After a three-week trip to Japan, I am now completely enamored with the country. The Japanese are extremely polite and make visitors feel very welcome, even when some of those visitors don’t deserve such courtesy (more on that in a moment). Just about everything is on a smaller scale than we’re used to here in the States — boxy little cars, teensy yards with miniature trees and shrubs kept perfectly manicured, itty-bitty portions of different foods in the most ornate presentations, napkins the size of scrap paper, and cramped prefab bathrooms like what you’d find in an RV instead of in a hotel. The Japanese love cartoons, with smiling little characters on signage, packaging, pretty much everything. And when is the last time you saw a barber pole? They were everywhere in Japan!
Meet the Birders
The first two weeks of the trip were spent on an organized birding tour. My partner, Dennis, and I met up near Narita Airport with our group, which consisted of our British guide, Pete; two very serious Swedes — one a big, strapping young fellow and the other an older, skinny guy who chain-smoked, drank day and night and otherwise subsisted on Coca-Cola, Pringles, hot dogs and pizza; a German guy named Rainer; and a fussy slowpoke from Wales named Brian. The group dynamic started out okay but quickly deteriorated as our guide and the Swedes were always in a hurry to get out on the trail and Brian continually lagged behind. Brian threw several tantrums (with justifiable complaints in several cases, although Dennis and I did our best to stay out of all the feuding and back-biting), and Pete had no patience for him whatsoever.
Pete had no patience or courtesy for the locals, either, openly mocking the way they spoke, giving them a hard time about the price of things (which was not as outrageous as we’d expected prices to be in Japan), and walking onto any private property he wished, despite obvious signs with the Japanese characters for “Do Not Enter” that I pointed out to him. Of course, he also made no effort to speak any Japanese, merely barking louder in English when someone didn’t understand him. Dennis and I were embarrassed to be a part of the group whenever we came into contact with locals. Despite all the tension, however, we enjoyed the birding out in the countryside, from the newly planted rice paddies to the beautiful mossy forests to the many seacoasts we explored in this island nation.
Our first destination, via bullet train, was the woodsy community of Karuizawa in the Japan Alps. The town had an interesting mix of log cabins, Swiss-style chalets and traditional Japanese architecture, and azaleas everywhere bloomed in gorgeous shades of red and pink. When we weren’t exploring the surrounding forests of larch and pine in search of birds — and to my delight, several troops of Japanese macaques, the local monkey specialty — we spent our time in several fallow fields lying in the shadow of the smoking volcano Asama looking for, among other things, the Latham’s snipe. We spent hours waiting for this bird to appear, and when it did on day two, it was a mere speck in the sky, but it did make the strangest, rather indescribable, sound during its dive-bombing display flight.
After just a few days we had seen more than a hundred different birds, more than half of what we would end up finding at the end of our nearly three-week trip. However, on any bird foray, you must move on to new habitats and locations once you’ve seen all that a given area has to offer. So we moved on to the southeastern side of Mt. Fuji to check out some of the higher altitude species like the clownish spotted nutcracker, the cute little goldcrest and the grey-bellied bullfinch with his big red cheeks.
Our first afternoon the cold fog and misting rain had rolled in, so we stopped at the visitors center to warm up with a hot plate of curry while we watched the birds titter about outside the window. It was hands-down the best Japanese-style curry I’ve ever had anywhere!
The next day we awoke to find Fuji-yama with snow on top, making it impossible for us to attempt the climb to the summit. Even without snow, the ascent is inadvisable except during July and August (and we were there in June), and the trail is merely a path through cinders above the treeline. However, we enjoyed the numerous hiking trails criss-crossing the eastern, southern, and western slopes of the mountain — some of the prettiest woods I’ve seen.
We then took a bus into the heart of Tokyo so we could catch an overnight ferry to the Izu Islands. The glimpse of Tokyo we had was daunting. Traffic was horrific and the city’s high-rises sprawled for miles. We arrived at the Shinjuku subway station, perhaps unwisely, at rush hour and the place swarmed with people moving in every direction. That was the easy part. We had to actually get on the subway next. Try to imagine seven sweating foreigners (with bulky luggage, no less) crammed into a standing-room-only subway, with more and people pushing their way into the car at each stop.
We boarded the ferry to Hachijo-jima well after dark and settled into our deluxe, spacious cabins. For a short time Dennis and I sat on the balcony to enjoy the views of the neon-studded Ferris wheels and city lights along Tokyo harbor before turning in.