Japan in Winter: Birdwatching on Ice

Sunday 26th January – Saturday 8th February 2020

For more information about this exciting trip, please email us on info@birdwatchingtrips.co.uk

The impressive Steller's Sea Eagle, top of our most wanted list. Photo by Keith Barnes

Japan is an archipelago that is as variable as it is exciting. From the subtropics of Kyushu to temperate Hokkaido, the stark mountains, jagged coastline, and forests hold several of the world’s must-see birds. This tour runs in winter, when the massive-billed Steller’s Sea-Eagles congregate on impressive ice floes waiting for fishermen’s scraps, and huge numbers of cranes gather at their wintering grounds. Add some great mixed-flock birding in the coniferous forests of the central islands, plus gulls and waterbirds galore, and you have a great mix of birding experiences. Another great experience is indulging in some sake (a pungent and strong white spirit) on a cold winter night while waiting for the Blakiston’s Fish-Owl at a floodlit waterhole stake-out. You will leave these enigmatic islands having experienced some of the greatest birding spectacles on earth. On this trip we spare no expense, including three pelagic outings on our main tour and running this as one of our trademark small-group Birdwatching Trips, an important consideration when comparing this to other Japan tours.

A very special encounter with Blakistons's Fish Owl is high on our itinerary. Photo by Sam Woods


Day 1: Sunday 26th January - Tokyo to Karuizawa.

The tour starts with a 10:00am meeting at a Narita Tokyo airport Hotel, from where we travel to the Karuizawa area for a two-night stay, and where we’ll begin our Japanese birding in earnest. Nestled on the slopes of the impressive Asamayama volcano, we’ll scour the snow-dusted forests for our first birds, including the remarkable Varied and cute Long-tailed Tits, Oriental Greenfinch and maybe our first endemics in the form of Japanese Green and Japanese Pygmy Woodpeckers. If we are lucky, we might even see some transient species such as Long-tailed Rosefinch, Pale Thrush, or the striking Meadow Bunting. We spend two nights in Karuizawa.

Day 2: Monday 27th January - Karuizawa.

The woodlands here support some superb birds, the finest ones being the endemic Copper Pheasant and immaculate Japanese Waxwing. As we search the quiet forest trails and streams looking for these, we hope to encounter the mighty Crested Kingfisher, Brown Dipper, Japanese Wagtail, Japanese Grosbeak, and Hawfinch. Overnight in Karuizawa.

Day 3: Tuesday 28th January - Karuizawa to Nagano.

We head to the amazing Snow Monkeys first thing this morning, where we enjoy watching them in the steam baths with icicles forming on their snow-matted fur. Then we head to Komatsu for a two-night stay.

Day 4: Wednesday 29th January - Western Honshu wetlands.

Honshu’s western coastline is a waterfowl paradise and we seek out some great rarities here amongst a swathe of common waterfowl. Katano Kamoike is a small sanctuary that holds Baikal Teal, Bewick’s Swan and both Taiga and Tundra Bean Geese. We may also see Falcated Duck, Greater White-fronted Goose and others today. Overnight in Komatsu.

Day 5: Thursday 30th January - Honshu to Hokkaido.

Today we fly* via Tokyo to the island of Hokkaido, Japan’s Alaska, where we spend the next five days. Huge tracts of taiga-like mountainous wilderness, covered in snow and ice fields make this the most visually stunning part of Japan. While bird species diversity is low in this barren icy seascape, it supports some of the world’s must-see birds including the spectacular, gargantuan Steller’s Sea-Eagle. We spend two nights in Nemuro.

Day 6: Friday 31st January - Nemuro Peninsula.

This area provides some of the most exciting and varied winter birding in Japan, with a good diversity of species. This morning we indulge in a pelagic trip off this finger of land where we hope to get great views of alcids like Least Auklet, Spectacled and Pigeon Guillemots and Ancient Murrelet. We’ll go as far as Cape Nosappu where the oceans are sometimes packed with sea ducks and gulls including Common Goldeneye and scoters, and cormorants. Red-throated Loon and Red-necked Grebe are also speciality species in this vicinity. Overnight in Nemuro.

Day 7: Saturday 1st February - Notsuke Peninsula to Rausu.

Today we scour the coastline and capes looking for sea ducks and alcids, including Black and White-winged Scoters, Harlequin Duck and Long-tailed Duck, and hopefully some rarer species like Spectacled Guillemot, Ancient Murrelet or Crested Auklet. The day should also yield an amazing gull-fest including the likes of Glaucous and Glaucous-winged gulls. We finish off the day in a forested valley where we will wait eagerly near a fishpond for one of the ultimate birds of the tour – the massive Blakiston’s Fish-Owl. We spend two nights in Rausu.

Day 8: Sunday 2nd February - Rausu sea trip.

Today’s boat trip is phenomenal. We head out between the ice rafts into a massive ice-sea. While gulls abound, we’ll mostly be on the lookout for eagles. We’ll notice the size difference between the already impressive White-tailed and simply gigantic Steller’s Sea-Eagles. These chocolate-and-white leviathans are crowded on the ice at times, and when our boatman starts throwing out fish scraps, they wheel in and gorge themselves within a few meters of the boat, offering unbelievable photographic opportunities. This evening we will try again for the temperamental Blakiston’s Fish-Owl if last night’s vigil proved luckless. Overnight in Rausu.

Day 9: Monday 3rd February - Rausu to Akan.

We will leave the Rausu area, and if we have time, we may stop in at Kiritappu, a great site for seawatching and Asian Rosy Finch, before arriving at Akan for the night. In the afternoon we will visit the Akan Crane Centre which is in easy walking distance of our lodge. We will have chances to photograph dozens of Red-crowned Cranes as they gather in the white powder snow to dance and bugle in an unforgettable nuptial display. We will overnight in Akan.

Day 10: Tuesday 4th February - Akan to Izumi.

We’ll fly* back to Tokyo (Haneda) and then on to Kagoshima on the southern island of Kyushu, which is bordering on subtropical. We head to the town of Izumi, home to the most impressive gathering of cranes in the world, for a two-night stay.

Day 11: Wednesday 5th February - Izumi.

This morning we will be blown away by one of the most awe-inspiring birding spectacles on Earth; a gathering of more than 10,000 cranes. The cacophony of bugling crane calls will be heard seemingly right outside our rooms in darkness before we have even left our beds. Regal White-naped Cranes join the more abundant Hooded Cranes, and by scouring these flocks of extremely elegant birds we may pick out a few Common or Sandhill cranes, or if we are really lucky, a vagrant Demoiselle or ghostly Siberian Crane. After this overwhelming experience we’ll tap into a variety of other habitats in the region. The coast may yield Temminck’s Cormorant and the scarce Saunder’s Gull. Fields and meadows should reveal buntings and pipits, and perhaps the verdant Green Pheasant. We will scour the rivers for one of the world’s toughest shorebirds, Long-billed Plover, while Japanese Bush-warblers skulk in the riparian thickets. Overnight in Izumi.

Day 12: Thursday 6th February - Izumi to Mi-ike.

After a final morning at Izumi, we will head to Mi-ike where we will stay overnight. On clear days we’ll see the impressive volcanic cone looming large in the background, while birds such as Ryuku Minivet, White-bellied Green Pigeon, Mountain Hawk-Eagle, Gray Bunting, White-backed Woodpecker and Japanese Grosbeak may thrill us in the foreground. We’ll also visit a lake where we search for some rare waterbirds, chiefly the genuine wild Mandarin Duck amongst the many common ducks. We will overnight in Kirishima.

Day 13: Friday 7th February - Mi-ike to Kadogawa.

We will take a boat trip out to Kadogawa Harbor to search for Japanese Murrelet. While out there, we may also encounter Vega, Black-tailed, and Slaty-backed Gulls, Great Crested Grebe, or Pacific Reef Heron. In the afternoon we will explore the Miyazaki coastline and check an estuary for the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill. We will overnight in Sadowara.

Day 14: Saturday 8th February - Kyushu to Tokyo.

After some final birding in the area, the main tour finishes today with a flight* back to Tokyo to connect with international flights home.

Red-crowned Cranes dancing in the snow. Photo by Keith Barnes

Trip Considerations


Moderate. Relatively early starts are necessary on some days (as early as 5:30am), such as when watching the cranes awaken at Tsuruimura & Arasaki. Because there are only about nine hours of daylight in mid-winter, there will not be much downtime during daylight hours, but there is usually plenty of time to relax during the long nights. The driving isn’t too bad on this trip, with drives of four or more hours on about two days of the trip. Most meals will be in restaurants, but several lunches will be bought at convenience stores as this gives us a lot more flexibility and saves valuable daylight birding time.

Physical difficulty:

Easy to moderate. Some of the birding will be from the car. 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 at Miike & Karuizawa. Due to snowy and icy conditions, suitable footwear is required, and walking sticks and crampons are also recommended. All walks are done at a slow pace. The longest walk is the 2.5 mile (4 km) roundtrip walk to see the Snow Monkeys, which has some inclined sections and some steps, but anyone with a reasonably good level of fitness can handle it.


Cold and possibly snowy for most of the trip, with temperatures ranging from about -14° to 0°C (7° to 32°F) in the coldest areas. Kyushu is the mildest place we will visit on this tour, with temperatures ranging from about 4° to 13°C (39° to 56°F). Blizzards are possible in some areas, and there is a chance of road closures, possibly causing on-the-spot changes to the itinerary. We try our very best to keep to the schedule and not miss any birds, but travel insurance is always a good idea.


We will stay in two distinctly different types of accommodation on this tour: Typical western style accommodation with private bathrooms, and Japanese style Minshukus (primarily in Hokkaido and usually four nights total). The Minshukus are normally large shared rooms for 2 or 3 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 is 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 ‘flavour’ to the tour, and most people really enjoy the experience of staying in them.

What’s included:

13 nights’ accommodation Day 1 Day 13 inclusive; all meals (breakfast, lunch and evening meal) from lunch on Day 1 to lunch on Day 14; soft drinks such as water, juice, tea or coffee with meals; safe drinking water between meals; at least two expert English-speaking bird guides from Day 1 until the evening of Day 14; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from 10am in the morning of Day 1 to the evening of Day 14; use of our field guides; shared use of our top-of-the-range telescopes; an individual printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings at the start of the tour.

What’s not included:

International flights to/from Japan; *internal flights as itemised in the itinerary, though we will be able to advise you which flights to book; excess luggage charges; snacks; additional drinks apart from those mentioned above; 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; optional tips to the tour guides; tips for luggage porters if you require their services; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.

Price per person TBC. Sorry but we do have to pass on the single room supplement of TBC for anyone wanting an individual room where available. Please see the paragraph on Accommodation above.

For more information or to reserve your place on this exciting trip, please email us on


We look forward to hearing from you and sharing Japan’s exciting birds with you!

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