Japan's Winter Wildlife 2018 Trip Report

By Mark Thomas on Mar 13, 2018

This was my first time leading the tour to Japan. While I had been to see the snow monkeys once a very long time ago, I had never visited the red-crowned cranes, whooper swans or Steller’s sea eagles. John Shaw, who led this tour last year, had given me a very thorough briefing prior to my departure. So I was excited about this trip.

Everyone in the group was met at the Tokyo airport by transportation personnel holding up “Photo Safari” signs. We were led to our limousines for the ride to our luxurious hotel in Tokyo. We would all meet the following evening for our welcome dinner where we would also meet Noriko, our local guide and translator.
The next morning, we board our bus to the Haneda Airport. We have a short 1.5 hour flight to Hokkaido Airport on the northern island of Hokkaido. The first three legs of our journey would take place on this island. At the Hokkaido Airport we gather our bags and change into our cold-weather clothes. It is a quick (20 minutes) bus ride to our first photo opportunity, the Crane Center. We shoot red-crowned cranes until about 4 PM as they display and fly in. Then on to our comfortable hotel. Tomorrow would be an early start. We need to leave at 5 AM to get to a bridge where we would shoot the cranes as they flew from their nighttime roost on the river. We would shoot there until about 7:30 AM. Then back to our hotel for breakfast. After breakfast, we head for a new crane location and shoot until about noon, then return to the crane center for lunch and more crane photography in the afternoon. The red-crowned cranes are one of the iconic species of Japan and we take advantage of every opportunity to photograph them.

Upclose photography of a fox in JapanThe following morning we are once again on our way to the bridge at 5 AM, then back to the hotel for breakfast. We load our bus with our gear and head to the Ito Crane Sanctuary for a couple of hours before continuing to our next photographic subject—the whooper swans. Lake Kussharo is a large caldera lake. The water near shore doesn’t freeze because of geothermal activity. The whooper swans migrate here from Siberia to winter on the lake. There were many swans at the lake when we arrived around midday. We shoot for a couple of hours. On our way to a second swan congregation, we come across a young red fox along the road. We have our driver stop for us to get out. What followed was the best fox photography ever. This fox had absolutely no fear of humans and let us photograph him for as long as we wanted. Only darkness stopped the photo session. We had dinner at our comfortable hotel tucked into the woods.

All of our lodging on this trip was really excellent. Even the more “rustic” lodges were extremely comfortable and warm with excellent food.

The next morning we are at our swan location at 8:30 AM. We have lunch at the restaurant on site. At all of our locations, with the exception of the snow monkey lodge, our bus is parked only a handful of steps away so we can keep extra gear handy and also have a place to warm up if it gets too cold. This morning offered us many opportunities to capture the swans in flight as they flew in from their roosting areas. After lunch, we head again to the other swan location to check it out. On that day, it was not ideal. The light was harsh and the swans were all just sleeping. But on our way back to our primary location, we came across the red fox again and spent another hour with him.

Whooper swans in flight in JapanThe following morning we decide to get to the swan spot early to catch more fly-in activity. We arrive at 7 AM. There is no activity at all. It is quite cold this morning. Perhaps that has made the swans less active. Some folks head back to the lodge for breakfast at 8:30 AM. Others of us decide to stay. Another hour passes before the first pair of swans finally flies in. Then more and more come in, sometimes in groups of 6 or 8. Those who went to breakfast return at about 9:30 AM to approximately 20 swans swimming around. We shoot there the remainder of the morning. About half of our group chooses to stay around the lodge after lunch to photograph the local songbirds. Amongst the songbirds, at least three different species of woodpecker also show up. The other half of us head back down the road to see if “our” fox is around. He is there again and we spend about another hour photographing. Later that evening, just before dinner one of our participants notices an interesting little animal outside. It looks like a raccoon, but it has feet like a dog and moves like a dog. It is actually called a raccoon dog. It is nocturnal and very shy. A few photos were taken from inside the dining room through the window at high ISOs.

On our final morning with the swans we arrive at 8 AM. It is again very cold. There is no activity at all. By 9:30 we decide to go find our fox again. We get to shoot him in excellent light. From there, we head out on the third leg of the journey—to Rausu for sea eagles and sika deer. We arrive at midday and head out onto the peninsula where the sika deer can be found. We come across a couple of them and get a few shots, but the light is very harsh. We get our first glimpse of the Steller’s sea eagle here as one sits atop a pole. We then head for our hotel. We had been told that the drift ice had retreated too far so we would be photographing the sea eagles closer to the marina instead of on the ice. However, upon arriving at the marina the following morning, we are greeted with excellent news. The ice was within reach, about 30 minutes away by boat. Upon reaching the drift ice, our boat is soon surrounded by scores of Steller’s sea eagles and white-tailed sea eagles. For nearly 2 hours, the shooting is non-stop. Our arms were actually tired from holding our cameras up for so long. It was great!

Stellars sea eagles in flight in JapanAfter lunch, some of us head back to the peninsula to look for deer again as it begins to snow. We come across several deer in nice even light.

The next morning we are back at the marina for a second eagle photo session. This time there is no drift ice. But that does not mean there are no eagles. There are just as many eagles near the marina as there had been out on the ice. So we take the boat just outside the marina area and capture more excellent eagle images.

Our bus is already loaded with our luggage, so after the boat trip, we head back toward Kushiro. We take a slight detour and end up going to the crane center one last time. It is snowing heavily when we arrive at 2:30 PM. But before long, the snow stops and the sun makes an appearance. There was a good deal of activity with cranes displaying and chasing each other. We finish up at around 4 PM. It was an excellent shoot. Then on to our hotel and a wonderful “Iron Chef” style meal that is prepared for us right at our table.

The following morning we catch our flight back to Tokyo. Once in Tokyo, it is a 4-hour bus ride to Nagano, our final venue, where the Japanese macaques (a.k.a. snow monkeys) are found. It is a pleasant ride with a lunch stop and comfort stop along the way. We stay the first night in a lodge that it just outside the trailhead that leads to the snow monkey park. It is a lovely lodge and the food is excellent. The next morning, we hike the 1.2 miles with our camera gear to the “monkey lodge.” We have left most of our luggage at our hotel and take only a duffel bag with a change of clothes and toiletries to the monkey lodge where we will spend the next three nights. Since we have all of our camera gear in hand and our duffels have been delivered to the lodge, we all decide to head into the Monkey Park and start shooting before going to the lodge. We enter the park through a very nice visitor’s center that has both free Wi-Fi and free lockers to store whatever gear you like. The lockers are large enough to hold a large camera backpack.

Snow monkeys wrestling in JapanThe immediate draw once inside the park is the hot pool where the monkeys bathe when it is cold. They seem to enjoy it as much as humans do. This is the most popular location for most photographers, but certainly isn’t the only productive spot. There is also usually quite a bit of activity down by the river with monkeys jumping across it in all directions. A third, less popular but no less productive shooting location, is up higher and closer to the visitor’s center. There is nothing particularly appealing here other than it is simply a flat, snow-covered patch. But what happens here is worth a look. The park closes at 4 PM each day. It opens at 9 AM and, since we are staying just outside the visitor’s center, we are always in early.

The next morning we are back in the park as soon as it opens. Everyone splits up and heads to their chosen shooting locations. I avoid the hot pool this morning as I am more interested in trying to photograph the “flying monkeys” down at the river. That is where about half of us spend the morning. Up the steep incline from the river toward the visitor’s center I stop at the flat snowy area I mentioned earlier. I call this area the “nursery” because in the late morning juvenile snow monkeys will sometimes play here. They chase each other and wrestle with each other. It is fun to watch and a challenge to photograph. There are four youngsters playing today. I try to capture their antics for about two hours before heading back to the lodge for lunch at around 1:30 PM. My game plan for the next morning is simple: start out at the river to shoot the “flying monkeys.” Keep an eye on the “nursery” and head up there when I see any activity.

The next morning I put my plan into action. I find a good rock to sit on down by the river in a good position to capture jumping monkeys. About half of our group is with me at the river. The other half went to the hot pool. We are rewarded with lots of activity and lots of opportunities to capture monkeys “flying” over the river. We even have one mother monkey jumping the river with her baby clinging to her back for dear life. The activity slows down by about 11 AM and we split up to search for more photo opportunities. The hot pool area looks busy so the others head over there to photograph the monkeys grooming each other in the water. There are lots of photographers over by the pool, so I opt to stay down by the river a bit longer. A short time later, I notice one lone photographer snapping pictures up at the “nursery” so I decide to check it out. The area is empty when I first arrive. No babies are around. I am hoping that they are creatures of habit and will return as this was about the time they were active the day before. Snow monkeys in snowEventually, two rambunctious youngsters show up and proceed to chase each other relentlessly. A little bit later, a second pair shows up so now there are four babies chasing each other around. Then another two show up and the first two leave. This goes on for quite a while with youngsters coming and going all the time. At the height of the activity there were 14 baby snow monkeys frolicking in the nursery at the same time. This much activity actually makes it difficult to shoot as it is hard to isolate your subjects. In all of the confusion I happen to notice one small monkey running toward me carrying a snowball he had made. I had heard about this happening, but this was the first time that I had witnessed it personally. When he was safely away from the others he sat down with his little clump of snow and placed it on the ground in front of him. He rolled it away in the snow and then pulled it back toward him. He did this several times. Just like humans making a snowman, each time he rolled it away and back, his snowball gathered more snow and got larger. When he was satisfied with the size, he then used both hands and even his hind feet to shape the snowball by standing on it. Unlike human children, the baby snow monkeys did not throw the snowballs at each other. Instead, it was like a game of “keep away” where those without snowballs chased those who had them. Over the course of about one hour I witnessed at least three different monkeys making their own snowballs. As quickly as the snowball making started, it was over. The youngsters continued to chase each other. But the snowball activity had stopped.

Japanese serowWhile standing at the nursery, I heard a young woman exclaim, “What’s that moving up there?” I look up the mountainside to see a Japanese serow. A serow is a Japanese goat-antelope. A couple of us got shots of it—another unexpected bonus. This is our last full day with the monkeys so some of us skip lunch to stay out shooting as long as possible before finally heading back to our lodge at 4 PM.

We have one more morning to go into the Monkey Park for a couple of hours before we have to make the 1.2 mile trek back to our hotel where our luggage is being stored. About half of us opt to go shoot. There is some activity down by the river, but nothing better than we had the day before. So we decide to leave just before 10 AM. We all meet up and hike the trail back to our other hotel. It is an easier walk this time because it is slightly downhill the entire way. We repack some of the gear and remove our snow clothes for the comfortable 4-hour ride back to our luxury hotel in Tokyo. We stop for lunch along the way. Back at the hotel, we have our incredible farewell dinner and call it a night. The next day, we catch our individual flights home.

This was a magnificent trip with magnificent culture, experiences and photo opportunities. We captured great images of all of our target species and also great shots of a bonus species—“our” little red fox. It is easy to see why this trip is on Joe Van Os’ Top Ten list of MUST DO trips. It is also easy to see why it is one of John Shaw’s favorites. It is now on my Top 3 list as well. I can’t wait to get back to Japan!