May 28, 2013 by Rokman61
After the Eagle-Eye tour ended in Cambodia, George and I flew on to Japan to continue our adventures. I had been eagerly looking forward to this, because in 1969 I had purchased a Datsun 510 station wagon, and have been driving on Japanese ‘wheels’ ever since – and of course there are all those electronic devices and cameras we have been addicted to even longer. So I was quite excited about the opportunity of finally getting to see where all those wonderful products were coming from (and at the same time check on what they do with the money they get in return).
Our visit to Japan was in two parts, so I will present it that way.
En route to Vietnam to join the Eagle-Eye tour, George planned a route through Japan, with a one-night stopover in Narita. The following morning we had enough time to do a bit of birding (Part 1). After the tour we returned to Tokyo for the period of March 25 to April 3 (Part 2).
A perusal of any tour book for Japan will immediately convey the sense that there are two ‘attractions’ which get by far the most attention – namely shopping and shrines/temples. I will present a few temple images in Part 1, and briefly cover the shopping in Part 2.
Part 1, Narita, March 8
We were booked into a hotel that was close enough to a local park that we could do a morning walk before catching our flight to Vietnam. The park was on a bit of a hill, with a shrine/temple complex in the center, surrounded by gardens and some semi woodland. This is a view of the main gate to the complex.
Elsewhere in the complex: this photo shows the side of a structure with two dragon heads (above a set of doors) at the ends of the beams that carry the roof. The elaborate detail in the carvings and paintings is amazing. Perhaps you’ll agree that it’s colourful too!
Another example of elaborate art – this one a wood carving of exquisite detail (click to enlarge).
One part of the gardens had a number of very striking statues – I believe they were cast in bronze. Some were of very calm peaceful beings.
Others not quite so calm or peaceful looking.
There seems to be a lot going on here, but I admit to not understanding what.
Elsewhere in the gardens were numerous upright-standing stone tablets. Again I didn’t do any research to learn of their significance, but I thought they looked rather cool.
This particular monolith is just one of several stunners. A single piece of polished stone, about three metres tall, with superbly engraved characters. The rock is a sedimentary siltstone, with bedding showing here as subtle vertical bands. An unusual rock type to be found as a polished stone, hence of particular interest to a petrophile like me (petro ≈ rock).
The birds in the park were somewhat less skittish than in SE Asia, and I managed to get a few usable photographs, but most were still too distant for real trophy shots. This one was just about the first bird we encountered, and my very first Asian ‘Lifer’. It looks (and acts) rather much like our familiar ‘English’ sparrow (officially the House Sparrow), to which it is very closely related, and replaces it as the common dickey bird of urban streets, gardens, and fast-food outlets in all three countries we visited. This Eurasian Tree Sparrow has a brown cap, whereas our House Sparrow is grey on top. For most species, one tries to avoid photos with human-made objects, but in this instance the ‘habitat’ perfectly suits the subject (click for larger image).
The Oriental Turtle Dove is fairly common, but reluctant to pose for photos. I caught this one lurking in deep shade, hence the muted colours.
A few more distant ‘documentary’ shots.
This perky little woodpecker is a regional endemic, and a common bird of parks and gardens. It’s a Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker.
And this was the bird of the day for me. It is common, noisy, active, and conspicuous, but usually one only gets brief glimpses of a rather drab, all-grey bird. When eventually seen perched in good light, it turns out to be a very attractive creature indeed. It is also a very tricky ID for someone not familiar with Asian avifauna. George challenged me to identify it on my own, and it would have caused me untold anguish had he not slipped up and uttered the word ‘bulbul’ at the wrong time. So the bird is a Brown-eared Bulbul.
Gotta love that hairdo!
Part 2, Tokyo and more, March 25 – April 3
Our flight from Phnom Penh landed after dark. As the aircraft approached for landing there was endless urbanization below us, giving the impression that this part of Japan is literally ‘full’ to the brim.
Next morning: impression confirmed – megalopolis extending to the horizon!
Unfortunately, the second part of my visit to Japan was partly a washout – literally. On several days it rained continuously, and at other times it was sprinkly, foggy, and very cool. To further complicate matters, I was quite ill on the second day and remained confined to our hotel room. George’s cousin Bill, a resident of Tokyo, came to the rescue by taking me to see a doctor, who determined that she could not do anything for me. The doc spoke no English, so I wasn’t sure if she meant that I needed no treatment, or that I was beyond hope. Presumably the former, as I did survive. By next day I had recovered enough to get on the bus to our next destination outside the city, but lost my appetite for the remainder of the trip.
Summarizing my impression of Tokyo: modern, busy, crammed with people, . . . . but so orderly, so organized, so tidy, so clean, so . . . JAPANESE!
As mentioned at the beginning of this blog, ‘shopping’ is very serious business and a major attraction for (some) visitors. The scene above is typical – no shortage of commerce here. We didn’t do any ‘real’ shopping, but just by walking through a major department store I could sense that whatever goods we have at home, they have more, and more variety, and some of better quality.
This little shop reminded me of the micro-establishments we saw in SE Asia – each specializing in a single essential product. How many ‘Dessert Vinegar Boutiques’ do you have in your neighbourhood mall?
Here is a selection of oranges. Those on the left are the least expensive, sold in bulk (yet very tasty). To the right they get progressively fancier, with those at the far end the most deluxe and come individually wrapped.
This is what prime beef looks like in Japan. Those cows may well have had personal dieticians and trainers/physiotherapists. I suspect that such product is not part of the staple diet for most of the populace.
With so many people to move around, efficient public transit is an absolute must, and the Japanese appear to have it figured out. The whole city and beyond is covered by an extensive network of subways, trains, and buses, . . . and they all run on time!
The picture below, taken through the window of our hotel lobby, shows part of a transit hub with a big bundle of railway tracks. What is particularly evident in this photo is how they utilize the third (vertical) dimension for infrastructure. The tracks you see are at ground level, and there are more in tunnels at different depths below. Some commerce is at ground, with lots more on the level of the elevated walkway that crosses over the tracks. Still higher, the taller buildings provide more space for office, retail, and residential accommodation. A veritable 3-D city.
On our first day in Tokyo, George had business to attend to so I visited a local park. With so little undeveloped space in the region, it follows that parks are popular places and well-utilized. Those we visited were meticulously maintained – no garbage or graffiti there! The parks are also a showcase for some traits that are dear to Japanese culture, of which several examples follow.
Japan is noted for its spectacular showing of cherry blossoms, which were just about in full display at this time of year. This was a typical scene in the park, with hundreds of admirers aiming cameras of all descriptions at the blooming trees.
Well-fed koi abound in park ponds.
The Japanese are superb gardeners, and much of their attention is focused on formality and control. Here is an excellent example of both aspects. The elements are rigidly geometrically arranged, with an imposing straight line of stunning bare trees.
These trees are some kind of sycamore (Platanus sp) which have not yet leafed out. Sycamores typically have a broadly-branched crown, very unlike what you see here: these have been very carefully pruned to force a desired shape (some thin untrimmed branchlets visible). This control of vegetative form is very common, from classic bonsai to subtly altered shrubs and trees.
I managed to find a few examples of interesting avifauna in this park. The next two photos are of Spot-billed Duck – presumably a resident, occupying a role similar to that of our urban Mallards.
Little Grebe – a pair was present, possibly nesting locally.
Pale Thrush, a migrant passing through.
Prize of the day, this stunning Dusky Thrush. Another migrant, this bird and the previous one are close cousins of our American Robin (allTurdus sp). Ignore the colours and the similarity is obvious. Interestingly, this was not even a lifer for me, as one had wintered in our area back in 1993 – the one and only time it had been recorded in North America (not counting Alaska).
As part of our visit to Japan, we bussed to Kawaguchico, a town about two hours west-southwest of Tokyo, on the north flank of famous Mount Fuji. This area is mainly a recreational destination, where several lakes provide city people some escape from the summer heat or opportunity for skiing on Fuji.
We stayed at this small lodge or ‘pension’ (much like what we would call a B&B back home), un-presumptuously named “Cosmos”, where we were hosted by the most friendly, polite, and charming Japanese couple. Interestingly, Easter was happening whilst we were there, but there was no sight or sound to acknowledge such. There was, however, a live Christmas tree in front of our pension, neatly pruned and lit up at night, complete with shining star at top.
Here we see a line of small boats carrying anglers on one of the lakes. Since there are quite a few fishers and very few fishing holes, they figured out this method of meeting some of the demand. Each boat is simply hooked onto a cable which is strung parallel to the lakeshore, thus effecting the desired spacing.
The lakes lie in a low area between a range of hills on one side and the lavas from Mount Fuji on the other. The hilly uplands require some creative engineering to build and maintain roads through the area, and of course the Japanese are good at this too. Here is one picturesque method they use to stabilize steep slopes – like giant concrete band-aides.
No doubt urban teens all around the world are afflicted with this common obsession – staring into their smart phone. The conspicuous icon of American culture may be just as widespread.
During most of our stay in the lakes area, it was either outright raining or very damp and misty with dense low clouds. Mount Fuji remained well-hidden from view. On our last morning the clouds began to dissipate, and we got a few fleeting peeks at the peak.
Then, as we were driving to town to catch our bus – a full frontal view of one of the most famous piles of rock in the world!
This photo was taken in a small nature reserve specifically dedicated to birds. The extremely rough surface underfoot is the top of a very blocky lava flow (aa). This patch of terrain has survived exploitation – possibly because it would be so difficult to run a plow through it?
The visitor centre at the reserve had numerous feeders scattered around, attended by swarms of small birds. We figured a walk in the charming woods would be productive, but not so – it was eerily quiet there. In fact, this was about the only bird we saw! (No, this photo was not staged – this is exactly how we found it).
We eventually found some attractive birds to photograph, but again most of them kept their distance. This first one is a Great Tit, probably the most common bird we encountered, but not one that likes to sit still and pose.
This one is the Varied Tit. For those who haven’t figured it out, what we call chickadees in North America are known as tits in Eurasia. Clearly, their tits are more colourful than ours, and some are bigger too.
This bird does’t look like much – just another LBJ (Little Brown Job). But the photo has special significance. The Japanese Bush-warbler has a very loud, distinctive song, which we heard repeatedly, but were continuously frustrated at trying to get a look at the source. Finally, on our very last opportunity before we had to leave, this individual briefly popped into view.
The showiest bird in this area, the Green Pheasant. We saw several, here are two of them.
One morning we encountered several of these creatures in the middle of the roadway. It was so cool (barely above freezing) that the poor things were virtually comatose. I helped shove a few off the road, but sadly others had succumbed from a pressing engagement. Its identity was easy to find with Google – a Japanese Toad. This one was about 15 cm long and nearly as wide – quite a large, plump amphibian. One has to wonder if this species had something to do with the origin of sumo wrestling.
Back in Tokyo, we managed to get in one brief visit to another park.
Large-billed Crows are nearly as widespread in the city as Rock Pigeons. A very handsome bird, much like our Raven, with more iridescence in the mantle feathers. And a profile that Jimmy Durante would envy.
Finishing off with the stunning Mandarin Duck. Another species that looks like it was designed and coloured by a primary school art class. The only bird that I am aware of that comes equipped with a built-in spoiler.
The gaudy one is a drake; ducks (females) are less garish yet still elegantly beautiful.
It rained continuously for the last two days I was in Tokyo. We made one more futile attempt to bird, taking transit to a marvellous park on the shore of Tokyo Bay. It was very birdy there, but not much fun to operate under such conditions.
My biggest disappointment? Losing my appetite while in Japan, and not being able to enjoy the wonderful cuisine.
Footnote: The Numbers Game, for those who are interested in Life-lists of birds.
On the Vietnam-Cambodia tour, I listed about 220 species, of which 196 were Lifers. The unofficial tour list totalled about 335, which included fly-bys and quick ID’s of difficult birds by our guides. The difference in the totals is what I call ‘BVR‘s (Better View Required), and these don’t make it onto my list.
In Japan I recorded 50 species, of which 23 were Lifers.
The older I get, the less it’s about Lifers and the more it’s about life.