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Japan's Winter Wildlife

Snow Monkeys, Whooper Swans, Sea Eagles & Japanese Cranes

Westernized and yet profoundly Asian, Japan remains an enigmatic land. The Japanese archipelago with its jagged and broken coastline and its high mountain peaks possesses some of the most striking scenery in eastern Asia. Nowhere in Japan is far from the sea; this has an immeasurable influence on both landscape and people. If your mental image of Japan is of shiny consumer exports, high technology, endless overcrowding and automatic everything, then join us on a Photo Safari to create images of Japan's untamed side.

Imagine seeing hundreds of the stunningly beautiful, but rare, Japanese cranes on Hokkaido, dancing and displaying at their riverine roosts and at their feeding grounds. Experience a boat ride among the shimmering pack ice and photograph one of the world's largest and most dramatic raptors—the Steller's sea eagle. Think of being within arm's reach of hundreds of delightful whooper swans at ice-coated and mist-fringed lakes and wintry seacoasts. Herds of sika deer and red fox, flocks of sea ducks, several species of gulls and some inspiring scenic opportunities all add to the charm of Hokkaido.

A visit to upcountry Japan is an experience in itself—one that requires a spirit of adventure and a willingness to adapt to new ways. Simple things like eating Japanese food and sleeping on a futon are very different from back home, but add to our experience as we explore our cultural differences. We intersperse these Japanese experiences with more familiar western-style accommodations in Tokyo and Kushiro.

The finale of the trip finds us in central Honshu where we escape the sprawl of Tokyo and visit the snow-covered "Japanese Alps." There, in deep snow and taking refuge in an outdoor hot pool, are the extraordinary, highly approachable and extremely photogenic Japanese macaques—the snow monkeys.

What makes the winter wildlife photography so special in Japan is that virtually all the animals we photograph are routinely fed by the staff of the wildlife reserves and private property owners. Because of these regular feedings (Japanese wildlife can count on the daily feeding times to be as punctual as the train schedules) the wildlife is remarkably unwary and is often within full-frame wide-angle lens distance.

All these adventures and more go to make up our Japan's Winter Wildlife Photo Safari—one of the most productive wildlife photo shoots and one of Joe Van Os' Top 10 wildlife shoots in the world.

• Read Joe Van Os' trip report from our 2012 Japan's Winter Wildlife trip.

Day 1

Depart from the US.

Day 2 (Feb 20)

Participants arrive at Narita Airport, are met and assisted with the transfer to our comfortable Tokyo city center hotel. We meet for a Japanese welcome dinner. (D)

Day 3

We transfer to Haneda Airport for our flight to Kushiro on the northern island of Hokkaido. Our private bus and driver will accompany us throughout our Hokkaido exploration. Our first afternoon of photography at the Tsurui Mura Crane Reserve yields extraordinary shots of courting Japanese (red-crowned) cranes, white-tailed eagles and black-eared kites that are fed in the afternoon. Though some of the cranes here are local nesters, many of the birds we see here are migrants from Siberia and Kamchatka. (BLD)

Day 4

We expect snow to be on the ground (and hopefully also falling) during our visit to Hokkaido. Today we rise early to photograph Japanese cranes from a famous bridge where views of the birds roosting in the river can yield extraordinary images of frost, fog and early pastel light. Following breakfast (and warm up) we shoot cranes and white-tailed eagles at Tsurui Mura as well as other crane feeding areas. Red foxes and sika deer often appear in this area. Flight shots of cranes as they head to roost top our day. (BLD)

Day 5

Morning crane shoot followed by a drive to Lake Mashuko for snowy landscapes of its massive volcanic caldera. We arrive at Kawayu for lunch, followed by whooper swan photography. (BLD)

Days 6–7

As early morning steam from the geothermal hot spots rises from the lake, throngs of whooper swans arrive for their morning feeding. Wonderful flight shots of their arrival are possible, followed by extraordinary photo opportunities of them landing on the ice—their large black feet spread behind them, acting as brakes to control air speed. We also photograph several species of ducks that share in this food bounty, as well as numerous species of songbirds and woodpeckers that frequent birdfeeders in the area. (BLD)

Days 8–9

Explore the Shiretoko Peninsula, passing through snowy national parklands. We pause on the way to photograph sika deer, red fox, swans and rugged scenery. Photograph white-tailed and Steller's sea eagles on the pack ice on a three-hour morning photo cruise out of the fishing village of Rausu. From the harbor we are accompanied by a throng of slaty-backed, glaucous and herring gulls. Once we reach the ice, tubs of fish are emptied onto the larger floating ice chunks. Now larger figures appear in the air. More than 100 immense Steller's eagles and their smaller white-tailed cousins—waiting on the ice since first light—come from all directions and provide spectacular shots. We capture their exciting images in flight, on ice and fighting for fish—just a few feet from the boat. (BLD)

Day 10

Optional eagle boat trip (at additional cost), depending on ice conditions, before we return to Kushiro. Alternatively, we drive to Kushiro with a stop to photograph cranes in the afternoon. (BLD)

Day 11

We fly to Tokyo and then drive into the Japanese Alps by private chartered bus to our hotel. The private transportation allows us to avoid the hassles of transferring baggage and camera gear through Japan's inconvenient (for travelers with luggage) train stations—none of which have porters for assistance. (BLD)

Days 12–14

In the morning, we walk (about one mile) to our traditional inn and acquaint ourselves with its backcountry charm. We enjoy three days of shooting snow monkeys and return nightly to our remote mountain inn at Jigokudani (Hell's Canyon). The snow monkeys are fed three times daily and 100 or more of them may be in the feeding area at the same time. Following the meal many of them retire to the comfort of their geothermal hot pool for a comforting soak. We photograph these hot-tubbing monkeys, as well as babies clutching their mother's fur, dominant males as they argue over territory, old matriarchs, and juveniles playing with "snowballs." Occasionally we see stealthy Japanese serows (mountain goats) foraging high on the canyon slopes. (BLD) (Due to the short length of good light in the steep canyon, many people keep snack food in their rooms and skip lunch to maximize shooting time.)

Day 15

Following morning photography of the snow monkeys, we return to our Tokyo hotel for a farewell dinner. (BLD)

Day 16 (Mar 6)

We provide your transfer to Narita Airport. You depart for home this evening, arriving the same day. (B)

Tour Details

Feb 19–Mar 6, 2014
$9,895 from Tokyo, Japan

Terms & Conditions

"Japan Winter Wildlife was my first trip with Van Os. Wildlife-viewing opportunities were exceptional, as were all the lodging and logistics for the trip. I also learned more about my camera and how best to use it. Joe's enthusiasm about Japan is contagious."
—G. Harris

"This may well be the best trip Frank and I have ever taken. The photography opportunities were wonderful and the bonus was experience of a culture in a relaxed and vital way. I recommend the trip to everyone."
—E. J. Wu

"Van Os Photo Safaris puts you in locations to take extraordinary photographs."
—J. Rowe

Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. P.O. Box 655, Vashon Island, Washington USA 98070
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