewhere between an antelope and a goat. It was once endangered due to over-hunting, but recent conservation efforts have been so successful that it now causes serious agricultural damage problems.

A brief stop in the agricultural land and fruit orchards beside the Usuigawa River finally produces our first proper views of the omnipresent White-cheeked Starling, as well as Crested Kingfisher and a healthy population of Japanese Wagtails. The nearby Nagagisawa Forest Road is host to a couple of very attractive male Common Bullfinches of the griseiventris race, whose pink is limited to the throat alone. A dazzling male Daurian Redstart feeds in scrub beside the Myogi-ko Reservoir, though Mandarins are noticeably absent from the waters on which Spot-billed Ducks predominate. Red-flanked Bluetail and Japanese White-eye also entertain, while around Nakagi Village we locate a sizable flock of Rustic Buntings and flush two pairs of Green Pheasants from a roadside reedbed.

After procuring dinner from the Yokokawa 7-11 store our drive through the town is halted by a flock of 12 garden-dwelling Azure-winged Magpies, fantastic birds and the only examples of the whole trip. Above the town lies more fruit orchards and higher still are stands of mixed woodland, home to Daurian Redstarts and Red-flanked Bluetails. At the Oneyama Shinrin Koen Museum well-stocked feeders attract a variety of birds into a photogenic location, with Willow and Great Tits vying for prime spots with Nuthatches and ‘Japanese’ Pygmy Woodpeckers. Varied Tits abound here and many birds take time to bury their bounty of sunflower seed in the ornamental flowerbeds. Star birds are a group of three or four Yellow-throated Buntings, with crested males showing boldly patterned yellow and black faces. Leaving the site close to dusk we find more Rustic, Meadow and Yellow-throated Buntings in the orchards, a very obliging male Green Pheasant and a spectacular roadside roost of over a hundred Black Kites.
It is dark by the time we return to Karuizawa, where we are happily driving back through the town when an almighty bang and bone-shaking jolt sees our Mazda shunted across the road by a hefty Subaru estate car which has run a set of red lights. The lady driver is clearly very upset and apologetic, but speaks hardly a word of English. We limp after her to the nearby Police Station from where we are able to summon Dice from the Edohara Pension. The young man proves to be an absolute lifesaver, and proceeds to translate for us during the hour-and-a-half inquest into the accident. All is eventually resolved amicably, but we are left with a sadly defunct hire car some six inches narrower than it had been in the centre section, with two seized doors that show large amounts of daylight around their frames! The main thing, however, is that no one is hurt and Dice has soon arranged for a replacement hire car to be delivered to the pension the following morning.

Our mouth-watering evening meal of cured ham, pork, noodles, mushrooms and sushi is particularly welcome and we reflect over saki and beers on how things have not really turned out too badly.

Wednesday 21st February

In the daylight the car appears to have received a direct hit from a meteorite and we count the blessings of our lucky escape before coaxing it down to the Hoshino Onsen area for one last time. Our efforts are rewarded with spectacular views of around twenty-five Japanese Waxwings that hungrily consume mistletoe berries from low plants in the tree beside the Yukawa River. As stunning as any other member of this genus, they exhibit highly distinctive crimson tail tips and a subtle red greater covert patch on the folded wing.

We return to the Edohara Pension where Dice has coordinated the car replacement, and depart from the fine establishment vowing to send as many Western birders as possible in our footsteps. It takes around an hour-and-a-half of mainly Expressway driving to reach Jigokudani (url: http://www.outdoorjapan.com/features/ojfeature-jigokudani.html), home of the country’s most famous group of Japanese Macaques, or ‘Snow Monkeys’. We park up at the designated spot in the coniferous forested foothills and take a fifteen minute walk to the turnstile where we have to pay for an audience with the Macaques. Up to sixty animals are present in a narrow rocky valley, including some who are bathing in the famous hot springs, immersed to the neck in the steaming water. It has to be said that the whole experience is very touristy and verging on a zoo, but it would seem that this is the only way to guarantee seeing these magnificent red-faced primates and the photographic opportunities are second-to-none.

After an hour of savouring the mutual grooming and the wading through the man-made bathing pool, we have had our Snow Monkey fill and decide to head uphill, above the snow line, in the hope of some high altitude species. The high altitude scenery to the east of Jigokudani is spectacular, as white-barked birches alternate with dark pines against a backdrop of steep snow-covered mountains. In spite of its aesthetic appeal, however, the ski slope dotted landscape seems devoid of birds and we have to make do with coffee and biscuits at one of the many resort cafes.

After descending to the low plains around the Chikuma River we spend the last hour of daylight searching the bankside scrub and fields around Hachisu, though only Bull-headed Shrike, Rustic and Meadow Buntings are added to the notebook.

The journey to our north coast destination of Kaga takes a good two hours of solid Expressway driving. En route we stop at a service station, to be treated to our first experience of ordering food from a menu of plastic replica dishes. Such use of model meals is common throughout Japan and is certainly very useful when little or no English is spoken by the staff; just point at the bowl of plastic noodle soup and you’re in business!

Arriving at the Kaga junction we make a quick recce of our morning destination of the Kamioke Sanctuary before searching for a room for the night. This act proves decidedly more difficult than we had imagined and we eventually have to settle for the Hotel Cote D’Azur at Katayamazu. This establishment is a typical Japanese ‘Love Motel’, where boards are provided to cover car number plates and no physical contact is made with the staff. After choosing a room a button is pressed to allow access and the door then locks until the appropriate cash fee is inserted. The clean and rather luxurious room is actually ideal when shared between the four of us, though the array of sex aids is clearly surplus to requirements!

Thursday 22nd February

24,000 Yen inserted into the door lock facilitates our release from the luxury ‘love cell’ and we make a pleasant early morning drive through the coastal villages of traditional elaborate timber-framed houses to Kamioke Sanctuary.

As we park opposite the visitors’ centre thousands of Greater White-fronted Geese are already taking to the air above their roosting pond, en route to the daytime feeding areas. The main lake at the site is surrounded by a high timber screen, making viewing rather difficult before the visitors’ centre opens. Through an occasional wider gap in the board we can squeeze a scope and have soon located the first of five exquisite Falcated Ducks. After a little more searching our first fantastic Baikal Teal are found; the two males and single female at this site prove to be the only birds of the trip.

With an hour to kill before the 09.00 visitors’ centre opening time we take a drive around the surrounding farmland, where four Grey-headed Lapwings and a pair of Green Pheasants are the highlights. The wet paddies produce only Common Snipe, while a couple of Hawfinches appear very out of place in such an agricultural environment.

Back at Kamioke Sanctuary we pay our entry fee and take up position in front of the large glass viewing windows to scan the hordes of waterfowl on the large pool below. Besides the Falcated Ducks and Baikal Teal seen earlier are large numbers of familiar species such as Smew, Mallard, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail and Eurasian Teal, plus some very interesting geese. Five Bean Geese of the long-billed middendorffii race are present, and seven more of the shorter and deeper billed serrirostris race promptly fly in to join them, providing excellent comparison. Eighty Bewick’s Swans complete the wildfowl panorama.

With an ‘x’ marked on our road atlas by one of the staff we set off west, in search of the goose feeding grounds beside the Kuzuryu River. Upon reaching the designated area we spend a good hour searching the flat agricultural lands and fail to find a single goose! Whether this is down to our interpretation of the directions or the lack of recent information we will never know, but regardless we cut our losses and drive the short distance north to the Tojinbo Headland where a fine selection of seabirds are admired in warm sunshine. Our first Harlequin Ducks, Temminck’s Cormorants, Vega and Black-tailed Gulls are all notched up, together with a number of Black-throated Divers, Red-necked Grebes and more distant Ancient Murrelets. On the way back to Kamioke we happen upon a large roadside pool close to Awara where around eighty Falcated Ducks lounge with Mallard and Eurasian Wigeon plus good numbers of Smew. A hybrid Eurasian Wigeon x Falcated Duck is another interesting find at this fine site.

The day is ended where it began, at Kamioke Sanctuary. The warden kindly allows us to stay late to witness the spectacular return of the Greater White-fronted Geese, which spiral down steeply against an orange sunset until two thousand birds cover the pool. A frantic search for the three Lesser Whitefronts reputedly present is abandoned due to bad light and we thank our hosts before setting off in search of some more appropriate accommodation.

The Inter Hotel at Katayamazu proves to be the perfect venue and we manage to book a room for four plus order takeaway pizzas without a word of English being exchanged! These are our first traditional Japanese rooms, with a mattress laid on woven mats surrounded by paper-like walls. The pizzas are delivered and the hotel owner ushers us into the dining room where we sit cross-legged on mats around a low table. Our host speaks scarcely more English than his receptionist, but he is clearly very excited about entertaining Western guests and kindly provides us with copious amounts of saki and beer, all on the house; scarcely has a mouthful been consumed before he tops up our glasses with great delight. Thankfully his bedtime arrives while we are still able to stand and we retire for our last night’s sleep on Honshu.

Friday 23rd February

First light sees the rain pouring down, thus relegating any early birding to a car-bound exercise. We therefore drive the short distance to Komatsu and find a convenient river mouth where we can watch the gulls and eat breakfast pizza from the comfort of our vehicle. Vega, Slaty-backed, Black-tailed and a couple of distant Common Gulls are all recorded, before we head to Komatsu Airport and our 09.30 ANA Flight to Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu. The flight is actually one of three, purchased at a very reasonable rate through ANA in London as a ‘Japan Airpass’ deal (url: http://www.ana.co.jp/wws/us/e/travelservice/reservations/special/airpass.html).

The flight is delayed by forty-five minutes, thus quashing any claims of Japanese infallibility on the efficiency front, but we are still in position at Fukuoka by midday. This time we are allocated a Mazda saloon car, which is soon fully laden and heading south on the Kyushu Expressway. Kyushu is clearly less agriculturally orientated than Honshu and is instead dominated by low wooded hills, most of which appear to be under coniferous managed forestry.

After an hour on the Expressway we head inland at Hikawa and almost immediately chance upon a group of a dozen Japanese Waxwings feeding in an ornamental berry bush and alighting on television aerials, just like their European counterparts. The road cuts inland and through scenic wooded hills, closely following the fast-flowing Hikawa River. Within a few kilometres we have located our goal, as a group of around sixty Mandarin Ducks rest on rocks in a shaded stretch of the watercourse. The males are truly beautiful creatures, and are actively displaying to prospective mates.

Pleased with our quick result, on a day with very little in the way of spare time, we set off for Yatsushiro. The going is painfully slow now that the Expressway has been vacated and even with good maps we have a number of false starts before locating the correct spot on the Kumagawa River estuary. The narrow road winds through rice fields and past picturesque wooden houses to deliver us to a sea wall vantage point. Use of tide tables has timed our visit to perfection and looking over the wall we are confronted by a large expanse of mud, essential for our planned gull watch.

Within minutes we have located the first of three Saunder’s Gulls which are patrolling the mudflats and occasionally dropping down to consume an unsuspecting crab, using a very distinctive deep-set black bill. Other estuary residents include a number of Vega Gulls and at least two large, darker-backed, yellow-legged birds which fit the bill for Heuglin’s Gulls of the taimyrensis race. More Falcated Ducks are also picked out of the large number of Eurasian Wigeon.

With the gulls safely in the bag we set off south again, following Route 3 that snakes through the hills and occasionally hugs the coastline. Having failed to find a cooperative ATM at the airport we are now getting a little desperate for cash. It takes a number of stops at potential banks before we figure out that they won’t accept our cards, and it is with great relief that we eventually fill our wallets at a Post Office. Future visitors be warned that cash can be hard to come by and that Post Offices offer the only certain access to foreign accounts in Japan.

We have booked a night’s accommodation at the World-renowned Arasaki Crane Reserve, and after a two-hour drive signs for the Crane Observatory start to appear, to guide us in. After a few wrong turns we find the reserve buildings and eventually the accommodation block. Though our hosts speak no English we are given a very warm welcome and shown to a couple of traditional Japanese rooms. A large Japanese meal awaits us in the dining room, which is warmed by a large paraffin heater and has walls covered with photos of the reserve and its cranes.

Here we also find time to talk to Michael Westerbjerg Andersen, an extremely helpful Danish birder and Central Asian tour leader (url: www.sitecenter.dk/kirgistan). Michael confirms that we are in for a treat, both here and on Hokkaido from where he has just returned.

Retiring to our rooms the bugling calls of cranes emanate through the room from what sounds like just metres away, in the darkness, and we fall to sleep amid a great sense of anticipation.

Saturday 24th February

We are awake before first light and the cranes are already in full cry outside. Opening the window shutter we can just make out strings of birds taking to the air in the half-light, before breaking for a rather fishy breakfast.

Returning to our bedroom windows the staggering sight of over 11,500 cranes crammed into one field, just metres away, unfolds with the gathering light. The cacophony that they create is equivalent of that of an avian football crowd, as huge waves of birds come and go from the roosting areas.

The clear morning gives perfect photographic light and we move outside to take full advantage. The majority of the birds, some 9,500, are Hooded Cranes. Pairs and small family groups of much larger and beautifully marked White-naped Cranes are dotted through their number, with a wintering population of around 2,000 birds. Also present are a handful each of Common and Sandhill Cranes, plus a few hybrid Hooded-Commons.

At 08.00 a pickup truck enters the main crane field and drives around a series of raised embankments to distribute sack-fulls of wheat. A second circuit of the vehicle delivers curious blocks of tiny fish, frozen into crane-enticing seafood lollypops. All is avidly devoured by the birds, which form a feeding-frenzy along the food-laden bunds. Large number of Black-eared Kites and corvids also descend to the fields and amongst the huge flock of Rooks we pick out Daurian Jackdaws; although most are uninspiring black birds we find one distinctive pied adult bird.

Although a whole day could be devoted to the crane spectacle alone, our time at Arasaki is very limited so we press on in search of some of the area’s other target species. Moving a short way south to the spot where the Takaonogawa River meets the wider estuary, our investigation of the reedbeds produces an Asian Painted Snipe, numerous Russet Sparrows and great views of a juvenile female Goshawk which perches in some low willows. Our first Japanese Bush Warbler is found nearby, while en route to the Euchigawa River we find a number of Black-faced Buntings of the attractive yellow-bellied personata race.

At Euchigawa a long search is finally rewarded with a small group of Chinese Penduline Tits, along with a number of Reed Buntings. In the early afternoon we drive some way inland along the Takaonogawa River. A flock of thirteen Japanese Grosbeaks feeding in the waterside scrub is quite a surprise, though the many Japanese White-eyes and Black-faced Buntings were less so. Main target at this site is Long-billed Plover, and a pair of these sought-after birds is located adjacent to a large gravel quarry. Japan is undoubtedly the best country in the World to see this elusive wader, and we take the opportunity to soak up the subtleties of this somewhat enigmatic species.

After refuelling on coffee and biscuits back at the Crane Observatory café we spend the final couple of hours at this magnificent reserve, around the rice stubble fields where the cranes are still present in force, and large numbers of local tourists have materialised. A number of japonicus Buff-bellied Pipits feed around the damper fields and a single Little Ringed Plover provides good comparison to the Long-billeds. Chestnut-eared Buntings prove elusive, but eventually a pair is found feeding quietly in a small ditch, where the male shows off his distinctive markings in the low afternoon light.

Squadrons of cranes are beginning to return to the roosting fields as we finally make tracks, leaving behind what must surely rank as one of the World’s top birding spectacles. At 16.30 we head east, making our way through the hilly central region of Kyushu, where again we find that the native deciduous forests have all but disappeared in favour of blankets of coniferous forestry. A number of Mandarins and Falcated Ducks are seen on a pool beside Route 447, but otherwise we concentrate on covering the miles. At Ebino we take to the Miyazaki Expressway and rapid progress is made as far as its termination at Saito. Here we dine on a superb meal of pork noodles at a roadside café, before completing the drive to Hyuga where the Hotel Hayata is chosen as our base for the night.

Sunday 25th February

We are up before dawn to drive the short distance north to the port of Kadogawa and figure out the route to the harbour. After finding a suitable parking spot we consume breakfast as the first light gathers over the assorted boats that are moored close by. After climbing onto the highest concrete harbour wall we begin to scan the calm sea from our vantage point. It takes just ten minutes for a pair of Japanese Murrelets to fly into the harbour area, but they are to the south of Otojima Island and extremely distant. A drive to the south side of the bay is in order, and we are soon repositioned on the harbour wall at Hyuga Port, this time looking out to the north.

The plan is a good one, and no less that three pairs of Japanese Murrelets are viewed on the calm seas, just twenty metres away at times. They turn out to be totally different from their Ancient cousins, with broad white supercilliums joining at the rear of the crown and an erectile crest that is occasionally popped up.

We toy with trying to charter a boat for some ultra-close looks, but convince ourselves that the language barrier would foil such an option. So we decide to take advantage of our good fortune and head south to the next site, departing from Hyuga at the early hour of 08.00.

The two-and-a-half hour drive to Mi-ike produces a flypast flock of five Japanese Grosbeaks, Barn Swallows and a House Swift, as we pass through a continuing vista of plantation-covered hillsides; there really is very little native woodland left across the whole of Kyushu. When the volcanic cone of Mi-ike rises into view it’s peak is ominously cloaked in low cloud and the first few spots of drizzle fall on the windscreen as we skirt the perimeter of the forested crater lake en route to the campsite area.

A couple of fishermen are the only other souls at the well-appointed campground, where one of the first birds to appear is a very impressive male White-backed Woodpecker of the distinctly deep-red bellied namiyei race. A pair of Ryuku Minivets lingers briefly in the treetops, a pair of Mountain Hawk-Eagles glide over the crater rim and a large group of around seventy Japanese Grosbeaks fly over the treetops. And then it begins to rain. And rain. And rain. And for a full seven hours, until darkness descends it continues to rain.

Birding must go on, however, and from the cover of brolleys we find large numbers of Black-faced Buntings and several Daurian Redstarts. A mid afternoon respite is taken in one of the cafes on the opposite side of the lake, where coffee and some rather strange local cakes take our mind off the inclement weather for half an hour. Then it’s back to the brolleys, where the final session of the day eventually unearths a small group of very elusive Grey Buntings, which feed unobtrusively amongst the leaves on a steep embankment in the forest, and a Stub-tailed Bush Warbler which creeps through the bamboo uttering it’s high-pitched call.

Our new Danish friend Michael and his wife arrive late in the day and he recommends that we join them in the Auberg Resort Hotel, just fifteen minutes drive to the south. We drive in convoy to the hotel, where the flamboyant and decidedly camp Japanese proprietor greets us. In a Basil Fawlty meets John Inman manner he shows us around his premises, recommending a dip in the communal hot tub. After a day in the rain this suggestion is gladly taken up and soon we (the guests, not the proprietor!) are all sweating in the hot but extremely pleasurable water of a large thermally heated stone bath set in the basement. With Snow Monkey-like red faces, we assemble at the dining table to be presented with an exceptional five-course meal that is an absolute culinary delight.

Post dining we all gather around the paraffin heater to sup a few beers and swap stories with Michael, who is kind enough to lend me a large capacity compact flash card to make up for my hard drive which has recently died.

Monday 26th February

A predictably excellent breakfast is served before first light and we are very pleased to note that the sky is clear as we load up the car and bid farewell to ‘Camp David’, as we have affectionately christened our host. En route to Mi-ike several Sika Deer dart across the road as well as a very welcome Japanese Marten, which lingers briefly at the verge.

We arrive at what could easily be an entirely different site from the damp and dismal Mi-ike of the previous day, with a mass of bird activity very evident. Around the camp site clearing Ryuku Minivets show their near black hoods and dark grey backs to good effect from treetop branches and our friend the White-backed Woodpecker again makes his presence felt. Flocks of Japanese Grosbeaks fly past and dazzling male Daurian Redstarts enjoy the early morning sunshine.

The Short-tailed Bush-Warbler is relocated, with a group of Yellow-throated Buntings performing in the same area. After a concerted call-chasing effort a couple of White-bellied Green Pigeons make a few brief appearances close to the entrance road, before it is time to set off for the airport and a day of travelling north.

Taking the Expressway option, we arrive at Kagoshima Airport in less than an hour, where we decide to add to our protective layer of ‘blubber’, as a defence against the impending cold, by partaking in a feast of vegetable somosas and hot syrup pancakes. The ever polite and efficient check-in staff have arranged for us all to have a window seat with a view of Mount Fuji, and this is exactly what we get as we approach Tokyo Haneda Airport in the half-full ANA Boeing 777. It is thankfully a clear day and the famously elegant snow-capped peak towers above the lowlands to the west of the city as we descend.

We are on the ground for a matter of minutes before a similarly two-thirds-empty Skybus A320 conveys us north and over the cold seas to Hokkaido. As we descend to Kushiro we pass low over an icy coastline and a scene of fields and birch forest carpeted in snow; it is a tremendously atmospheric introduction to this sub-zero environment, as an orange sunsets throws a warm glow over the white landscape.

We are pleased to find that the consistently helpful Mazda Car Hire staff have provided us with a 4WD MPV, as we set off along roads fringed with piles of snow which has clearly been ploughed from the tarmac very recently. After some brief essential shopping in Kushiro town we head west, on a two-hour drive to Lake Furen. The roads are still very good, and edged with pole-mounted arrows which mark the limits of the highway in times of deep snow. At night many of these markers are illuminated with flashing red lights, which look very out of place on the deserted rural roads.

Our destination is the famous Minshuku Furen, run by Takeyoshi Matsuo (Taki for short), located just west of Nemuro (e-mail: matsuo-t@plum.plala.or.jp). Everyone who stays here seems to have difficulty finding the guesthouse and we are no exception, resorting to a phone call to track down the out-of-the-way timber residence. We are given a very warm welcome by Matsuo-San and a meal that is instantly voted the best of the many fine meals that we have already consumed in our gastronomic tour of the country. The six-or-seven separate dishes of gorgeous seafood, vegetables and meats are washed down with marvellous homemade saki, after which the tremendously knowledgeable Matsuo-San takes time to run through our proposed itinerary offering help and advice on where best to search for our most wanted species.

We retire to the traditional rooms where thick heavy duvets keep out the cold as we drop to sleep eagerly anticipating our first day in this icy land.

Tuesday 27th February

As we enjoy a wonderful breakfast, including the world-renowned selection of six homemade marmalades, we watch Marsh Tits (which look like Willow Tits!) and a smashing white-bellied asiatica Eurasian Nuthatch on the window feeder. It is great to start the day with some warm food, but time is as short as ever on this island and we vow to take out pack-ups in future as we have already missed a good chunk of daylight by the time we depart.

In spite of the minus-ten degrees Celsius overnight low, it has been an exceptionally mild winter in Japan and consequently only half of Lake Furen is frozen. We therefore follow Michael’s directions to a site around thirty minutes to the north, where the fishermen gain access to the expanse of frozen water. Driving down the ice-bound access road we are confronted with our first close-up Steller’s and White-tailed Eagles, whose immense forms seem out-of-place in the rather small roadside trees. The first sight of a Steller’s Sea-Eagle, possibly the World’s ultimate raptor, is a phenomenal experience. Attached to the largest, yellowest hooked-bill you will ever see is a dark brown beast-of-a-bird with contrasting pure-white shoulder-flashes, vent and diamond-shaped tail. All is supported by the most fearsome set of bright yellow talons; awesome may be an over-used adjective in the birding community, but in this instance the phrase is certainly very apt.

Adjacent to a small group of houses, bounding the ice, is a collection of boats and skidoos that are employed by the local fisherman dependant upon season. Now that the lake is essentially frozen over the fisherman are towing sledges behind their skidoos as they venture out onto the ice to fish through strategically placed holes. Access to the water is afforded by huge chainsaws that slice out ice holes to allow nets to be lowered. The wintering population of eagles, kites and gulls are clearly well aware of such operations, and the scraps of food that they produce, as they mass on the ice and surrounding trees in great numbers awaiting a meal.

We follow in the tracks of the fishermen, venturing out several hundred metres onto the ice, to savour a site that really has to be seen to be fully appreciated. We estimate that 200 Steller’s and 100 White-tailed Eagles, of all ages but including many adult birds, are dotted across the vast expanse of ice; these big brown blobs are visible as far as the eye can see! Groups of 30 or 40 birds surround active fishermen, and when fish scraps are retrieved fantastic aerial battles often ensue, with the immense birds locking talons and performing twisting acrobatic displays. If the Araskai cranes fall into the top ten wonders of the avian world, then the Lake Furen eagles must come close to the very top. The fact that the majority of gulls gathered on the ice are Glaucous almost escapes attention in this eaglefest of incomparable proportions.

After filling photographic memory cards in the perfect light we retreat to the shoreline, legs aching from the penguin-like marching necessitated by the slippery conditions. Our plan for the late morning and early afternoon is to explore the Nemuro Peninsular, which juts out onto the cold Pacific Ocean to the east of Nemuro town.

Checking the waters around Nemuro harbour produces the first of many Spectacled Guillemots, plus large numbers of sea ducks in the form of Harlequins, Common Goldeneyes, Long-tailed Ducks, plus both Black and White-winged Scoters. We follow the coast road along the rocky southern shoreline of the peninsular all the way to Cape Nosappumisaki, or Cape Nosappu for short. Here the conglomeration of restaurants is closed down for the winter, in a scene resembling an out-of-season Hunstanton that clings to the cliff tops of the exposed promontory. At the very tip of the Cape a large rocky stack is topped by a large gathering of Pelagic Cormorants, plus one juvenile and one adult Red-faced Cormorant, a local speciality. All along the cape the intense cold causes the saltwater spray from breakers to freeze on the cliffs in amazing abstract ice-sculptures. The other seabirds are similar to the Nemuro selection but a Kurile Seal bobbing not far off the rocks is a good mammal to catch up with, being easily identified by the small pale circles which dot it’s otherwise dark grey fur.

Driving back along the northern coastline we spend half an hour at Onnemoto in a futile search for Rock Sandpipers, though Pigeon Guillemots are new birds from this outlook. A pair of stunning Japanese Cranes, feeding in a shallow saltwater bay, come as a total surprise. Our destination for the evening is Rausu, some way to the north, so we set off early to travel through the stark landscape of snow-covered pasture fields and bare white birches, illuminated by a watery late afternoon sun. Following the coast road we make a brief stop at the Noksuke-wan Nature Centre. The Centre has already closed, but our detour produces intimate views of three Red Foxes that have emerged just before dark to eke out an existence out of this unforgiving environment.

Although Matsuo-san has given us explicit directions to the Inn Washino-yado at Nakashibetsu, we still have great difficulty in locating the small valley, just north of Rausu, in which the guesthouse is situated. On a narrow road of packed snow and ice we gingerly make our way a few hundred metres up the steep-sided valley to be greeted by a most bizarre scene. A short section of the small, fast flowing, stream is illuminated by a cluster of halogen bulbs. A battery of flashgun-supporting tripods lines the water’s edge, with leads running from these over the snow to half-a-dozen strategically placed cars, at the top of the stream’s bank.

We pull up in what appears to be a prize spot at the edge of the illuminated water, expecting to be moved to another area. Instead we are welcomed by a friendly Japanese photographer, who asks if all four of us will fit into our Mazda ‘hide’. He goes on to explain that neither the guesthouse proprietors, nor any of the other dozen-or-so photographers currently in residence, speak English so he is our sole point of contact. We are shown to a couple of rooms and offered places at a long communal table laden with fine Japanese cuisine. There is a great atmosphere of excited anticipation in the dining room, clearly tangible in spite of the language barrier, as the photographers offer us large glasses of saki to wash down the superb seafood meal.

Our one goal at this famous site is, of course, the extremely rare and highly localised Blakiston’s Fish-Owl. Shogi, our English translator, explains that a small tank set invisibly in the stream bed will be baited with live fish at 19.30. At this point we are to take up position in the cars and await the potential arrival of the Fish-Owls; we already know that the appearance of the birds is by no means guaranteed, as Michael failed to see them when he visited this site a couple of weeks previously. Once in the cars we are told that we will have to maintain our position until a 22.30 coffee break is made.

At the allotted hour we man the car, wind down the front window and open the rear sliding door, then cross every available finger. A Blakiston’s Fish-Owl calls from further up the valley almost immediately, but fails to appear. The nighttime temperature is currently dropping to around minus ten degrees Celsius, so a prolonged wait in the open car is not an overly pleasurable proposition. But wait we have to do. And wait. And wait.

Close to 22.30 the calling recommences and appears to be getting closer. Pulses quicken as we scan every visible perch on the snowy hillside beyond the river. Then, from out of the shadows, glides the immense form of a Blakiston’s Fish-Owl, to alight on a tree above the river no more than fifteen metres from our vantage point. After a few seconds this magnificent shaggy haystack-of-an-owl drops down onto the rocks beside the invisible baited fish tank and is received by a battery of flashgun bursts that would do Liz Hurley proud! The owl is now so close that it sits absolutely full frame in my 400mm lens, with every feather of its barred upperparts and streaked breast visible in minute detail. The bird is a master-fisherman, stealthily plucking fish after fish from the black water of the stream, though fishing must be rather easy from within the confines of the fish tank!

The bird is unperturbed by the gallery of flashguns and is soon joined by two fully grown juvenile birds which seem as proficient as their parent in extracting fish, each of which are killed by a bite to the neck before being swallowed whole. We sit spellbound for the next fifty minutes as we are presented with an unprecedented multi-owl display of fishing prowess.

At around 23.30 the last bird glides off into the shadows and the occupants of the cars descend upon the dining room to warm up and share thoughts on one of the most amazing avian experiences imaginable. As we sit cross-legged beside the low table, thawing out hands on hot coffee mugs, the fantastically elated atmosphere is conveyed by spirit rather than language.

We return to the car for another session, but the owls seem to have had their fill of fish and there is little fishing activity. At close to 03.00 we finally collapse on thick mattresses to dream of one of the most exciting yet surreal birding experiences we have ever witnessed.

Wednesday 28th February

Our 06.00 breakfast is another fishy offering, sometimes a little difficult for our Western palettes to cope with at such an early hour. The setting outside certainly looks very different in the daylight, with Brown Dipper and Goosander hunting where Blakiston’s Fish-Owls had stood some hours before. We warmly thank our hosts and are presented with a bag of fish heads to take down to Rausu Harbour. Here we whip the local gulls into a feeding frenzy, allowing great photographic opportunities of the many Glaucous and Glaucous-winged Gulls that inhabit this site.

Next stop is the Noksuke-wan Nature Centre. The establishment is open on this occasion and we enjoy a coffee in the well-equipped visitors’ centre, though the feeding station is devoid of the anticipated Asian Rosy-Finches. The staff assure us that the birds will appear by early afternoon, but just as we are debating our best plan of attack JW appears from the cold to announce that he has located a small flock of Rosy-Finches just along the road.

Minutes later we are braving the intense cold to savour a flock of these extremely attractive and incredibly hardy little birds as they move over an area of bare ground, close to the sea, in search of food. The males have bright yellow bills, bold sandy-yellow nape patches and dark underparts with regular pale-pink dotting; not only are they admirable in terms of plumage but also in their resilience to this bleak environment.

Continuing southeastwards, we are back in Nemuro Town before midday, where we head straight for the fishmonger that Matsuo-san has identified for us. It is a fascinating establishment, with seafood of all shapes, colours and sizes carefully set out and priced on rows of trestle tables. We hand the proprietor the note which Matsuo-san has written for us in Japanese and he points at a pile of fish. Our plan is to go back to Lake Furen to bait in the eagles with fish and our note asks the fishmonger for the cheapest bait. Touring the large shop we see the lads at the back gutting and cleaning the fish and get a sudden idea. Minutes later we are loading three large boxes into the car, containing fish offal and off cuts which we have been given free of charge; very proud of our acquisition we smugly drive off towards Cape Ochiishimisaki to the south of Nemuro.

The weather throws us a mixture of sunshine and showers, though as we set out from the car towards Cape Ochiishimisaki there are actually large snowflakes being whipped across the grassy fields of the headland. A well-constructed rustic boardwalk takes us through the shelter of a very scenic snow-draped natural conifer forest, from where we disturb a large herd of Sika Deer whose number include some large-antlered males.

A lighthouse on the tip of the headland provides us with shelter from which to scan the choppy water, though a prolonged sea watch adds just a single flypast White-billed Diver to the trip list; alcids really are in short supply this winter, seemingly due to the mild conditions and lack of southerly packice cover.

As a huge fiery ball-of-a-sun sinks below a glorious frosted landscape we retire to the warmth of Matsuo-san’s pension, to dine on another wonderful meal and view a weather forecast that warns of strengthening cold northerly winds.

Thursday 1st March

Taking a pack-up breakfast we set out early into the cold and retrace our route to the frozen Lake Furen shoreline. To get our fish bits onto the ice we borrow a sledge and set off like Antarctic explorers into the wind-blown snow showers. Again dozens of Steller’s and White-tailed Eagles dot the ice and surrounding trees, and a few hundred metres out we dump the pile of offal to entice them down.

Within seconds a desperately hungry Red Fox is gorging himself on the tasty offerings, but the birds seem unimpressed. We move back another thirty metres, but not even the gulls and kites will touch their breakfast treat. We try moving even further but it is all strangely futile; if you have the reputation of a Steller’s Sea-Eagle it would seem that you cannot lower yourself to consume anything less dignified than a fish freshly landed from an ice hole!

Needless to say we still relish another session on the ice with the eagles, where photo-calls alternate with flurries of snow, whipped by the strong northerly wind. In the conifer woods bounding Lake Furen we find our first group of superb white-headed caudatus Long-tailed Tits amongst the standard forest fare, before heading south for the 7-11 store and a can of warming coffee.

The remainder of the day is spent working our way around the Nemuro Peninsular, seawatching from various points with enough shelter to deflect the biting, bitterly cold wind; it is certainly a day for the thermals, balaclavas and hand warmers! Northern Goshawk, a large group of Whooper Swans and our pair of Japanese Cranes slow the outbound journey, where we finally get good views of a group of distinctive kamtschatschensis Common Gulls that are feeding just off Onnemoto.

At Cape Nosappu we shelter behind the lighthouse, where huge breakers smash over the rocks of the headland and again leave frosty sheets of frozen saltwater clinging to the rocks in a beautiful natural ice sculpture. Although we see some very close Common Guillemots and Ancient Murrelets, the rarer alcids that we hope have been blown south do not materialise. The journey back to our pension is livened by a photogenic drake Falcated Duck, and the hot tub is well-received prior to our final memorable meal with Matsuo-san and his wife. Before retiring to bed we take advantage of Matsuo-san’s logistical knowledge to plan our route for the next two days, which is set to involve various planes, trains, automobiles and ferries! Our host has not only provided us with the finest food of the trip, he has also been invaluable in his knowledge of the birds, wildlife and pretty much anything anyone would wish to know about Japan. We are deeply indebted to him for his help.

Friday 2nd March

With bags and packed breakfast loaded into the car we set off early to travel west, back towards Kushiro. The wind has thankfully dropped and the skies are clear. Most of the morning is spent in the mixed forests just east of Kushiro, where the deep show makes for a very scenic setting. In spite of our efforts Michael’s Pallas’ Rosefinches cannot be located, but a surprise Hazel Grouse is some compensation. Eurasian Treecreeper is an addition to the trip list amongst the common passerines found in the woodland, while a reedbed at Hosooka holds Yellow-throated Bunting, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and a pair of Red-crowned Cranes.

Just after midday we arrive at the Tsuri Crane Centre, where 42 Red-crowned Cranes are gathered in a snow-covered field in a true ‘ornithological calendar’ setting. The stunning birds are already thinking of the breeding season and periodically burst onto bouts of ‘dancing’, as both jump into the air on outstretched wings and with splayed legs. A fine middendorffii Bean Goose feeds close by, with the cranes, while at a nearby farm we find a flock of Brambling and another three Red-crowned Cranes. And so ends our birding on Hokkaido, truly one of the avian highlights of the whole Planet.

We drop off the car close to Kushiro Railway Station late pm and successfully purchase tickets for the 16.18 ‘Super Ozora 10’ express train to Minami-Chitose, the first leg of our overland journey back to Narita. The tilting diesel-electric train is spotlessly clean and with airline-quality seating. Dead on time we begin a journey through a wonderful snowy landscape, where the setting sun bathes white birch trunks and snowbound fields in a salmon-coloured glow. An occasional Steller’s Sea-Eagle gazes down on us from trackside treetops; this will no doubt be the last time that we glimpse this ultimate raptor for a very long time.

It takes three hours to reach Minami-Chitose. After dark the journey is enlivened by the occasional appearance of a refreshment trolley-toting stewardess, who politely bows to all aboard every time she enters and leaves each carriage! After a twenty-minute wait on the platform we board another local train for the twenty-five minute journey to Tamakamai. From the station at this large port town we grab a taxi for the ten-minute drive to the ferry terminal.

With the liberal use of sign language we manage to secure a cabin for four on the 11.45 Tomakamai to Oarai Ferry. Upon boarding we find the we have a very pleasant little cabin, though strangely the boat seems to be virtually deserted. By now we are ready for a slap-up meal in the canteen and are bitterly disappointed to find that there is no canteen. Instead the dining area is equipped with a series of vending machines which dispense either pot noodles and hot water, or instantly-defrosting meals; it looks like it is going to be a hungry nineteen hours!

Saturday 3rd March

At 06.30 we are on deck. There is no need to get up earlier for breakfast as there isn’t any! It’s a beautiful day, sunny and with very little swell, but with a chill south-easterly wind. We are running parallel with the Honshu coast, perhaps ten kilometres offshore.

After finding the best position to optimise light, viewing angle and wind shelter we settle into position on the top deck. The seawatching starts slowly, but after an hour-or-so things start to warm up with the appearance of the first of many Laysan Albatrosses. As with all of this genus these Mollyhawks are magnificent birds, and actually come across as a northern hemisphere version of a Black-browed, showing dark facial markings, pale bill, and broad dark edges to the pale underwings; typically they glide over the waves with scarcely a wing-beat to be seen.
Ancient Murrelets are present in large numbers, and small groups of Steller’s Sealions are regularly encountered as they loaf in the sunshine with flippers raised to catch the warmth. An adult Black-footed Albatross causes excitement, but sadly stays well away from the boat, while we note that Black-legged Kittiwake numbers increase as we make our way further south. The first of several pods of Pacific White-sided Dolphins appears, while two porpoises that briefly surface may well have been Dall’s. Although many auks whirr past the boat they are almost all too distant to positively identify and we are left wondering how some birding groups manage to amass such huge alcid lists from this very same craft; in all the only alcids we identify with confidence, other than Ancient Murrelets and Common Guillemots, are one Least and ten Whiskered Auklets.

Brunch consists of pot noodles, defrosted chips and ice-cream. Nice. And then it’s time to get back on deck. Mid way through the voyage Black-legged Kittiwake numbers peak and we pass tight flocks of many hundred birds, which in turn attract small numbers of Arctic and Pomarine Skuas. A couple of very dark rodgersii Northern Fulmars fly close by, looking entirely different from their North Atlantic counterparts. The first of a steady stream of Streaked Shearwater’s appear at this stage, before one of the certain highlights of the crossing, heralded by a cry of ‘Orca!’ A pod of three of these awesome oceanic predators pass the port side of the boat close in, including a male with an immense pointed dorsal fin.

The remainder of the afternoon produces much of the same, though auk species become noticeably scarcer as Streaked Shearwaters increase, with their numbers complimented by single appearances of both Short-tailed and Sooty Shearwaters. By 17.30 the light is failing and we have had our fill, so we return to the cabin for a sleep until the boat docks at 19.30.

From the ferry terminal we take a twenty-five minute bus ride to Mito, where we catch a train to Kashiwa. At Kashiwa we pull off a three-minute connection with the Abiko train to breeze into Narita at 23.00. The Hotel U-City is within walking distance from the station if you know the way, but we end up in a taxi after getting a little confused; it’s been a long day!

Our final meal in Japan is a take-away from a 24-hour store that serves Japanese food in a ‘Subway’ type experience, to be consumed in the hotel lobby and washed down with Kurin Beer from the 7-11.

Sunday 4th March

There is a slight change of plan this morning, when we realise that we won’t be able to pick up our hire car until the Mazda office opens at 08.00. This is not a big deal as we are all leaving at different times today and car hire would have caused some problems with drop-offs, so it is abandoned.

Instead, at 06.30 we all jump in a taxi for the five-minute ride to Narita San Koen, a wonderful ornamental park attached to Buddhist temples in central Narita. This turns out to be the perfect location to end a trip. The gardens are adorned by numerous blossoming fruit trees, which reflect in carp-filled ornamental pools, and also with pagodas set amongst sculpted dwarf pines. It is actually the closest we come to the traditional image of Japan on the entire trip. The surrounding temples are equally impressive, and worthy of a visit in their own right, should time permit.

Not only are the gardens gorgeous, they are brimming with very good birds that are very approachable. Brown-headed, Dusky and Scaly Thrushes, Grey and Black-faced Buntings, Eurasian Bullfinch and Japanese Bush Warbler are found with ease. And then it is time to go our separate ways.

Before our trip I had read a bird tour company advertisement stating that Japan in winter was a ‘must-do birding trip’. This sounded like so much sales spin, but having travelled across the islands I must now concede that the statement is true. A visit to Japan is a truly unique experience. Although the lack of spoken English can be a drawback at times, this is more than compensated for by the inherent polite, kind and gentle nature of the islands’ inhabitants; we never really struggled to make our requirements understood with a little sign language and gesticulation to people always willing to go out of their way to help. Travel was relatively straightforward and we lost very little time through communication problems.

Everywhere we visited, without exception, was spotlessly clean and not a sign of graffiti or vandalism was encountered in this superbly well-ordered nation. Road rage is clearly not in the Japanese vocabulary, as drivers commute in their tiny square cars and stick rigorously to a 50 kmph limit; it is most refreshing to visit a clearly affluent nation where ones status does not have to be expressed by possession of a large and totally pointless 4WD or Mercedes. We in the West could clearly do well to take some inspiration from the Japanese in terms of lifestyle and social values.

From a birding perspective, Japan is truly a destination with many superlatives and it is difficult to isolate a single highlight from our visit. It could be the 10,000-crane gathering at Arasaki; 300 Steller’s and White-tailed Eagles on the ice at Lake Furen; Red-crowned Cranes dancing on the Hokkaido snow, or the great number of Laysan Albatrosses plus our pod of Orcas seen from the ferry. For me, however, an hour with the Nakashibetsu Blakiston’s Fish-Owls, and the whole bizarre experience surrounding this ritual, has to be the single defining moment of this incredible trip.

Ian Merrill
March 2007
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