Japan's Winter Wildlife

Snow Monkeys, Whooper Swans, Sea Eagles & Japanese Cranes

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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.
"I have had this trip on my bucket list for years and finally got to check it off. Wonderful trip, excellent wildlife and opportunity to photograph them. Wonderful tour guide, loved to teach and always willing to help. "
- P. Gitman

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.


Compelling Reasons to Travel With Us

Our 1996 pioneering Japan's Winter Wildlife photo tour is one of our most copied trip itineraries—and for good reason.  It's a great trip!  Though imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, over the past 25 years we have continually fine-tuned our itinerary to offer not only a wonderful wildlife photography experience but an equally enjoyable sampling of lodging and local Japanese culture.

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 whose land we visit. 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.

Unparalleled Experience
Getting up close with a snow monkeyJoseph Van Os Photo Safaris has more than 20 years experience offering winter wildlife photography tours in Japan—spanning more years than any western photography group in the world.  Our local guide has worked with us for many years,  She knows exactly what it takes to facilitate an enjoyable and successful photo tour.  Experience matters when carrying out the logistics of a complicated Japan photo tour.  We waste no time getting you exactly where you need to be to capture exciting Japanese wildlife images—every day of your trip.

Monkeys, Swans, Cranes, Eagles and a lot more
This photo trip is designed to provide multiple opportunities to photograph the country's incredible unwary wildlife featured in the itinerary as well as beautiful mountain scenery.  We sample both Japanese and western cuisine and meet numerous Japanese photographers and gracious innkeepers along the way.

Accommodations Matter (A Lot)
A wonderful feature of this trip is the charming traditional inns and westernized lodges we where we stay—almost a "stone's throw" from our photography locations.  After a chilly photo session in the field it is a pleasure to retreat to delightful accommodations that offer a chance to rejuvenate before returning to the field.  Outside of Tokyo and Kushiro our group may occupy the entire lodge or inn with a full group of 12 participants.

Private Transportation Throughout the Trip
Red foxThough Japan is renowned for its on-time high speed train system and rapid boarding method, for a photographer with luggage it can be a logistical nightmare.  There are no porters or baggage handlers.  Therefore we charter a 22-passenger bus (or larger) to provide us with convenient private transportation throughout our tour.  We avoid the hassle of lugging our gear up and down the many stairways in the train stations, onto trains and public busses where space might not be readily available to store the luggage and camera gear.

All these ingredients—and more—combine to create our Japan's Winter Wildlife Photo Safari—this trip is recommended as one of Joe Van Os' Top 10 most enjoyable wildlife shoots in the world.


Read Mark Thomas' trip report from our latest Japan's Winter Wildlife photo tour
For trip questions or to enroll give us a call at (206) 463-5383

Tour Itinerary

Day 1
Depart from the US.
Day 2 (Jan 28, 2023)
Participants arrive at Narita or Haneda airports, 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. A pair of Japanese cranes in flightThough 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. 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. For many participants, the swan photos become their most "artistic" shots created on this trip. 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)
Day 8
Sika deerExplore the Shiretoko Peninsula, passing through snowy national parklands en route to Rausu. We pause on the way to photograph sika deer, red fox, swans and rugged snowy mountain scenery. (BLD)
Day 9
Photograph white-tailed and Steller's sea eagles on the pack ice on a two-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. Weather permitting, we provide a second two-hour eagle trip later this morning, or if shooting conditions deteriorate due to snow or fog we try again on the morning of Day 10. (BLD)
Day 10
Today is a shoot and travel day. If the weather has cooperated and we have completed our two boat trips, we will return to Kushiro with photo stops at locations that we will select this morning.  They include a beach and marshland where sika deer and red fox are common or we may return to one of the Japanese crane sanctuaries.  If we have not completed our boat trips, and the weather is suitable, we will photograph eagles from the boat and head back to Kushiro in the afternoon with a photo stop or two along the way.  (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.  Tonight we reside in a delightful traditional inn.  (BLD)
Days 12–14
In the morning of Day 12, we walk (about one mile) to our traditional inn and acquaint ourselves with its backcountry charm. Snow monkey in mistThe inn is the only one in the snow monkey park and many monkeys sleep on its roof at night. We enjoy three days of shooting monkeys and return nightly to this remote mountain inn at Jigokudani (Hell Valley). 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 this 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 (Feb 11, 2023)
We provide your transfer to Narita or Haneda airport. You depart for home this evening, arriving the same day. (B)

Stellar's sea eagle
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Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris Enrollment Information

Japan's Winter Wildlife

Jan 27, 2023 - Feb 11, 2023


A deposit and completed and signed Registration Form are required to reserve a place for you on a Joseph Van Os Photo Safari.


All prices are quoted in US dollars and all payments must be paid in US dollars. For deposit only, we accept Visa, MasterCard or American Express. Final payment of the trip fee is due 120 days prior to departure and must be paid by check or bank transfer. Trip deposits are non-refundable and non-transferable.

We must receive written notice of your cancellation, at which time cancellation fees in the following amounts apply:

If Written Cancellation is Received:
90 days or prior:
89 to 61 days prior:
60 or fewer days:
Cancellation Fee:
100% of deposit
50% of trip fee
100% of trip fee

No partial refunds are made for unused portions or services of a trip for any reason whatsoever. Trips are sold as a package only. This policy also applies to tour extensions and independent travel arrangements. Cancellation fees are not transferable.

Protect your travel investment and purchase a trip insurance policy that includes emergency evacuation coverage. A trip insurance brochure will be sent with your enrollment confirmation. A CANCEL FOR ANY REASON policy is available.

Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris are within the capabilities of average people in good health. Some of these trips require the capability of walking for several miles over uneven trails, stepping from a small boat to a wave-washed rocky beach, flying in small planes and helicopters, and occasionally hiking at high elevations—all while carrying an assortment of camera equipment. If you have concerns about your own capabilities and/or fitness as it relates to a trip, please inquire with our office before reserving a space. By forwarding a signed Registration Form and trip deposit, you certify that you do not knowingly have any physical or other conditions of disability that would create a risk for you or other trip participants and you agree to inform our office in writing if changes in your health occur any time prior to the tour. We reserve the right to request a doctor's statement of good health. The company's or trip leader's judgment shall provide the ultimate determination of an individual's ability to embark upon or to continue a trip. Once a trip has been confirmed, medical circumstances will not be considered as exceptions to our cancellation policy. We assume no responsibility for medical care or for special dietary requirements. “Meatless” meals are normally available at most locations. Due to the remote nature of many photo locations, and the growing diversity of today’s dietary trends, participants requiring special food items are encouraged to bring their own.

Tour members are asked to refrain from smoking with or near the group.

Participants will receive three emails before the trip departs: 1. Initial Tour Information sheet confirms the deposit and provides pre-departure information. 2. Invoice/Practical Information provides clothing and photo gear recommendations, climate data, applicable health advisories and reading list. Visa information will also be included (if applicable). 3. Final Tour Information includes arrival instructions, itinerary revisions (if any), hotel addresses, trip telephone contact information and participant list. We provide the trip leader's telephone number(s) and/or e-mail address with final documents so you can inquire about special photographic questions you may have regarding your trip. We welcome your calls or e-mail messages to info@photosafaris.com.

Information supplied upon enrollment describes the specific costs that are included in your trip fee. Generally these costs include lodging in double room occupancy, all meals (specified in the itinerary as BLD denoting breakfast, lunch or dinner), ground transportation during the trip in vans or small busses, air transportation as specified, meal and baggage tipping, and guide services provided by the trip leaders. Not included are airfare or other transportation from your home to the trip staging location, airport departure taxes, insurance, alcoholic beverages and bar expenses (plus bottled water and soft drink expenses on international tours outside of North America), tips and gratuities to local guides abroad, phone calls, passport or visa expenses, laundry or items of a personal nature. Gratuities to Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris trip leaders are optional and always appreciated. Rates are based on group tariffs; if the trip does not have sufficient registration, a small party supplement may be charged.

Single accommodations are available for a supplemental cost in many locations; see the pre-departure trip information or call our office for details. You will be charged the single supplement fee if you desire single accommodations or if you wish to have a roommate, but one is not available. In some remote locations, clients with single rooms are infrequently compelled to share a room due to circumstances beyond our control. In such cases, appropriate per diem refunds will be made reflecting the direct cost of the single room at the facility where clients are required to share. There is no additional single supplement fee on ship-based cruises, if you request a roommate and one is not available.

Cost increases may occur unexpectedly due to rising costs of airfares, ground transport, fuel surcharges, accommodations and currency fluctuations, among others. Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. may be compelled to amend prices, and we reserve the right to do so without prior notice. An increase in trip prices shall not be sufficient grounds for any refund of funds paid for the trip other than as determined by the terms of our cancellation policy.

Whenever possible, our trip participants are lodged in comfortable, modern hotels. We select among the best available accommodations, but refrain from extravagance. Some interesting photographic destinations are far removed from modern amenities, however, and where necessary we will be accommodated in rustic country inns, cabins or tented camps.

Meals are always a special part of our trips for the camaraderie they engender and the opportunity they provide to try new foods from different areas. Depending on the trip and specific locale, participants order restaurant meals from the full menu or, less frequently, table d'hôte. Some trips include picnic lunches in the field. Fruit juice for breakfast and coffee or tea are included with the meals. Soft drinks are included with meals on tours within North America. Participants are responsible for their own bar tab (including bottled water, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages on tours outside of North America) at restaurant lunches and dinners.

Our itineraries are intended as examples only. Participants should allow for flexibility due to changes in weather, natural history or cultural events, or other logistical arrangements deemed necessary by Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. or our leaders.

The second tour leader (and any subsequent additional leaders) listed for each trip on the website will be added as the group size warrants. If only one space remains on a trip, and logistics permit, we accept two persons traveling together, even if it exceeds the trip maximum.

Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. and/or their Agents act only as agents for the passenger (trip participant) in regard to travel including, but not limited to, sightseeing, meals, lodging, transportation, and all other services whether by railroad, motorcar, motor coach, boat, ship or aircraft or other conveyance, and they assume no liability for injury, damage, loss, accident, delay or irregularity which may be occasioned either by reason of defect in any vehicle or for any reason whatsoever, or through the acts, bankruptcy or default of any company or person engaged in conveying the passenger or in carrying out the arrangements of the trip.

They can accept no responsibility for losses or additional expenses due to delay, cancellations or changes in flights or other tour services, and by force majeure including sickness, weather, strike, war, volcanic eruption, terrorist acts, political unrest, quarantine, epidemics and outbreaks, or other causes.  All such losses or expenses will have to be borne by the passenger, as trip fees provide for arrangements only for the times and locations stated. Baggage is at the owner's risk entirely.

The right is reserved to 1) substitute hotels of similar category for those indicated and to make any changes in the itinerary or transport where deemed necessary, or caused by changes in flight schedules or equipment substitution; 2) cancel any trip prior to departure due to low enrollment, in which case full refund of the paid trip funds will be given, but Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. is not responsible for any other trip preparation expenses such as penalized or non-refundable air tickets, visa fees and medical related expenses; 3) At the company’s sole discretion, suspend or postpone any trip due to force majeure in which case the trip may be rescheduled, or a refund issued less any non-refundable deposits paid to tour component providers on behalf of the passenger, or a travel credit given, but Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc. is not responsible for any other trip preparation expenses such as penalized or non-refundable air tickets, visa fees and medical related expenses; 4) substitute trip leader(s) for the leader(s) originally specified, in which case the substitution is not a basis for participant cancellation or refund other than provided by our normal cancellation policy; or 5) accept or retain any person as a member of any trip.

Trip prices are based on tariffs and exchange rates in effect at the time of publication and are subject to adjustment in the event of any change therein.

A Registration Form including the Enrollment Conditions and Release and Assumption of Risk sections must be signed by each participant prior to the commencement of the trip. Participation by any trip member will be declined in the absence of the signed Registration Form including the Release and Assumption of Risk section, with no trip fee refund. No modification to the Registration Form including the Release and Assumption of Risk section will be accepted.

Should Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc., or anyone acting on their behalf be required to incur attorney's fees and costs to enforce this agreement, the enrolling trip participant(s) agree(s) to indemnify and hold them harmless for all such fees and costs. In the event a lawsuit is filed, the enrolling participant(s) agree(s) to do so solely in the County of Lewis in the State of Washington. Certain ship owners require the use of pre-printed ticket forms that limit the ship owner's and operator's liability. When such tickets are used, the passenger is bound by the terms of these tickets with respect to the passenger's legal relationship to the owners and operators of the ship, their agents (Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris, Inc.), and the ship's crew.

Japan's Winter Wildlife: Moderate Activity Level

Bus and boat travel. Shooting is usually done within easy walking distance from the bus on icy pavement.  Microspikes recommended. Hiking on a snowy woodland trail for one mile in and out at snow monkey lodge carrying camera gear. To reach the snow monkey hot pool from the lodge requires a climb of three stories of stairs. The climb can be taken at your own pace. Boat trips for sea eagles on ice floes can be choppy and sea sickness remedies are recommended for those prone to sea sickness.
Trip Details
Jan 27 - Feb 11, 2023
Fee: $TBA from Tokyo, Japan
Deposit: $1,000
Limit: 12 participants
Activity Level: ModerateModerate
  • Photograph snow monkeys in the classic hot springs pool fringed with snow
  • Japanese cranes and whooper swans in spectacular concentration in Japan's famous "snow country" of Hokkaido
  • Boat excursion from Shiretoko Peninsula for Steller's and white-tailed sea eagles on pack ice and in flight
  • Enjoy friendly hospitality in a variety of wonderful local inns, minshukus and ryokans
  • Private group transportation throughout the trip avoids the heavy cold weather clothing, luggage and camera gear transportation problems inherent in Japan's public train and bus systems
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Tour Leaders
Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas

The itinerary was brilliant. Time of day, choice of place, order of operations, accommodations, perfect!
—S. Lake
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
Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris puts you in locations to take extraordinary photographs.
—J. Rowe