The set-up. Two birders, one from the UK, Stu Warren (aka Mr W), and myself from Australia, Colin Reid. We’d originally planned this trip for 2017, but, due to unforeseen circumstances, had had to defer it. We flew from our respective home countries arriving at Narita airport within 2 hours of each other, Mr W meeting me when I emerged from the arrivals.
We spent two weeks together exploring Honshu, ferry trips, Hokkaido and Kyushu. I stayed on for a week alone to do some touristy stuff, seeing as how I was already there and had the time to spare. This trip report covers the three week period from 14th February to 7 March 2018.
I know there have been several excellent trip reports written regarding birding in Japan in winter and providing excruciating detail for the visiting birder – I just hope mine contributes to this library.
Preparation: I had assumed responsible for setting up the in-country stuff. I started in May 2017. This possibly sounds ridiculously early, but if you want to book the really important places like Furen-ko and, of course, The Owl, (Blakiston’s Fish Owl, of course) you need to get in very early.
In May – 8 months out – I was too late to book the cheaper birder-specific location Washinoyado, but was fortunate enough to receive the offer of help from Take at Lodge Furen who very helpfully booked us a night at Yuyado Daiichi where The Owl performs under lights from the comfort of the lobby. It’s not a cheap option, but as you will read, it’s absolutely unbeatable and I can’t recommend the hotel and staff highly enough. Email the hotel direct: email@example.com
I had difficulty finding Takeyoshi Matsuo at Lodge Furen’s email address, so I will include it here as it’s a must-stay place at the base of Nemuro Peninsula and the comfort, food, advice, updates and general atmosphere is another unmissable experience for serious birders. So – firstname.lastname@example.org
With the Lodge and The Owl safely booked away, so to speak, I took a break and didn’t do anything more for several months.
In late 2017 I booked the rest of the trip – or most of it. One of the things we had opted to do was take a ferry from Oarai, east coast of Honshu north of Tokyo, to Tomakomai in Hokkaido. We had read about the possibilities of great birds from the ferry and were determined to give it a go. When I re-started booking stuff in late 2017, the ferry schedule had only been updated to the end of December. I booked everything else around it and waited.
Christmas came and the schedule was updated to the end of January. Mid-January came and they updated the first half of February – up to the 16th. I wanted the ferry on 19th. Then the website crashed. In the meantime, Mr W had contacted the company and received advice from one of their employees who had promised to advise us as soon as the schedule was updated. I decided to contact him myself and, over the course of successive emails, he booked us a berth on the ferry leaving Oarai at 1.30am on 20th February – which was what we wanted, or so we thought, but more of that later… The planning was finalised on January 31st, 14 days before we were due to fly in-country.
All the rest of the accommodation I booked through various websites, starting with Trivago and looking at options near where we wanted to go. Most were within the $Aus50-$Aus100 per person per night (no meals) and included standard hotels, guesthouses, ryokans (traditional Japanese accommodation) and even a Capsule hotel in Tokyo. I wanted to experience as much as I could and dragged Mr W along with me! It wasn’t what I would call expensive and we’ve always operated frugally – as most birders do. The one exception was the Yuyado Daiichi - that was close to $Aus200 each per night, but included a fabulous dinner, breakfast and use of their onsen, never mind the sheer luxury, exceptional staff and, of course, The Owl. We had two internal flights. The first from New Chitose airport in Hokkaido to Kagoshima at the southern end of Kyushu and the second from Kagoshima back to Narita, Tokyo. It didn’t seem possible to fly direct from new Chitose to Kagoshima and the quickest option was via JAL with a 30 minute stop-over in Osaka. It cost more than I was happy with considering it’s only a total of about 4 hours in the air, but options were limited. The return flight to Narita I booked with Jetstar, cheap and basic with very strict limitations on luggage weights, but well within our frugal price range! I booked 4 car rentals. All through rentalcars.com, whom I have found to be very efficient. Three were with Times Car Rentals and one with Nissan. I didn’t just pick the cheapest, but did choose 4 door sedan-type vehicles that were roomy enough, without being huge and seemed a familiar type of car to drive. I did ensure I got multi-language Sat Navs in the cars (see below for more on that)
Important Note – if you don’t know already, you will need an International Driver’s License to hire a car in Japan. It must have the words ’Convention on International Road Traffic of 19 September 1949’ to qualify. You won’t get a car without one. I didn’t worry about 4WD even though I knew Hokkaido was going to be snow bound. I figured the local authorities would clear the roads very quickly if necessary, being the efficient, organised people that the Japanese are. I was proved correct in this in the main. I didn’t see snow tires advertised anywhere as an ‘extra’, but when we picked up the car in Tokyo to drive to Karuizawa we negotiated a vehicle with snow tires and paid extra for them there and then. In Hokkaido they came on all vehicles automatically at no extra expense (I think) and they weren’t necessary in Kyushu or for my week in Honshu at the end. OK – enough of the practicalities. We had both looked up, read and re-read trip reports from previous birders from the usual sources – Surfbirds and Cloudbirder. (I had based my planning & booking on the outcome of my research). We both had Mark Brazil’s Birds of East Asia and Mr W had a copy of his Where to find birds in Japan as well. We also interrogated several of our friends and acquaintances, who had been to Japan in recent years, for the best info.
Driving in Japan. Turned out to be very easy. We both come from countries where we drive on the left, as the Japanese do, so that was an easy transition for us. The two things that you need to be aware of specifically – or maybe three:
1. The tolls are huge. You can use non-expressways, but, for moving from place to place quickly, you have to use the toll roads. In Honshu we paid approximately $AU200 to get to Karuizawa and then across the island to Oarai. In Hokkaido and Kyushu much less as there are fewer expressways. In my third week I drove from Narita to Hiroshima and back, probably through the most populated and busy part of Japan. I drove just over 2,000 kms in that week and paid $AU530 in tolls. You can either pay them in cash at the toll booths – most have a human being to take your money and give change where necessary, a few were automated, but easy to understand. Or you can get an ETC card from the car rental company for a small fee and pay at the end. We did the cash thing together, I did the card thing on my own for obvious reasons.
2. The traffic lights will do your %^$#@*&^% head in! As Mr W was fond of saying! They are numerous, slow and non-sensible in that they don’t appear to have any sensors, they just turn on and off as they are programmed to do regardless of time of day or night.
3. If you’re from the UK or Australia be aware – the apparent ‘Give Way’ upside down triangle we are used to is, in fact, a stop sign. We didn’t realise this until the second week….
Japanese drivers are, in my opinion, generally good. A bit slower than I would like, maybe, but generally they indicated well and showed respect for other drivers. I only heard a horn used in anger once – and that was mine – when some tosser came up the inside lane on an expressway and pushed into the line of traffic on top of me at about 110 km/hr. Other than that everyone was very polite, moved over and gave way. The country wide speed limit is 100 k/hr, but many drivers ignore that. Confusingly on the expressways the signs are shown as 60, 80 or, sometimes, 90. I’m still not sure whether that means in k/hr or m/hr, because NO ONE was doing 80 k/hr on the expressway and it seems ridiculous to build a super highway and then restrict the speed to 80 or 90 k/hr? We didn’t see any definite evidence of speed cameras either automatic or handheld and the police were rarely in evidence on the expressways. The roads were brilliantly marked and illuminated. Signs were in Japanese and English and the sat navs we had in the cars were fairly accurate. We did get them programmed in English and where possible I would strongly suggest that you get the car rental company rep to put your desired destination addresses into the sat nav when you pick up the car! Addresses in Japan are extremely difficult to find. A lot of the major hotels have their phone numbers recorded so if, for example, you enter the phone no for Yuyado Daiichi it will take you to the door, no problem. However, I had booked Air BnBs for my (personal) week and none of their phone nos worked. I couldn’t enter the addresses because I couldn’t find an English keyboard in the sat nav and all I got was an ‘approximate’ destination. One of these was about 100 meters from the real address, another was 13 kms away. We found the staff at the car rental depots were very helpful and would be happy to put in the addresses and save them to history for us. Unfortunately, I didn’t take full advantage of this and even when I did get someone to enter the address, it still wasn’t always to the door. Very challenging in cities. There are details of some of my ‘challenges’ later in the report…..
Weather: When I left Brisbane it was 36 degrees centigrade. In Hokkaido it dropped as low as -15. We had come prepared – thermals, warm shirts, gloves, gortex and down jackets, beanies, balaclavas, heavy duty gloves – but it was still the coldest place I have ever been. Honshu was fine around Tokyo and between there and Hiroshima in my last week, but in Karuizawa we had serious snow on the off road tracks. Hokkaido was snow from beginning to end, with lumps of ice floating offshore and snow falls overnight. (I loved it, actually). Kyushu was warmer – it got up to 21C one day I think – but still quite cold at night, and wet.
Mapping: While we used the sat nav to get from A to B, we had found it impossible to get good road maps of Japan and so I had decided to rely on a free app I have used previously with great success. I am an Apple fan, but I know you can get a similar (free) apps for android devices. The one that works on Apple is MapsMe and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It doesn’t need internet connection – it uses satellites. Otherwise it works identically to a sat nav providing verbal directions and is very accurate. The downside? It’s fairly heavy on battery use – I used it in my iPad Mini and came close to running out of juice on a couple of occasions. Of course you can organise to plug it into the car to charge it – just be aware that, strangely enough, none of the cars we had had USB charge plugs in them. I always carry a bank of four USB plugs in a plug-into-the-cigarette lighter/power point type arrangement, which all cars have. While on that – I had also brought a power board (2x power points, 4xUSB points – very handy!) with international changeable plugs and, of course, the recommended plug for Japan. It was a three pin. We never saw any three pin sockets anywhere in anything we stayed in. All were a two, thin, pin socket. I managed to get an adaptor on the 5th day, luckily, as otherwise I couldn’t have charged my laptop or my camera battery.
Getting money: We had read somewhere that getting cash was difficult in Japan, so had both arrived with a decent handful to start us off with. Mr W had, in fact, brought all his cash with him. I had a cashcard with Yen already loaded, intending to cash up before we left Tokyo. As it happened most 7/11 stores had ATMs which dispensed cash without charging a fee so we had no on-going issues. Credit cards are not always accepted, admittedly, but the larger hotels and car rentals are no problem.
Capsule Value Kanda, Tokyo. About 20 minutes walk from Tokyo central station. Recommend for the experience! And value. Pretty central, great selection of eating places nearby if you know what you’re doing. Little English spoken.
Minshuku Aoki, Karuizawa. Honshu Japanese style room with shared bathroom. Tatami and futons. Good value, plenty of free parking. 10 minutes from the main birding area. No meals. Friendly if discrete staff. Minimal English spoken.
Hotel Oarai. Love hotel, double bed. 15 minutes from ferry. A last chance crash pad thanks to my stuff-up, more below. Comfortable with your own classic Japanese bathroom and as much free coffee as you could drink. No English spoken.
Oarai to Tomakomai ferry: Very comfortable single berths in a 4 berth cabin. Schedule was not updated as early as we would have liked, but contact MOL ferries website for booking. No café or restaurant on board, but machines dispense pot noodles and I had chicken and chips from a machine. It was OK, survivable. Minimal English, but little interaction with the crew anyway – the check-in guy spoke English well.
Chitose Grand Hotel, Hokkaido: Booked because of its proximity to New Chitose airport and the free shuttle bus to and from. Standard double bed hotel room. Nothing special, but I had had to cancel a twin room booking I had made for the previous night……again, more below…..Almost no English spoken.
Lodge Furenko, Nemuro, Hokkaido. A must for visiting birders. Take-san offers friendship and accommodation, including breakfast & dinner suited to western tastes with Japanese influence – in other words it’s all good! We had a twin room with single beds and all the advice and information we could use for local birding both from Take and the other visiting birders. English spoken well. Once again his email is email@example.com
As it happened Take also helped me by booking the Yuyado Daiichi and the accommodation at Arasaki Crane Centre which I had difficulty locating on-line.
Yuyado Daiichi, Hokkaido: Brilliant, but expensive. However, considering the cost includes a genuine Japanese dinner served by your own hostess and breakfast (which we had pre-packed in a plastic bag due to our poor planning), an onsen we believe, but didn’t get to try, that is to die for and the most luxurious room and beds, not to mention the exceptional customer service and staff – it’s worth it. English spoken.
Shin Tsurumi Tei, beside Arasaki Crane Centre, Kyushu; Take booked this for us and I have no other details of how to find it. It was ryokan style with breakfast and dinner included. Some of the food was….very Japanese and not entirely suited to our tastes, but there was enough to keep us satisfied. Well worth it for the location and style – tatami and futon sleeping. Minimal or no English spoken.
Pumping Surf Guesthouse, Hyuga: Two bunk beds and a double in the room. Comfortable, friendly, laid back, kitchen available if you wanted to cook for yourself, western-style shower and only a few ks south of the main harbour area. English spoken well.
Laspa Takazaki, 15 kms from Lake Mi-ike, Kyushu: Again Japanese style rooms, a bit utilitarian, almost like an ex-mental ward or hospital, but friendly enough and a superb bathroom which we used twice. No English spoken.
Fujikawaguchiko-machi, near Mt Fuji. Air BnB booking. Difficult to find, but once I did very friendly, the staff member I spoke to on two occasions, coming and going, spoke English well. They fired up the bathroom for me on my last night – I was the only guest. Perfect position for views of Mt Fuji and close to the lakes.
Oji-cho, near Osaka and Nara City, a bit further to Kyoto. Air BNB booking. Guesthouse Kotone. I had struggled to find anything reasonable in the Kyoto area, but this turned out to be a perfect location. Restaurants, a shopping centre and mainline railway station within crawling distance. A 107 year old house, Japanese style, kitchen available if needed. Friendly staff who spoke English well.
Nishi-ku, Hiroshima. Very small one bedroom (2 bunks) apartment, but perfect location for shopping or the Peace Memorial. 5 flights of narrow stairs, one burner gas stove, but a perfect place to crash. Owner does not speak or read English.
I mention the English availability only as information, not a criticism – after all my Japanese is limited to about 4 words even after spending three weeks in-country so I can’t afford to be critical. I would stay in any of these locations again quite happily.
DAY 1 Wednesday 14.2.18
Mr P (a close birding friend) very kindly picked me up at 4.30am having volunteered for the duty 36 hours previous. Check-in at the Jetstar desk was relatively simple, but I discovered I would have to collect my check-in bag in Cairns and re-check-in there for the second leg of my trip. A bit rude I thought considering I had booked the flight from Brisbane to Narita as one journey. Other airlines would have simply sent my bags straight through, but not Jetstar. I guess I didn’t pay for that part.
Disembarking in Cairns I retrieved my 21 kg back pack and strapped that and my 7 kg carry-on on and walked the 330 meters to the international terminal in the 28 degree midday heat……..Go Jetstar!
Checked in and through the scanner and it was a 3 hour wait for my connection. (Ya Hay, another winner!) Landed successfully in Narita on time at 18.45 and transferred to the airport terminal on foot – cold, but not bitter. Processed through the passport control, contributing fingerprints, of both forefingers, and photograph. Exiting after collecting my bag I found Mr W waiting for me in the arrivals hall. Greetings and salutations as the intervening 4 years fell away in a minute.
A long walk to Terminal 2 supported by a trolley saw us eventually reach the Narita Express line to Tokyo Central – cost Y5,800 (~$Au70) for the two of us. Arrived Tokyo Central at 20.45 and decided to get a cab ‘Everyone speaks English’ we had been told – well I can tell you, we found the only taxi driver in a city of 18 million that didn’t. However, he followed my iPad’s directions to a building no more than 10 minutes away, but it wasn’t the Capsule Value Kanda hotel I had booked. So he made some phone calls, poked around on his sat nav and eventually at 21.45 we arrived at the Capsule Hotel.
We checked in, took our shoes off as directed and stored them in little shoe lockers for which we had keys. Then up in the lift to the 5th floor where we found our individual capsules in a bank of about 20. Two rows high, we were on the ‘ground’ floor side by side. We had a locker into which only our carry-on bags would fit so we had to leave the big bags in an alcove. We checked the place out then went for a walk. In a side alley we found our first vending machines and paid Y100 (~$Au1.20) each for a can of hot, sweet coffee – very nice, lasted about 3 large gulps, but it was very welcome.
We walked the streets locally for a while enjoying the lights and crowds and sights, finally grabbing a couple of packaged hot dogs and ‘burgers’ in a 7/11 store before heading back and crashing fairly quickly it now being 23.00.
DAY 2 Thursday 15.2.18.
Up at 5.30 after a relatively sleepless night. The capsules were quite comfortable, but the general noise of movement outside as other residents opened and closed lockers, snored and farted wasn’t particularly conducive to sleep. We had to move everything out of the ‘bedroom’ and leave our bags in the common room. This was frustrating and inconvenient, but them’s the rules. You only get to check in for one night at a time and our luggage was left ‘with no care by the management’.
We geared up with bins, camera, scopes, tripods, warm jackets and iPad (for directions) and headed off back to Central Station. It was a 20 minute walk during which we scored a couple of new ticks each. In a very small worn out garden we had our first Brown-eared Bulbuls – they would turn out to be almost the commonest bird of the trip. In a couple of bushes outside a tower block we found several Japanese White-eyes and in a nearby moat a single Eurasian Coot.
We reached the station without further excitement and, after much thought and questioning, found the right train line, bought the tickets and got on the train to Kasai Rinkai Koen. We had decided on this location on good advice from Mr P and referred to the website Birding around the Tokyo Bay Region – an excellent tool for visiting non-Japanese birders to the city. Note: the closet station is listed as KASAIRINKAIKOEN – all one word, it took us 15 minutes to find it on the railway map…….sounds obvious? Nothing is obvious in Japan…..
Much pleased at negotiating our first adventure in Japan we celebrated with burgers and coffee at the McDonalds in the station then set off into Kasai. Overhead as we walked in several Large-billed Crows were ticked off. Within 100 meters on the dried out, dead looking grass area on the left we had Dusky Thrushes, White-cheeked Starlings, Oriental Turtle Doves and Eurasian Tree Sparrows. Much excitement followed almost immediately by a Brown-headed Thrush, the only one of the day as it turned out and, as it turned out the only one of the trip. We headed on into the park and walked straight up onto the structure overlooking the whole area. Almost immediately we had a female Daurian Redstart on the fence below us, followed by a striking Bull-headed Shrike. Before I could get down to it and get photos some passerby flushed both birds and they were not re-found. Walking down to the bay edge we sat and scoped the hundreds of Greater Scaup & Great Crested Grebes loafing on the receding tide. In among them we found a number of Black-necked Grebes.
Very few Gulls were evident. Saunder’s was our target bird, but unfortunately didn’t show. In the final event we saw a total of about 10 gulls – 2 Black-tailed in flight and several Black-headed perched on sticks out in the water and on the beach we had at least 2 Vega Gulls. Other birds seen included Eurasian Teal, Eurasian Wigeon, Little and Great Egrets, Great Cormorants with white heads which caused some discussion as I tried to turn them into Japanese Cormorants…Red-breasted Mergansers. On the exposed sand itself - 4 Kentish and 1 Lesser Sand Plover and 40 or so Dunlin while White (aka Black-backed in Japan) Wagtails bounced around on the paths and rocks.
We walked out along a rock wall and tried scoping from there but only added Eastern Osprey and Curlew Sandpiper. After a complicated, confusing conversation with a local birder, during which we learned it had not been a good year this year for gulls, we headed back down the wall checking out stuff, like a cluster of Gadwall on the opposite wall, as we went. The main excitement was our first Spot-billed Duck which I had written off as being fairly boringly like a Pacific Black Duck, but which I now found was really quite an attractive bird. We wandered back to the bridge and headed over to the ponds. We had Common Pochard and Northern Shoveler on one of them and a nice surprise in a Japanese Wagtail tail wagging on exposed mud for about 5 minutes. Opposite that pond, right beside the Bird Watching Centre thing in an overgrown pond a movement attracted our attention and resolved itself into an Eastern or Brown-cheeked Water Rail. A little bit of judicious playback brought it out a bit more and a second one called back from cover. A rail is always a nice find. A bit weary by now we headed back towards the entrance hoping for coffee. On the way a movement in the undergrowth provided very brief, unsatisfying views of Black-faced Buntings and further along our first of many Oriental Greenfinch and Eastern Great Tit. Mr W homed in on a call and we had a Japanese Bush Warbler in the reed bed below us. To complete our ‘Morning of Thrushes’ – a Pale Thrush showed well on open ground.
We stopped off near the entrance to the park for an expensive pancakes and coffee – they were nice though - then returned to the station and got the train back to central Tokyo station. It was mid afternoon by now and we felt our time was too restricted to go elsewhere so decided just to ‘do’ the Imperial Palace grounds.
Unfortunately, access is very restricted to the areas that look good for birds – but the moats were productive. Tufted Ducks, Little Grebes, more Dusky Thrushes, White-cheeked Starlings, Eurasian Wigeon, Gadwall, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Coots, a Mute Swan, Spot-billed Ducks and best of all close ups of Falcated Duck. What a stunner! It was getting dark when we walked the two or three ks back to the Capsule hotel to find all our gear exactly where we left it, checked in again and went out for something to eat.
When we returned to the hotel we explored a bit further and found the bathroom. Bathing in Japan is very different from what we are used to – but very enjoyable, so long as you are not too prudish about exposing your nakedness to other people of the same sex. Cause you all shower together sitting on little stools, then ‘jump’ into a huge bath of steaming hot water. It’s unreal! And so good for aching muscles. We crawled into our capsules relatively early and I then discovered I did not have the appropriate plug adaptor. Shit! I couldn’t charge anything. All the wall plugs were two thin pin jobs. My plug, from my world adaptor collection, was a 3 pin. Shit, shit and double shit. This was going to be a problem.
Day 3 Friday 16.2.18
Up at 5.30, packed and out on the street by 6. We elected to get a cab back to the station, rather than face a 20 minute walk with the bags. The cab cost less than Y1000 (~$12) and was worth it just for the comfort. (Note – a different cab driver, and he didn’t speak any English either – guess we were just unlucky!) We plumped for Mackers for breakfast as it was quick and easy and cheap, and I withdrew Y50,000 from an ATM in anticipation that cash might be hard to get outside Tokyo. (As it turned out there were ATMs in every 7/11 store and they didn’t charge anything to withdraw from my cashcard, while the ATM at the station did charge a fee)
We negotiated the streaming crowds to our train – it was like swimming upstream in a salmon race, but we got there. This time the train to the airport cost Y6,200, much to Mr W’s disgust as it was his turn to pay… Going through the first turnstile Mr W’s ticket failed, of course, so he had to have it punched at every turnstile as a result – funny looking back on it! Millions of locals going through in their droves no problem – and our ticket had to be the dud of the day!
Got to the airport, found the car rental desks and our cute little Times Car Rental representative who very efficiently copied our International Driver’s Licenses and passports and gave us all the details and info required for driving in Japan – most of which we promptly forgot, of course.
She then took us outside and bowed us into a shuttle bus, which whisked us off to the car collection depot, 5 minutes away. This was to become a standard procedure each time we hired a car from any agency. They are just so dam polite its embarrassing. The car they offered us what not what we wanted. It was a common enough type car in Japan, a box on wheels, which we promptly referred to as Postman Pat’s. I said No, No, No, we want a ‘car’ like that one over there. A 15 minute hustle and Postman Pat’s was replaced with a ‘normal’ sedan type car. We asked about snow tires and ended up paying Y4,800 (~$60) extra for a car with them on. This was to prove of immeasurable importance in the days to come. We found the traffic fairly light except in the immediate area around Tokyo, where it did slow to a crawl at times, but generally we were able to maintain a speed we thought reasonable – i.e. a little quicker than some and not as quick as others – in or around the 100-120 k/hr zone
We arrived in Karuizawa at 14.00 – taking 4 hours to drive the 230 kilometers. A bit long? Maybe, but we were playing it safe on the hills up to the town and stopped for coffee along the way. Two birds stood out – Eastern Buzzard, one of very few we saw on the trip and Black-eared Kite – the first of many hundreds, if not thousands, we were to see. After one false start we located our accommodation – but there was no one at home, so we went birding of course. Outside the house, while we thought about what to do, Mr W spotted the one and only Bohemian Waxwing of the trip sat perched up on top of a conifer. A quick scramble to get the scopes and tripods out of the bags in the car enabled a great view before it departed. A Brambling in a nearby hedge was the next trip tick, followed by Long-tailed Tits.
We drove around getting our bearings, eventually arriving in the area described in all the trip reports, up the road from Naka-Karuizawa. We found the ‘Bird sanctuary’ and went for a walk in the ice and snow up the trail past the, currently frozen, pond where kids were skating. We didn’t see a lot – Marsh Tits, Eastern Great Tits, a Dusky Thrush or two and more Long-tailed Tits. I missed a, poorly seen by Mr W, White-backed Woodpecker and we heard a few more but nothing else of interest.
We managed to find a two thin pin USB charger so at least I could charge the iPad and, if necessary, a few other items, but, most critically, not my laptop or, even more dramatically, my camera battery! So downloading photos from my camera – while it lasted – and updating lists and notes, never mind my blog, were all in jeopardy. Happy I wasn’t. Anyway, we grabbed something to eat at a McDonald’s and headed back to check in to our Japanese experience tatami mat/futon beds which we found very comfortable and warm as the snow fell outside and the temperature dipped below zero.
Day 4 Saturday 17.2.18
We were awake early, but didn’t get up till 5.00….Mind you it was 6.30 before we actually got outside. It was -3C, had snowed overnight and we had dug out the thermals, gloves, beanies and muffs. We drove back up to the 7/11 store up from Naka-Karuizawa and checked the bush behind it – which most trip reports described. There wasn’t much to see and, on reflection, I’m still not sure we had the right 7/11. However, we did get a pair of Meadow Buntings in the garden beside the shop. We had coffee and a pastry thing then headed on up to the end of the bitumen beside Hoshino Onsen. We parked in a public car park that later cost us Y600 to get out of.
The 7/11 we visited was about two thirds of the way along that road on the left – still not sure it’s the right one though!
We started walking up the track beside the river and, almost immediately had one of our targets – Brown Dipper. We continued on and on up the dirt road towards Kose Onsen. It was very quiet. The snow muffled sound, but there really was nothing much moving or calling. We walked about 2 kms maybe, then turned and headed back. Most of the way back was the same until we hit a minor bird wave of Eastern Great Tits, Marsh & Coal Tits, our one and only Japanese Green Woodpecker and our first Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker. We spent some time with the latter as it hung around, then returned to the car and headed up the road towards the Prince hotel which appears defunct. This time we parked on the side of the road and walked in to the overgrown tennis courts and the pond which also feature prominently in most trip reports.
Another pair of Meadow Buntings, a pair of Eurasian Teal on the pond and the now ubiquitous Eastern Great Tits. Shiotsubu Onsen was our next destination and we left the car in the hotel car park in the snow.
Almost immediately in a tree over the carpark we had our first Varied Tit – beautiful, cute. Walking down by the creek we had Japanese Wagtails, Dusky Thrush and more Meadow Buntings, but nothing else exciting. Back at the front of the hotel and Mr W spied what we were looking for – the feeder table outside the dining room. As we made our way round to a vantage point we could watch from, a flock of 9 Japanese Grosbeaks flew up and onto the slope above us – wow! What a bird! What a bill! Stunning. We set up the scope and stood in the now intensifying snowfall to watch the table. Oriental Greenfinches were the main invader and included a couple of Brambling. Between that activity the, at least, 4 species of Tits (Great, Coal, Willow and Varied) and Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers in the trees around us, and the occasional pop up view of a Grosbeak we were fully involved. But not too fully to excitedly see a quiet visitor to the table in the shape of a Japanese Accentor – one of the harder–to-get species. We had stunning views of it on the table and, later, on the ground in the ‘scope at a range of a matter of feet.
11.00 and we left the table to its own devices, heading back down towards Karuizawa itself, intent on another visit to Mackers, not having had any breakfast. Halfway along the road and a flock of medium sized birds flew across in front and above us, Mr W brought the chariot to a sliding halt and we jumped out to watch a flock of approx 20 Azure-winged Magpies fly from tree to tree in the fields across from us. These were lifers for me. We noticed another group of birders watching as well and moved over to talk. They were UK birders and we exchanged information as they were engaged on almost exactly the same trip we were. Following pancakes and coffee at Mackers we headed down the road south from Karuizawa on the hunt for Copper Pheasant – the UK birders had seen it from the road a couple of hours before we met them. We drove the winding, mountain road slowly scanning the tree covered slopes for 12 kms without success. We did see a pair of Eurasian Jays, which are a different subspecies here, but that was about it.
In one of the trip reports there was mention of a site at the International Study of Asian Culture or ISAC and we’d been trying to identify the locale. From the UK birders we heard there’d been a Green Pheasant seen in another area called Picolo and we’d established a rough direction for that – so that’s where we headed next.
Its very difficult to know exactly where we were in the complex of roads between Hoshino Onsen, upper right and UWC ISAC-Japan middle off centre. But keep going till you get clear of the houses and find quiet roads in agricultural fields…in the general area described by the arrow.
We wound up some narrow roads to eventually reach a semi-agricultural/orchard type area with some rough ground around and through it. We ditched the car and started walking. Within a few minutes Mr W spotted a stunning male Japanese Green Pheasant standing motionless about 20 meters away. It slowly sank down and lay low affording brilliant views of its shimmering plumage. Unfortunately, I had left the camera in the car – not really expecting to get good photo opportunities and trying to save the battery as much as possible …… We walked past the pheasant, which stalked off imperiously across the snow – classic photo….and down a dirt track to an area of rough grass and weeds backed by trees – a flock of something rose up and revealed themselves as 5 Long-tailed Rosy Finches. Following those we came across a flock of about 30 Rustic Buntings. We spent an hour or so chasing both species gaining very acceptable views throughout.
We returned to the car and decided, as the afternoon was drawing on, we would drive the track from Hoshino Onsen to Kose Onsen – the same track we had part walked that morning. As we drove away from this site, on a corner, we noticed a sign that pointed the way to ISAC….we’d found it by default. Back at the bridge beside the Onsen, we met the UK bird group again and they pointed out a single Japanese Waxwing sitting beside a bunch of mistletoe in an otherwise bare branched tree. Stunning, stunning bird when seen well – and in the snow! Perfect!
The snow meanwhile had accumulated quite heavily and as we crawled along up the track scanning the slopes for our quarry, the bare trees, the falling snow, the crunching tires, the silence – was just so atmospheric. On the way we found another party of Japanese Waxwings – 16 in all – perched up. Then, close to the top of the track, I spotted a shape and a movement and shouted ‘Pheasant, pheasant”. I dropped my window and got onto a shining male Copper Pheasant moving across the slope about 70 meters away. Mr W evacuated the opposite side of the car and he too got onto it in time before it headed up the slope and out of sight. Both pheasants in one day! We were rapt!
By now it was almost dark, but we persevered and drove slowly back down the track for nothing else except a Great Spotted Woodpecker.Heading back to our accommodation we stopped off at a big food store – Delicia – and bought some ready to eat food – cold pizza slices, yoghurts and bananas, - reached home, did the log and crashed.
Day 5 Sunday 18.2.18
Out with gear at 6.45. Heavy snow everywhere, but drivable. Crunched our way up the track to Kose Onsen again – but no more pheasants. Went to Shiotsubu Onsen again for another look at the feeder table and met a bunch of Hungarian birders who were doing the rounds by public transport, having brought the wrong International Driver’s license. They gave us great info for the Kyushu section of our trip and in return Mr W suggested taking them up the track to look for Copper Pheasant again. As there were three of them I volunteered to stay behind while they went with Mr W and so off they headed in the falling snow, while I contemplated my decision and then went into the hotel to visit their toilet. Coming back out and round to the table I managed to fall over on the slope – luckily without serious consequences, apart from breaking my sunglasses which were, luckily in my pocket and not on my head. To stay warm I went for a walk down the creek and had the Meadow Buntings and Japanese Wagtails again and a pair of Japanese Grosbeaks in full sunlight – brilliant! Mr W returned an hour later, having left the boys at the top of the track to walk back.
We headed off at 9.30 on the approx 1 hour drive to the Snow Monkey park. The snow got heavier and heavier and finally just past Katsuka the road was closed – 20 kms before the park. We worked out a detour on my iPad (Maps Me) and two and a half hours later reached the entrance to the park. It was a longish walk in on a very slippery, snow bound, people busy track, up a hill to reach the monkeys. They were really cute and just as the pictures said they would be. Sitting chin deep in the pools looking miserable for the most part. Some scrambling around the slopes, scratching away in the snow or each other. We could only spend 45 minutes or so before we had to head off across the island to Oarai. I was driving and hammering it as we were obviously going to be late back with the car. It was due for drop off at Katsuta station at 18.00, where we would get a train or trains to Oarai for the ferry to Tomakomai. Doing 140 – 150 kms an hour along the expressway through the late afternoon I referred to the date.
Mr W corrected me and said it was the 18th. I said ‘No, it’s got to be the 19th’. No, he said – it’s the 18th’ and proved it by holding up his phone. I suddenly realized I had messed up really badly. I had booked the ferry for the 19th and here we were heading for Oarai a day early. What to do now?
We had to keep going to get the car back. We had to ring ahead and tell them we were going to be late. We had to change the accommodation in Chitose after the ferry, from Monday to Tuesday night. We had to try and change the car rental – i.e. reduce it by one day.
We had to tell Take at Furen-ko that we would be a day late. We reached the car rental drop off at 20.15. The guy was really good and in a hurry and didn’t charge us the additional amount. We walked the 300 meters or so to the train station and managed to get tickets to Oarai involving a change at another station. On the first train we met a girl who, without asking, helped ensure we got the right train at the second station, then, when we got there, we talked a taxi driver, who was just closing up for the night, to drive us to the ferry terminal – just in case there was a sailing that night. There wasn’t but we managed to hang on to the taxi (I stayed in it while Mr W checked the ferry terminal) and get him to find us a hotel. He did after a couple of negative attempts – a love hotel where you chose your room from a video screen and paid your money (Y7,200 =~$Au90) into a machine outside the door of the room! Seductive lighting, mirrors on the ceiling and a free porn channel with all the important bits fuzzed out. I was busy cancelling the booked accommodation at Chitose and re-booking for Tuesday night, emailing Take, and apologizing for the change in plans, and trying to contact the rental car company - without success. We shared the double bed with the tripods in the middle to save any embarrassing midnight action. We were both too tired anyway…..
Day 6 Monday 19.2.18
Took our time getting up – what was the rush? Thanks to my monumental stuff-up we were stuck in a port for a day, losing a precious day on Hokkaido, kicking our heels, wasting time we couldn’t afford to waste. I couldn’t feel much worse. We had till midday to check out – must be a thing for morning activities in a love hotel. We spent the morning packing our bags, bathing, drinking the free coffee and generally hanging out. At midday we got a cab to the ferry port. The office was open and one of the staff spoke or at least understood English. We talked him into holding our big bags in the office until we would board the ferry at 22.00 and asked him if he knew anywhere we might get a plug adaptor? He scratched his head, went behind the scenes and came back with a map of Oarai and pointed out a shop that might be able to help. We shouldered our small packs and headed off on the 40 minute walk.
Sure enough the Bunnings type store did, in fact, have an adaptor! They also had sunglasses – so I was able to replace the broken ones. Hallelujah! Maybe it’s as a very close friend of mine says – everything happens for a reason, Mr Reid! We celebrated with breakfast/lunch in a 7/11 across the road, then started walking back a different way. And well we did!
A park beside the road attracted our attention and we spent most of the afternoon chasing Black-faced Buntings, Hawfinches, Pale & Dusky Thrushes, Rustic Buntings, Buff-bellied Pipits, a Bull-headed Shrike and a single male Elegant or Yellow-throated Bunting around.
Later we walked down to the end of the harbour (the north end) and were lucky enough to arrive at the shore just as some dude chucked a bucket full of fish guts into the surf! Black-tailed, Glaucous-winged, Slaty-backed and Vega Gulls fought over the bits and, better still, a pair of Harlequin Ducks came in, presumably to feed on small fish attracted to the offerings. The male was just stunning – absolutely so much going on, just an awesome bird.
While we watched all the commotion and tried to get pictures a small Alcid turned up very briefly behind the other birds. We didn’t get much of a view but believe it was an Ancient Murrelet.
We walked the pier wall and found a Blue Rock Thrush, but nothing else of consequence.
By now it was getting dark and we trudged our way back to the ferry terminal, retrieved our bags from the office and I charged my laptop and camera battery - and breathed a sigh of relief. e sat and watched the winter Olympics in the very comfortable lounge until 21.00 when we could check in – we did that and paid individually, then at 22.00 we boarded the ferry. Shown to our 4 bunk bed berth we unloaded the gear and headed for the on-board bathhouse! Brilliant. Hot communal Japanese style showers then into the huge steaming hot tub to relax and ease our aching limbs. It was just magic and a perfect set up for sleep.
Day 7 Tuesday 20.2.18
The longest seawatch ever. Awake at 6.00 to find we had the bunk room to ourselves, having had a surprisingly comfortable sleep. We geared up in everything we had to wear. I put on two sets of thermals, 2 pairs of socks (although I removed one an hour or so later as it was just too uncomfortable and unnecessary), T-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, fleece, down waistcoat, gortex jacket, muff, beanie, fingerless gloves with snow-boarding gloves on top, heavy pants and gortex boots. It was cold – but manageable. We started out seawatching from an upper deck on the port side (facing the mainland) protected from the wind, the scopes set up and a couple of chairs for comfort. Later we moved downstairs and to a more sheltered position on the starboard side as the sun passed overhead and we looked seaward.
To say there was a lot to see would be lying. There were scattered gulls – mainly Slaty-backed – and later flocks of Black-legged Kittiwakes. Initially we had no Alcids, but after a few hours we started seeing flocks of Ancient Murrelets totaling several hundred. Views were not brilliant as they were flying away from the boat. The scopes were almost useless as the speed of the boat versus the speed and direction of the birds flight made it impossible to get onto them. We had one distant Arctic Skua, but then at 11.30 we saw something that made the whole ferry trip worthwhile. Orca! A pod of 5 animals swimming ~100 meters off the ship in the same direction, their huge fins cutting through the water, the black and white patterning easily seen under the surface. Absolutely AWESOME!ORCA! We were so excited – it was just unbelievable. Never even thought to raise the camera. The day dragged on, the throbbing engine quite wearing – especially on Mr W who didn’t feel 100%, but was determined to maintain a vigil to the very end. From 6.45 to 17.30 with only a couple of coffee breaks it was the longest seawatch we had ever undertaken. We quit only when it got too dark to see.
In the late afternoon we started to see flocks of Crested Auklets with a couple of larger Alcids among them – possibly Thick-billed Murres or Brunnich’s Guillemots? We weren’t confident enough to call them. In total we saw about 300 Crested Auklets.
At 17.15 two dark petrel/shearwater types showed up, very close to the boat, flying alongside. As we caught up we got excellent views and believed them to be Kermadec Petrels. However, on reflection (3 weeks later) we have agreed they were Northern Fulmars – dark phase.
We retired to the lounge and dozed until the ship docked at 19.45. when we disembarked into a cold, snow-bound Tomakomai. Mr W was still not feeling great. I was pretty knackered myself after standing for the best part of 11 hours so we decided to get a cab – after all the hotel was only 20kms away……. $80 later we arrived at the Grand Chitose Hotel and checked in. Once again, we shared a double bed – no tripods tonight! We were still too knackered anyway!
Day 8 Wednesday 21.2.18
Up at 6.30, breakfasted on free coffee in the lounge and pastries from a machine, then it was out into the snow for the free shuttle bus to the airport to collect the car. Times Car Rental again and the girl arrived at 8, just after we found the desk. She never batted an eyelid regarding us being a day late to collect the car – maybe she hadn’t woken up yet. Anyway, we shuttled out to the car depot and after the usual preliminaries, headed off in a general easterly direction. The roads were clear, but the snow lay heavy everywhere else as we traversed the mountains and myriad tunnels without many other travelers. Three hours later and we arrived at one of the destinations that had driven us to this part of the world - Akan Crane Reserve and the Red-crowned Cranes. We found it easily enough, paid our entry fee (wasn’t much, can’t remember) and walked outside to join the other 50 or so photographers, with more equipment than I could imagine - and the cranes.
There were 60 or so in a field with about the same number of Whooper Swans, presumably taking advantage of the free feed. At one stage a staff member drove a snow mobile type thing at the swans and they flew off en mass. The cranes were very confiding – as close as maybe 3 meters? We stayed about an hour and a half and then went off in search of another site the Hungarian birders had described to us in Karuizawa. It took us a while - during which our first Steller’s Sea Eagle flew above us across the road - but eventually gave itself up and we joined half a dozen other enthusiasts looking at a Ural Owl perched up in its roost tree.
It was great to see, but realistically? It was an owl in a hole! It didn’t do anything, so after 15 or 20 minutes we all drifted away leaving it sitting there in the lightly falling snow. Tick!The snow got heavier as we headed north east into higher ground and I started worrying about getting stuck. However, we persevered and shortly afterwards the snow lessened and we were able to pick up speed – counting 6 Red Foxes during our evening drive. They looked great in the snowy fields.
We arrived at our destination at Lodge Furen, after dark, around 18.00 - to be welcomed in and shown our room – twin beds, thank God. Then we joined the other residents for dinner: a young Swedish couple who were travelling in Hokkaido for a month, a single Swedish dude who lived in Beijing, and was on his second visit to the area, and another UK birder – Gus Wilson - who had also just arrived. The famous Take-san joined us for dinner – after I had humbly apologized for the changes in our plan and assured him it was an accident, not a deliberate action, and we would, of course, honor the bookings he had made on our behalf at Yuyado Daiichi (for The Owl) and Arasaki (in Kyushu, for the other cranes). We agreed to pay half the amount for the missed night – we didn’t want him to lose anything because of my mistake, after all.
The meal was a typical Japanese meal, a number of small dishes - mainly fish and vegetable based, of unknown content - with a deep fried fish each. I found it really interesting and tried everything - using chopsticks of course. This was our first real Japanese meal and I was very glad not be eating McDonalds or packaged food from a corner store. A note on that here – it is very difficult when you are on the road, birding all day, in a country where language and food are completely alien, to eat like a local. It is very easy to choose something one is familiar with – like McDonalds or an egg sandwich from a corner store. It is much more difficult to find a café or restaurant and order from a menu you can’t read – especially when time is of the essence – or you’re just too knackered to care! Added to that is the fact that in Japan they don’t really do breakfast food that we could enjoy. Being commonly fish-based its hard for us to stomach first thing in the morning and, as we had no way of preparing our own food, Macker’s pancakes and coffee was a very hard option to ignore. I’m sure there were breakfast options if we’d had the time, but……….
Anyway, after dinner we spent time chatting, as birders the world over do. Sharing and gaining info locally and further afield, relating stories and observations, discussing species, subspecies, races etc. It was a great evening and really nice to talk to someone else apart from each other!
Day 9 Thursday 22.2.18
The shortest, coldest pelagic ever. Mr W and I were up at 6 and outside for a walk. It didn’t last very long. It was sunny, clear, windless - and bitterly cold at -12C or thereabouts. We scurried back inside and feasted on Take’s toast and jam selection, scrambled egg and some other stuff I couldn’t identify, but which was very edible.
Gus decided to join us for the day. He had already booked on the morning’s pelagic out of Habomai – which came highly recommended. We managed to get on board too, believing it was a good option for close Alcid viewing and given our, now, restricted time in Hokkaido, we had to make the best of every opportunity.
We drove down to Habomai which is on the southern side of the Nemuro peninsula, found the office, paid our money and waited on the wharf watching Black Scoters, Pelagic Cormorants, Greater Scaup, Goosanders, Harlequin and Long-tailed Ducks as we did. A couple of distant White-tailed Eagles circled in the background, while Glaucous-winged and Slaty-backed Gulls disassembled a couple of fish heads nearby.
We jumped aboard the boat – well, maybe not ‘jumped’ as encased as we were in cold weather gear – see previous note re ferry trip – and a lifejacket imposed by the crew on each of us. It was hard to turn my head I was so ‘rugged up’. Off we went – just the three of us and a couple of other dudes who seemed to come along for the ride, but weren’t avid birders. They were the crazy ones - at least we had a purpose.
So we headed out into the bay at 10.00, sunny, bright, windless and chilly – but we were fine. Within a couple of hundred meters of clearing the harbour mouth – its almost flat calm incidentally – the crewman assigned to us in the bow of the boat was pointing at something just below the bow. And a Crested Auklet appeared about 2 meters in front of the boat, swimming rapidly away. Soon, we had Least Auklets in a similar position, Spectacled and Pigeon Guillemots, Harlequin Ducks, heaps of Black Scoters, Cormorants and Ancient Murrelets. It was hard to keep up initially as the birds came thick and fast. They weren’t in great numbers but with their small sizes, a slight swell and our eyes tearing in the cold, muffled up to the eyebrows….it was hard to follow everything that was happening – and take pictures.
We reached what looked like pack ice – floating ice flows, scattered across the sea. I think it was more drift ice, than pack ice, I think we were still a little too far south for genuine pack ice, but it was pretty impressive – especially with a Steller’s Sea Eagle perched up! And when it flew off its perch and disturbed a White-tailed Eagle, well, it was pretty cool! We didn’t venture into the ice field (I feel like Attenborough now….) but turned and headed back down towards the harbour. That’s when it got really cold, I mean, REALLY, REALLY, freaking cold. It was soooooo cold I couldn’t feel my nose, my hands or my ears. I didn’t think I could get so freaking cold. It was bitter. It was Siberian. We didn’t see anything ‘new’ on that leg except a few Guillemots which we agreed were most likely Common not Brunnich’s, although we should have seen Brunnich’s.
Back at the pier we took off the life jackets and staggered off the boat. I checked the time – it was 11.30. It felt like two or three o’clock. An hour and a half? That was it? I couldn’t have stood much more anyway, but it had seemed a lot longer.
We drove out to the end of the peninsula birding along the way, but, in reality, not seeing very much. At the tip, (Cape Nosappu) where others had seawatched successfully, we only saw the commoner ducks, no Alcids. We birded back along the north side, looking for stuff at obvious locations, but, again, saw little. White-tailed Eagles and Black-eared Kites were common features, and we did have a distant Short-eared Owl hunting over the snow, but otherwise it was a bit thin on the ground.
We stopped for coffee and something to gnaw on at a couple of Family Mart or 7/11 stores during the rest of the day, eventually ending up at Ochiishi harbour several kilometers south of the peninsula where we had a couple of Red Foxes (aka the Hokkaido Fox, subspecies Vulpes vulpes schrencki) and a herd of Sika Deer. We did have a couple of distant Pacific Diver off one of the harbours. One of the pieces of info we had gained the previous night involved Red-faced Cormorant. These are the rarest of the Japanese cormorants and there are usually only three seen in the area each year. We had a location for it, but it wouldn’t happen until they possibly came to roost just before dark. So we managed our afternoon to ensure we were on site overlooking the rock stack, just offshore at Cape Nosappu again, just before darkness fell.
Sure enough when we arrived there was one Red-faced Cormorant clinging onto the cliff-face. Shortly afterwards a second one turned up on the water below with a couple of Pelagic Cormorants and then the third one flew in to land on the cliff just above the first one. It was a welcome addition to our tick list as the day had fallen a little flat after the frigid pelagic. We also had a number of seals during the day – singles and then 18 together at the Cape. We believe they were all Largha or Spotted Seals Phoca largha. We returned ‘home’ and settled in to another Japanese meal before crashing gratefully in our warm beds.
Day 10 Friday 23.2.18
The $1,600 bird. Unfortunately, our time in Lodge Furen was over and we were scheduled to head north to an expensive night at Yuyado Daiichi and an appointment with The Owl we had built the trip around. First of all we had to have breakfast – toast and jam again, much to Mr W’s absolute delight (and mine secretly too). Then the three of us (Gus of course) headed off to try for a bird we had so far failed to connect with – Asian Rosy Finch. We had two locations where it had been seen in number (30+) in recent weeks, even days. Cutting a longish, frustrating morning short, we dipped.
Our first major dip of the trip and it would not be our last. However, we drove to the Ochiishi harbour area again with very specific information, searched and searched and, yes, searched, to no avail. We then headed further south to what we called ‘The Angry Man’s’ house. Apparently the birds regularly visit his feeders but he doesn’t like birders looking into his garden so he has become a bit of a legend recently chasing people away – hence our naming him. We never did see him or his feeders. We drove round and round the bloody peninsula he was supposed to reside on, reading and re-reading the notes, but never finding his garden. We were denied that experience.
Finally we gave up and headed back to Furen-ko, picked up Gus’s car and headed north – I was driving. A few ks up the coast we had been advised of a side peninsula that had loads of Eagles and White-winged Scoter, so we turned off to visit. We found both – heaps of Steller’s and White-tailed Eagles and 4 White-winged Scoters after staggering across snow filled fields and icy lake edges. Brilliant views of the eagles and approx 150-200 Black-eared Kites to boot – Yarimukashi, turn off just before Attoko.
14.00 Then it was back in the cars and heading north. We had the hotel’s phone no implanted in the Sat Nav in both cars so we went ahead of Gus and said we’d see him there. 15.30 We filled up with petrol. 15.45 4 kms from the hotel, a large lump of what looked like slushy ice in the middle of the narrow road @ 90 kms/hr turned into a solid block of rock hard ice which blew the front left tyre and demolished the rim, bringing us to a sudden stop in the middle of nowhere. 16.00 Failed to get the tyre to reinflate, no spare tyre of course, just a bottle of sealant and a tiny air pump operated from the cigarette lighter in the car. 16.05 Gus turned up and we decide Mr W will go with him to the hotel and sort out the rental company. I’ll stay with the car. 17.00 I’m in the car with the engine running and the heater on, flashers and headlights on, praying no one runs into me. Not much chance of that given only 2 other cars had passed. 17.45 Mr W returns with Imi, a very cute hotel employee who speaks English very well. We must wait for the police. The rental company have basically disowned us. No assistance, we’re on our own. 18.00, We wait. Meanwhile Imi is organising a replacement car from another rental company – Nippon. They agree to wait until we get there - 19.00. She is just brilliant. 18.30 The tow truck turns up, but can’t do anything until the police arrive. 18.45 The police show up, take our details, look at the car and wave us on our way. Imi takes us back to the hotel. We find The Owl has been and gone. Mr W is despondent. I’m depressed. I’m even more depressed when Imi gently tells me that I have to pay Y100,000 (~$Au1,200) when I get back to Chitose. It’s a general country Non Operational Charge for an ‘accident’ even though we (Mr W & I) keep stating its not an accident, it’s a blown tyre, for God’s sake. 19.00 I am bundled out into another hotel vehicle while Mr W stays to wait for a second visit from The Owl. I leave praying – both for the owl to come and for my own life as the lady drives the car at 140 k/hr down ice covered roads…… I was absolutely terrified. 19.20 We get to the Nippon rental car place in the middle of nowhere (everywhere up here is in the middle of nowhere) and I pry my hands free from the seat in front of me and get out on shaky legs. The guy has the car running, heater and radio on for me. We quickly do the deed and I pay $Au200 for the hire for less than 24 hours, to drive us back to Chitose to fly out at 12.30 tomorrow. 20.15 I get back to the hotel – nothing has happened. I’m sort of half glad I hadn’t missed anything, but concerned in case we do. 20.45 We are ushered into a classic Japanese style dining area, private cubicle, our own hostess, who looks remarkably like Imi, and a meal that I would have loved to enjoy, served by lookalike Imi and each dish explained except…..I am so hungry, stressed and worried I can’t enjoy anything. Halfway through Gus sticks his head in with ‘the Sable is out’ and so are we. Out of the cubicle and back to the window to watch a weasel-like animal scurry around the snow. The Sable Martes zibellina is a regular visitor to the hotel ‘owl area’ and a really cute one. Dinner is now over. Imi organises ice cream for us at the window, recognising our need to be there. After the Owl’s one minute performance at about 18.50 (we missed it by about the same amount of time) nearly everyone else had drifted off to eat, enjoy the onsen, for which the hotel is famous and we had been looking forward to, or to bed. We set up in the lounge, me with the laptop, sorting photos, Mr W glued to the window, determined not to miss anything, both drinking cup after cup of coffee. We were prepared to sit all night if necessary. Recently the owl had been coming in at 5.00am as well. We had to leave at 5am to get to the airport so it might be touch and go! 21.00 Nothing. 22.00 Nothing. 23.00 Nothing. 23.10 and YES, the Blakiston’s Fish Owl, reputedly the biggest Owl in the world, had arrived back at the fish pool outside the window! WOW! For 10 minutes, it fished and sat and ate and we revelled in it, along with a few stray Japanese tourists who had hung around with similar hopes to us. Ten minutes of delight, then it was gone – and so were we. Off to bed, crashed quickly in the most comfortable bed in the loveliest room, which we didn’t have time to enjoy! But at least we got the $1,600 owl!
Day 10 Saturday 24.2.18
The Drive. I haven’t driven in snow since 1979. In fact until today, I hadn’t ever driven in REAL snow. The alarm went off at 4.45. We got up, dressed and basically walked out. I went to get the car from the carpark – walking across the couple of inches of fresh snow that had fallen overnight. I scraped it off the windows and part of the roof before giving up, then drove the car to the hotel entrance. Mr W was watching the owl - it had shown up again. We loaded the bags and drove out before 5.30. Probably the first time anyone has ever walked away from the Blakiston’s Fish Owl when it was erforming……that’s how cool WE are! Not. The roads were solid snow with just a few tyre tracks to follow. Being early not many people had been out, but thankfully the Japanese efficiency had the snow ploughs out before dawn and they had scraped the top layer off on the more major roads. But there was still a layer of packed snow which looked very slippery. It was hard to drive above 60/70 k/hr and even then I was sweating – especially after yesterday’s effort. And I HAD to drive this morning – as I’d been the only one to hire the car. It was all on me now. Our flight from Chitose airport in the far west left at 12.30. We had over 330 kms to drive. Initially the Navi was predicting an arrival in Chitose at 11.15. As the morning dragged on and we followed its directions as quickly as possible, it changed to eventually read 11.55. I just couldn’t keep the speed up over the mountains and down to Kushiro, the conditions were horrendous. Continually braced expecting a slide, thank God there were very few other vehicles on the road going in my direction.
We hit the expressway just west of Kushiro, nearer the coast. It was a little better, but not much. Mainly one lane, unusual for an expressway, we were continually hampered by saner people with no schedule, driving at sensible speeds and, when an overtaking section did appear, it was usually slushy and icy looking and generally scary. However, it needed to be done and I did it, while Mr W nearly climbed into the back seat at times…. Slowly but surely, hammering it when I could, the time came back to 11.45, 11.35, 11.30 and hovered thereabouts as we finally approached Chitose. Just under 6 hours drive and we had only stopped once for a quick toilet break and a cold can of coffee banged down my throat. We found our way first of all to the Times Car Rental depot so I could pay my Y100,000 penalty. They didn’t seem to know what I was talking about initially, but finally they got it together and prepared a payment, only to include extra for the fuel, which I denied, saying we had just filled up before the ‘accident’ and I wasn’t paying any more than the 100,000 yen. They changed the payment and I offered my credit card, then split fast, so we could get to the Nippon dealership, dump this car and get our flight. There was no problem at Nippon, we just had to wait for the shuttle bus and the other passengers who weren’t in a hurry….
We got to the airport where Mr W grabbed a trolley while I chucked the bags outta the bus. We had suborned a young lady on the bus, who turned out to work in a bank at the airport, and she led us to the JAL check-in counter at 11.55, where it appeared half the population of Hokkaido were queued up. We made ourselves known to a young JAL dude who was helping people check-in, pointing out our flight left in 35 minutes. A few anxious minutes later they pulled us out of the queue, checked us in and we were away – at 12.05. We walked through security and basically boarded the flight without stopping.
It had been a close run thing. I was so wound up I was too tired to think. We’d had nothing to eat since half a dinner last night and the energy expended in The Drive had left me empty and drained. The flight was only an hour and we landed at Osaka with 30 minutes to board the next flight (I had booked it all as one and that was what they had arranged – it wasn’t yet another stuff up on my part!) We had to walk from Gate 22 to Gate 16. Not far, you say? Ha!! It was bloody miles. Gate 16 was at the end of a new extension and I nearly passed out trying to get there. However, in Japan there is no time wasted, no panic. We were at the gate within 10 minutes, only 20 minutes to flight time, but there was still time for me to have a quick smoke in a glass room while Mr W bought some pastries and coffees and I finished the latter and devoured half of the former before we started boarding at 13.50. The flight left on time at 14.00. Its amazing what you can do when people just get on and sit down! This plane had only 4 seats across, 2 each side, and we each had an aisle seat. We both nodded off during the two hour flight and woke just in time for a very bumpy landing in Kagoshima, the southern end of Kyushu island. We wondered if our bags would actually make it, considering the quick turnaround in Osaka, but, once again, Japanese efficiency triumphed – and they came out pretty quickly.
At the information desk I showed the girl my rental car paperwork and she asked if I wouldn’t mind waiting a minute? No, of course not. She rang the rental car company – Nissan, this time – and shortly another shuttle bus picked us up outside and took us away to the Nissan outlet across the road.
Our little black Nissan (what else?) was waiting and ready and we signed up, had our documents copied and were away again – this time Mr W drove as I was still a little shell-shocked from the morning’s endeavours. The weather at this end of the country was almost balmy. It was in double digits at least, sunny and bright and we celebrated with a coffee from a 7/11 store up the road. We reached the Arasaki Crane Centre in the last light of day at 18.30 – crane-like shapes flew across silhouetted against the sky and a low murmured honking was suggestive. It was a ryokan style accommodation – tatami mats and futons again, our pillows stuffed like bean bags – quite hard but amazingly comfortable. Dinner was a traditional Japanese meal, which I really enjoyed even though there were a couple of things I didn’t like. I can’t tell you what they were ‘cause I don’t know what they were, but I didn’t like the taste. Mostly fish based as usual with plenty of rice and miso soup.
Another group of birders were staying there – a mixed bag of UK and Belgians led by a local well known bird guide. They had just arrived in the country and had been out locally that day. We gained some info from one of the Belgian guys, but the rest seemed a little lost in species and location. We retired to our room pretty quickly and were happy to crash early, curled up under our doonas, despite the failure of the air con to heat the room we were very cozy. I think I would have slept on the bonnet of the car if necessary…….
Day 11 Sunday 25.2.18
Up at 6 to the trumpeting cranes - and the rain. A gloomy grey wet day, but it didn’t affect the cranes. We went outside to find the Crane Centre itself didn’t actually open till 9. After trying a couple of locations we ended up on a viewing platform on the roof of a set of shops next door. There was a guy there with a camera so we figured it was OK. We scanned the flock of several thousand Hooded Cranes, they weren’t particularly close, probably 200 meters away but there were so many it didn’t really matter. Checking through the flock we found at least 3 Common and 30+ White-naped Cranes. The latter stood out as being most beautiful, much bigger, taller and a lighter grey than the Hooded. Cranes were coming and going all the time. We had heard they were fed somewhere else, but there was no shortage in front of us – and they seemed to be feeding on something. We watched the flock for about an hour and a half before returning to our accom for breakfast. The other group had been out ‘at the feeding area’, apparently, and had seen some other stuff.
Once breakfast was over we drove the roads through the fields looking for that other ‘stuff’. We checked a huge flock of Rooks for Daurian Jackdaw, as reported, without any luck. We found 4 Sandhill Cranes close to the road and just beyond them a flock of Black-faced Spoonbills including a couple of Eurasian Spoonbills.
We also found Common Reed Bunting, Common Shelduck, Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Skylark (some refer to it as Japanese Skylark, but it hasn’t been split yet, I don’t think), Black-faced Bunting and 1 Russet Sparrow – this was to be our only Russet Sparrow, we had expected to see loads – and the other group claimed they had.
We located the canal with the lock-type flood gates and found the water teeming with Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal and Spot-billed Ducks, while an Eastern Osprey and a female Hen Harrier flew by. In the reed beds we found a flock of 20+ Chinese Penduline Tits which were our quarry. Cute to boot as Penduline Tits are, we spent some time watching them run up and down the reed stems. Difficult little buggers to get on camera though.
We decided we’d head for a nearby town – Satsuma – and check the bridges as the group had advised of some success. Using my iPad with the MapsMe app we negotiated our way and checked the first of three bridges – Grey & White Wagtails, a Common Sandpiper, Tufted duck and, as we were about to leave, a flock of 30+ Japanese Grosbeaks rose from the grassy bank.
The second bridge didn’t yield much, but the third bridge had at least one of our targets – Long-billed Plover. It was a long way away across the other side of the 300 meter wide river, but a good view in the scopes none the less. A stunning male Daurian Redstart put on a show below us and we spent a fair bit of time scanning through the three species of Wagtail, Egrets, Ducks etc for anything else unusual. We were specifically looking for Crested Kingfisher and with that in mind – crossed the bridge to try a tributary from a smaller bridge – a Brown Dipper was there and a Green Sandpiper flew off upriver, but no Kingfisher.
It was still drizzling and we decided to try Kogawa Dam – a drive north of about 45 minutes. Heading there we discussed our options and changed our destination. Kogawa had, potentially, a number of species we would have another chance for at Lake Mi-ike, while Yatsushiro estuary would have our only chance at Saunder’s Gull – so we headed there instead.
A close up of the estuary itself – very narrow roads leading out to the seawall. We ended up on the north side of the estuary near Yatsushiro Shiritsu Daisan.
It was a long drive on a new expressway that didn’t appear on the Navi and was confusing on the iPad. However, we did manage to find our way along very narrow roads through rice paddies to the harbour wall, which stretched for miles and we drove along that. The tide was high – and, apparently, you need a low tide for Saunder’s. We picked up some trip ticks – Grey Plover, Buff-bellied Pipit, Dunlin, Eastern Curlew and Common Greenshank and other good birds such as Common Pochard, Spot-billed Duck, Blue Rock Thrush and Eastern Ospreys, but very few Gulls in general.
We were on the south side of the river estuary and it appeared the tide was going out. We decided to try to get to the other side as it appeared it would afford us a better view. It took us ages to find the right road, but at about 16.15 we found our way out onto the wall opposite where we’d been - and where mud had started to appear as the tide ebbed. There was a flock of Black-faced Spoonbills and a variety of other waders (already noted above). We sat it out till after dark without anything like a Saunder’s Gull appearing. This would be our second big dip of the trip.
The drive home was long, slow and tedious. We stopped for Mackers ‘cause we were starving, then didn’t really feel like eating the meal set out for us at ‘home’. I guess we were a bit flat. Not really knowing if we’d made the correct decision to chase the Saunder’s and not the other ‘stuff’ seen at Kogawa. Seems crazy to say that on a day when we had had 3 species of Crane, Chinese Penduline Tits, Long-billed Plover and Black-faced Spoonbill, not to mention all the other good stuff, but there ya are – that’s birding!
Day 12 Monday 26.2.18
Up at 6 to a brighter day and no rain. We left at 7.00 without waiting for breakfast, Mr W had got a bone in his throat from one of the earlier meals and wasn’t about to risk it again, we also needed to move on early. We paid the Y30,000 (~$Au366) for the two nights and headed out looking for Daurian Jackdaw.
If we looked at one Rook that morning, we looked at 3,000, 1,500 Carrion Crows and numerous White-cheeked (and European) Starlings without seeing anything that resembled a frosty or partly white Jackdaw.
This was to be our third big dip of the trip. We did find a small group of charming Chestnut-eared Buntings, which afforded great views at relatively close range through the scopes. I also managed to get some decent photos of the cranes and we watched a Peregrine Falcon scare the crap out of everything at the back of the crane centre. Then it was back on the road, Jack, and heading east towards Kadogawa Harbour (10.00)
13.00 We started at the south end of what turned out to be a huge harbour/bay area with several different internal harbours, loading docks, fishing ports, rock walls and a headland. I mean it was massive. We scanned from the southern headland, we tried each dock area, driving in as far as we could and scanning the water both in and outside the harbours. We re-read notes, checked the maps, argued about locations, re-checked everything again, but the day drew to a close without our target bird - Japanese Murrelet - being seen.
We stopped at…yes, you guessed it, Mackers again for dinner, then went on to Hyuga, just south of Kadogawa, found the Pumping Surf guesthouse, which was really cool, laid back and, as its name suggests, a surfing hangout with the beach a short walk away. Mr W found 4 Elegant Buntings in the garden as I checked us in.
Another day when things just didn’t come together properly.
Day 13 Tuesday 27.2.18
Our last full day together, so we were up at 5.30 and into Mackers for breakfast to start the day off. Back to the harbours and checking for the bloody Murrelet. We went to the spots we had targeted yesterday and found our way to the top of the southern peninsula – Cape Hyuga – to scan the ocean but no luck. Another dip. This was getting depressing.
In the woods as we walked up the steep stairs from the car park on the headland we flushed two large pigeons from the ground. Mr W got a view on one, I lost my balance and while stumbling around got half a view of a bird crashing through the canopy. They can only have been Black Woodpigeons, but the views were poor and we didn’t see them again. We called it a dip and headed back west to Lake Mi-ike.
Got to the camping ground around 11.30 and started out with high expectations – Ryukyu Minivet and Grey Buntings were our main objective. I had a personal interest in Crested Kingfisher as Mr W has seen them in Taiwan and all reports advise all three species are relatively easy here. Not for us. We wandered the campground, we walked the shoreline in both directions for several hundred meters each way. We walked back up the road to the upper carpark, we walked through some of the forest, almost getting lost in the process, we wandered the campground again….. Nada, nothing, zero, zilch – at least of those three important birds. We did have one good male Red-flanked Bluetail, which was a lifer for me and a few Daurian Redstarts, we heard a couple of woodpeckers and saw one Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Olive-backed Pipits, Black-necked Grebes, Varied Tits, Pale & Dusky Thrushes, Japanese Bush Warblers and other commoner birds, but not a smell of the three we sought so eagerly. Grey Bunting & Crested Kingfisher had been seen at Kogawa Dam by the other group, so, once again, we reviewed our decision of that day. But what can you do? Suck it up is all! We went for a drive around the area away from the dam to give the place a chance, came back at 16.30 and were ejected at 17.00 by the lady closing up. Another day of dips – and our last. We drove the 15 kms to our last night’s accommodation – Lapsa Takazaki - which was a little like an ex-hospital, but they had a great bathhouse, where we soaked our misery away.
Day 14 Wednesday 28.2.18
In the morning we repeated the bathing experience – it really was too good to pass up – partook of the free ‘breakfast’ and headed off to Kagoshima airport. We stopped at a couple of river/bridge crossings in the hope of picking up the kingfisher, but it wasn’t our day.
Dropped the car off to the Nissan depot and were bowed onto the shuttle bus after a short interval. At the Jetstar check in at 9.45, for the flight at 12.00. Arrived at Narita at 13.30 and went straight to get the fourth hire car – again from Times Car rental as that’s what I’d booked. Out to the same depot as two weeks ago and the same thing happened – they wanted to give me a box on wheels.
I said ‘No, No’ again and we ended up with a Honda sedan. I also asked for and received an ETC automatic card for the tolls. It fits into a holder on the dash and you pay for it at the end of your hire. One of the operators was…well, I thought she might have been German, Mr W was sure she was American, however, she input my first night’s accommodation address into the Navi for me and the location we had gained for ‘1000s of Baikal Teal on a lake near Narita’ (quote/unquote). Lake Inba-numa, about 15 kms away. We were going to try for them before Mr W flew out. She offered to put in other addresses, but I said ‘Nah, it’s OK, I have the phone numbers”. That was mistake no 34……
Anyway – we headed out for the Teal and, needless to say, came away empty handed. We did find the lake, we did find flocks of duck, we did have scopes, but we didn’t have any Baikal Teal….
I dropped Mr W back at terminal 2 at 17.00, we hugged goodbye and said all the usual stuff, then I headed off towards Mt Fuji. I had actually wanted to get away earlier, but the aforementioned Teal had been a big drawcard. Now I had a 2–2 and a half hour drive through Tokyo, admittedly on the expressways, but in rush hour….
It was hairy, but I got through clean and arrived at Fujikawaguchiko-machi which was ‘behind’ Mt Fuji, at 19.30.
There was no sign of any place that looked like it might be my destination. The streets were quiet, no one around, no signs, no street lights, it wasn’t snowing, but there was snow in piles on corners where it had been swept and it was bloody cold. I wandered around, I knocked on a couple of doors, but no one answered. Finally, at about 20.15, as panic was staring to set in, a guy about my age arrived home, probably looking forward to his slippers and noodles, and I jumped him in his driveway and, basically, begged for assistance. He was great. He got his map book out, he looked up the address, he looked up a phone number, he rang them and then he set off to lead me down the road. I made him get in the car and we drove 100 meters, YES, 100 meters and there it was, all lit up. AND HE NEEDED A MAP? Doesn’t that say it all about the Japanese address system??? I mean, he must drive past it every day, it was, literally, just down the same road! Anyway. I checked in with a very nice English speaking girl, cranked up the air con and settled in to my tatami mat and futon existence once again. They too had a small bathhouse and provided a kimono and slippers. I decided once again to ease the burden and indulged myself and had the hot bath all to myself.
Day 15 Thursday 1.3.18
All alone, naturally. Warning: There are only minimal birding details from here, but feel free to read on…..
Up at 6, to find it raining. Another grey misty day with, unfortunately, Mt Fuji cloaked in cloud. There didn’t seem to be anyone else around so I packed and left by 7.30. I drove to the far side of a nearby lake, hoping for a clear view of my goal – the mountain - but was denied. I weighed up my options. Wait and hope for a view? Or head off on the 400+ km drive to the Nara city area and hope next week when I came here again the mountain was clear. I chose the latter and tried to find the Oji City (near Osaka/Kyoto/Nara) address in the Navi. The phone number wouldn’t work exactly, but would get me to the ‘approximate area’. I didn’t want to repeat last night’s near panic, but what could I do? I set off and 10 minutes later stopped at Mackers for breakfast – again….it made me feel a little better.
As I started on the expressway the sun came out and Mt Fuji started to clear – well, I think it was Mt Fuji. It might have been any mountain, I never saw it completely, but it looked good enough to be Mt Fuji, but with my luck of late and my indescribable decision making it could have been Kilimanjaro for God’s sake……
I drove for over 6 hours, reaching ‘the approximate area’ at 14.00. it wasn’t a hard drive, sitting on between 100-120 k/hr most of the way. The last 30 kms or so were on a rough road with heaps of trucks going downhill - that required a bit of focus but otherwise it was just counting the cost of the tolls….one of them was almost $100. The ETC card made it much easier as I didn’t have to stop or muck around looking for money – but it didn’t make it any cheaper.
Anyway, there I am in a street, no idea where, with a bit of paper with English names and addresses on it trying to find the place I am to stay. I did have the address in Japanese in my phone – sent by the host, which did help when I accosted someone. I asked a passing woman. She scurried into her house. Well, I assume it was her house. It might just have been the closest doorway she could get to to get away from me. I was again starting to worry when I saw a Telecom type technician packing up his gear on a street corner. I asked him for help – well, if anyone should know it should be the guy who does the phones, shouldn’t it? After all it’s all his fault I can’t find the address! He had to Google it. And it was 13 kms away. This place is driving me MAD! I held him at biro point and got him to put the address into the Navi in Japanese, before I let him go……… I got to the second approximate address and, again, had to ask people. This time the woman I approached was very helpful and took me to a nearby office-type building where she left me with another guy who took me down the road to the correct place. It’s tag team stuff this! I don’t know how anyone gets any mail here at all! It’s bonkers, absolutely bonkers! There was a guy having a smoke who checked me in straight away – into a 107 year-old house, with sliding screens and low beams and ancient garden – all very lovely. I had booked a bed in a 4 bed dormitory, but he gave me a room to myself, which was great. I could spread out and suit myself on my tatami mat and futon. Across the road was a shopping centre and behind that a railway station. There were several restaurants on the street 30 meters away and the car was comfortably parked. All in all a good outcome.
I went for a walk around the shopping centre, not huge, but with 3 floors it was big enough, dominated by a K-Mart type place that sold almost everything and a lower ground floor of eateries.
I chose to eat in one of the street restaurants which, as it happened, specialised in fish! Surprise, surprise! I had some sashimi, some sushi, some chicken and some beer. Went home, started to finally update my blog and crashed.
Day 16 Friday 2.3.18
Temple day. I was awake at 6, up at 7, but had to wait till I saw the guy around 8 to ask him about temples. I had come to this area specifically to see temples. I had, of course, done no research, assuming there would just be temples….there. There weren’t, needless to say. I had to go looking for them. And my current strike rate I didn’t hold out much hope of success.
Anyway, he suggested I go to Nara City. Which was good, seeing as how Mr D in Brisbane (another close birding friend) had suggested the same thing and that was why I was here. Mind you, I had no idea where or how, but he explained that the train would only take 15 minutes to get there and the station was just there, across the road…..
Now, if you know me, you know my thoughts on public transport.
They’re at the same level as my thoughts on the Japanese address system right now. However, I’d had enough of sitting in a car so I marched across to the station determined to make the most of it. The guy in the ticket office couldn’t have been more helpful. He clarified my mumbling into order, produced the tickets, took my money, gave me the correct change (I think) and walked me to the turnstile. I felt like a complete idiot, but it got me going in the right direction.
The train was great. I got off at the right station, found a Bus route map that showed the temples in the area, chose one and headed out on the 3.5 km walk using my iPad. After several attempts to head in the right direction – all of them wrong – the app finally got me sorted and I marched off across town. I had chosen to go to Heijo Palace Site as it looked like it had a park and a lake. 45 minutes later I found a large wooden building sitting in the middle of a dirt block, with not a tree or a scrap of water in sight. do I pick them or what?
I wandered around aimlessly for a while until I met a girl out walking her dog. By this time the Palace building was out of sight. I pointed it out on the map and asked her where? with an amazed look on my face. She smiled, said something and walked back until we could see the building again and pointed at it and said, basically, its there ya old fool! It’s that big wooden thing over there! I said ‘Oh” like I’d never seen it and thanked her for her generosity. I reviewed the map and now noticed another palace in a place labelled Nara Park with a temple – Todaiji Temple – and pictures of cartoon-like deer gambolling around. Sounded more like my kinda place so I set off again – this time it was 5.6 kms…….. Phew. I walked and walked and stopped for a coffee at a Lawson’s outlet. My legs were aching, I was sweaty and I was right over this temple thing by now, I can tell you. There were hundreds of people feeding dozens of very tame Sika Deer, but there were no birds at all. I was surprised, but maybe it was the time of day – it was midday by the time I staggered into the main concourse. Anyhow I wandered around taking pictures and marvelling at the architecture and size of the beams in the gate and Buddhist temple for about two hours. A family were feeding a deer and the grandfather gave me some food – I assume it was for the deer. I hope it was for the deer. I gave it to the deer anyway. And it ate it. So I must have got that bit right. At this stage anything is possible.
I eventually decided to head home, I needed a smoke anyway as you can’t smoke in the temple grounds. It’s amazing actually. You can’t smoke in heaps of places in Japan. Sometimes they supply a glass box to incarcerate smokers in, others it’s just an ashtray in the street. You can’t smoke in railway stations, on trains, in shopping centres or even in most streets. But when I was having dinner last night in the fish place, a guy beside me lit up? WTF? I don’t mind generally, but anyway, I needed a smoke so I headed out.
It was a relatively easy walk of 2.5 kms back to the station. Well, it would have been if I hadn’t already walked miles, but I made it back and got the right train. I almost went back to the ticket office to thank the ticket guy and explain my successful trip on their transport – but I thought it might just complicate things further so I let it be. I relaxed for a while in my room, contemplating my day and wondering if I’d survive another one.
Then I went across the road to the shopping centre and into one of the restaurants I’d noted yesterday. I had no idea what to order and the young girl had no idea what I wanted either but between us I ended up with a HUGE bowl of curry-flavoured Udon noodles, some fossilised cabbage and a beer and I was happy. Those Udons are slippery little suckers to get on your chopsticks though! It took me about 2 hours to eat them all, when most customers finished in about 15 minutes…… However, I staggered out with a full belly for less than $20 and retired to my futon to write more notes and update my blog further.
Day 17 Saturday 3.3.18
Another driving day. I wondered if I’d made the right decision to do this extra week alone, driving long distances. Oh well, here we go… Up at 7.00, again no one around the place, although I think another couple stayed last night. I hit the road at 9 after a couple of cups of coffee for breakfast and drove for another 5 hours accumulating tolls as I went. Arrived in Hiroshima at ‘an approximate area’ again. This time I approached a business type guy who came out of a building nearby. He said something along the lines of “I don’t know where I am either’ so that wasn’t much help.
Next up a delivery man arrived in his truck and he immediately referred to a local map stuck on the inside of his rear truck door and pointed out the ‘block’, just around the corner where my address should be. Of course I couldn’t drive back down the street I was in, it was one way……. so I had to negotiate a block and found what was possibly the street, pulled up and for once my luck changed – I’d stopped right outside the block of units where I was scheduled to stay. A sign about 6 inches square told me so.
I found the key in the mailbox, parked the car exactly where it was supposed to be – they are very fussy about where to park and not to park in Japan. Every time we rented a car they never mentioned road rules, signs or speed limits – it was always parking, and this guy had been really, really particular about the exactitude of where the car had to be. I mean REALLY particular.
Anyway, I climbed the 5 floors (53 narrow concrete stairs) to apartment 501 and entered the smallest apartment I have ever seen. Its lucky I didn’t have a cat, ‘cause there wasn’t room to swing one. If it had been me and Mr W one of us would have had to step outside while the other one passed him by inside.
A tiny vestibule with a “please remove your shoes’ sign, a squinchy little bathroom with a squinchy little bath – you almost had to sit on the toilet to close the door - and a one burner gas stove beside a sink, opposite a fridge with a microwave on top. Through a glass door and into the sitting room/study/bedroom/lounge with a desk, two bunk beds and a floor level couch to sit on. Man, it was ti-ny.
I emailed him and told him I’d arrived and parked where I was supposed to – he wanted me to send him a photo. I told him I had no way to send a photo and left it at that. I told you! REALLY particular….
I rested for a while and then went for a walk to find somewhere to eat. I took the iPad with me, luckily, so I didn’t get too lost, but couldn’t find a restaurant, so settled for microwaveable food and coffee from a Family Mart. Went home, ate and updated my blog a bit more.
Day 18 Sunday 4.3.18
Hiroshima Day. Up at 7 and out within 45 minutes for the 15 minute walk to the Peace Memorial Park. I had wanted to see this for a long time and was not disappointed. I was quite moved by the history and description of the first atomic bomb drop. It must have been horrific. It happened at 8.15 on 26th August, I also happened to be on site at 8.15, although today was 4th March so I’m not sure why I mentioned that…..
I spent a couple of hours wandering around taking photos and reading the various plaques at the different locations. Interestingly there was a wreath from a group of Australians at the main memorial. Just as I sort of came to the end, I noticed a couple of kids looking in the river and crossing over I realised there was a Muskrat swimming down river! An escapee obviously, I think, from a fur trade set up after the second world war? I also had a lovely female Daurian Redstart outside the museum on site. OK – Peace Memorial seen, what now? In the folder in the tiny apartment there had been a place listed called Miyajima. When I’d Googled it I thought it looked interesting so I decided to give it a go. It meant taking public transport – a street tram this time – but I felt up to the challenge and headed off confidently to the tram stop.
I managed to figure out which one to get on – well, I thought I did, and when one came along I got on. I asked a couple of women if this went to Miyajima and they assured me it did. It took almost an hour to get to the ferry terminal, during which I worked out that I had to pay when I got off? WTF? Even though there was a conductor on board with a purse thing? Go figure.
Anyway, I got off and deposited the exact money (Y290) into the machine and walked free to the ferry.
I got a ticket from the machine itself this time – Y360 return (~$4.50) and boarded along with hundreds of locals. The voyage lasted about 15 minutes and I walked the streets of food vendors and tourist type outlets until I reached a spot to view the O-tori Gate of the Itsukushima Shrine. I don’t pretend to know it intimately, but I’ve seen photos of it, as you probably have.
I decided that a walk in the forests on the island might be productive so headed off up a hill away from the crowds. I wandered along quiet roads for a couple of hours, but saw nothing new. Japanese White-eyes, Pale & Dusky Thrushes, White and Japanese Wagtails, one Black-faced Bunting, Long-tailed and Varied Tits and a few other bits and pieces.
Back at the shops I found some take home presents which made the day for me and then took a ferry back to the mainland and a tram back to the city centre to walk through Hondori – the main shopping area. It was pretty boring – all the internationally famous trendy shops that occur in every major city, so I just kept on walkin’ and stopped off at Family Mart again for a microwaveable feast before returning to my cubbyhole.
Day 19 Monday 5.3.18
More driving. I left Hiroshima at 8.00, having nothing else to see, and arrived back in Oji at 13.00, 365 ks later. It was like coming home really – the guy even gave me the same room. I had the obligatory Mackers across the road ‘cause I was starving and then asked him where I could get a good penknife locally? I mean, Japanese knives are world famous and I thought it’d be a nice thing to take home for myself. He had no idea, so I Googled ‘Where can I get a knife in Oji?’ and got an address in Osaka, 30 minutes away by ……..train! his was becoming a habit. Off to the station and this time a young lady got me on the way clutching my return ticket on the right platform – I really am hopeless at this travelling stuff.
Off at Osaka, a 15 minute walk to Tower Knives where ninja-like staff hovered over glass cases of beautiful looking knives most of which cost a fortune. I think my guy was disappointed in my choice of one of the cheapest knives, but I braced myself to his (maybe imagined?) disdain and settled for something I could live with. Back to the train and now, in a much bigger station, what platform? I eventually settled on one, asked two girls was this the train to Oji? They said they were foreign and didn’t know… story of life! A conductor assured me it was the right platform and I got back to Oji in one piece. It was around 17.00 by now and time for dinner. A different restaurant I thought, why not experiment? So, I walked into one, chosen at random and was seated at a table with a stinking hot metal plate in the middle of the table. Apparently the area is known for Okonomiyaki Fugetsu, which basically is a mixture of noodles, salad, beef, pork, shrimp and octopus cooked on the hot plate in front of you. Wow, how lucky was I? It was amazing to see it done and delicious. That, a beer, some pickled cucumber and kim-chi all for less than $30? I thought it was a bargain and hurried home in spitting rain to sleep it off.
Day 20 Tuesday 6.3.18
Yet more driving. Up at 6, away before 7, no one around, I think I was the only guest. 433 ks to drive today. Arrived at Fujikawaguchiko-machi, in the shadow of Mt Fuji at 13.30 to find the mountain covered in cloud again. I got to my accommodation OK this time, ‘cause I knew where it was. Thank God I’d had the foresight to book the same place going and coming. Yeah, right, I really planned THAT! I checked in and then drove around for a couple of hours watching the mountain and trying to find birds on the lakes in the area. There were no birds and still heaps of cloud. I Mackered it again as I really couldn’t be bothered trying to find a restaurant – I was just too tired. I’m getting too old for this shit, I told myself as I hoiked my backpacks up to the third floor. dropped them on the floor, walked over and looked out the window and…. Mt FUJI was clear! The only thing I had not brought upstairs was the camera, of course, so, back down two flights of stairs in those silly slippers, change into my boots, run 5 meters to the car, grab the camera, run 5 meters back inside, take off my boots, put on the slippers, run back up two flights and…… it was still clear! Brilliant! Now I can put in place my cunning plan for tomorrow without having to hang around for cloud clearance. My mission is complete. I have seen the Mountain. I have seen the Temple. I have seen The Peace Memorial. Ahhhhhhhhh, time to crash.
Day 21 Wednesday 7.3.18
The Last Day. My cunning plan? Well, maybe not so cunning, really just a plain old plan. Now that Mt Fuji was out of the way, so to speak, I could get going first thing and head for the airport. It was only 180 ks – about 2 and a half hours – and, I figured, I could dump the car, get the shuttle bus to the airport, leave my big bag in a baggage locker – I checked, they had them at Terminal 2 – and go for a last ditch effort to Kasai Rinkai Koen and have a last gasp attempt at Saunder’s Gull. On the way to the car dump I would try for the Baikal Teal at Lake Imba-numa again. It all started off well. I got up at 6.15, to find Mt Fuji completely covered in cloud, packed up and split. Again no one around – I think I was the only customer they had last night. I hit ‘Go Home’ on the Navi and Naomi took me towards the expressway. However, I decided to ignore her directions at the last minute and go to Mackers for breakfast, figuring I probably wouldn’t have time to get anything to eat until I was at the airport for check-in. That was when things started to unravel. I had breakfast, came out and tried to return to where Naomi had told me to go, but now she decided that because I’d ignored her earlier she was going to take me to a completely different expressway entry. So, for the next hour she took me on a 20 km scenic tour of the back streets of wherever I was, finally delivering me onto an expressway at 9.00. Not happy, Jan. I hammered north with the plan adjusting in my head as I went. The second timing disaster involved a Japanese truck driver who had not bothered to get his truck serviced when he should and chose to break down on the expressway in a very busy, narrow section in the southern suburbs of Tokyo resulting in a back-up of traffic that took me 40 minutes to do 10 ks. Not helpful. I got to the lake eventually at 11.00 and drove around frantically trying to find ducks and/or the spot Mr W and I had been at last week. For the life of me I couldn’t find the spot or any ducks so with time now running short I decided to cut my losses and head for the car dump. Once again Naomi decided I needed a lesson and I spent the next 40 minutes looking at the back of a shiny truck as we wound our way through numerous villages, agricultural areas and spent ages stopped at those traffic lights…. I got to the car dump without seeing any service stations to top off the fuel, so drove on past expecting to find one just down the road…. I ended up driving through the airport where I’d dropped Mr W off, past Terminal 2 and 3 and almost ended up in the cargo area without finding a petrol station anywhere. Normally you’d be falling over them, but not now… Eventually, somehow, I ended up at one about a kilometre away from the car dump on the opposite side of the expressway, filled up and arrived at Times Car Rental just after 12.
Everything was OK, I even paid the Y43,900 (~$Aus530), toll fee without batting an eyelid – I knew it would be big - and they quickly shuttled me to Terminal 2. I found the baggage lockers, dumped my bag, grabbed my tripod and small bag, bins, scope and camera and dashed down to get the Narita Express into Tokyo Central.
I bought a ticket from the machine because there was the usual queue at the ticket office with foreigners not being able to understand or make up their minds. For some reason it spat out 4 tickets so I had to go to the office anyway. I’m still not sure what happened, but the guy refunded me Y2000, disposed of my 4 tickets and gave me two more…..I shrugged and hurried down to the platform. Then I shot myself in the arm. The train was due at 12.48. I was on the platform at 12.30. A train pulled in, I got on it – but it wasn’t the express. It was a local train that stopped at every station. I couldn’t do anything about it so just had to sit it out. 14.00 I arrive in Tokyo Central. 14.10 I manage to get a ticket and get on board the right train for Kasai. 14.35 I’m walking into Kasai, assembling my tripod as I go. 14.45 I’m scanning the water and the low tide exposed mud banks from the big glass and concrete structure. There were a few gulls around, but nothing that looked like a Saunder’s. Black-tailed, Vega and Slaty-backed, but no ‘small’ gulls at all. I did actually walk down to the bridge and scanned a bit more but it was hopeless. My return trip ticket from Tokyo Central to Narita was scheduled for 15.33. 15.00 I’m back at Kasai station. As I walked up the stairs a Tokyo bound train pulled out. 15.13 I’m on the next train. 15.28 I’m back in Tokyo Central. I went up 4 vertical escalators like a true mountaineer. I went through the crowds like a true ninja warrior, dodging and weaving, circling and bending with the wind – or something like that. 15.35 I arrive at the top of the last escalator to see the message – Next train to Narita 16.03 - I’d obviously missed my train with the booked seat - by 2 minutes. I treated myself to an expensive cup of coffee and returned to Platform 4 at 15.55. A train came in and stopped further down the platform, the driver changed and it took off.
Strange? I waited and waited until finally at 16.33 another train came in and stopped further down the platform. I walked down and discovered this was, in fact the Narita Express – but it only had 6 carriages so didn’t extend the full platform…. Great! Good to know! Another 30 minutes I won’t get back. 17.35 Back in Terminal 2, rescue my bag from the locker, pack everything away, get a trolley and walk the 500 meters to Terminal 3 at a dangerous pace. 17.55 I need not have hurried - a confusing chaotic queue of several hundred people waiting to check in for several Jetstar destinations, with 4 counters open – I managed to wangle a window seat. 18.40 At gate 154, as instructed for 20.10 flight, updating my notes, laptop, hard drive, camera all over the place. 19.30 There is some mumbled announcement from the desk at the gate which has some people stirring. I walk to the desk and ask ‘What was that about, please?' ‘Cairns flight now leaving from Gate 151’…….bloody Jetstar. So – goodbye Japan – goodbye heated toilet seats, goodbye hot steaming baths, goodbye politeness and respect and humility, goodbye cleanliness and general organisation. Welcome home!
Day 22 Thursday 8.3.18
Happy Birthday to me. We landed in Cairns at 4.20 and queued for what seemed ages to get through both immigration and customs. In both areas one person was working their ass off, while others stood around apparently doing nothing. After the efficiency of Japan it was embarrassing. Eventually clear, I walked the 330 meters to the domestic terminal, managed to check-in, but had to wait till 6.30 to complete the bag drop. When I asked for a possible earlier flight (to minimise the 5 hour wait that I was scheduled for) the Jetstar rep said there were probably no spare seats on an earlier flight to Brisbane because it was the rainy season. Okay? But again, WTF? What difference does the rain make? So I settled in for the wait. She did give me an emergency exit row and thanked me for my patience so I guess that was something. It was a long wait and not the way I would have preferred to spend the first 5 hours of my 63rd birthday, but I guess you get what you pay for.
In as few words as possible – we did well in Honshu, we did as well as could be expected in Hokkaido, we didn’t do well in Kyushu at all. In fact, Kyushu was a major disappointment. The cranes were great, but the rest? A bit of a let-down.
We saw almost everything we expected to see in Honshu. Karuizawa worked well for us. The ferry trip from Oarai to Tomakomai wasn’t quite as successful as we’d hoped, but the Orcas were a major plus.
In Hokkaido we saw most everything that was available this year – other years have been ‘better’, some ‘not so good’ - except Asian Rosy Finch and Solitary Snipe. If we’d had the extra day that I ‘lost’ through bad planning we would probably have found the Finch. If we’d not had the ‘accident’ we would probably have found the Snipe. However, otherwise, we did OK.
The Cranes in Kyushu were brilliant and we got most of the local species around there, except Daurian Jackdaw. Not seeing Saunder’s Gull at Yatsushiro was, I can’t deny, a big disappointment. Added to that the decision to go there, rather than Kogawa Dam, thus potentially missing Grey Bunting, among other things, was something we returned to again and again. Kadogawa Harbour and the lack of Japanese Murrelet was, basically, a waste of time and effort that maybe we could have put in elsewhere. Lake Mi-ike was a major let down. Ryukyu Minivet, Grey Bunting and Crested Kingfisher seemed to have been easily found by others in previous visits.
Our disappointment was probably compounded by the contrast of our success in Hokkaido, but there were other species I felt we had missed badly. Japanese Cormorant, Mandarin Duck, Mountain Hawk Eagle, White-bellied Green Pigeon – all, I feel, should have been seen, however maybe I’m just being greedy?
It’s true you could go on a guided tour – and, almost undoubtedly, see more species. But then you’d miss the thrill of finding the birds yourself – or not, as the case may be!
Mute Swan – singles in and round Tokyo at random canals or moats.
Whooper Swan – Akan Crane Centre, Kyushu and Ochiishi Harbour, Hokkaido.
Common Shelduck – mudflats around and near Arasaki Crane Centre, Kyushu
Gadwall – Kasai Rinkai Koen, Tokyo.
Falcated Duck – Imperial Palace & Lake Inba-numa, Tokyo area and Nemuro Peninsula, Hokkaido.
Eurasian Wigeon – easily the commonest duck. Seen on all three islands in numbers.
Northern Mallard – numbers seen on Kyushu at most locations.
Eastern Spot-billed Duck – a few at Kasai Rinkai Koen in Tokyo, hundreds everywhere on Kyushu.
Northern Shoveler – noted only at Kasai Rinkai Koen in Tokyo, but possibly under recorded elsewhere.
Northern Pintail – Nemuro Peninsula, Hokkaido and many more seen across Kyushu.
Eurasian Teal – second commonest, seen in small numbers on all three islands.
Common Pochard – Kasai Rinkai Koen and Lake Iba-numa, Tokyo mainly. A few here and there elsewhere.
Tufted Duck – small numbers at various locations on all three islands.
Greater Scaup – huge number at Kasai Rinkai Koen, Tokyo, smaller numbers around Nemuro in Hokkaido, none noted on Kyushu.
Harlequin Duck – 2 at Oarai Harbour, Honshu. Scattered birds around the Nemuro Pen, Hokkaido. Probably not as many as I had expected.
White-winged Scoter – only 4 at Yarimukashi peninsula, north of Lodge Furen, Hokkaido.
Black Scoter – many hundreds around Nemuro Peninsula, Hokkaido.
Long-tailed Duck – numbers around Nemuro Peninsula, Hokkaido.
Common Goldeneye – only noted at Yarimukashi peninsula, north of Nemuro Peninsula, Hokkaido.
Smew – 2 (males) only at Lake Inba-numa.
Goosander – numbers seen around Nemuro Peninsula Hokkaido.
Red-breasted Merganser – a few at Kasai Rinkai Koen, Tokyo and in harbours on Nemuro Pen, Hokkaido.
Copper Pheasant – one only along trail from Hoshino Onsen to Kose Onsen, Karuizawa, Honshu.
Green Pheasant – one only, ‘Picolo’/ISAC area near Naka-Karuizawa, Honshu.
Pacific Diver – rather distant views of at least two of Ochiishi Harbour.
Kermadec Petrel – 2 off the Oarai/Tomakomai ferry, near the northern end of Honshu.
Little Grebe – Kasai Rinkai Koen, Tokyo and small numbers at Yatsushiro Estuary & Lake Mi-ike, Kyushu.
Great Crested Grebe – huge numbers at Kasai Rinkai Koen and smaller numbers at locations across Kyushu.
Black-necked Grebe – a good number (20) at Kasai Rinkai Koen and a few at Yatsushiro Esturay& Lake Mi-ike in Kyushu.
Black-faced Spoonbill – 9 in a flock with 2 Eurasian Spoonbills north of Arasaki Crane Centre and a similar flock at Yatsushiro Estuary Kyushu.
Grey Heron – a single bird at Kasai Rinkai Koen, hundreds at Arasaki Crane Centre and small numbers elsewhere in Kyushu.
Great Egret – Kasai Rinkai Koen and numbers across Kyushu
Little Egret – the same as Great Egret
Pelagic Cormorant – Nemuro Peninsula
Red-faced Cormorant – 3 only at Cape Nosappu, Nemuro Peninsula, Hokkaido.
Great Cormorant – locations on all three islands – half with the white head and neck which had us checking for Japanese Cormorant without success.
Western Osprey – Kasai Rinkai Koen and large numbers in Yatsushiro Estuary.
Hen Harrier – one only, a female, near the Chinese Penduline Tit canal Arasaki Crane Centre, Kyushu.
Black-eared Kite – almost everywhere in large numbers at times.
White-tailed Eagle – eastern Hokkaido in large numbers around and near Nemuro Peninsula
Steller’s Sea Eagle – ditto above, with one near Akan Crane Centre.
Eastern Buzzard – 2 only. One on the road to Karuizawa and one perched on the road near Chitose – I expected to see a lot more.
Brown-cheeked Rail – two in an overgrown pond beside the ‘Bird Observatory’ building in Kasai Rinkai Koen, Tokyo.
Eurasian Coot – large numbers at Kasai Rinkai Koen, Tokyo and scattered locations across Kyushsu.
Sandhill Crane – a small number near Arasaki Crane Centre.
White-naped Crane – numbers at and around Arasaki Crane Centre
Red-crowned Crane – only at Akan Crane centre, Hokkaido and a few in the fields around that area.
Common Crane – 3 only at Arasaki Crane Centre, Kyushu.
Hooded Crane – thousands at Arasaki and the surrounding fields, Kyushu.
Northern Lapwing – Arasaki Crane Centre and Yatsushiro Estuary, Kyushu.
Grey Plover – A scattered few (10) in Yatsushiro Estuary, Kyushu.
Long-billed Plover – a total of 3 around the third bridge we looked at in Satsuma, Kyushu.
Kentish Plover – Kasai Rinkai Koen, Tokyo and 1 at Yasushiro Estuary, Kyushu.
Lesser Sand Plover – one only at Kasai Rinkai Koen, Tokyo.
Eurasian Curlew – approx 20 at Yatsushiro Estuary, Kyushu.
Common Greenshank – Yatsushiro Estuary.
Common Sandpiper – Yatsushiro Estuary, the bridge in Satsuma and Lake Mi-ike.
Curlew Sandpiper – one only at Kasai Rinkai Koen, Tokyo.
Dunlin – a small flock at Kasai Rinkai Koen, Tokyo and similar numbers at Yatsushiro Estuary, Kyushu.
Black-legged Kittiwake – huge numbers off the Oarai/Tomakomai ferry, especially nearer the northern tip of Honshu.
Black-headed Gull – small numbers at Kasai Rinkai Koen, Tokyo and Lake Inba-numa.
Black-tailed Gull – a couple at Kasai Rinkai Koen, numbers around Oarai and the ferry trip off Honshu and a few at Kyushu.
Mew or Common Gull – difficult to discern which specific species, Hokkaido.
Glaucous-winged Gull – Oarai Harbour, Honshu and in numbers around the Nemuro Peninsula, Hokkaido.
Glaucous Gull – only noted around Habomai on the Numero Peninsula, Hokkaido.
Vega Gull – Kasai Rinkai Koen, Oarai, Honshu and on the ferry trip to Tomakomai.
Slaty-backed Gull – Oarai & the ferry trip to Hokkaido and large numbers on Hokkaido itself, smaller numbers in Kyushu.
Artic Skua – one only, distantly, from the Oarai/Tomakomai ferry, about half way up Honshu.
Common Guillemot – approximately 10 on the Habomai pelagic, Hokkaido.
Pigeon Guillemot – approximately 15 on the Habomai pelagic, Hokkaido.
Spectacled Guillemot - approximately 30 on the Habomai pelagic, Hokkaido.
Ancient Murrelet – one we believe at Oarai Harbour, hundreds from the Oarai/Tomakomai ferry and about 10 on the Habomai pelagic, Hokkaido.
Least Auklet - approximately 12 on the Habomai pelagic, Hokkaido.
Crested Auklet - hundreds from the Oarai/Tomakomai ferry and about 15 on the Habomai pelagic, Hokkaido.
Japanese (Black) Woodpigeon – 2 at Cape Hyuga, walking up to the most easterly point, Kyushu.
Oriental Turtle Dove – common on Honshu and Kyushu.
Blakiston’s Fish Owl – one only at Yuyado Daiichi, Hokkaido.
Ural Owl – one only near Akan Crane Centre, Hokkaido.
Short-eared Owl – one only along the Nemuro Peninsual.
Common Kingfisher – 0ne at Kasai Rinkai Koen, one each at Yatsushiro Estuary and on a random river stop in Kyushu.
Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker – a few at Karuizawa, 2 at Lake Mi-ike.
Great Spotted Woodpecker – a couple at Karuizawa and one at Lodge Furen, Hokkaido.
White-backed Woodpecker – one, or possibly two, seen badly at Karuizawa, Honshu.
Japanese Green Woodpecker – one only at Karuizawa – on the track to Kose Onsen, Honshu.
Common Kestrel – seen each day on Kyushu.
Peregrine Falcon – one at Arasaki and one at Cape Hyuga, Kyushu.
Bull-headed Shrike – one at Kasai Rinkai Koen, Tokyo, small numbers elsewhere in both Hokkaido and Kyushu.
Eurasian Jay – 2 along main road south of Naka-Karuizawa, Honshu when searching for Copper Pheasant and two flew off road between Chitose and Akan, Hokkaido.
Azure-winged Magpie – flock of at least 20 in Naka-Karuizawa, Honshu.
Rook – thousands near Arasaki Crane Centre and surrounds, common enough elsewhere in Kyushu.
Carrion Crow – common in Kyushu.
Large-billed Crow – scattered across all three islands- common.
Northern Raven – only noted at Cape Hyuga in Kyushu, but probably seen elsewhere in appropriate habitat.
Bohemian Waxwing – one only outside accommodation in Karuizawa.
Japanese Waxwing – a flock of 16 feeding on mistletoe along track from Hoshino onsen to Kose onsen in Karuizawa, Hokkaido. (We heard they’d been seen as far south as Kyushu, apparently an eruptive year for the species.)
Coal Tit – in small numbers in Karuizawa, Honshu.
Varied (Japanese) Tit – in small numbers, relatively speaking, in Honshu and Kyushu.
Marsh Tit – small numbers in Honshu and Hokkaido.
Willow Tit – decent numbers in Karuizawa, Honshu and at Akan Crane Centre, Hokkaido.
Eastern (Japanese) Great Tit – common almost everywhere there was a feeder – or not.
Chinese Penduline Tit – a flock of at least 20 birds in the reedbeds beside the ‘canal’, near Arasaki Crane Centre, Kyushu.
Eurasian Skylark – scattered across the wetlands around Arasaki Crane Centre, Kyushu.
Brown-eared Bulbul – everywhere.
Barn Swallow – several flocks mainly at random locations while driving in Kyushu.
Japanese Bush Warbler – first seen at Kasai Rinkai Koen, Tokyo also noted at Lake Mi-ike, Kyushu.
Long-tailed Tit – small numbers at Karuizawa, Honshu and at Lake Mi-ike, Kyushu.
Japanese White-eye – Kasai Rinke Koen, Tokyo, Lake Mi-ike, Kyushu and I had a couple on Miyajima Island off Hiroshima, Honshu.
Eurasian Wren – one at Karuizawa and one at Lake Mi-ike, Kyushu.
Eurasian Nuthatch – one at Shiotsubo onsen, Karuizawa, Honshu and 2 daily at the feeding table at Lodge Furen, Hokkaido.
White-cheeked Starling – Tokyo, Oarai and Arsaki Crane Centre. Probably more common than noted.
Common Starling – one flock near Arasaki Crane Centre, Kyushu.
Pale Thrush – Kasai Rinkai Koen (1), Tokyo and Oarai, Honshu and in small numbers almost everywhere in Kyushu and later in Honshu on my week alone.
Brown-headed Thrush – one only at Kasai Rinkai Koen, Tokyo.
Dusky Thrush – everywhere, common. Smaller numbers in Hokkaido, larger numbers in Kyushu.
Red-flanked Bluetail – one only at Lake Mi-ike.
Daurian Redstart – Kasi Rinkai Koen, Tokyo and in small, but regular numbers in Kyushu and Hiroshima, Honshu.
Blue Rock Thrush – Oarai, Honshu and seen daily in Kyushu and in Nara City, Honshu.
Brown Dipper – first seen beside Hoshino Onsen, Karuizawa, Honshu, then on the Sendai River in Satsuma and at a second random river stop location in Kyushu.
Russet Sparrow – we only saw one near Arasaki Crane Centre, although others reported seeing ‘flocks’
Eurasian Tree Sparrow – everywhere.
Japanese Accentor – one only at the bird feeder at Shiotsubo onsen in Karuizawa, Honshu.
Grey Wagtail – Common enough in Kyushu only.
White Wagtail – almost everywhere, but less common in Hokkaido.
Japanese Wagtail – one at Kasai Rinken Koen, a couple at the Shiotsubo onsen, Karuizawa, Honshu, seen daily at river stops and Lake Mi-ike in Kyushu.
Olive-backed Pipit – Imperial Palace grounds, Tokyo, Oarai, Honshu, daily in small numbers on Kyushsu.
Buff-bellied Pipit – Yatsushiro Estuary and Arasaki Crane Centre in Kyushu.
Brambling – bird feeder at Shiotsubo onsen and a small flock of 5 elsewhere in Karuizawa, Honshu.
Hawfinch – one in Karuizawa at the 7/11, several in the park in Oarai, Honshu. Not as common as we thought they might be – maybe they’re all in the UK this year?\
Japanese Grosbeak – Shiotsubo onsen, Honshu, a flock of ~50 beside the first bridge we tried on the Sendai River in Satsuma, one near Arasaki Crane Centre, Kyushu and I had a flock of 15 at the A Bomb dome in Hiroshima, Honshu.
Long-tailed Rosefinch – a f lock of 5 in the Picolo/ISAC area near Naka-Karuizawa, Honshu.
Grey-capped (Oriental) Greenfinch – Karuizawa, Honshu and especially around Arasaki Crane Centre where there were very large flocks.
Meadow Bunting – Karuizawa, beside our 7/11, and in the grounds of the Shiotsubu onsen, Honshu. Near the Crane Centre and Lake Mi-ike Kyushu.
Chestnut-eared Bunting – one small group of 4 birds near the Arasaki Crane Centre, Kyushu.
Rustic Bunting – in the fields in the Picolo/ISAC area in Naka-Karuizawa and in the park at Oarai, Honshu.
Yellow-throated (Elegant) Bunting – one male only in the park at Oarai, Honshu and 4 female types in the garden of Pumping Surf guesthouse in Hyuga, Kyushu.
Black-faced Bunting – the commonest bunting of the ‘special’ buntings. Poor views at Kasai Rinkai Koen, excellent number of views and birds in the park at Oarai, Honshu, seen daily at various locations on Kyushu.
Common Reed Bunting – in minor patches of long grass or reeds near the crane centre on Kyushu.;
Other items of interest:
Red-eared Slider Trachemys scripta elegans – one single turtle seen at Kasai Rinkai Koen (introduced/escapee)
Japanese Macaque Macaca fuscata – aka Snow Monkey.
Killer Whale Orcinus orca – five from the Oarai/Tomakomai ferry.
Red Fox Vulpes vulpes – several seen over the three days in Hokkaido – often at very close range.
Sika Deer Cervus nippon – seen around the Nemuro area from the road and a herd at Ochiishi Harbour. Also large numbers in Nara Park, Nara city and Miyajima Island off Hiroshima, Honshu.
Spotted (Largha) Seal Phoca largha – a single and a herd of 18 around Nemuro peninsula, Hokkaido.
Sable Martes zibellina – two at Yuyado Daiichi, Hokkaido.
Japanese Weasel Mustela itatsi – one across the road near Arasaki Crane Centre, Kyushu.
Any queries, questions, concerns? – please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
For a slightly more detailed description of the trip and other misadventures please refer to my blog – email@example.com - and join my happy band of 9 readers……