Winter in the land of the rising sun (Part 1)

I’m a little embarrassed as to how long it’s been since I added any content to my blog.  I have however been away a lot and spent most of last month enjoying my first ever trip to Japan – somewhere I had long been intrigued with from a cultural perspective and at the same time looked excitedly at wildlife images from, in particular during the winter months.

The country and photographic opportunities didn’t disappoint – if anything they over delivered, and as a result I am going to have to split my experiences into two such is the quantity of material generated – that and my increasingly weak editing skills!

The bread in the sandwich of my trip was time spent at it’s start and end on the main island of Honshu, where the bulk of the population and the major cities are based.  North of the iconic Mount Fuji the Japanese Alps near the city of Nagano are among the most wintery of settings at this time of year (the winter Olympics were held there not that long ago after all) and it is in this region that one of the most iconic of the countries animals is to be found at its most accessible – the Japanese Macaque or more commonly dubbed Snow Monkey.

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This is a species that is native to Japan, and as you can see it’s alternative name is most apt: in fact it is the most northerly living of all primates (excluding humans that is) and with none living in a colder climate.

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In the early 1960’s the Jigokudani Monkey Park was opened in the hills above the small spa settlement of Yudanaka.  Originally it was for scientific study purposes of the monkeys behaviour during which they were observed climbing into some of the hot baths (or onsens as they are called locally) to collect some soya beans placed there by the scientists.  The monkeys soon discovered the benefits of enjoying a warm bath during the winter months it seems and now they are regularly to be found taking the waters, and have become a significant visitor attraction as a consequence.

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Each spa session was different for them and because there is still food distributed around the area to encourage them to visit (they are wild monkeys however habituated they have become and would head off to the surrounding forests every night and return in dribs and drabs in the morning) they weren’t exclusively spending time sat in the waters; it certainly seemed to me that they were genuinely getting some real benefit from the warmth of the water and all the steam it generated.  It was also a good place for them to undertake both personal and communal grooming.

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On leaving the pool they took on a very different appearance but their metabolism (they don’t sweat for instance) means that what would concern us in terms of catching a chill on leaving the hot waters simply doesn’t apply to them.

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During the 5 days I spent here over the two visits there couldn’t have been greater contrast in terms of the weather conditions to work with these highly photogenic subjects: initially it felt like Spring was coming as all the snow on the surrounding hills started to melt, and then it was heavy blizzards through to being over 3 foot deep on the long approach paths through the forests and hills to reach them.  Falling snow certainly added a very welcome addition to the bathing images mind!

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With the arrival of the snow also came the chance to move away from the iconic (and therefore very popular with other visitors) area of the spring itself and concentrate on working in a more natural habitat of the snowfields and surrounding trees and I found these settings actually the most absorbing of all, and the chance to really appreciate just how tough it is for them: this monkey (like many others) was literally shivering while he sat trying to conserve energy in the worsening weather.

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When not just sitting it out like this it was a question of foraging for either the meagre enticements the park staff put out twice a day or taking advantage of the natural food on offer around too.

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Although there was also time for play for some of the younger members of the troop.

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These conditions combined with highly photogenic subjects and a simplicity of setting and context in which to work, offered a great chance to really work on the building blocks  of composition and image construction.  Japanese art is all about simplicity and seeing these subjects here, and those I’ll cover in part two, I can fully understand why. This trip was a great reminder of not over-complicating the content of an image.

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Aside from the photographic lessons though, my abiding memory of these hardy animals will be there ability to be both individuals as well as part of a community – never too proud to share or extract a few degrees of warmth from each other.

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When they sleep like that you can see where they got their wise reputation as a group of 3 from!

Between visits here I headed north to the island of Hokkaido for some real winter and some avian delights which I’ll add as a second blog as soon as I can.

2 thoughts on “Winter in the land of the rising sun (Part 1)

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