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Elevation Sensation on Honshu - Part III of our winter trip to Japan 2024

After the sublime viewing of the Japanese Night-Heron, we drove to our next destination, in the "Japanese Alps" - a higher elevation area west of Tokyo. The first two days up here we were staying in Komoro, but the birding was centered around the Karuizawa area in Nagano Prefecture. It was lovely, albeit cold.

We seemed to sort of run a circuit here, checking and re-checking a few hotspots. The strategy paid off, as we did get a different mix of birds each time. One place that was especially charming (and laced with lichens!) was Nagakura Park (軽井沢町--長倉公園). On our first stop here, we had great looks at Long-tailed Rosefinch. We also enjoyed the "don't let your children drown" sign, and I caught a few glimpses of Shinto devotion at the buildings in the park. Shinto is one of my favorite religions because of its emphases on attention and nature, and its whole-hearted embrace of sake and tasty food. Like any religious system, it hit its low point when it was most inextricably linked to the state and politics. But it is now whimsically omnipresent in cultural life once again, without that unnecessary overlay (added note - this is not to say that there isn't still danger here, as the Japanese far-right nationalists use Shinto in politically-motivated and exclusivist ways. Thanks to Carlos for bringing this to my attention).

A torii gate - symbol for "give attention to the sacred" - they can be anywhere, of any size. A small shrine beyond.

Get your dog to carry its own poop bag! Offerings

The child will drown sign

(Above) Sake as an offering! Long-tailed Rosefinch

The snow made this whole experience quite picturesque.

A much more extensive forest was the Kose Forest Road, where one day we had fabulous encounters with Brown Dipper, and the next with Japanese Waxwings. This was really wintery birding, with snow and ice around, but awe-inspiringly beautiful.

(reading left to right) The "Bird Box" was a place for donations in memory of the man who preserved this forest. The Brown Dipper in situ. (second row) The Brown Dipper with its middle eyelid closed. A Bull-headed Shrike that was also using the spot where the Dippers were. There were interactions of an unfriendly but less than deadly nature between them. (third row) Phil, Donna and Peggy in the snow here. A quite beautiful Snakewort. (bottom row) The lichens here were stunningly gorgeous.

Komoro Park and Castle Ruins had quite a few passerines, including our first Long-tailed Tits. The grounds here were beautifully maintained, and honored poetry - another aspect of Japan that means a lot to me. The cold temperatures also created an additional layer of beauty.

Tōson Shimasaki was a Meiji-era Romantic poet. Peggy, me and Donna.

Long-tailed Tit. Frozen fountain at Komoro Park and Castle Ruins.

In the afternoon we headed to the exceptionally birdy Saku Regulating Ponds - an incredible treat and an extended circumambulation that was refreshing. Long-billed Plover was a surprise find, but the amazing display of over four dozen Black Kites continually forced itself into our vision!

The Black Kite show (excerpt)

Any sighting of Smew leads my memory back to the late, great Luke Cole - environmental lawyer, birder, and all-around great guy, who died much too young. He wrote a famous poem (well, famous among birders), linked here, about this delightful little merganser, a rare visitor to California.

I really enjoyed getting to know Eurasian Wigeons better. There are always a few present in North America, but you learn a lot more about a species when you see the behavior and hear the sounds of a flock.

Grey Herons are ubiquitous in proper habitat, but we had just seen The Boy and the Heron a few days before our travels, so our encounters with this bird were a bit more magical, if not sinister, and animated.

One disappointment in this section of the trip was the closure of the mountain road that is best for Copper Pheasant. It had been subject to landslides due to the snow, so we understood the reason, but it still meant that we missed that species. We did, however, get the Green Pheasant, a pair out/standing in their field in a light snowfall.

Our "Prince" hotel for these days had a fine buffet - the only one that included some nigiri sushi every night (usually salmon and ika, two of my favorites).

"Butter-Sand" still doesn't sound tasty, despite knowing what it means. I liked the Hawai'ian-to-Japanese influence going the less-traveled route, as reflected in this Dog Salon sign. "Book/Coffee" had excellent pastries.

The final day in the Japanese mountains was dedicated to the endemic Snow Monkey. It was a rather grueling walk for me (over a mile mostly uphill with some ice and snow). But it was worth it. As Phil our guide said, these are Japanese monkeys - polite, enjoying the hot springs, and what mischief they get into feels genial instead of malicious. When we had walked back down, we had excellent apple pie and ice cream.

It is so weird how the lining on my jacket's hood matches the snow monkey colors!

Donna was in her photographer's glory here. I do think I captured something of her essence in the field with this picture.

The dock scene in Tokyo looked spookily like Oakland! My mother appreciated the "don't waste food" cartoon from the JAL Hotel.

We then motored back to Tokyo where we stayed at one of my favorite hotels of the trip, owned by Japan Air Lines itself. They had lots of airplane paraphernalia around, including right on the carpet!

The next morning, January 18, we flew off to Kyushu!


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