Reports from the Field: Snow Monkeys and Cranes

Published on Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Mark Brazil and Ted Kenefick, October 2004

Two of the leaders of our inaugural Snow Monkeys and Cranes expedition to Japan present some of that journey's highlights.

What amazing contrasts we experienced, from the unexpected warmth of southwestern Kyushu, with its tea trees and bamboo, to the unseasonal rain, then perfect powder snow in the forested mountains of Nagano Prefecture, and finally to the fresh snow and distant sea-ice of eastern Hokkaido--surely the most exciting part of Japan.

The combination of sunshine one day, then falling snow the next, made for the very best opportunities to photograph snow monkeys lolling in the hot pools at Jigokudani and the serows browsing their way up the steep forested slopes nearby. Sightings of sika deer and red fox were not unexpected, but the sable at Yoroushi was very lucky indeed.

The spectacle of 12,000 hooded and white-naped cranes at Arasaki in Kyushu was our southern highlight, but with the added bonus of common and sandhill cranes and that great rarity, the Siberian crane. We brought our trip total of cranes to six with the red-crowned Japanese cranes of Hokkaido, a sacred symbol in Japan, performing their ritualistic dancing displays against a backdrop of blue skies and snowy fields.

We began our raptor list in Kyushu, too, with the ubiquitous black kites, plentiful ospreys, and our first eagle, the great spotted eagle. The gathering of the Steller's sea eagles as they roosted on the hillside in the evening light was one of the more spectacular wildlife shows we encountered.

The scenery provided its share of indelible images: Lake Mashu, where steep-backed cliffs surrounding a caldera lake extended to the cobalt-blue water; the steaming sulfaroles at Io-zan; the deep, crisp snow blanketing fields and forests.

Few Westerners venture from the cosmopolitan accommodations of the cities, and far fewer travel through the country in winter. We were able to experience some of the day-to-day life of Japan, such as when we enjoyed the serenity of a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, set deep back into the woods. There we dined and slept in the same manner the rural Japanese have followed for centuries. As we reminisced about our adventures at our farewell dinner, we felt privileged to have seen an almost unknown Japan.