Japan in Spring

Although winter is the most famous time for foreign birders to visit Japan, spring is a fascinating time to come to this unique country, and many endemics and breeding birds are best seen at this time of year. We will be targeting as many of these as possible on this tour. We begin in Okinawa, which has a totally different feel than the rest of the country. The Ryukyu islands, were formerly part of an independent Ryukyu Kingdom until 1879, when they were annexed by Japan. But they are both culturally and biologically unique, with about 9 endemic species and 7 additional taxa that could well be endemic species splits. After exploring both the main island plus the unique island of Amami Oshima in search of their many endemics, we will fly to Tokyo on Honshu, the largest of Japan’s 4 main islands. Here we will search reed beds near Tokyo for localized breeding birds, explore the forested slopes of Karuizawa in Nagano prefecture, and then the area around Mt Fuji, Japan’s iconic highest mountain. We end the tour with a boat ride to the island of Miyakejima where we will search for more endemics and enjoy some great sea-watching on the way back. We also offer an extension to Hokkaido, often dubbed the Alaska of Japan, which has the largest expanses of wilderness in the country. Winter attractions like Blakiston’s Fish-Owl and Red-crowned Cranes can still be seen at this time of year, but there are many other great breeding birds that cannot be seen in winter.

Day 1: Naha. We begin the tour in Naha, the prefectural capital of Okinawa. Okinawa is the most tropical of Japan’s prefectures and home to some great endemics. On Okinawa’s honto, or main island, our main targets will be the rare Okinawa Rail and Pryer’s or Okinawa Woodpecker. To search for these we will head to the north of the island and the Yanbaru area which gives the rail its Japanese name, yanbaru-kuina. We will keep an eye out for the beautiful Roseate and Black-naped Terns along the idyllic coast line before arriving at our well situated lodge for a two-night stay.

Okinawa Rail
Okinawa Rail (Dave Irving)

Day 2: Okinawa. The stunning Okinawa Rail, remarkably only first described to science in 1981, is quite common in northern Okinawa, but still considered endangered due its population size of less than 1000 individuals and threats such as conversion of habitat to golf courses and predation by feral cats. The other extreme rarity is the maroon Pryer’s Woodpecker, which has a total population in the low hundreds. We will have a full day to explore this fascinating area in search of our target Okinawa Rail and Pryer’s Woodpecker and will also hope for other local specialties including Okinawa Robin and Japanese Paradise Flycatcher. At this time of year we may also pick up one or 2 late migrants that pass through the Ryukyu island chain. At night we will take an ‘owl-prowl’ in search of Northern Boobooks, and Elegant and Japanese Scops-Owls.

Day 3: Okinawa to Amami. After our final birding here we will drive south to Naha where we will board our flight to Amami-Oshima; one of the most northerly of the Ryukyu Islands which actually lies in Kagoshima prefecture. Amami is a small island but home to 2 endemic bird species: Lidth’s Jay and Amami Woodcock. In addition, endemic races of White-backed Woodpecker and Scaly Thrush are considered by some to be full species: Owston’s Woodpecker & Amami Thrush; the latter is thought to number only 60-100 individuals.

The endangered Amami subspecies of Scaly Thrush is one of the main targets on the gorgeous Amami Oshima.
The endangered Amami subspecies of Scaly Thrush is one of the main targets on the gorgeous Amami Oshima. (Andrew Spencer)

Day 4-5: Amami Oshima. We have two full days to explore this lush forest laden with enormous tree ferns, in search of our many targets. The maroon-and-sapphire Lidth’s Jay will be welcome sight, as will the slew of cross-island endemics such as Ryukyu Green-Pigeon, Ryukyu Flycatcher, Ryukyu Minivet, Ryukyu Robin, and Elegant Scops-Owl. We will also be sure to look for the many distinct subspecies that could well be split in the near future. We will spend some time at night on Amami looking for the incredible endemic Amami Woodcock and the weird marsupial-like Amami Black Rabbit.

Ryukyu Robin varies quite a bit between the different islands in the Ryukyus; the ones in Amami are especially good looking.
Ryukyu Robin varies quite a bit between the different islands in the Ryukyus; the ones in Amami are especially good looking. (Andrew Spencer)

Day 6: Amami to Tokyo. After a final spot of birding in search of any remaining targets, we will board our flight to Tokyo where we will spend the night.

Day 7: Tonegawa to Karuizawa. We will leave early this morning and head to the Tonegawa River where we will bird the dense read beds in search of two local specialties, the Japanese Reed Bunting and Marsh Grassbird (also known as Japanese Swamp Warbler). We will also hope to see some dapper male buntings and the flight displays of the normally skulking grassbirds. Other birds we may see in this area include Eurasian Bittern, Japanese Green Pheasant, Oriental Reed-Warbler, and Meadow Bunting. From here we will cross Tokyo and head west into the “Japanese Alps” to the hot spring resort town of Karuizawa on the forested slopes of the Mt. Asayama. We will spend two nights in this attractive and well-situated town.

Day 8: Karuizawa area. On our full day at Karuizawa we will explore the beautiful forests in search of Japanese Pygmy-Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker, the endemic Japanese Green Woodpecker, Siberian Blue Robin, Japanese Thrush, Blue-and-White and Narcissus Flycatchers, Japanese Grosbeak, and the extremely shy endemic Copper Pheasant. On the mountain streams we should see Brown Dipper, and in nearby habitat we may be lucky enough to find Japanese Yellow Bunting, Chestnut-cheeked Starlings plus Northern Hawk-Cuckoo and Lesser Cuckoo. We may visit a local river in search of Mandarin Duck and Long-billed Plover, and in old paddyfields in the forested hills we might even find a Latham’s Snipe. On a night drive we will search for Ural Owl and the elusive Tanuki or Racoon Dog, plus Sika Deer and Red Fox.

Narcissus Flycatcher
Narcissus Flycatcher (Dave Irving)

Day 9: Mount Fuji area to Gotemba. After some final birding in the Karuizawa area, we will drive to the most famous landmark in Japan. At 12385 ft. (3776 m.), Mt. Fuji is also Japan’s highest mountain. We will stop in the town of Gotemba on the northern side of Mt. Fuji where we will spend the night.

Day 10: Mt. Fuji to Tokyo ferry. Today we will explore the different elevations and habitats around Mt. Fuji, from the treeline scrub to coniferous and deciduous forests. As well as the high elevation endemic Japanese Accentor, we also hope to find Red-flanked Bluetail, Spotted Nutcracker, Japanese and Sakhalin Leaf Warblers, Japanese and Siberian Blue Robins, Brown-headed and Siberian Thrushes, and maybe even Northern Hawk-Cuckoo. After a full morning’s birding and lunch, we will start to head back to Tokyo where we will board an overnight boat to the island of Miyakejima in the Izu island chain.

Day 11: Miyakejima. Our ferry will arrive around dawn and after breakfast we will start our full day of birding. We will explore the patches of remaining forest on the island looking for the endemic Izu Thrush and breeding endemic Ijima’s Warbler. The endemic race of Varied Tit has now split by some as the Izu Tit. We will also search for Black (Japanese) Wood-Pigeon, the Izu race of Japanese Robin and the very restricted Pleske’s Warbler, which we should find in coastal scrub. Looking out to sea from the rocky coastline we may see some Brown Boobies diving into the waves. At night we will take a walk in search of Northern Boobook.

Day 12: Tokyo. After some final birding on the island, we will hop on the ferry back to Tokyo, and we should have a full afternoon of sea-watching. On the crossing, we should see some Short-tailed Shearwaters among the larger numbers of Streaked, and hopefully Black-footed Albatross, Tristram’s Storm-Petrel and Pomarine Skua. With a bit of luck, we may even see the tiny near-endemic Japanese Murrelet. Any other pelagic rarities will be a welcome bonus. We will arrive at the port and transfer to a hotel for an overnight stay.

Day 13: Departure. The tour ends this morning in the Tokyo airport.



Day 1: Oketo Lake. This morning we will board our flight to the most northerly of Japan’s main islands, Hokkaido. This the wildest and most scenic area of Japan and is often called Japan’s Alaska. Upon arrival we will head to the forested mountains of the interior. We will pass some beautiful scenery on the way before arriving at our rustic hotel near Lake Oketo for a two night stay.

Day 2: Oketo Lake. We will spend a full day in search of our main targets, Hazel Grouse and Black Woodpecker. We should also see many other great birds, including Gray-headed Woodpecker, Narcissus Flycatcher, Siberian Blue and Japanese Robins, White-throated Needletail, Red-flanked Bluetail, Brown-headed Thrush, Eurasian Treecreeper, and Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler. At night we will take a walk looking for Gray Nightjar, Ural Owl and Oriental Scops-Owl, and we may be lucky enough to find some Eurasian Woodcocks roding over the forest. This area can also be good for mammals and sometimes even Brown Bear is seen.

Day 3: Oketo to Rausu. After some final birding at Oketo we will start our scenic drive to Rausu on the Shiretoko Peninsular in the northeast corner of Hokkaido. We will have several birding stops along the way and may well encounter Pine Grosbeak, Siberian Rubythroat and Gray Bunting. The main reason for our stay in Rausu is to see the Blakiston’s Fish Owl. These enormous owls are well staked out and out at our traditional minshuku lodging, where staff put out fish in a small pond next to a stream. We will be perfectly positioned as the restaurant looks directly over the spot and we will be dining on some great seafood while we wait for them to show.

Blakiston's Fish-Owl
Blakiston's Fish-Owl (Dave Irving)

Day 4: Rausu to Kiritappu. Today we will drive south along the coast from Rausu and visit the Notsuke Peninsula. We will spend some time sea-watching for Rhinoceros Auklet, Spectacled Guillemot, and possibly Short-tailed Shearwater, and also look for lingering Glaucous and Glaucous-winged Gulls amongst the more common Slaty-backed Gulls. On the Notsuke Peninsula we are likely to see our first Red-crowned Cranes of the trip. At this time of the year they will be paired up and stalking gracefully through the marshes. From here we will head farther south, stopping in at Lake Furen on the way to Kiritappu where we will spend the night.

Day 5: Kiritappu to Tokyo. On our last morning we will visit the marshes of the Kiritappu area. Here we hope to see Red-crowned Cranes, the amazing aerial displays of many Latham’s Snipes, and Falcated Duck; on the boardwalk through the meadows we will look for singing Lanceolated Warbler, Middendorff’s Grasshopper-Warbler, as well as Long-tailed Rosefinch, Siberian Rubythroat and many others. From the cliffs we will look out to sea, searching for Harlequin Duck, Spectacled Guillemot, and may even see White-tailed Eagles soar by. After our last birding of the trip, we drive back to Kushiro airport where we will board our flights back to Tokyo, where we end the tour.

Red-crowned Crane
Red-crowned Crane (Dave Irving)



PACE: Moderate. Sunrise is around 4:30am on Hokkaido & Karuizawa but just before 6am on Okinawa. Although it is not imperative to be out at the crack of dawn, we will have early starts to catch the best birding activity. Some days we may have optional pre-breakfast birding. We will also offer owling after dark, which while optional, will give us some long days. In lodges with two night stays, there may be the option of having some down time in the middle of the day. The driving isn’t too bad on this trip, with very few drives of four or more hours. Most meals will be in restaurants, but several lunches will be bought at convenience stores as this gives us more flexibility.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. Most of the walking will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks although there will be some longer walks along narrower forest trails. All walks are done at a slow pace. Anyone with a reasonably good level of fitness will have no problems.

CLIMATE: Very pleasant in general. Cool in Hokkaido to warm in Okinawa, with temperatures ranging from about 37° to 48°F (3° to 9°C) on Hokkaido, 41° to 65°F (5° to 18°C) in Karuizawa, and 71° to 80°F (22° to 27°C) in Okinawa. There is very likely to be some rain on at least several days of the trip.

ACCOMMODATION: We will stay in two distinctly different types of accommodation on this tour: Typical western style accommodation with private bathrooms, and Japanese style minshukus. The minshukus are normally large shared rooms for two or three people. The bathrooms are large, shared bathrooms. There is some etiquette about the use of such bathrooms, and we will discuss this at the start of the tour. Minshukus do not have single accommodations available, and the single supplement for this tour has been calculated based only on the accommodations where we can provide single rooms. We use the Minshukus because they are located at some of the best birding localities, and some of their owners are birders that supply excellent local information. They also provide a distinct and unique Japanese “flavor” to the tour, and most people really enjoy the experience of staying in them.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will have numerous great opportunities to photograph birds, and the scenery is often superb as well.


TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required for entry into Japan. It must be valid for at least 6 months past the time of your scheduled return. Currently, visas are not required for citizens of the US, Canada, the UK, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. For other countries, please check your nearest embassy or consulate for current requirements, or ask us for help. Travel requirements are subject to change; it is a good idea to double check several weeks before the tour.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation on the main tour from the night of day 1 to the night of day 12, and, if taking the extension, through to the night of day 4 of the extension; meals from lunch on day 1 to breakfast on day 13, and if taking the extension, to lunch on day 5 of the extension; some drinks (the lodges typically include water or juice and tea or coffee with each meal, and if any meal does not include drinks, Tropical Birding will provide reasonable non-alcoholic beverages for that meal); safe drinking water between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio playback gear from day 1 to the evening of day 12 of the main tour, and, if taking the extension, to day 5 of the extension; ground transport in a suitable vehicle (often driven by the tour leader) for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 1 to the evening of day 12, and, if taking the extension, from day 1 to day 5 of the extension; internal flights as specified in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters if you require their services; international flights; excess luggage charges; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.