Japan’s Winter Wildlife 2012 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Mar 06, 2012

When you combine incredible wildlife, a congenial group of people and a unique cultural experience with diverse, snowy and reasonably benign weather conditions, what do you get? The answer is our February 2012 Japan’s Winter Wildlife Tour—still one of my Top 10 must-do wildlife photography trips in the world!

As always, our winter Japan trip was absolutely fantastic and yielded extraordinary images everywhere we went. What was also exciting was the wonderful range of weather we experienced at each location—it was sunny and snowy (sometimes both in the same day) with a foot or more of snow on the ground wherever we photographed. Almost every night a layer of new snow refreshed the landscape allowing us to shoot almost every morning with pristine snow on the ground.

Following our flight from Tokyo to Kushiro, we entered that fantasy realm of Hokkaido’s superlative wildlife concentrations where birds, many migrating in from Kamchatka, are fed by local farmers, fishermen or wildlife associations. And these are not birdfeeder “tweety” birds. These birds are among the largest and most impressive in Asia—red-crowned cranes, whooper swans, and Steller’s and white-tailed eagles.

Nowadays, some photographers attempt to travel through Japan using the train system. They wind up exhausting themselves as they haul their luggage filled with heavy winter clothing and camera gear through the maze of Japanese train stations, climbing up and down many flights of stairs and changing trains frequently—all without any porters to assist them. It gives the term “a killer trip” a whole new meaning! A private bus supplied our transportation throughout our trip. Staying in welcoming small hotels and very comfortable guesthouses, we were never more than a short drive from great shooting locations—often allowing us to shoot early and then return midmorning for breakfast and a warm up before heading out in the field for our afternoon sessions.

It is hard to imagine how close you can actually get to some of these birds. The birds all seem to find comfort in numbers, although they are not truly unwary around people as they certainly have a flight distance for safety. But with all these species you can get remarkably close (sometimes near-touching distance) to hundreds of them, including the eagles. We had two sessions with Steller’s and white-tailed eagles shooting from a boat at Rausu. Here the local fishermen have found a lucrative winter business taking photographers out to the sea ice to “shoot” eagles. They throw large quantities of fish heads and other offal from their fishing operations to the birds. Hundreds of birds wait in the trees in the cliffs above Rausu for the feeding to commence. Then down they glide—allowing great flight shots and lots of interaction on the ice. In the accompanying slide show you can see the dramatic difference in the look of the images of the Steller’s eagles between our first shoot—when it was snowing and overcast—and our second shoot when it was sunny and partly cloudy.

The great thing about the red-crowned cranes and the whooper swans on Hokkaido is the number of locations where they are fed. You can pick and choose your shooting location depending on weather conditions and the feeding schedule at each spot. We had great success shooting both of these species. No matter how many times I have photographed these birds, I always wish to be able to return and do it again. It’s that good!

While photographing at Hokkaido’s wildlife feeding areas we met many Japanese and South Korean photographers who were always friendly and eager to chat about photography and proudly show off their gear and their most recent shots on their camera’s LCD monitor, adding another unique cultural element to our trip

Our group flew back to Tokyo and took a private bus to Nagano and then on to the famous Monkey Park at Jigokudani. Once there, it is only a 10-minute walk from our traditional ryokan accommodations to the famous man-made pool where the snow monkeys (Japanese macaques) are fed and where they soak in the warm water.

Jigokudani is the only place in Japan where monkeys soak in a hot tub. The pool was originally created to keep the monkeys out of the outdoor onsen (human bathing pool) of the nearby traditional hotel since the monkeys would routinely “poop” in it. The pool is very small—maybe 12 by 24 feet—and, during the winter, hundreds of people come to visit on any given day. Now that Japan has become a major skiing destination for Australians it is even more crowded. Yet more than 200 wild and free monkeys come to the feedings and it is relatively easy to find lots to shoot there. Though shooting space by the pool is often at a premium, it is refreshing to see how cooperative most of the visitors— from photographers with professional SLRs to those using cell phone cameras—seem to be in allowing everyone to get their shots.

The monkey pool received a lot of attention by worldwide TV crews during the 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano. From relative obscurity it has become a major winter travel destination. But, when I asked our February 2012 photo group whether the monkey park was too crowded and should be eliminated from our trips in the future, most told me it was their favorite shooting location on the entire trip.

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami had next to no impact on the itinerary of this trip. But, largely due to the increasing differential between the Japanese Yen and the US Dollar, we are giving our Japan’s Winter Wildlife tour a hiatus. So we will take a break until things settle down a bit. If you are interested in joining this trip in subsequent years please email us at info@photosafaris.com. If there is overwhelming enthusiasm we will return it to our trip roster sooner, rather than later. Japan in Winter should be near the top of every nature photographer’s bucket list!