What to take When to go Health Travel Accommodation
See my other 'what to take' advice pages but the same goes for Japan. There is very little space on Japanese trains and the subway in the rush-hour is really packed. If you have a definite itinerary you may be able to send bulky luggage ahead.
We both have Opticron 10 x 42 binoculars - the 'High Resolution' and Sequoiah models. A telescope would have been handy for sea-watching in Hokkaido but at Furen-ko visitor centre, Oi Bird Reserve in Tokyo and several other Reserves there were numerous scopes set up in the hides.
'A field guide to the birds of Japan' by the Wild Bird Society of Japan should suffice although the plates aren't brilliant. A good guide to Western Palearctic birds such as 'Collins Bird Guide' by Svensson and Grant covers most species in North Japan.
The other essential is 'A birdwatchers guide to Japan' by Mark Brazil. Some of the descriptions are getting a little out of date but this is really vital if your time is limited. The numbers in the sites mentioned below refer to sites in this guide.
Our aim was to do a lot of sight-seeing as well as birding so we had to forgo such treats as dancing Cranes and Stellar's Sea-Eagles on ice-floes which are winter specialities. We timed our trip to see some of the summer migrants but to miss the summer rainy season and fog in Hokkaido. On reflection we should have been in Furen-ko the second week in June when the Locustella warblers arrive in numbers.
More detail on birdwatching in Tokyo
Ueno Park (#2) has an ornamental pond which has loads of wildfowl in winter and still a few species in May. Other parks and shrines such as Meji Jingu (#1) have woodland birds such as Varied Tit and Pygmy Woodpecker. Mandarin Ducks really eluded us and we only saw a pair at the National Centre for Nature Study. The top place was Oi Wild bird Park (#3) on Tokyo Bay. This is slowly being surrounded by industrial units as the bay is reclaimed but still had good numbers of waders.
Hakone (#22) is very similar to the English Lake District (apart from the steaming volcanic vents). Good numbers of woodland birds and we saw Green Pheasant and Meadow Bunting. Also Racoon Dog at Hakone Palace Gardens. Note - even in mid May the roads to Mt Fuji were closed which left us stuck at Gotemba so we missed on site #21
More detail on birdwatching in Hokkaido
This is the best place by far for birding. Honshu is extensively farmed but Hokkaido is still relatively wild and there seemed to be far more small birds here. We stayed with Matsuo-san at Furen-ko (#33) for a week and still didn't have enough time to see all the local sites. There are a number of forest trails round here worth exploring, as well as Shunkunitai island and Matsuo-san will suggest sites for Black Woodpecker, Hazel Grouse etc.
Other sites within driving distance of Furen-ko we went to include Shiretoko (#31) which was a long drive and very disappointing. The coast road from Rausu was very busy with construction trucks and there was a lot of 'improvement' of the cliff-face so very few birds. Matsuo-san thought even the vast numbers of Eagles in the winter had also declined there. Far better was Notsuke Hanto (#32) with good numbers of ducks - even the sea ducks seemed tame and close to shore. The south-eastern capes at Kiritappu (#34), Ochiishi (#35) and Nosappu (#36) were also quiet but I suspect we were too early for the nesting birds and too late for wintering auks.
No problems at all except if you are Vegetarian or don't like fish. In that case you would have to live on Pizza and chips because fruit and meat is very expensive. Eating places in Hokkaido are also a bit limited.
We flew Manchester - Frankfurt - Tokyo flying with Lufthansa. About 12 hours in the air and a long day ahead of you as you arrive at breakfast time.
From Tokyo we got the Odakyu train (3 day pass covers train, boats and cable car) to Hakone and the bullet-train to Kyoto then Hiroshima. Then we flew to Kushiro in Hokkaido. Internal flights are very expensive but you can get discounts by booking well ahead - like months in advance. A hire-car is vital in Hokkaido and we sorted this out fairly easily at Kushiro airport - even though no-one spoke English. An International Driving Licence is essential. Driving was very easy with quiet roads and the road signs are in English as well as Japanese. They drive on the left and the only real differences are the very low speed limits.
Book well ahead in Tokyo as budget accommodation is limited. We stayed at the Ryokan Katsutaro about 9000 yen for a double room per night plus 500 for breakfast. From there we booked ahead to other Ryokans in the Japanese Inn Group all around this price. In Hokkaido we stayed at the Drive Inn Tsuru just north of Kushiro airport which is right by the Crane sanctuary (open October to February). NB The telephone number has changed to (0154) 66 2331. At Furen-ko we stayed with Matsuo-san at the Minshuku Furen which is the brown house close to the bridge to Shunkuntai reserve. Very friendly and great meals
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