Japan Winter Wildlife Spectacular

Snow Monkeys, Cranes, Swans, Steller's Sea Eagles and Blakiston's Fish Owls

Our Japan in Winter Spectacular offers exceptional photographic opportunities with a number of wildlife spectacles including the amazing Red-crowned Cranes of Hokkaido. (Pete Morris)

Our Japan in Winter Spectacular offers exceptional photographic opportunities with a number of wildlife spectacles including the amazing Red-crowned Cranes of Hokkaido. (Pete Morris)

Monday 5th February - Friday 16th February 2018
(12 days)

Arasaki Cranes Extension from Thursday 2nd February (4 days)
Leaders: Mark Beaman and Chikara Otani
Group Size Limit: 10

Potential photographic highlights

  • The incomparable Japanese Macaques (a.k.a. Snow Monkeys) of Nagano.
  • Amazing dancing Red-crowned (or Japanese) Cranes on Hokkaido.
  • Up close and personal experiences with huge Steller's Sea-Eagles (as well as their smaller relative, the White-tailed Eagle) at the icy coastline around Rausu.
  • A wonderful chance to photograph the world's largest owl, the Blakiston's Fish Owl.
  • Whooper Swans amongst the snow and ice of a beautiful lake.
  • The incredible concentrations of White-naped and Hooded Cranes at Arasaki, some at almost touching distance! (during the optional extension)

Lying at the opposite end of the vast continent of Eurasia from the British Isles is the archipelago of islands that forms Japan. Westernized and yet profoundly Oriental, Japan remains an enigmatic land to westerners, few of whom know much about it beyond its shiny consumer exports. Stretching from the sub-tropics in the Ryukyus to the cool temperate latitudes in Hokkaido, these beautiful islands with their jagged and broken coastlines possess some of the most attractive scenery in eastern Asia. 

During the winter months that Japan really comes into its own, for then it plays host to some of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth and this tour provides the opportunity to experience the best photographic opportunities that Japan has to offer. 

A visit to upcountry Japan (the ‘real’ Japan) is an experience in itself and one that requires of the traveller a spirit of adventure and a willingness to adapt to new ways of doing things. Simple things like eating Japanese food, sleeping on futons and bathing in an ‘ofuro’ are very different from back home, but will be great fun if you are tolerant of cultural differences. The difficulty of travelling around in a country where few people speak a foreign language of any kind are the main reasons why only a few non-Japanese birdwatchers have explored the islands. A superb travel infrastructure, mostly comfortable accommodations, interesting food and friendly, helpful people make travelling through Japan a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

The extension to the southern island of Kyushu adds something extra to our tour that is absent from virtually all other wildlife photography itineraries in Japan, the chance to experience and photograph the Hooded and White-naped Cranes spectacle at Arasaki. Far less well-known and famous than the Red-crowned Cranes of Hokkaido, this is just as impressive a sight, with well over 10,000 ultra-tame and approachable wild cranes present in just one small area.


Day 1 The tour begins this morning at Haneda Airport near Tokyo. We will then transfer to central Tokyo where we will board our train to Nagano, and then drive on to our accommodation for a three nights stay.

Days 2-3 We will spend all of our time in and around the Jigokudani Yaen-Koen Wild Monkey Park. Although Jigokudani translates as Hell’s Valley, it is anything but. In this season the land is largely snow-covered, and against a dramatic back drop we will have great fun photographing the magical ‘snow monkeys’. Made famous by numerous television documentaries and magazine articles, the Japanese Macaques (commonly referred to as 'Snow Monkeys') here are both bold and entertaining! With their thick coats covered in snow and ice, they squabble and chase each other over the rocky snow-covered hillsides, perhaps pausing to climb up and play on an unattended tripod before dipping into their natural, thermally-heated ‘hot tub’ for a steamy soak! Up to a hundred or more macaques visit this incredibly scenic site and the whole experience of being in amongst these charismatic primates is quite exhilarating!

Day 4 After a last opportunity to photograph the Snow Monkeys, we will return to Tokyo and take a flight to Kushiro on the northern island of Hokkaido for a three nights stay.

Days 5-6 Our main priority will be to photograph the magnificent Red-crowned (or Japanese) Cranes which in the winter months are concentrated in the complex of damp fields and marshlands to the north of Kushiro. We shall begin our day at a river where many of the cranes roost, hoping it is cold enough to create ideal photographic conditions. As steam rises from the river, the cranes slowly wake up and begin bugling, the thick hoar frost on the riverside trees adding to the romantic scene as steam comes from their bills. Once the temperature creeps up, the cranes leave their roost and move off to feed, allowing for some flight shots.

In the morning a large flock, generally of over 100 birds (sometimes 200 or more), gathers at one of the places where they are regularly fed. At this season the Red-crowned Cranes are dancing frequently and as one pair begins its courtship dance the infection spreads through the flock like a wave until dozens of striking black and white birds are leaping into the air or throwing back their heads and bugling towards heaven. It is a thrilling spectacle, and as we photograph this wonder of nature we will truly appreciate why we have come all the way to this remote corner of Japan.

During the afternoons we will visit another feeding area which offers further fantastic opportunities and we may even see cranes fighting with the White-tailed Eagles which come down to snatch their prey!

Day 7 After another session with the Red-crowned Cranes, we will drive further north to beautiful Lake Kussharo for an overnight stay at a small and pleasant guesthouse with western-style rooms. For wildlife photographers, the prime attraction here are the many Whooper Swans that migrate to Hokkaoido, and especially Lake Kussharo, every autumn from their breeding areas in Siberia and Mongolia. Parts of the lake are kept ice-free by geothermal activity and the swans not only have only a limited expanse of open water but are also fed by visitors, something that has made them very tame and approachable.

The combination of ice and snow, and sometimes falling snow, as well as steam rising from the water in the early mnorning, makes for some wonderful photographic opportunities. The birds can be captured on the water, or o9n the ice, or while flying in to land, and the warm pink glow around sunrise and sunset adds to the many possibilities. Northern Pintails are also here in numbers, adding to the interest. We will arrive at Kussharoi in time for several hours with the birds this afternoon.

Day 8  After spending the morning at Lake Kussharo we will continue our journey through eastern Hokkaido tp the small port town of Rausu, situated at the base of the Shiretoku peninsula on the northeast (Sea of Okhotsk) coast, for a four nights stay (two at a simple minshuku or Japanewse guesthouse and two at a comfortable hotel complete with a heated outdoor ofuro or Japanese bath).

Days 9-11 During our time at Rausu we will have two main photographic objectives, namely the amazing sea-eagles and the awesome Blakiston’s Fish Owls!

Although conditions vary from year to year (and indeed from week to week!), there is usually some sea-ice close to Rausu. Weather anhd ice conditions permitting, we will take a couple of trips out to the sea-ice for what has to be one of the most amazing adventures any photographer can go on!

Setting off while it is still dark, we will soon be accompanied by hordes of gulls as we head over to the pack-ice on a boat laden with treats for our avian friends. Soon some bigger shapes appear, and as the sun rises we will be surrounded by incredible Steller’s and White-tailed Sea-Eagles! Over the next few hours we will be totally awestruck, watching dozens of these giants fighting over fish just a few metres away with towering snow-covered peaks as a backdrop. With reasonable fortune, we will get sunrise shots, action shots, flight shots and extreme close-ups! It really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience! With luck, we will also see some impressive Largha Seals hauled out on the ice and there will also be good chances to photograph Glaucous, Glaucous-winged and Slaty-backed Gulls at close quarters, and we may find some approachable ducks, including gorgeous Harlequin Ducks, in the harbour. (If there is no sea-ice in the area, the boats still go out, but then the eagles get fed on the harbour and sea walls instead.)

For two of our nights at Rausu we will stay at a small minshuku (Japanese guesthouse) adjacent to a small river where the incredible Blakiston’s Fish Owl comes to fish and where we should have opportunities to photograph this giant owl fishing at down to 12m range! The owners of the minshuku put out a few small fish for them at a floodlit pond and it usually does not take too long before this huge owl puts in an appearance, gliding down to the edge of the pond, hopping into the water and grabbing fish! A pair of owls regularly come to the pond, sometimes with their young, and the birds often make several visits during the course of the night, making for some exhilarating photographic experiences.

Note that the weather conditions on the northeast coast of Hokkaido are rather variable in winter, with snow and/or fog at times, so we have allowed sufficient time in the area to allow for some inclement weather and still have time to achieve our goals. A short visit here is decidedly risky. If participants want a third or fourth boat trip, assuming ice and weather conditions are optimum for such outings, then we can arrange this on the spot for an additional charge (the trips cost around US$100 per person, subject to change).

Day 12 After a final opportunity to admire and photograph the wonders of Hokkaido (either around Rausu or by returning to the Japanese Cranes area, as deemed necessary), we will return to Kushiro airport and catch an evening flight to Tokyo (Haneda) airport, where the tour ends.

Arasaki Cranes Extension Itinerary

Day 1 The extension begins at Tokyo (Haneda) Airport with a morning flight to Kagoshima on the southern island of Kyushu. From here we will proceed to Arasaki for a two nights stay in a minshuku at the crane reserve. We will arrive in time for some initial exploration and crane photography this afternoon.

Day 2 The fallow rice paddies around Arasaki are the site of one of the largest winter gatherings of cranes in all Asia. Depending on the winter, up to 10,000 Hooded Cranes are to be found in the area, in addition to up to 3,500 superbly elegant White-naped Cranes, making for one of the world’s greatest avian spectacles. During our stay in and around the reserve we shall enjoy some wonderful close-up views of the cranes, especially when large numbers gather directly outside the guesthouse in which we will be staying in the very heart of the reserve. Here they come to feed on the maize and fish put out for them by the owner, who is also the reserve warden. At this season there is constant activity as small groups of cranes, often still in family groups, bugle energetically or dance into the air. Others form flocks and fly off, trumpeting loudly as they circle upwards before moving away to feed in the surrounding rice fields. There are great opportunities for flight shots, including at sunrise and sunset, as well as amazing close-up opportunities and flock shots. We will be on the lookout for the odd wandering Common, Sandhill, Demoiselle or Siberian Crane amongst them, which may also be photographable, and there is also the opportunity to get great shots of Black-eared Kites and various wetland bird species.

Day 3 After spending much of the day photographing the cranes and other birds of Arasaki, we will return to Kagoshima for an overnight stay at an hotel near the airport.

Day 4 This morning, after taking a flight from Kagoshima to Tokyo (Haneda) Airport, we meet up with those arriving for the main tour. (This is Day 1 of the main tour.)

Accommodation & Road Transport: The western-style or Japanese-style hotels/guesthouses are of good standard. For two nights at Rausu, and during the extension for two nights at Arasaki, we will be staying in Japanese-style guesthouses (minshuku) to enable us to be on the spot for the photography. They will be spotlessly clean and quite comfortable, but it should be appreciated minshuku are quite simple establishments with Japanese-style futons to sleep on rather than conventional beds. Thin partitions separate the 'rooms' and there will likely be two or three people per room (minshuku don't provide single rooms). Bathroom facilities at minshuku are shared. Most visitors think staying at minshuku is an authentic Japanese experience that is well worth having while travelling in rural Japan, but in any event, if you want the best photographic opportunities, this has to be the way to go. Road transport is by minibus/passenger van and roads are good.

Walking: The walking effort is easy throughout.

Climate: Rather variable. It will be quite mild (i.e. merely cool) in Kyushu, but it will be cold in Honshu and it will be cold or very cold in Hokkaido. It may rain at times in the south, or snow in the north (where snow will be lying on the ground), but the weather is predominantly dry and sunny at this season.

These are provisional prices

Tour Price: £4390, €5180, $5750 Tokyo/Tokyo. Arasaki Cranes Extension: £1390, €1640, $1820.

Price includes all transportation (including all flights inside Japan), all accommodations, all meals, some drinks, all excursions, all entrance fees, leader services. Tipping is not customary in Japan.

Kindly note that, in order to have the internal flights included at this price level, your international flights need to be on a carrier which is a member of the same airline alliance as the Japanese airline providing the internal airpass. If you are obtaining your international flight tickets yourself you should liaise with our office to ensure that you qualify, or you may opt to pay the price difference applicable for using another international carrier.

Single Room Supplement: £360, €425, $472 (excluding two nights at Rausu). Arasaki Extension: £70, €83, $92 (Kagoshima only).

Deposit: £550, €660, $720. Extension: £150, €180, $200.

Air Travel To & From The Tour: Our in-house IATA ticket agency can arrange your air travel in connection with the tour from a departure point anywhere in the world, or you may arrange your own air travel if you prefer. We can tailor-make your itinerary to your personal requirements, so if you would like to travel in advance of the tour (and spend a night in an hotel so you will feel fresh when the tour starts), or return later than the end of the tour, or make a side trip to some other destination, or travel business class rather than economy, we will be happy to assist. Please contact us about your air travel requirements.

Steller's Sea-Eagles cuddling up at sunrise on the pack-ice at Rausu on Hokkaido. (Pete Morris)

Steller's Sea-Eagles cuddling up at sunrise on the pack-ice at Rausu on Hokkaido. (Pete Morris)

Roosting flights of Hooded Cranes often coincide with spectacular sunsets at Arasaki. (Pete Morris)

Roosting flights of Hooded Cranes often coincide with spectacular sunsets at Arasaki. (Pete Morris)


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