I’ve recently returned from Hokkaido, Japan, where I spent a week doing research for my 2019 photo tour. The exploration took me to Biei for snowscapes and Tsurui-mura for wildlife. Flying into Asahikawa from Haneda (Tokyo), it was easy to get to Biei and settle for the next 3 nights.
Biei is a town located in Kamikawa Subprefecture, in the centre of Hokkaido. In winter it is known for its minimalist snowscapes, however most of these are on farms and most farms are private, making them difficult to access. I found my 100-400mm lens was perfect for shooting over fences and into the fields, and this worked perfectly to get most of the shots I needed. In fact almost all my snowscapes and wildlife shots were done with this lens.
The winter light can be soft and luminous on the best of days, but be patient when it’s looking flat and dark. The light and dark tones that reveal folds in the snowscapes are key to a successful image. When shooting subjects like this, the challenge is to find at least three points or areas on the landscape, then use them to create a harmonious balance in your frame. Try a great leading line and a dominant focal point to rest your eyes for detail and interest.
The subtle red fox tracks were a small detail in some shots that really added to the ambience. Atmosphere was also brought about more easily with a little wind to kick up the powder snow. Diamond dust with the morning light was a very special capture if the conditions were perfect.
The white silence and purity of a clean landscape converts very nicely into black and white.
Tsurui-mura, Lake Kusharo and Rausu
For the second half of the trip I ventured to the South and North east parts of Hokkaido to visit three key areas: Tsurui-mura, Lake Kusharo and Rausu.
Tsurui-mura was my base for photographing red crowned Cranes and Ural Owls. The crane sanctuary is a great spot to be at 9am and 2pm daily when they feed the birds, and every morning after sunrise they also gather on a river nearby. Be prepared for hundreds of keen photographers to be shoulder to shoulder with you and their tripods. Most will be set with an 800mm lens going trigger happy at 10 frames a second.
The cranes are in Tsurui-mura all year but most shooters love to combine the birds dancing in the snow during February. Over the next two years however, feeding from the sanctuary will slow down to encourage the birds to be more self sufficient.
At Kusharo Lake we focused on Whooper Swans and Marsh Teet birds. A wide angle was used for most of the very friendly swans. For the little birds a 400mm lens and a fast tracking focus mode worked wonders. Once again we were very lucky with the weather conditions, and the morning mist and fog created a dreamy atmosphere. The iced lake and snow capped mountains were an added bonus.
For our last stop we ventured by car two hours north east to the coastal port of Rausu. Here we boarded a small cruise boat to search for sea Eagles to feed on the ice. The Shiretoko Peninsula as seen on the long panorama shot below was stitched from 8 hand-held images.
For this trip I carried a minimalist kit – a Canon 5D Mark III, 100-400mm f4-f/5.6, and a Carl Zeiss 18mm Distagon lens. If you decide to travel at this time of year, be aware that extremely cold weather can affect your gear and you, and your feet and hands are the most important parts to protect to avoid frostbite. For my clothing I had 3 layers for every part of my body. I bought rubber high boots with good grippy soles to avoid slipping on icy surfaces. You can also attach spikes to your boots if needed. Heat packs that last 24 hours can be purchased from most convenient stores. They are called Hokkairo not Hokkaido. These are handy to keep your batteries warm if extremely cold. Keep your camera in your bag to keep it warm when you’re not shooting.