Erik is a wonderful guide with great birding skills and the ability to help everyone possible see the bird. He is funny and has a pleasant manner to everyone at all times.
The island chain making up the country of Japan is undoubtedly a must-visit destination for the keen birder, and this exploration takes in the very best of what Japan has to offer.
Stretching for over 3,000 kilometres (1,860 miles), ‘The Land of the Rising Sun’ is host to a variety of habitats. On the beautiful, northerly island of Hokkaido, with its fields of snow, frozen lakes and rugged seacoasts, we hope to marvel at the impressive Blakiston’s Fish Owl, magnificent Steller’s Sea Eagles and elegant Red-crowned (Japanese) Cranes. In addition, the coasts here are home to numerous species of sea-ducks, Loons and Auks, and we will also keep an eye out for wintering passerines, including the beautiful Asian Rosy Finch.
The forests inland from Tokyo harbour the spectacular, endemic Copper and Japanese Green Pheasants, Japanese Accentor, Japanese Grosbeak and Japanese Green Woodpecker, while the hot springs at Nagano are famous for their ‘Snow Monkeys’. The extensive rivers and lakes on the Sea of Japan side of Honshu teem with waterfowl that include the immaculate Smew, Falcated Duck, Baikal Teal, Tundra and Taiga Bean Goose and the rare Long-billed Plover.
The island of Kyushu plays host to one of the greatest avian spectacles on earth, with thousands of Hooded and White-naped Cranes spending the winter here along with other specialties like Brown-cheeked Rail, Chinese Penduline Tit, Saunders’s Gull and the superb Mandarin Duck. On the eastern side of the island, we will attempt to locate the near-endemic Grey Bunting and the endangered Japanese Murrelet among many other exciting and memorable species. We invite you to join us on our unforgettable exploration of this Asian winter wonderland!
Blakiston’s Fish Owl, Ural Owl, Steller’s and White-tailed Sea Eagles, Red-crowned, Hooded and White-naped Cranes, Baikal Teal, Falcated and Mandarin Ducks, Smew, Copper and Japanese Green Pheasants, Red-faced Cormorant, Brown-cheeked Rail, Long-billed Plover, Saunders’s Gull, up to 9 species of auk including Least Auklet, Japanese Murrelet and Spectacled Guillemot, White-bellied Green and Japanese Wood Pigeons, Japanese Green, Japanese Pygmy and White-backed Woodpeckers, Chinese Penduline Tit, White’s Thrush, Japanese Accentor, Japanese Grosbeak, Grey Bunting, Asian Rosy Finch and Long-tailed Rosefinch
Japanese Macaque (Snow Monkeys), Japanese Serow, Sika Deer, Spotted Seal, Red Fox, Japanese Squirrel, Japanese Marten
temperate broad-leaved and coniferous forest, frozen lakes, coastline, wetlands and grasslands
mild to very cold
moderate pace, undemanding walks
Day 1: Arrival in Tokyo
Today is essentially set aside as an arrival day, you are welcome to arrive at any time today and we will meet in the early evening for a delicious introductory dinner at a restaurant close to our accommodation.
Day 2: Tokyo to Fukuoka and drive to Arasaki via Yatsushiro
Depending on our flight times, we may have time to embark on some introductory birding in the greater Tokyo area. Birding around the many canals, drainage ditches and parks that are dotted around the city can be extremely productive indeed and makes for the perfect introduction to Japanese birding. Two of the country’s very scarce and elusive target species are sometimes easiest to find in Tokyo and these are the Brown-headed and White’s Thrushes and we will target these species this morning. We are also likely to encounter a number of common and widespread waterfowl species, as well as Brown-eared Bulbul, Dusky Thrush and Japanese White-eye.
We then transfer through to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to connect with our domestic flight to Fukuoka, a large city situated on the northern coast of the island of Kyushu. From here, we will drive south towards Arasaki, stopping along the way at a large area of sandbanks and mudflats in an attempt to locate the scarce Saunder’s Gull, which can usually be found here in small numbers. In fact, the area is an excellent site for a number of different species of gulls and we are also likely to see Black-headed, Black-tailed, Vega and Mew Gulls. Lesser Black-backed (this race sometimes split as Heuglin’s), Slaty-backed and Pallas’s Gulls are occasionally seen here and we also stand a good chance of finding a number of other interesting species such as the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill, Kentish Plover, Eurasian Curlew, Western Osprey, Great Cormorant and Common Shelduck. In the late afternoon we continue the drive south, arriving at our hotel in Arasaki in the early evening.
Days 3 & 4: Arasaki and surrounds
We have two full days of our Japan birding tour to explore the area around Arasaki. Our main focus here will be the fallow fields and rice paddies where thousands of Hooded and White-naped Cranes congregate and feed during the winter months. During good years, it is not unusual to count over 10,000 Hooded and 3,000 White-naped Cranes here, and they are usually joined by very small numbers of Sandhill and Common Cranes. Both Demoiselle and Siberian Cranes have been recorded here on several occasions over the past but are vagrants to the area and we’d be immensely fortunate to see either of these two species. However, the immense numbers of Hooded and White-naped Cranes undoubtedly makes for one of the most spectacular avian gatherings on earth!
Although Arasaki is understandably most famous for this spectacle, the diversity of habitats in the area also makes it one of the richest places for winter birding in Japan. The reedbeds fringing the rivers often harbour Chinese Penduline Tit, Common Reed Bunting and Brown-cheeked Rail, while Japanese Quail can sometimes be found amongst the rice fields. The rivers themselves hold Crested Kingfisher and the highly desirable Long-billed Plover, while in the more wooded areas; we should find the handsome Daurian Redstart, Japanese White-eye, Bull-headed Shrike, White-cheeked Starling, fair numbers of Dusky and Pale Thrushes and with luck, the rare Brown-headed Thrush. Huge flocks of Rook dominate the gaps in the fields between the cranes and careful scanning usually reveals a few Daurian Jackdaws amongst them. Areas of thickets and scrub are home to several species of bunting that include Black-faced, Meadow, Chestnut-eared and Rustic Buntings, while a number of waterfowl can be seen in the rivers and ponds throughout the area along with occasional flocks of Black-faced and Eurasian Spoonbills. Other grassland species we’ll be on the lookout for while driving around the agricultural lands include Eastern Marsh and Hen Harriers, Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Skylark (the subspecies occurring here sometimes split as Japanese Skylark) and Buff-bellied Pipit. If we are very lucky we may even encounter some of Arasaki’s rare but generally annual visitors like Merlin, Northern Goshawk, Short-eared Owl and Red-billed Starling. Some of the other interesting and noteworthy species we may encounter during our time in the area include Japanese Bush Warbler, Green Sandpiper, Ruddy-breasted Crake, Eastern Buzzard, House Swift, Russet Sparrow, Asian House Martin and Grey Wagtail. If time allows, we’ll also venture out to a nearby wooded lake in the Sendai area where we will look for Mandarin Duck, the scarce and nomadic White-bellied Green Pigeon and the secretive Grey Bunting.
Day 5: Arasaki to Lake Mi-ike
After a final morning in the Arasaki area, we will drive east into the highlands of Kyushu towards Lake Mi-ike. En route we may visit the Sendai River where previous trips have found the very rare and irregular Scaly-sided Merganser. The river also often harbours Mandarin Duck, Crested Kingfisher and Brown Dipper, while the adjacent forest-edge sometimes turns up White-bellied Green Pigeon and Brown-headed Thrush.
We can expect to arrive at Lake Mi-ike in the mid to late afternoon with a few hours to do some initial explorations and birding in the tall woodland that surrounds the lake. Here we may find Varied, Japanese and Long-tailed Tits, Daurian Redstart and the striking Yellow-throated Bunting before heading down to our wonderful accommodation near the lake.
Day 6: Day trip to Hyuga, boat trip and Myazaki
This morning on our Japan birding tour, we embark on a day trip to Hyuga, a coastal town situated on the north-east coast. Our prime reason for this journey is to search for the localised, endemic Japanese Murrelet. At Hyuga Harbour we board a boat that will take us around the harbour and the bay in search of the Murrelet and our chances of seeing this Japanese specialty is excellent. Other species that we are likely to see during this outing include Black-tailed, Vega and Mew Gulls and Great and Japanese Cormorants. If we do not find the Murrelet on the boat trip, we will scan out to sea from a nearby headland where previous trips have produced scope views of this sought-after species from the shore. We will also keep a lookout for the scarce Japanese Wood Pigeon that is sometimes present in the forest that lines the trail to the viewpoint.
Depending on how much time we still have available, we might also call in at an estuary in the Myazaki area. Here we may encounter several species of wader on the mudflats that could include Lesser Sand Plover and we may also find Black-faced and Eurasian Spoonbills. In the late afternoon we will then make our way back to our accommodation near Lake Mi-ike for our final night’s stay on Kyushu.
Day 7: Mi-ike to Myazaki and flight to Tokyo, transfer to Karuizawa
This morning we will have time for some final birding around Lake Mi-ike to search for any species we may not have encountered there on our first afternoon in the area or may simply wish to enjoy seeing again and these include Ryukyu Minivet (here near the northern limit of its range), White-backed Woodpecker, Japanese Grosbeak, Yellow-throated and Grey Buntings, Eurasian Nuthatch, White’s Thrush, Red-flanked Bluetail, Olive-backed Pipit, Daurian Redstart, Forest Wagtail and the introduced – but highly attractive Red-billed Leiothrix.
In the mid-morning we will then begin the drive to Myazaki from where we will catch our flight back to Tokyo. After arrival in Tokyo, we will begin the drive to Karuizawa, situated in the scenically beautiful, forested highlands of central Honshu. We should arrive in the late afternoon and will have some time to settle into our comfortable Japanese style hotel, located just a few hundred meters from the prime birding area! Not only is our hotel located on the doorstep of this excellent forest, but we should also be able to enjoy some easy, relaxing birding around the hotel’s bird feeders after what will have been a long day’s travel.
Days 8 & 9: Karuizawa area
We have two full days of our Japan birding tour to explore the forests and streams around Karuizawa. Our main target here will be the stunning but elusive Copper Pheasant, which is endemic to Japan’s Honshu and Kyushu Islands. The area around Karuizawa supports a rather healthy population of the species, yet due to its furtive habits, we may have to work hard and be patient to see this special endemic! This area also supports a wealth of other interesting and sought-after species, partly due to the fact that the local residents have attempted to maintain an environment attractive to birds, as well as introducing building restrictions to maximise their available habitat. While walking in the area, we should see fair numbers of Varied, Long-tailed, Japanese, Willow and Coal Tits, Brown-eared Bulbul, the eye-catching and distinctive japonicus subspecies of Eurasian Jay and Great Spotted and Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers. We will also search for the uncommon Japanese Green Woodpecker, Long-tailed Rosefinch, Japanese Accentor and Japanese Grosbeak and will keep our eyes peeled for any of the rarer and more erratic winter visitors like Japanese and Bohemian Waxwings and White’s Thrush. We also have a chance of finding the reticent Japanese Serow, a kind of forest-dwelling even-toed ungulate.
We will also journey out to the nearby Toden area one afternoon where we are likely to find the attractive Smew, as well as large numbers of other more common and widespread waterfowl such as Great Crested and Little Grebes, Eurasian Wigeon, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Teal, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck and Common Merganser. Baikal Teal is sometimes seen here too and we will scan the neighbouring river for Japanese Wagtail and the scarce Long-billed Plover. The surrounding scrub and reedbeds may yield Black-faced, Meadow and Rustic Buntings, Long-tailed Rosefinch and Dusky Thrush, as well as the gorgeous Japanese Green Pheasant.
Day 10: Karuizawa to Nagano
We have another morning in the Karuizawa area to look for any of the area’s target species that we may have missed, before heading further west towards Nagano. The area is most well-known for its resident population of Japanese Macaque, also known endearingly as ‘Snow Monkeys’. Watching troops of these monkeys playing in the snow, squabbling over food scraps or even bathing in their own ‘hot-tub’, will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of our Japan birding tour! In the surrounding coniferous forests, we are likely to encounter several species of passerine such as Eurasian Treecreeper, Goldcrest, Long-tailed, Varied, Coal and Japanese Tits and Eurasian Jay. After enjoying the Snow Monkey spectacle, we will head to our nearby hotel in the late afternoon for an overnight stay.
Day 11: Nagano to Kaga
This morning on our Japan birding tour, after breakfast, we leave Nagano and continue the drive west towards the Komatsu region on the western (Sea of Japan) coast of Honshu for a two-night stay.
This afternoon we’ll visit a large lake near the town of Kanazawa that always harbours an impressive array of waterfowl during the winter months and we are likely to encounter Smew and Falcated Duck, and if we are lucky perhaps a couple of Baikal Teal amongst the masses of other more common and widespread species. The lake edge may reveal Bull-headed Shrike and Japanese Green Pheasant and in the late afternoon we will arrive at our accommodation in the Kaga area.
Day 12: Kaga and Komatsu areas
The area around Kaga, in particular the Katano Kamo-ike Wetland Reserve, hosts staggering numbers of waterfowl in winter. We will work patiently through the vast flocks and are likely to be rewarded with good, scope views of Baikal Teal, sometimes in their hundreds! Taiga and Tundra Bean Geese are also usually present, along with a few Falcated and Mandarin Ducks and Smew. The majority of the waterfowl will however consist of Eastern Spot-billed and Tufted Ducks, Northern Shoveler, Eurasian Wigeon and Mallard. Venturing out towards the fields close to the Komatsu Airport usually produces large numbers of Tundra Swan, mostly comprising the bewickii subspecies (Bewick’s Swan) but occasionally supporting a few of the columbianus subspecies (Whistling Swan). Small to large flocks of White-fronted Geese are also usually present and vigilant searching may even turn up a vagrant Lesser White-fronted Goose. Eastern Marsh and Hen Harriers are sometimes seen quartering low over the grasslands. The stubble fields are also usually home to a flock or two of Grey-headed Lapwing and there is even a slim chance of flushing a Japanese Quail here in the agricultural lands.
We will also take some time to visit the coast itself, where we hope to find Pacific Reef Heron, Black-tailed and Vega Gulls, Japanese Cormorant, one or two species of Loon/Diver and Blue Rock Thrush.
Day 13: Kaga to Kushiro (Hokkaido)
This morning on our Japan bird holiday, we depart the Kaga area and make our way to Komatsu Airport from where we connect with our domestic flight to Kushiro Airport, on the outskirts of Kushiro city, on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. After arriving on this beautiful island, we will drive to our hotel in downtown Kushiro, where we will overnight. We are likely to arrive at our comfortable overnight hotel in the early evening.
Day 14: Kushiro to Rausu
This morning, we will embark on the short drive to a nearby river where we are likely to encounter close to a hundred Red-crowned (Japanese) Cranes mingling about at the icy, river-edge, the condensation puffing out from their beaks while they bugle away before heading off to their feeding grounds nearby. After absorbing this awe-inspiring spectacle we will head off to the nearby crane feeding area where we are again likely to see several dozen of these handsome and stately cranes feeding, dancing, calling, neck-stooping and wing-mantling in the snow covered fields. This is certainly birding in Japan in winter at its best! These elegant and iconic birds are paired-off and patchily distributed throughout the island’s difficult-to-access wetlands during the summer months, but in winter they congregate in fairly large flocks at a few sites at the edge of the marshlands just north of Kushiro. As we marvel at this spectacle, it will become extremely clear why we ventured to this remote and frigid corner of Japan!
After enjoying the cranes, we will make our way north towards the east coast and the town of Rausu, situated on the Shiretoko Peninsula. We should have time this afternoon to make a short detour along the Notsuke Hanto Peninsula where we will make several stops along the road where we have good visibility out to sea. Scanning out across the open, icy waters we are likely to encounter our first Black and White-winged (Stejneger’s) Scoters, the immaculate Harlequin and Long-tailed Ducks, Spectacled Guillemot, Ancient Murrelet, Red-necked Grebe and Slaty-backed, Glaucous and Glaucous-winged Gulls. In the late afternoon we will depart Notsuke Hanto and drive the final stretch of road to the small, peaceful village of Rausu where we are based at a delightful, cosy hotel for the next two nights of our bird holiday.
This area of eastern Hokkaido is home to a few pairs of the very impressive Blakiston’s Fish Owl. It may require us staying up all night but we certainly have an excellent chance of seeing this spectacular bird during our stay in the area. Staring into the giant eyes of this nocturnal beauty, the largest owl on Earth must rank as one of the world’s great birding experiences!
Day 15: Rausu and surrounds
We have the entire day to explore the surroundings of Rausu and the nearby Notsuke Hanto Peninsula. The partly frozen ocean just offshore is likely to hold good numbers of regal Steller’s and White-tailed Sea Eagles sitting out on the pack-ice, as well as several species of gull that includes Glaucous, Slaty-backed, Mew, Vega and Glaucous-winged Gulls. The Rausu Harbour can also be extremely productive during January and February when several species of Auk shelter in these calm waters and past trips have produced Least and Crested Auklets, Common and Thick-billed Murres, Spectacled Guillemot and Ancient Murrelet. A scan out to sea should be productive, both around Rausu and off Notsuke Hanto, with this area being especially fruitful for waterfowl and loons/divers. Here we may find Red-throated, Black-throated and Pacific Loons (Divers), Long-tailed and Harlequin Ducks, Common Goldeneye, Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, White-winged and Black Scoters, Red-necked and Horned Grebes, Spectacled Guillemot, Ancient Murrelet and Rhinoceros Auklet. Small, icy streams just inland from the coast may yield the captivating Brown Dipper and the scarce but impressive Crested Kingfisher, while the snow-covered meadows and forested hillsides are likely to produce herds of Sika Deer and the occasional Red Fox. The patches of open ground and grass tufts along the Notsuke Hanto Peninsula occasionally support several species of seedeater such as Common Redpoll, Eurasian Siskin, Grey-capped Greenfinch, and more sporadically Snow Bunting and Asian Rosy Finch. Tonight we will have a second opportunity to look for the regal Blakiston’s Fish Owl should we have missed it the night before.
Day 16: Rausu to Nemuro and pelagic outing
Driving from our hotel in Rausu, we will follow the coast south towards the frozen Lake Furen. On our way, we should see Large-billed and Carrion Crows and the elegant Whooper Swan, while we’ll also keep an eye and ear out for the massive Northern Raven, here at its northern-most range in Japan. We are also likely to encounter more White-tailed Steller’s Sea Eagles. These magnificent raptors can be seen dotted around on the frozen lake and are also often seen flapping heavily as they move from one feeding area to another.
This afternoon we will depart on a short pelagic trip offshore from Nemuro, where we could expect some of the best sea-watching of the tour. Large numbers of sea-ducks, including Long-tailed and Harlequin Ducks, Common Goldeneye and White-winged and Black Scoters will compete for our attention with Red-throated Loon, Red-necked Grebe and Greater Scaup. We also stand a chance of finding the scarce and localised Red-faced Cormorant among the more common Pelagic Cormorant. Other specialities that we will look out for include Spectacled and Pigeon Guillemots, Thick-billed (Brunnich’s) and Common Murres (Guillemots), Rhinoceros and Least Auklets and Ancient Murrelet. If we are very fortunate we may even find a Crested Auklet or Long-billed Murrelet, both of which are annual but only occur in very small numbers.
After what should be a fantastic few hours of sea-birding we will make our way over to our accommodation in Nemuro. If we have time we can visit a nearby bird observatory where the feeders and surrounding trees often attract Eurasian Nuthatch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Marsh, Japanese and Long-tailed Tits, Hawfinch, Eurasian Bullfinch, Red Crossbill, Eurasian Treecreeper, Goldcrest, Common Redpoll and Grey-capped Greenfinch. We can expect to arrive at our comfortable hotel in Nemuro in the late afternoon.
Day 17: Lake Furen, Nemuro, Cape Nosappu and Kiritappu
We have a full day of our Japan birding tour to explore the headlands, forests and bays around Nemuro where we are certain to find a number of exciting species. Our main target species at Kiritappu will be the scarce and erratic Asian Rosy Finch that is usually present somewhere in the area during the winter months. Secluded bays in the area often harbour wintering Brant Goose, as well as the occasional Smew and Falcated Duck. The area is surrounded by beautiful, verdant coniferous forest but accessing these forests during the winter months can be challenging and sometimes impossible if there is too much snow and ice around. If conditions are favourable we will venture into the forest along a side-track where, if we are very fortunate, we may encounter the impressive Black Woodpecker and Hazel Grouse, a difficult species at the best of times, and especially challenging to see in winter. We also hope to hear about an active and reliable Ural Owl roosting site while we are in the area and we will also check several roost sites where we have previously seen this rare and beautiful owl.
Mammals are tough to find here, although we stand a chance of seeing Sika Deer, Harbour and Spotted (Largha) Seals and even the rarely-seen Sea Otter.
A trip to Cape Nosappu will hopefully produce the rare Red-faced Cormorant, of which there are usually a few birds hanging out with the abundant Pelagic Cormorants off the rocks at the point. A sea-watch here may also prove worthwhile and could produce any of the already-mentioned sea-ducks and Auks.
After a long but rewarding day in the field we can expect to return to our hotel in the early evening for our final night on Hokkaido.
Day 18: Nemuro to Kushiro, fly to Tokyo
This morning on our bird holiday, we begin our journey back to Kushiro from where we board our domestic flight back to Tokyo. Depending on the time of our flight, we may be able to stop in again at Cape Kiritappu should we still be missing any of the area’s specialties.
Day 19: Final departures from Tokyo or continue on the Southern Islands Extension
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end so that the next unforgettable birding adventure can begin, and this morning our grand tour of Japan will conclude after breakfast, with transfers to both Haneda and Narita International Airports as required. For those continuing on the Southern Islands Extension we will make our way over to Haneda Airport from where we connect with our internal flight to Amami-Oshima to begin our exciting extension of Japan’s Ryukyu Islands.