The Hoshino Area
Since the Japanese flying squirrel, or “musasabi” is a nocturnal animal, the tour is timed around sunset. In mid-September, it starts at 17h20. It took me only a few minutes to complete the registration, in English, from my smartphone. A few seconds later, I got the confirmation email asking me to show up between 30 and 15 minutes before the start of the tour. The tour can be booked up to 90 minutes before it starts, depending on availability.
I arrived at Karuizawa station one hour later, and caught the bus heading for Hoshino Onsen / Tonbo no yu (星野温泉・トンボの湯 – also the stop for Picchio) from the North exit. Half an hour later I found myself inside the Hoshino area of Karuizawa (軽井沢星野), mostly a hotel resort surrounded by forest. It seemed like a great place for a weekend getaway from Tokyo. Since I still had 30 minutes before the tour, I opted to take a quick bath at the nearby Tonbo no Yu hot spring (1300 yen).
The indoor bathing area is spacious, and I really liked their large outdoor bath or “rotenburo”, right at the edge of the forest. Next to Tonbo no Yu is the restaurant Sonmin Shokudo (村民食堂) and the cafe Hungry Spot. The cafe had various craft beer on the menu, and the restaurant was doing a special sake tasting course (till October 6th, weekends from 3pm to 5pm). Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to try either, but it was good to know there are other things to do in the Hoshino area.
The Picchio Visitor Center
After the refreshing bath, I continued along the road for a few minutes, till I reached a short staircase on the right. At the top I found the Picchio Visitor Center, a one-storey brick building hugging the side of a shallow pond, located right next to the Karuizawa Wild Bird Sanctuary. The front side is a floor to ceiling window, making the interior bright and cosy. The pond turns into a skating-rink in the colder months.
The visitor center was full of people: some were waiting for the next tour, and some, having completed a previous tour, were enjoying a drink in the cafe at the far end of the building. Since it was the end of a long weekend, I was surprised to see the place so crowded, but I had forgotten that Karuizawa is only one hour away from Tokyo by bullet train. Various mounted animals were on display along the wall.
I was immediately greeted by Toshiyuki Otsuka, today’s flying squirrel tour guide. He suggested I put on some insect repellent, provided for free. While I was doing this, Picchio’s president, Shinya Kuwata, came over to say hello. He told me that Masaya and Makoto, featured on Tadaima Japan , were away on other assignments. Kuwata-san spoke good English, and I complimented him on the beautiful visitor center. He noticed I was wearing sandals (my hiking shoes were inside my pack) and kindly offered to lend me socks and hiking boots. Since you only need to walk one kilometer on a gravel road, I decided to risk the sandals.
The Flying Squirrel Watching Tour
At exactly 17h20, Otsuka-san gathered everybody, 18 people in total, in front of a screen and started a presentation in Japanese, and some English, on the Japanese Giant Flying Squirrel. Aided by a real-size stuffed animal toy, we spent an instructive and entertaining thirty minutes learning about one of Japan’s most secretive animals.
At 17h50, we departed from the visitor center, and proceeded to walk along a wide gravel path, parallel to a rushing river. Finally, we reached a wide clearing surrounded by tall, straight trees. It was getting dark and using a red light, which helps preserve night vision, our guide pointed out the “musasabi” house, high up on the tree trunk. It resembled a birdhouse: a simple wooden box with a round hole in front.
After indicating that we should be quiet from now on, Otsuka-san set up a small folding table and put a laptop on top. I was surprised to see a live feed from inside the squirrel house! we could only see a furry back moving slightly, and we were told that the mother “musasabi” was feeding milk to two baby “musasabi”. They were born last month and were still too young to fly. Today we would just see the mother fly.
Once the feeding was over, the young “musasabi” became very active. One even popped its head out of the house a couple of times. When that happened, Otsuka-san would direct the red light at the entrance, and we would have a look with the binoculars we got at the start of the tour. At one point, somebody coughed, and all the furry occupants of the house froze for a full minute, reminding us how close we actually were.
Finally it was time: with surprising speed, the mother “musasabi” climbed on top of the house, then darted up the tree, and after reaching a certain height, with almost no hesitation, leapt. The sky was not yet dark, and for a few magical seconds, I could see the shape of the flying squirrel fly across the sky and disappear into the trees on the other side of the clearing.
Amazingly, our guide was able to locate the tree she had landed on, and shone his red light so we could once more watch her run up to the highest point, quickly jump off again and glide through the trees. This time she landed beyond our field of vision. It was all over very quickly, and I was glad that I had been able to follow both flights. Even if I had missed them, seeing the baby and mother “musasabi” on the live camera was definitely worth the trip.
It was time to head back. Since it was now fully dark, we were all handed torchlights for the return trip. At the bottom of the stairs, we returned the binoculars and torchlights, and each of us received a postcard-sized “flying squirrel” certificate. I thanked Otsuka-san for the great tour and headed back to the bus stop for the last bus back to Naka-Karuizawa station, a short train ride on the Shinano railway to Karuizawa station. Hopefully, I will be able to make it back some day to join another of Picchio’s eco-tours.
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If you chose to visit Picchio after reading this article, don’t hesitate to tell the staff you found out about them through the Tadaima Japan website.
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