The Pacific Coast Ferry Route
The best commercial ferry route in Japan for year round pelagic birding is the daily Oarai-Tomakomai ferry, which runs between the port of Oarai in eastern Honshu, and Tomakomai in south west Hokkaido.
Birds to look for
The birds vary according to the time of year. During the summer Streaked Shearwater is very common. During the late summer/early autumn there are also lots – sometimes tens or even hundreds of thousands – of Short-tailed Shearwaters, and smaller numbers of Sooty Shearwaters.
Also featuring during the late spring are huge flocks of Red-necked Phalarope, and sometimes Red (Grey) Phalarope, too.
Three species of albatross are possible, especially during the late winter months: Laysan Albatross and Black-footed Albatross are the commonest, but sightings of Short-tailed Albatross have increased inline with the recovery of the population of this very rare Pacific species.
Skuas/Jaegers are also likely, with South Polar Skua (summer/early autumn), Pomarine Skua (Pomarine Jaeger), Arctic Skua (Parasitic Jaeger) and Long-tailed Skua (Long-tailed Jaeger) all regularly seen. Other birds include: Northern Fulmar, Rhinoceros Auklet, Ancient Murrelet and Japanese Murrelet, and Crested Auklet and Least Auklet.
Unusual shearwaters such as Buller's Shearwater and Flesh-footed Shearwater, might be seen during the summer, and petrels including Bulwer's Petrel, Band-rumped Storm Petrel, Wilson's Storm Petrel and Fork-tailed Storm Petrel can also be seen.
The commoner gulls include Slaty-backed and Black-tailed during the summer, and Glaucous, Vega, Common (Kamchatka) and Black-legged Kittiwake during the inter.
Marine mammals are also likely, so look out for small groups of Northern Fur Seal "logging" at the surface, pods of of Pacific White-sided Dolphin are often common and you might also see the small, black-and-white Dall's Porpoise , as well as larger whales and other cetaceans.
Please note that the Tokyo-Kushiro ferry, described in Mark Brazil's 1987 A Birdwatcher's Guide to Japan book, no longer operates.
Sunflower Ferries currently leave Oarai at 01:45 in the morning and arrive at Tomakomai port, south of Sapporo, at 19:45 the same day, allowing for a full day of seawatching. There is an earlier ferry which leaves Oarai at 18:30 and arrives in Tomakomai at 13:30 the following day. The former gives birdwatchers maximum time during the day to look for albatrosses, shearwaters and other seabirds. Likewise, if you are returning from Tomakomai, the night sailing – at 01:30 – is the best one.
You can make the return trip Oarai-Tomakomai-Oarai in a little less than 48 hours.
On the night ferry there is no restaurant, so you should take enough food for the entire trip. Hot water for drinks/cup noodles is available, and vending machines sell various hot fast-foods/cup noodles.
There is also a Japanese-style bath on board, open for most of the time (soap/shampoo is provided).
In Oarai, about halfway between the station and the ferry port, there is an Eco's supermarket, which is open until 21:00. There are is also a 7-11 convenience stores en route. To find the supermarket, exit the station, turn left and walk to the first main junction (there is a 7-11 convenience store on the corner). Turn right at the junction, and about 300 meters south of the traffic lights (near the gas stand) on the right side, is the Eco's supermarket. Continue on down this road and in about 500 metres you will come to the harbour and Oarai Ferry Terminal.
It takes about 30 minutes to walk from the station to the ferry port. Taxis are normally available at the station during the daytime/early evening, but transport from the ferry port back to the station is often unavailable (althugh the staff at the counter may call a taxi for you if you ask nicely!)
If coming from Tokyo, there are a number of Hitachi or Tokiwa limited express trains (reserved seats only) or ordinary (cheaper) semi-express Joban Line trains between Ueno Station and Mito Station. Travel time is about 1 hour 20 minutes on the limited express Hitachi/Tokiwa trains and about two hours on the Joban Line trains.
Get off at JR Mito Station, change to the local Kashima Rinkai Line and go three stops to Oarai. On this line the last train departs from Mito at 2333, and gets to Oarai in about 15 minutes.
MOL ferry: Free dial 0120-489850 (domestic only)
Oarai reservation center: 029‐267‐4133
Tomakomai reservation center: 0144‐34‐3121
Nagoya reservation center: 052-582-8611
Sendai reservation center: 022-388-8757
Sapporo reservation center: 011-281-3311
© 2020 Mark Brazil & Chris Cook
Last updated: 20200608