Japan – a country full of character
Japan is one of the most stunning countries I have ever visited, not only from a wildlife point of view but culturally as well. This trip focussed on a number of key sites where we worked with specific species, snow monkeys, red-crowned cranes, whooper swans and eagles (white-tailed and Steller’s). At each location we had at least two full days and often a little bit extra with all the wildlife being incredibly approachable and always available so getting close was never a problem. However, as I have learned to my benefit over the years the longer I spend in one place the better images I produce. The number of images I took was far greater than I normally manage so going through them has become quite a time consuming affair. However, I have managed to whittle them down to a respectable number though I do seem to have quite a lot still!
The snow monkeys are probably one of the most photographed groups of animals anywhere on the planet. To produce something new and original was never going to be likely so I simply concentrated on images I liked, nothing too arty for once. The monkeys can never be described as pretty, though their fur, dense and fluffy to stand the winters cold looked very cosy. However, their faces are almost too human and full of expression. In a way this struck me most so I didn’t really try to repeat the traditional hot bath images but tried to concentrate on expressions. Photography in Japan is not a wilderness experience, you have to be able to put up with the crowds, though there is a good reason why there are crowds – it’s incredibly good. There were though occasions when I became exasperated with the chattering masses but at every location, such as the monkeys there are areas where we could away a little and which provided a different experience. The group that Mark and I accompanied to Japan was fantastic, good chat, lively debate and very supportive of each other. Our Japanese guide, Harume was out of this world, we all learned so much from her and I hope took many lessons home with us, I certainly did.
One of the major aspects of the trip that I was particularly looking forward too was photographing the eagles in Hokkaido. I had never seen a Steller’s sea eagle before and because it is one of the world largest raptors and stunningly marked I was excited about seeing one for the first time. I was also looking forward to working with them on the sea ice that flows from the Amur river around the Japanese coast and into the bays on the east of Hokkaido. Unfortunately the ice is not entirely predictable, what ever is now? So we had our fingers crossed as we drove across this mountainous and beautiful island.
Our first dawn run didn’t look too good, no sea ice so we only worked with the birds diving into the water to retrieve fish thrown out for them. However, we had booked four trips over two days and on the second our skipper said we would try for the sea ice. A fast blast across the sea towards the Russian islands and we found the wayward ice, and with it eagles. To see a Steller’s perched on a peak of ice is fantastic, but in flight it becomes awe-inspiring. Over this and the next two trips we worked with both Steller’s and white-tailed eagles on pristine sea ice as it cruised into the Japanese coast. The repeated trips allowed all of us to get the bog standard (!) images of birds in flight or perched on the ice plus chances to work that bit more creatively and to concentrate on conflict when one bird tried, often successfully to pinch a fish right out of the claws of another eagle. There was no pecking order between the eagles, in fact the smaller white-tailed were much better fliers and more nimble so didn’t have the respect that the bill and body size of the Steller’s might have created.
Japan is perhaps most famous, from a wildlife point of view anyway, because of its red-crowned cranes in Hokkaido. The cranes were thought to be extinct in Japan until a relic population was discovered in an isolated reedy swamp some years ago. Globally, the population of these stunning cranes can be split into two distinct populations. One is migratory breeding in Siberia (migrating to Korea and central China in the winter) whilst the Japanese group are sedentary, spending their whole lives in Hokkaido. The fields are great for photography but my favourite place was the bridge over the river where the cranes roost each night. If the temperature drops below – 10c, the warmer river water emits an ethereal mist that creates one of the best images in wildlife photography. Unfortunately everyone else also knows about this place so its a tadge crowded to say the least, lines of tripods are placed along the bridge hours before dawn, and once the first light breaks the horizon its a little hectic. The birds however are quite a distance so there is no disturbance and the scene is well worth the mild jostling that occurs.
Whooper swans are easily photographable in the UK so going to Japan to work with them seems extreme. In fact, I might argue it would be if that was all we wanted to photograph. However, saying this, the setting on the huge frozen lake is fabulous and offers the potential for stunning images. It would have been nice if I could have captured the steam that arises from the lake, I have seen many lovely images of this from this location. Unfortunately, a mild breeze, or possible too warm air temps meant the mist was more in my imagination than recorded in my images. Spending more than one day in one location always offers the possibility of changeable weather, often you hope for better light but here whatever the conditions, the images are always impressive. The change of light and clarity of the air that we experienced though did allow variety that we all took full advantage of. I loved the white out images in grey light yet also really liked the blue sky and mountain backdrop when the grey made way for clear skies.
I have photographed red foxes on three continents now which seems amazing somehow. I always prefer to work with my local foxes in Sheffield but the chance to photograph them in snow is low and I am less attracted to going to well established hotspots if it does. In Hokkaido I didn’t expect to have such an opportunity, we certainly looked for foxes but I never expected we would get so close and be able to produce such delightful images. In many ways the fox images were a genuine bonus.
Japan is a country full of character, and is probably one of the most different countries that a European can experience. We all loved the theatre that is an evening meal, though personally I wasn’t that keen on the style of dress I had to adopt. Bathing is a fantastic affair, hot water springs and pools inside each hotel. Everyone in our group was fantastic and fully embraced all that Japan had to offer. Banter was excellent and the blend of different photographic experiences meant that helping each other, along with the help and advice that Mark and I give during the day was fantastic. Culturally and photographically this is one of the best trips I have ever been on and I cant wait to get back.
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