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Winter in Japan


We were in Japan for the first time in 2004. Although I had fond memories of it but it didn't feel like being there as we traveled in a fairly big group and in a bus. So, we didn't interact much with Japanese people during our stay there. Why Japan again? Originally, I was considering of going back to Venice, Italy for the third time in the row to take pictures during the Mask Carnival but having recovered from a major surgery, I didn't feel like doing some intensive shooting for 3 or 4 days in a row. When we visited our favorite sushi restaurant, we talked to the sushi chefs about Japan and the idea of going back to Japan came up right there. In the following days we frantically explored the internet and within 10 days, we booked the tour with a little over a week before the departure. The tour we ended up selecting offered both winter wildlife and city/cultural opportunities, much to our liking.

The trip started and ended in Tokyo. On the way in, we spent 2 nights in Asakusa, a traditional area of Tokyo and on the way out, we spent a single night in Shinjuku, the place of high rises and busy shopping area. While there we visited various spots some of which we have been to. As luck would have it, we came across a few wedding couples at a park and at a temple. We also took public transportation, we ate at regular eating establishments and we walked around quite a bit from one spot to the other.

The more exciting portion of the trip started when we arrived in Sapporo, Hokkaido, the place of the annual Snow/Ice Festival. The ice festival took place on a park strip near the TV tower. Hundreds of snow sculptures were on display, some were sponsored by other countries and/or major brands. In general, the snow sculptures are bigger than the ice carvings displayed on the median of a bustling shopping street. Mostly local stores or local brands sponsored the ice carvings, which again were generally smaller but they seemed to be more intricate, showing more details.

The winter festivities are not restricted only to Sapporo. Otaru, which is located approximately 40km from Sapporo is also known for its own festival. The snow sculptures there were made by local folks and to make them interesting, they put in candles or battery-powered lights inside the sculptures. Each section has its own maintenance team to make sure that the candles were burning; they were busy replacing or relighting candles all the time. They displayed the sculptures along a brightly lit canal and along a former railroad track.

The wildlife portion started in Tsurui, the location of the red-crowned Japanese cranes ("tancho" in Japanese). Except for the color, the cranes there look similar to sandhill cranes in California and in New Mexico. Their behavior seems to be also similar but the Japanese cranes dance more readily while their North American counterparts tend to "fight" by kicking each other in mid-air ( http://www.pbase.com/ageojo/image/133326609). I couldn't believe the number of wildlife photographers at the popular shooting locations but when I think of the conditions at Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, I couldn't help but noticing the resemblance.

Sea eagles were next on the schedule. For that we went Rausu where we boarded an ice breaker in search for drift ice used by eagles to rest and enjoy their catch. After venturing in the open sea for 45 minutes, we got close to the Russian border without encountering any significant drift ice and we turned around. Not far away from the port, there were broken pieces of drift ice and finally, we encountered tons of sea eagles! There are two species, Stellar sea eagles and white-tailed eagles.

Abashiri is a sleepy port town. It seemed that their winter festival consisted of consuming food at the major street of the town. Tons of vendors selling ready to eat meals or meat/seafood that can be grilled right there. During cold winter evenings, sitting together with friends at open fire and just socializing while barbequeing food was a lot of fun and enjoyable.

After spending a week on Hokkaido, we flew back to Honshu and arrived in Kyoto for the cultural part. The geisha district, various temples and pavilions were on the schedule to be visited. To my pleasant surprise there was plenty of wildlife along the Kamo river. Not only, herons, various ducks, mallards and cormorants, but there were also quite a bit of hawks, performing aerial acrobat right above me.

After 3 days in Kyoto, we boarded a train to go to Yudanaka, or to be exact, to Jigokudani (Hell's Valley), the location of the snow monkeys in Nagano Perfecture. At an elevation of 850 meters, the winter conditions can be harsh and typically, snow covers the ground for one-third of the year. The Japanese macaques developed thick fur to fend against cold. Their ancestors discovered hot spring pools and dipped into the warm waters of the onsen from time to time to escape the cold. So, in the winter they mostly stay nearby the hot water pool. The young monkeys looked very adorable. The face of adult monkeys is red, especially during mating season. They are not aggressive at all and they really didn't mind being photographed, even from close distance.

In general, the weather in Tokyo while we were there wasn't bad. Actually, it was pretty sunny most of the time. Temperatures went as high as 12 C during the day although it was chilly, around freezing, in the evening and morning. In Hokkaido, it was a completely different story. Northwest winds bring intense cold air streams down from Siberia. We saw the thermometer hovering between -5 and -10 C during the day and around -15 to -20 C at night or early in the morning. It was snowing when we went to the open air museum in Sapporo and when we spent the afternoon/evening in Otaru. The later represented my coldest experience of the entire trip. I wouldn't describe it as a snow blizzard but in my book, it was close. Not only the snow fall was fairly heavy but and it was very windy at the same time. Maybe it wasn't that cold but the windchill and constant snow fall made it feel very, very cold.

Photography tidbits:
I used two camera bodies on this trip, a Canon 7D crop body for fast wildlife action captures and for the extra reach plus a Canon 5D Mark II for anything else. My lens lineup consists of a 16-35mm Mark II, 24-105mm IS, 35mm f/1.4L and 70-200mm f/2.8 Mark II plus two TCs, a 1.4X and a 2X Mark III. The combination of the crop and full frame cameras made it possible to get a wide range of focal lengths. I wish I had taken a longer lens with me for the wildlife portion. A 400mm f/2.8 Mark II or a 500mm f/4.0 IS would have been great for the cranes but either one was simply too much for me to take on this trip that included other aspects of photography and not just wildlife. So, I had to make it work with the lowly reach of the 70-200mm zoom lens in combination of either the 1.4X or 2X TC on the 7D. For the eagles and snow monkeys portion, my camera gear was sufficient as they were fairly close to my position.

A travel size tripod proved to be extremely helpful for the shots in Otaru when the exposures went to several seconds. It was the only occasion where I actually used the tripod and it was worth bringing just for that.


Please feel free to post your feedback, comments on the images or on the gallery as you see fit. Thank you for visiting and enjoy the images!


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Pagoda at Sensouji Temple
Pagoda at Sensouji Temple
At a Cookie Stand Near Sensouji Temple
At a Cookie Stand Near Sensouji Temple
Bride at Hama-rikyu Garden
Bride at Hama-rikyu Garden
The Happy Couple
The Happy Couple
An Interesting High Rise in Tokyo
An Interesting High Rise in Tokyo
A Shinto Traditional Wedding Procession at Meiji Shrine/Temple
A Shinto Traditional Wedding Procession at Meiji Shrine/Temple
The Wedding Couple and Their Entourage
The Wedding Couple and Their Entourage
Captured During the Formal Photo Session
Captured During the "Formal" Photo Session
Far Away From Being Traditional
Far Away From Being Traditional
A Very Busy Takeshita Street
A Very Busy Takeshita Street
A Bare Tree
A Bare Tree
Bridge Near Imperial Palace
Bridge Near Imperial Palace
Sensouji Temple at Dusk
Sensouji Temple at Dusk
Daughter and Mother
Daughter and Mother
Gate at Sensouji Temple
Gate at Sensouji Temple
A Vendor Stand Near Sensouji Temple
A Vendor Stand Near Sensouji Temple
A Big Paper Lantern at the Gate
A Big Paper Lantern at the Gate
Brightly Lit Pagoda Viewed Through The Second Heavenly Gate
Brightly Lit Pagoda Viewed Through The Second Heavenly Gate
Posing for the Camera!
Posing for the Camera!
Fugu or Blow Fish Sashimi
Fugu or Blow Fish Sashimi
Ice Sculpture Depicting Sea Creatures
Ice Sculpture Depicting Sea Creatures
Walruss Snow Carving
Walruss Snow Carving
Mickey In Fantasia
Mickey In Fantasia
A Scupture of Taj Mahal
A Scupture of Taj Mahal
Dragon Craddling Soba
Dragon Craddling Soba
Dragon Ice Carving
Dragon Ice Carving
Detail of the Dragon Ice Carving
Detail of the Dragon Ice Carving
Double Phoenix
Double Phoenix
The Catch of a Life Time
The Catch of a Life Time
Once Lived Specimens
Once Lived Specimens
Swimming Formation
Swimming Formation
TV Tower in Sapporo
TV Tower in Sapporo
Colorful Ice Carving
Colorful Ice Carving
Colorfully Lit Ice Carving
Colorfully Lit Ice Carving
Festive Downtown Sapporo
Festive Downtown Sapporo
View from TV Tower
View from TV Tower
Snow Sliding Fun
Snow Sliding Fun
Cute Girl
Cute Girl
A Girl and Her Little Brother Looking At a Store Display
A Girl and Her Little Brother Looking At a Store Display
Fish Market
Fish Market
No Title Neccesary For The Location
No Title Neccesary For The Location
Sapporo Beer Mascot
Sapporo Beer Mascot
The Outside of Sapporo Bier Garten
The Outside of Sapporo Bier Garten
House of Ainu People
House of Ainu People
Toyota of Yesteryear
Toyota of Yesteryear
Caught in Snow Storm
Caught in Snow Storm
In a One-Horse Open Sleigh
In a One-Horse Open Sleigh
Snowed-In Bell House
Snowed-In Bell House
Snow, Snow and More Snow
Snow, Snow and More Snow
Gate to A Shrine
Gate to A Shrine
Sleigh Work Shop
Sleigh Work Shop
Freshly Made Ramen
Freshly Made Ramen
Aaah, a Nice and Hot Bowl of Ramen Noodle Soup
Aaah, a Nice and Hot Bowl of Ramen Noodle Soup
Riksha Driver in A Snow Storm
Riksha Driver in A Snow Storm
Snow Display Along the Canal
Snow Display Along the Canal
Along the Canal in Otaru
Along the Canal in Otaru
Parked Riksha
Parked Riksha
Another Shot of the Canal
Another Shot of the Canal
Snow Display at the Former Rail Road
Snow Display at the Former Rail Road
Snow Display Along the Former Rail Road Track
Snow Display Along the Former Rail Road Track
Love Bench
"Love" Bench
Snow Display
Snow Display
A Place to Warm Up
A Place to Warm Up
Brightly Lit Tunnel
Brightly Lit Tunnel
An Owl Forest
An Owl "Forest"
Row of Candles
Row of Candles
The Other Side of the Tunnel
The Other Side of the Tunnel
Our Hotel in Tsurui
Our Hotel in Tsurui
Sunset Through the Forest
Sunset Through the Forest
Raw Shrimp Salad
Raw Shrimp Salad
Can I Have This Dance, Please?
Can I Have This Dance, Please?
Display of Affection
Display of Affection
More Display of Affection
More Display of Affection
Avian Ballet, Anyone?
Avian Ballet, Anyone?
Look, How High I Can Jump!
Look, How High I Can Jump!
Dancing in Tandem
Dancing in Tandem
What a Ballet Performance!
What a Ballet Performance!
Taking Off Together
Taking Off Together
Airborne
Airborne
Incoming!
Incoming!
Landing Gear Out
Landing Gear Out
Touch Down!
Touch Down!
View of the Crane Sanctuary in Tsurui
View of the Crane Sanctuary in Tsurui
Sunrise Through the Forest Next to Setsuri River
Sunrise Through the Forest Next to Setsuri River
Roosting Cranes in the Water of Setsuri River
Roosting Cranes in the Water of Setsuri River
Setsuri River From a Higher Point of View
Setsuri River From a Higher Point of View
A Pair of Cranes
A Pair of Cranes
Whooper Swans
Whooper Swans
Red Fox
Red Fox
Is The Fox Really That Bored?
Is The Fox Really That Bored?
Typical Foxy Fox Face :)
Typical Foxy Fox Face :)
Room of Ryokan in Rausu
Room of Ryokan in Rausu
Traditional Japanese Dinner
Traditional Japanese Dinner
A Small River in Rausu
A Small River in Rausu
Detailed Ice Growth on Rocks
Detailed Ice Growth on Rocks
More Ice Growth
More Ice Growth
Holy Smoke! No Wrong, Holy Icicles'!
Holy Smoke! No Wrong, Holy Icicles'!
Enjoying the Fish
Enjoying the Fish
Stellar Sea Eagle in Flight
Stellar Sea Eagle in Flight
Stellar Sea Eagle in Flight
Stellar Sea Eagle in Flight
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