Japan's Winter Wildlife 2017 Trip Report

By John Shaw on Apr 04, 2017

Joe Van Os has said that the Japan’s Winter Wildlife Tour is one of his Top Ten wildlife photography trips in the world—and I certainly agree with this statement. I've led this tour several times and have always finished with a great selection of images along with a deeper appreciation of a culture different from my own. 

Our group met at a business hotel in Tokyo. Everyone on the trip had arrived a day or two early to help them adjust to the time zone changes and negate any problems with delayed or lost luggage. Luckily we had no luggage problems, but jet lag…well, let's just say I eagerly await the arrival of teleportation.

The next morning we left from Haneda Airport in Toyko for the two hour flight north and east to Kushiro Airport on Hokkaido. We would concentrate our photography in three areas in Hokkaido: around the Tsurui Mara Crane Reserve for Japanese red-crowned cranes; at Lake Kusshuro in Anan National Park for whooper swans, and at nearby Lake Mashu for scenics (considered by many to be Japan's most beautiful lake); and in the northeast at Rausu where Steller's and white-tailed eagles can be photographed from boats. Add to these locations two afternoon shoots on the Shiretoko Peninsula (near Rausu) for deer and fox. We had good luck at all these locations, with many photo opportunities. A broad variety of subject matter meant a lot of pixels were used.

After eight days in Hokkaido we flew back to Tokyo and drove toward the snow monkey park in Nagano Prefecture. A non-photography highlight for everyone was our overnight at a small luxury ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, where we were the only guests. We were spoiled by both the rooms—each has a private traditional hot spring onsen bath—and by the food. The next morning we hiked the short trail into the snow monkey park at Jigokudani for three full days of photography. Here our lodging was a small ryokan guesthouse with futons and tatami mats, only a ten-minute walk from the now well-known "hot tub" where the monkeys soak in geothermal water. The monkeys (Japanese macaques) are found not only in the hot tub, but all over the valley. We were reminded to keep the inn's outer sliding doors closed in order to keep the monkeys out of the building.

We experienced a variety of weather during our tour, from sunny conditions to driving rain to blowing snow. We had to depart Rausu a bit earlier than planned due to a snow storm and road closure warnings. When we arrived in Tokyo the next morning it was sunny and 60º F. We drove toward the snow monkeys with increasing rain, but photographed in the park the next day with 9 inches of fresh powder snow on the ground and more falling—ideal conditions for "snow" monkeys.

After the snow monkey shoot it was back to our starting hotel in Tokyo and a farewell dinner. The following morning we took buses to our departing airports for the flights home, with many, many images to edit.