Blakiston's Fish Owl © Jun Matsui

Japan in Winter – Winter birding at its best [11th – 25th February 2019]

This 15 day tour takes you from the bustling metropolis of Tokyo to the snowy wastes of Hokkaido taking in the best of Japan winter birding. We visit the crane centres at Arasaki and Akan, the forested hillsides of the Japanese Alps, the wetlands around Kaga and the pack ice off the Shiretoko peninsula.


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  • Tour Duration
    15 Days
  • Difficulty Level Fairly Easy
  • Group Size Small Group
All about the Japan in Winter – Winter birding at its best [11th – 25th February 2019].

This 15 day tour takes you from the bustling metropolis of Tokyo to the snowy wastes of Hokkaido taking in the best of Japanese winter birding. We visit the crane centres at Arasaki and Akan, the forested hillsides of the Japanese Alps, the wetlands around Kaga and the pack ice off the Shiretoko peninsula.

We hope to see monkeys bathing in hot springs surrounded by snow, sea eagles sat upon the pack ice or harbour walls and the magnificent Blakiston’s Fish Owl coming in to feed outside our bedroom windows. This is a great opportunity to visit a fascinating and beautiful country with expert and experienced guides.

This tour has many great photographic opportunities for those with a passion for photography with Japan’s winter background providing great atmospheric shots.

Tour Accommodation

Accommodation will vary from western style hotels as in Tokyo, to onsens, (comfortable hotels with an opportunity to soak in the hot springs around which they are built) to traditional Japanese guest-houses or minshuku, with sliding walls, tatami rush matting, futon bedding, and wonderful deep hot bath tubs. Japanese culture is also a feature of the trip and we will be careful to observe the local etiquette. The food is also very distinct, with a fantastic selection of sauces for the fish, rice, and vegetable dishes which make up the traditional cuisine.

Tour Difficulty

This is not a strenuous tour and participants need to be of only moderate fitness. You may wish to bring a walking stick and ice grippers as, while the majority of birding will be done from the roadside, there will be some walking along some probably snowy forest tracks in the Japanese Alps and snow and ice in Hokkaido.  Temperatures will range from cold in the south to extremely cold in Hokkaido where temperatures of around -20C and below are not unusual.

The tour package inclusions and exclusions at a glance
What is included in this tour?Items that are included in the cost of tour price.
  • Meals as per itinerary
  • Accommodation as per itinerary
  • Checklist
  • Guide services of tour leader
  • Group tips & gratuities
  • Transfers once tour has started
Whats not included in this tour.Items that are not included in the cost of tour price.
  • Travel insurance and other emergencies
  • Visa fees and entry clearing fees
  • Flights (Domestic & International)
  • Drinks
  • Items of a personal nature
  • Laundry
  1. Day 1 Arrival in Japan

    Arrive Narita and after entry formalities transfer to hotel on free shuttle bus. Depending on arrival times there may be a chance to do some exploration of Tokyo. There will be a welcome dinner that evening.

  2. Day 2 Japanese Alps

    Leaving Narita we will drive up into the Japanese Alps and the resort town of Karuizawa birding along the way. The snowy forests will be our first real taste of winter birding in Japan. The feeders at the hotels can be a major attraction as we go out in search of Japanese (Green) and Japanese Pygmy woodpeckers, Varied, Great, Marsh, Coal, and Long-tailed tits, Dusky Thrush, Eurasian Jay, Meadow and Black-faced buntings, Asian Rosy-Finch, Long-tailed Rosefinch, Hawfinch, and the comical looking Japanese Grosbeak. There is also a chance for Smew, Crested Kingfisher, Long-billed Plover, Japanese Accentor, Red Crossbill, Pallas’s Rosefinch, Japanese or Bohemian Waxwing (if it is an invasion year), and the elusive Copper Pheasant.

  3. Day 3 Japanese Alps (2)

    Full day bird watching and photography in the Karuizawa area.

  4. Day 4 Snow Monkeys, Hot Springs & Kanazawa

    Leaving Karuizawa we will drive to Jigokudani Yaen Park to view the famous Snow Monkeys, a terrestrial monkey native to Japan. In the mornings during the winter the monkeys descend from the forests, where they spend the night, to the warm waters of the onsens, or hot springs. The monkeys are remarkable for the amount of time they spend relaxing in these hot springs, and we’ll observe them as they laze about in the snow- surrounded pools. They offer great photographic opportunities. Having gotten our fill of the monkeys, we’ll continue to Kanazawa. On our way we’ll stop at Lake Kahokugata and the wetlands surrounding it. The area is an important staging area and wintering grounds for waterfowl, and particularly shorebirds.

  5. Day 5 Drive to Kaga

    We’ll drive today to Kaga, stopping at the wetland reserve of Katano-Kamo along our route. There should be hundreds of wintering ducks and geese here including Falcated and Smew, as well as a wintering flock of Baikal Teal for which the reserve is known.

  6. Day 6 Fly to Izumi

    After early morning birding around Kaga we will transfer to Komatsu airport and fly to Izumi.

  7. Day 7 Visit Crane Centre

    Today should be one of the most memorable of the tour. With Hooded and White-naped cranes wintering here by the thousands, Arasaki is a major refuge for both species. The crane flocks can number up to 10,000 birds, one of the largest assemblages of them on Earth. They give tremendous views as they come to feed on fish and grain put out early in the morning, before dispersing out to the fields for the day. Other species of cranes also turn up here, so both Common and Sandhill are a fair bet, while Siberian White and Demoiselle are an outside possibility.

    The fields hold flocks of wintering wildfowl, thrushes, buntings, and finches, with Chinese Penduline-Tit also a good possibility, as well as the scarce Long-billed Plover and endangered Black-faced Spoonbill. Woodland areas will give us a chance of Eurasian Sparrowhawk and the Japanese form of Eurasian Buzzard that may well be a distinct species, along with Japanese Wagtail, Brown Dipper, and Crested Kingfisher.

    We’ll be staying in a hotel close to the Crane Centre. During our stay here we’ll visit sites that are wintering grounds for two major East Asian rarities, both critically endangered, Black-faced Spoonbill, which feeds along the tidal flats, while Saunders’s Gulls fly over searching for crabs. We will have a good chance of other birds as well, and a few of these include Japanese Pheasant, Buff-bellied and Red-throated pipits, Siberian Meadow, Chestnut-eared and Rustic buntings, Chinese Penduline Tit, and Daurian Jackdaw, with a check for Japanese Murrelet along the coast to the south.

    On one of our days here, depending on the tides, we’ll visit the Minami River mouth at Yatsushiro for the wintering flocks of gulls which can include as many as nine species, among them Great Black-headed (Pallas’s), Black-tailed, and the rare Saunders’s plus various forms of large gulls in the Herring Gull complex, mostly Vega.

  8. Day 8 Arasaki area birding

    More birding in the Arasaki area.

  9. Day 9 Lake Mi-ike

    This morning we’ll drive to Lake Mi-ike where Mandarin Duck, Scaly Thrush, and Gray Bunting are possible in addition to Ryukyu Minivet and maybe White-backed Woodpecker.

  10. Day 10 Fly to Kushiro

    This morning we will fly from Kagoshima to Kushiro with a stop in Haneda. We will visit the Red—crowned Crane sites at Tancho-no-Sato near Akan-gun.

  11. Day 11 Cranes & Blakiston’s Fish Owl

    Starting the day amongst the cranes we will then move northwards to the Rausu and the Shiretoko Peninsula. Our main object, the magnificent Blakiston’s Fish Owl—one of the largest owls in the world—is a regular visitor to our small minshuku where the stream and surrounding ponds are kept free of ice and stocked with fish.

    We will have to share rooms for this one night, but the small quarters are well worth it for wonderful sightings of this endangered and spectacular species.

  12. Day 12 Stellar's Sea Eagle & more

    Depending on the weather, we hope to make an early morning boat trip out to the edge of the pack ice for up-close and personal views of the marvellous Steller’s Sea Eagle. This offers close up photographic opportunities of these magnificent birds. We’ll spend another day in this rich area, birding the harbors and bays for Steller’s Sea Eagle, Whooper Swan, Harlequin Duck, and a variety of alcids before travelling south towards the wetlands of the Notsuke peninsula.

  13. Day 13 Birding Lake Furen are (1)

    Lake Furen is a well-known Japanese birding centre in the heart of Steller’s Sea-Eagle country. Here we’ll find a very different, wild, and snow-covered landscape where we expect to find some of the most spectacular birds of the trip during our two-night stay. Our host here is a keen birder, and from his warm and pleasant minshuku lodge we’ll seek out such marvels as Steller’s Sea Eagle, the largest of the family and a truly impressive creature—once seen never forgotten! Passerines will be very scarce, but Willow Tit, Eurasian Nuthatch, and Asian Rosy-Finch are likely.

  14. Day 14 Birding Lake Furen area (2)

    This will be a very full and exciting day with trips to Cape Nosappu and Cape Kiritappu, plus local Furen sights such as sea eagles gathered around fishing holes cut in the pack ice on the lake. Wildfowl and seabirds come into their own here, and we’ll search some of the unfrozen harbors and bays for wintering Harlequin Duck, Common Goldeneye, Long-tailed Duck, Black and White-winged scoters, Whooper Swan, and loons. Sea-watching will give us practice with alcids, and we may hope for Common Murre, Spectacled Guillemot, and a chance of Least and Crested auklets or Pigeon Guillemot, all depending on the year’s seabird distribution and the thickness of the ice. It is a good area, too, for northern gulls with Glaucous, Glaucous-winged, Slaty-backed, and Mew (Kamchatka) gulls possible.

  15. Day 15 Kushrio to Haneda & onward flights

    We’ll transfer to Kushiro airport for a late-morning flight back to Haneda and then to Narita for your onward flights.

  16. Itinerary & Checklist Download the Itinerary & Checklist

Click the links below to download past trip reports

2018 Trip Reports

Tour# 1: Japan in Winter – Winter birding at its best 2018 trip report

Tour# 2: Japan in Winter 2018 trip report

2017 Trip Reports

Tour #1: Japan in Winter 2017 trip report

2016 Trip Reports

Tour #1: Japan in Winter – Winter birding at its best 2016 trip report

Tour # 2: Japan in Winter 2016 trip report