• Jeffrey

Winter Wildlife in Japan

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

[For the dutch version, click here / voor de nederlandse versie, klik hier]

From the snowy mountains to the icy coasts, this is Winter in Japan. One mission: to provide an unforgettable journey, tailored to nature photographers with the necessary comfort. Mighty crane birds, giant eagles and bathing snow macaques. Curious as to how such a trip goes? Then this post is worth the read.

After a peaceful direct flight from Brussels, we arrive in Tokyo with a group of twelve, where a bus takes us to the hotel. Our guide and interpreter, Shinji Sato, is also there. He may be called Sato San, according to good Japanese tradition. Next to Sato San, I am guiding this tour with my colleague Yves Adams.

The Japanese city culture immediately gives us an unforgettable impression. We are amazed: huge lunar parks as childcare centers for shopping parents, perfect counterfeit plastic meals as a menu in the window of restaurants, flowers and plant seeds for grabs from a ball pit… Nothing is crazy here. The people are extremely friendly and keep bending and nodding. We are return the courtesy, with the result that both parties just keep nodding their heads at each other and after a while we imagine ourselves to be at a Heavy Metal performance. :-)

But we are not here for the city. Our goal is to capture the unique beauty of Japanese nature! The next day we get on our private bus to the Jigokudani National Park, better known as "Monkey Park". You've probably already seen the pictures, cute snow macaques enjoying the warmth of the Hot Springs - usually with their eyes closed: it is a scene that should not be missed during this trip!


After a traditional lunch consisting of a dozen different dishes with vegetables, fish and meat, we spend the afternoon with the monkeys. This way everyone gets an idea of ​​what to expect the following days. You read that right: the following days, because we provide enough time at each location to gradually "compose" the image and to always raise the photographic bar. This first afternoon is therefore primarily meant as an introduction. The more time the participants spend with the monkeys, the more inspiration they get to find that perfect image.

At each location, we provide enough time to gradually "compose" the image and to always raise the photographic bar

To stimulate that inspiration, we show some sample photos after dinner. We discuss compositions and provide feedback on images of the participants, so images can be perfected. During those days we experiment with natural and artificial backlight to achieve unique results. One evening we also give a demo about the use of Lightroom and the possibilities of photo processing.

We sleep in a traditional Ryokan, a hotel / restaurant in Japanese tradition. That means that you'll have to enter the different rooms with different slippers: slippers for the common area, slippers for the toilet ... But don't you dare entering a room with the wrong slippers! It creates the necessary hilarity, especially if you combine it with a Kimono after bathing.

Satisfied with our time at the monkeys and the thousands of photos on our memory cards, we take the bus to Tokyo and jump on a domestic flight to Hokkaido, an island north of Japan.


Our first destination on Hokkaido is Kussharo, known by wildlife photographers because of the Whooper Swans that can be photographed at close range. The swans stay close to the banks because that is where warm spring water flows into the lake and prevents that part from freezing. And we are certainly 'lucky', because just behind the hotel there is a gathering Swans!

We start well before dawn, the thermometer refuses to rise above -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit). That is cold, very cold, but as soon as you get to the lake, you forget that. The swans are still sleeping, covered with frost. On the horizon behind the mountains, the blue hour gives way for the warm glow of the rising sun. Occasionally the steam from the hot spring hinders our view on the snowy landscape… What an atmosphere! We'll also spend two mornings at this location, trying out various compositions and techniques. After such a cold shoot, we teach our participants 'the shock technique', a way to bring your camera from the freezing cold into a warm room, without condensation affecting the device.

We stay outside as long as we have light. We visit Akan, where fish is fed to the birds until the end of February. Here we find dozens of enthusiastic photographers, and you soon understand why. After a while, hundreds of cranes make way for many Steller's and European sea eagles, with acrobatic tumbles and aggressive interactions as a result. You only hear the rattling of many cameras. Most photographers are so enthusiastic that they don't even notice the foxes on the ice. After the feeding, the people disappear like snow in the sun: apparently they don't know that there is a nice spot a little further where you can photograph the flight of the cranes. The fewer souls, the more joy for us!

Kussharo is unforgettable, not only because of the wildlife, but also because of the atmosphere in the Ryokan. The manager of the hotel - eternally in pajamas and usually snoring in the sofa - suddenly turns into a top entertainer on the last evening. He has transformed the common room into a concert hall! To our surprise, his music band apparently performs worldwide. The show is corresponding: light effects and flying wooden cranes, even soap bubbles. We enjoy it to the fullest!


From Kussharo we take our bus to Rausu, but not without looking for Sika deer and foxes by the roadside. We manage to portray both beautifully, much to the delight of many participants who had these images on their bucket list.

By chartering our own boat, we determine what we do, when we do it and we don't have to share the boat with dozens of other passengers.

Rausu, a quiet harbor town, has been completely taken over by photographers in recent years. And this solely because of the many sea eagles. The pack ice, from the North Pole, has not yet arrived in the harbor and is located to the north, a two-hour boat ride away. While all other boats, filled with as many as 50 tourists, remain in the harbor, we instruct our skipper to take us to the pack ice. That year, our group were the people who got to view the pack ice and photograph the eagles. By chartering our own boat, we determine what we do and we don't have to share the boat with dozens of other passengers. It comes at a price, but if you only do this trip once, you don't want to miss this highlight!

We don't only stay in Rausu for the eagles, but also for the hide where you can photograph the Blakiston's Fish Owl, one of the few places in the world. You have to be lucky for this species, because you don't always get to see it. As our japanese guide runs the hide, he knows exactly when and where the owl will come, so we don't have to wait very long. It even came up several times during those two nights!


Who says Japan, thinks cranes. The last three days of the trip are exclusively devoted to these magnificent birds. After all, it's the beginning of March and that means it's courtship and dance time! Those seduction techniques are so beautiful that I would strongly adivese you to also put the camera down for a few minutes and enjoy it. It is one of the most astonishing wildlife acts I've ever witnessed!

And to top it all...nobody forgets those mornings on the Otowa-Bashi bridge. Every morning, during our stay in Tsurui, we put our tripods up at 4:15am at and get back in the bus for a hot cup of coffee, thea or hot choco. At 5 am we click our camera on the tripod. We do this to get the best spot at the bridge, because sometimes it can get a bit crowdy.

The temperature can get to -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit) but you soon forget that when you hear the sounds of cranes waking up in the fogbanks. Everybody is taking thousands of pictures of cranes in the mist. It is amazing to see the ever changing river with the fogbanks, the frosted trees... Add the warm sun harps of the rising sun and you just think: when will we be back ?!

Interested in joining us in 2020? Head over to the STARLING website for more information.

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