As you drive around in Hokkaido, you are most likely to meet up with the Hokkaido (or Ezo) Red fox.
Although they look cuddly in the fluffy winter coats, be careful not to touch them as they could be infected by the echinococcosis parasite. They feed mainly on rats, birds and insects but switch to fruits and nuts in the autumn time.
In winter time, they can be spotted around the many of the tourist spots such as the Lake Akan area as they rely on the kind-hearted tourists to feed them.
I am reminded of the visit to the Fushimi Inari shrine in my visit to Kyoto in the summer. Here the main entrance is graced by two large stone statues of foxes. A lot of symbolism goes into these two statues and I was informed that the huge bushy tails symbolise bountiful harvests of rice. The jewel in the mouth of one of the fox statues symbolise the fox deity’s spirit and the key in the mouth of the other statue symbolises attained wealth.
You can learn more about the Red foxes from this video about a pair of mother and daughter vixens as they bring up their pups.
Another place where we were alerted to the presence of a red fox by a wildlife guide was when we were driving along the thin strip of land in the Notsuke Peninsula. Here right at the end of the road, coach-loads of tourists can be seen feeding the elusive red fox as it scuttles from bus to another in search of tourists, err… I mean food.
The Notsuke Peninsula is also the place where you can find hoards Sika deer grazing in the marshlands flanking both sides of the peninsula. This prawn-shaped peninsula is made up of a sandbar that is about 26 km in length, making it the longest sandbar in Japan. Notsuke in the ancient Ainu language means “the lower jawbone” as it is shaped like the lower jawbone of a whale.
Also known as the Spotted deer or the Japanese deer, the fur coat of the Sika deer at the winter time becomes darker and the spots become less prominent. It is active throughout the day and is wary to human interference. As such it is very easy to get up close for a photograph provided you take gentle movements as you advance, keeping as quiet as you possibly can.
The Sika deer reminds of the “bowing deer” in the Nara Prefecture, during my visit the the Todai-ji temple there in the summer. Here they are considered as messengers of the Shinto gods.
As winter nears, thousands of Steller’s sea eagles make their way to Hokkaido from the Kamchatka Peninsula. If you journey up along the north-eastern coastline of Hokkaido towards Abashiri, you can catch glimpses of these elegant birds perched on tall distant trees and power lines.
Located along the shores of Okhotsk, Abashiri is the southern-most point where the ocean freezes over. The frozen mass of fresh water and salt waters originates from the borders of China and Russia where the Amur River meets the Sea of Okhotsk. From there this white, mysterious ice mass makes it way all the way down south around the western coastline of the Shiretoko Peninsula, and along with it the Steller's sea eagles.
Do take the Abashiri Drift Ice boat tour. A sight not to be missed, marvel at the way the ice gives way as the icebreaker makes its way through the drift ice across the bay. You will be able to spot many of the local birdlife such as seagulls and White-tailed and Steller’s Sea Eagles as the boat makes its way through the drift ice.
Named after the German naturalist Georg Steller, the magnificent Steller’s sea eagles are one of the largest raptors in the world, surpassing even the famed North American bald eagles. Also one of the rarest raptors, the Steller’s sea eagles can weigh over 10 kilograms and a fully-grown male can have a wingspan of over two metres long. They are easily distinguishable from the White Tailed Eagles as they have a dark brown and white plumage amidst the tangerine beaks and talons
We were able to spot some of these eagles flying along the coastline as we made our way along Notsuke Peninsula. Alas they were too far away for a good shot and flew off as soon as we made our way closer.
The other place where you can catch a glimpse of these two species of sea eagles are along the coastal region of Nemuro. Pay a visit to the Nemuro City Shunkunitai Primeval Wild Bird Park Nature Center to gather information as to the best times and places where you are most likely to see these eagles. They will advise you as to the most recent sighting of these creatures around the area.
No less magnificent are the White-Tailed sea eagles. The juvenile (as in the photo below) has a darker beak. Side-by-side with the Steller's, these sea eagles are smaller in size and have a lighter, more brownish plumage.
One of the spots recommended was the Tobai Hide Wild Bird Observation House. Here you can watch the sea eagles from the comfort of the rest house provided you are able to unravel the ingenuity of the Japanese’ way of opening and closing the windows of the hideaway hut.
Whooper swans start migrating from the cold Russian north-lands around the Autumn period and these "angels of winter" find their way to the warm hot springs around the Lake Kussharo area. The lake is the largest caldera lake in Japan, and is only second in the world next to Lake Toba in Sumatra, Indonesia in terms of its sheer size. So the best times to view these beautiful birds are around the winter time. As the first blooms of spring begin to sprout, they will make their way back north.
These swans look elegant and graceful as they glide along the water’s edge. Occasionally they will flap their wings to flip away the droplets of water on their feathers. Then at a moment’s notice they will burst out in a loud cacophony of jousting and stretching of their long slender necks to ward away their rivals. Then in a loving embrace, the male and female will come together and swim away in unison.
Places you can go to have a view of these magnificent creatures in winter include the Kotan Onsen along the shores of Lake Kussharo. Kotan means village in the local Ainu language spoken in this region. Here you can see flocks of Whooper swans lazing around in the pools of hot springs doting the area.
Together with the swans, you can also find male and female mallard ducks grazing peacefully together.
We also paid a visit to the Ike-no Yu Onsen, but alas there were not swans there and we ended up admiring and taking photos of this beautiful landscape and scenery.
Another spot for viewing the Whopper swans is the more commercialised Sunayu Onsen on the eastern banks of Lake Kussharo. Meaning “a place where sand gushes out” in the local Aino language, Sunayu is home to many swans and you can buy food from the local convenience stores to feed the swans and have your Instagram moment there. There is also a rest stop, a restaurant and a souvenir store there. Parking there is also free.
For Hokkaido, there is no best time or season of the year to pay a visit. Each season brings with it its own fascination, from the cherry blossoms in Spring all the way to the dreamy snow landscapes in the Wintertime. For wildlife-watching as well, different times of the year bring out different forms of wildlife in Hokkaido.
Winter time holds its own wonderment and splendour in Eastern Hokkaido. Here wildlife is plentiful and it takes careful planning to visit all the popular spots around this region. Be sure to also allocate some leeway for unforeseen circumstances such as heavy snowfalls blocking key road passages. When that happens, look for alternative routes around, so it is always a good idea to start early in order not to be disappointed.
There are several ways of getting into Hokkaido from Singapore. You can fly to Sapporo, Kushiro, Asahikawa or Chitose. For my trip, we decided to go to Kushiro and navigate from there. Self-drive in Hokkaido is easy but do take extra precautions in the wintertime. It is best to get a set of snow chains in the thick of winter when temperatures can drop to as low as -16 degrees C and snowfalls can reach up to two meters in a 24-hour period.
From Kushiro airport, there are many places to visit for your first encounter with the numerous wildlife in Hokkaido. My recommended first-stop must surely be the viewing of the Red-crowned Cranes around the area. There are several places to go, ranging from free road-side spots all the way to paid sanctuaries that provide amenities in case you want to thaw out, take a break and find out more about the wildlife in the area. An example is the Akan International Crane Center. Entry fees are 470 Yen per person but that goes into the center's research into the Tancho cranes.
The Red-crowned cranes serenely graze in the valley but then once in a while a pair will raise their heads, call out in unison, dance and prance around as if to strengthen their life-long bond with each other. This in itself is worth the long journey braving the sub-zero temperatures to view and behold!
Other road-side viewing areas include the Tsurui Ito Tancho Crane Sanctuary. Admission is free but be prepared to shoot alongside the hundreds of photographers who line the viewing areas.
For the ones who are able to wake up early and brave the freezing sub-zero temperatures, then the viewing area on the Otowa-bashi bridge must surely be the must-visit spot for viewing the cranes. Be prepared to wake early as the bridge houses only a limited number of photographers and is completely filled up an hour or so before daybreak. This is one of the most popular crane photography spots in the world and is definitely a must-do in your bucket list.
This unique spot is richly rewarding as the sun rises and illuminates the mist emanating from the hot springs down the Setsuri-gawa River. This is what draws a roost of cranes to this spot and you will be able to see them as they call out and dance in the early morning glow. Be prepared to get a long telephoto lens if you want to capture this scene.
With a lot of patience and perseverance you are sure to get that winning shot when the cranes fly towards you as they go in search of other feeding grounds. In my case, the only spot when I arrived was the last possible spot before the tree branches blocked the view on the right. But it did give me a nice bokeh, providing a sense of depth and framing in the picture.
Then a pair of cranes decided to fly straight towards my direction, giving me the perfect shot as they flew overhead. So this just goes to show that no place is a bad place. You just need to be ready to shoot when the opportunity presents itself.
The whole fly-through happens in a few seconds but it leaves you with a breathless, unforgettable and exhilarating experience. Certainly a must-do in any photographer's bucket list. For me it was mission-accomplished, and then it's off to the next adventure.
It is M.K. Wong's dream to visit at least 50 countries before his feet can carry him no more. With over 35 countries under his belt, M.K. is planning for his next escapade.