• Alyce Bender

Winter Wildlife in Japan - Part 3


Up to this point I have shared where to go for the endangered Red Crowned Crane and what to expect when photographing the vulnerable Steller's Sea Eagle. In this article, I want to ensure you can round out your trip with some of the more populous creatures that can still be surprisingly hard to find if you don't know where to look. I'm talking about the Ezo red fox and the Yezo sika deer.

The Ezo red fox is a subspecies of the red fox and is found only on the island of Hokkaido. A bit larger than the red fox that inhabits the rest of Japan, these kawaii kita kitsune (cute little fox in Japanese) can be seen throughout the island. However, I found that while I saw them every day I was up there, there was only a few locations that I was able to photograph them with regularity.

The Yezo sika deer is another common subspecies of its type found only in Hokkaido. Interestingly enough, it too, has a larger body than that of its southern "mainland" relatives in Japan. This is one animal you need to be on the lookout for when traveling in Hokkaido regardless if you are trying to photograph it or not as they have a bad habit of jumping out in front of cars. Thankfully, each time they did this to me (one early morning it seemed they were around every bend!) I did spot them and am hear still to tell the tale.

Getting There is Part of the Adventure!

Besides some of your photo subjects trying to get an exclusive with you, getting to the following locations is actually really quite simple. Easy drives along the coastline on well-maintained roads. Plenty of opportunities for landscape images along the way as well. Just remember, unless you have a ton of time, it's going to be difficult to do both. Fair warning!

However, some conditions just merit a bit of landscape shooting between wildlife spotting. During one of my visits to the Notsuke Peninsula, it started to snow big, fat flake clumps. Visibility dropped and I knew I was going nowhere fast so I decided to enjoy it.

Thinking of my father and his love of boats, I thought I would do a mini study of some of the seasonally abandoned fishing boats that lined the peninsula, encased in ice. The decreased visibility created the perfect environment for some minimalistic landscapes.

Photo tip: Small changes in composition or shooting position can lead to a nice variety of images with similar themes but different looks. Especially when shooting landscapes, try several compositions before leaving a spot. Sometimes the original image you stopped for ends up being a catalyst for more creative images.

Notsuke Peninsula

Japan's largest sand spit, the Notsuke Peninsula is a unique environment all to its own. Some also call it "the End of the World" because, when out towards the tip, with nothing but a bit of sand and a single lane track dividing two bodies of water, it does seem like the edge. For me, this was part of the magic to this place!

With a handful of other photographers, one or two small photo tour groups, and the occasional Japanese tourist, to say the peninsula is a popular place would be a bit of a stretch. However, with the abundance of wildlife in the area, it really should be on every winter wildlife photographer's list.

Location tip: Mass transit is all but nonexistent in this part of Japan during winter. To visit, make sure you have an updated International Driver's Permit ($20 from AAA) and rent a car to make the most of your trip.

Once you make the turn off the main highway, where a small brown sign understates the location, it's a two lane road that goes on for 18km. Google maps states it takes 22 minutes to make the drive one way. I never completed it in under two hours, with most my visits lasting much longer. As soon as you turn onto the peninsula road, start looking for subjects. The fox can be found all over as they use the seasonal fishermen's homesteads as their own during this season.

Gear tip: Make sure to have your camera out and ready to go at a moments notice while cruising here. Wear your winter clothing while driving so you can keep the car cold so as to not have condensation form on your glass when getting back in from shooting.

It was by keeping my eyes peeled for any movement that brought this short-eared owl to my attention. A tiny grey ball of fluff against the landscape at large, I was able to photograph it on two separate occasions. Completely unexpected, this was an amazing surprise as I did not even know they had short-eared owls up here!

Photo tip: Once you have located a single subject, determine how much time you are willing to spend with that individual. Unlike when shooting flocks or herds where there can be many chances for interesting action shots, when traveling you have a limited budget of time. Determine what your photographic goals are before going.

On this trip I really wanted to get some good images of fox and deer while in this area. The first day I came across this owl, I thought it was really cool and took the portrait image of it sitting on the driftwood in the sun. But then I moved on as I still wanted to get more images of fox, my primary subject. However, when I returned two days later, I had already gotten more fox images than I anticipated, so when this owl appeared again, I was able to spend several hours waiting for this particular individual to take flight, followed by more waiting as I wanted a hunting shot. The above image was what I was able to capture before the light faded too low.

The deer graze in massive herds along the right side of the spit. You will witness them traversing the frozen bay between the finger-like bands of land that protrude off the main peninsula.

Some of the bolder deer, mainly bucks while I was there, will graze right along the road. If you are calm and quiet, you can move cautiously outside your vehicle to set up on the edge of the road. As the road is elevated on a berm, I was not fully happy with shooting down onto the animals, so I would park out of the flow of traffic and carefully make my way down the embankment to kneel or lay in the snow for a more advantageous position.

Gear tip: Ensure you have appropriate clothing for this area. Snow pants, boots, and jackets are a requirement, as are gloves and a hat. With proper clothing, you too can wade/crawl waist deep in snow without suffering from becoming cold and wet.

I am going to take a moment here to go off on a bit of a tangent due to the image below. Its an image of a Yezo sika buck struggling to graze in the dead of winter. He is struggling due to becoming entangled in a massive bundle of fishing net and ropes. Not only are they weighing his head down, but they are wrapped around this throat and even one of his front legs! This is what happens when human and animal environments collide. Even though the fishermen put their nets and ropes in large piles before leaving for the winter, this sort of thing still happens. I took this image to the Nature Center located there on the peninsula and showed it to the staff. With some Google translate and very elementary Japanese, I was able to convey to them where he was seen. They had already had several reports from others about him as well.

Unfortunately, from my understanding, they do not assist and let nature take its course. I am a proponent of letting nature take its course as much of it is just part of the circle of life where if a deer dies in winter, it means the fox and crow are able to survive until spring. However, this is directly related to man and is not Nature's way. In this instance I do wish they would have intervened since it was caused by humans. Just one more example of why we must consider how our actions impact the natural world around us, even when we are not there to witness it ourselves.

Anyway, let's move on now to the other location I found just chock full of wildlife photography opportunities.

Nemuro/Lake Furen

Lake Furen is a large brackish lake that freezes over in winter. The wetlands surrounding it are a designated Ramsar site and protected under the Ramsar Convention. With this, the birds in these areas are highly protected and thus these sites make for great visits. In the warmer months, this area is where the red crowned cranes come to lay their eggs and raise their chicks. In winter, the area is home to Steller's sea eagles, white-tailed eagles, black kites, and crows.

An early morning, after I had wrapped up my boating excursions, found me on the edge of Lake Furen waiting for the eagles to come collect breakfast left by the ice fishermen. As the eagles started to arrive, so did several fox.

They carefully picked their way across the ice, some choosing to keep their distance, while others more brave, or perhaps foolhardy, decided to try to get a piece of the action.

When violently threatened by the eagles, this particular fox decided to try getting a few of the scraps pulled away by the crows. That also did not end in the fox's favor.

Location tip: Arrive early and hope for an overcast day. With the overcast day we had, I was able to stay and shoot well past noon without worrying about harsh reflected light.

Gear tip: Bring a tripod. Since you will be in the same spot for potentially hours, make sure you have your tripod set up so you can give your arms a brake when using long lenses. While I prefer to handhold as I feel it gives me quicker control when the action suddenly moves from the usual action point, after a while, it does start to get heavy. Give yourself a break and use the tools at hand. I also have a quick release plate on mine so I can take it off the tripod in a flash to get the shots as needed.

A great example of this was when we had this younger fox decide it was going to buzz the line of photographers. It came within just feet of everyone and even stopped under this one woman's tripod, taking in the scene. I was the only photographer of the 8 or 10 present who grabbed my camera off the tripod, repositioned for distance (since I was using a 150-600mm lens), and hit the ground to get eye level with the fox as it patrolled our line.

Just as everyone was starting to pack up, a last minute addition arrived on scene. I guess they were house hunting a bit early! Among the Japanese photographers the arrival of this Red Crowned crane pair caused quite a stir. The cranes only stayed a few minutes before flying off again, but it was enough and a great way to end my visit at Lake Furen.

This location was a boots-on-the-ground find. I wish I had known about it before as I would have loved to spend another day or two photographing here. It is very high on places to revisit when I make a return trip in 2020. Anyone interested in joining me?

Bonus location: Jigokudani Valley

Many international visitors who want to see winter wildlife in Japan will be entering and leaving through Tokyo. I highly suggest taking a few extra days either before heading to Hokkaido or after leaving Hokkaido to visit Jigokudani Valley outside Nagano, Japan. ​​

Best known for the famous Japanese macaques, i.e. snow monkeys, this side trip only takes a couple hours via train and bus from Tokyo station. If time allows, I suggest at least doing an overnight so you have an afternoon and morning in the Snow Monkey Park before having to return to the city.

I have a previous article written based on my visit to the park last year, which you can read here. What I will add from my visit this year, however, is this. I visited about a week earlier this year than I did last year and I had much less snow this year. Obviously the weather is not fully predictable, but if you have a few extra days to spend, I suggest it so that you can potentially have at least one visit with falling snow.

Location tip: This has become an extremely popular location. Because of the crowds, try to go mid-week and get there as the park opens or in the last few hours before they close.

Gear tip: A super telephoto lens is useful when trying to photograph the troops coming down the mountain on the far side of the river, you really don't need anything more than a 300mm if on a crop sensor body. I brought the 150-600mm with me when I arrived a bit after opening so that I could shoot from the bridge, over the filled observation deck. However, if you are actually down next to the monkey bathing hot spring, space is so limited much of the time it is hard to wield such a large lens.

So that wraps ups my winter wildlife expedition in Japan for this year. I hope you enjoyed the images and, if you plan on doing this yourself, that it provided you with helpful information so you can make the most of your visit. If you have any other question, please feel free to contact me!

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