From late autumn to early spring Japan is a goose-watcher's paradise. Hundreds of thousands of geese, of various species, descend on the country's lakes, marshes and agricultural land to spend the coldest time of the year here.
The vast majority of them are Greater White-fronted Goose and Taiga Bean Goose. Joining them too are smaller numbers of Tundra Bean Goose, Lesser White-fronted Goose, Lesser Snow Goose, Cackling Goose and Brent Goose. Diligent searches through the goose flocks sometimes turn up even greater rarities such as Swan Goose and Greylag Goose and there are even records of vagrant Bar-headed Goose and Red-breasted Goose.
Most of the geese enter the country via Hokkaido, and after staging at places such as Sarobetsu near Wakkanai, Urahoro, near Obihiro, and Miyajimanuma, northeast of Sapporo, they move further south to their traditional wintering areas in northern Honshu. One such place is Hachirogata, just over an hour's drive northwest of Akita City.
Reclamation in the late 1950s of what used to be Lake Hachiro turned the lake into an important area for growing rice, Japan's staple food. The resulting habitat, consisting of extensive areas of post-harvest rice fields, is very much liked by geese.
Sufficient post-harvest waste remains on the fields to sustain a large population of geese through the cold winter months, and nearby are safe roosting sites which see little in the way of human disturbance. The absence of hunting in the area further increases the sense of security for the birds.
The area over which the geese move to feed is large and they are often disturbed by local farmers and even bird photographers making a vehicle essential so as to be able to explore the area in search of the birds.
The open agricultural terrain is also attractive to birds of prey. Eastern Buzzard, Black-eared Kite and Eastern Marsh Harrier winter here and Hachirogata's healthy number of prey species attracts both White-tailed Eagle and Steller's Eagle during winter too.
During autumn and winter Short-eared Owl may be seen hunting in the late afternoon, especially along the reed-filled ditches that divide the rice fields.
In the last twenty years two species — Cackling Goose and Lesser Snow Goose —have increased considerably in Japan, and this trend has been mirrored in increased flock sizes at Hachirogata. Now, more than 1,000 Lesser Snow Goose can be found at Hachirogata from late November to late February, and there are also smaller flocks elsewhere, such as at Asahi-ike near Joetsu City, in Niigata Prefecture, and at Lake Izunuma in Miyagi Prefecture.
Cackling Goose numbers have increased as the introduced Arctic Foxes have been eradicated from some of the islands where the geese breed. Now approximately 4,500 spend the winter in the rice fields around Kabukurinuma marsh near Tome City, Miyagi Prefecture.
During winter there are few passerines in the Hachirogata area, but buntings do occur in the fields and areas of scrub. Small birds return during the spring, when the air becomes alive with the songs of Eurasian Skylark. In summer, Black-browed Reed Warbler, Oriental Reed Warbler, Zitting Cisticola, Marsh Grassbird and Wryneck all breed in the area.
Another species which can be seen throughout the year is the Japanese endemic Green Pheasant.
By vehicle, Ogata Village (Ogatamura) is about 90 minutes northwest of central Akita City via the Akita Expressway (drive west from Gojome-Hachirogata exit or west from Kotooka-Moritake interchange). Akita is connected to Sendai and Tokyo by shinkansen trains (about 4 hours), and there are overnight buses to/from Tokyo and also Osaka (via Sendai).
The reasonably priced Sun Rural Hotel (Tel: 0185-45-3332; https://sunrural-ogata.com), a hot spring hotel, is situated in Ogata Village. Almost next door is Ogata Mall hot spring (Tel.: 0185-45-2641) where the restaurant is open until 2000.
Close to Akita Station there are several business hotels and car hire companies.
Food, drinks and toilet facilities are available at the two convenience stores at the south end of the village, and there is also Hachirogata Michi no Eki (rest area) which has a small farmers' market and a shop selling bento box lunches.
Minami-no-ike Memorial Park: 40.003362, 139.949497