Happo-en Gardens in Tokyo

Modern and traditional in Tokyo

Meiji Jingo Shrine in Tokyo

Zenkoji Temple in Nagano

North of the Tsurui-Ito Red-crowned Crane Sanctuary is Akan National Park. Within this Park are three beautiful caldera lakes in the shadow of two volcanos. On the east shore of Lake Kussharo, the largest of the three, there is a small area where, in the cold of winter, hot springs keep the water open along the shore. In the mornings, a fairly large number of whooper swans congregate here. (It doesn’t hurt that the local restaurant scatters grain off their lake-side porch later in the morning.) Photographing these large white birds is very easy as they stay very close to shore and are habituated to people. Whooper swan winter range is all the way from the British Isles across southern Europe, parts of eastern China to Japan. Breeding range is from eastern Iceland all the way east to Siberia. Whooper swans are the Eurasian counterpart of North American trumpeter swans. They are similar in size and weight (six to eight-foot wingspan and over 20 pounds).

Mt Fuji from Haneda Airport

While traveling between wildlife areas we had other photographic adventures surrounding the history and culture of Japan. While on Hokkaido we had an opportunity to meet indigenous people of Hokkaido, the Ainu. We attended a program that gave an overview of their history and culture, with sad similarities to that of our American Indians,’ followed by a chance to photograph the dancers in their meaningful, ceremonial attire.

In addition to the wildlife, we had ample opportunities to photograph Japanese life, modern and very traditional.

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Tokyo Tower at  night

Winter Photography in Japan

In February of 2017 we traveled to Japan to photograph some of the indigenous wildlife (red crowned cranes and whooper swans) on the northern island of Hokkaido. We also journeyed to the Jigokudani Monkey Park outside of Nagano on the main island of Honshu to photograph Japanese macaques, more commonly known as “snow monkeys.”

Our journey took us on a flight from Tokyo to the small airport near Kushiro on the south coast of Hokkaido, then we drove to the Ito Sanctuary to photograph Japanese red crowned cranes. These magnificent birds are the largest birds in Japan, standing about five feet when mature and weighing in at over twenty pounds. It’s the second most endangered crane in the world after the North American whooping crane, with about 2600 birds worldwide. In addition to Hokkaido, red crowned cranes inhabit parts of China, Siberia and Korea, but the real story is about the Japanese flock. They were abundant in Japan in the mid-1800s. Hunting and habitat loss, especially on the main island of Honshu, caused their extirpation there. In the 1920s, ten birds were found in the boreal marsh near Kushiro on the island of Hokkaido. The area was designated as a protected area and the cranes continued to survive, but barely. By the 1950s their number had grown to thirty-three. Local farmers started feeding them and by 1982 their numbers reached three hundred. The Japanese Government has designated them as “special national monuments” and continues to protect them. Today the flock on Hokkaido has reached over one thousand. The Tsurui-Ito Red-crowned Crane Sanctuary, named in honor of the late Yoshitaka Ito who fed the cranes for many years, is a great place to photograph these birds. The Sanctuary is run by the Wild Bird Society of Japan. The Ito Sanctuary has a Nature Center, rest rooms and a designated area to observe and photograph the birds. In the winter, the Society maintains a regular feeding schedule and the birds have adapted to that schedule. Feeding at the main Sanctuary facility is around 2PM local time and the hours up to and after allow for some pretty good shooting. As sunset approaches, the birds begin to leave to roost in the local streams and rivers, providing for flight shots as well as some good color.

Images of Nature - Instruction - Workshops

After flying back to the main island of Honshu from Hokkaido, we drove to Nagano and on to Kanbayashi Onsen, (hot spring resort), arriving in the early afternoon at our ryokan. We settled into an elegant, modern inn that even offered private onsen, opting to hike the 1.8km to and from the Jigokudani Monkey Park (with the aid of snow grips on our boots). The trail involved a short stair and ramp climb at the beginning, about a mile of level walking and then a set of stairs to get into the park. (There is a basic ryokan much nearer the park entrance where we enjoyed a delicious traditional lunch on our second day.)

These monkeys are wild but habituated. They are fed three times a day and spend much of their time during the day in and around the hot spring. The actual hot spring has been modified into a large rock containment so the monkeys have their own hot tub. After their afternoon feeding they move back up the mountain side where they spend the night in the trees. We were able to photograph and observe the animals for a couple of hours in the afternoon before they moved out. We returned the next morning (the park is open 9 AM to about 4 PM in the winter) and were able to do more shooting with fewer people around. Most people show up late morning through afternoon.

Views of Nature Photography

Winter in Japan

Matsumoto Castle between Tokyo and Nagano