Cranes, fish owls and eagles in the winter wonderland.

Japan in winter

Cranes, Snow Monkeys, fish owls and sea eagles in the winter wonderland.

16th - 30th January 2022

Leader: James Eaton

Day 1:
Arrivals into Narita International Airport. We then take a bullet train into Tokyo and on to Karuizawa. Night in Karuizawa.

Days 2-4:
Birding below the rugged peaks of the mountains in central Honshu is where we explore the snow-drenched forested valleys with our primary goal being the splendid, but highly elusive Copper Pheasant. Despite the cold and snow, passerines are surprisingly conspicuous, with both resident and winter migrants being present, including several sought-after species – Japanese Accentor, Japanese Green Woodpecker, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, Japanese Wagtail, Azure-winged Magpie, Brown-eared Bulbul, Varied Tit, Long-tailed Rosefinch, Grey-bellied Bullfinch and Dusky Thrush while occasional winter rarities include Japanese Waxwing and Pallas’s Rosefinch. Nights in Karuizawa.

Day 5:
Depending how the birding has gone thus far will decide on our exact plans for today, but heading northwest to Jigokudani will provide us with the opportunity to see the famous ‘snow monkeys’ – troops of Japanese Macaques taking a dip and relaxing in the natural, thermal-heated pools. Surprisingly, birding is limited here, but a scan of the forested slopes could reveal Japanese Serow. Following on from here we head back to Tokyo, using the train once more. Night in Tokyo.  

Day 6:
Morning flight from Haneda south to Kagoshima, on the island of Kyushu, JL643, 0800/1000. Driving between the airport and our final destination, Arasaki, takes us along the coast, where Saunder’s Gull winters. Gull enthusiasts will enjoy it here with Black-tailed, Kamchatka, Heuglin’s, Slaty-backed and Vega Gulls are all usually present. Night at Izumi.

Day 7:
The first major ‘Winter in Japan’ spectacle appears this morning. After listening to the calls of the cranes overnight, as our minshuku is based right in the heart of the crane feeding area, dawn will see us looking out at thousands of cranes, with up to 10,000 Hooded and 3,000 White-naped Cranes, while a handful of Sandhill and Common Cranes are often present, and occasionally, even Siberian Crane. The cranes feed metres away from us so make sure you start the day with an empty memory card!As well as the cranes, the maze of canals, reedbeds and fields will have us looking further afield. Green Pheasant is a big target today, while other species possible include Chinese Penduline-tit, Long-billed Plover, Dusky and Pale Thrushes, Crested Kingfisher, Japanese Bush Warbler, Bull-headed Shrike, Daurian Jackdaw, Eurasian Skylark and ‘Masked Bunting’, a sure-fire split from Black-faced Bunting, and a near-Japanese endemic. Night at Izumi.

Day 8:
After spending the morning at Arasaki we drive east to Mi-ike Lake. Around the forest-fringed Grey Bunting and Ryukyu Minivet are possible, and even Copper Pheasant can sometimes be found lurking in the shadows, while the lake holds Mandarin Duck among other wildfowl. Night in Miyazaki Prefecture.

Day 9:
Lots of scanning will be required this morning as we go in search of the endangered breeding-endemic Japanese Murrelet. The murrelets favour the seas off the headlands and harbours in a large bay, and if conditions allow we can attempt a boat ride for closer views. In addition, Japanese Cormorant is likely. Free time left available during the afternoon will be spent further along the coast or inland forest-fringed rivers for any targets left remaining. Night in Miyazaki Prefecture.  

Day 10:
Morning flight to Tokyo then onward north to Hokkaido, the focal point of the tour, JL642/543, 0910/1040-1230/1405. Sunset here is at 1420, so our afternoon birding will be limited, perhaps finishing with the Red-crowned Cranes at a feeding station at Tsurui, close to our accommodation. Night at Tsurui.  

Days 11-13:
Three full days exploring the Hokkaido wilderness. We have a lot to pack in during these days – the amazing spectacle of the steam rising from the river as the cranes dance and call at dawn, waiting in the evening for the Blakiston’s Fish Owls to appear under the spotlight by their favoured pool in front of our little hide-away minshuku in the forested valley, and the enthralling encounters with groups of loafing Steller’s Sea Eagle. As the sea-ice becomes less-and-less reliable off northern Hokkaido, the chances of being out on the boat with the Steller’s Sea and White-tailed Eagles all around us are increasingly slim, nonetheless we still get incredible views of large numbers of confiding birds along the coast and particularly around the fisheries, waiting for hand-outs and by-catch, as they sit on the branch and roadside telegraph posts.  Along the coast, birding from the land, scanning each little harbour and out to sea allows us great views of Harlequin Duck, Long-tailed Duck, Stejneger’s and Black Scoters, while along the shoreline we look out for Asian Rosy Finch. In the harbours, large numbers of gulls are largely Slaty-backed, Vega, Glaucous and Glaucous-winged. From vantage points scanning further out, all manner of alcids are possible depending on the current conditions, but can include Spectacled Guillemots and Common Guillemots, Ancient Murrelet, or Crested and Least Auklets. Divers can include Arctic, Red-throated and Pacific. While on the rocks, Red-faced Cormorant is possible among the commoner Pelagic Cormorants. If conditions are favourable, we intend to take a boat out to sea in search of these Alcids for closer looks. Spending some time along the forest edge in search of passerines which linger here during the cold winter months can include Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, Grey-bellied Bullfinch along with a chance of finding a roosting Ural Owl. Rarities that we have seen here before include Pine Grosbeak, Redpoll and Bohemian Waxwing. Nights on Hokkaido.

Day 14:
One final morning on Hokkaido before taking our afternoon flight back to Haneda, Tokyo’s domestic airport, JL542, 1500/1650. Night near Haneda Airport.

Day 15:
Departures from Narita or Haneda International Airports.
Note: those departing from Narita International Airport will need to take the airport bus from Haneda, please allow 90 minutes for this. We will provide full instructions and details during the tour.

Tour details

Cost: £ 4,850 or $ 6,310

Deposit: £ 500 or $ 700

Single room supplement:
£ 270 or $ 355

Maximum group size: 8

Tour cost includes: all accommodation, main meals, internal flights (as stated in itinerary), overland transport, entrance fees, drinking water, tips to local drivers and guides, and guide fees.

Tour cost excludes: International flights and departure taxes, visa, travel insurance, drinks, tips to tour guides, and other items of a personal nature.

Accommodation: comfortable twin-bed, and single rooms, most with private facilities.
Note at Izumi single rooms may not be available.

Walking difficulty: generally easy throughout, with a lot of time scanning.
Elevation is no higher than 2,000m.

Expected number of species: 150 - 180 species.

Number of endemics and range-restricted species: Though nearly all species are possible elsewhere, it's the winter spectacle, beyond the 'ticks' that Japan in winter is so famous for.

Map of the tour

Tour Reports

Our latest tour reports from the region