Highlights of this spectacular winter trip include views of Japan’s most famed wildlife: flocks of Steller’s sea eagles, Japanese cranes, Blakiston’s fish owl, and Japanese macaques bathing in hot springs.
Hokkaido, Japan’s most northerly island, is covered with snow, the rivers frozen over, and the wintry countryside graced by the stately Japanese crane, with its elaborate courtship rituals. Along the rugged coastline we search for seabirds in the many bays and inlets, and at the fishing village of Rausu find Steller’s sea eagles, attracted by the cold, rich waters of the Okhotsk Sea. We also search the snowy woodlands for another rarity, Blakiston’s fish owl, which hunts along the riverbanks.
On return to Tokyo, we stay overnight so can see something of the frenetic pace of city life before taking a shinkansen – bullet train – northwest to Nagano, to enjoy the iconic sight of Japanese macaques a.k.a. snow monkeys bathing in natural hot springs at Jigokudani (Hell’s Valley).
No visit to Japan would be complete without savouring the country’s extraordinary cultural richness, so in Nagano we visit one of the country’s foremost religious sites, the temple of Zenko-ji, which houses the very first statue of Buddha brought from India. During our stay we experience many of Japan’s customs and traditions for ourselves: our accommodation includes a traditional Japanese ryokans (inns), we bathe Japanese-style in onsen (natural hot springs), and enjoy the country’s legendary cuisine.
Day1: Depart UK
Day2: Arrive Tokyo & fly to Hokkaido; drive to Kawayu via Tsrurumi-dai & Lake Kussharo
On arrival in Tokyo we connect to a flight to Kushiro on Japan’s most northerly island, Hokkaido. At this time of year Hokkaido is significantly colder than Tokyo, and invariably covered with a dusting of snow. From Kushiro we continue north across a wintry landscape to Kawayu.
En route we stop at Tsrurumidai for our first sighting of Japanese or red-crowned crane. In the early twentieth century this elegant bird was virtually extirpated by hunting, but the 192Os saw an extraordinary conservation initiative, as a result of which the population has grown from 20 to more than 1,000 individuals. Winter is the best time to see them – as they congregate at feeding points and frequently delight observers with their elaborate and graceful courtship displays.
Our final stop is at Lake Kussharo, a beautiful volcanic caldera on a migration flyway. Although largely frozen in winter, some areas remain ice-free due to warm springs that emanate from the lakebed, and attract whooper swans, which congregate on the lakeshore.
Hokkaido is noticeably more traditional and conservative than Tokyo, and tonight we enjoy our first taste of Japan – a traditional meal which our local guide will talk us through, along with the ins and outs of dining Japanese-style. If we still have the energy, we can try the hotel’s onsen - natural hot spring.
This morning we set off early for Otowa Bridge on the Setsuri-gawa River near Tsurui, to see cranes roosting – it’s a great place to watch these awesome creatures before the morning mist burns off. White-tailed eagle and even the occasional Steller’s sea eagle are found here, and Ural owl is sometimes seen nearby.
Our visit to Tsurui Ito Crane Sanctuary coincides with morning feeding. Although the cranes are wild, feeding sites supplement the food the birds find naturally with grain and fish, to minimise conflict with farmers. This provides the best opportunity to watch the birds as they feed and – hopefully – perform their elaborate courtship rituals.
After lunch, we retrace our route to Akan National Park and spend the rest of the day exploring the sub-arctic coniferous forest, caldera lakes and volcanoes. Traditionally mined for sulphur, the area now provides refuge to mammals such as sika deer, red fox, Japanese sable and brown bear (although these last will be hibernating).
Our hotel lies close to Lake Mashū, which was formed by volcanic activity and is regarded as one of Japan’s most beautiful lakes. We can hire snowshoes to walk the trails to various viewpoints around the crater to see birdlife, which includes Eurasian nuthatch, coal tit and great spotted woodpecker, plus a pair of white-tailed eagles.
Day4: Drive to Rausu
This morning we head first to the 500-metre-high volcano of Iō-san (Sulphur Mountain), near the hotel, which boasts more than 1,500 vents that leach sulfurous gases into the atmosphere, while its subterranean geothermal activity heats the onsen.
Our route leads east via Shibetsu harbour, where we pause to look for harlequin and long-tailed ducks, and white-tailed eagles, and the coast road to the fishing village of Rausu, on the edge of Shiretoko National Park. We have good views over the Okhotsk Sea and of seabirds that include spectacled and Brünnich’s guillemots, ancient murrelet, least auklet, pelagic cormorant, glaucous-winged gull and rafts of sea ducks.
Rausu looks just like many other Japanese fishing villages, but is the home of many Steller’s sea eagles that winter here. If conditions permit, we take a boat trip along the coast and through the pack ice to see Steller’s and white-tailed eagles as they swoop to snatch fish from the surface of the water.
On return, we head to our hotel to relax for a while before heading out to Washi no Yado fish owl observatory, where a heated hide overlooks a floodlit stretch of river where Blakiston’s fish owls hunt regularly.
Accommodation: Minenoyu Hotel or Rausu Daiichi Hotel, 2-nights
Day5: In Rausu
This morning we make a very early start for a sunrise boat trip to see eagles leaving their roosts and heading out to sea to hunt. The sight of large numbers of these huge birds flying overhead in the morning light is a delight for photographers!
We spend the rest of the day exploring north of Rausu and along the Shiretoko Peninsula. In the harbour we may come across harlequin duck, goldeneye and goosander, while the river attracts whooper swan, pintail, and the occasional eagle. Along the coast Steller’s and white-tailed eagles are often seen.
In the late afternoon we pay another visit to Washi no Yado sanctuary to watch for Blakiston’s fish owl again.
Day6: Drive to Yoroushi
We take an early walk along the river and through the woodlands to look for birds that include Eurasian nuthatch, Japanese pygmy-woodpecker, dusky thrush, willow tit and brown dipper. We then follow the coast south, stopping to bird en route, to Yoroushi, where we spend our last night in Hokkaido.
In the afternoon we explore trails around the lodge in hope of spotting brown dipper, crested kingfisher and solitary snipe. Or we can watch the bird feeders from the comfort and warmth of the lodge to see brown-eared bulbul, great spotted woodpecker, Japanese tit, hawfinch and dusky thrush, and even Hokkaido red squirrel.
As night falls we watch from the lodge’s fireplace for a pair of Blakiston’s fish owls that nest locally and come to fish in the outdoor pond, as well as for Japanese sable. Although the setting is not entirely natural, when and if the fish owls arrive, we can watch them from surprisingly close.
Accommodation: Hotel Daiichi, Yoroushi, 1-night
Day7: Drive to Lake Furen & continue to Kushiro; fly to Tokyo
On our final day on Hokkaido we start early and drive to Nemuro, in the southeast, where Steller’s sea eagles, white-tailed eagles and black-eared kites congregate on the ice of Lake Furen to squabble for fish scraps that a café-owner puts out each day. Watching the birds and the different tactics they use to grab their share is hugely entertaining, and offers great photographic opportunities.
We continue to Kushiro for a flight back to Tokyo and take a short train ride into Shinagawa district for our overnight stop at a hotel close to the station.
Shinagawa Prince Hotel, Tokyo, 1-night
Day8: Shinkansen to Nagano & transfer to Yamanouchi
This morning we take a local train into central Tokyo to catch a shinkansen – high-speed bullet train – to Nagano, around 240 kilometres to the northwest, in little more than an hour and a half. On arrival, we drive out to our hotel in the small town of Yamanouchi in the Japanese Alps.
The afternoon is free so we can explore our new surroundings. The mountains of the Japanese Alps are known for winter sports (remember the 1998 Winter Olympics?), but their most famous residents are Japanese macaques, a.k.a. snow monkeys which bathe in hot springs in winter.
Taiokyan Yamatoya Hotel, Yamanouchi, 2-nights
Day9: Yamanouchi: visit to see Japanese macaques
This morning we take a shuttle bus then walk a scenic two-kilometre-trail through dense conifer cover to Jigokudani (Hell’s Valley), the valley of the Yokoyu River, which is home to two large troops of Japanese macaques.
The most northerly of all the primates, Japanese macaques have adapted to the intense cold (down to -20⁰ Celsius!) by growing larger and developing a thicker coat. To keep themselves warm these highly intelligent animals bathe in the hot springs – and their enjoyment is evident from their expressions!
Day10: Drive to Nagano & visit Zenko-ji; shinkansen to Tokyo
This morning we drive back into Nagano. The prefecture’s capital dates from 642 AD when the temple of Zenko-ji was relocated here. Today it’s a destination for the millions of pilgrims who visit. We enjoy a guided tour of the temple to learn about its history and traditions.
In the afternoon take a shinkansen back to Tokyo, and retrace our route by train back to our hotel in Shinagawa. Whatever is left of the afternoon is free to explore, until we enjoy the final dinner of the trip (not included).
Shinagawa Prince Hotel, Tokyo, 1-night
Day11: Fly to the UK
This morning we transfer to Tokyo airport by limousine bus and check in for a direct flight to London, arriving later the same day.
You should note: Most of our hotels have western-style rooms with private bathroom; on Hokkadio we stay in ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), which have a futon laid on the floor, rather than a bed.
Duration and price including flights from/to UK: 11 daysfrom £5,495 pp
Duration and price excluding international flights: 10 daysfrom £4,995 pp
Jigokudani Monkey Park offers visitors the unique experience of seeing wild Japanese macaques bathing in natural hot springs. Located deep in the forests of the Jigokudani Valley near Yamanouchi, the springs provide welcome relief from the freezing winter temperatures.