A Steller’s Sea-Eagle cruises over the ice in northern Hokaido Photo: Susan Myers
A visit to Japan in the winter is something birders everywhere should consider. The long chain of islands that make up Japan straddle the Pacific coast of Asia, providing an ideal wintering ground for a some of the world’s most sought-after birds, and although the species list is modest , it contains some real gems.
Our tour ranges from the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, Kyushu, to the northernmost, Hokkaido. We’ll focus on the great spectacles, the crane concentrations (up to five species) in the south and the sea-eagle and seabird gatherings in the north, and on Japan’s endemic residents, including Blakiston’s Fish-Owl, the world’s largest owl. We’ll also spend a few days in the interior of Honshu, the largest of the Japanese islands, birding some of the country’s best temperate woodland, visiting the famous “snow monkeys” near Nagano, and in the process riding the Bullet Train.
Japan is much more than just a birding trip – it’s a complete cultural event and one that is bound to captivate even a hardened birdwatcher. In some places we’ll stay in Japanese inns where we can gain an insight into the traditional lifestyle, and everywhere we go the Japanese passion for order and neatness is evident. And of course there is also all that fascinating food to sample.
Day 1: We begin this evening at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. Night at the in-airport hotel.
Day 2: We’ll fly in the mid-morning to Kagoshima and then drive through picturesque rural countryside to Izumi on the island of Kyushu. Most of the day will involve some form of travel but we’ll stop at the Satsuma River where we might see a mix of waterfowl, waders and river edge birds including Spot-billed Duck, Green Sandpiper and possibly Crested Kingfisher or Japanese Wagtail. Night at Izumi.
Day 3: We’ll leave at dawn to watch the sun rise over the Arasaki Crane Center and the spectacle of thousands of cranes flying overhead and feeding in the fields. The most common are White-naped and Hooded, but small numbers of Common and Sandhill can usually be found among them, and there is even a slim possibility of a Demoiselle or Siberian! Around the Crane Center birds such as Northern Lapwing, Bull-headed Shrike, Daurian Redstart, Dusky Thrush and Oriental Greenfinch are often present, and there are usually large flocks of Rook, Carrion, and Large-billed Crows and Eurasian Tree Sparrows, the latter often containing a few Russet Sparrows. The area around Arasaki abounds with bird life: the farmlands and reedbeds can attract Oriental and Eurasian Skylarks, Chinese Penduline Tit, and Common Reed Bunting; the estuaries may contain Common Redshank and flocks of Eurasian Green-winged Teal and Common Pochard; the coastal scrub is favored by Pale Thrush, Japanese Bush Warbler, and Black-faced and Siberian Meadow Buntings; and every residential area is likely to harbor Common Buzzard, Brown-eared Bulbul, Japanese White-eye, and Great Tit. Night at Izumi.
Day 4: We’ll spend the morning in the Izumi area looking especially in the woodlands with hopes for Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Red-flanked Bluetail and possibly Grey Bunting. After lunch we’ll drive over the coastal mountains to the Kirishima-Yaku National Park, a fascinating region of active volcanoes and hot springs. We’ll stay at a small Japanese Inn with delightful thermal pools overlooking an (at present) inactive volcano. Night at Mi-ike.
Day 5: We’ll spend the morning around Lake Mi-ike, a circular lake about a kilometer in diameter surrounded by lush broadleaf forest, fast-flowing streams, and mountains. Many of Japan’s more common woodland birds occur here plus interesting specialties such as Copper Pheasant, White-bellied Green-Pigeon, White-backed Woodpecker, and Varied Tit. The lake may have a number of waterbirds possibly including Great Crested Grebe and large numbers of Eurasian Wigeon. We’ll visit a small shrine on a hilltop overlooking the lake where we’ll explore the grounds in search of various woodland species and experience the beauty of the traditional Shinto architecture. In the afternoon, we’ll drive east to the portside town of Kadogawa, stopping en route at a small, seemingly insignificant lake that sometimes holds handsome Baikal Teal or Falcated Duck and usually the astonishing beautiful Mandarin Duck. With luck we may also find the stunning Yellow-throated Bunting or Olive-backed Pipit in the surrounding forest.
As we approach the coast we may have time for a first look for the endemic Japanese Murrelet from the harbor wall at Kadogawa. Night in Hyuga (near Kadogawa).
Day 6: This morning we’ll take a boat out of the harbor to look for Japanese Murrelets. They will have just regained their breeding plumage and with luck we may see several twittering pairs. If we’ve already seen them well, we’ll concentrate our efforts on other birds onshore such as Japanese Cormorant, Eastern Reef and Little Egrets, and Black-tailed and Slaty-backed Gulls. Later we’ll visit local woodlands and meadows looking for Japanese Wood Pigeon, Blue Rock Thrush and possibly scarce wintering species such as Brown Shrike. In the late afternoon we’ll drive south to the city of Miyazaki in order to be in place for our early flight tomorrow. Night in Miyazaki.
Day 7: We’ll catch an early morning flight from Miyazaki to Haneda where will transfer to Tokyo’s central rail station and the Bullet Train to Nagano, an exciting experience in itself. Night in Nagano.
Day 8: We’ll drive about an hour to Jigokudani— “Hell’s Valley” in English—world-renowned for the so-called snow monkeys, a troop of Japanese Macaques that have learned to use the natural hot springs during the harsh winter. After a walk of about an hour through snowy woods, we’ll be able to see the monkeys at very close range bathing in the springs or playing nearby, and the photographic opportunities will be superb. We’ll see a few birds, too perhaps a Brown Dipper or a Goldcrest. After lunch we’ll travel to Karuizawa, Japan’s playground of the rich and famous. It’s about a two hour drive so we may arrive at dark but we’ll be in place for some excellent birding in the morning. Night in Karuizawa.
Day 9: Karuizawa has long been famous for its beautiful, temperate woodlands, and the area supports a rich selection of species in a relatively small space. As we explore the tracks and trails along the fast-flowing streams, we may encounter such species as Japanese Green Woodpecker, Brambling, gorgeous Japanese Waxwings, Azure-winged Jay, Japanese Grosbeak, and, if we are lucky, Pallas’s Rosefinch or the scarce endemic Copper Pheasant. Night in Karuizawa.
Day 10: A travel day: we’ll take the Bullet Train back to Tokyo, transfer to Haneda Aiport and fly to Kushiro in Hokkaido. Once there we’ll drive two hours to Nemuro on the east coast of Hokkaido. Night in Nemuro.
Day 11: We’ll plan on a boat trip off the Nemuro Peninsula looking for alcids such as Sooty Guillemot and Ancient Murrelet. We’ll see our first White-tailed and Steller’s Sea-Eagles and the waters will have a few Red-faced Cormorants and hundreds of Black and Stejneger’s (Asian White-winged) Scoters and Harlequin Ducks. Gulls will be numerous and now include Glaucous, Glaucous-winged and Common among the many Slaty-backed and Black-tails. If the weather is bad we can achieve almost the same results from the lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula where an enclosed viewing station gives protected views of the surrounding waters.
Later we’ll visit a small sanctuary in town where several feeders might attract Great Spotted Woodpecker, Marsh Tit and perhaps Hawfinch. Night in Nemoru.
Day 12: After a final morning in the Nemoru area we’ll drive north to the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido’s northeast. En route we’ll take a detour out onto the remarkable Notsuke Peninsula, a 28 km long narrow sandbar that has been designated a wildlife preserve and is a haven for seabirds. At Odaito nearby we’ll stop to see the congregations of Whooper Swans and other wildfowl. Many of the birds will be the same as yesterday but we may find something new. Night at Rausu.
Day 13: Steller’s Sea-Eagles are numerous on the Shiretoko Peninsula, and our time with these splendid birds will be one of the highlights of the tour. If the pack ice has descended as far south as Hokkaido, we’ll take a boat trip out of the Rausu harbor along the length of the southern edge of the peninsula to see large concentrations of eagles close up.
Hokkaido is also renowned as the breeding area for one of Japan’s most impressive residents, Blakiston’s Fish-Owl. However, finding one is no easy proposition—there may be as few as 20 breeding pairs on the entire island—but this afternoon we’ll drive to a small town where we’ll have a chance of seeing one. We’ll stay at a traditional Japanese Inn where a pair is known to visit a pond in the back garden. After what has in the past been the most spectacular Japanese meal of the tour we’ll retire to await the owls. They could come in at any time of night, but the inn employees are vigilant and will call our rooms if one appears.
Our inn also has the most delightful natural hot springs with both indoor and outdoor pools and our favorite, a little rocky pool by a stream where immersed in 104 degree water and surrounded by snow one can watch for Eurasian Jay, Willow Tit and Brown Dipper. Night at Yoroushi.
Day 14: We’ll drive this morning to Tancho-no-sato, or “Red-crowned Crane Village,” and in the afternoon have our first looks at the spectacular and rare Red-crowned Cranes, which at more than five feet tall are the most magnificent of the world’s cranes. The same area hosts a number of other special birds and we might see Whooper Swan, Eurasian Nuthatch and just possibly Long-tailed Rosefinch. Night at Tancho-no-sato.
Day 15: We’ll spend the early morning with the cranes, watching them coming in to feed. Perhaps needless to say, photographic opportunities will be excellent. In mid-morning we’ll return to Kushiro and our flight back to Tokyo’s Haneda Aiport where the tour concludes in early afternoon.
Updated: 17 May 2013
- 2014 Tour Price Not Yet Available
- (2013 Tour Price $5500; with Extension $6150)
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a modest discount. Details here.
Maximum group size six with one WINGS leader.
Please note that one night is spent in old-style Japanese inn with men in one room and women in another, and single room may be unavailable in several other hotels.
* This tour is priced using Japan Air Passes. How those work is described here