I remember seeing the first images of Japan in winter around 10 years ago, but I had no knowledge of the country and very little idea about the wildlife. However, at the start of 2019 I was asked whether I would like to lead Wildlife
Worldwide’s inaugural photography tour to the country, during the snowy winter months, focusing on red-crowned cranes, Steller’s sea eagles and of course the much-loved Japanese macaques (or snow monkeys).
Firstly, if you decide to visit Japan, I can’t recommend Japan Airlines enough - they were truly exceptional. The majority of Japan’s wildlife is concentrated along the main island’s central spine or on some of the smaller, wilder islands such as Hokkaido. This is where my group spent the majority of their time, on the beautiful snowy island of Hokkaido.
We had wonderful sightings of whooper swan and red-crowned cranes during the first couple of days on the island. We had the chance to see a pair of Ural owls in the nearby forests and numerous woodland birds (many of which are recognisable to those from Europe). For me though, the species I was most looking forwards to seeing was the impressive Steller’s sea eagle. Let’s just say I wasn’t going to be disappointed …
We didn't have the best light for our time in Japan, particularly with the cranes - it was either too gloomy or too bright. Fussy photographers are a pain, but it does make such a big difference. It was really gloomy for my time with the swans, so I didn't really get anything worthwhile, but it was lovely just to watch them.
After our time in the island's volcanic interior, it was time to head to the coast in search of Steller's and white-tailed eagle.
After heading out in to the see ice to photograph the eagles, we headed south towards a frozen lake for more eagle photography. There was also an opportunity to enjoy the glorious birdlife around a traditional onsen. The highlights here were the Japanese pygmy woodpecker, the Japanese sable (a member of the marten family) and the Blakiston's fish owl (the largest owl in the world).
After an amazing week on the island of Hokkaido, enjoying the snowy conditions and stunning wildlife, it was time to head back to Tokyo. We spent a night in Tokyo before heading into the main island's centre to the city of Nagano. To be more precise we headed to the town of Yamanouchi, the perfect place to base ourselves for photographing the famed 'snow monkeys' or as they should be known, Japanese macaques. Sadly, there was a bit of a heat wave in the mountains and snow was rather lacking for the most part.
So what can I say about Japan. Well, quite simply, it is fantastic. Don't expect to be on your own, there will nearly always be other people about, but it is still somewhere I recommend highly. For the opportunities to see Steller's sea eagles alone it is worth it. Be sure to join on Wildlife Worldwide's Japan's Winter Wildlife photography tour.