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Three Islands, Six Cranes, and lots of Conbinis! Part I of our Winter 2024 trip to Japan.

Peggy and I were trying to find the perfect foreign trip for early 2024, but kept on being thwarted. One trip we wanted to take was full; one to Morocco was postponed due to the earthquake in the Atlas Mountains. Then in November our dear friend Donna alerted us to the trip she was taking to Japan with Field Guides Birding Tours, and we made the decision to join her in that venture. As it turned out, it was just the three of us - me, Peggy and Donna - with two guides, Phil and Jun. The logistics of how this became a private tour are too complex to be of interest, but, suffice to say, it was a great outcome for us.

Like most people taking the Winter Japan birding tours (every birding company seems to have one), I had two main targets: Steller's Sea Eagle and Blakiston's Fish Owl. The mythically large Steller's Sea Eagle had first come to my attention in 1985, when first I perused the National Geographic Field Guide! It dwarfs the American Bald Eagle, and its bill is so large that it is often referenced as "cartoonish." From the moment I saw its illustration and read the description, I've wanted to see it - it is not often that I can honestly say I've waited 39 years to see a bird.

I travelled to Japan once before, to visit a friend in 1998-1999 winter, and so had obtainedMark Brazil's Field Guide to the Birds of Japan. While that trip was limited to Tokyo and Kamakura, this book made me aware of the northern regions of Japan on the island of Hokkaido, and its most famous avian denizen - the Blakiston's Fish-Owl. Widely reputed to be the world's largest owl, it is, like the Steller's Sea Eagle, a fish-eating bird. But it haunts small creeks, rivulets, and rivers. The very idea that the world's largest owl was using narrow waterways gave this bird a special appeal, and as I started to talk to friends about it, they waxed eloquent about seeing it from their bedrooms in special lodges built along waterways! Could that happen to me, I wondered?


Expanding the list of places I've been is always fun for me - and experiencing new airports, too! So the itinerary fascinated me - we would be on three of the four main islands (Honshu, Kyushu, and Hokkaido, in that order), and take flights to four new airports for me (Haneda, Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Kushiro). I did not know this, but it would also mean a new airline - Japan Air Lines. For those who count with me, after this trip, I have flown on thirty-seven airlines, at least thirteen of which are now defunct, and I have had flights into or out of 134 airports, with at least 30 of those being outside the United States. I'd like to get to at least 200 airports before I go to join the choir invisibule!

But flying in the 2020s is not necessarily an easy experience, and this time it cost me. We were in regular coach seats on Delta from Detroit to Haneda Tokyo, and it cramped my right knee so much that it affected my day-to-day mobility for most of the trip. I should have iced it at night in the hotel rooms, but, I didn't think to do that with everything else (including sleep) that had to happen.

Japan Air Lines is an excellent carrier - they gave us good seats, the planes were quiet, and the flights were consistently on time. Recommended!


7-11 to the repeated rescue!

I must admit that I have one bad habit. I am a Diet Coke addict. This has become an issue on some international trips, but not this time, thanks to the ubiquity of 7-11s, Lawson's, and other convenience stores in Japan. Or, as DuoLingo taught me, "conbini!"

While traveling internationally, I will make some concessions. In this case it meant switching to Coke Zero, as Diet Coke is no longer marketed (seemingly) in Japan. That is easy enough to do for two weeks. Not my preferred lifestyle, but well within my operating parameters.

As everyone who has been to Japan knows, the 7-11s there are quite a few notches above their American cousins. They have lots of fresh food to go, that is of reasonable quality. For birders, not wanting to waste precious daylight hours during winter, this made it an ideal place to pick up a quick lunch. Their snack food is also wonderful, as detailed below. PLUS every conbini has restrooms that are clean! And in good working order! And, of course, COCA-COLA products! A daily stop at a conbini was not difficult to arrange, and made my life much better. I think the guides were laughing a tad at my bad habit - but it is clear that the Japanese nation shares my predilection for easy access to carbonation and chocolate.

The two best discoveries at 7-11 this time were the exquisitely baked Langue de Chat cookies. We brought some home as gifts. Next time I'd buy out the store. These make Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies seem like they were made by Shrek. Then there was the corn chocolate from Hokkaido. These were like popcorn balls infused with white chocolate. As I wrote at the time, these treats manifested into our realm as the result of thorough meditation by bodhisattvas, the beings who wish to end all suffering and bring us to enlightenment. These succeed at least as far as taste buds go.

But first, the enroute highlight!

Our itinerary to Japan was Rochester-Detroit, Detroit-Haneda. There were two missions I had to accomplish in Detroit (where we had a layover of about 4 hours. I had to assemble an eBird list, get an iNaturalist entry, and meet a Facebook friend I'd never met in real life. I love the Detroit airport for its remarkable dancing fountain, and the small flock of House Sparrows who (intelligently) live near it. They collectively took care of eBird and iNaturalist.

My picture of a House Sparrow (DTW subspecies) atop an air vent, with typical iPhone sharpness.

But far better than these desperate measures was meeting up with Ann Oliver - she is so enthusiastic, so dynamic, and so involved in the birding community where she lives (southern Ohio), but also fun-loving. She and her husband chose to go a bit earlier, and do some cultural stuff before their tour (with Tropical Birding) began. So she kept commenting on my early posts as "previews of coming attractions." And indeed, as you shall see, our paths did cross between the two tours. It was a great time we had in Detroit! I know that if Ann and I ever join forces to achieve something in the birding community, it'll be amazing - we are kindred spirits.

Enroute, I love to watch the inflight monitor (which I do in Portuguese, for additional practice). Thus we discovered a town in Manitoba named "Jenpeg" which, I have since learned, has a major power-generating station. I knew our love as a couple was quite powerful, but I was unaware that there was enough power left over to regulate Lake Winnipeg.

We flew over Alaska in a northern arc, spending comparatively little time over deep water. We landed at Haneda a tad early - and then had to find the shuttle to Narita, because that's where the tour began. (the red dots on certain cities on this map indicate an airport's status as a Delta hub)

In Japan

Waiting for the shuttle bus provided me with my first iNaturalist entry - a look-alike for Common Liverwort! - and Peggy's first life bird, a heard-only small flock of White-cheeked Starlings (recorded amidst the sounds and bustle of a busy airport, but also on iNaturalist). We arrived at the Hotel Nikko, and enjoyed a buffet dinner there. Both of us adapted very quickly to the massive time zone change in this direction. Coming home would be a different story.

More to Follow!


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