Category Archives: travel

Visiting Sequoia NP

We paid a visit to California this summer, including some (literal) highs and lows. For the highs, we traveled to Sequoia National Park; for the lows, we visited the Kern River valley (more on that anon).

The literal high point of our trip to Sequoia was hiking up Moro Rock, elevation 2050 meters.


The view on the way up.

Not being a fan of heights, the walk up the rock face was a bit disturbing in spots. There are a few narrow spots in the trail with a rock face looming overhead and a pretty short railing above a steep drop-off. The view from the top was breathtaking, though.

In the distance is the park backcountry and High Sierras.

In the distance is the park backcountry and High Sierras.

It was pretty cool to see other granite domes in the distance, like Moro Rock. There was also some snow to see, tucked into high valleys of the taller peaks. Really odd to see, given the mid-80’s temperatures we had in the park. But snow is always exciting to us Floridians!

High Sierras, with some snow.

High Sierras, with some snow (really, it’s back there…)

Of course, the highlight of this part of the trip was seeing the giant sequoias. And they were quite spectacular…

Sequoiadendron giganteum!

Sequoiadendron giganteum!

Mobile Bay

On a work-related trip to Alabama this summer, I stayed overnight in the town of Fairhope, on Mobile Bay. I took a short walk around town to the Fairhope pier, which has a set of purple martin houses set around it in the water.

Martin house in the bay.

Martin house in the bay.

Purple martins nest in holes in trees, but are having real problems competing with European starlings for nest sites. As a result, they do best in artificial nest boxes like the ones in Fairhope which people help keep starlings away from. As far as I know, there’s only one purple martin colony in the Eastern US that uses natural trees to nest in anymore, and that one is in the Orlando Wetlands Park.

Rainclouds rolling in.

Rainclouds rolling in.

Fairhope sits on bluffs above the bay, and it’s always nice to see some coastal topography, coming from Florida. Rain was moving in across the bay-an afternoon thunderstorm, which was pretty Florida-like-so I didn’t stay long at the pier. I headed back uphill to the hotel, walking through a park on the way.

Big old magnolia tree.

Big old magnolia tree on the bluffs.

Bluffs or no, the park was covered with pine woods that seemed fairly Florida-like. In fact, they are a remnant longleaf pine forest, which once covered a large part of the coastal SE US, including central Florida. Unfortunately, the longleaf ecosystem has been pretty impacted by human development; what’s more, this ecosystem is fire-dependent. It’s hard to say what will happen to the longleafs of Fairhope, since it’s unlikely that the town will be willing to manage the habitat with controlled burning right on the edge of town

Fairhope also has rocks- not coquina rocks either, but actual rocks.

Fairhope also has rocks- not coquina rocks either, but actual rocks.

So I got back to the hotel before rain started to fall. Martins and pine woods are nice any day, so I enjoyed my stroll in Alabama.

Minnesota May

Towards the end of May, I made a visit to Minnesota. It was a pretty good time to visit: the weather was getting warm but it was still nice and cool compared to Orlando.

Trees were in bloom.

Some trees were in bloom.

I spent some time with my dad while he did some printmaking, and then dragged him out on a birding field trip to the Minnesota River Valley. Which he did seem to enjoy- though he volunteered to carry a spotting scope for an older birder and ended up carrying it around for several miles. (Sorry, Dad.)

Trees were still leafing out.

Others were still leafing out.

We also took an evening stroll to the gardens around Lake Harriett, in Minneapolis. I can’t identify many of the plants, but they were quite pretty.

A few

A few irises were still blooming, barely.

As the sun was setting, we saw several common nighthawks fly by, making their peent! call. It’s always interesting to see relatively big birds in urban areas. Who knows-maybe they’re nighthawks that winter in Florida, and they’re migrating south now. I’ll often see nighthawks near the UCF campus observatory in the evenings.

We were clearly there at the right time to check out this spruce with the ornamental buds.

We were clearly there at the right time to check out this spruce with the ornamental cones. So purple!

The common nighthawk is the American Birding Association bird of the year for 2013. They’re pretty cool birds, though their numbers are declining. I hope the birds we saw in May were having a nice early summer evening catching bugs, and that they did well over the summer and are now ready to head south.

Recap: food in Japan

Travel in Japan was an interesting experience for us from a culinary perspective, though maybe not for the typical reasons. One of us is a vegetarian (though willing to compromise when necessary, e.g., with broth), and we’re both aware enough of- and concerned enough about- the ethical issues raised by Japan’s overfishing that we deliberately didn’t consume a lot of seafood while we were there. Nevertheless, our food experience was pretty good overall. So this won’t be one of those “we ate raw item X!” posts.

So how well can vegetarians eat in Japan? Turns out, pretty well, again with the idea that there will probably be some compromise-and with the admission that we weren’t completely immersed in eating only Japanese food. One important thing to do is supplement what you can buy on the go with fruit and vegetables from grocery stores-and be prepared for really high prices (carrots, sprouts, and fruit juice seemed reasonable, though). Tofu is pretty widely available, though it’s generally more an ingredient than the main course.

4 asparagus stems = about USD $5.50 at a fancy department store. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

So breakfast in Japan is one of the things that we knew ahead of time what to expect. Not the traditional Japanese breakfast (rice, raw egg, miso soup, pickles, etc.), but a Westernized breakfast for people in a hurry. The main thing here: pastries.

Melon-flavored bunny bun from a bakery at Kyoto’s central station. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

Japan is the land of awesome sweet breakfast pastries- many in the shapes of animals, some with protein in the form of beans, and others with incredibly intense green tea filling. A lot of the train stations had buns, making this a really convenient option. Grab a couple of these and a bottle of tea from a vending machine, and you’re good to go. Though finding a place to sit and eat can be a challenge- there were few benches around to sit and have a quick bite.

Watch out for the garlic-barley tea, though. It does NOT go well with bunny pastries! (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

In Kyoto, our hostel had a breakfast buffet that we ate at twice, just to get a break from buns (yes, we probably did end up eating them too frequently overall). Our other big on-the-go breakfast option was onigiri- seaweed-wrapped rice balls with various fillings. Of course, this made for some starchy breakfasts…

Green tea and berry donuts from Kyoto’s “Doughnut Plant: New York City.” They were actually pretty oily. Stick to animal-themed buns. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

Since we did a lot of walking, lunch was often on the go as well. Onigiri made an appearance there, as did a variety of other snacks. We actually ended up eating quite a few burgers, as as this vegetarian burger and pizza place in Kyoto:

Matsuontoko, near the Teramachi shopping area. We had veggie burgers, fries, and homemade ginger soda while listening to (uncensored) Nine Inch Nails.

We had udon a few times, though there the broth clearly was made with meaty stock. But on cold days, it was nice to have.

Hisago, a restaurant in the Higashiyama region of Kyoto.

Pizza was another thing we had surprisingly often. Okay, three times in two weeks, but that’s way more often than we eat it at home. Luckily, Japanese pizza is much less heavy on cheese than American (burger patties are also much smaller). And we did get some interesting stuff, like a pizza with pickled vegetables and sake lees (the sweet leftovers from making sake). So we at least had some Japanese fusion food that time.

Welcome Kitchen, in Echigo-Yuzawa. The only place I encountered a teriyaki burger, surprisingly.

We did have sushi with fish twice at restaurants, and picked up some rolls with cucumber and plum paste to go at department stores twice for lunch. Department stores in Japan are an interesting experience, if only for the food options that many of them have- generally both sit-down restaurants and deli places (though again, the lack of seating is an issue with the latter). Shopping at outdoor markets is also an option.

Sake barrels at a temple in Niigata. Which did have good sake.

Generally, our biggest meal of the day was dinner. This is probably a result of our travel style more than anything else. Overall, Kyoto was much more accessible both in terms of the variety of restaurants (again, one vegetarian and both staying generally away from seafood) and the availability of English-language menus (or at least menus with pictures). In Kyoto, we found a falafel place that was good, as well as this mostly-vegetarian buffet that was pricey but had a huge variety of delicious vegetable-containing options (and brown rice!):

Obanzai, in Kyoto. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

As I mentioned before, there were a lot of green tea products to try. One of our favorites was green tea custard, which we sampled just across the street from Ginkaku-ji in Higashiyama.

Green-tea custard, with rabbit mascot. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

Another place we didn’t sample, in Tokyo’s Harajuku district, was the oddly-named “Grom,” which seemed to be a liberal establishment šŸ™‚

Sign inside reads “Grom does not employ colorants, aromas, conservatives, or any chemical additives…”

Hakusan Shrine and park, Niigata

My actual destination on my last day in Niigata was the park surrounding Hakusan Shrine in the historic area of the city. I think Hakusan is the main shrine of the city- it was certainly large and had quite a few visitors. In guide books that mention Niigata (and many do not), this area is mentioned as one of the attractions worth visiting. It was certainly a nice area.

Soccer at the stadium.

Before getting to the park, I walked along the river to the city athletic complex. There was a soccer game just starting at the stadium; probably not their pro men’s team, since they play at the Big Swan Stadium a few km away. I was able to get a glimpse onto the field from a walk bridge nearby, but the players weren’t on the field yet. So I headed on to the shrine.

People offering prayers at Hakusan Shrine.

Hakusan Shrine was certainly older than Gokaku, and was also a bit more picturesque.

Main gate to the shrine. Notice the Hello Kitty figures on the prayer board to the left of the gate.

Lanterns at the shrine.

There were some nice large pine trees throughout the grounds. It’s always good to see large trees in a city setting.

Pines being supported by poles.

The park surrounding the shrine had a cute little pond and some landscaping.

Lily pond- probably quite pretty when the lilies are blooming.

Blooming wisteria in the park.

There were quite a few memorials to prominent historical figures and events. Since this area was the historical center of town, that made sense.

The first stone lantern in Niigata, from 1723.

On the way out of the park, I passed by one of the historical buildings (I forgot which one) on a pedestrian overpass. Niigata seems to be quite fond of the things- certainly in comparison to Kyoto.

Historical building and overpass.

So that was my short visit to historical Niigata. There are definitely sights and buildings that I did not see, but I was able to see some interesting sights in and around what’s often called merely a stopping-off point for travelers to Sado Island. I don’t know that I’d choose to visit again just for the sake of visiting, but I did enjoy myself.

Art along the Shinano River, Niigata City

On our last day in Niigata, I took a walk along the Shinano River to sightsee. It was nice and sunny- a pretty day, in contrast to the drizzly weather we’d been having on this final part of our trip to Japan.

A woman in a traditional outfit rides by the park. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

In the morning, we checked out of our hotel, stashed our luggage at the train station luggage lockers, and bought some breakfast pastries. We ate these in the park near the Toki Messe convention center, enjoying the pleasant morning.

Mouth of the Shinano. The amount of rain we’d been having was really evident in the color of the water. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

Before Yan went to his final day of meetings, we popped up to the observation deck at the top of the convention center. We took some photos of town and then became acquainted with the local food mascots- soybean-based crackers. It’s traditional in Japan for different regions to have food specialties, and today it’s pretty common for that to be taken to extremes- the Befco twins (who knows what their true relationship backstory is, though) are apparently the mascots of the convention center itself.

Soy-based mascot food of the convention center. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

I’ve mentioned before that the area around the Shinano River is built on fill. Because of liquefaction during the last major earthquake, a lot of the most vulnerable area along the river bank is now a public park. There was a large sign in Japanese, Russian, and English in the park explaining that the bank was graded at angles that supposedly will help protect the surrounding buildings when another quake strikes. Even though the park was part of the city’s earthquake defenses, it was still a pretty place to walk.

Banks of the Shinano.

Along the way, I encountered an interesting public art installation-or so I gathered-that seemed to be part of the city’s summer cultural events.

People were clearly enjoying the sunny day.

Entrance to the structure.

It was a large hut made of bamboo that you could walk into- so I did. The entire structure was woven from bamboo. It was a little disconcerting to be walking on the thin wooden slats as they crackled underfoot and I could see the ground fairly far beneath me. But it was definitely an interesting experience.

View from the inside.

This might have been a neat place to sit and watch the light change during the day.

Open hole in the peak of the roof.

Probably the most unexpected thing I saw on my walk-even odder than the Befco crackers or the Inu-Yasha bus-I spotted in a shopping center hallway while looking for a place to grab lunch. It was a sort-of Andy Warhol-styled poster of King David Kalākaua. I’m still not sure what to make of it:


Birding in Echigo-Yuzawa

On one of the days we were in Niigata, I took the train to Echigo-Yuzawa, an onsen/ski resort town, to sightsee and try some birding. Skiing and hot springs are the big draws here, and I wasn’t partaking of either. The place I’d been intending to go- Yuzawa Kogen– is a ski resort, and in the summers you can buy a ticket up their ropeway and walk around in an alpine park.

View of Echigo-Yuzawa.

Their brochure showed a number of hiking trails- suggestive of a good chance to do some birding. From the website, they seemed to also have kiddie attractions, like go-carts and a small zipline, so I wasn’t sure what the situation would be for birds. But I went anyway, and had a pretty good time (though saw very few birds- if you are more mobile, there are better places in the Japanese Alps for it).

On the way up the ropeway…

After getting up on the ropeway and walking around a bit (and it was quite steep, even though there was a plateau up there), it transpired that the hiking trails were closed, presumably because of lingering snow. That was disappointing. But I walked over to their “alpine garden” and looked at the sights: a pond and some early flowers. There were a lot of frogs croaking and what looked like egg casings in the water.

Alpine garden and pond.

Eggs of some sort of amphibian?

The garden itself would clearly be pretty in a few more weeks – at the time, only a few things were blooming or even much above ground.

Ski runs with melting snow.

Statues on the plateau.

I toodled around for a while, having little success with birds (most were staying in the trees, where the trails were blocked off) and taking some photos.

Early lilies blooming.


The peak above the plateau area (where I wasn’t allowed to hike) was listed on the map as being over 2600 meters high; I’d estimate that I was at about 1800 meters on the plateau.


My only glimpse of cherry blossoms on the trip- we were too late in the season for the ones at lower elevations.

I eventually went back down the ropeway. I’d noticed a trail to a waterfall- Fudootaki Falls- marked on the tourist map I’d picked up, and hoped that might be a better place for birds.

Restaurant Edelweiss- at the resort, so a bit pricey. The restaurants in town were less expensive.

I stopped for lunch first at a burger place (teriyaki burger set) before heading up to the waterfall. It was a good thing, because the path up to the waterfall had a pretty consistent uphill grade. Along the way, it passed through a residential area, where the sound of rushing water was apparent – really, it was apparent all through the town. The snowmelt was filling the storm drains, and in places the drains were overflowing somewhat, though the water didn’t look dirty. So water was definitely a theme in Echigo-Yuzawa.

Rushing stream, on the way to the waterfall.

More spring flowers in the gorge.

Anyway, fortified by burger and fries, I walked to the stream. It was tucked into a valley alongside the ridge that the ropeway goes up. There was a high dam and a park about halfway along the stream, then the pathway got a bit steeper for a while and climbed the valley wall overlooking the stream.

Dam on the way up to the waterfall.

Cablecar on the way up to Yuzawa Kogen.

Along the way up, there was an older couple who were also doing the hike. I think the woman saw me looking at the dam and assumed I didn’t realize it was the waterfall, because she beckoned me on up the path. The same thing happened when I was checking out the first cascade, which was apparently smaller than the big waterfall – she asked if I spoke Japanese, I said no, and she tried to explain that the bigger waterfall was still ahead. Rather than try to explain that I knew the big one was deeper in the valley, I went ahead and followed them up. There were actually quite a few wildflowers blooming along the path too.

Older couple along the stream. It seemed that they were collecting rocks after visiting the waterfall.

More wildflowers.

It was clear that the path had only been passable for a little while – the older man busied himself breaking some branches of trees that had fallen onto the trail, probably over the winter. The walls of the valley were steep enough that I bet landslides would be a problem. In some places, there were still deposits of dirty snow with lots of plant matter mixed in with it – even over the lower part of the stream, where there was a bit of an open-ceiling tunnel effect. But it was actually pleasantly warm.

Some of the trees were blooming too.

So at the big waterfall, which was back in the V of the head of the valley, there was a rock wall with water dripping down it and liverworts and mosses, alongside a small water basin with a cup. I did drink a bit of the water. The waterfall itself wasn’t super big, but was very pretty. It was quite misty because of the force of the snowmelt, and there were a lot of small flying bugs around, sort of glinting prettily in the light. So it was a pretty cool sight. It was clear that with the spring snowmelt you couldn’t get as close to the falls as maybe during the summer. I hung out for just a bit, then headed back down.

Basin and cup.

FudootakiĀ Falls.

Along the way, I saw a dipper-the avian kind– which I’d been wanting to see for some time. Dippers are cute chubby birds, not particularly graceful fliers. This one wasn’t “dipping” in the water (which is where they get their name), but stayed visible enough that it was clear what it was. So that was neat.

Another spring lily.

Wild daffodil.

It was about 2 at that point, and I was a bit tired. I walked through town a bit. The train tracks were pretty far overhead part of the town because of the steep terrain, and it was interesting to see that houses were built under them. This reminded me of many Final Fantasy games, where there’s a similar urban setup – not something I’d encountered in the US where space isn’t generally a premium.

Under the shinkansen tracks.

I caught a train back to Niigata around 3:15 or so, and managed to find a seat. I must have dozed off, because while I thought I was paying attention to the station announcements, I thought the next was for Nagaoka (which came before Niigata), before being alerted to the fact that it was actually Niigata by the slightly different announcement and the rustling of everyone who was preparing to leave. Maybe it’s lucky that my stop was at the end of the line!

Echigo-Yuzawa street scene.

Soaking in the atmosphere at the Dune of Literature

On one of the days we were in Niigata, Yan had a half-day at the conference. I spent the morning trying to figure out how to do laundry, and finally succeeded thanks to a very nice cleaning lady who found me struggling and helped me. (As a side note: if you plan to do laundry in Japan and don’t read kanji, you may want to check to see whether your phrase book can help you with this ahead of time.)

While it was pretty drizzly out, Yan and I decided to walk around town. We headed across the Bandai Bridge toward the Sea of Japan, through downtown Niigata. This area is quite low, topographically speaking. In fact, the major streets are named for the canals that used to run through here a few centuries ago. Much of the area is essentially fill, which can’t be good when big earthquakes occur.

Toki mural seen from the Bandai Bridge.

Downtown Niigata is essentially on a peninsula- the Shinano River separates the two built-up sections of town. There are some hills- actually, old sand dunes- along the shoreline. Part of this dune area is a park, so we walked there for a while.

Reflecting bowl. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

One of the parts of the park-like area is called the “Dune of Literature.” I think this is related to an author or poet who used to come here for inspiration.

One of the few English-language signs in Niigata! (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

It was rather a nice place to take a stroll, and look for birds.

Scenic spot on the Dune of Literature. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

The beach itself wasn’t very scenic. Grey sand, lots of breakwaters and jetties. We assume this is for tsunami protection. We sat by the water for a bit, and made sure to dip our toes into the Sea of Japan.

Yan at the shoreline.

We tried to get a glimpse of Sado Island, which lies some distance off shore. But it was too overcast, and we probably didn’t have enough height to see it. Ah, well.

Sado Island would be off in the distance here.

On the way back to town, we stopped briefly at Gokaku Shrine. This modern temple was an interesting contrast to all the older sights we’d seen in Kyoto recently. Definitely more recently built, and in a pretty setting.

Gokaku Shrine. (Photo: Y. Fernandez)

Ueno Park, Tokyo

Armed with window seat reservations for the 9 a.m. shinkansen, I headed from Niigata to Ueno Park. The park is literally across the street from Ueno station (though navigating the station itself was a pain), so I reasoned that it would be fairly easy to get around. That turned out to be true, after leaving the station.

Kaneiji (?) Temple, in Ueno Park.

I went to two museums- a natural history museum and the national art museum. The former was larger than expected, and the latter smaller (though one of the buildings was closed for repairs related to last year’s Sendai quake). In a somewhat ironic gesture, the National Museum of Nature and Science has a giant whale sculpture in front of it (which, of course, I did not take a photo of). Though I suppose it’s fitting with the reasoning that Japanese whale hunting is conducted for supposedly scientific purposesā€¦

The museum itself has two buildings: the entry (which is older) has exhibits on Japanese flora, fauna, and ecology, Japanese contributions to science, and a special exhibit on photography of skeletons of Ainu and Yayoi (indigenous and prehistoric peoples of Japan, respectively). While the signage in English was very limited, the arrangement of many of these things was standard, and knowing some scientific names also helped (yay, use of Latin!).

Hydrosera micrograph, in the algae display. Yes, unicellular algae had their own display. Go diatoms!

The Japanese science exhibit had quite a few telescopes, maps (including celestial maps and globes), globes, and microscopes, but signage was really mostly in Japanese. Dates were also given according to the Japanese calendar, which is based on imperial dynasties – which made interpretation harder for me.

Various schemes for organizing life into kingdoms and domains.

The other, newer building had more general exhibits: one big area highlighting ecological diversity, another emphasizing evolution, fossils and geological time (with a display on human evolution that had a signed photo from the Hokule’a crew!) This section was much easier for me to appreciate, because the focus here was on a familiar topic. There was also a floor that had an interactive kids’ area, and another that focused on physical sciences – chemistry, astronomy, and physics. There was no English signage on this floor, so I basically just walked through it. I did make out a big see-through lucite H-R diagram, and a display on SI units (how much volume does one mole of oxygen take up, that sort of thing).

There seemed to be quite a few middle-school kids around, on field trips, but few unattached adults. Until I got to the gift shop. That had lots of people. They did have some stuffed Cambrian-era critters which I was really temped to buy, but I couldn’t figure out what I’d do with one of them. There also were vending machines – the kind you put a coin into and then take a chance on what trinket you’ll get out – with a really cute toki statuette. But I reasoned that my chances of getting the toki were only 5:1, and I’d probably wind up getting something lame like a model of the museum, so I passed.

I also passed on the cafeteria, reasoning that there would be something to eat at the art museum for lunch that was better (I was also really trying to avoid curry rice), but that turned out to be a mistake. Both art museum cafeterias were sit-down, and there was a long line of retirees with their names on a list outside each one. So no lunch there. But I did not know this yet, so headed over there.

Landscaping at the art museum.

So the Tokyo National Museum was smaller than I expected, but did give a good introduction to a variety of Japanese arts. Unfortunately, I was hungry and a bit footsore at this point. There were various statues and temple bronzes (a bit anticlimactic after being in Kyoto, where these things were still being venerated in their traditional contexts), paintings and scrolls, pottery, woodblock prints, and kimono. One of the giant folding screen paintings – several yards long and perhaps 2 yards high- was quite impressive, of Mt. Fuji, surrounded by clouds, with a gold leaf background.

I finally broke down and bought a mystery item from one of the vending machines. It turned out to be a pot with a face on it from the Yayoi period. One of the things I was most excited about seeing at the museum was the exhibit with prehistoric (to historic) artifacts. This included pottery from the Jomon and Yayoi periods, as well as more recent stuff. There were some terra-cotta statues from burial tumuli from the Nara region, which was cool, though I didn’t remember the name of the tomb we saw and whether any of the artifacts were from it. After having seen these things, I decided to go back to the gift shop and buy a set of mini prehistoric terra-cotta figurines. These included two haniwa dancers, as well as a bell, and a few human figures, etc. Though there wasn’t a pot, so I felt a bit better about spending 400 yen on the plastic vending machine figurine of chance.

Ueno Park souvenirs, back at home. The black figurines are terra-cotta with wood ash- they smell pleasantly woody.

At this point, I think it was about 2:00, and I was really quite hungry. I looked around the park for cafes, and again most of what was there was sit-down, with long lines. I eventually wandered downhill toward the pond, and found a place to buy food – you paid first at a vending machine, then got a ticket to take to the counter and order. But as at Fukushimagata, I was approached by a somewhat weird guy who decided to try to chat with me (though in English) as I was contemplating what to get from the vending machine. His girlfriend also showed up, and I told them to order first, and pretended to be indecisive. I wonder how many of these interactions Yan and I missed as a couple, compared to as solo travelersā€¦

Pond in Ueno Park.

So I ended up getting fried saimin (complete with dried fish flakes) and sitting by the pond for a while. At this point, it was only about 3, and my train wasn’t till 4:30. I did a bit more wandering, and then went to the Hanazono-Inari shrine. I wanted to buy aĀ  little charm, but through miscommunication the priestess ran up to their other office to get two of the little fox figurines. They were 3000 yen, but at that point I sort of wanted them, so I bought them. My bag was getting pretty heavy…

Other sights in Ueno Park included quite a few homeless people (this seems to be where they congregate), some Peruvians selling Andean music, and a baseball game being played. Pretty footsore, I caught the train back to Niigata. A long day, but some interesting sights.

Birding Fukushimagata Wetlands, Niigata, Japan

One of my day trips out of Niigata was to the Fukushimagata wetlands for birding. Fukushimagata is a park a bit northeast of Niigata City that provides habitat for birds- large numbers of waterfowl visit on migration and in the winter, but I was there at an “off” season and only saw a few species.

I headed on a local train east to the town of Toyosaka, getting there mid-morning. Toyosaka has clearly seen somewhat better days, to judge from the state of the downtown shopping arcade area. At any rate, I walked to the Fukushimagata wetlands, which are surrounded by rice fields just southeast of town. Many of the paddies had clearly been planted recently, and some of them had people in them planting. There were not too many birds in and around the paddies- Japan is not really a “birdy” place. This is probably partly due to the seasons, though.

Farmers planting rice, along the road outside of Toyosaka.

I’d originally thought that the distance from the station to the wetlands was about 1 km, but it turned out to be more like 4. So the walk was a lot longer than expected. In retrospect, it would have been helpful to look into catching a bus. The walk turned out to be fine, through a suburban area that was in better repair than downtown Toyosaka- the houses were reminiscent of the newer developments on Central Oahu or the west side of Kauai – small houses with walls, and low flat fields right outside of the town. Though this was rice, not sugarcane.

As I was walking, I heard some really loud, croaking and buzzing birds in the reeds, but was not able to get a look at them. This was a bit frustrating. When I got to the wetland protected area, there was a river running alongside it, with a spiral-shaped observation tower/nature center, and across the street a wetland complex. I visited the river first, and heard more of the buzzy birds, but was not able to see them. The visitor center had an admission fee, so I weighed going in, before deciding against it and crossing the elevated bridge over to the wetland side.

Fukushimagata river.

I stopped at an open teahouse/shelter building to drink some tea and eat a snack- some banana chocolate covered cookies that I’d grabbed in Niigata Station. I’d assumed there would be more food along the way, but there wasn’t much apparent in Toyosaka. But it was only 11, and I was still doing okay. A Japanese man sat next to me and tried to chat- he offered some of his lunch and I think I politely declined- but then gave me some gum. I felt a bit awkward about the encounter.

View of the shelter.

I did notice one person who looked like a birder walking along the edge of the wetlands – most of the people I saw were just out for a stroll and lacked birding paraphernalia, i.e., binocs, a vest, and a furtive manner. I walked in the opposite direction, but he ended up coming the same way I did when I was trying to identify a duck.

The observation tower. It probably would have had a great view, but I was eager to get to the birds…

He tried to indicate something in Japanese, but I told him I didn’t speak the language. So he asked for my book and pointed to a great crested grebe (most bird books are organized according to taxonomy, so the order of species will generally be the same and it’s easy to jump to a specific group regardless of language). Apparently they’re rare at the wetland, so he was quite excited. Since that communication was more or less successful, I asked him which reed-warbler was all around (the buzzing bird), and he pointed to the right one (Great reed-warbler). Cross-cultural geeky communication FTW! Anyway, that interaction worked out better than the man trying to feed me.

View of the lagoon from the shelter. There was a nice view of the mountains.

So, I proceeded on at the wetlands, visiting a viewing tower on the shore of the lagoon, and then headed back. By this point I was both tired and hungry, and wanted to rest my feet and get lunch. I also felt I would have done an honorable amount of walking by the time I got back to the station. Along the way, I passed food guy going the other way on his bike. Again, a bit awkward. But I successfully made my way back to the train station, Niigata, and onigiri and melon pastries.

Bird-viewing tower.

My bird list for the day:

  • Mallard, Eastern Spot-billed Duck, Green-winged Teal & Greater Scaup
  • Little Grebe & Great Crested Grebe
  • Great Cormorant
  • Gray Heron, Great Egret, Little Egret & Black-crowned Night-Heron
  • Black Kite
  • Eurasian Moorhen & Eurasian Coot
  • Oriental Turtle-Dove, Carrion Crow, Sky Lark, Barn Swallow, Great Reed-Warbler, Narcissus Flycatcher, White-cheeked Starling, White Wagtail, Oriental Greenfinch & Eurasian Tree Sparrow