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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

WILD WATCH

HOT BATHS, BIRDS . . . AND MORE

Home comforts in a natural idyll


It's 07:30 and I'm just back from hiking to the 1,860-meter summit of Mount Yashigamine, having set out at 4 a.m. and been soaked to the skin in the rain along the way, and I am slipping into a welcoming hot bath -- squeezing in a soak, as well as a mountain, before breakfast.

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A fine pair of Japanese badgers visit a feeder (above) at the Petite Auberge Stained Glass guest house in Tateshina, Nagano Prefecture, where a Pallas's rosefinch and a Eurasian bullfinch are among the many different birds to brighten another feeding table on a winter's day. SHINICHIRO HIDA PHOTOS
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I fling the window wide, and look out into lush forest and listen to the sounds of nature from the bath -- no need for bird sounds BGM here, just outside the window I have the real thing.

Regular readers will know that I am an absolute sucker for hot baths and birds -- and this is a great locale for the likes of me. I have washed away the mud, my muscles are relaxing and wildlife sounds are washing over me. The pulsing, almost explosive notes of a Japanese bush warbler are loud and close; below the window, I hear the chattering buzz of Oriental greenfinches flying past; while a rattling trill is the song of a secretive Siberian blue robin skulking about in the forest undergrowth.

Then, as I contemplate the benefits of living in a forest (and am feeling deeply envious of my hosts, who do just that!), I hear the hard "pik" call of a Japanese grosbeak very nearby. Even better, I realize that I can actually see one, huge yellow beak and all, right from the bath.

In this column last month, I wrote about various ways to enjoy wildlife watching, describing in particular the pleasure of sitting in one place and waiting for it all to come to you.

Pleasurable approach

Another pleasurable approach is to find some pleasant accommodation in a great setting, where wildlife is attracted to the grounds. I frequently remind myself how lucky I am as I am able to visit wonderful places to watch wildlife not just here in Japan, but worldwide, and I have chances to write about them, to share them with readers.

Every so often I receive mail from readers, who, confined to an urban existence, are looking for somewhere to escape to for a couple of days; somewhere they can relax, unwind from city life, soak up some atmosphere -- and see some wildlife.

Years ago I wrote a guidebook to birdwatching in Japan (see below) to help answer some of those questions. Of course there wasn't enough space to write about everywhere, and some places are as good for mammals as birds, so I thought it time now to share a few more secrets.

My all-time favorite area is of course my "home turf" of eastern Hokkaido. For mammal encounters (deer, foxes, chipmunks, squirrels, bears, porpoises) there is nowhere better in Japan, and there are some wonderful places to stay -- quiet pensions, minshuku guest houses catering largely to naturalists, and hotels with fabulous views or enticing settings. But not everyone can escape to eastern Hokkaido for the weekend.

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Steller's sea eagles in homemade stained glass (above) make a fine sight at the Stained Glass guest house. PHOTOS (C) IMAGES OF JAPAN
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So what if you live in a city in Honshu and want to escape, revel in the relaxed atmosphere of the mountains -- and have a great chance of seeing wildlife, but without a great deal of effort?

In the past I might have immediately suggested the Karuizawa area of Nagano Prefecture to you. Frankly, though, the last time I passed through there I was astonished to find it feeling almost more urban than Sapporo. It seems to have turned into an ultra-busy, wannabe rather chic, country mall town. The drone of traffic is close, and wildlife harder to reach.

So here's an alternative suggestion -- Tateshina, also in Nagano Prefecture. Within an easy walk of this delightful place are tens and tens of kilometers of hiking trails, tracks up to mountain peaks and ridges, and pleasant forest walks (even if it does rain on you at 5 in the morning, as it did on me and my buddy Ian).

And then there's the bath.

Situated in lush forest, with a maze of narrow winding roads to country properties, I can thoroughly recommend a stay at the pension that goes by the name of "Petite Auberge Stained Glass." This guest house opened in 1984 and is run by five members of the Hida family. You can't be swamped by people here, because Stained Glass can only take a maximum of 23 visitors at one time, and if you can avoid school holidays -- and better still, weekends -- you will really be able to get away from it all.

A little uphill from the lodge you can find wild cherries, magnolias, azaleas, forest flowers and birds galore -- as well as what sounded like stream toads calling in a brook.

With snow on the ground here from November to April, it's a wonderful place to enjoy a winter break with snow-season activities. In spring, summer and autumn, the birds are wonderful as are the forest flowers, and there are even mammals to entice. On my recent visit I just missed connecting with a pair of Japanese badgers, which had visited the feeding table an hour or so before I arrived.

Startlingly attractive

It's those feeding tables that make it difficult on a snowy winter morning to know whether to stay put or to go for a walk -- it's tempting to stay inside, warm and dry, and simply enjoy the to-ings and fro-ings of the local birdlife. Regulars such as brown-eared bulbuls, great tits and great spotted woodpeckers are no surprise at the feeders, but flocks of Asian rosyfinches, and more amazingly beautiful Pallas's rosefinches, are more unusual sights.

Best of all though are the chances of something really startlingly attractive, such as a copper pheasant, strolling by. Stained Glass is sited in excellent pheasant habitat, and they regularly wander through the area -- including the garden -- and sometimes linger under the bird tables.

Between long spells gazing out of the windows as the birds come and go, you will find plenty of distractions on offer in the relaxing lounge/dining area. There are books galore, bird feathers to identify, and everywhere wildlife-inspired stained glass, hand made on site. If they created that to order, the Hida family might have a second business to rival the success of their pension! Wildlife, excellent walking, great ambience, and, I almost forgot to mention, the clinching ingredient for a great stay -- excellent food.

To find out more, e-mail in Japanese or English to concierge@stained-g.net or visit the Stained Glass Web site at www.stained-g.net
The address is: Tokyu Resort Town Tateshina, 4026, Kitayama, Chino-shi, Nagano-ken 391-0301 (call [0266] 69-3010 or fax [0266] 60-2225). By train from Shinjuku, Tokyo, it takes about 2 1/2 hours to Chino Station, and from there it is about 30 minutes by bus or taxi.
If you know of any other wildlife-oriented accommodation (especially with tanuki or Japanese giant flying squirrels to be seen), do let me know and I will pass the word along in a future column.
Mark Brazil's first book, "A Birdwatcher's Guide to Japan," is now out of print, and highly collectible. However, the author has some mint-condition, signed copies available, and anyone interested can make contact at markbrazil@world.email.ne.jp


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