Winter Wonderland in Japan

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I am a firm believer in the power of sharing knowledge and as a result I subscribe to a number of photographers’ podcasts so that I can gain knowledge from them and as a result continually enhance my workshops and pass these skills and techniques on. One of the podcasts I really enjoy is by Martin Bailey, originally born in the UK, but who is now living in Japan. Every year Martin runs a series of workshops badged as his Winter Wonderland Tour that covers two prefectures of this wonderful country; Nagano and Hokkaido; and I spent two weeks at the end of February travelling with Martin and a group of fellow photographers.

I have attended a number of photography workshops around the world and it is fair to say that this one is the best organised and provides the greatest opportunity for both shooting and personal development. Probably the main reason for this is the decision Martin took a number of years ago to have a Tour Conductor who manages the logistics of getting around the country, checking into hotels, and, as we were to later discover, changing flights. This frees Martin up to devote all his time to educating and developing the group.

The tour starts with a coach journey from Tokyo to Nagano for three days of photographing the, now world famous, ‘Snow Monkeys’ at the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. The park is a home to around 160 Macaques and uses the natural resources of the hot springs of the Yokoyu River to heat a large pool where they bathe throughout the day before heading to the mountain slopes during the evening.

I’ve selected four images from this section of the tour to demonstrate the variety of emotions that these little creatures display. This first image is showing the humanity that is visible as you look into the eyes of the monkeys – something you can only really do through the lens of a camera, as direct stares in the animal kingdom are seen as an aggressive act so the barrier of the Canon 5D MkIII gives us a much safer view.

Into the eyes

Into the Eyes

 

The next image was a test of nerves for me to capture. I was sat by the heated pool when two of the monkeys behind me got into a spat; a quite normal sight in the park. However, their fight led to them standing facing each other, one on either side of me. I had two options; either get the hell out of there or put my camera up to my face and snap – I think this image tells you which one I went with as he snarls and shouts inches away from me!

Screaming Banshee

Screaming Banshee

 

The next image is the antithesis of the last one and captures a mother and baby having a tender moment as she protects her young one from the biting wind and snow that had started to fall. It was made even better when the little one briefly opened its eyes and stared straight at me. One thing to say about the park is that it is really busy so patience needs to be a virtue if you want to get an intimate shot like this; either that or some very selective framing – this was taken with a large group of tourists around these two monkeys all trying to get a ‘selfie’ whilst this affectionate scene took place.

Tender Moment

Tender Moment

My final image of the Macaques still makes me laugh. The little baby monkey here seems to be the spoilt one of the group. Every time he gets into the heated pool he swims around with his arms in the air as if his little hands get too hot and the rest of the older monkeys seem to take him under their wing and look after him. I can just imagine him saying in monkey language “Why is nobody listening to me?”

Why is nobody listening?

Why is nobody listening?

After three great days in Nagano we headed back to Tokyo ready for an early morning flight to the north island of Japan, Hokkaido, where our tour would continue. Without unpacking we headed straight to the Akan International Crane Centre; essentially a large field where Red Crowned Cranes and Whooper Swans come to rest throughout the day so they can benefit from the feeding session that takes place at 2pm during the winter months.

I recall another photographer stating that when you go to a location you should have an idea of an image that you would like to capture and then forget everything once you get there so you can react to things as they happen. One of the images I wanted to try and get was this shot of two cranes making their mating call and their heads crossing so it looks like they are intertwined around each other. There are so many cranes in the field that trying to isolate two together is a task in itself and to then also capture them in the position I wanted was like a lottery win!

Singing Cranes

Singing Cranes

Martin, like me, is an advocate of shooting in manual and exposing so that the histogram just touches the right so that it produces bright, well-exposed images without any blown out highlights. This technique served me well as these swans flew over us and I really like the minimalist feel that you get from the colour elements of the beak and feet standing out against the grey/blue sky.

Swans in Flight

Swans in Flight

At the end of the first day in Hokkaido we headed to a smaller field where the Red Crowned Cranes fly out from and were able to take some slower shutter speed images and panning as they flew into the darkening sky. This shot was taken at 1/25th of a second and I really like the artistic feel that you get through the blurring movement of the head and wings.

Evening Cranes

Evening Cranes

My final image from this section returns to the Whooper Swans at the Akan Crane Centre. We were blessed throughout the trip by intermittent snow showers falling between the cold winter sunshine. The trees at the back of the park really help the swans leap out of the scene and the falling snow again adds a painterly feel to the shot.

Swans in the snow

Swans in the snow

Our next location was the scenic Lake Kussharo; home to more Whooper Swans. The nearby supermarket has a popcorn machine and sells bags to the tourists so they can feed the swans as they nestle in the water warmed by a hot spring that melts a small hole in the ice. I’d never describe myself as a nature photographer and my natural leaning to landscape started to kick in at this location – it’s when you are in places like this that you can identify where the Japanese art culture gains its inspiration from – this could almost be a charcoal pencil drawing than a photograph of the surrounding mountains.

Kussharo Landscape

Kussharo Landscape

I also used the mountain landscape in the next image which required me to get down and dirty to get this interesting angle of these three swans gracefully swimming along the lake and an almost perfect reflection in blue water. I always like to impress upon attendees at my workshops to try and find different angles that help their images to stand out and sometimes that means a little personal hardship – definitely worth it though I think.

Swan Lake

Swan Lake

In the same vein of unusual views, I took a stroll along the edge of the lake and spotted this still life image that really appealed to me. The lake was frozen at the top of the scene and the hot spring water in the bottom of the image heated the small stones. The couple of swan feathers add that little bit of interest and put it in the context of the lake. Don’t forget to look around at interesting little details; they can help to tell the story of your day.

Frozen in time

Frozen in time

The last of the Kussahro Lake images is another slow exposure shot; similar to the crane shot earlier. However, this time I took the shutter speed up to 1/50th of a second and you can see a lot more sharpness in the head of the leading swan yet still capturing the movement of the wings as they fly out of the lake.

Swans Depart

Swans Depart

On the way to our final location of the tour we took a trip along the shrimp-shaped Notsuke Peninsula, which has a large population of Ezo Deer. On the day that we visited they weren’t particularly active and the lack of deep snow meant the majority were hidden in brush; however, I do like this shot of a family group heading across the frozen inland sea.

Ezo Deer

Ezo Deer

Whilst on the peninsula we came across this little Japanese Red Fox who was nestled amongst the fishing nets and almost seemed to be laughing at us for taking photographs of him.

Laughing Fox

Laughing Fox

At the end of the road along the peninsula there is a small nature reserve. The sea-wall protections across the road from it make a really nice abstract image to view before we headed north to the seaport of Rasu.

Hokkaido Sea Defences

Hokkaido Sea Defences

The next three mornings required us to be up well before dawn to get on a boat and head out to the sea-ice that lies just off the coast of Hokkaido. The captain of the boat had a challenging job trying to get us into parts of the ice that gave us the best view of the eagles that was also pleasing from a photographic perspective. The last morning blessed us with a fabulous sunrise and these two Stellar Sea Eagles positioned themselves perfectly on a large chunk of ice so they were silhouetted. Japan really lived up to its ‘land of the rising sun’ moniker in this shot!

Land of the Rising Sun

Land of the Rising Sun

As the sun warmed up a little I was able to get this close up shot of a juvenile White Tailed Sea Eagle who had just landed on the sea-ice and it is quite obvious from the steam coming off him that it was quite an exertion getting out to the feeding frenzy that would happen in the next few hours.

Morning Exercise

Morning Exercise

The trip out to the sea-eagles is reminiscent of a Le Mans start as around five or six boats, laden with photographers, head out to the sea ice. The crew of the boats have two jobs; firstly to navigate safely through the ice and secondly to attract the eagles to the boat by throwing out frozen fish on to the ice, or if we are really lucky, into the sea, so we get to see the spectacle of an eagle rising from the water with its rather easy-to-catch prey. I have to admit this was a really challenging couple of days retaining focus as the eagles swept in but I was quite happy with this shot of a Stellar Sea Eagle just before impact.

In for the kill

In for the kill

During the days we had the benefit of some classroom sessions with Martin and it was particularly interesting to discuss his workflow for managing images whilst on the road and merging these with his vast collection of images back in the office. It wasn’t all desk-based though and on one of the drives out we came across this Hokkaido Fox – it looks like this image required hours of tracking to make him feel comfortable around us but in reality he was a little poser who ensured that every photographer got his shot from the comfort of the bus!

Hokkaido Fox

Hokkaido Fox

My final image from this set is one that I am really proud of; another shot of a White Tailed Eagle coming in with its claws at the ready to grab one of the fish. It’s really worth viewing all the images as large as you can but particularly this one to see the detail in the feathers and even a nice catch-light in the eye.

Final Approach

Final Approach

I mentioned at the start of the post, what an excellent addition to the trip our tour operator, Yukiko, was and our final day proved to us how invaluable she was. Weather reports were predicting a huge snow-storm that was going to hit the island and we awoke to the news that our flights back to Tokyo had been cancelled due to the huge dump of snow that resulted. Several of us had connecting flights to catch in Tokyo and it looked like we were going to face some pretty hefty bills in changing flights. Unbelievably though, Yukiko managed to find an airport that was still open and flying back to Tokyo and had room for the entire group to get on! It meant a three-hour coach trip in quite terrible conditions but it was still an opportunity for some beautiful, typically Japanese, landscape images from the bus window like this one.

Hokkaido Landscape

Hokkaido Landscape

So, two quite simply amazing weeks of photography summarised in 21 images but I left with many more gorgeous shots and hundreds of beautiful memories. If you enjoy any of these images they are available to purchase through Fine Art America in a number of formats. You can also find more details of Martin Bailey Workshops including bookings for the 2016 Winter Wonderland Tours by clicking on the link.

Thanks, Martin, for some great opportunities and for some really great discussions about photography.


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  1. […] photographer based in Edinburgh, Scotland, has posted a detailed recount of our tour on his blog here, if you’d like to see the tour from a participants perspective. I am also going to be […]