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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Winter Wildlife in Japan - Part 1

Pair of Red Crowned Cranes walking

So much has been happening lately, but I finally got some time to sit down and write a review of the amazing winter wildlife expedition in Hokkaido I embarked on back in February (2018). My main goals were to become familiar with the area and photograph the endangered Red Crown Crane (Grus japonensis), the vulnerable Steller's Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus), Ezo Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes schrencki), and the world's largest herd of Yezo Sika deer (Cervus nippon yesoensis).

Before going any further, I do want to bring up some information in regards to safety. While I carried out this trip solo, I have been living in northern Japan for several years now and made sure I had a comprehensive emergency plan and physical pack with me. Winters in this area are not for the faint of heart and can turn nasty quickly. Many roads do not have any shoulder to speak of and, more often than not, have steep ditches instead. If planning to do this on your own or in a small group without local knowledge please follow these simple rules.

> Always make sure someone knows where you are and when you are due to check in next.

> Make sure you are comfortable driving on icy, snowy roads and in falling/driving snow (at least enough to get to a safe parking location if caught on the road in a storm).

> Carry extra rations of food, water, and blankets in the car in case you are stranded.

> Always have a way to create fire that you know how to use!

> Carry an external battery pack for your cell phone as the cold drains batteries quickly.

Also a word on clothing. Make sure to dress in layers. Stay away from cotton and make sure you have waterproof outer layers rated for snow from head to toe and include a face mask. I found I loved shooting all of the wildlife I encountered on this trip when it was snowing. Without appropriate clothing I would have had to turn in early or worst case scenario, I could have ended up with frostbite or hypothermia. Companies like Columbia Sportswear* make outstanding clothing for adventures like this. I was decked out in Columbia boots, snow pants, multi-layer jacket, mittens and hat and was very comfortable even when on a boat in the Sea of Okhotsk during a snow storm. From a woman who was born and raised in Florida, that is saying something!

If you do these things, you shouldn't have any issues if you decide to try this trip on your own.

*This is my own opinion without any financial influence. I am not sponsored by Columbia but would love to be someday!

Getting There is Part of the Adventure!

Since I was leaving domestically, I ended up taking the overnight ferry from Hachinohe on Honshu (Main island of Japan) to Tomakomai on Hokkaido (island). From Tomakomai I took a series of trains and buses to get to Kushiro airport. For those of you deciding to visit from outside Japan, it would be easiest to just fly into Tokyo before catching a domestic flight into the Kushiro airport. This gives you a chance to visit the Snow Monkey Park either before or after Hokkaido, but more on that later (or you can read about my previous visit here).

Empty train seats with winter scenery in the window

Depending on how long you have budgeted for the whole trip, the amount of time in each location will potentially vary; however, I do not suggest anything less than a week total.

I spent eight days with two of those being travel due to my chosen modes of transportation to and from the island. Flying in and out will be the easier method for anyone coming internationally or even domestically if outside the Tohoku area. By utilizing the more difficult transportation methods I was able to familiarize myself with this area of Japan in order to help others plan future visits.

Location tip: While still relatively undiscovered by the Western photographers, this area is growing in popularity with photography tours from around the world. with the majority being from the Asian continent. As the area becomes more popular, it will be necessary to ensure you have reservations well in advance of your travel as many of these villages that will be mentioned are very small and only have a handful of lodging options. This is especially true for those on a budget.* is an excellent booking site for hotel and hostels across Japan.

*This is my suggestion for booking as it is what I personally use. My opinion is not influenced by any financial gain here.


My first day was a travel day and I got in with enough time to pick the car up from the Kushiro airport rentals and find my hotel. A rough overnight ferry crossing and full day of jumping trains left me tired (not the way to start a photography trip I assure you!) leading to an early turn in time.

Up before dawn the next morning, day two, I left the city heading towards Otowa Bridge. This has become a big draw so I actually saw more people here than at any of my other spots. This bridge sits over a unique geothermic river. It doesn't freeze during the winter and thus the cranes come here to roost at night, standing with their feet in the warm water. At dawn, there is a potential, depending on the weather, for hoar frost to coat the trees along the river, have the pink light of dawn and the cranes all in one image. To have a chance to shoot these amazing conditions, many are willing to get up super early and get set up to witness the unfolding each morning.

Single crane along the river predawn

When I arrived at 0500 it was -15 degrees Celsius, and thankfully no wind. There was already a line of tripods, sitting empty, smack in the middle of the bridge, taking up prime real estate, but no photographers. When I tried to set up between some of them that had a bit of space, I was approached and subsequently threatened by a small Asian woman (not Japanese). It became abundantly clear that these were set up for tour group participants who would be showing up later as dawn broke. Wow! Not only did the tour group operator set up about 20 tripods before participants even got there, they then would not allow anyone to share the space and if anyone tried they threatened "you don't want your camera broken do you?" Anyway, I moved down and away from the group as I was not in any way prepared for that sort of confrontation in the backwoods of Japan at five in the morning.

Location tip: Show up early and be prepared to work from off center as a tour group will have had their bus driver/co-leader there overnight guarding the best spots.

As it was, the weather did not cooperate and it was too cold and dry for the frost to condense on the riverbanks. Overcast skies meant that much of the sunrise color didn't last very long either, but there were still cranes and that is what I had come for ultimately. As the cranes wake, they start moving around, calling, and then after the sun has risen, they take off to the feeding grounds. When they do take off, most of them come directly towards the bridge, allowing for some great head on flight shoots.

Cranes gathers in river with some taking flight

Gear tip: Do not do what I did and show up with gear you have never used before! I cannot tell you how many shots I missed as I did not have my camera properly set up. Having just upgraded from the Nikon D7000 to the Nikon D500, it was a bigger change than I anticipated and that was a mistake. I actually ended up pulling out my backup body, one of my D7000s, to at least get some shots that morning.

Gear tip: Bring a long, long lens for this location. Unfortunately, there have been a series of incidents with a few foreign visitors who have broken the law and entered the protected area surrounding the river to try to get "better" or "different" pictures. The cranes have since moved further and further back with some finding other areas to roost all together. I had the Tamron 150-600mm on my D500 (crop sensor body) and was still wanting more reach. For those without this sort of lens, if you have a 70-300mm or even a 70-200mm, with patience you can get some great shots as the cranes take off and fly towards you or overhead.

As the majority of the cranes departed, it was time to head where they were going, you know, since I was there to photograph them. My first stop was the Tsurui Ito Tancho Crane Sanctuary. Located about a fifteen minute drive from the bridge, if you leave after the first few sets of cranes leave the river, you can get there in time to see the ones who are looking to feed at this sanctuary arrive, giving you another opportunity for cranes in-flight images. Also, by going directly from the bridge, you beat the tour buses who stop for breakfast between the two locations. Personally I choose to have my breakfast in the car, as I am driving to the first location or packed for later in the morning, but it's up to you what you choose as your priority.

Five cranes in flight

Arriving as the birds did allowed me to get a wide open choice of set up locations, fly-in images, and the tail end of morning golden hour. When the cranes come in for landing, it is usual that pairs will touch down and do a bit of calling and dancing, so it pays to watch for incoming pairs or groups to get action shots.

Pair of cranes dancing

Me with my camera gear at the crane fields

Gear tip: This is a real waiting game type of shooting. You know the wildlife will be here so it's just a matter of capturing the right moments. Bring a long lens - I LOVE my Tamron 150-600mm - as they can be a bit far off sometimes, a tripod so you can shoot all day without arm strain, and a camp/travel stool so you don't have to stand the entire day. (Of course, as soon as you sit, that's when the action happens per Murphy's Law.) The black dots in this picture are the cranes and I am against the fence just to give you an idea of distance.

Some of the younger birds (distinguishable by the lack of red crown feathers) will start random displays throughout the gathering. They will run, jump, call, and chase around the flock on their own. I found these to be some of the more energetic displays, while the previously paired couples had a beautiful, seemingly choreographed dance performed in controlled perfection. Using a slower shutter speed allows for the capture of both movement and energy.

Young crane dancing enthusiastically

It can also produce abstract images that almost look like traditional Japanese watercolor or calligraphy painting.

Abstract crane image

Photo tip: Decide early where you want to be located first based on the type of background you hope to set the cranes against. There is a slope across the field here so, depending on where you are located you can either set them against the dark background of the tree-line or the more ruddy brush that is off to one side of the field. Your position will also determine the eye-line (the angle of which the subject's eye meets the viewer's) in the image. If you're on top of the hill to catch birds flying in from the right of the field, you will be shooting a bit down on the majority of the birds. If you choose at the bottom of the slope (towards the left of the field) you will have a harder time catching the fly in from the right but will be on eye level or just below most of the flock. I found I preferred about midway up the slope because I could catch a few flyers but still maintain a low position for best eye-line.

Portrait of singing crane pair

The weather was cooperative for a bit at least. Just as the morning glow was turning harsh, the clouds moved in and light snow began to fall for a short period of time. When it ended, I decided to see what other locations I could find and what they had to offer. I drove around the area, up through the mountains and back down towards the crane fields, spotting a lonely fox along the way.

Close dancing of a pair of red crowned cranes during backlit snowfall

This may seem like a waste of shooting time, but for me, traveling solo, there is a certain sense of comfort when I have driven around the greater area of where I am shooting. A familiarity with the roads allows me to be more at ease when heading out at 0400 in the pitch black of predawn night. If I have time, such as when weather conditions are not optimal, and I know I will have more time in the area the following day(s), I will do this as part of any scouting trip. It is also a good way to mix up a trip if traveling with both landscape and wildlife photographers so there can be a mix of subjects.

Active courtship dancing between two red crowned cranes

Along the way, I stopped at the Akan International Crane Center. Its entrance fee is under $5USD and the place is a wealth of knowledge with pamphlets and displays in both Japanese and English. This is a place the cranes have been much more habituated to humans and are willing to come closer to the cameras. This area also offers additional subjects as large flocks of wild whooper swans congregate here as well. I used my time at this Center to concentrate on close up portraits as I love the minimalist look of the crane's fine features against the white snow.

Two head shot portraits of cranes

Four cranes in a row in snow fall

Snow clouds were rolling in as many of the cranes dispersed from the Akan Center and I decided to head back to the Tsurui Sanctuary to see if I could catch more images with snow coming down. As I arrived the snow started setting in and it was amazing. Bundling up and throwing a microfiber towel over my camera and lens just for extra protection, I was able to shoot until dark as the cranes took it all in stride. By the time I left my camera had several inches of snow atop the towel and I had some of my favorite crane images of the trip.

A pair of cranes continue to preen regardless of the snowstorm around them

Pre-dawn day three, I made my way back to Otowa Bridge. Again, the weather conditions were not quite right for hoar frost, but I did have a pair of sika deer bedded down on the opposite side of the bridge from the cranes. Despite the cool sighting, due to the dense brush, this was not a good photo op. This morning dawned rather bleak and dull, not really lending itself to any great images from the bridge. This was the group I left shortly after sunrise when I decided to head out to the Tsurui Sanctuary again in hopes the overcast sky meant snow.

Crowded Otowa Bridge

Now I only had a couple hours before needing to be on the road for the next leg of my solo tour. In that time, the clouds continued to build but no snow fell. However, I did spot an interesting member of the flock. A Common or Eurasian Crane seemed to have lost its way at some point. Talking with a group of American birders who were on a tour, their guide said it was the first time in over thirty years this species had been seen in the area. Just goes to show, you never know what you will see while out in the field!

Lone Common Eurasian Crane

Next article, I will continue to regale you with the second leg of my Hokkaido Winter Wildlife Expedition where I move north-northeast towards the coast and the largest concentration of Steller's Sea Eagles outside of Russia. Until then, enjoy!

My favorite image of two cranes actively courting each other in symmetry

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