#1036. Winter in Japan

By Jean-Claude Louis | Travel Photography

Sep 05

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.

Noh Theater
Night skyline with Tokyo Tower

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.

Hokkaidō Countryside

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.

Haiku by Kenneth White

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.

Travel companions:

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)


​Never miss a post

​Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.

  • Steve Mallett says:

    Jean-Claude, what an exceptional post! I was transported into your icy world of fabulous images and illuminating text. Whilst reading I was wondering how you kept warm and what you used to create such lovely pictures only to have my questions answered at the end! Three of us Susans had a planned trip to Japan in late November, now sadly cancelled, so your post was especially touching. Bravo.

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you, Steve, for your kind words! Let’s hope that we’ll be able to travel safely again soon.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Brilliant post – and I was pleased to see that you managed to metamorphose into a Japanese, to compile this selection of photos and text.

    When I was younger, I always wanted to go to Japan – but these days, with the walls slowly closing in on what is inevitably going to be the closing chapter of my life, I only want to travel to Europe – and the number of destinations I want to travel to shrinks each year.

    So instead, I derive enormous pleasure from the travels and postings of other members of DS. And this one has a five-star rating!

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you, Pete, for your kind comments!

      Although I tried hard to morph into Japanese, I’m still a guy from the hinterland of Alsace – who happens to love Japanese culture, art and literature (…and food) ;:)

      I’m also, like you, on the last stretch of that road. I find it more pleasurable, more comfortable (and safer), though, to travel to places like Japan, New Zealand, Chile, Canada, than to most places in Europe, which seem to be overrun by hordes of tourists, often of the obnoxious type (maybe that’s just my experience and perception).

      I was going to explore your neck of the woods this year, a campervan trip in western and northern Australia; cancelled of course, pandemic oblige. Fortunately, like you, I love to travel virtually, through others’ adventures.

  • Lad Sessions says:

    Jean-Claude, This is superb, one of the very best “travel” posts I’ve ever seen! The photographs are exquisite; I particularly like the macaque portraits, but the birds are wonderful and the landscapes evocative. But there is such wonderful context, in prose and poetry, not to mention the great design. Truly this is a post worth celebrating! And finally, congratulations on staying warm while braving some rather extreme temperatures. Lad

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you for your compliments, Lad ! You’re embarrassing me 🙂

      It’s fascinating to approach (cautiously) animals in the wild. Whenever possible, I try to establish a contact with them. It has worked many times with monkeys, but also with elephants and spirit bears (in British Columbia). To be able to make an intimate connection, eye-to-eye, at close distance, is inspiring, breathtaking and, at the same time, disconcerting.

      This is one of photography’s greatest strength, its ability to give the viewer the experience of having been there and seen it in person, without the need for an interpreter. I’m happy it worked for you.

  • David says:

    Thank you, Jean-Claude for this timely post. Having lived in Japan (Shibuya-Ku in fact) for 15 years it brought back many fond memories of my second home. Love the images and your thoughts about this beautiful land and its people. Jigokudani alone such take-up 1/2 day of any visitors time.

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you David ! I never lived in Japan, only visited a few times. But, although the culture and language are totally foreign to me, I feel ‘at home’ when in Japan.

  • Pascal Ollier says:

    What a remarkable testimony for a fascinating trip. Thank you Jean-Claude !

    Can I recommend the both hilarious and most interesting series of episodes about a multi week trip through Japan by James May (of Top Gear fame) available on Amazon prime video, especially for those who are sensitive to British humor.

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Merci pour les bon mots, Pascal!

      I’m not a big car aficionado, but love British humour…I’ve watched a few Top Gear episodes years ago; will check the Japan ones. Thanks.

      • Pascal Ollier says:

        Quick one Jean-Claude, this series has nothing to do with cars. It is a multi week through Japan that just happens to be done by an ex Top Gear member. Again, humorous and interesting.

  • Frank Field says:

    Jean-Claude — What a wonderful set of images that tell a compelling story of peace and tranquility in the Japanese winter. Every image you’ve include is wonderful, from the facial “expressions” of the snow monkeys to the cranes to the lake shores. You’ve used a consistent color palette across the entire series, further unifying the image set. Well done! I’m ready to go the first winter after the pandemic subsides. Frank

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you, Frank, for your kind words !

      I’m glad you’ve noticed the color palette of the series. This is always an important aspect of my post-processing. The RAW processors do usually a rather poor job with color, many times just exaggerating the trends of the manufacturers’ sensors. I create my own color grading actions (using Photoshop functions and LUT tables) for each project, to either provide a palette that is faithful to the scenes I have experienced, or for artistic and aesthetic license. An added benefit of this approach is to be able to establish consistency between images when they are taken with different cameras.

  • Nancee Rostad says:

    Delightful, beautiful, stunning….I could go on and on with adjectives to describe your “geopoetic journey” to the winter wonderland of Japan.
    I appreciate every frostbite-risking moment that you spent capturing such stunning images, Jean-Claude! You truly found the essence of each location and produced truly artful images. It’s hard to choose favorites, but if I must, the graceful cranes, magnificent swans, and the utterly charming macaques would fill the bill.
    I’m one of the “Susans” who had to cancel a late November trip to Japan this year, so your images are especially poignant and welcome.
    Arigato gozaimasu!

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you, Nancee, for such gracious comments ! I’m blushing…:-)

      I hope that we’ll get out of these troubled times in a year from now, and that you’ll be able to make the trip. I can assure you that it will be unforgettable!

  • John W says:

    Delightful post Jean-Claude and a novel approach to presentation. The last shot of the cranes is divine and the monkeys are always charming and good fun.

    Yoku yatta, arigatō

  • Robert Sessions says:

    Let me echo the adulations of this post, Jean-Claude. Viewing your post was like being there–I think you’re right about how photos can carry us so far into someone else’s experience. I especially enjoyed the cranes and the macaques.

  • Ian Varkevisser says:

    Superb imagery and travel blog, could easily grace the Nat Geo mag.

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Thank you for your kind compliments, Ian! DS is just fine by me, a great forum to share images and ideas with people passionate about travel and photography :-))

  • philberphoto says:

    Jean Claude, you just extended the wonders produced by the wonderful place called l’Alsace by one unit! What a post! Like you, I am a great admirer of all things tradtionally Japanese, and you capture their essence so finely, so delicately, do idiomatically. My faves have to be the crane pictures, with the large ungainly -clumsy even- birds, but ultimately, awkwardly so graceful under your benevolent shutter… You should see the breadth of the smile on my face! May I repectfully suggest, if you have not done it yet, that next time you go, you attempt to visit with one or more ningen kokuho?

    • Jean-Claude Louis says:

      Dōmo arigatō gozaimasu, as we’re used to say in Alsace…

      My fave is the image of the swans in the frosty mist, in the wonderful early morning soft winter light.

      I didn’t meet any national treasure during this trip. But 10 years ago, I was introduced to Mr. Ichibei Iwano by Mrs Hiromi, the owner of Hiromi Paper Inc. in Santa Monica. Iwano-san is a ningen kokuho in washi; I visited him in Echizen Province, in NW Honshu, and spent two days marveling at his skills making kizuki hosho, a paper made from the best pure sulphite pulp Kozo. I left in awe, and much poorer, as I had the opportunity to purchase a sizable stock of his paper, which is usually not available on the market. I still have some left today. Iwano-san was over 80-years-old at the time, the ninth generation of washi makers; his son, who trained with him since childhood must have taken over by now.

  • >