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Japan - February 2020 (1 Viewer)


Virtually unknown member
United Kingdom
Japan had long been to me an exotic land of mystery and iconic birds that I would almost certainly never get to visit. But last summer the opportunity arose for me to potentially be there at some point over the coming winter - either in Tokyo in early December 2019, Osaka early in the New Year or Fukuoka in late February 2020. An RFI on the Information Wanted & Japan sub-forums generated a lot of useful information; the general opinion was that the latter date would be the best option.

So the ticket to the event I wanted to attend was duly booked for 22nd February and then began the job of planning a birding trip around that date. The initial plan was to tack a few days on in Hokkaido either beforehand or afterward. As it was still only late July I assumed I had plenty of time so set about reading some trip reports. It soon became clear from these that I may have already left it too late to secure accommodation at the usual birders locations for my target species. Indeed I failed to get any response to my inquiries from the famous owl spot. By early August though I was armed with an e-mail address for the rightly renowned Take-san and he had soon booked me in to the Onsen for one night in the week leading up to my commitment, in return for my booking 2 nights at his Lodge. This allowed the first internal flight and hire car to be booked.

As I was going to be on Kyushu anyway I decided to add a few days there so another car and more accommodation was arranged. I then started looking into the international flights, at first intending to go straight to Hokkaido and return from Kyushu. But most of the cheaper options involved multiple stops and a long total time plus stopovers in China - which given what transpired with Covid-19 I'm glad I didn't do. Having decided flights into and out of Tokyo would be better, that meant I would be on Honshu at the beginning and end of the trip so, wanting to fit in as much as possible in what would probably literally be a trip of a lifetime, I added a few days in the mountains at the start and the flight schedule that gave me the best deal in terms of price and convenience resulted in three days at the end of the trip that remained unplanned but with half an idea in mind. So the long-haul flight tickets, another car, more internal flights and further hotel rooms were booked - the former of which meant I could no longer add any further time to the holiday!

As mentioned, I had a lot of help from Birdforum members so many thanks to: kb57 for all the useful information and the time you put in ; kittykat23uk (Jo) for the trip report and Take-san's contact details; birdboybowley for reminding me about his great trip report - sorry Adam for 'borrowing' large sections of your itinerary; amears - Andy, for pointing me towards Julian Hough's report and the other useful information; MKinHK - Mike thanks for putting me on to the Kantori facebook group.

I used Helm "Birds of Japan" (Brazil) for ID, "A Birdwatcher's Guide to Japan" (Brazil) as a site guide and the Michelin Map (802) for planning.

I downloaded the relevant Google Maps to allow me to use them off-line.

Flights were booked through Expedia, Kiwi or Kayak; cars through Rentalcars; and accommodation (except for Take-san's help) through Trivago.
Looking forward to this immensely Pete! Japan is a fascinating place I visited many years ago, long before I got into birding, I would dearly love to return some day!

Thanks Chris, you may have to be a bit patient though as, as is usual, catching up with real life is getting in the way a bit at the moment.
Thursday 13th February:

A late morning flight allowed a mate to give me a lift the short distance to Heathrow at a civilised time for my Air France hop over to Paris followed by a couple of hours in CDG before continuing with Air France on an overnighter.

Friday 14th February:

Landed at Haneda around mid-day and after bag collection the adventure began. First stop was the information desk at the station where the very helpful young lady not only told me how to get to my intended destination but sold me a through ticket for the whole journey. So first the monorail into the city, changing at Hamamatsutcho onto the Yamanote line for Tokyo station. First birds of the trip from the train were almost predictably Feral Pigeon over the city and Mallard on a couple of the rivers crossed. Given the time of day this journey started off fairly quietly but the main station was packed and appeared stereotypically to be organised chaos. After trying my incredibly basic Japanese on a member of staff on the platform I was assured that the approaching train on the Hokuriko line was the shinkansen for me and, after the cleaning crew had done their bit, I was on board in some welcome calm and dead on time set off, passing smoothly through the seemingly endless suburbs, then some scattered farmland and suddenly, via some tunnels, into the mountains. The only birds noted were some unidentified Corvids.

My first bullet train experience ended at Karuizawa where, despite getting clear directions from the information office, I made a bit of a meal of finding the Nissan Rent a Car site. Once there though the service was excellent (when I asked if the sat nav had been set to English the pleasant young lady offered to put in my hotel's address) and I was soon setting off in my Nissan Note and a few minutes later arrived at my accommodation for the next three nights.

After checking in and dumping my bags in the room there was still some daylight left so I set off to Yacho no Mori partly to recce for the morning but also as a wind down after a hectic day. Slightly worried by the information sign near the entrance warning about bears if there early morning or late evening I nevertheless set off up the trail through the forest. The only bird I saw was a Eurasian Wren of the very dark fumigatus sub-species. As dusk descended I thought it wise to leave the forest and rapidly returned to the car and then back to the hotel. As I tend to choose budget hotels there was no kitchen so armed with information from reception found a local restaurant for my first authentic Japanese meal - and very nice it was too - before eventually giving in to sleep after a long journey.

This is my first journey with the ability to take some snaps as I have at last joined most of the rest of the world and am the owner of a smartphone so I have hopefully added a couple of pictures. Please indulge me on the content and quality:
1. Shinkansen after depositing me at Karuizawa;
2. Sunset over the Japanese Alps from Yacho no Mori.


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Looking forward to the next instalment - your description of the monorail from Haneda to Hamamatsutcho brings back memories, passing over those heavily urbanised little channels near Tokyo Bay...
I was in Japan at much the same time albeit on an organised birding jaunt (it was fabulous!). I loved the place & its birds so would dearly like to return in the summer months but finances being what they are I doubt I could afford a professionally lead trip for a few years. Hence I'll be very interested in hearing how you found it.
Thanks for the comments Chris & kb57. I'll get the next day done soonish.

John, as a solo traveler, who finds interactions with strangers in a foreign language very stressful, I found being in Japan independently very doable (although at times perhaps just a little bit wearing) and all the people I encountered could not have been more helpful.
I too am something of an anxious traveler particularly when alone. However, despite being in a group that included a translater, I formed the opinion that whatever difficulties might arise from the unfamiliar circumstances (particularly that impenetrable Japanese script) was mitigated almost by the desire of the Japanese people we met to go that extra mile and to help. Courtesy and politeness was the default position of everyone we had dealings with.
Saturday 15th February:

First proper day's birding in Japan on the cards today so despite not really having caught up with sleep after the last couple of days I was up early to be at Yacho no Mori at first light. I parked up near the Picchio Visitor Centre and walked up stream seeing Japanese Tits almost immediately in the parkland trees and a Dusky Thrush poking around in a windblown leaf pile by one of the buildings. I cut through by the ice-skating site and had a Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker fly into the lone tree on the small islet in the middle of the frozen pond.

I then entered the forest where I had parked yesterday evening and tried in vain to ignore the bear warning sign wondering how I was to make enough noise so as not to surprise one whilst stealthily stalking the hoped for pheasants! All was quiet at first and as I passed a small tour group coming downhill the guide said the same. But soon almost all thoughts of bears evaporated as the bird activity began to increase. Just in the short walk uphill to the path junction before a small clearing I had seen some familiar woodland birds: Great Spotted Woodpecker, numerous Willow Tit, Coal Tit, Long-tailed Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch & Eurasian Treecreeper.

On reaching the small open area there were more of the same, especially Long-tailed & Willow Tits plus a pair of Pygmy Woodpecker but a short song from the top of a shrub caught my attention and there was a very showy Meadow Bunting. There seemed to be birds everywhere as I made my way slowly up the side of the clearing but the highlight was a fine pair of Long-tailed Rosefinch just short of the Akagera Rest House. After a break in the shelter I carried on up to the road at Tsurudamari seeing more of the same, incluidng another Meadow Bunting, but on the way back getting a brief view of a single Varied Tit in a mixed flock then first hearing and then tracking down a Japanese Green Woodpecker for some very good views. Back at the path junction I took the route down the river valley but the activity had slackened a bit and the next new species was a Brown Dipper flushed from the stream but it perched up and showed nicely on one of the concrete weirs.

Once at the Kose-rindo forest road I decided to leave the sanctuary and bird up and down the track for a while which proved a good move. First up was a noisy group of Japanese Jay (japonicus) in the tall trees by the river and whilst at the same spot I saw a female-type Red-flanked Bluetail on the steep bank on the other side of the track. When it disappeared behind the root-plate of an uprooted tree I scanned along the slope on the other side of the fallen stem and lucked in to a nice pair of Grey-bellied Bullfinch. Turning round and heading back downhill I was about to go back into the forest when a movement in the canopy of the roadside trees caught my eye and first one then a small flock of half-a-dozen Japanese Waxwing materialized in a couple of clumps of mistletoe.

I then did a return circuit of the paths through Yacho no Mori seeing a few of the species already seen. So back at the main entry point I wandered down the road and over the bridge towards Hoshino Onsen. Just upstream from the crossing a splash of colour on the branches of a tree fallen across the water resolved in to a fine male Daurian Redstart. Further along the road a flock of Oriental Greenfinch settled in the tops of a line of trees just inside the Onsen grounds. The gardens of the small properties near the end of the road provided the first sound and sight of what were to become the ever-present soundtrack of the trip - Brown-eared Bulbul.

Backtracking around the reserve tracks again did not produce anything else new (as if I hadn't had enough new species for the day!) although pleasingly the Rosefinch pair were in the clearing again as I passed. It was getting dark as I got back to the Visitor Centre area so I ate in one of the restaurants on Harunire Terrace before returning to the car. The first drama of the day was then when I went to leave the car park and after putting the ticket I picked up in the morning in the machine found that it only accepted 1,000yen notes and I didn't have enough of this denomination -of course by this time a car had pulled up behind me so a few hand-signals were needed so I could back out of the way. After getting a larger note changed in the cafe I tried to leave again but couldn't find my ticket! It turned out the machine had taken it in but then ejected it again on the floor so after having to get out of the way again and luckily a helpful local finding it on the ground, I had a third attempt at leaving and this time managed to exit the car park feeling like a bit of an idiot. A slightly embarrassing way to end a great day.

1. For some reason I was fascinated by the horizontal traffic lights!
2. Low Flying Squirrel Warning Sign!


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And there I was thinking I was being original!

Sorry Adam, not only stole parts of your itinerary but gripped you off on the first real day's birding! What were the three? You'll get your own back by the way!
Been looking forward to your report for a while Pete - a cracking first day!

The Yachi no Mori woodland can be pretty empty, so a fine return.

I love the fact in Japan you can almost feel you're at home watching familiar woodland birds, albeit visibly different subspecies, then something like a brown-eared bulbul pops up! Seriously envious of your Japanese waxwings...
I love the fact in Japan you can almost feel you're at home watching familiar woodland birds, albeit visibly different subspecies, then something like a brown-eared bulbul pops up! Seriously envious of your Japanese waxwings...

Agree with this (and am also envious of the Waxwings). Japan is similar enough to Britain to be quite relateable but also has the bonus of lots of different and charismatic birds. It's a very enjoyable country to go birding in.
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