Trip Report: Tokyo - Ogasawara (Bonin Islands) Passage, March 1-5, 1999
On the Slow Boat to Hahajima

Jim Hackett, Hong Kong;

The Ogasawara or Bonin Islands form the tip of a volcanic archipelago that arcs for about 1000km south of Tokyo Bay. Two of the islands (Chichijima and Hahajima) are inhabited, and are served irregularly by a venerable freighter, the Kyoshu Maru no. 28. Her empty weight is 313 tonnes, and when fully loaded she displaces 747 tonnes. She is 58 m by 10.3 m, and can cruise at 11-15 kt under the power of a single 2000 PS engine. We are loading now (March 1, 1999) on Tokyo docks. It is a motley cargo. Three light goods vehicles. Many pallets of bricks, and big bags of cement. Crates of packaged food and beer. Some 150 44gal drums of fuel, about 100 big cylinders of gas, and a large rock (for a garden?). The passenger manifest lists Hackett J and Hackett M. There are 9 crew. The loading takes from 11.00 to 14.00, and by 18.00 we are chugging out of the mouth of Tokyo Bay. Eleven souls in all, under the care of Captain Shigeki Tuda, bound for the Bonins over the waters of the Pacific.

We are invited to the bridge, and I am on station at dawn on March 2. Open sea now. There is a swell which gave us a fitful night. I tick Streaked Shearwater - fine views. Laysan and Black-footed Albatrosses are frequent. It is nearing noon, and I sense a course change. When I enquire of him later, Captain Tuda explains that he reprogrammed his autopilot to bring me close to my isle of dreams - what a fantastic man! Suddenly, I have a wrench in the gut. I can see a blob on the horizon. That's the island - the fabled Torishima! The next hour will be critical, and I go to red alert status. A half-hour creeps by, and the island grows larger. It is 14.00.

The bird must have been on the water in the path of the ship. It is suddenly there. It flies down the port side, wheels, and comes right around. Below, there is the finest of black margins to the all-white underwings. Above, the head is suffused with orange and carries a big pink bill. The outer upperwings are black. And the diagnostic feature is there. The tertiaries are BLACK against a white innerwing. While the upperbody is white, the tailtip is black. There are only about 600 in the world, and all but a few breed on Torishima in the northern winter (there are small numbers on the equally inaccessible Senkaku Is.). This is the Short-Tailed Albatross. I take a fix. Bearing 085 to the northern tip of Torishima. And range is 6 nm.

In the next while I have another adult, and a mostly dark immature (there are white patches on the bases of the upperwings). On the return trip there are 3 more birds within the 6 nm radius. I have an adult 20 nm N of Torishima, and a single immature, though with white below, 45 nm N. And a bonus. For the gadfly petrels flitting over the waves, with fast banking in the swell, have clear M marks on the upperparts, appear all-white below, do not have a noticeably dark cap, and have no white in the tail. Both coming and going I tick Pycroft's Petrel (3 birds in total) - presumably the forerunners of the migration from northern New Zealand.

Pre-dawn on March 3, and I am on the bridge as the day lightens. There are islets to starboard, and we are surrounded by hundreds of (light-phase) Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and Tristram's Storm-Petrels (another tick). The numbers gradually drop off as Chichijima looms. We dock at 10.00, and the crew offloads cargo all day. We wander the island. There are not supposed to be any birds of note, tho' I find the resident race of the Common Buzzard interesting. It is leucistic. From below, the most obvious feature is the black belly-patch. While the wingtips are margined black, the dark carpals are missing. From above, the bird is light brown with white splotches. A split of the future?

At 06.30 on March 4 we are off on the 2.5 h trip to Hahajima. The waters between the islands are rather birdless - I have a few more Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and 5 Sooty Terns, along with the 2 common albatross species. There is a surprise. For we have about 20 Humpback Whales, some of which blow near the ship, and one powers its 10 m bulk right out of the water beside us, corkscrews in the air, and thuds back into the sea. Fantastic. We dock at Hahajima at 09.00, and I am told we have 2.5 h on land. That should be enough. I trot off up the street. Bloody white-eyes everywhere. Time is passing slowly. It is 10.30 and we have an hour to go. I return, unsettled, to Maria, who is sitting on a seawall admiring the view. "Go up the street past the playground", she says, "it's birdy up there". I do so. More white-eyes. There is a Brown-eared Bulbul also. And one other bird. I focus, get a bad view, but sag with relief. That's it. I scamper round the tree and catch another bird. Brilliant view as it feeds quietly for 10 min. Yellow below, yellow above with grey cowl. Black frons and a neat black pattern on the face and ear-coverts. This is the endemic Bonin Islands Honeyeater, and the only bird of interest on Hahajima. We return, relaxed, to the Kyoshu Maru and go back to Chichijima.

March 5 is to be the crew's rest day on Chichijima (tho' they end up working - see below). We hire a motorbike to explore the island. It is raining, and the day is a bit of a trial. I drop Maria back at the dock where she is invited to work (laptop) in the company office (the ship is off for a few hours). She gets little done, what with constant chats, offers of coffee and soft drinks, photo viewing, and gifts of pencils and a tweeter with the meguro (the honeyeater, of which all the locals are very proud) pictured on the side. I get very wet and am returning grumpily to the office at 14.00 or so when I walk into an Event! The Ogasawara Maru (the fast ferry - see below) is leaving. A hundred or so people line the ship's side and half of Chichijima seems to have turned out for the farewell. Small boats escort the big ferry to the breakwaters. And all along the dock, "Auld Lang Syne" pours from speakers. In the shed there are 20 or so tearful 12-year-old girls; it is explained that their "classmates" (an exchange program?) have just left for Tokyo. Phlegmatic teachers pat random backs. Things settle down slowly.

The return trip is routine, and we are soon back in Hong Kong. We have 36 h at home before boarding our El Al flight to Israel. But that's another story.

I will give detailed gen, which is basically an amplification of what is in Brazil (1987). If you talk to a travel agent about a Bonin Islands trip the ferry Ogasawara Maru will be suggested. This is a fast comfortable boat but is useless for your purpose as it passes Torishima at night (on both the southward and northward trips). The Kyoshu Maru is slower. The round trip (Tokyo-Chichijima-Hahajima-Tokyo) took us 7 days, but see comment later on possible variations to this.

Booking your passage requires persistence and flexibility. Some months before you travel have a Japanese-speaking friend call Yoshizumi-san in Tokyo on 0335332671. He will tell you (a) that winter sailings are not scheduled until about a month before departures from Tokyo, and (b) that the schedules are subject to late changes. For example, our Feb. 27 departure suddenly changed to Mar. 1 on Feb. 25, for an unexplained reason. So you need to block in perhaps a month in Japan, and to give Yoshizumi-san numbers in Japan where he can leave a message in Japanese to advise you of late scheduling changes. Yoshizumi-san's English seems fine to me but he will not use it on the phone. Yoshizumi-san's card gives a fax no. 0335332672, but I suspect English faxes will be ignored. I have no English name for the company that operates the ship.

When it is time to meet the Kyoshu Maru, (our departure was 11.00 on March 1, 1999) catch the Tokyo subway (JR or other line) to Tokyo station, and take the Maranouchi South exit. Go to bus stop no. 2 outside and board bus no. 4 which will show Toyomesuisanfuto. The fare is 200 yen for any distance. Count the stops and get off at the tenth stop, which is beside a large police station. Walk a short distance after your departing bus, and the sky-blue Kyosho Maru is docked on the R. It is likely that the dock will be heaving with cargo, and Yoshizumi-san is the man with the clipboard in charge of loading. He will take you to the office where the one-way Tokyo-Chichijima fare of 18,000 yen per person is paid (cash). It is now essential that you buy beer (assuming that you have not lugged a slab around the Tokyo subway), as the Kyoshu Maru is dry! There is no objection to passengers bringing grog on board. Yoshizumi-san will direct you to a nearby beer shop - it also has food if you want to stock up (see below).

The Kyoshu Maru has 2 guest cabins, each of which can sleep 4 in 2 bunks. We were the only passengers going S; 3 men came back N from Chichijima. The cabins are pleasant, tho' there is nowhere to sit. The ship is (over)heated - there is a valve in the ceiling of the cabin which controls the hot air inflow. There are also 2 windows which may be opened, tho' we closed them when the ship was underway. It is thus possible to keep the cabin reasonably cool. There is a small fridge, a TV, and a video (no tapes provided). Linen, blankets, and pillows are all there. There is a shower (not en suite) which is to be used only with the captain's permission (this was given when we were docked - I think he fears injury to passengers should the ship be at sea). The loo is an east-meets-west hybrid - while the bowl is Asian it is raised 30cm or so; sitting (as opposed to squatting) is thus possible. The crew are delightful.

Our tickets included simple but adequate food but only while we were at sea. Bring some sandwich makings, and be prepared to stock up again, and to eat out, when docked at Chichijima. There are several simple but very relaxing eateries on the streets back from the main drag. Both the Green Pepe and a nearby sushi restaurant are delightfully friendly.

As mentioned, Captain Tuda altered course to bring me to within 6 nm of Torishima - the normal nearest approach is apparently 14 nm. I didn't request this kindness, nor was it ever mentioned as part of the plan. You may care to check with Yoshizumi-san that the captain plans to do this for you. As you will note (see log of sightings in text above), the close pass is important (6/8 birds were close to the island).

Avoid fixed travel bookings (such as international flights) for at least 10 days after the ship leaves Tokyo. On the crew's planned rest day in Chichijima, they were pressed into service to move some skeletal concrete structures to a nearby island, and then took most of the following day off instead. So we were some hours late into Tokyo. On the trip before ours, the ship was 2 days late in returning (weather?, loading delay?).

Recall that you have paid only the one-way fare in Tokyo. If you are returning with the Kyosho Maru you will pay the same again, and a small charge for the Chichijima-Hahajima trip, in Chichijima. If you got the Short-Tailed on the way down, it may be desirable/possible to return on the Ogasawara Maru. I presume you can just walk across to this ship if she is in Chichijima docks, and book on. A comfortable 24h return trip to Tokyo would follow. The super-organized may care to call the Ogasawara Maru people on 0334515171 to try to dovetail the 2 ships; I suspect this will be difficult with the Kyoshu Maru being unpredictable and the Ogasawara Maru operating on a non-daily basis.

I will mention a few (to me surprising) dips. I did not get the Bonin Islands Petrel, which breeds in the interval Nov.-Feb. (Harrison, 1983), although Brazil (1987) does say that it is to be expected only in "summer". Brazil (1987) observes that Bulwer's Petrel may be had "all year", though Harrison (1983) would not expect it in winter, as it returns to its breeding grounds only in Apr.-May. Matsudaira's Storm-Petrel should be present Jan.-June (Harrison, 1983), but Brazil (1987) notes it as a summer (only) bird. I can only note that I had none of these in March, and not through want of sea-watching.

Your other birding in Japan will have to fit around the Kyoshu Maru trip. The book by Brazil (1987) is a superb guide to sites and logistics, although it is now obviously very much out-of-date. Briefly, Hokkaido in winter is brilliant (tho' very cold) and is accessible by regular ferry from Tokyo. Carhire is easy, roads and signs are excellent, and the minshuku (guesthouse) of the Takada family near Nemuro is justly famous for birding and hospitality. Okinawa and Amami Oshima (in the southwestern isles - the Nansei Shoto - are accessible by plane and have special birds (tho' I dipped on both Pryer's Woodpecker and the Okinawa Rail in winter 1998 - I recommend a spring trip for these). For 2-3d trips from Tokyo I strongly recomend Karuizawa, which will give you many of the commoner Japanese specialities, and possibly Kyoto, where Kaizu-Ozaki Point on the northern shore of nearby Lake Biwa held a Scaly-sided Merganser in winter 1999 - I think this is not guaranteed annually. Kyoto also seems to have an excess of temples etc. if these appeal. Both places are easily accessible by shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo. Miyakejima (an island 160km S of Tokyo, accessible by daily ferry) gave me the Izu Islands Thrush and the Japanese Murrelet (take a small boat to its breeding islets of Sanbondake) in March 1999, tho' I was too early for Ijima's Willow Warbler and Japanese Night Heron. For daytrips from Tokyo, Futagoyama gave me Japanese Gray Bunting in the winter of 1998, while Nikko had Bohemian Waxwings in the winter of 1999. There is a wintering flock of Mandarin on the northern pond of the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo itself.


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