Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Socks go Wild in Hokkaido - Part III Dancing Cranes


Our second and last morning at the Wilderness Lodge and we got a lie-in! Ando had already disappeared with the next small group to be hauled out of bed at the crackov and carted off to see the cranes in their early morning river setting.  So it is a late 8.30 a.m. before we were packed and off on the snow covered roads.  We decided to drive around the marshlands for a while to see what we could find on our own and then return to the crane reserve at Tsurui in the hope that the cranes would turn up on schedule this time.  We had seen cranes in the evening, cranes in the morning, but had yet to see them in their full glory dancing!

We were so sad to be leaving this area, the beautiful intense brightness of the light and our luck to have such blue sky'd sunny weather had already improved my health and well being, the wildlife encounters turned my anxieties to excitement and cut through my general state of exhaustion, buoying me up with enough energy to keep going. How we wished we were spending longer here to explore this wilderness landscape. Even our short drive produced curious deer, buzzards, kites and distant eagles. We could have happily have spent a week or more there, instead of our meagre two days.

We returned to the crane reserve and waited patiently, with a few other photographers, praying that we would see a few more cranes than the couple pootling about in front of us in a desultory fashion.

And then the cranes suddenly raised their heads to the west and started hollering!  A small squadron of three more cranes was on its way

They looked so funny their large bodies so graceful in flight, a little ridiculous as they glided slowly over the tree tops. Daddy Crane, Mummy Crane and Baby Crane!

Mummy and baby (not yet old enough to develop the red crown of the adults) land first

then Daddy comes in to land


In Japan everything comes with a tune, like the announcements on the Shinkansen which start with a little jingle in my mind segueing straight into 'Young Gifted and Black'. Most videos of the cranes are accompanied by tinkly Japanese music - but as the next flight of cranes arrived all I could hear was Beyoncé  playing in my mind.  The Red-Crowned cranes were dancing to 'Single Ladies'.... , as in the video of  Beyoncé and her backing dancers,,

All the single ladies (All the single ladies)


All the single ladies (All the single ladies)


Now put your hands up!


Cause if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
If you liked it then you should've put a ring on it

Wuh uh oh uh uh oh oh uh oh uh uh oh
Wuh uh oh uh uh oh oh uh oh uh uh oh

And then more and more cranes started to arrive, flights of three to six birds starting as distant dots until descending over the trees and landing like dancers in the field in front of us. After an hour we drag ourselves away... we have owls and eagles to see and our first view of the Hokkaido coast.  What a wonderful, life fulfilling, spectacle it has been - I laughed out loud at the joy of it and the crazy, funny, cranes.

The cranes are extremely rare and as their meat was prized they were almost wiped out by hunters in the early 1900s. And then, as in so many places, their breeding grounds were eroded by
rampant land development for agriculture the population reduced to fewer than 20 surviving in the Kushiro marshes.  As the population dwindled to the point of extinction, local people around Kushiro started to provide food for them in the winter and they gained legal protection. Over the years the population made a dramatic recovery - it is believed there are up to 2000 cranes around this part of Hokkaido now.  A wonderful story of conservation!

[Photography note: the Bedsock used the Canon 70D with 600mm sigma lens and tripod. I used the Canon 600D and 75-300mm lens handheld.  Both had their uses and drawbacks, it was more difficult for the Bedsock to track the moving cranes and to get a full 'squadron' in the photo. But obviously the quality of his pictures is better. I got better framed subject matter due to the ease of handheld and being able to change position more easily without a tripod - but the quality is not as good and I didn't have the camera on an ideal setting as I had forgotten to reset the sensor.  Nevertheless we are pleased that between us we got some pretty good and occasionally 'artistic' photos as a wonderful souvenir of our trip.]

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Socks go Wild in Hokkaido Part II - Owling

I recently read a birders blog who noted that according to the dictionary of Urban Slang 'Owling' means, not searching out and watching owls but
"the new viral craze; a bit like planking, except you crouch down, and stare like an owl. You then take a picture and post it on facebook. Brownie points for random places to owl"
Who knew?  I suspect that is another craze that has been long gone before I even heard about it.

I doubt Ando, our wildlife guide in the Hokkaido wilderness, would have been too impressed by this definition, although after his revelation of the previous evening, that he loved The Who, Brighton and wanted to be a Mod (rather than a Rocker) it was clear he was a man of many surprises.

General view of Kushiro wetlands

After breakfast we are loaded into Ando's van along with the students, and the 'Birders' who are fun company and a mine of interesting and useful information. First stop is the nearby feeding station where the red-crowned cranes are due to show up at about 11.00a.m. They don't! This is the trouble with wildlife - so flippin' unpredictable! As the cranes have refused to stick to Ando's schedule we are packed back into the van and driven along snow compacted lanes to our next stop - we have been promised a Ural owl!  And what an exquisite creature it is too, roosting in a tree that is picture perfect on its own.  Like so many things in Japan, the owl comes beautifully packaged.

Ural owl, Kushiro area, Hokkaido

But this is where the slight disappointment creeps in! Despite the general remoteness of the area, we are suddenly not alone! Another van load of people has turned up bursting into the reverent silence we and the Birders observe for our encounters with wildlife.  This is not just an owl, it's a tourist destination! Small groups at a time are allowed to clamber down the path, boots crunching deep into the snow and instructed to keep at a certain distance to photograph the owl.  The Bedsock and I are very excited by the chance of a good picture but the Birders are less happy with the experience, particularly as the other group seem more interested in chatting loudly to each other than watching the owl.  As it happens, the owl doesn't do much other than occasionally opening its eyes and glaring disdainfully at those disturbing its peace.

Ando explains that although he is a registered guide there are some who operate without license, picking up the GPS co-ordinates of the various wildlife sightings and driving (small) bus loads of tourists around them.  Worse, there is mention of some of the unregulated tourists chucking snowballs at the owls and generally being disrespectful.  We are saddened by this but aware that in terms of 'wildlife tourism' we are part of the 'problem'.  The fact is tourists bring money into areas and ultimately that helps in the conservation of wildlife.  The red-crowned cranes were hunted and eaten almost to the point of extinction before it was realised they were worth more to the area alive and dancing!

We leave the Ural owl to a bit of peace and quiet before the next visitors turn up and Ando drives us to a Sushi-go-round restaurant in Kushiro the largest town in the area, for lunch.  It's fun and cheerful, the sushi is the best ever and Ando orders some of the more unusual fish sushi for us to savour. Then onwards for cake and coffee at a rather chic cafe! We are amazed, last time we were in Japan we had some difficulty outside of the big towns finding places to lunch, and certainly not cake unless it was of the disappointing type that looks wonderful and turns out to be full of bean paste!  It's worth having a guide just to find the best local eating establishments.

Sika deer - might have been a great photo had it not been taken thru van window as we travelled

The Birders are doing a similar circuit of Hokkaido to us, arriving the previous day Ando has already taken them to see owls which they had all to themselves and also white-tailed eagles. We see a very distant solitary Steller's eagle on our tour but we hadn't expected to see them here at all.  We will be travelling to Rausu on the coast the next day in the hope of seeing both eagles and the famous Blakiston Fish Owl.  The owl is supposed to be a major highlight of our holiday but the Birders tell us that when they researched it they found that fish owls only live for about 40 years and 'Blakey' was nearing that so there was a possibility that poor 'Blakey' might have carked it! As the brochure described the accommodation for viewing the fish owls as  'VERY basic' they didn't want to risk it being a no show!  Blakey's possible demise would be terrible for the Socks but even worse for the poor owners of the 'very basic' shack which Blakey has turned into a moneyspinner for them over 20 years!  We speculate that they may have nailed Blakey to a perch and be working him with strings, in a tragic copy of the Dead Parrot sketch.

Whether Blakey lives or not remains to be seen on another day, for now there is another chance to see a different pair of Ural owls snuggled together on the edge of a small woodland.

Ural Owls, Kushiroshiysugen, Hokkaido

And then a stop for some beautiful landscape photography, a sighting of Hooper swans on a frozen lake in the Kushiroshitsugen National Park. 

Black kites circle overhead the scene and the light are amazing.

Our day out is over, the Birders go to the local onsen for a good soak in the hot spring waters but I am regrettably too exhausted for this and grab a quick pre-dinner snooze.  I can't wait to wake up and see what the next day holds... so much to see and so little time to see it in.  Will Blakey be a no-show? Will we be lucky enough to see eagles? Will we ever see the red-crowned cranes dance?  All will be revealed in the next few blogs.. I could be writing them for some time...

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The Sock's Guide to the Breakfast Buffet


A tiny part of the Best Breakfast Buffet ever at the Tokyo Station Hotel

Tokyo, and at 6.30a.m. awoken by jet lag in the early hours of the morning we  decide to hit the breakfast buffet at the Tokyo Station Hotel before it has been 'Laverne'd'.

I'm going to let you in on one of those annoying private little made-up words that families or couples share. We coined the verb 'to Laverne' some years ago on our tour of Iceland...

Outside of Rejkyavik Iceland is mostly gloriously empty and unpopulated.  For those not venturing into the desolate interior, there is a road circuit around the island and a limited amount of hotels en route that everyone stops at.  When I say 'everyone' what I mean is the unexpected coachloads of Americans (we deduced, parents of the young military quartered in the (now closed) naval air station on Keflavik). We bump into these coachloads on too many occasions.

I don't remember much about the Icelandic breakfast buffets other than that at one of our more 'off piste' destinations, along with the various cured fish, meats and cheese, little shot glasses were laid out filled with a glowing golden liquid.  "How civilized - a little snifter with brekkie" I thought as I seized what I took to be an Icelandic 'Eau de Vie' and downed it in one.  Yurgggggghhh! My throat filled with a viscous slime and the disgusting taste of neat cod liver oil, leaving my mouth filled with a fishy after taste for hours afterwards.

Other than that the buffets passed without incident until our stay at Husavik for a whale watching cruise.  Perhaps the midnight sun affected our sleep patterns but we arrived late next day at the breakfast buffet and to our disappointment much of the food had disappeared and not been replaced. Worse, the remaining decimated meats and cheese had been mushed around, fingered and smeared. What was once a neatly piled plate of herrings, smattered and smashed. The butter covered in toast crumbs, globs of jam and other substances in an unappetizing, inedible mess.  Towards the  far end of the buffet strip a large American with a butt the size of China was still loading her plate Desperate Dan style, greedily mauling the remaining pastries. The Bedsock and I, with rapidly diminishing appetite, salvaged what we could from the remaining food massacre and retreated gloomily to our table.  Nearby I heard the Americans' tour guide say, without sarcasm, to the Large Lady "Enjoying your breakfast, Laverne?" 

And so a new word was born into the Socks vocabulary, to 'Laverne' meaning to decimate the breakfast buffet,  or used descriptively as in  'The breakfast buffet has been Laverne'd'.

The next morning, alarm clocks set, we ensured an early pre-crowd arrival at the buffet and noticed a sign had gone up saying "Food must not be taken outside the restaurant - sandwiches can be made and paid for on request!". 

I confess to a certain amount of guilt over this, not being above snaffling something tasty from the breakfast buffet for laterz.  On my childhood travels abroad YoungMaSock would carry an enormous handbag bought specially for the purpose of  packing full of goodies from the hotel breakfast tables which would then form our picnic lunch. In Figuere da Foz we breakfasted in our room, as usual in Portugal, breakfast came in an enormous basket laden with fruit and cakes. But to my and BroSock's disappointment pretty much all of it disappeared into YoungMaSock's bag to be doled out as meals for us kids over the next couple of days!   OldMaSock never grew out of this habit and for years carried a tupperware box in her handbag into which substantial portions of restaurant meals would be stored for later.  On an early acquaintance with OldMaSock, The Bedsock was unsuprisingly shocked to see her stuff two large sausages into her serviette and transfer the bundle into her handbag, despite the fact she was being well fed and watered by us and this being years before her becoming a tad demented!

As usual I have digressed, back to the Tokyo Station Hotel at a far too early 6.30a.m in the morning. As it is, even Laverne couldn't defeat the Japanese ethos of beautiful presentation and the Tokyo Station Hotel has the best breakfast buffet ever! No doubt, in the event of a Laverning the well-trained staff would discreetly repair the damaged buffet, restoring its pristine beauty for the next person.  But even with such a cornucopia of exquisite food there are still pitfalls to avoid!

The buffet is lined up on two sides of the long, elegant Atrium room at the top of the hotel (in this case the 'top' is in fact the third story in a refreshing change from the skycraper hotels around it!).  On one side a bar serving freshly cooked eggs etc., then an eclectic mix of European dishes, including cheeses, smoked salmon, shrimps in mayo, lasagne! (yes lasagne! whoever heard of lasagne for breakfast? Unless you are at home with a hangover eating leftovers from the fridge.) Moving on past  mouthwatering French and Danish pastries, breads, toast and jam, a sudden delve into various Chinese pancake rolls and dim sum. Leaping over to the opposite side where a variety of top class teas await (NOT the ubiquitous Twinings varieties that most foreign hotels offer when they think they are being posher than those who just dish out Liptons!) green tea, roast green tea - my favourite!, various fresh juices, fresh fruit, several delicious types of yoghurt.  Then on to the best of all - the Japanese breakfast! Rice dishes and 'select your own' sprinkles to go on top, miso soup to ladle into your bowl with your own choice of accoutrements, natta (this was a weird fermented thing that gave me wind but apart from that aspect the Bedsock thought it was rather tasty!).  Then various dishes of unknown provenance, mostly delicious and probably kelp and squid based - all accompanied by pickles and condiments for our delectation.   Then finally, the piéce de resistance (see top photo) almost too beautifully laid out to touch! But touch we did, filling our plates with raw tuna served with a spicey lime dip, tofu skin in little glasses (our absolute favourite), little sticks of burdock root in a sesame dressing, chopped up okra and yam, rolled omelette, herry spawn on kelp (whatever that is), pickled nozawa greens, and whatever was in the bowl filled with black snakey stuff in the middle which was probably so outré they refused to label it for fear of putting westerners off!

No worries here either about using our usual trick of digging to the bottom of the platter in case someone has coughed their germs all over the top layer!  Although on the occasions when I feel it incumbent on me to do this, I remove the article I want with precision and not leave the plate messy and Laverne'd for the next person.

The Bedsock's choice from a breakfast buffet in Hakodate - rice, salmon eggs, raw prawn and tuna!

The only peril was where to start? If we filled up on Japanese food would we have room for a croissant with our coffee?  As we were staying several nights we formed a plan to eat
a different 'style' of breakfast each day although I confess to wolfing down a quick croissant with my coffee whilst still having the taste of tuna with wasabi dressing in my mouth. At other hotel buffets we were shocked to see Japanese people (normally so delicate and fastidious!) piling their plates with a bit of everything in food combinations like, raspberry tart with salmon eggs, bacon, and pickled veg, that would give you indigestion just to think about! Which just goes to show there is a bit of Laverne in all of us.