When Commodore Perry sailed his Black Ships into Edo Bay, later known as Tokyo Bay, in 1853, feudal Japan was on the cusp of the Meiji Restoration. For better or worse the steamships signified the end of 200 years of self-imposed isolation under the Tokugawa shogunate, and a return to the authority of the Emperor. With some fear and trepidation Japan entered this new era and uncertain future, characterized by modernization, industrialization, and increased trade with the West. Typical for the times, Sennosuke Yamaguchi, a young graduate and hotelier spent 3 years in America studying hotel management and architecture, with the goal of building Japan’s first modern hotel suitable for western guests, in the Hakone region of rural Japan, not far from Mount Fuji.
It was now spring of 2014. We were enjoying our first visit to Japan and had spent several days in Tokyo and near the U.S. Naval Base in Yokosuka, but it was now time to leave urban Japan and sample some of the rural areas of this fascinating country. The Fujiya Hotel was recommended to us as a great base of operation to tour the beautiful, mountainous Hakone region, sample Japanese food and rural customs, and of course to see birds. This is the hotel built by Sennosuke Yamaguchi in 1878 and restored and enlarged in 1884, 1891, and 1924. It had become the grand dame of 19th century architecture mixing the traditional Japanese and western styles. It also had a long list of distinguished guests including Emperor Hirohito, Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, German ambassadors during WWII, General Eisenhower in post-war years, and John Lennon. The hotel is situated over a hot spring in the small town of Miyanoshita, on the side of a mountain and serviced by the Hakone-Tozan Railroad. Of added interest to me was the hotel’s the 4 acre rock and water garden and its potential as a birding site.
I spent two mornings birding in the hotel grounds. These are spectacular gardens presenting the challenge whether to bird, or just sit and drink in the view as the sun rose over the building and gradually bathed the gardens with early light. The birds were not abundant but I did see 9 species including 4 life birds: a flyover Gray Heron, a Japanese White-eye, a Gray Wagtail drinking from the moving stream, and a Varied Tit. But there was also a haunting and mysterious birdsong with a long drawn out first sound: Hoh….., and then hokekyo. I heard it repeatedly, both mornings and just could not track it down. First it was right in front, then behind, then loud and within feet, but I could not see the bird. It was as if it was playing with me. I knew it was a life bird, but as a fellow birder keeps telling me, you cannot claim it until you see it.
Birding in a new international location is always exciting; even the common birds are new, with frequent life birds added. I sometimes hire a guide, but did not in Japan, just happy to be a tourist. Even in tourist mode though, the binoculars and camera are always ready, just in case.
The hotel in Hakone is within a short train and cable car ride over the Owakudani Crater to Lake Ashinnoko, where we took a boat to the town of Hakone Sekisho. This is all near the base of Mount Fuji which unfortunately was hidden in fog and clouds that day. Photographers had their gear set up and aimed toward the mountain waiting for the fog to lift and clouds part, but it did not happen, at least when we were there. On the boat and in town, however I did add 5 more life birds including a soaring Black Kite, White Wagtail, Eurasian Coot, Pygmy Woodpecker, and a flock of Asian House-martins bathing in a puddle. But there it was again: Hoh…hokekyo, still with no sighting.
After 3 wonderful days in Hakone we returned to the city to complete a wonderful trip abroad. I know it sounds a little hard-core, but I even did some birding from the high speed Shinkansen zooming 200 mph back to Tokyo. I’m counting a Little Egret, seen even at that speed in a wet field along the tracks, to make the Japan Life List total 36 birds. The last night was at the Hotel Nikko Narita near the airport. It had a small garden and beckoned me to one last birding adventure before boarding the plane. And there it was again; Hoh…hokekyo, clear and tantalizingly close, and then I saw the bird, I think; small and non-descript, but a master of birdsong and sleuth. Finally with some internet research I discovered that this bird was Uguisu, a Japanese Bush Warbler–the elusive harbinger of spring, famous for its secretive behavior, hiding from birders for centuries. It is a bird often painted with plum blossoms and celebrated in haiku since the Nara period in the 8th century.
If not for the call
of the bush warbler coming
out of the valley,
who then would be aware of
the arrival of springtime?
by Oe no Chisato
I was fortunate to finally ID the famous bird from its enchanting call, heralding the Japanese spring. It made the long flight home somewhat tolerable.