Tag Archives: Japan

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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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.