Okinawa Rail, one of our main targets, is much sought-after on the southern island. Photo: Susan Myers
Modern Japan, now one of the world’s largest economies, appears to many to be an overdeveloped, urbanised, and industrialised land clothed from north to south in factories, housing, and concrete. However, Japan is a very mountainous country with many inaccessible regions. The Japanese have a strong traditional affinity with nature that has figured prominently in their system of beliefs and culture. It’s true that in the last few decades the Japanese have promoted economic growth over preservation of the environment, but in the mountains and more remote areas of the archipelago many pristine forests, wetlands, and grasslands remain undisturbed. A growing enthusiasm among the Japanese for nature, and for bird watching in particular, has seen more and more efforts to conserve these valuable assets. Scratch the surface and the real Japan can still be found. Traditional values and practices survive in rural Japan, where the way of life remains one of tranquility and serenity. It is into this world that we’ll venture on this tour.
The isolation of the islands of Japan has enabled several endemic and near-endemic species to evolve, and we’ll endeavour to see many of them. We’ll begin in central Japan, then travel south through the subtropical islands of the Nansei Shoto, otherwise known as the Ryukyu Islands, before heading north again to Japan’s wild west, the northern island of Hokkaido. Along the way we’ll meet some very special birds, including Marsh Grassbird, Green Pheasant, Okinawa Rail, Amami Woodcock, and Red-crowned Crane to name but a few. We’ll also experience first-hand Japan’s unique culture and history, which is inextricably intertwined with its exceptional natural history. A spring journey in Japan is a fascinating and memorable experience.
Day 1: Participants should arrive in Tokyo no later than this evening. Night near Tokyo’s Narita Airport.
Day 2: We’ll make an early start with a morning visit to the marshes and reed beds of the Tone River, which is quite close to our hotel in Narita. This area is home to a wide variety of wetland birds and we should see Oriental and Black-browed Reed-warblers, while the localised Japanese Reed Bunting commonly breeds in the reed beds. If we’re lucky we’ll see our main target here, the restricted range Marsh Grassbird performing its distinctive display flight above the reeds; this is one of just a handful of locations for this rare and localised near endemic. After lunch we’ll drive inland to the historic town of Nikko. This afternoon we’ll visit the 400 year old Nikko Toshogu Shrine, arguably the most impressive of all Japan’s Shinto Shrines. It commemorates Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period and founder of a powerful dynasty that held power in Japan for over 250 years. This shrine and the Rinnoji and Futarasan Shrines are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Later, if we have time, we’ll also drop into the Tachiki Kannon Chuzenji temple, which is located near our accommodation tonight. This Buddhist temple houses various statues, ornaments, and treasures from as far back as the Kamakura and Heian periods. On the ceiling of one the main rooms is a painted dragon that protects visitors from harm and can also help find things that have been lost - maybe some birds we are looking for! This temple recently celebrated its 1250th anniversary. These shrines and temples are all surrounded by beautiful, old growth forests that are great for birding. Night at Nikko (Pension Chuzenji)
Day 3: This morning we’ll explore the nature trails of the Senjogahara Marshlands. The marshes and bordering woodlands are home to a great selection of Japan’s resident and summer migrants, and we’ll be on the lookout for some of the special birds like Japanese Green Woodpecker, Bull-headed Shrike, Varied Tit, the stunning Narcissus Flycatcher, Japanese Grosbeak and Chestnut-eared Bunting.
Later we’ll move on to the Tateshina area in the foothills of the Japanese Alps. Long famous for its beautiful, temperate woodlands, the area supports a rich selection of species in a relatively small area. The woods will be full of resident birds and returning summer visitors, many in full song. As we explore the tracks and trails through the deciduous and mixed woodland and along the fast-flowing streams, we may encounter Hodgson’s Hawk-Cuckoo, Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers, Brown Dipper, Japanese Thrush, Siberian Blue Robin, Siberian Stonechat, Blue-and-white Flycatcher, Eastern Crowned and Arctic Warblers, Dark-sided Flycatcher, Eurasian Bullfinch, and if we are lucky, the scarce and localised Japanese Yellow Bunting.
In the evening we can bathe in the mineral waters of the hot springs, a very popular activity among the Japanese. The waters are heated by natural volcanic activity and are a great way to relieve the stiffness resulting from a day in the field. We may also go out at dusk in search of Ural Owl, if there are recent reports. Night at Tateshina.
Day 4: After a final morning’s birding at Tateshina, we’ll drive to the iconic Mount Fuji just south of Tokyo. We’ll bird along the way and if we have time, we’ll explore the forests in the vicinity of our hotel. We should have time to drive up the Subaru Line, the road that climbs the flanks of this most beautiful of mountains. We’ll bird as we go, hoping to find some of our main targets here, not least of which is Japanese Accentor, but also including Red-flanked Bluetail, Japanese Green-Pigeon, Ashy Minivet, Japanese Robin, or the diminutive Asian Stubtail, among others. Night at Yamanaka-ko.
Day 5: This morning we’ll again go birding on the upper slopes of Mount Fuji and after lunch we’ll head to the coast to Kamakura. This coastal town, less
than an hour south of Tokyo, was Japan’s centre of power in the 12th century. Today it is a small, green city dotted with ancient temples and shrines. It is sometimes referred to as the Kyoto of Eastern Japan, and in some ways has more appeal due its much quieter atmosphere. Later, as we make our way back towards Tokyo, we’ll explore the coastline and various reserves for more birds including, with luck, Grey-headed Lapwing, Japanese Wagtail or Crested Kingfisher. Night in Haneda.
Day 6: We’ll fly farther south this morning to Naha, on the island of Okinawa, which lies at the southern end of the Japanese archipelago. Naha was the capital of the former kingdom of Ryukyu and was built around the king’s Shuri Castle. Sadly, large parts of the castle were lost to fire in 2019 but it is still a fascinating place to visit and reflect on this former kingdom that once held so much power, lying as it did at the crossroads with China and Japan. We may also visit the Shikinaen garden constructed in the 18th century as the second residence of the Ryukyu kings. It features beautiful, simple wooden palace buildings in the Okinawan style and a spacious Okinawan style landscape garden surrounding a central pond.
Okinawa is a large subtropical island, made infamous as the location of a major battle between American and Japanese forces in World War II. Large numbers of U.S. forces are still stationed in the southern part of the island, but the northern section, known as the Yanbaru, is covered in subtropical forest. We’ll travel northward to our lodging near the small town of Ada, our base for exploring the Yanbaru forest. Night at Kunigami.
Days 7-8: Okinawa holds a wide range of endemic and localised species, all of which occur in the Yanbaru area. It is here that the Okinawa Rail, discovered in 1981, and Okinawa Woodpecker occur. Rather easier to see here are Whistling Green-Pigeon, Pacific Swallow, Ryukyu Robin, Ryukyu Minivet, and a distinctive endemic subspecies of Varied Tit. Okinawa Rails have become increasingly common, perhaps due to an excellent program of mongoose control that has been implemented in recent years, so we’ll spend much of our birding time on the island in search of this charismatic species and other endemics. Other targets include the wonderful Japanese Paradise-Flycatcher and the gaudy Ruddy Kingfisher. In the evening, for those with interest, we will cruise the backroads for endemic reptiles and amphibians. Night at Kunigami.
Day 9: After a final morning’s birding we’ll drive back to Naha and take the short flight to Amami Oshima. Sometimes known as the Galapagos of the East, Amami Oshima supports extensive areas of lush, subtropical forest as well as a distinctive community of birds, mammals, and reptiles including a host of little-known and very localised species. The island is home to a handful of fabulous endemics including the beautiful Lidth’s Jay, a fairly common bird here, the secretive Amami Woodcock, and the much scarcer Amami Thrush. Other birds we may encounter include the surprisingly confiding Ryukyu Scops-Owl, the distinctive Ryukyu race of Brown Hawk-Owl, the delightful but skulking Ryukyu Robin, and the very distinctive and highly-splittable race of White-backed (Owsten’s) Woodpecker, in addition to the endemic Amami Black Rabbit and Amami Spiny Rat. In the evening we will do a night drive in search of the woodcock, the owls, as well as the unlikely Amami Black Rabbit and endemic frogs and snakes. Night at Amami Oshima.
Day 10: This morning we’ll visit an area of mud flats and coastal woodland where we should be able to find the localised Whistling Green-Pigeon in addition to a marvellous range of shorebirds, such as Grey-tailed Tattler, Red Knot, Oriental Pratincole, and Sanderling. At this time of year many may already be in breeding plumage. With luck we may also find the very rare Black-faced Spoonbill. Then we’ll make our way to the airport for our flight back to Tokyo. Night at Haneda.
Day 11: This morning we’ll travel by air to Kushiro, where we’ll pick up our vehicle and drive to nearby Onnenai in the Kushiro Marshlands National Park for some grassland and wetland birds, possibly including Siberian Rubythroat, Middendorff’s Grasshopper Warbler, Black-browed Reed Warbler, Common Reed Bunting, Long-tailed Rosefinch, Chestnut-cheeked Starling, Black-faced Bunting or the charismatic Latham’s Snipe. With luck we will see the snipe performing its remarkable display flight. Later we’ll drive inland to stay at one of the most charming lodges in all of Japan, which is really saying something! As we immerse ourselves in Japanese culture, we will be on the lookout for the Blakiston’s Fish Owl that regularly visits the stream that runs in front of the lodge. A well-stocked feeder just outside the lobby also attracts some great birds including Great Spotted and White-backed Woodpeckers, Hokkaido Jay, and Japanese, Marsh, Coal and Long-tailed Tits. Night at Yoroushi.
Day 12: Today we’ll visit the Lake Akan area where we’ll drive and walk the quiet forest roads in search of Black and Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Spotted Nutcracker, Red Crossbill, and with luck, Hazel Grouse. In the afternoon we will visit the wonderful Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples, which showcases the culture of the aboriginal people of the northern island, the Ainu. We’ll return again for another night in Yoroushi for hopefully another meeting with the Blakiston’s Fish Owl! Night at Yoroushi.
Day 13: After another amazing breakfast and some morning birding, we’ll make our way northwards to the Shiretoko Peninsula, stopping at several marshlands and grasslands for birding en route. One detour will be to the Notsuke Peninsula which is great for Lanceolated Warbler, Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler, and Eurasian and Oriental Cuckoos. This afternoon we’ll take a short cruise for whale-watching. Our chances of seeing Orcas is high and we will probably spot some more of the special seabirds that occur here. Harlequin Duck, Black Scoter, Red-throated and Pacific Divers, Pelagic Cormorants, Black-tailed Gull, Spectacled Guillemot, and Rhinoceros Auklet are all possible. Night in Rausu.
Day 14: Leaving Rausu, we’ll take a nature cruise from the small port of Ochiishi this morning hoping for a remarkable array of seabirds including Spectacled Guillemot, Pigeon Guillemot, Ancient Murrelet, Tufted Puffin, Horned Puffin, Common and Brunnich’s Guillemot, Rhinoceros Auklet, Short-tailed, Sooty, and Flesh-footed Shearwaters, Japanese, Pelagic and Red-faced Cormorants or even Black-footed or Laysan Albatross. Then we’ll make our way eastwards to the Nemuro Peninsula with several stops for Red-crowned Cranes, hopefully with chicks. We will also visit several hides in nature reserves or forest roads for Marsh Tit, White’s Thrush, Brown-headed Thrush, Eurasian Bullfinch, or Japanese Bush Warbler. Night in Nemuro.
Day 15: This morning we’ll make our way to Kushiro airport for our flight back to Tokyo, where the tour concludes upon arrival at Haneda airport.
Updated: 22 December 2020