A Cheap Week in Japan
Trip Report: Tokyo and Environs, April 8-15, 1999

Pete Shen & Mary Seeger; pjshen@hotmail.com

We were fortunate to visit Japan on a frequent flier award, but were faced with budget limitations in this notoriously expensive country. There is a dearth of information that would help the birder reduce expenses in Japan. We managed however to get around to a few sites and see some great birds for $350 per person for the week. We hope that the following information helps the next budget birder's visit to Japan. Useful literature would include "campsite locations in Japan" if such a publication exists - anyone out there know?

In retrospect, we'd spend less time reviewing the birds, most of which are easily identifiable. Instead, invest the time learning key phrases in Japanese. The language barrier is substantial and can make the most trivial thing complicated. Learning how to ask fundamental questions such as these would help:

Perhaps early April is not the best time to find birds in Japan. Many wintering birds have left or are now scarce, and Spring migrants have not yet arrived. Also, we can attest to the fact that the weather can be quite unsettled. We found the weather somewhat cold, often windy and sometimes rainy. In Miyakejima, one day was practically rained out, and we witnessed a powerful windstorm one day/night. That being said, we had a lot of fun in Japan, and the birding, though slow, was very enjoyable. It seemed to be a good time of year to see pelagic species, and the Japanese Murrelet may be reliable at this season.

We had only a general idea of where we would attempt to go once in Tokyo. In fact, we "winged it" more or less. This attitude might be a benefit since language difficulties may cause delays and miscommunications. For example, we could not phone anyone who spoke English, so finding out about bus and train schedules in advance was not an option. We would just show up at the ticket counter to find out the schedules in person - always entertaining... Flexibility was also necessary for taking the ferry - the fierce storm cancelled the Miyakejima-Tokyo ferry for a day, so your exact departure or return date may not be predictable.

Our itinerary:

April 08: too quick visit to Tonegawa; ferry to Miyakejima
April 09: Miyakejima
April 10: Miyakejima
April 11: Miyakejima
April 12: Miyakejima; ferry to Tokyo
April 13: Karuizawa
April 14: Karuizawa
April 15: Ueno Park, Meiji Jingu, Yatsu-higata


A visit before your departure to the local branch of the Japanese National Tourist Organization (JNTO) or Japan Travel Bureau (JTB) may help for maps, up-to-date fare and schedule information, as well as tips on accomodations.

Many thanks to:

F. Mori, "kogananda", Des Allen, "Mike and Lee", and Fer-Jan de Vries for their responses to my RFI, Garry George for his June 1997 trip report, and Fer-Jan de Vries, Hiroshi Morishita and "kogananda" for their helpful webpages regarding Japan birding.

In an e-mail to us, Fer-Jan wrote, "Top sites near Tokyo don't exist. What do you expect from a crowded area?" He suggested getting a JapanRail Pass (expensive at $240/week), and getting far away from Tokyo (eg., Kyushu!). It seemed funny to me that Tokyo's city parks would be so devoid of birdlife. Central Park in the center of Manhattan is a wonderful place to see birds, except in mid-winter, when a $1.50 subway ride to Jamaica Bay or the Rockaways can then substitute with great birding. A single day in Spring in Central Park can produce over 100 species. Yet Tokyo's parks did seem dull, and logging 50 species on an April day perhaps would be a difficult feat, indeed.

April 8, 1999

14:00 - Arrive at Narita Airport

Continental Airlines' direct flight from Newark to Narita was very comfortable - the 13 hours passed surprisingly quickly. Upon arrival at Narita Airport, the necessary delays: customs, changing money ($1 = Y118), visit to the Information Desk (possibly your only chance to get info in English), etc.

15:00 to 17:00 - Narita Airport to Tonegawa (Brazil #14)

We took the Narita Ltd Express and changed at Narita Station to the local JR Narita Line towards Chiba (Y860). From the Omigawa Station, a 20' minute walk brought us to the Omigawa Ohashi (Bridge). We grossly underestimated the time involved to get from Narita Airport to the reedbeds at the Tonegawa. We arrived with less than 30' to look for birds, and the cold wind did not help matters. Subsequently, we did not find our target birds, but we did see a pipit spp (probably WATER PIPIT), BLACK-FACED BUNTING and REED BUNTING.

18:00 to 20:30 - Omigawa Station to Takeshiba Pier

Return to Narita Station via the local train, then waited 30' to transfer to the Narita Ltd Express to Tokyo Station. Switch at Tokyo Station for JR Yamanote Line to Hamamatsucho Station (Y1980). Walked 10' east to the Takeshiba Pier. We were advised that reservations for 2nd class at this time of year were unnecessary, though reservations for 1st class may be needed [Tokai Kisen Co. (035472-9999)]. The ferry ride to Miyakejima, one-way, costs Y5730 for 2nd class (credit cards OK).

April 9, 1999

22:30 to 05:00 - Takeshiba Pier to Miyakejima (Brazil #9)

The ship left the dock promptly at 22:30. The 2nd class area was warm, quiet and comfortable. We laid out our sleeping bags (they rent blankets) and then slept straight through until our alarm woke us at 04:00, less than an hour from Ako Port. We went out onto the deck - it was chilly. Day was just breaking, but it still was too dark to see birds. We arrived at Miyakejima (Ako Port) at 04:50. Without anywhere to ask information, we proceeded to hike to Tairo-ike. After making a right onto the main ring road that circles the island, we immediately encountered our first IZU THRUSH, a Japanese endemic, in a garden. Within minutes, we saw a large dove fly across the road ahead of us. It landed in an evergreen in full view - a JAPANESE WOODPIGEON - another "most wanted." It took us quite a while to reach Tairo-ike, since we slowly birded our way along. Curiously, a BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERON flew right down the middle of the road - lucky for it there was no morning rush hour. At about 10:30, we were walking down the long staircase to the lake when we came face-to-face with our first IJIMA'S LEAF-WARBLER. It was too busy singing to worry about our presence. Once we learned its song, we were able to find many more and heard them almost constantly. Also along the staircase, we saw two JAPANESE ROBIN, one chasing the other. We already had seen many good birds this fine morning. We spent the remainder of the day around the lake, hiking and lying around, adding GREY HERON, INTERMEDIATE EGRET and the owstoni subspecies of the VARIED TIT. At about 15:00, we slowly birded our way back to Ako Port, adding BULL-HEADED SHRIKE and BLACK-FACED BUNTING, and tent camped at Sabiga-hama. The campsite, less than 5' west from Ako Port on the main road, is wedged in between private homes. It comes complete with BBQ grills (which we didn't use), sheltered picnic tables and very nice bathrooms. The price was great - free!

Birds commonly seen at Miyakejima:

April 10, 1999

We were awakened at 03:30 by a pair of BROWN HAWK-OWL calling from across the street. We got some good recordings, but couldn't lure them to the street, and we didn't want to approach the homes. We heard them eventually move on. The winds had picked up - an ominous sign of things to come. At 05:00, We started seawatching from the picnic ground, which gave good views of the ocean. Aside from the daily STREAKED SHEARWATER movement, we spotted 3 alcids together, then 2 more, then another; all flying against the flow of shearwaters. I thought that I saw large white stripes on the head of one bird, but the views were a bit too distant to be absolutely sure. At 07:00, we caught the bus to Izu Misaki - a 20' ride. The bus was relatively inexpensive - encircling the island costs about Y1200. It was too windy at the cape, but we got closer views of the shearwaters, and saw two male STONECHAT together. We concurred that a fleeting glimpse of a little brown job in the tall grass likely was a ZITTING CISTICOLA.

The intermittent rain began, so we hop-scotched our way in between showers to Okubo-hama. There we found some public bathrooms along the main road, but we didn't see the campground that supposedly is found there. Maybe the campground is not along the main road there, but closer to the beach. Not long after we left Okubo-hama, the rains started in earnest, so we caught the bus that gave us a warm and dry tour around the remainder of the island. The uncooperative weather resulted in few birds, just DUSKY THRUSH. We returned to Subiga-hama to pitch our tent between the sheltered picnic tables. Although the off-season meant that most of the restaurants were closed, buying food was easy at the various grocery stores (true throughout our trip), and we enjoyed sampling the different fare.

April 11, 1999

We were awakened at around 03:00, this time not by hooting owls, but by the 60 mph+ wind gusts that were driving the rain sideways, and under our tent. We broke down camp, and waited it out in the bathrooms, which provided good shelter from both the rain and wind. At dawn, the rain temporarily subsided, and we began a seawatch from the campground again. The winds were ridiculous, and the ocean was really rough with whitecaps everywhere, but the seawatching was good! Although we only saw one alcid all morning, we ticked two BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSSES flying together, and a BROWN BOOBY hung around most of the morning. Small flocks of little grey jobs were thought to be PHALAROPES. A flock of shorebirds flew by, and a lone SLATY-BACKED GULL drifted along the beach heading north.

We had considered catching the ferry back to Tokyo today, but the ferry was canceled. Given the rough seas, I don't blame them. A break in the rain prompted us to explore the beach and cape to the north of us. It was still very windy, but on the grassy point, we flushed a LATHAM'S SNIPE which provided only a single brief view. I suppose the possibility that it was a Swinhoe's Snipe cannot be eliminated. Within an hour, we were driven back to camp by another shower. The storm system seemed to be breaking up by mid-afternoon as the skies lightened and the winds decreased a fraction. We took the opportunity to hike to Tonga Jinja and the cape beyond. We flushed a female GREEN PHEASANT and witnessed a fabulous movement of seabirds from the cape. Very close views of the abundant STREAKED SHEARWATER included a few all-dark brown shearwaters that were smaller and faster than the other shearwaters. We believed these to be SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATER. We did not spot any alcids, which was true of previous evenings - morning sightings only. We decided to try this spot (the southwestern-most point of the cape) for the next morning's seawatch.

April 12, 1999

We hiked to the cape beyond Toga Jinja before dawn, convinced that this was the best vantage point for a seawatch. We were not disappointed. The first two hours of light brought the usual onslaught of STREAKED SHEARWATERs without, however, the presumed SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATERs. A BROWN BOOBY fished out in the deeper water. Several flocks of PHALAROPES flew by, some landing on the water. Finally, I spotted one alcid streaking past the point, again against the flow of shearwaters. I got a good view in the scope, confirming a JAPANESE MURRELET. We waited another couple of hours, but no more murrelets came by. We gave up on the seawatch, and kicked up another two LATHAM SNIPE which provided better views than yesterday. On the return, we saw the expected passerines at the Toga Jinja including a singing IJIMA'S LEAF-WARBLER. We bought our ferry tickets at the dock (no credit cards here) and just hung around Ako Port, watching a COMMON SANDPIPER work the artificial breakwater.

The ferry departed at 14:20. The starboard side had the best lighting. We staked our claim on the highest and most forward point on the deck, conveniently behind a screen that blocked the wind. Almost immediately we had STREAKED SHEARWATER flocks in constant view. Their numbers were astounding - we probably saw more than 100,000 of them in the next two hours. Unfortunately we did not see any murrelets. After a couple of hours of STREAKED SHEARWATERs and several groups of RED-NECKED PHALAROPEs, we saw a few different brown shearwaters. We got excellent views of two FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATER and four SHORT-TAILED SHEARWATER among these. Soon afterward, the stream of STREAKED SHEARWATERs abruptly ended, so that we could focus on every bird that appeared. We saw eight adult POMARINE JAEGERS, one a gorgeous dark-morph. We also saw over 100 TRISTAM'S STORM-PETREL and six BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS. After about 3 hours, we were within sight of land again and the chemical yellow smog of Tokyo. At about this time, we had excellent views of an adult LAYSAN ALBATROSS traveling with a BLACK-FOOTED ALBATROSS. Getting closer to shore, the stream of SOOTY SHEARWATERs began, and an immature BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE and a LOON species flew by. This concluded a wonderful pelagic trip that was reminiscent of Californian pelagics.

The ferry arrived at the Takeshiba Pier at 21:10, after which we took the Yamanote Line to the JR Ueno Station. We inquired about trains to Naka-Karuizawa Station. Apparently our only option late at night was the 22:15 Shinkansen train which would put us into Naka-Karuizawa at 23:30. Not wanting to spend the extra money for a Shinkansen and without reservations for accomodations in Naka-Karuizawa anyway, we decided on the 05:13 local train (Y2910) which takes 40% longer and costs 40% less than the equivalent Shinkansen, and would get us there early enough at 08:26. We spent the intervening hours in Ueno having a midnight dinner at a sit-down counter restaurant enjoying gyoza and beer and the friendly staff.

April 13, 1999

05:13 to 08:45 - JR Ueno Station to Naka-Karuizawa Station (Brazil #17)

The JR Ueno Station opened at 04:00, and we took the local Shinetsu Line to Naka-Karuizawa, changing trains at Takasaki, Yokakawa and Karuizawa. ASIAN MARTIN seemed at home in many of the train stations. It came as a surprise to us that we had to travel between Yokakawa Station and Karuizawa Station by a JR bus instead of by train. We proceeded from Karuizawa Station to the Naka-Karuizawa Station by train, however. Upon arrival, we walked up the major street that leads away from (perpendicular to) the train station. After only about 15' we found the Ariake Lodge (026745-3096; Y10000/dbl), which was located half a block down a gravel road on the left side, just before the Volcano Restaurant. This attractive minshuku was run by friendly folk who spoke limited English. We dropped off our backpacks and headed 10' further up the main road to the Hoshino Onsen. Basically, we walked any quiet road and the several trails behind the Hoshino Onsen Hotel. We also walked to the "Pond and Woods" described in Robinson's guide. Aside from a lunch break near the train station, we spent the remainder of the day strolling around looking for birds. It definitely was the off-season, and we really enjoyed the quiet surroundings, lack of crowds, and beautiful forest.

Species noted both days that we spent in the Karuizawa area were:

April 14, 1999

05:00 to 15:00- Kose-rindo Forest Road and Yacho no Mori

We were up at dawn and hit the 4 km Kose-rindo forest road which leads from the Hoshino Onsen Hotel to Kose Onsen. The dirt road follows the Yukawa River all the way. Unfortunately, there was a cold biting wind that froze us and made birding difficult. Nevertheless, we saw a COMMON BUZZARD soar by, and Mary saw a JAPANESE SPARROWHAWK perched alongside the road, but I only saw it as it zipped away. After the 8 km roundtrip, we hit the many trails of the Yacho no Mori. In an open clearing, we heard the distinctive calls of the JAPANESE GREEN WOODPECKER, but they didn't call long enough for us to track them down. We were successful in seeing two splendid male GREEN PHEASANT that were calling, but the COPPER PHEASANT eluded us as expected. Miles of hiking today only added another BULL-HEADED SHRIKE and a single GOLDCREST. The mid-afternoon doldrums prompted us to leave by 16:00, so that we would arrive in Ueno at a reasonable hour. The ride back was interesting. At the Naka-Karuizawa Station, we were advised to take a JR bus to the Karuizawa Station even though we had previously taken the train from Karuizawa. At Karuizawa Station, we had to take a JR bus to Yokokawa Station, as before. From Yokokawa, the train went straight through to JR Ueno Station. We checked into the Ryokan Katsutaro (Y8400+tax/dbl), simple and clean, but with less "atmosphere" than the Ariake Lodge. We had called ahead to make reservations - limited English is spoken by the owners.

Ryokan Katsutaro
4-16-8 Ikenohata
Taito-ku, Tokyo 110
Tel (03) 3821-9808
Fax (03) 3821-4789
15' walk from either the JR Ueno Station or the Keisei Ueno Station (conveniently the last stop of the Keisei Airport train).

April 15, 1999

05:00 to 06:00 - Ueno Park (Brazil #2 Shinobazu-no-ike)

Abundant in the city parks were BLACK-HEADED GULL, ORIENTAL TURTLE-DOVE, LARGE-BILLED CROW, JAPANESE WHITE-EYE, GREAT TIT, BROWN-EARED BULBUL, WHITE-CHEEKED STARLING, EURASIAN TREE SPARROW. We saw all the expected species listed in Brazil #2, except for AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE. Additionally, we noted a PYGMY WOODPECKER near the zoo entrance, some BLACK-TAILED GULLS loafing around and a flyby GREY HERON. We didn't enter the zoo (fee), and it didn't appear necessary since most, if not all, of the Water Zoo could be scanned from the outside. One can walk along the edges of both the Boat Pond and Shinobazu-no-ike (Lotus Pond).

07:00 to 09:00 - Meiji Jingu (Brazil #1)

After a 40' ride on the Yamanote Line (Y190) from Ueno Station to Harajuku Station, we were birding the heavily wooded Meiji Jingu which reminds me of New York City's Central Park. It's more pleasant than Central Park because there is no traffic running through the park, providing a truly quiet haven in the big city. However, there are more bird species in Central Park (I ticked 50 species in CP the day before I left for Japan). We managed only LITTLE GREBE, PYGMY WOODPECKER, VARIED TIT, GREAT TIT, SPOT-BILLED DUCK, DUSKY THRUSH, ORIENTAL GREENFINCH and HAWFINCH. A small shady pond on the east side held two pairs of MANDARIN DUCK hiding under low branches along the water's edge. Once again, we missed seeing AZURE-WINGED MAGPIE. We did not check the South Pond (Minami-ike), however, which is located in a garden that opens only at 09:00 and requires a Y500 admission fee.

12:30 to 15:00 - Yatsu-higata (Brazil #5)

After hotel check-out and lunch, we took a one-hour ride on the local Keisei Chiba-Chuo Line from Keisei Ueno Station to Yatsu Station (Y420), where we stored our luggage in the very convenient lockers (Y300). Here we found well signed directions (in English!) for the 15' walk from the Yatsu Station to the wetland. The birding was excellent as the tide was coming in. The setup is wonderful with the wetland encircled by a sidewalk, punctuated by comfortable benches and several hides. To complete the loop, one has to pass through the grounds of the Yatsu Higata Nature Observation Center (Y200 fee). Having only 2.5 hours to walk the loop, we felt rushed given that there were thousands of shorebirds to look through. It was still early in the migration, with relatively few species. The vast majority were DUNLIN, but we also saw LITTLE RINGED, SNOWY, MONGOLIAN and GRAY PLOVERs, SANDERLING, RUDDY TURNSTONE, RED-NECKED STINT, BAR-TAILED GODWIT, WHIMBREL, and EURASIAN CURLEW. Also present were LITTLE EGRET, GREAT EGRET, SPOT-BILLED DUCK, EURASIAN WIGEON, COMMON TEAL, and EURASIAN KESTREL. We also saw many local birders, but despite our attempts, we didn't "hit it off" - the language barrier may have been too great.

Our flight back to New York City was at 18:00, so we hurried back to the Keisei Yatsu Station and caught the 15:20 local train, transferred to the Narita Ltd Express at the next stop (Tsudanuma), and arrived at Narita Terminal 2 at 16:00 with plenty of spare time. Another surprisingly quick flight back on Continental Airlines' nonstop brought us back to NYC in just over 11 hours - what a ride on the jetstream!

In Retrospect:

The Tonegawa site deserves a full day in itself, especially to justify the expense of roundtrip train travel. This site definitely is NOT a quick hop from Narita Airport. Instead, we should have spent the first afternoon at Yatsu-higata which is not far from the airport and can provide hours of shorebirding.

Similarly, we would have liked to spend several more days at Karuizawa, which again would help justify the cost of getting there. There are many birding sites in the Karuizawa area - more than could be visited on any one trip. The birding would be better in May and June, though there was a certain charm to the area in the off-season. We would have liked to visit the 8000 ft Asamayama to see some high elevation species. We look forward to a future visit to Karuizawa, though additional information on less expensive accomodations would be appreciated. This would be an ideal area to go camping.

Given the low cost of Miyakejima, we would have been satisfied to spend an entire week on the island. The birding here can be exciting during migration, as one never knows what to expect. This is true especially of seawatching, which probably is greatly affected by prevailing winds and storm systems.

Finally, of course we were disappointed not to have seen the three other Japanese endemics that occur on Honshu: Japanese Accentor, Copper Pheasant and Japanese Green Woodpecker. We didn't have a reasonable chance of seeing the Japanese Accentor along our circuit, but we actively searched for the Copper Pheasant and Japanese Green Woodpecker at Karuizawa. Chances of finding these species would increase tremendously if one could find local birders to help.

Birdlist April 8-15, 1999

  1. Loon (Diver) spp
  2. Little Grebe
  3. Great Crested Grebe
  4. Black-footed Albatross
  5. Laysan Albatross
  7. Flesh-footed Shearwater
  8. Sooty Shearwater
  9. Short-tailed (Slender-billed) Shearwater
  11. Brown Booby
  12. Great Cormorant
  14. Black-crowned Night-Heron
  15. Little Egret
  16. Intermediate Egret
  17. Great Egret
  18. Grey Heron
  19. Mute Swan
  21. Eurasian Wigeon
  22. Gadwall
  23. Common Teal
  24. Mallard
  26. Northern Pintail
  27. Northern Shoveler
  28. Common Pochard
  29. Tufted Duck
  30. Black Kite
  31. Japanese Sparrowhawk
  32. Common Buzzard
  33. Eurasian Kestrel
  35. Common Moorhen
  36. Black-winged Stilt
  37. Little Ringed Plover
  38. Snowy (Kentish) Plover
  39. Mongolian (Lesser Sand) Plover
  40. Grey (Black-bellied) Plover
  41. Sanderling
  42. Red-necked Stint
  43. Dunlin
  45. Bar-tailed Godwit
  46. Whimbrel
  47. Eurasian Curlew
  48. Common Sandpiper
  49. Ruddy Turnstone
  50. Red-necked (Northern) Phalarope
  51. Pomarine Jaeger
  52. Black-headed Gull
  53. *Black-tailed Gull
  55. Black-legged Kittiwake
  57. Feral Pigeon (Rock Dove)
  60. BROWN HAWK-OWL (heard only)
  62. Common Kingfisher
  63. Great Spotted Woodpecker
  65. Barn Swallow
  67. Pipit spp
  68. Grey Wagtail
  69. White Wagtail
  73. Winter Wren
  75. Stonechat
  76. Blue Rock Thrush
  81. Zitting Cisticola (Fan-tailed Warbler) ?
  83. Goldcrest
  84. Long-tailed Tit
  85. Willow Tit
  87. Coal Tit
  88. Great Tit
  89. Eurasian Nuthatch
  92. Eurasian Jay
  93. Carrion Crow
  97. Eurasian Tree Sparrow
  98. Brambling
  101. Hawfinch
  103. (Siberian) MEADOW BUNTING
  104. Reed Bunting

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This page served with permission of the author by Urs Geiser; ugeiser@xnet.com; May 3, 1999; updated July 7, 2001