2 week Japan Wide rail pass $414 per person
Car rental (6 days, 4wd) $366
Hotel Rooms $1030 (2 people, 10 nights)
Unlimited data sim card for 31 days $38
Total cost not including food, gas and drink: $2262 for two people
We started our trip in Beppu, which made a Japan Wide rail pass the most appealing option for most of our travel. You cannot see many cranes or sea eagles from the train (although you can see some), so we rented a car in Kushiro for six days.
All hotels we stayed at had at least one member of the staff that spoke enough English that our lack of Japanese speaking skills was never a problem. The same goes for anytime we had a question at the train stations, although communication was a bit more difficult in the more rural train stations.
We have purchased sim cards in Japan before via my boyfriend’s brother who lives there. We decided to risk it and purchase an unlimited data sim card from Japan Experience who shipped it to our place in the states so we could have it upon arrival. This sim card was significantly cheaper than what we had used on previous trips to Japan. We did not hold back on data usage and loved having this card. We will purchase from them again for the next trip.
March 2020 edit: Sim cards are getting much easier to find for reasonable prices in Japan. On our most recent trip there were sim cards in a vending machine of Fukuoka airport for 7, 15, 30 and 60 days for 2500 to 5500 JPY. I suspect because of this pocket WIFIs are getting cheaper since we got one for about a week, 5 gigs and only 500 JPY.
Day 1 - 26th February: Beppu to Sapporo
We left Beppu at 5:30 and arrived into Sapporo at 21:35. There weren’t many bento options in Shin-Hakodate station, but perhaps we didn’t explore enough. We were surprised by the icy conditions of the sidewalks in Sapporo. None of the sidewalks were clear between the train station and the hotel we stayed at which made for a very slippery walk as it was all compressed snow or simply ice. If you have any difficulty walking I would very highly recommend bringing a walking stick if you plan on walking in Sapporo (in the winter). We stayed at Business Inn Norte 2 for $37 with breakfast and were quite happy with the rooms and the food options for breakfast. The hotel was about a 10 minute walk from the train station and we went by at least one convenience store in between the train station and the hotel.
Day 2 - 27th February: Sapporo to Asahikawa
We left most of our bags in a coin locker at Sapporo Station and took a local train to Shinrin-Kōen. From Shinrin-Kōen it was about a 20 minute walk to Nopporo Forrest Park (again, no cleared sidewalks so tread carefully). We did not have skis or snowshoes, but walking the trails within the park was not a problem. The trails in the park were packed down snow and were fairly narrow. This made looking for birds while walking interesting; when you step off the trail you will post-hole up to your knee or hip. If you are unsure on your feet you will wish you had a trekking pole. We were surprised to find open restrooms within the park. Had we known this we would have brought more water and food! We loved walking around this park and would have happily spent the entire day there. Sadly, we did not have the time so we only spent about four hours walking a large loop. As far as the birds go there were tons of tits, and a fair number of great-spotted woodpeckers and Eurasian nuthatches. We did not luck out and see the black woodpecker.
From the park we went back to Sapporo station for our bags and hopped a train for Asahikawa arriving at 16:25. We stayed at Court Hotel for $38. I don’t remember if it came with breakfast, but it was right next to an Aeon Mall which we had dinner at.
Day 3 - 28th February: Asahikawa to Abashiri
We left Asahikawa at 8:35 and arrived in Abashiri at 12:18. We planned on catching the 15:10 train to Kitahama station, but there was an earlier train offered roughly 30 minutes after our arrival. We decided to hurry up and catch that train as it would give us more time to bird Lake Tofutsu. We repacked our bags and ditched most of them in a coin locker, bought a bento in the train station (only one vendor, but several options and tasty, no english) and got on the train to Kitahama Station arriving about 20 minutes later via a very cute tourist train. We were glad for the bento as there weren’t too many food options around Kitahama Station, but we did pass one convenience store on our walk out to Tofutsukomizutori Waterfowl and Wetland Center. At this center there were open bathrooms and even a building to go in to escape the wind and look at educational material. From here we saw some foxes, Steller’s Sea Eagles, tons of swans and the usual ducks. It was a lovely place to hang out at. We had a scope which was very nice, but you could easily bird this with just binoculars at this time since most of the lake was ice. After spending a few hours here we walked out to the beach, then back to the station to catch the 17:00 train into town. This train only runs every 2.5 hours so make sure you don’t miss it.
In Abashiri we stayed at Dormy Inn for $74, not including breakfast. The rooms were nice and it was about a 10 minute walk from the station. There is a grocery store about a five minute walk away at which we got food for dinner and breakfast.
Day 4 - 1st March: Abashiri to Kushiro to Yoroushi Onsen
We left Abashiri at 10:24 and arrived in Kushiro at 13:31. It was a nice ride on an old train which had two cars and even a bathroom. This seemed like mostly a tourist run, but not a fancy train. It went through some lovely mountains and we were able to see deer, sea eagles and even a few cranes from the train.
Once in Kushiro we had a few snacks and walked across the street to Nippon Rent-a-car for our 14:00 car pickup. You could see the rental office from the train station exit. Folks at this location spoke enough English to convey everything important and were very pleasant.
From Kushiro we drove about 1 hour 40 minutes to Yoroushi Onsen. We stayed at Yoroushi Onsen for $252 total including an amazing dinner and spectacular breakfast. We booked a private onsen for 18:00 thinking the Blakiston's Fish Owl would show up later in the night. After worrying that we may miss it we asked the staff to knock on our door in case the owl showed up. Of course it did, and it left before we could get dressed and out to the viewing area. We stayed up late and woke up early, but that night it only showed up at 18:00 for a few minutes and we missed out. It was an incredible place with some of the best food I’ve had in Japan though and it’ll give us an excuse to go back since we loved Hokkaido and plan to be back again.
Day 5 - 2nd March: Yoroushi Onsen to Nemuro Peninsula
We had an amazing breakfast at Yoroushi Onsen and had a lazy morning enjoying the birds at their feeder. We left the hotel late in the morning (around 9:00 or so) and hit the road for the roughly one hour drive to sende the Notsuke Peninsula. Somewhere along the way we picked up some bento with the hopes of having it at the Peninsula for lunch. We were able to eat our bento in the car at the visitor center (we were not sure if it was OK to bring it in and it was too windy to eat outside). There was a gift shop, café/restaurant (closed), educational displays and plenty of clean bathrooms. There is one long(ish) trail you can walk leaving from the visitor center. We walked roughly 1.5 km and turned around before we got to the end. There were a few drop toilets along the trail as well. From this trail we saw many sea eagles and got a good feel for the area (cold, windy and exposed). There is at least one more trail you can walk at the end of the drive. We did not go to it though. Along the drive we saw many deer as well as sea eagles and scoters.
It was about a 1 hour 45 minute drive to the Nemuro Grand Hotel from the peninsula. We left with plenty of time to arrive during daylight hours and have the opportunity to stop along the way.
We spent the night at Nemuro Grand Hotel for about $110/night. It was pricier than we wanted to pay, but the best deal we could find for our dates. The rooms were clean and the reception staff nice. It was a rundown old hotel that really shouldn’t cost that much money though. The WIFI did work from our rooms though which was really nice. There is a grocery store across the street that marks down their bento an hour or so before closing. If memory serves we were there about 30 minutes before closing and got all our food for 50% off, score!
Day 6 - 3rd March: Nemuro Peninsula
We had a full day to explore the Nemuro peninsula. We essentially did a loop on 35 starting with the southern coast. We stopped along the way at many harbors and saw all of the usual suspects. At around 11:00 we ended up at the bird blind on Cape Nosappu. We must have spent at least 2 hours in there (with a scope) and saw a ton of great birds including spectacled guillemot! You do need to be careful with your spectacled guillemot ID as they look a lot like the snowi subspecies of pigeon guillemot in winter plumage. After the blind time we went in search of a hot lunch and ended up in a gift shop that had lots of fun tufted puffin souvenirs. Most places were closed, but eventually we found an open ramen place down the street from the souvenir place for lunch. We meandered on are way back stopping at whatever looked good and finished the day with a little walk through the Nemuro City Shunkunitai Primeval Wild Bird Park Nature Center. This was really a lovely walk full of birds and even a few adorable red squirrels. It was a great way to end the day. From there we went back to the Nemuro Grand Hotel, grabbed some bento from the grocery store and crashed out.
Day 7 - 4th March: Nemuro Area
This was our second full day in the Nemuro area. Our plan was to just play it by ear where we wanted to explore with a goal of more close up views of sea eagles. We headed south to Nemuro-Kurumaishi (wheel Rock). It was not very birdy and the light was poor so we didn’t linger here for long. It was a beautiful location and worth a stop to check out the formation of columnar basalt though. There is fairly easy access down to it via a long set of stairs with switch backs. I don’t think it was wheelchair accessible. There are bathroom facilities in the parking lot that were open.
Our next stop was back to the Nemuro City Shunkunitai Primeval Wild Bird Park Nature Center since we really liked the forest there and it comes out to a cliff facing Nemuro Bay, Nemuro-Shunkunitai Wild Bird Sanctuary, and a small arm of an ice free area of Lake Furen. This worked out great for us as we were able to see a Brandt out on a rock in the ocean and a very large group of ducks and swans near the bridge going to the wild bird sanctuary. We headed back to the car to check out the sanctuary, however upon crossing the bridge we saw at least 30 eagles on the ice edge further into Lake Furen and decided to turn around and see if we could get closer to them. It turns out they were just out front of a lovely bird blind. We ended up parking ourselves inside this blind until hunger drove us out. We didn’t know at the time that the restaurant just south of the blind with the big dome feeds the eagles daily at 9:00; you can view it and take photos for a charge. We were in the blind starting at 10:15 and there were plenty of eagles still around when we left around noon. We were excited for a hot lunch at the roadside rest area just down the road, but very sad to find out they were closed on Monday. We drove back into town for a conveyor belt sushi restaurant that sadly turned out to be mediocre at best.
After lunch we headed back down towards the wild bird sanctuary with a quick stop to walk around a shrine/temple on the way. We enjoyed the ducks and swans in the sanctuary, and then took to the trails. There was a little off trail to be had at the end of the boardwalk which was nice. I believe they technically didn’t want people doing this, however it was an obvious use-trail that followed an old trail that appeared to be no longer maintained (trees fell and destroyed walkway rope fences). We didn’t see too many birds, just a few tits. There was a fox head in the middle of the trail on the walk back which was intriguing. We were bummed that we missed whatever had been trotting along carrying it.
We weren’t quite ready to turn in yet so we drove down to the road that heads south next to Lake Onneto to go for a walk. There is a place to park your car and walk the road right off the main road before the bridge heading into Nemuro. We walked as far as we could until we got to a less packed down section and went just a little further after that. Once we saw brown bear tracks we made sure we were making noise so that we wouldn’t startle one and finish our trip prematurely.
After our little walk it was time to check in at Lodge Furen. Do not be confused by google maps thinking it is in Nemuro town, it is near the bridge heading into the Nemuro-Shunkunitai Wild Bird Sanctuary. Lodge Furen was 16000JPY (~$145) for two people. This includes dinner and breakfast. Take was out guiding a trip so his wife Masako was running the place by herself. Her English is very good and she is quite knowledgeable about where to bird and how to book cruises if you are interested. The food was amazing and she even took the time to tell you what you were eating (for instance, what species of fish). If you can stay here I highly recommend it, but try and make sure it is your first night in the area, not your last. We planned our trip last minute (about a month and a half before departure) and this was the only night they were available in a week long period. There are no private bathrooms, just two toilets and one shower room for four rooms. We intend to do another Hokkaido trip some day and will make sure to plan it around staying at Lodge Furen again.
Day 8 - 5 March: Nemuro to Tsurui (Cranes)
Amongst the folks staying at Lodge Furen it was a group decision to do breakfast at 7:30. We had a leisurely breakfast and departed around 8:30 or so. We were at the rest stop just down the road for opening (9:00). They have nice clean bathrooms, beautiful views and a plethora of souvenirs. The café inside was not open in the morning. After getting some gifts for friends we hit the road. We headed south and took the coast on the way to return the car in Kushiro.
Our first major stop was Cape Kiritappu. We didn’t see anything too exciting bird-wise, but did see a sea otter and the coast is beautiful. On our way through town we picked up some bento at a convenience store to eat once we found a good spot. We ended up eating at an observation area about 6.5 km out of town which was almost completely closed. The only thing open were the toilets. It had a nice view over the ocean.
After lunch we hit the road and stopped in the harbor at Lake Hichirippu. There were a ton of ducks here, but unfortunately they were all very far away from us so we didn’t linger.
Our final stop before heading to Tsurui was at Aikkappu Cape. It was a nice walk and a good final breath of fresh air even though it was blowing pretty strong at the cape. We encountered many tits, nuthatch and several woodpeckers as well as a small herd of deer.
The drive to Green Park Hotel was about an hour and a half from the cape and fairly easy. It was a pretty drive and we stopped to see the cranes in the evening light before checking in. We went to the Tsurui Ito Tancho Crane Sanctuary which was free to view. There were toilets there and not too many other people, but quite a few cranes. It was a lovely evening with beautiful light and a gentle falling snow.
We were a bit confused as to what we were going to get out of Green Park Hotel as we booked it through Hotels.com for $155. That is quite pricey for us, but we heard good things about the place. Thankfully it came with dinner and breakfast. The dinner was a Japanese set meal and the breakfast was a buffet. They were both remarkably good and almost painfully filling. We couldn’t finish the rice, but we saw some older ladies with the same issue sitting across from us during dinner. The staff turned their leftovers into onigiri and gave it back to them. We had the same done for ours which made for a great snack on the road on the following day.
Day 9 - 6th March: Tsurui to Obihiro
We were so pleased with our evening with the cranes that we didn’t feel the need to fight the hordes of people on the bridge to glimpse them on the river at dawn or spend much time at a feeding area before taking off. We did go on a little birding walk by the hotel in the morning, then stop and see cranes at the same place we went to on the previous night for about an hour or so. We then left town to try and see a Ural Owl we heard of a roosting spot for. We didn’t have any luck, but the forest was nice.
We stopped at Onnenai Visitor Center on the drive to Kushiro. We loved this area which had many boardwalks to stroll down. There appeared to be skis to rent inside the visitor center. It was an otherwise uneventful drive back to Kushiro to return the car and catch a train for Obihiro.
It is worth noting that with all this driving around we only needed to fill the gas tank once, right before we turned it in. This was easily done at a gas station a block away from the rental agency. Gas attendants spoke enough English to make the dreaded fill up quite easy and painless. This was a dreaded fill up because every other time we’ve been in the car during a fill up there has been no English options on the pumps, but tons of buttons to press. We decided to stay in Obihiro in the hopes of getting some nice views of the mountains the following day. It would have been sad for us to pass through there in the dark, or hurry out of Tsurui on a gamble that we’d get good views. We stayed at the JR Inn Obihiro for $44 (including breakfast). It was a pleasant business hotel right next to the station. We walked across the street (under the tracks) to a shopping plaza and got a fairly good hot dinner before heading to bed.
Day 10 - 7th March: Obihiro to Hirosaki
We left Obihiro at 6:45 in order to be in Hirosaki with enough time to check out the castle (at 14:26). The views were great and we were able to leave our bags at the hotel to go walk to the castle grounds.
We left Hirosaki at 8:04 with enough time for lunch in Tokyo Station. We went to a tempura restaurant on kitchen street and it had the worst tempura I’ve ever had in Japan (I’m currently at 9 trips and end up with some form of tempura every trip). We were hungry and tired and looking for a quick meal with minimum lines. In hindsight we really should have gotten lunch in a less busy station as Tokyo station really isn’t our style, but we figured there would be more options and it would be higher quality. We arrived in Beppu at 20:51that night.
Brandt, Whooper Swan, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Common Pochard, Greater Scaup, Harlequin Duck, Black Scoter, Long-tailed Duck, Common Goldeneye, Smew, Common Merganser, Red-breasted Merganser, Red-necked Grebe, Rock Pigeon, Red-crowned Crane, Pigeon Guillemot, Spectacled Guillemot, Black-headed Gull, Black-tailed Gull, Mew Gull, Herring Gull, Slaty-backed Gull, Glaucous-winged Gull, Glaucous Gull, Pelagic Cormorant, Japanese Cormorant, Gray Heron, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Black Kite, White-tailed Eagle, Steller's Sea-eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, Pygmy Woodpecker, White-backed Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Eurasian Kestrel, Eurasian Jay, Carrion Crow, Large-billed Crow, Common Raven, Coal Tit, Varied Tit, Marsh Tit, Willow Tit, Japanese Tit, Brown-eared Bulbul, Long-tailed Tit, Goldcrest, Eurasian Nuthatch, Dusky Thrush, Eurasian Tree-sparrow, Brambling, Oriental Greenfinch