Japan’s Winter Wildlife 2011 Trip Report

By John Shaw on Mar 30, 2011

I’m now back home from the Japan’s Winter Wildlife tour, and finally over the jet lag that goes along with the time change between Portland and Tokyo.  This is one of my favorite tours, one which I’m always looking forward to leading.  Besides the great photo opportunities, there are the basic cultural differences between Japan and home to experience.  I’m particularly taken by the contrast between our starting city—modern, bustling Tokyo—and the rural areas where we stay in northern Hokkaido.

Our group met at a business hotel in central Tokyo and, for dinner on our first night, we had a traditional Japanese banquet with roughly 15 courses.  The next morning we flew to Kushiro, located in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido.  When we left Tokyo it was 50° F and sunny; upon arrival at Kushiro the weather was 25° F and snowy.  After changing into winter clothes at the airport, and unpacking tripods and camera gear, we headed directly to the Akan International Crane Center to photograph red-crowned cranes.  Red-crowned cranes are the second rarest crane in the world (the whooping crane is the rarest) with a wild population estimated between 1,500 and 2,000 birds.  Throughout East Asia the red-crowned crane is known as a symbol of luck, longevity and fidelity.

After an hour’s drive we were standing in the snow at the Crane Center ready to photograph.  Every afternoon a worker at the center tosses out small fish for the birds— and immediately the action becomes furious.  Then, from seemingly out of nowhere, white-tailed eagles and black kites appear.  The rattle of our motor drives became continuous!  We photographed until the light disappeared, then headed to our hotel for dinner and downloading.

We left the hotel well before dawn the following morning and drove to a bridge that spans a river where cranes roost overnight.  We were indeed lucky—lots of frost on the trees and almost no wind.  We returned to the hotel for a late breakfast and then continued on to the Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary for more crane photography.  Lunch found us returning to Akan, where the afternoon feeding frenzy was repeated.

We tried photographing from the bridge again the next morning, but our luck had run out.  There was no frost, and the light was dull.  We packed up the bus and headed for our next destination, Lake Kussharo.  Snow squalls came and went, and a midday stop at Lake Mashu told us that colder, snowier weather was coming.  By the afternoon we were photographing the whooper swans at Lake Kussharo, along a shoreline kept ice-free by thermal activity.  Our hotel for this part of the tour, a small Japanese pension, was just minutes away from the shooting location.  Just big enough to accommodate our group, it is tucked back into the forest, and has feeders which attract Eurasian jays, great-spotted woodpeckers and Japanese tassel-eared squirrels.

After two and a half days of swan photography our itinerary brought us northeast to Rausu to photograph Steller’s sea eagles on the sea ice.  More snow had arrived overnight.  At the hotel, sheltered by the forest, about a foot of fresh snow had accumulated.  Great, we thought…let’s stop and photograph the swans on the way out.  But at the lake we encountered different weather:  blizzard conditions with high winds.  Our Japanese guide and bus driver began to question our sanity as everyone in the group piled out of the bus and into the blizzard.  The blowing snow offered some great photographic opportunities, but the piecing cold of the wind quickly affected everyone.

We drove through the storm all the way to Rausu, detouring due to roads being closed by the storm.  At Rausu we discovered the wind was also affecting the sea ice.  It had all blown against the shore, and the swells from the storm made our planned boat trip to photograph the eagles impossible as scheduled.  We spent the day photographing landscapes and details in the area.  The following morning the wind was down, so we boarded our boat…for a trip of all of about 300 yards.  The wind had moved the ice floes into the harbor, and since the eagles rest on the floes, there was no need to go any further.  We did a quick count of the numbers—about 180 eagles, mainly Steller’s but also white-tailed, were directly in front of us.  Lots of pixels expired, and the word “gigs” was tossed around the group, as in “How many gigs did you shoot?”

We spent a night back in Kushiro before flying to Tokyo where we met our bus for the drive to the famous snow monkey area at Jigokudani, near Nagano.  Our traditional inn, a small ryokan guesthouse with futons and tatami mats, was only a ten-minute walk from the “hot tub” where the monkeys soak in geothermal water.  The monkeys (Japanese macaques) are found not just in the “hot tub,” but all over the valley.  We were reminded to keep the inn’s outer sliding doors shut in order to keep the monkeys out of the building!

Once again we got lucky; it started snowing our first evening at the monkey location, and continued snowing all the next day.  Perfect—snow monkeys and fresh snow!

After three days to photographing the monkeys it was time to return to Tokyo.  A Japanese dinner that evening was our farewell meal.  In the morning we took a final bus ride to Narita airport to board our flights home…with many, many images to edit.

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Participants on the 2011 Japan's Winter Wildlife photo tour