Hokkaido Winter Wildlife 8 Day Photography Tour

A man at dawn on a midwinter morning points a zoom lens towards three red-crowned cranes flying in the distance. He is standing on a bridge over an icy river.

Join us for a photography adventure around East Hokkaido. With your camera in hand, you’ll capture incredible shots of Red-crowned Cranes, Steller’s Sea Eagles and other charming creatures emblematic of Hokkaido’s magical winter.

Hokkaido’s far east region is often described as the last unexplored frontier of Japan. This region is popular for wildlife and outdoor lovers in the summer. It is also renowned internationally in winter as a bird-watching and wildlife photography destination.

On this tour, we will visit some of Hokkaido’s beautiful national parks to capture amazing shots of some of the best wildlife the region has to offer. We will watch the world’s heaviest eagle soar overhead, marvel at the dancing cranes and see deer silhouetted against the setting sun. Bundled up warm and with your camera in hand, we’ll make sure that you take plenty of shots that will take pride of place in your portfolio. Join us for an incredible photography adventure in Hokkaido’s magical winter!

Tour Highlights

Photograph Red-crowned Cranes, a Japanese Cultural Icon

At Tsurui Ito Rancho Sanctuary, you'll be able to capture these amazing birds performing their winter "dances", a pair bonding ritual ahead of the breeding season.

Take a small boat cruise to photograph Steller's Sea Eagles and other birds of prey

Steller's Sea Eagles are a winter visitor to the Shiretoko Peninsula, commonly found on the drift ice located off of the coast of Rausu. They're often joined by ospreys and White-Tailed Eagles. We'll take a cruise out to the drift ice on a small boat, which will give us plenty of space and privacy to photograph these amazing birds.

Capture the charms of wild deer and foxes on the Notsuke Peninsula

As a Ramsar Site, the Notsuke Peninsula is home to dozens of wildlife species. Favourites among photographers are the charming Red Fox and the herds of Japanese Deer, silhouetted against the Peninsula's fiery sunsets.

Get up close to Whooper Swans on Lake Kussharo

Migrating Whooper Swans make a stop on the hot spring shores of Lake Kussharo to warm themselves up. Being in such proximity to these graceful birds creates multiple photography opportunities.

Take the chance to photograph the Blakiston's Fish Owl

On this tour, you'll have several opportunities to photograph the awe-inspiring Blakiston's Fish Owl, revered as the guardian of villages in Ainu spirituality. Its rarity makes it a challenge for even the most seasoned photographer!


Day 1

Day 1 - Meet your group in Abashiri City

We will meet at our hotel at 6:00 pm near JR Abashiri Station in Abashiri, the largest city on Hokkaido’s eastern Sea of Okhotsk coast. Once everyone is gathered, we will spend some time getting to know each other and introducing the programme for our upcoming adventure before we set off for dinner in downtown Abashiri. For those who aren’t used to walking on icy roads, we will introduce you to the penguin-walking technique! There will be time after dinner to get your gear and photography set up in advance of tomorrow.

Day 2

Day 2 - Whooper Swan Photography at Lake Tofutsu & Lake Kussharo

We’ll have breakfast at the hotel before we head to Lake Tofutsu, a Ramsar Site just outside of Abashiri and a popular destination for migrating Whooper Swans, stopping over in Hokkaido on their journey south from Siberia. We can experience photography in Hokkaido’s frigid conditions, here, to let your body know what it will be in for later on tour!

Next, we’ll pick up something to eat for a picnic lunch before we head south to Lake Kussharo, for a chance to photograph the birds at closer quarters. Along the way, we will stop at Bihoro Pass to enjoy an astonishing aerial view of Lake Kussharo if the weather is fair and to allow you to flex your landscape photography muscles too! 

Lake Kussharo, found in the Akan–Mashu National Park, is the largest caldera lake in Japan. In winter, nearly all of the lake’s surface is frozen, save for some parts of the shore where hot spring water bubbles up from underground and warms the sand itself. The migrating swans flock to these points for a warming soak!

Once we’ve enjoyed the swans, we will head for tonight’s accommodation. The lakeside lodge we’ll be staying at is owned by a couple who love wild animals and their garden is adorned with many bird feeders. This will give you plenty of opportunities to photograph some of Hokkaido’s forest birds, such as Eurasian Nuthatches, woodpeckers or the Long-tailed Tit. If we are lucky, small mammals like Eurasian Red Squirrels may even make an appearance!

Day 3

Day 3 - Wildlife Photography on the Notsuke Peninsula & Transfer to Rausu

After one more chance to photograph the birds and animals gathering around our accommodation’s feeders in the morning, we’ll begin our long drive to Rausu on the Shiretoko Peninsula. Along the way, we’ll make a stop for lunch.

After lunch, we will head to the Notsuke Peninsula, another Ramsar site. This is actually a very large sand spit sticking out into the icy Nemuro Strait and provides a unique ecosystem home to all kinds of wildlife. 

Today, we’ll be raising our lenses ready for some of Hokkaido’s famous mammals. The peninsula is home to many herds of deer, picking their way across the peninsula’s frozen surface and chilly sands. Red Foxes often make an appearance here too, as do both Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-tailed Eagles. We will spend the afternoon here so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to capture your dream shot. As the light fades, you’ll have a chance to photograph the deer silhouetted against the orange sky. If you are lucky, as darkness begins to fall, you may be able to catch a few shots of some owl species such as the Short-eared Owl and Ural Owl.

As the sun disappears below the ocean, we’ll hop back in our van and continue our journey to Rausu Shiretoko. Renowned for its kombu seaweed and sea urchins, the peculiar submarine topography makes Rausu a prosperous fishing town. Its position in the ocean - facing the Nemuro Strait, the Kuril Islands and the Kamchatka Peninsula - makes it conveniently close to the breeding sites for a number of special birds, hence their prevalence in the area!  We’ll have dinner upon arrival at our accommodation, after which it’s time for an early night in preparation for our pre-dawn cruise tomorrow.

Day 4

Day 4 - Pre-dawn nature cruise for Steller's Sea Eagles in Rausu Shiretoko

We’ll be up before dawn today so that we can set out on a nature cruise among the ice floes. If we are lucky we will see White-tailed Eagles and Brunnich’s Guillemots, in addition to the star of the show, the majestic Steller’s Sea Eagle. Our boat is a small, charter boat that will put us on the same eye level with these incredible creatures and will allow us to closely approach the drift ice. 

The cruise lasts for about an hour and a half and you will be on the cold water’s surface with no shelter for all of this time, so suitable, warm layers are non-negotiable. You will be left ashore if you are under-dressed!

Please note that the cruise may not operate depending on drift ice, ocean and weather conditions. If the cruise is cancelled due to weather or waves, we will try again tomorrow.

After returning to our accommodation for breakfast, you can enjoy the rest of the day at leisure to explore Rausu, empty SD cards or catch up on sleep. In the evening, we will reunite to have dinner together served at your accommodation.

This evening, you have the option of visiting a nearby Blakiston’s Fish Owl observatory to photograph this amazing animal. The owl is known as kotan kor kamui in the language of the Ainu, Hokkaido’s indigenous people, and was believed to  be a guardian of villages and settlements. The largest owl in the world, it is quite a unique photography experience - though note that it is impossible to know if and when the owls will turn up, so you may be in for a long wait and you may also want to prepare yourself for disappointment. 

Entry times to the observatory are strictly regulated to keep the environment suitable for the owls. If you do wish to join your guide for this opportunity, please be aware that you will need to pay the entry fee of 3000yen yourself on the day. The entry time is just before sunset, which means you’ll also have to skip tonight’s included dinner and pay for a later dinner yourself if you wish. Visitors are free to leave the observatory as long as the owl is not present, but of course we’ll have to reach the decision of when we leave as a group!

Nature Cruise for 2.5 hours
Day 5

Day 5 - Pre-dawn eagle cruise in Rausu Shiretoko & Transfer to Yoroushi Onsen

This morning, we have another opportunity to head out at dawn to photograph Steller's Sea Eagles. Today's cruise also serves as our back-up if yesterday's cruise was cancelled. Feel free to opt out of this morning's cruise to catch up on sleep if you're already happy with your eagle photos (no refund will be given), but if you didn't get any satisfactory shots yesterday, you're welcome to come along and give it another go!

After the cruise, we will return to our accommodation for breakfast and enjoy a little more time photographing wildlife on the Notsuke Peninsula before travelling on to Yoroushi Onsen, where you can spend the rest of the afternoon resting, editing or enjoying the warming hot springs before, possibly, another photography opportunity this evening. 

Afterall, it’s not just hot spring visitors who come to Yoroushi Onsen - a couple of Blakiston’s Fish Owls visit from time to time to feed in the river running behind our hotel. As before, there’s no guarantee that the owls will show but fortunately, the hotel has a comfortable viewing lounge where you can relax on sofas while you stay up and wait for their visit. 

Alternatively, you can ask hotel staff to telephone your room when the owls arrive. If they show up, the large windows let you photograph them from the warm indoors. The windows are prone to reflections however, so you will definitely need a CPL for the best shots.

Nature Cruise for 2.5 hours
Day 6

Day 6 - Red-crowned Crane Photography in Tsurui

After a late check-out from our accommodation, we will make our way to Tsurui, the final destination on this tour. 

Tsurui is famous for the successful recovery of Red-crowned Cranes. Their population has rebounded to over 1,200 birds in the area surrounding Tsurui, with a reasonably high chance to see one even from the main roads. 

We will visit the Ito Tancho Sanctuary to photograph the cranes and to enjoy their magnificent “dances”, an affectionate display these beautiful birds perform to bond with each other ahead of the breeding season. The sanctuary feeds the birds a managed amount of food in the winter and this daily feeding contributes to conservation efforts. Given that there is plentiful food in the warmer months, they are not fed during the rest of the year. We will try to coincide our visit with their afternoon feeding time when the cranes become quite active.

After spending a good few hours at the crane sanctuary, we will head to our lodging for the evening. We can warm up at our accommodation this evening with a delicious meal and prepare ourselves for our final early rise tomorrow!

Day 7

Day 7 - Red-crowned Crane Photography in Tsurui

Our last sunrise on this tour will see us make our way to a local bridge. As soon as we arrive, you’ll notice that there are a lot of keen photographers already set up and waiting! 

The river below is where the cranes roost overnight and as the first light warms their feathers, they’ll take flight to head out to their feeding grounds for today. You may also be able to spot other wildlife here, such as owls returning to roost, eagles heading out to hunt and deer fording the river. It will be very cold on the bridge, so it’s a good idea to wear the same clothes you wore on the eagle cruise.

Depending on the day’s weather conditions, after observing the cranes from the bridge, we will follow them back to Ito Tancho Sanctuary. On sunny and chilly mornings, the red crest on their heads can flare brightly, so we’ll stay there for the rest of the morning enjoying this dazzling (literally) opportunity! If the weather is cloudy or snowy however, then after we leave the bridge we’ll head back to the hotel to enjoy a quick breakfast before returning to Ito Tancho Sanctuary to photograph the birds at our leisure. 

After finishing up at the sanctuary, we’ll head for a local lunch and of course, we’ll keep our ears open for any local photography opportunities just in case you want to get one last shot! Ural Owls and the cranes flying in to roost are both potential photo opportunities today. If you are already happy with all your shots and would rather opt out of the afternoon’s photography, that’s not a problem and your guide will be happy to drop you at your accommodation after lunch.

Tonight, we’ll enjoy dinner together to celebrate the end of our tour and to say our goodbyes before we all go our separate ways tomorrow.

Day 8

Day 8 - Transfer to Kushiro & Farewells

Today, you’ll have one last chance to enjoy photography of the cranes at Otowa Bridge. After finishing up, we will have breakfast at our lodging this morning and then drive for about 1 hour to Kushiro City to complete the tour. 

We can drop you off at either Kushiro JR Station or Kushiro Airport between 10 am and 11 am.

Make sure you’ve not left any lens caps or filters on the bus before you depart and have a safe trip to your next destination!

Dates & Prices

+¥53,000pp for single room

Travel Style

While we will stick to the wildlife included in this itinerary as much as possible, the small size of this tour allows us to travel in a compact vehicle, stopping easily whenever we get a surprise chance to see wildlife. We will often be outdoors in subzero temperatures for hours at a time before returning to the van and travelling to the next stop. While it is cold outside, it will be warm in the van and indoors. This makes it easy to warm back up, but makes good layering important - make sure you check the packing list and ensure you bring an appropriate outer layer for this tour. Your luggage and photography gear that you don’t plan on using will stay in our van, freeing you up to enjoy the day’s adventure with only the lenses and other gear that you need in the moment.