Crowned Jewels of Japan

Six am. January 11, 2012. Ottowa Bridge, Tsrui Village, Hokkaido, Japan. Temperature: minus 21. Not your usual family holiday. My vision: me, my son ( 13) and my daughter (16), each with our SLR and our zoom lens, photographing red crowned cranes in their nesting ground in the dawn mist. Perhaps this vision of family photography bliss was too ambitious, if not downright ridiculous. The kids are freezing. This is something I had not anticipated. Being a skiing family, even when I read that Eastern Hokkaido can be extremely cold in January, I figured it wouldn’t be anything we couldn’t handle. I didn’t even bother to look up the temperature before we left. I’d been photographing polar bears in Hudson Bay less than two months ago, so I figured anything else would be a breeze. Wearing our ski gear, ready for the strongest blizzard, we were still cold. After ten minutes every finger and toe was frozen. The kids started complaining.

Every second in this light counts. At any moment a sudden tiny gust of wind might part the mist to reveal that one picture I want to capture. Quickly, my husband herds the kids back into the van to keep warm. I must look like the worst mother in the world right now. All I care about are these cranes. The light, the mist, the sun, the sky……these are the things that fill my mind. Maternal pre-occupation vanishes like a nesting crane in the mist. I have to get this shot.

Confident in the knowledge that the kids are now warming themselves in the van, I focus. Cranes appear like ghostly cut-outs. At times the sky glows lilac and peach, then the mist transforms the scene into a black and white charcoal drawing. Later, when I look at my shots, the colours of the dawn simultaneously muted and illuminated, have created images that are almost unrecognisable as  photographs. One would be forgiven for thinking they are looking at an ancient Japanese painting.

Half an hour later, my daughter appears and begs us to ask our guide for the keys to the van so they can turn the engine on and have the heater working. Oh no. In the dawn light, it dawns on me that my kids have been sitting in the van freezing. Literally. I look at my daughter and her hair has frozen! This episode in family infamy has come to be known as “the bridge of doom”.

Later that morning, the kids and my husband asked me what the hell we were doing on that bridge in the dark in minus 21 to photograph, what my son called “some mangy pigeons”. You may be asking the same question. Every photographer knows that some of the best photos are taken at dawn but in Hokkaido, this takes on even more import. The Island is a seething mass of thermal activity which provides a warm sanctuary for swans and cranes in this bitterly cold environment. The cranes nest in the river because the water temperature is so much higher than the air temperature. In the coolest hours of pre-dawn, the cold air and the warm water mix to create a pallet of soft misty hues. This is the holy grail of wildlife photography in Japan. For one glorious hour there is just enough light to see the birds in the mist. Too much wind and the mist is blown away. Too little wind and the cranes are obscured behind a wall of mist. By the time the sun rises, the air warms, the mist clears and the cranes leave the nesting area by the bridge.

That afternoon, I stood in the dusk light expecting to catch the cranes as they flew across the sunset back to their nesting grounds. My family were expecting to catch their death of cold. Again, my husband to the rescue. As I focused on keeping my camera warm, he focused on keeping the kids warm. He took them for a little jog and  looked like the best father in the world while I looked like the worst mother in the world. Makoto, our guide, gave Ron a knowing look which read “ I can see how this family works.” I gave him a sheepish look which said “This isn’t fair!!  I spend 364 days a year doing everything for my kids and the one ( ok two) times I ask them to stand around in minus 21, they want to call Community Services.”

The next morning, we awoke at 5am to drive two hours to Lake Kusshara in Akan National Park to photograph what my son called “a bunch of stupid swans”. The perfect combination of low light, boiling hot springs, ice, snow and freezing air temperature creates plumes of ethereal mist over the frozen lake. Like exotic dancers seducing their audience through the slow reveal of many veils, the Whooper Swans seem to apparate out of the wintery vapours. Out of the corner of my eye I see the green vision of my son in his ski jacket. He’s here taking photos too! The boy who vowed he would never be lured into minus 21 again is out of the van because it is just too beautiful to resist. Today it’s minus 22. Like the swans, we discover the only way to stop our feet from freezing is to dip our feet (safely tucked inside our waterproof boots) into the hot spring. The water is boiling here but when mixed with the waters of the frozen lake, the temperature is perfect for swanning about.

I’m lying flat on my stomach on the frozen lake to get a swan’s -eye –view. At least I hope the lake is frozen here! Right next to me the water is flowing and I’m balanced on the edge of the ice. It’s paper thin. This is probably madness. The whole scene is surreal. We are totally alone. Great plumes of pale grey mist shoot up in the soft ink blue sky. Swans whoop at each other in a dawn chorus; the volcanic mountains forming a soft glowing purple and orange backdrop. Imperceptibly, the sun’s rays begin to light up the sky, as if someone is slowly turning up the dial. One swan is illuminated by the rising sun, like a spotlight on a prima ballerina.

Only an hour later, the sun is up and the mist is no longer visible. It’s just another very beautiful lake. This time, no-one is asking why we had to get here so early. The sky is clear and the lake is liquid blue. Other people start to arrive and marvel at the beauty of the place but this is nothing compared to the other-worldliness we experienced here only an hour ago.

January and February is when you must visit Hokkaido. This is when the lakes freeze and the swans confine themselves to the small areas of flowing water next to the hot springs. This is also the time of year the red-crowned cranes perform their courtship dance in the snow. You might think that referring to the antics of these cranes as “dancing” is a bit of anthropomorphism but let me tell you, they really do look like they are dancing. Sometimes it’s like ballet. I swear I saw cranes standing in first and second position and then lifting into the air for a mighty pirouette. At other times, it’s a minuet. I saw cranes bowing to each other and then joining wings and circling each other, heads held high, in a stately reel. The Japanese actually believe that people first danced by copying the movements of the cranes.  It’s easy to see why. Of course, once they start leaping high into the air above the heads of the other cranes, you just have to laugh. Not even Nureyev could pull that off.

The birds of Hokkaido present some interesting challenges for the photographer. I wore silk ski glove liners under polar fleece fingerless gloves in an attempt to find that balance between maintaining dexterity and not getting frost bite. If you can’t find fleece fingerless gloves, just cut the fingers off regular gloves. This had worked on my two trips to Churchill to photograph polar bears, but Hokkaido was much colder and often my fingers felt totally frozen and painful. Quickly putting my hands into my pockets, nicely heated up by hand warmers, revived them and enabled me to carry on. I find hand warmers in my glove actually draw heat away from the fingers and interfere with my reaction times. Foot warmers are good, but attach them to your feet, not your socks. In these conditions, don’t expect your batteries to last for more than half an hour. Keep spare batteries next to your body. If you go straight from freezing temperatures into a warm room or van, seal your camera in a plastic bag to prevent condensation forming. Also be aware that in these kinds of temperatures, with some older SLR’s, your autofocus may stop working after about 15-20 minutes.

Timing, local knowledge and doing your homework is everything. My guide, Makoto, was invaluable. He knew exactly what time the sun would rise and set, and also the movements of the birds throughout the day as they visit different feeding grounds. Being able to accurately anticipate the bird’s comings and goings, enabled me to be in position for dawn and twilight shots and gave me ample opportunity to capture the birds in flight. For my dawn and twilight shots, I started with an ISO of 800.

Shooting in the snow is always tricky. The camera will think there is far more light than needed for the subject. Most SLR’s can compensate for this adequately but some fine-tuning can make all the difference. When shooting predominantly white birds in snow, exposure is crucial. An overexposed shot of red-crowned cranes will look like a flock of disembodied black levitating necks. Underexposed shots will make the snow look grey. White swans sleeping on a frozen lake with their heads tucked out of sight can look like mounds of snow. Finally, even when the scene before you is spectacular, don’t forget to periodically search the skies. You never know when a white-tailed eagle or kite will swoop down to join the fray or be eying you from a nearby tree. Once you have that shot of the cranes dancing in the snow, look up!

My guide, Makoto, lives right across the road from one of the sites where the cranes congregate during the day. A professional photographer, he has taken thousands of photos. He sees the cranes every day. He already has a portfolio of astonishing photographs. On our last morning Makoto and I had been photographing the cranes here with “ the rest of the nuts” ( as my husband affectionately describes the other enthusiasts present). It’s time for Makoto to drive us to the station. I tell him we have to go.

“Please” he implores “just five more minutes”.

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