November 14-29, 1998
Day 1 Day 9
Day 2 Day 10
Day 3 Day 11
Day 4 Day 12
Day 5 Day 13
Day 6 Day 14
Day 7 Day 15
Day 8 Day 16
We had planned this trip for about a year, beginning with the first article we read about the potential for a spectacular showing of Leonid meteors in eastern Asia in 1998. We contacted Armas Hill, with Focus on Nature Tours (FONT), since he occasionally does trips to coincide with solar eclipses. FONT already had a Japan itinerary, as well as an extension to the Ryukyu Islands (Amami and Okinawa), so we used this as a base and rearranged it so we could, theoretically, be in a very dark, cloudless area for the meteor shower. We planned the whole thing to fit into two weeks, which was about two or three days shorter than the typical itinerary, so it was a little rushed in a couple of spots. It was also run in the reverse order from the usual. We weren't absolutely sure what to expect birdwise in some areas, as the tour typically runs in January or February. Only once in 10 years had FONT run a November tour.
|Day 1, Saturday, November 14, 1998
|After a lot of stress and worry about not receiving our
airline tickets until Wednesday, we arrived at the airport for our 8:15
a.m. flight to Chicago (United 383). We sat on the tarmac in Detroit
until 8:40, until we were clear to land at O'Hare airport, reconfirming
our intense dislike for traveling through this airport for any reason.
Well, we didn't have much choice since our arrangements were re-done
again on Thursday (the direct flight from Detroit to Tokyo would have
been nicer). We made our connection on time, since our arrival gates and
departure gates (for once) weren't at opposite ends of the airport. We
departed on our flight, United 883, a little late, at 9:45 a.m. We flew
over vast areas of icy terrain, possibly North Dakota, and lots of
snow-covered hills, possibly the Yukon, then out over the Pacific Ocean.
It would have been nice if there had been a map in the airplane marking
our progress and route, like on some other long-distance flights we've
been on, but we were on an older 747.
|Day 2, Sunday, November 15, 1998
|We landed in Tokyo at 12:50 p.m., got through immigration,
baggage claim, customs, and currency exchange by 1:30. We bought our bus
ticket to the Shiba Park Hotel (about $25 U.S.), which departed at 1:40
p.m. We got to the hotel a little after 3:00 p.m., after stopping at
three other hotels on the route. We birded nearby Shiba Park, a few
blocks from the hotel, which we found by accident, by just wandering
around on our own. We returned to the hotel and eventually met most of
the group. We had dinner in the hotel's coffee shop. Armas was the last
to arrive, at around 9:00 p.m.
|Day 3, Monday, November 16, 1998
|A few of the group (there were 13 participants altogether)
got up early for a quick pre-breakfast walk to Shiba Tower, about 1/4
mile away, where some of the group saw Azure-winged Magpies the day
before we arrived. We succeeded with the magpies at the last possible
minute before we had to get back to the hotel for breakfast. After
breakfast we took three taxis to the Meiji Shrine about 20 minutes away.
We did a little more birding here, spending a couple of hours looking
for Mandarin Duck in particular, which we found again at the last
possible minute before we had to get back to the hotel to catch the
We rode to Haneda Airport and caught our flight to Kagoshima, on Kyushu Island south of Tokyo. Even though our flight lasted 1 hour and 35 minutes, and was during the lunch hour, all we got was a crummy little cookie and a tiny glass of orange juice. The airplane was a brand new 777 with TV monitors in the seat backs. We watched the closed circuit channel from a camera in the cockpit, so we were able to watch takeoff, landing, and the entire flight as the pilots see it. Pretty cool.
When we landed, we drove up to a hotel inside the Kirishima Yaku National Park (set aside to preserve the volcanic hot springs, which draw many Japanese tourists, but not many westerners), southeast of Ebino on the Ebino Plateau. This was where we hoped to see the meteor shower tomorrow night/morning, but it had been raining, and it was quite foggy as we arrived at the Ebino Kogen Hotel (and spa). It was a very nice, traditional hotel, the only one in the National Park. We had to dress for dinner in the formal kimonos provided in the room. Dinner was traditional, which meant a lot of raw fish (which neither of us like). The portions were small, so we weren't satisfied for long. We turned in around 8:30 p.m.
|Day 4, Tuesday, November 17, 1998
|When we woke up it was raining, and quite foggy around the
hotel, so we had to shuffle our plans for the day to find an area that
could be birded. First, we stopped at the nearby small lodge where there
was an astronomer that Armas had met the past winter, and we somehow
communicated that we would be back around 2:00 a.m. tomorrow morning. We
headed down to lowland areas northwest of Ebino, including areas of rice
paddies. We then headed east toward the coast, stopping again in the
Kirishima Yaku National Park at the north end. The forest seemed
remarkably leafed out and green, especially when compared to the
progress of the season back home in Detroit. We looked for salamanders
under some of the logs, but the only thing of interest was a very
strong, muscular worm almost a foot long. Our quest in this patch of
forest was Copper Pheasant, a difficult-to-see Japanese endemic, which
we did not find. It was late when we got to the coast, and we didn't see
much there. The flock of Japanese Waxwings that flew across the freeway
in front of us was the highlight of the day. We returned to the hotel
after dark, and just in time for dinner.
|Day 5, Wednesday, November 18, 1998
|We got up in time to get to the astronomer's place by
around 3:00 a.m. We had some interesting experiences with his astronomy
class, about a dozen girls who were also apparently Jehovah's Witnesses.
The totally overcast skies opened in one small spot for about three
minutes, but we didn't see much. Allen saw one meteor. We returned to
the hotel and went back to bed for a while before breakfast. After
breakfast we walked one of the trails near the hotel into the forest.
Our primary target bird, the Copper Pheasant, eluded us again; but we
were rewarded with nice views of a flock of Japanese Grosbeaks. We then
drove along the Kumagawa River, stopping at several areas for birds like
Long-billed Plover, Crested Kingfisher, and Brown Dipper. We arrived in
Izumi after dark, around 6:30 p.m. We got checked into our hotel in
Izumi, the Hotel Wing International, and went into the town for dinner.
|Day 6, Thursday, November 19, 1998
|We woke up at 3:00 a.m. for our last ditch attempt to see
the meteors, but it was 100% overcast so we didn't leave the hotel.
After a 7:00 a.m. breakfast we went to the Arasaki area for cranes and
many other birds. We spent the day birding this entire area, getting our
fill of Hooded and White-naped Cranes (well, almost). Allen saw his
2900th species today, a Pale Thrush. We returned to the hotel, then went
out to dinner again at the nice, nearby pub where we had dinner last
|Day 7, Friday, November 20, 1998
|After a 7:00 a.m. breakfast, we drove to the Kagoshima
Airport with only a couple of brief stops for birds. Swallows were
migrating over the hotel, with Red-rumped Swallow among them. When we
took off, the pilot told us the temperature in Amami was 9º C (in the
50s F). So much for subtropical! We arrived on Amami Island around 1:30
p.m. One thing we were unprepared for prior to this trip is how
prevalent cigarette smoke would be absolutely everywhere we went.
Disgusting. Since the vans were so small, a third vehicle was used to
transport the bulk of our luggage to the hotel while we went birding.
We got into our vans and went to a tidal area surrounded by coral reefs north of the airport where we found the wintering Saunder's Gull and a good number of shorebirds. We arrived at the hotel in Naze, the Amami Grand Hotel, around 6:30 p.m. The check-in was the most organized of the whole trip. They had keys laid out on a table with all our names on cards. We only had to grab our bags, our keys, and go up to the rooms. The downside to the rooms on the second floor was no elevators, but we only had to lug the big bags up once, and down again when we left.
|Day 8, Saturday, November 21, 1998
|We left the hotel at 6:00 a.m. with the intention of
driving about an hour to a forested area and returning for breakfast
(included with the price of the hotel). When we got to the Kinsakubaru
Virgin Forest reserve, the birding was so good we ended up staying most
of the morning. When we got back to the hotel around 11:00 a.m., we were
offered breakfast! This was quite a surprise, since we had not
experienced such accommodating service anywhere on the trip so far (and
didn't anywhere else on the trip after).
After brunch, we went to Sumiyu, a hilly area near the east-central coast of the island where we had excellent views of Lidth's Jays (seen in the morning, but not as well). Later in the afternoon, we returned to the hotel via the opposite end of the road through the Virgin Forest looking for Ryukyu Scops-Owl and Amami Woodcock (unsuccessfully).
|Day 9, Sunday, November 22, 1998
|We woke up to a light rain and left the hotel at 5:30 a.m.
We went back up to the Virgin Forest again for more birding. The rain
stopped fairly early, and the birding was good once again. Highlights
were good looks at two White-backed Woodpeckers of the distinct, and
endemic, Amami Island race, and a brief look at the secretive Amami
Thrush. We had lunch at the hotel, then headed to the airport for our
flight to Okinawa.
We arrived in Naha at 2:35 p.m. and did the usual van organization, which took longer due to the greater population on this island. This allowed us to see the only Light-vented Bulbuls of the trip. We intended to stop for birding on the way to our hotel, but the delay with the vans prevented any more birding this afternoon. We stopped for a brief dinner at the McDonalds in Naha. We had to drive almost the entire length of the island, then out to the west on another peninsula, to our hotel, the Royal View Hotel, west of Nago. After we got settled, most of us went out looking for Okinawa Rails in the wilder areas of the northern peninsula of the island known as Yambaru, where nearly all our birding on the island would be done. We were out until midnight, but unfortunately didn't succeed.
|Day 10, Monday, November 23, 1998
|After our 7:30 a.m. breakfast at the hotel we drove back
up to the Yambaru area near Yona looking for Okinawa Woodpecker and
other birds. Armas tried three areas he had been to in January, but all
of them were in the midst of major road construction (i.e., putting in
roads where there weren't any before, thus destroying the habitat).
At one final area near Yona, the access to the trail was blocked by road construction near (and eventually over?) a river. We had to cross the river, not terribly easy but not impossible, to get to the trail. We were successful in seeing one Okinawa Woodpecker well, but briefly. Another highlight was all the Japanese Fire-bellied Newts walking across the trail, and found under trailside rocks and logs.
Next we went to some rice paddies near Kijyoka, which were quite productive. We got to practice our bun jumping techniques (not bungie jumping!). Buns are the small dikes between the fields. Allen got covered with mud, as he tended to sink in where most other (lighter) people didn't. A few people wanted to go back to the hotel for dinner, so they took taxis, while the rest of us had a quick dinner at a small, local restaurant near Yona. We went back out looking for Okinawa Rails, our last nighttime attempt. We stayed out until 11:00 p.m. but didn't succeed.
|Day 11, Tuesday, November 24, 1998
|After our 7:30 a.m. breakfast at the hotel, we loaded up
our luggage and headed up to the Yambaru area one more time. We had
outstanding looks at Okinawa Woodpecker near Aha, and heard Japanese
Wood-Pigeon. On the way to the airport we stopped at the fields near
Kin, which apparently used to be more rice, but seemed to be mostly
Taro, making it difficult to see the few birds that were there.
We had a quick dinner at the airport and caught our flight to Tokyo. We arrived at Haneda Airport just after 10:00 p.m. and got a bus to the ferry dock, and boarded the ferry leaving for Hokkaido. We got settled into our first-class cabins, which were bigger than some Latin American hotels we've stayed in recently, and departed at midnight.
|Day 12, Wednesday, November 25, 1998
|In order to get to the open sea, we had to travel south
out of Tokyo Harbor, head east, then turn back north. By sunrise we were
well offshore, but still in sight of land off of Chiba Prefecture, but
only due east of Tokyo. We spent the entire day at sea. Sunrise was at
6:25 a.m. so we got out on deck at 6:00 a.m. for first light. There was
great seabirding all day. Sunset was at 4:15 p.m. as we were off of
Iwata Prefecture, and birds were still flying.
|Day 13, Thursday, November 26, 1998
|Thanksgiving day. At first light, we were out on deck to
watch the sunrise. We were treated to a rare Green Flash, our fourth. We
arrived in Kushiro Harbor seeing lots of gulls but not a single Alcid.
Apparently we were too early for the Alcids to be in yet. We got off the
ferry and got organized (with breakfast) in Kushiro. After an
interesting experience in a Japanese bank trying to exchange U.S.
dollars for Yen, we were on our way north to the Akan Crane Center.
We stayed for about 3 hours, and after getting our fill of the magnificent Red-crowned Cranes (or maybe not), we headed east to Nemuro, through the Akan National Park. There was a lot of snow on the road, and it was a very beautiful coniferous forest. But the road was treacherous, and we arrived in Nemuro too late to visit Mr. Y to see the Blakiston's Fish-Owl on his private property. Armas called ahead and made arrangements to visit tomorrow morning. We went to the East Harbor Hotel in Nemuro for the night.
|Day 14, Friday, November 27, 1998
|We were out at 6:00 a.m. to drive east of Nemuro along the
Nosappu Peninsula to look for eagles, gulls, and other species. We
succeeded in all targets, then went to Mr. Y's for our 10:00 a.m.
appointment. The birds were roosting behind his house, so gave us
incredible views. This owl is HUGE. Much larger than a Great Horned or
even a Great Gray. We arranged to return around 4:00 p.m. to watch them
depart their roost.
On the way back to Nemuro, we stopped at a small nature center that had bird feeders that were visible from inside the building. This was a very productive and rewarding stop. At a nearby lake, there was a good number of Whooper Swans that were apparently acclimated to the presence of human photographers. We also went southwest of Nemuro, to Ochiishi Point, where we saw our only Japanese birder, and our only Alcid (although some saw Ancient Murrelet this morning). We couldn't agree on the species, and discussed it much of the afternoon.
At 4:00 p.m. we returned to Mr. Y's and watched as the two Blakiston's Fish-Owls got restless and slowly departed their roost, seeming to move off only one or two trees at a time. We went back to the hotel for dinner. Nancy, Louise, and I went out with Armas to a nearby coniferous forest to try for Ural Owl and Collared Scops-Owl. All we heard was a fox and some of the Whooper Swans from the nearby estuary. It was snowing the entire time we were out. We got back to the hotel around 9:00 p.m., which seemed much later since it had gotten dark around 4:15 p.m.!
|Day 15, Saturday, November 28, 1998
|It was still snowing in the morning, but there only seemed
to be an inch or two on the ground. We birded east of Nemuro before
breakfast, but the snow made it difficult to see anything but gulls. We
stayed behind with Richard to photograph some of the gulls. After
breakfast we went to the nature center west of Nemuro and briefly
checked the feeders. We also checked some reference books in their
library and finally agreed that yesterday's Alcid was probably a
juvenile Spectacled Guillemot. We also got information that the road
through the pine forest where we went owling last night was verging on
impassable, so we didn't have the expected opportunities for
We went to Furenko and the Notsuke Peninsula northwest of Nemuro, with flocks of Whooper Swans in the bay and good numbers of White-tailed Eagles. The highlight, and capper for the day, was a spectacular adult Steller's Sea-Eagle sitting right next to the road.
We then drove 3 1/2 hours back to the Kushiro Airport, passing through most of the forests of Akan National Park in the dark, and following a bus in the snowy conditions. We dropped Louise off, after Armas negotiated her onto a different flight since she had missed hers. We checked in to the ANA Hotel in Kushiro and had a farewell dinner.
|Day 16, Sunday, November 29, 1998
|We met Richard in the lobby of the hotel for a little
last-minute gull and duck watching near the hotel. We then left for the
airport to catch our flight to Tokyo. We landed at Haneda Airport, and
had to get to Narita Airport, but there was enough time to try and get
to the bookstore near Tokyo Station. So, we took a bus (along with Armas)
to Tokyo Station where we had to take a cab to the bookstore. Despite
the assurances of an English-speaking woman at the information booth,
the bookstore was closed when we got there. We then took another bus to
Narita Airport where we caught our United Airlines flight to Chicago.
The flight departed at about 7:00 p.m. The pilot claimed the flight would be 10 hours and 17 minutes, which was two hours less than the flight out. Thank goodness! Especially so, since there was a lot of turbulence on the flight, preventing us from getting much sleep. Nancy's seat belt was broken for the entire trip, and the attendants were unable (and one was rather crabby) to do anything about it. We arrived in Chicago at 2:15 p.m. local time, about an hour ahead of schedule. We caught our flight departing at 5:05 p.m. and arrived home in Detroit by 7:30 p.m.