Japan's Winter Wildlife 2020 Trip Report

By Mark Thomas on Apr 15, 2020

Every photography tour that I lead for Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris offers something special and unique. Picking favorites would be like picking a favorite child, or in my case, a favorite cat.  You know it is wrong.  You are supposed to love each of your children, cats or tours equally.  Maybe that’s why I feel a bit guilty when I say that the Japan’s Winter Wildlife tour ranks very high on my list of favorite tours and places to visit.  The wildlife photography opportunities are second to none.  I always come home with more “keepers” from Japan than nearly any other trip.  Beyond the photography, Japan itself, is a mix of 21st century modernism and centuries-old traditions—an experience not to be missed.   Once I return home, I can’t wait to get back to Japan.
Three of our four target species for this tour are found on Hokkaido, a large island to the north of Honshu—the main island.  Our first morning we departed Tokyo on a short, 90-minute flight and arrived at Kushiro airport.  We changed into our cold weather gear and headed directly for our first photo location where we photographed the first of our iconic species, the red-crowned crane.
The next morning was an early one as we departed our hotel for a nearby bridge at around 5:30 AM where the cranes roost in the shallow river overnight. Our goal is to capture the cranes with the colors of the sunrise reflecting in the water and as they leave the river to feed.
Japanese cranesMany of the red-crowned cranes on Hokkaido are year-round residents. During the Spring, they nest and raise their chicks in nearby marshlands. In the 1960s, red-crowned cranes on Hokkaido numbered only about 80 individuals. But with protection and winter feeding, the crane population has grown to about 1800 adults.
The following morning brought us great activity with the cranes. A few cranes were already in the field. But soon, the action really picked up. Groups ranging in size from 2 to 10 birds noisily arrived to the field, accompanied by lots of raucous “dancing” as pair bonds were re-established.
We drove north to encounter our second species, the whooper swan. Here we shot at two main locations, each offering unique circumstances and backdrops. One spot produces more geothermal steam and is more protected from the wind lending itself for ‘moodier’ shots. While the other is more open and is excellent for flight shots. As we traveled between the two locations (maybe 15 minutes apart by bus) we came across a beautiful red fox that let us photograph him for at least 30 minutes. What a nice bonus! We usually see several red foxes while on Hokkaido, but very few are this accommodating. As the light faded, we checked into our hotel gently tucked into the forest.
Overnight, the winds died down and the temperature dropped. The morning photography was very good with lots of swans, ice and steam. Our afternoon photography at the second location was equally good. A thin layer of ice had formed on the lake, strong enough to support the weight of a landing swan.
Our final morning with the swans started slowly. The temperature had dropped, and the wind picked up a bit. But the slow start turned into the most active visit yet with the swans. By 10AM, only two swans had flown in. But a short time later, that changed dramatically. The first flock of about 6 swans flew in and landed on the ice. Then another group, and another, and another. Within 30 minutes, at least 60 swans had arrived. And these swans were not quiet. They came in squawking. And once they landed, their squawking did not stop. There was lots of head bobbing, wing flapping and constant vocalizing. There were also disputes between apparently rival groups of swans which led to more squawking, flapping and chasing. Eventually, things settled down. A perfect ending to this part of the journey.
Our next iconic species, the Steller’s sea eagle is found near Rausu on the Shiretoko Peninsula. Along the way, we stopped at a mountain with sulfurous fumaroles belching steam high into the air. We then briefly visited a caldera lake, reinforcing the volcanic nature of Japan.
Red foxBefore reaching Rausu, we visited the hook shaped Notsuke Peninsula in search of sika deer and red foxes. We were fortunate with both. There was one red fox who pretty much ignored us while he continued along the shore. He wasn’t at all disturbed by our presence. In this area, foxes are accustomed to people and often see us as part of the surroundings. After several good photo ops with him, we continued down the peninsula searching for sika deer. We found several herds of deer and several individuals to photograph.
The following morning, we made the 20-minute drive to the harbor where we boarded our boat. It was snowing and blowing. The sky was already alive with gulls, Steller’s sea eagles and white-tailed eagles. We traveled by boat for about 10 minutes to just outside the harbor. The crew began throwing frozen fish overboard. Gulls were first on the scene as they swooped down to snatch fish from the surface. Periodically, the large white-tailed eagles and even larger Steller’s sea eagles found their way in for their share of the bounty. For over an hour, it was non-stop shooting as one after another swooped in for a meal. On the way back into the harbor, we cruised by a seawall covered with ice and blowing snow. The top of the wall looked just like sea ice in the high arctic. Fish were tossed onto the seawall. Eagles took full advantage and swooped in for a meal. They often squabbled over whose fish was whose, which made for some nice photography.
The next morning was a repeat of the prior day. Plenty of eagles made their appearance and the seawall once again proved to be a very good photographic stop. After successfully completing the first three legs of our adventure, we headed back to Kushiro, stopping at a crane sanctuary for one last visit. At our hotel, we are treated to a fabulous Japanese dinner prepared right at our tables. The following morning, we headed back to the airport for our return flight to Tokyo.
Upon arriving in Tokyo, we boarded our chartered bus for the 5-hour drive to Nagano where we photograph the last of our iconic Japanese species, the snow monkey (Japanese Macaque). We stopped several times along the way for comfort/snack breaks. Our hotel in Nagano is located in the mountains just outside the trailhead to the monkey park. At our hotel, we each packed a small duffel bag with essentials for 3 days at the snow monkey lodge. These duffels were taken down the 1-mile trail to our snow monkey lodge for us by an ATV. We carried in our photo gear ourselves.
Snow monkeysA heavy, overnight snowfall had blanketed the entire area in snow. The trees were heavy with snow to the point of occasionally dumping on us as we walked. We hiked the one mile to the snow monkey lodge, dropped our excess gear and made the short walk to the Snow Monkey Park visitor’s center.
Like everything else, the park was blanketed in fresh snow. It was magical. Once inside, I was immediately greeted by a group of juvenile monkeys wrestling along the trail. Moving further down the trail to the hot pool, I found many monkeys of various ages foraging and playing in the snow. A couple of monkeys were in the warm geothermal pool with others sitting around the edge. There were monkeys jumping across the river, mothers with babies on their backs and groups of juvenile monkeys that were a non-stop source of entertainment and offered excellent photo opportunities.
The next morning, we were first in line to enter the park. Monkey activity was very good again and some of us opted to stay in the park all day while others returned to the lodge for a hot noodle lunch at noon. It was hard to pick what to shoot. There was good activity wherever you looked. For me, the baby monkeys always steal the show.
Our final morning was leisurely as we didn’t depart for the 5-hour bus ride back to Tokyo until 10AM.  We finally packed away our boots and cold-weather gear. We relaxed on trip back to our luxurious Tokyo hotel, stopping several times along the way for lunch and comfort.  Everyone was all smiles at our farewell dinner. It was a great trip with exceptional photographic opportunities. I can’t wait to get back there next year!