Japan Photo Journey

Japan – a jagged set of islands that are a lot wilder than most people think. The trip begins in Hokkaido, frequently called “Asia’s Alaska”, where a lot of the most spectacular settings are. Pack-ice, seascapes, and jagged snow-clad mountains are commonplace, and these form the backdrop to some of the most amazing wildlife photography opportunities on the planet. In February, the Red-crowned Cranes start their nuptial displays, and watching courting cranes dancing in the snow is every bit as spectacular as it sounds.



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Elsewhere we may shoot the cranes roosting in a misty river bed, providing an ethereal setting for further photos. Further north, we head to Rausu, where we will take a boat through the pack ice to find up to 100 White-tailed Eagles and even more goliath Stellar’s Sea-Eagle sitting on the ice and fighting for the fish scraps we toss to them. The photographic opportunities are simply mind-blowing. The eagles bare their talons at one another, and the fighting between them promises to be one of the major tour highlights. We will spend two nights in Rausu, and hope to end this amazing day with the sensational snow-ghost, Blakiston’s Fish-Owl. Although photography will have to be without the aid of a flash (which is no longer allowed in order to minimize disturbance), we ought to manage some interesting shots of a very scarce bird. Elsewhere, the waterbirds occur in good numbers, and we may be within arm’s reach of hundreds of crisp Whooper Swans gliding past on a thermal lake, with warm water vapors rising around them. Herds of Sika Deer and flocks of sea ducks and auks are also a feature of Hokkaido.

Snow monkey brothers
Snow monkey brothers (Keith Barnes)

Next we move to Nagano, where we climb into the mountains to spend a day with the unforgettable “Snow Monkeys”, the Japanese Macaque. Covered in frost, they sit in the hot springs to warm themselves, their bright red faces and icicle-crusted fur juxtaposed with the snow, forming an unforgettable set of images. Finally, we move to the southern island of Kyushu for the final leg of this trip, and travel to Izumi where we can ogle the thousands of White-naped and Hooded cranes that are drawn to feeding stations in this region. The cranes dance and bugle at dawn, interacting constantly, providing a myriad of fascinating behavorial shots. This region may also provide us with chances to photograph Japanese Green Pheasant, Mandarin Duck, or several other species of amazing Asian birds.

Day 1: Arrival in Hokkaido, drive to Tsuru. After arrival in the snowy north of Japan we shall drive a short distance to the Tsuru area. After checking in at our lovely log-cabin like accommodation, we will be ready for our first photo-session with the magical cranes of Hokkaido. In the afternoon, the cranes come to the local center as they get fed with fish. This also attracts eagles occasionally, and if we are lucky, we may see these birds battling it out for the spoils. However, sometimes the eagles don’t show, so don’t get your hopes too high.

Snowy interior of Hokkaido
Snowy interior of Hokkaido (Keith Barnes)

Day 2: Tsuruirama to Rausu, Hokkaido. We will awake predawn and make the cold trip down to the famous bridge where the cranes roost overnight. As dawn approaches, the misty waters lift off the river, and if we are lucky as the reddish sun comes over the horizon we will have 20-30 cranes calling and interacting as the mists lift off the river. There is no wildlife scene that is more quintessentially Asian. We will need long lenses for this, as the birds are quite distant. Once the sun gets too high, the birds fly. Thereafter we will make for an early morning breakfast and a welcome coffee. Then we return to the crane center for another feeding session. This time, the birds tend to call, display and dance on landing. This also sends the other birds present into a bugling contest. It makes for one of the best bird shoots on Earth. Once the light gets too bright, we will move on. We have a 3-4 hour drive north along the coast. As we go we might encounter a variety of waterfowl, and if time permits, we may stop to opportunistically do a little shooting. By late afternoon we will be getting into Rausu, the home of one of the greatest bird of prey spectacles on Earth.

Dancing Red-crowned Cranes
Dancing Red-crowned Cranes (Keith Barnes)

Day 3: Rausu Eagle trip, Hokkaido. It’s really hard to describe what is in store for you today, but suffice it to say that you will be absolutely blown away, especially if you like hundreds of giant, spectacular-looking eagles that are just yards away from you. After breakfast we will make our way to the Rausu harbor, where we may do some casual photography shooting Glaucous or Glaucous-winged Gulls while waiting for the boat. We depart the harbor at around 8:30 and within a few minutes we will be surrounded by many White-tailed Eagle, and spectacular Steller’s Eagles. Ideally, we hope that the pack-ice just north of Rausu has broken up and the ocean currents have had it drift just offshore; that way we get eagles perching on ice. But even if that has not happened, we will still have plenty of eagles flying around and sitting nearby, and we should absolutely fill all our SD cards. In the afternoon, we will search harbors looking for ducks, geese and other waterfowl. In the evening we head to our Minshuku, where the main drawcard is the Japanese Ghost, one of the 100-odd Blakiston’s Fish-Owls left in Japan regularly come to the Minshuku’s local river to fish. We will be setup, warm and cozy inside, with our lenses trained on this beast. The owl almost always comes, but it’s a wild animal and does not respond on cue, so we will have to wait up till it deems us worthy of its presence.

Steller's Sea-Eagle
Steller's Sea-Eagle (Keith Barnes)

Day 4: Rausu to Nemuro via the Nemuro Peninsula, Hokkaido. This morning we begin to make our way south. We may have the opportunity of shooting hundreds of Whooper Swans close to the thermal vent for some atmospheric photography, but much of the day will be simply enjoying the opportunistic waterbird photography. We will travel down Nemuro peninsula, where we hope to find a variety of subjects.

Day 5: Nemuro Area, Hokkaido. Another full day in the Nemuro area looking for waterbirds. We hope to locate Smew, mergansers and scoters, among the myriad waterfowl of the region. In the afternoon we drive towards Kushiro, and overnight again near the airport.

Day 6: Hokkaido to Kuriazawa (via Tokyo). Drive to Kuriazawa, Honshu. Today is a long travel day, and we will take a flight to Tokyo before picking up our vehicle and heading into the Japanese Alps for a two-night stay. Our hotel has some bird feeders, and we will hopefully get lucky with some great shots of Varied Tit, Great Tit, Japanese Pygmy Woodpecker, and if we are very lucky Japanese Grosbeak and Japanese Accentor. This hotel has a wonderful hot-spring spa located within it, including an outdoor spa zone where you can sit in the piping hot water surrounded by snow, just like a Snow Monkey. Doing this while digesting a meal of tempura and sushi, an experience that is about as Oriental as they come!

Day 7: Kuriazawa to Nagano for Snow Monkeys. This morning we travel to the famous outdoor hot springs that host the world’s most famous troop of monkeys – Jigokudani. The good news is that the animals could not get closer, and you are better off with a 24-mm lens than a 300-mm lens. We will spend as much of the day as is required with these interesting animals, and watch them as they cavort, fight and groom. We will probably have secured all the photos we can muster in a few hours, but will have most of the day at leisure to enjoy them. We will overnight again at Kuriazawa.

Snow monkey
Snow monkey (Keith Barnes)

Day 8: Kuriazawa to Kyushu (via Tokyo). We return to Tokyo, and fly to the southern island of Kyushu. The temperatures are much milder here, and we will be able to find many species of bird wintering in the southern portions of the archipelago. We will make our way to Izumi, a few hours away.

Days 9-10: Cranes of Izumi, Kyushu. This town hosts one of the single largest aggregations of cranes anywhere in the world. Up to 10,000 individuals of five different species can be present. We will have two full days to lap up the thousands of Hooded and White-naped cranes. We will have to work a little harder for the less common species such as Sandhill and Common cranes, and if we are very lucky there may be a true rarity, like a stunning Siberian or Demoiselle crane around. But although cranes are the major highlight and we will spend tons of time with them, they are not the only subjects. There are wetlands nearby, with shorebirds and spoonbills, and often we can find a myriad of wintering passerines including the dapper Daurian Redstart, Dusky and Brown-headed thrushes, grosbeaks, buntings and many more. Izumi also hosts some Samurai houses, and has a feel of Japanese old-country, and we will have opportunities for culture and scenic shots in addition to the amazing wildlife we will encounter. All too soon, our time in Japan will draw to a close, and we will have to start packing away our gear. But the hard drive will be full of images of incredible quality, and we will be able to relive this adventure every time we look at them.

Hooded Cranes walk in unison
Hooded Cranes walk in unison (Keith Barnes)

Day 11: Return to Kagoshima for the flight to Tokyo and departure. On our last morning we drive to Kagoshima, and catch our flight back to Tokyo, where we take our various international flights home.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Relaxed. Being winter, the sun generally only comes up at around 7 a.m. and has set by 4:30 p.m. So we have plenty of downtime after dark. However, because the days are short and the sun never really gets too harsh we have plenty of shooting to do during the middle of the day. We will normally have breakfast around 6 a.m., although earlier starts may be required on certain days, and packed breakfasts or snacks will be taken for those. Often we are located right near our shooting localities and we will not need to travel far most mornings. We will tend to take lunch in the field, or using the incredibly convenient Japanese convenience stores that have a host of choices (including hot meals) for lunch time. This saves time, which can be crucial on days with not much light. On day 2, the drive from Tsuru to Rausu will take 3-4 hours, and we may make some stops en-route if there are opportunistic birds to photograph. Days 6 and 8 are long travel days, Day 6 requires a flight to Tokyo (90 minutes) and then drive into the Japanese Alps (3-4 hours). Day 8 will involve a similar amount of travel to get to Kyushu. Dinner will be taken in typical Japanese style, fun and leisurely.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Most of the photography will be on flat areas close to our vehicles, and there will not be a lot of walking required. The only exception is the walk to the Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani, this will require a walk of around 500 yards (800m) to and from the hot baths that the monkeys swim in. The track is often covered with snow and ice, and so while the distance is not far, this requires you to carry your kit this distance. The good news is that the Snow Monkeys DO NOT REQUIRE a long lens, and smaller zoom, or wide-angle lens are really all you need for the walk. So you wont be slogging down the track with your tripod and 800mm! The track is well laid out, but the ice can make it tricky. Crampons are a very good tool for negotiating any ice. The elevation is below 1500 m (5000 ft) and mostly at sea-level the entire tour.

CLIMATE: Cold in Hokkaido (mostly 17° to 40°F; -8° to 4°C) and Honshu, milder of Kyushu (mostly 41° to 43°F; 5° to 12°C), but snowstorms, wind or cold snaps can make it feel considerably colder. Some snow, sleet, and rain can be expected.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent, hotels all have private, en-suite bathrooms. For three nights (Rausu & Nemuro) we will be staying in traditional Japanese Minshukus. These are essentially home stays and are often the highlight of most people’s trips, but the style of living is very different from what most westerners are used to. Beds are futon type and on the floor, the living is in large communal rooms; women and men sleep in different rooms (please ask our office for more info if this arrangement concerns you). At the Minshukus there are large communal (males separate from female) bathing facilities. All accommodations in Japan have full-time hot water, and 24h electricity, most have internet.

PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: Although most of the photography is done outside of vehicles it is done from feeders, or setups at feeding stations, and so tripod based photography is very possible on this tour. A long lens is required for some of the crane photography, but there are also occasions when cranes and eagles are close and a smaller 200 or 300 mm lens would be a better bet. At the Snow Monkeys, a shorter lens and wide angle offer some interesting alternative photography opportunities. There are very few mammals available in Japan in winter but birds are commonplace and there is some stunning scenic, people and temple photography.

GEAR: A 500 or 600 mm lens would be the largest you would want to bring. The most efficient lens may be a 400 or 300 mm prime lens. A smaller versatile 100-400 and some landscape or wide angle lenses would be well used. A tripod makes sense in Japan.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, and all European countries. Visas are required by most nationalities not listed above. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers and lodge staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 11; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 11; safe drinking water and/or juice and tea/coffee during meals; Tropical Birding photo tour leader from day 1 to the afternoon of day 11; one arrival and one departure airport transfer per person on the given arrival and departure days (transfers may be shared with other participants of the same tour if they are on the same flight, if arriving early or departing late there may be a supplemental cost levied if you choose to take a transfer); ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 1 to day 11 in a suitable vehicle; entrance fees to all photography sites mentioned in the itinerary; 2-3 hour boat trip from Rausu on morning of Day 3; four domestic flights (Tokyo-Kushiro; Kushiro-Tokyo; Tokyo-Kagoshima & Kagoshima-Tokyo).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; international flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.