I boarded the Cathay Pacific flight from Sri Lanka on 11th February 2015 and arrived in Narita, Japan via Hong Kong on the same evening. I was reminded of my travels to Japan three decades back in the late seventies and eighties when all my visits were on business. My trip on this occasion was solely on leisure with a special touch on wildlife. I joined a photographic tour group of eleven from North America headed by John Shaw, a professional photographer from USA.
A thought I based my life on is “one shouldn’t be too greedy”. Hence, I am almost retired from my business that I started in the late seventies and spend my time pursuing my passion. Before my departure many posed the question “what wildlife in Japan”? As a wildlife photographer I was able to respond with excitement about the migratory birds such as Red-crowned Cranes, White-tailed Eagles and Stellar’s Sea Eagles, that spend the winter months in Japan and it is the best time to experience and enjoy them in the Hokkaido islands, while the Snow monkeys are active in Nagano Prefecture on the mainland.
On the 14th morning the group boarded a flight from Haneda Airport in Tokyo to Kushiro Airport in Hokkaido Islands and arrived the same afternoon. We were well prepared for the falling snow and the below zero temperature. Our stay of eight nights was made even more memorable with the facilities of a luxury bus. Our first stop was at the Akan International Crane Centre which is visited by the Red-Crowned Cranes, one of the rare species found in East Hokkaido. The large flock flies on a daily basis to the open ice fields at the Centre during the winter months to enjoy the banquet offered to them.
A fenced area had been demarcated for visitors to witness and enjoy a most breath taking incident which was captured by over fifty professional photographers from across the globe.
I enjoyed the most intricate and beautiful courtship dance of the animal planet for almost two hours. It was informed that the cranes continue their relationship through a lifespan of sixty years. A bonus was the sighting of a Red Fox and a few Sika Deer that came from the woods behind the open field.
The first two nights in Hokkaido was at a lodge close to the Crane Centre. We continued to visit the Centre to witness the feeding time and the drama that unfolds on a daily basis. Small river fish are collected and thrown into the open field for the Crane to feed on and instantly from above dives in the White tailed eagles and the Stellar’s Sea Eagles (bird predators) onto the field and fly’s away with the fish, leaving the helpless Cranes scattering hither thither. Capturing the rare sight on camera was a task but the opportunity to view the enfolding events of the wild was a feast indeed.
The following three nights were at a private lodge close to Lake Kussharo (the largest caldera lake in Japan in terms of surface area -79.3 km2) located half way from Kushiro to the fishing harbor of Rausu. The main attraction at Lake Kussharo during the winter season was the Whooper Swans. It was a photographer’s paradise, capturing the Swans on a frozen water bed with the surrounding mountains as a backdrop. The photographers were treated with sightings of Great Spotted & Grey Headed Woodpeckers and the Eurasian Jay in the vicinity of the lodge. Ezo Squirrels were also in plenty.
The next stop was Rausu a fishing village located in the east end of Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Peninsula which is close to the eastern Russian border. The main attraction was to photograph the Stellar’s Sea Eagles ( “Owashi” in Japanese) and the White-tailed Eagles on ice, especially when fish were thrown from boats to feed them. We stayed two nights at a Log Cabin type lodge, close to the city.
On the 20th morning we boarded a boat from the fishing harbor which took us to the frozen sea of the Rausu. The temperature was below zero, snow was falling as we reached the frozen sea. A few small river fish were thrown across the frozen sheet to attract the bird predators and within minutes Stellar’s and White-tailed Eagles were darting and swirling, sometimes grabbing the prey from the others. On average, the Stellar’s are the heaviest Eagles in the world weighing up to 9kgs, the wingspan of an adult more than two meters. They breed in Eastern Russia. We spent almost three hours on the boat and I would have taken over 2000 images during the battle between the Stellar’s and the White- tailed Eagles on ice. We repeated the same tour the following day and where fortunate to have a sunny day. The photographs taken were brighter than on the previous day.
After a very successful photographic tour in the Hokkaido Islands, on the 22nd, we boarded a flight from Kushiro to Haneda Airport in Tokyo. Our next destination was Nagano in the Nagano Prefecture to see the Snow Monkeys. After spending a night at a lodge in Nagano on the 23rd morning we walked on ice for 1.6 km to reach the foot of the Jigokudani Monkey Park. I spent two nights at the only guest house located bordering the park while the rest stayed on for three nights. The Snow Monkeys spent most of their time near the hot springs of the Park, possibly to keep warm due to the continuous snowing. Although I captured many pictures of the monkeys, the continuous snowing during the two days had disappointing results. It’s heartrending to note that the population of the Snow Monkeys in the Park is less than 200.
I returned to Colombo on the 27th of February after my first wildlife tour of the far east of our Planet Earth very contented and I recommend to any wildlife photo enthusiast to travel to Japan in February.