Birdwatching with Hashimoto-san

OSAKA—The day started promisingly. Last Sunday, while having breakfast at my hotel, I scanned the clear sky outside and noticed about a dozen tree sparrows perched on the power supply line above the street. Just then, a black Toyota Crown taxi pulled over into a narrow alley beside the hotel. The driver got off and, as if on cue, the little birds on the wire descended to where he stood.  He started feeding them pieces of the bread he held in his hands while partaking some of it himself. About five minutes later, he went back into his car and drove off. This fleeting tryst must be a daily ritual for this taxi driver and his winged friends.

My friend and former student, Rico Tsuda, who invited me to come to Japan to do a back-to-back lecture with him on the occasion of his retirement as professor, had promised to set aside one whole day just for me to watch Osaka’s winter birds. He had contacted the Wild Bird Association of Japan, Osaka branch, and it was sending one of its members who could speak English, a retired person by the name of Masahiro Hashimoto.

Hashimoto-san turned out to be the organization’s president no less. He volunteered to guide me when he learned I was Filipino. Our designated meeting place was the train station at the entrance to the Osaka Castle Park. When we got there, I spotted a group of birders armed with binoculars, spotting scopes, and long-range cameras signing up for what looked like a scheduled birding tour, and I made a move to approach them. Rico gently held me back saying, “We must wait where Hashimoto-san agreed to meet us, or else we will miss one another.”

Sure enough, by then, a slightly stooped man was walking up the stairs toward us. “Tsuda-sensei, David-sensei?” he asked. With utmost courtesy, he bowed and profusely apologized for being delayed a few minutes. He handed me a list of 91 winter birds that he expected me to see in the two birding sites we were visiting for the day: the Osaka Castle Park and the Yodo River. Rico told me that Hashimoto-san would take care of me the whole day and that he would later join us for drinks and dinner at a traditional Japanese inn at the foot of the mountains, where I would be staying for the next two days.

At the park, our first stop offers a good view of a big slab of stone with a shallow dip that serves as a bird bath and drinking source. The trees around the stone are laden with tiny dark berries that have attracted a wide variety of small birds. The whole place is abuzz with winged traffic. “Dusky Thrush, Pale Thrush, Brown-eared Bulbul,” my guide gently calls out the bird names as they flutter around the berries.

The park, in the meantime, is filling up fast with participants and spectators of a women’s marathon. The sun has come out, slowly dispelling the winter chill. Hashimoto-san suggests we walk away from the marathon crowd and toward the quiet surroundings of the austere 17th-century castle. The outer and inner moats, he says, will be where the ducks are. Large crows are everywhere, croaking loudly and laboriously flapping their heavy wings as they move from tree to tree. “We have two kinds here,” he says sounding every bit like an old hand, “the Large-billed Crow and the Carrion Crow.”  He tells me the difference, but they look the same to me. Just then, a White Wagtail crosses our path, merrily bounding into the grass where a couple of Oriental Turtle Doves are busy scouring the ground for food. “Very common here,” he says. He takes a quick shot of the doves.

“I’ve been to the Philippines,” Hashimoto-san tells me quite somberly.  “Did you see many birds?” I ask, expecting him to say he had gone there with his group.  “No,” he replies, his voice trailing off. “We went to Boso-Boso, the river.”  He tells me a sad personal story. Five years ago, he and his two brothers and a sister came to the Philippines to fulfill their mother’s dying wish—to find the place where their eldest brother, a young soldier during the war, was reported to have been killed. She insisted that he must be alive, for he appeared to her in a dream a number of times after the war. Her husband admonished her that she should feel blessed she had nine other children. “You know what she told my father?” Hashimoto-san tells me, his voice almost breaking. “There is only one son like him in the entire world.” It occurs to me that, for some reason, birding induces remembering.

At the large outer moat of the castle, my special bird guide tells me the story of the great Shogun who built the castle, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, or “Taiko”—the much-admired man who unified Japan. As he talks about history, he spots a group of assorted ducks gliding on the moat’s serene water. “A Eurasian Wigeon on the left, female, young,” he whispers, and takes a shot of it with his Nikon. “A Northern Shoveler over there. And there’s a flock of Spot-billed Ducks just near the wall. We’re lucky!” he exclaims, beaming. “Can you see the Great Cormorant over there?” he says, motioning to me. I respond by training my binoculars to where he points his camera. The sight stuns me. The huge black bird is drying its feathers in the sun; with its long wings fully stretched out on the stone wall, it looks like an impaled Christ.

After introducing me to all his feathered friends along the Yodo River—the countless White-cheeked Starlings, the Black-headed Gulls, the Eurasian Coots, the Common Moorhen, the Tufted Ducks, the Gadwalls, and more Wigeons—Hashimoto-san  joined us at the mountain inn that evening. As we soaked our feet in the warm spring water, he raised his glass of beer to me in a toast of friendship.  With tears in his eyes, he bowed and said, “I am very sorry for what the Japanese did to your people. No more war, please.”