Winter in Hokkaido, 2019

A red-crowned crane lands with flair in a snowy field.

Just the pictures: Hokkaido in Winter Gallery

It’s hard to imagine how a fancy network protocol for internet traffic leads one to a windswept shore, photographing eagles on the sea ice with frostbitten fingers. Generally speaking, actually, it doesn’t, unless you’re a human parasite who leeches off every opportunity to go somewhere really cold and look at wildlife. In February 2019, Matt had a conference to attend in Tokyo on the above thrilling topic (not eagles, though carrier pigeons are a more distinct possibility). I tagged along, in part to eat my weight in ramen, more because as soon as the location and date were announced, my brain jumped on a plane to Hokkaido and could not be removed.

A Steller’s sea eagle banks in a near-whiteout; the morning sun barely breaks through the fog.

Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost prefecture, and second largest island. Its climate is hemiboreal, which essentially means: pretty cold in February. It provides habitat to a number of interesting species, often distinct from those on the more southerly islands. The Blakiston Line, drawn between Hokkaido to the north and Honshu to the south, is the name given to this faunal boundary. Species from below the line tend to be more closely related to southern continental Asian species, species from above the line tend to be more closely related to northern continental Asian species. Note, for example, that there are no monkey species found on Hokkaido—the northernmost monkeys in the world are the snow monkeys of Honshu.

An Ezo red fox on the bay ice braces itself against the frigid coastal wind.

My interest in Hokkaido was largely inspired by two things. First, the BBC natural history documentary Japan: Earth’s Enchanted Islands, which showed beautiful footage of resident red-crowned cranes dancing in the snow. Second, rumors of the legendary confection, Hokkaido milk ice cream (which you can admittedly get many places in Japan (and now even in Seattle)). There is much more than that to love about frigid Hokkaido in winter, but I digress.

White wagtails were a common sight on the streets of Tokyo, where they’ve adapted to hunt for their insect prey in urban settings.

Tokyo is a city of mind-boggling proportions; there is no chance I can do it justice. While Matt was in conference rooms, I bought countless onigiri from 7/11, made extensive use of the excellent train system, hiked a few small mountains, got myself sick with a cold, and (as predicted) ate my weight in ramen.

By night, we visited certain tourist attractions, including the Tokyo Skytree (Tōkyō Sukaitsurī), the current tallest tower in the world (the Burj Khalifa does not count, Matt). The Skytree is reminiscent of our own beloved pointless skyline aberration (Seattle’s Space Needle), but it serves an actual purpose beyond getting tourists lost: as the city of Tokyo rose in stature, the former broadcast tower Tokyo Tower became dwarfed by its neighbors. The Skytree towers above the skyline, giving it complete broadcast coverage for the Kanto region. One of the floors accessible to tourists has a section of glass floor that gives one an unimpeded view directly down about 2000 ft to the pavement below. Matt refused to stand on it.

Mount Fuji over icy Lake Shōji (Shōji-ko) in southern Yamanushi Prefecture.

When the conference was over, we rented a car and drove north to the snow-dusted small town of Yamanouchi in the Japanese Alps. Our arrival in town coincided with our novel realization that Japan is a world-class ski destination—Yamanouchi is home to one of the largest ski resorts in Japan (Shiga Kogen). Most of the other travelers we met appeared to be headed there. Our future lay elsewhere, on a different snowy mountainside, with different chilly primates.

Tomiko05 (born in 2005) famous for her love of the onsen. She’s probably one of the most photographed monkeys in the world, because sometimes she’s the only one bathing!

Other than humans, the Japanese Macaque is the northernmost-living primate. Compared to other macaques, their fur is thick and fluffy, well-adapted to the cold climates they’ve evolved to live in. And in the dark of winter, when snow in the Japanese Alps can be over a meter deep, clever snow monkeys descend to Jigokudani (“Hell’s Valley”), so named for the steam and boiling water that bubble out of vents in the frozen ground. Like humans, the monkeys come to warm themselves in the onsen of the valley and take great pleasure in it.

Over two days in Jōshin’etsu-kōgen National Park, we watched juveniles play in the warm water while adults relaxed. The steep, rocky walls of the valley rise sharply from the maintained onsen, but agile monkeys climb the treacherous cliffs with ease. As popular a spectacle as the monkeys were, I had never been in such an evocative and beautiful location, with such incredibly easy photography opportunities.

As we turned to walk back up the forest path to Yamanouchi one afternoon, we spotted something surprising picking its careful way down the steep, snowy cliffs…

The Japanese Serow is a charming caprine (also known as goat-antelopes, though serow are neither goats nor antelopes) primarily found in the deep forests of Honshu. In the mid-20th century, they were nearly hunted to extinction, but populations have rebounded under conservation laws and they’re now ranked “least concern” by IUCN. Due to their solitary nature, sparse population, and quiet habits, I count us lucky to have seen this fellow. His agility and expertise in navigating the difficult terrain would make a mountaineer green with envy. A group of monkeys climbing up the mountainside ignored him with the indifference of long association.

That Sunday, we flew to Sapporo and drove directly to Obihiro, in south-central Hokkaido. Again, we encountered plenty of ski traffic out of Sapporo, but this thinned as we crossed the Hidaka Mountains and entered into the plains and farmland of Tokachi subprefecture. Tokachi is an important agricultural region in Japan, almost reminiscent of the upper midwest of the United States in the mix of upland crops and famous Hokkaido dairy. Obihiro in particular has a large number of bakeries, featuring locally grown wheat. We partook of these specialties cheerfully. And of course, I had my first Hokkaido milk ice cream, and doomed myself to spending the next few years of my life missing it.

The next day, we drove from Obihiro to Akan Mashu National Park, an area of volcanic craters, hot springs, lakes, forests, and giant marimo moss balls. Whooper swans migrate south from their tundra breeding grounds to winter on Lake Kussharo. Lake Kussharo is an incredibly beautiful caldera lake. It does freeze over during cold winters, but volcanic vents on the shores keep the area relatively warmer than the surroundings. In fact, laying on the hot sand of the shore to photograph the swans got me uncomfortably warm—at least until the storms rolled in.

In a matter of moments, the lake surface went from smooth as glass and wispy with steam to dark and turbulent, wind whipping the surface. The birds reacted to the weather, becoming even more raucous and quarrelsome than normal. Two pairs of swans began trumpeting loudly in close vicinity, overtures of aggression clear in their proud body language.

Swans are frequently aggressive amongst themselves; even when they gather in large, ostensibly peaceful groups on winter feeding grounds, an attentive eye will spot countless small squabbles in the larger group. Arguments over food, personal space, and the best resting areas are frequent and loud. Just as often, the reason for a row is unclear. For this group, the reason could have been the weather change as easily as it could have been anything else. Suddenly, one individual broke forward, cheered on by his lifelong mate, and attacked the other pair with great enthusiasm. Their cygnet watched from behind. Cygnets stay with their parents for the whole winter, learning the best places to find food, and presumably, which offenses from conspecifics are worthy of retaliation.

A pair of whooper swans celebrate their victory over a rival pair with a strident chorus of honks.

Not long after that squabble concluded, the storm began in earnest, and we drove on to Nemuro, a small port city on the eastern tip of Hokkaido.

In Nemuro we ate many things: gyudon, escalope (tonkatsu in a demiglace sauce), hambagu in curry sauce (Matt in particular has not forgotten this), and the best sushi I have ever had, with the least effort put into procurement. Nemuro, despite minimal visitation, is one of the best places for fresh salmon and saury in all of Japan, due to daily deliveries fished from the coastal waters. And eastern Hokkaido’s reputation for excellent fish isn’t limited to human diners…

White tailed eagle (left); Steller’s sea eagle (right).

In the mornings, we headed out to iced-over Lake Furen. White-tailed eagles and enormous Steller’s sea eagles gather in huge numbers on the eastern coast of Hokkaido. Despite the abundance of food, they are not always peaceable (though frankly, they’re more peaceable than swans despite their fierce appearance). Small squabbles break out frequently over the course of a morning, snow, fog, or shine.

Black-eared kites, ubiquitous scavengers, often benefited from the larger eagles’ distraction with impressing each other. A common sight was a clever kite rising from the midst of an eagle fight, carrying away the very fish that they were fighting over.

The windchill at dawn on the eastern shore was too cold for the gear I had. By the end of the second morning photographing the eagles, my left hand was mildly frostbitten at the fingertips. Most winter outdoors gear is targeted at activewear—activities like hiking and skiing produce more body heat, and require less insulation. This was my first experience with “sit and wait” wildlife photography in winter. That tests the limits of winter gear like nothing else I have experienced.

Juvenile White-tailed eagles squabble on the ice of frozen Lake Furen.

By late mornings, we moved inland towards the village of Tsurui in Kushiro subprefecture, home to a population of non-migratory red-crowned cranes. From spring through summer, cranes stay in small family groups, foraging in the marshlands. In winter, their habits change. We spotted a handful of individuals fishing for crabs in the unfrozen marshland streams, but the majority gather in huge numbers at feeding grounds restored from agricultural lands throughout Kushiro. These feeding stations were established by working groups of conservation biologists and ornithologists in the 1980s to conserve the endangered local population of cranes and their habitat.

A pair of red-crowned cranes calling together in heavy snowfall.

In winter, cranes do not reliably stay in the isolated monogamous pairs they live in for the breeding season, but within a flock they still seem to gravitate towards their small family groups. Yearling colts (juvenile cranes) follow their parents loosely, and in exciting moments, pairs strengthen their bonds by dancing and calling together, usually after a satisfying meal.

Cranes are also, like swans, aggressive to conspecifics: should an uninvited individual wander within pecking distance, a crane has no issue with violently stabbing at it and chasing it away. Aggressive displays and whistles were as common as the beautifully choreographed pair dances… though despite that, their long legs and graceful wings manage to make even an undignified squabble look like a dance.

A red-crowned crane colt practicing its future courtship dance choreography by itself: dipping low to snag a chunk of snow from the ground, it leaps into the air, flinging the snow as it flies.

A pair of Ural Owls huddled in a tree hollow in the late afternoon in eastern Hokkaido.

We spent the evenings trawling along the narrow sandbar of the Notsuke Peninsula, a protected wetland that stretches 17 miles into the Nemuro Strait. In winter, the Notsuke Bay freezes over. Yezo sika deer and Ezo red fox are two subspecies endemic to Hokkaido, distinct from the forms found on Honshu and on the mainland.

A sika deer passes before a grove of dead oak trees, called Narawara. These trees died as seawater seeped into the grove due to the slow sinking of the land over time.

Yezo sika stags sport the largest antlers of the sika deer, and had not lost them by early February, when we visited. We spotted many bachelor groups out on the ice of Notsuke Bay, feeding at the fringes on dry grass and other vegetation buried in the snow.

The flat, almost featureless ice of the bay provides a clear view west as the sun sets. Several days were mostly stormy, but on one evening a cooperative fox in full winter coat foraged near the road as the sky went brilliantly red.

Sunset over the bay ice. A sika stag and two foxes run across the frozen surface.

A Large-billed crow in high key, and a snowed over field in eastern Hokkaido.

One last exciting find: in the airport in Sapporo, waiting for our connection to Tokyo and onwards home, we had an excellent dinner at a Sapporo soup curry restaurant. It’s rare for a wildlife trip to also be an incredible food trip, and this one will be hard to top.

An Ezo red fox at twilight.

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