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.