Ever since I read Kenneth White’s book The Wild Swans in the mid-1990s, the idea had been taking shape in my mind of a geopoetic journey into the ethereal beauty of the Japanese winter, a salutation to its precious and precarious wildlife and to all things Japanese. Years passed, and then in February 2019, my wife and I booked the trip, on a whim.
We took Tokyo as our point of departure and traveled up north to Hokkaidō, then to the Japanese Alps in Honshu and, finally, returned to Tokyo. While the wildlife portion of the journey was the focus of my photography, everything else would be slow travel – strolling around mountain villages, lounging in traditional ryokan, soaking in natural onsen, sampling delicious food – with photography being little more than an afterthought.
In Tokyo, we immersed ourselves in the Shibuya neighborhood, one of the twenty-three city wards of Tokyo, attended a private Noh performance and visited a teahouse for a traditional tea ceremony.
Considered to be the busiest intersection in the world, the Shibuya Scramble Crossing sends people into a mesmerizing, yet claustrophobic, dance with every pulsing light change. This miraculously organized chaos has become the symbol of Tokyo’s dynamism and represents Shibuya—Japan’s trend-setting powerhouse dedicated to fashion and arts, all neon lights, trendy Japanese teens in wild outfits, hip cafes, bars, and restaurants, huge departments stores and crowds all the time. It’s a place to get lost, meet up and feel the heartbeat of Tokyo.
Hokkaidō, Japan’s northermost island, is a vast wilderness punctuated by snowcapped mountains, primordial forests, volcanoes and lakes. As we landed in Kushiro, we were greeted by a blizzard, which brought to mind a haiku of Basho’s that goes like this: First Winter shower/from now on my name will be/traveller.
We drove to the Great Kushiro Marsh, Japan’s largest wetland reserve, to a ryokan in Tsurui, close to the Tsurui-Ito sanctuary of red-crowned cranes.
The red-crowned cranes, Tancho in Japanese, are a protected species, the second rarest of all cranes. Tancho is designated a National Treasure of Japan; it is the symbol of happiness and long life.
The estimated population of red-crowned cranes is about 2,300 in the wild, including 1,500 in the eastern Hokkaidō resident population.
Almost man-high, and with a 9-feet wingspan, Tancho is long-lived, slow to mature, slow to breed. The epitome of grace, their winter courtship displays in the snow make them look like monochrome ballerinas. They bow to one another, then raise their heads towards the sky and sing in unison just as they begin their courtship dance.
Each night they fly off to roost socially in the safety of flowing ice-free rivers. Each day they revisit the sanctuary, where corn and fish are provided for them. We spent two unforgettable mornings at the Otawa bridge, staking the tripod at 4am in -25°C/-13F temperatures (there is limited space on the bridge that provide a good perspective of the river and the cranes) and waiting for the sounds of the cranes waking up in the fog banks, with the river changing from blue to gold as the sun rose.
Our next destination was the shores of Lake Kussharo, a wonderful volcanic caldera, where the magnificent whooper swans spend the winter.
Flocks of Whooper swans arrive in Hokkaido from their boreal breeding grounds in Chukotka and Kamchatka. In Japan, these magnificent birds gather in flocks of dozens along freezing rivers and lakeshores, where they find sufficient food to survive safely over winter. They linger through the coldest months of winter in narrow stretches of the lake’s warm water, heated by the bubbling hot springs; and then they leave before true spring takes its grip on the land.
Whooper swans are enormous birds, with wingspans up to 9 feet and weighing upwards of 25 pounds. They are so big that their legs cannot support them for long periods of time; they need open water not only to feed but to rest.
We stayed at the nearby Lake Akan and started our visits to the shores of Lake Kussharo well before dawn. With temperatures at -20°C/-4F, the swans were still asleep, covered with frost. On the horizon behind the mountains, the blue hour gave way to the warm glow of the rising sun, piercing the steam from the hot springs.
Our next destination took us back to Honshu to the Japanese Alps, to watch the snow monkeys, as they blissfully soak in bubbling mineral springs deep in the forest.
These Macaques are native to Japan. They are called “Snow Monkeys”, because they live in areas where snow covers the ground for several months each year. No other nonhuman primate is native in an area so far north, nor lives in a colder climate. They are covered in thick, lush coats of brown-grey fur with red faces. Their constant shenanigans are fascinating and their faces display a myriad of expressions.
The troop of monkeys we observed over the course of three days were in Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano Prefecture. “Jigokudani” means “Hell’s Valley”, named for the natural hot springs that form steaming, sulphur-smelling bubbling pools, surrounded by steep cliffs. During the day, the monkeys descend from the mountain and forest to soak in the warm waters of the pools, returning to the security of the forest in the evenings.
We stayed at the ryokan located at the entrance of the valley. From there, the park was accessible via a 45-minute hike along a steep, narrow, snow- and ice-covered footpath through the forest. We started early in the morning to reach the park at the opening time. We shared the place with only a small number of people for a couple of hours, after which it was taken over by organized day trips from Tokyo and Nagano. Time to escape to the nearby rustic inn for delicious food and lazying around the fireplace reading a book; then back to the park in the afternoon after the crowds had dissipated.
During our visit, the weather was variable, often sunny, with occasional snow showers; the temperatures were around -10°C/14F. At times, the quality of the light in the narrow canyon was perfect for portraiture, diffused, bouncing off the canyon walls, gently illuminating the faces of the monkeys.
Technical notes and resources
I’ve done a fair amount of wildlife photography, but only occasionally. I don’t own a camera and long telephoto lenses required for that exercise; instead, when needed, I rent the gear that’s most appropriate for the given task. For this trip, I opted for the Fujifilm X-H1 fitted with the 100-400 telezoom and its 1.4x converter, providing a 35mm-equivalent range of 150-840 mm. That turned out to be a good choice: instead of being stuck behind a tripod, I was free to roam around and shoot handheld, thanks to the excellent in-body stabilization and very precise autofocus of the X-H1. I used my light Gitzo tripod only in the low light of the dawns. I rent the gear from https://www.lensrentals.com/, whose founder, Roger Cicala is also a leading expert in lens testing. His blog is a trove of information about all things photographic (https://www.lensrentals.com/blog/author/roger/)
A critical issue with cold weather photography is poor battery life. I took a supply of six batteries that I kept in a pocket of my parka, in a pouch filled with hand warmers. That was sufficient for a day’s shoot.
Finally, the most important thing, by far, when staying outdoors in extreme cold weather for extended periods of time, is to protect the photographer. I was outfitted with insulated winter boots (Korkers with spiked soles), warm gloves (Heat 3 Layer mittens with fold back flaps for easy access to camera controls), a down parka (Fjallraven), an insulated wool and synthetic fur hat (66°North), and adhesive heating patches.
Pilgrim of the Void (includes Wild Swans), by Kenneth White (ISBN 978-7216004961)
Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata (ISBN 9780679761044)
A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami (ISBN 9780375718946)
Sweet Bean Paste, by Durian Sugekawa (ISBN 9781786071958)
Songs of God, Songs of Humans: the Epic Tradition of the Ainu, by Don Philippi *ISBN 9780691063843)
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