Part Two – The first stop
Our first stop was at the Jigokudani Monkey Park where we spent 3 days photographing Japanese macaques. The heavy snowfall about a week before we got there meant that the surroundings were even more spectacular than expected. This allowed for snowy backgrounds as well as the traditional shots of the monkeys bathing in the hot spring. We all experimented with every angle possible as well as trying some off camera flash techniques which gave great moody results. We also had the opportunity to try and capture some of the macaques jumping over the stream that flows past and this too led to some unique poses. In the evening we were treated to two things that were to continue for the duration of the trip: the onsen and a Japanese feast for supper. The onsen is basically a hot tub and after a day out in the cold we would first go and shower then soak in the hot water for as long as we could (the warmest we had was 43 degrees C!). Some places had an outside onsen which added to the fun and it soon became something that we all looked forward to. After the onsen we would have supper and this was another highlight for me. Of the 10+ courses beautifully presented in front of you, I would typically only recognise 2 or 3.
Each had a distinctive taste and texture and I had no problem trying everything. A few in the group did struggle and if fish is not your thing then you will seriously miss out. There is very little western food on offer and an adventurous palate will be a big advantage, but I found most of the food to be delicious and would not let this put me off the trip.
After we left the macaques we travelled back to Tokyo and caught a flight to Kushiro in Hokkaido. The next few days were spent on the shores of the magnificent Lake Kussharo photographing Whooper Swans. The lake is frozen except for a thin sliver on the eastern shoreline where hot thermal water flows into the lake. The scenery is spectacular with snow covered peaks lining the lake to the west and mist rising from the hot water entering the frozen lake on the eastern shore. Added to this you have large flocks of swans coming in to feed and you suddenly find yourself in photography heaven. Once again we explored all photographic angles and tried to capture the mood as best we could. Every lens in the bag was used as well as trying some close up wide angle shots. Here we set up our cameras just above the surface of the water with the help of a skimmer plate, ballhead and remote triggers and tried to capture the swans with our widest lenses when they came in close to investigate. An added highlight in this area was finding a roosting Ural Owl which the group missed out on in 2013.
All too soon it was time to leave and we headed for the port town of Rausu situated on the Shiretoko peninsular. Our first evening would be spent trying to catch a glimpse of and/or photograph the extremely rare Blakiston’s Fish Owl. Flash photography had been banned a few years ago at this site just north of the town, so Shinji had arranged a number of strobe lights to try and improve our chances of getting decent images should the owl show up. As with the Ural owl, the 2013 group did not manage to see this bird and I knew all too well how lucky we would have to be to have a sighting of the world’s largest owl. The “usual” procedure is that the group has dinner and then the restaurant turns into a hide as the windows are removed so that we can set up our cameras inside without fear of the equipment fogging up. Then the lady who runs the restaurant goes out and places a fish in a nearby pond and everyone waits expectantly. Well, we had barely eaten a few mouthful’s of our dinner when the owner came in and excitedly told us the owl had arrived unannounced. Pandemonium ensued as everyone rushed outside to get to their equipment and attempted to take that “bucket list” image. Fortunately the owl stuck around just long enough, and paid us a second visit a few hours later, so everyone left with some images and a feeling of awe and satisfaction.
Read the rest of the article in Part three (Our final stop).