Thursday 28 April 2016

A visit to the thousand-year capital

From the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, we travelled to Kyoto for a bit of leisure time and to wander around one of the most beautiful and oldest cities in Japan. One thing you will definitely notice is the unique architecture. The traditional designs and craftsmanship are all part of the rustic charm of Kyoto. It is like a city frozen in time. Kimono-clayed women is a common sight filling the city with a sense of nostalgia of days of old. Rich in history and culture, I think we enjoyed our 3-day stay here more than our stay in Tokyo.

It was a shopping paradise as well – much to the delight of my better half. Some of the shopping streets appeared to have no end and so was the variety of items on sale.

And there was the food. Gastronomic offerings that send you on a remarkable journey of taste and aroma.

We stayed at a traditional ryokan establishment in order to make our visit to Japan complete and it was certainly a new experience. The setting and accommodation gives you an insight on what it is like to live in Japan during that era of time.

The owners of the establishment are dog lovers and have no less than 5 Golden Retrievers running around the compound! One particular dog was allowed to enter the lobby and he was truly docile and friendly. Needless to say, he received a lot of affection from us.

The Nijo Castle is a world renowned site located right in the city centre. Although the architecture is not as breath-taking as some of the other tourist locations but the historical elements and it being the home to samurais and ninjas make this a unique attraction among Japan’s long list of impeccable tourist spots.

Now, for the birds. My encounter with the Mute Swan at the Imperial Palace has taught me to be more vigilant when it comes to moats and true enough, I was greeted by another lifer – a male Mallard. I have seen this species before back home but they were domesticated birds and cannot be compared to seeing a wild one. The latter will always evoke more excitement – naturally.

What is it with Great Cormorants and moats? And am I ever going to have a chance to photograph one a little closer than across the width of moats?

Flocks of White-cheeked Starlings were present at some places of the castle grounds and here, they exhibit little fear for man unlike the ones I usually encounter at my local patch in Shibuya. Daylight is early during this time of the year and the light starts to fade early as well. Shooting these active starlings in shaded areas in the late afternoon was a challenge. Only a few of my images turned out sharp despite the close proximity.

For the second time in my Japan trip I came across the Dusky Thrush. Foraging on a lawn, it was nice to see the beautiful markings out in the open and in reasonably good light. There was a low barrier that I could have stepped over to get closer to the bird but I decided against it. If it happened to be a lifer and something truly incredible like a pitta, then it would have been a true test.

Moments later, I also found my second Pale Thrush. It seemed like this two species have a tendency to share habitats. With no barrier in my way this time, I managed to stalk my way quite close to the bird. The lighting condition was a hindrance and my shots did not turn out as sharp as I had hoped. However, both the thrushes enriched my visit to this castle tremendously.

There are quite a few unique sites in Kyoto that are in a class of their own. The awe-inspiring Arashiyama Bamboo Forest is one of them. The view and feel of the place was amazing and I am sure I speak for the hundreds of other visitors that were present there as well. Japan seems to be the country to visit this year. Even two of my colleagues have visited Japan already. On the whole, most of the tourist locations were packed – even on weekdays. I can only imagine how it bad it would be during the dreaded Golden Week in Japan.

As appealing as the bamboo forest may be, there were hardly any birds and the one shot that I did take was of a Japanese White-eye. Even then it was at the edge the forest and not among the bamboo.

There is a lake just outside the bamboo forest and here, I encountered a pair of Mallards. It was a sizable lake but despite a careful sweep, the Mallards were the only sign of life. Japan is one of those places where the waterbirds come to you and not vice versa. And I for one have no complaints about that.

As soon as the pair realized that they will not be getting any handouts from me, they drifted back to the middle of the lake. Even at a distance, they still had me spellbound.

The Fushimi Inari Taisha is located just a little south of Kyoto and I do not have any bird encounters to share from that location. But the hundreds of vermillion tori gates that cuts through the hill slope like a fire snake is truly a sight to behold. It is one of those places that will be etched into your memory for a long time. I also found myself a local patch in Kyoto that goes by the name of Maruyama Park and that will be covered in my next post.

Tuesday 26 April 2016

Tori, tori, tori..

Japan is an amazing country and this is just based on the sights and sounds we experienced during our stay here. We did most of our sight seeing around Tokyo and there is still so much more left to be explored. Anyway, the public train system around the capital city is efficient and punctual. From home base Shibuya Station, we travelled as far out as Haichioji City which is about an hour’s journey by train. The only qualm I have is the language barrier. Most do not speak English and asking for directions can be a real ordeal. Thankfully, language is irrelevant when it comes to birding and Japan is a birding paradise. This post will include the birds I managed to encounter during our visits to popular tourist destinations. My self-control was put to the test as this is supposed to be a normal vacation for me and my wife and not a pure birding excursion. A balance had to be struck. Difficult and shy birds were painfully ignored as it will take up too much time and effort. Due effort and attention must be given to my better half to ensure she does not feel neglected. At the end of the trip, I am happy with what I have managed.

One of the first few places we visited was the Hasedera Temple at the coastal district of Kamakura which is about 60 kilometres south of Tokyo. There are plenty of temples and shrines throughout Japan and most of them are popular tourist destinations. We soaked in the view as we wandered around the temple grounds. 

I came to a complete halt when we approached a pond. Paddling all so casually about were a few Eurasian Wigeons – my first duck in Japan and they are cracking birds indeed. As I took a moment to relish this stunning lifer, I became aware of my surroundings again. My gear and antics have drawn the usual attention of my fellow human beings – again. And I responded with a smile. More of a grin actually. Nothing was able to rob me of the emotions this handsome duck has stirred in me.

The wigeons were very confiding and I trust they do not have to worry about shortage of food. And they probably do not see humans here as threat either. Whatever it is, it was an incredible experience.

My second duck of the trip was the Spot-billed Duck. A few were present at the same pond but because of their drabber plumage, could not steal the limelight from the flashy wigeons. As far as I can tell, the Spot-billed Duck is the commonest duck as I saw it at several localities throughout my stay in Japan.

We cruised along the Tokyo Bay after the temple visit and this coastline is quite popular with tourists and locals as well. The sandy beach here have a blackish appearance courtesy of the volcanos but that does not stop the crowd from enjoying their Sunday on the beach. The thing that really had my attention was the big number of Black Kites present and some were perched along the electrical cables next to the road. I have no doubt scavenging forms a large part of their daily routine and they have become extremely bold and confiding. I have encountered Black Kites on countless occasions back home but never once have I ever managed to get this close to one.

The kites were behaving very much like crows and it is quite surprising that the Jungle Crows here do not harass these highly adaptable raptors. Well, not frequently anyway.

Japan is not short of surprises. Disney Sea Tokyo is part of our itinerary and it was only on that day I left the house without my birding gear. As expected, this tourist attraction was crowded and full of activities. It was not exactly the type of place to expect anything in terms of birding – or so I thought. 

While queuing up for one of the attractions, a few Spot-billed Ducks decided to alight and rest on some eye-level concrete pillars close by. I could not resist but to try and obtain some images as they appeared to be most comfortable while in close proximity with humans. I casually walked towards them and the ducks did not even budge even though I was close enough to pet them on the head. No telephoto lens is required. A cell phone camera will do just fine.

A visit to the Tokyo Imperial Palace was next in line and as we were about to walk the bridge that crosses the moat and into the palace, a lone Mute Swan was seen foraging along the water edge. According to my friend Google, most of the Mute Swans in Japan originated from introduced stock. Being non-native birds has not stop me from shooting them back in Malaysia. Why should it now? Besides, the Mute Swan is one beautiful and graceful bird.

The palace ground was splendid. I was not expecting any less as it is, after all, home to the royal family. There is a big field where visitors were chilling out and having picnics. Well, when in Rome do as the Romans do and we had our own little picnic as well. 

So there we were, enjoying a beautiful Japanese spring afternoon and minding our own business when a White Wagtail decided to stroll across my view. I immediately jumped into action. I fumbled as I reached for my camera and I thank my lucky stars all my awkward movements did not put the bird to flight. In fact, I obtained some reasonable good shots as the bird was very confiding. Now if these photos were taken back home, I would be a very happy man. Unlike in Japan, the White Wagtail is somewhat rare in Malaysia and I have only seen it on very few occasions.

As we were making our way out of the palace, the Mute Swan was getting ready for the night ahead. Not far from the swan, I spotted a few Great Cormorants drying their feathers at the edge of the moat. It may be a common species here in Japan but to a Malaysian birder, the Great Cormorant is a very rare bird. Naturally, this fascinating water bird got my undivided attention. And you guessed it – the roosting duck was a Spot-billed Duck.

I was really looking forward to visiting Mount Takao as I read it was quite a haven for birds. But the thing is it would be forest birding and no matter which part of the world you are in, luck plays a major role in the outcome of such an excursion. The scenery was incredible. Lush temperate forest almost in full bloom greeted us as we made our way up to the summit.

I wish I had more time to explore the well-marked forest trails and all the strange and new bird calls coming from the forest. Anticipation was high. There was no doubt about. And a signboard that depicted the Green Pheasant as one of the birds found here had no influence on me in any way whatsoever...

My wife braved the cold and joined me for a short walk into one of the forest trails. At times, I do wonder how in the world she puts up with my obsessive behaviour with birding. Anyway, this trail had a suspension bridge and the view was truly impressive.

This is not the first time I have laid eyes on the intricate wing patterns of the Oriental Turtle-dove. I saw this species a few years back in Taiwan and a few days earlier at my local patch in Shibuya. But it is only today that I managed to obtain some good photos of this rather common species.

As expected, I did not see the pheasant but I did managed to come across a Eurasian Jay and it was one of the highlights of my Japanese trip. It was loud, colourful and exotic. Best of all, it was inquisitive as well and dropped by closer to have a better look at this all-worked-up Malaysian birder.

I followed its movements for as long as possible and gradually managed to obtain a few more shots before the Jay disappeared back into the forest. The encounter left me a little light-headed and I had to descend from the narrow mountain trail with a little more caution.

One non-bird related about Japan that is worth mentioning is the food. We quite fancy the Japanese food found back in our hometown but nothing beats the original. The food was glorious and we made an effort to try as much variety as possible. Although for me it is always the birds, the rich culture and culinary delights of this beautiful country also left quite an impression on me and helped made this trip a truly memorable one.