Winter in the land of the rising sun (part 2)

It might seem odd posting another winter focussed blog as summer only just seems to be giving way to autumn here, but it’s a reflection of just how far behind I remain processing wise!

My trip to Japan earlier this year though was one of many highlights so far so I am keen to do it justice in terms of coverage here: it proved to be so much more than just a photographic trip, more a cultural immersion and with it some real reminders as to just how keeping things simple and calm can really pay off photographically.

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Cranes have long been among my favourite families of birds having enjoyed many days listening to their almost incessant calling and marvelled at their behaviours in both Europe and North America, so the chance to spend time with the Red-Crowned Crane (not unique to Japan but very much an icon of the country depicted as it is on their national airline logo for starters) was something I was very much looking forward to, and it didn’t disappoint.

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This is a bird that is a well-established symbol of long life and prosperity here and up until the 18th century when the feudal system was actually wiped out across the country, it was common practice for peasants to place gifts of food (generally fish) in fields where the birds would gather: the birds were a protected species as well.

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With the societal change came changes in agriculture and land use too, which placed habitat pressure on them as well as a removal of protection and they became an easy target in response to demand for their plumage; by the beginning of the 20th century they were almost extinct. Much conservation effort followed once it became clear how threatened they were and from a low of around 60 birds a small but stable population of around 1000 birds has been re-established on the northern island of Hokkaido, and that traditional practice of feeding is very much in evidence at a number of sites including the Akan Crane Centre.

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These days it is more a question of corn in the morning but there remains an almost ceremonial placing of a small number of fish on the snow every afternoon as well, although this tends to act as the time for Eagles and Kites to drop in rather than being of much benefit to the Cranes themselves!

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It’s a popular place for people to visit so the areas overlooking the fields are busy with general tourists as well as photographers, and it’s always great to see so many people drawn to watch even just one tiny part of nature here – it certainly means that the chances of these magnificent birds continuing to remain here have to be high.

And magnificent doesn’t do them justice really as, like Cranes the world over, they will always put on their own kind of show.  Whether it be their awkward looking landing techniques, their extreme sense of excitement at meeting up with friends and family, their sheer elegance or their overtly apparent shows of bonding and commitment, there is much to be gleaned from several hours watching them interact.

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Throw in varying weather conditions (from sunshine through early morning mists, several degrees below freezing and then falling snow) over the course of several days and as always the semblance of a portfolio can be built too.

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These are birds that have been depicted in all forms of Japanese art since the 5th century and a combination of their grace, the incredible cleanliness of a winter setting and quite possibly an increasing amount of time becoming absorbed personally into the respectful and tranquil aspects of Japanese culture drew me towards really simple compositions as well as the occasional experimentation with monochrome which I am increasingly enjoying these days too.

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A stunning bird, beautiful conditions and a real lesson in the benefits of a more measured and simplistic outlook photographically: it’s been a real treat to relive it again with this recent processing too!

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