Square Sun

Hokkaido Landscape Tour Reconnaissance Trip

This post is going to be a living document for a few weeks, depending on how much time, energy and connectivity I have. I’ve come up to Hokkaido, where I run my winter tours, for a 12 day trip with the first half being a reconnaissance trip for a possible new Landscape workshop that I want to put together for 2012. Then I will meet up with a friend that was to be on the whirlwind wildlife tour before I canceled it for lack of interest. There was no obligation for me to do this, but I also wanted to photograph the Eagles and Cranes here without the group that I’ll be coming back with in a few weeks time. As much as I love doing my Hokkaido Winter Wildlife Tours, and as much as I allow myself to shoot, I’m never photographing fully for myself on the tour. I’m always conscious of my group, as I should be, but this means that it’s actually been five years since I was in Hokkaido in the winter just for me, so here I am.

My plan is to pretty much circumnavigate Hokkaido over the next 12 days, as you can see in the below map. If you don’t know where Hokkaido is by the way, it’s the big island at the top of Japan, above Honshu. If you don’t know where Japan is, it’s the banana shaped island next to Korea and China!

Hokkaido Travel Plans

Hokkaido Travel Plans

On January 26, 2011, I left my Tokyo home at 2PM, for a ferry from the port of Ooarai, in the Ibaraki Prefecture.This is basically Day zero, as the map above starts at Day 1, after the 19 hour ferry journey.

The roads were clear so the drive took just under two hours. I stopped at the convenience store just outside the port and bought dinner and breakfast, and a few tinnies, in case I needed some help getting to sleep in my bunk. I was in a Casual Room, which could have been inhabited by 12 other snoring blokes. Luckily there were only two others in the room, and I’m sure I snored louder than both of them.

My Bunk on the Ferry

My Bunk on the Ferry

There was no Internet connectivity, either wireless or by my Pocket Wifi, and for some reason, I felt really tired, so I just crashed out pretty much as soon as we set sail at 18:30. It was a weird night’s sleep. The rocking of the boat obviously encroaching into my dreams, as I kept dreaming that I was in the basket of a hot air balloon, weaving my way through streets, under the power cables etc.

Day 1

I slept on and off, then got up at 6AM to see if the sun rise would give me any nice shots. The speed of the ferry combined with the already cold northern Japan winter air made me pleased that there wasn’t really anything on the boat to include with a sunrise in back, so I gladly went back to bed for three more hours.

After a while there was an announcement that the tallest brick Lighthouse in Japan could be seen to the left of the ferry, so I went back outside and took a few shots. Unfortunately the warmth of the sea water hitting the cold air meant that the air along the horizon towards the tip of Honshu were shimmering and so it wasn’t really much of a scene to capture.

Before I headed back into my room, I noticed a patch of sunlight pouring through a gap in some heavy cloud behind us, and having tried a few different compositions, quite liked this one.



I cut most of the light coming through the clouds off, but I thought I’d share my thought process here.

My car was filthy before I got started so I stopped at a gas station, filled up, and then had them wash my car while I was there. This can be a time consuming activity in Japan, especially when they also sell you $150 worth of Winter style windscreen wipers, that don’t freeze up as easily as my native Tokyo ones. I arrived at my hotel in Jousankei, marked Day 1 on the above map, just as the sun went down. I went out as it got dark, feverish to make some images, and got the following two by the river behind the hotel.

Snow Pillows

Snow Pillows

The warm light isn’t a sunset, it’s the lights from the hotel on the other side of the river, but what the hey! The below photograph is the larger scene. This is a typical hot springs hotel town here in Japan, but you gotta love those snow pillows! ๐Ÿ™‚

Jouzankei Hot Springs

Jouzankei Hot Springs

I wasn’t actually expecting to get anything worth sharing today, so I’m happy enough. It’s off to bed now, and up at 6AM for a sunrise. My trusty iPhone tells me that the sun will rise pretty much down this river, so I might get some naturally warm light around my snow pillows tomorrow. If not, it’ll be back in for an early breakfast then hitting the road. I have a long drive tomorrow, and the roads are icy and scary for us non-initiated.

Day 2

OK, I didn’t have any Internet on Day 2, but I do on Day 3. The problem is, I’m making more photos now, so just going through them all and doing black and whites of the ones I want to do so with is taking a lot of time. I’ll see if I can give at least a quick update though.

It was overcast when I got up on Day 2, and with the mountains at the end of the valley, it became obvious that there would be nothing to reflect in the water in the river, so I switched the plan B, had breakfast as soon as they opened and hit the road.

When I got out to my car the thermometer told me it was -7 Celcius, which explains why my rubber floor mats had become almost as hard as plastic and pushed back against my foot as I pushed down on the accelerator. It was even more worrying as it pushed back when I hit the break for the first few times, but then it started to soften up as the car warmed up.

Boro Lighthouse

Boro Lighthouse

The main objective today was to get up to a place called Haboro, where I would spend the second night, and I estimated that I’d be able to stop for up to two hours of photography, if the roads remained clear. I wanted to get close enough to Haboro to make sure that I could actually get there though, without getting snowed in somewhere, so I fought the temptation to stop at a number of promising looking spots.

The first spot I did stop at looked promising, but didn’t turn into much. Then, as I drove through a small town that I believe is called Boro, I saw a lighthouse on a promontory. Lighthouses always add a nice feature in a shot, in my opinion, so I started to see if there was anywhere to shoot it from, and just as I was about to leave town, I found it.

Had there been no where to park, I’d have missed this, but luckily there was a small lane that led down into the harbor in the village, and it was wide enough to park and still allow people to get past.

I ended up stacking two ND8 and an NDX400 neutral density filter, almost 15 stops worth, for a 30 second exposure here (right). That and a little bit of Silver Efex Pro gave me a relatively nice shot, I thought.

After that, just past a town called Rumoi, I spotted some cormorants on some wave-breakers, and swung the car around again for this shot.

Three Cormorants

Three Cormorants

I love it when the sun is shimmering on the water like this, especially when there is heavy cloud near the horizon. A lot of the time if there isn’t heavy cloud, but it is cloudy, I’ll drop a neutral density grad over the top of the sky in Lightroom, but this one is natural.

I stopped a few more times, but then arrived at Haboro. I had a drive through the back roads, around the farms, and found some nice spots, but with no fresh snow and relatively clear skies, it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. Then as it got down, I headed into the harbor and did a few more long exposures, like the one below.

Boats in Haboro Port

Boats in Haboro Port

Day 3

I didn’t expect this trip to be so easy when it came to early starts, but because I hadn’t noticed anything that would warrant a dawn shoot, I decided to east breakfast at 7AM again and then headed out.

Hut on the Edge of Town (Haboro)

Hut on the Edge of Town (Haboro)

It had snowed about 15cm overnight, and was still snowing as I left the hotel. Having spent most of the last 10 years in Tokyo, I’m always a little dubious about driving in snow, but I had my $150 Winter windscreen wipers from the first day, so I felt confident! ๐Ÿ˜‰

It was actually easier driving on fresh snow than on the nasty ice that get’s left around later, and it was well below freezing again, so there wasn’t much risk of the fresh snow being on wet ice, which is extremely scary.

The fresh snow changed everything though. I had around 130km to cover today up to Wakkanai, at the northern tip of Hokkaido, and again, with the snow, I intended to get a good way there before I started to photograph. Famous last words! I couldn’t get out of town. There were beautiful little snow covered things everywhere. I haven’t been able to get through all of my pics yet, so I won’t show you all of them but here’s one of my favorites from just outside of Haboro (right).

This sky is half real, and half Lightroom by the way. It was a heavy snow filled sky, but not heavy enough, so I helped it a little.

The drive up from Haboro to Wakkanai was amazing. This is a beautiful area. Unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the snow gave way to clear skies as I drove further north, until it was positively balmy towards the northern most tip of Japan. I stopped and made a few long exposures of Rishiri Island, but I’m not fully happy with them. The skies weren’t cooperating. Then, as I pulled into a small habor on the edge of town, I found this prehistoric frozen camel-horse, cow, thingy…

Prehistoric Frozen Camel-Horse, Cow

Prehistoric Frozen Camel-Horse, Cow

You gotta love driftwood!

I got the angle finder out and a 16-35mm, and aligned the sun with this guys back and grabbed a few shots. I had to make sure I had a catchlight in his eye too, or this wouldn’t have worked. ๐Ÿ™‚

I then took a good drive around, looking for some of the other things I wanted to photograph, and did some more long exposures before heading for the hotel. I can’t decide which one to post though, so I’ll leave it for today. It’s already an hour later than I wanted it to be, so good night!

Day 4

By the end of Day 3, I had a bunch of locations that I wanted to visit on day 4, but weather conditions would dictate which one’s I aimed for at dawn. As there was cloud cover, I decided to use the dawn light for a moody photo of some wooden frames that they use to hang and dry fish from near one of the harbors.

Fish Drying Frames

Fish Drying Frames

Now, for you Michael Kenna fans out there, before you come screaming to me that I’m copying his work, I know. I am specifically searching out some of the locations that he has shot on this trip, because I want the tour that I’m developing to appeal to people that like this sort of work.

I personally love these shots, and I am trying to bring my own feel to the images I’m creating. In fact, sometimes when I have some of the subjects or scenes framed and ready to shoot, I pass it over, because it’s too similar to something I have seen of Michael Kenna’s work. But, I’m not Michael Kenna, and I have no intention of trying to emulate his work. The subjects are the same, but they are represented how I want to.

So why the long winded explanation? Because the back of the frame to the left here, is the right of two frames that Michael Kenna shot in a very similar way. I know that some people will jump on me for this, but don’t bother. I know! ๐Ÿ™‚

After I’d photographed these fish hanging frames, I drove around the harbor, and then around the Wakkanai harbor, and noticed a sea mist, so I broke out the 600mm and did a vertical pano for this shot.

Lighthouse with Sea Mist

Lighthouse with Sea Mist

The wind electricity generators in the background are on the other side of the Souya Harbor, which is where I headed after this, and found these eight boats perfectly lined up in the Souya Port.

Souya Harbor Fishing Boats

Souya Harbor Fishing Boats

This is one of my favorite shots of the trip so far. I shot about four or five frames here, each over two minutes long, and I got the clouds just how I wanted them in this one. Again, I was stacking lots of ND filters.

I ended up at the northern-most tip of Japan, a few kilometers up the road from this Souya Port, and had to set the 10 second timer for this tourist memory shot.

The Northern-Most Tip of Japan

The Northern-Most Tip of Japan

That white streak on the sea is drift ice. This stuff is essential for shooting Steller’s Sea Eagles and White Tailed Eagles, as they need somewhere to perch to eat, and we need somewhere to throw the fish on to, to lure them. I was pleased to see that the Okhotsk Sea was full of drift ice for over 100 kilometers as I drove down to Oumu, where I’d spend the night and get up for a sunrise shot on…

Day 5

So, having spent way too long going through my pictures in the hotel at Oumu, I was really not up for getting up at 6AM for a sunrise shoot. I even said to myself that the world doesn’t need another sunrise shot, trying to talk myself into going back to sleep. But, the cold air and drift ice does funny things to the sun in this part of the world, so I headed down to a point where I would be able to photograph the sunrise at about 6:30AM.

Well, for the first time in my life, I witnessed the fabled “Square Sun”.

Square Sun

Square Sun

Then, I almost got the legendary “Wine Glass”.

Almost a Wine Glass

Almost a Wine Glass

Then it became clear where Apple got the iTunes Logo from.

iTunes Logo?

iTunes Logo?

Then, just as I thought it was all over, someone decided to pour a ginormous blob of molten metal through the clouds.

Molten Metal from the Sky

Molten Metal from the Sky

After the dawn drama, I took a steady drive down to the Saroma Lake, where I spend the hold day driving the entire circumference of this huge lake, looking for interest locations. I found surprising few, but enough to keep me happy.

Saroma Lake Tree

Saroma Lake Tree

Crow in Tree

Crow in Tree

Boy did I wish that was an eagle in the tree not a crow…

From Girders

From Girders

And, that took me to the end of Day 5. Tomorrow I hook up with a friend flying in from the States, and we’ll be shooting Eagles and Fish Owls in Rausu for three days, then over to Kushiro for the Red-Crowned Cranes for the three days after that.

The volume of shots is going to increase from tomorrow, and I know that I don’t have Internet Connectivity in the first hotel, but if I get a chance to throw up a few quick selects in the coming days I will.

I’m very pleased with this first five days, and believe there’s a tour here for 2012. If by the way, you are interested in shooting in the locations we’ve looked at in the post, please do drop me a line, and I’ll keep you up to date on my plans. In fact, even if you aren’t a definite starter, please let me know if you “might” be interested, because that will help me to gauge interest, and fuel me to get things planned ahead of other priority tasks. You can drop me a line via our contact form here.

Thanks for keeping track of this trip too. I really appreciate all of your interest and support!

See you when I get a signal again…

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Martin Bailey
Martin Bailey is a nature and wildlife photographer and educator based in Tokyo. He's a pioneering Podcaster and blogger, and an X-Rite Coloratti member.
  • Jarvie
    Posted at 22:48h, 27 January Reply

    Love those types of trips!! Enjoy and Kudos to you to posting while on the trip… that’s dedication.

  • Carson
    Posted at 00:25h, 28 January Reply

    Beautiful stuff so far, thanks for sharing Martin. Safe travels.

  • David Lee
    Posted at 15:08h, 28 January Reply

    Martin, I am following this one with interest. I expect you can get some serious shooting done this trip. Congrats.

    If I was not so busy I would hop on a plane and crash your party!

  • Roy booth
    Posted at 18:58h, 28 January Reply

    Martin, Glad you’re getting some free time to do shooting for yourself after the hectic run up to Christmas and the work studio shoot, you deserve a break. You’ll have to let up know what brand of LSD you were taking on the boat for those wierd dreams ๐Ÿ™‚ Love the snow pillow photo as well. Looking forward to lots more great shots in the next few days.


  • Roy booth
    Posted at 19:02h, 28 January Reply

    Martin, Forgot to ask, I noticed that your cabin for 12 doesn’t seem to have any lockers, just open cupboards, what do you do with all your valuables like the macbook and cameras, do you have to keep going back to the car ? On UK ferries you can’t go back to the car deck once you leave port, don’t know if its the same in Japan.


  • Rich Haig
    Posted at 22:00h, 28 January Reply

    Martin – Thanks for sharing your updates. The snow pillows look great with the hotel lights. Have a safe trip and great shooting!
    Best regards,

  • Martin Bailey
    Posted at 20:43h, 29 January Reply

    Wow! Thanks for the comments everyone!

    Roy, in answer to your question, no, you can’t go back to the car once the ferry is at sea. Those six open shelves are it I’m afraid. There are no lockers. This is Japan though, so I left my camera gear there when just going to the toilet etc. You couldn’t do this anywhere else of course, and there are times when you can’t do it here either, but you’re generally OK.

    I did put the computer into my shoulder bag though, along with some other valuables, and threw that over my shoulder when I left my bunk.

    The only alternative to trusting your gear to fate, or carrying it everywhere, is to pay for a private room, but they start at two people. I guess the other alternative would be to leave it in the car, but then I wouldn’t have been able to take photographs while on the ferry.

    Anyway, following no Internet access on the second day, I’m hoping to get through today’s images quickly enough to update this post before I hit the sack.

    Catch you all later!


  • David H
    Posted at 13:34h, 30 January Reply

    I am trying not to be insanely jealous. Am not succeeding.

  • Richard Looper
    Posted at 14:42h, 30 January Reply

    Thank you for sharing you trip. I am enjoying interplay of the snow and the seaside. The southeast United States does not get the opportunity to see our fishing boats on a background of snow. Very nice.

  • Greg L
    Posted at 12:33h, 31 January Reply

    Beautiful pics of Hokkaido Martin. Looking at your itinerary, hope you will get across from Rausu to the other side of the Shiretoko Peninsula – far more beautiful over at Utoro and the Five Lakes, etc. Also if you have that sort of time in Kushiro, hope you will get out to the wetlands – the Kushiro Shitsugen – where the red-crested cranes live. Looking forward to seeing your journey unfold.

  • Martin Bailey
    Posted at 17:21h, 31 January Reply

    Sorry David! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Richard, that’s interesting. Here in Japan, most people associate fishing boats with harsh weather. Funny that.

    Greg, no worries. I’ll be in Utoro with my tour the following week. This time I’m spending all my time in Rausu to photograph the eagles.

    I’ve not tried looking for cranes in the wetlands in winter. It’s my understanding that they are there during the warmer seasons more than the cold, when they tend to hang around the crane centers for free food etc. They are also pretty much always in the river in Tsurui at night, keeping warm, so I’m going to be heading there each morning, hoping for the mist.

    It would be nice to capture some in the wetlands, but I don’t think we’ll have time to scout them out. Unless you know of a spot where they are sure to be that is. Let me know if you do.


  • Alex Racanelli
    Posted at 22:30h, 31 January Reply

    Wonderful images and detailed write-up. Thanks for sharing Martin. This is a part of the world I MUST see! Looking forward to more. Cheers!

  • Martin Bailey
    Posted at 22:39h, 31 January Reply

    You’re welcome Alex! Thanks for the RT too! I won’t reply just now on Twitter, as I need that to be my last tweet for a while. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Thysje
    Posted at 07:22h, 01 February Reply

    Beautiful shots and am looking forward to see more of your wonderful work, and thanks for sharing the images with us. Such a treat! Have a great trip.

  • David Lee
    Posted at 12:51h, 01 February Reply

    Wow, it seems things are really looking good on Day 5. Some folks have all the fun… Great posts and updates too. I am checking every day!

  • mike byford
    Posted at 21:23h, 01 February Reply

    Fantastic – following your posts with interest; dreaming that I can give up the
    day job one day and spend a “few weeks” photographing wonderful winter Hokkaido

  • Susan
    Posted at 19:50h, 03 February Reply

    Hi Martin,
    Thanks so much for the travelogue. It feels like I am sharing this trip with you, through your eyes. Those are marvellous images of places that I doubt I will ever see personally. I hope you continue to go well and I am looking forward to the next exciting entry.
    God bless,

  • Pieter Mantel
    Posted at 19:17h, 06 February Reply

    Hi Martin,
    Thanks for updates… Looks like you’re having a good time. My wife and i really liked the slideshow you made about your december expo btw. As we just bought ourselves a new house, and we need some eye catcher on the wall, you just might end up selling a large print or canvas after all… Will get back to you on this when we move. Enjoy your time in H. Cheers. Pieter

  • Martin Bailey
    Posted at 09:01h, 10 February Reply

    Thanks all for your comments folks!

    After the last update, I went on to shoot Blakiston’s Fish Owls, Steller’s Sea Eagles and White Tailed Eagles at Rausu, and then to shoot the Red-Crowned Cranes in Tsurui and Akan.

    Unfortunately, while shooting the Fish Owls in an awkward position from my car, with the windows down and engine off in about minus 15 degrees, then sleeping in an equally cold room for the night, I must have caught some cold air on my back and then for the last six days spend most of my time not shooting trying to rest my now incredibly painful back.

    Having been back home in Tokyo for two days now, I’m still trying to get it sorted out, and have just two more days before I start my workshop, so I’m hoping things will work out OK, otherwise I’ll be drugged up to the eyeballs during my workshop!

    I’ve started to go to the gym to keep in relatively good shape for my photography, but keep on getting these annoying injuries, which I’m hoping will stop at some point. Maybe it’s time to realise that I’m now in my mid-forties, and stop acting like a pack-horse whenever I go out shooting. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Anyway, nothing to worry about. I’ll be fine. But an update for the rest of the trip will probably come in the form of a Podcast in the coming weeks now.


    P.S. Pieter, that would be great! I haven’t yet added the ability to buy larger prints or canvases to my shopping cart, but if you have anything in mind just mail me. I’ll be happy to quote you a price.

  • David Lee
    Posted at 15:41h, 10 February Reply

    Oh dear, I was afraid something like that happened after several days of no updates. And you seemed to be just hitting your stride after the last update from Day 5…

    If it is any consolation, I had to visit a chiropractor for back pain just yesterday. The 40’s suck.

    The best thing you can do to avoid repeat injury during the workshop is to pack your bag lighter than your normally would on this trip. And I guess this means more professor Bailey time for the workshop students this time around… Don’t dangle those big lenses off your shoulder!

  • Roy Booth
    Posted at 22:14h, 10 February Reply

    Sorry to hear about the back problems Martin, you need to wrap up warm and keep comfortable when shooting. Its a good job Canon have just announced new versions of the 500/4 and 600/4 which are 680g and 1.4Kg lighter, sounds like just what Martin needs ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Martin Bailey
    Posted at 10:55h, 11 February Reply

    HI David,

    The good thing is that I was able to shoot pretty much as planned except for the last day, when I’d planned to go back to the crane center in the morning, then head for the ferry in the afternoon. I actually didn’t do that, and drove to the ferry port, and got the earlier ferry instead.

    Just continuing to shoot though took all my energy, and I spent the rest of the time sleeping, trying to fix the back. It’s almost better today, and I think I’m going to be OK for the workshop.

    I agree about traveling lighter. It was actually great that I did this first trip, in that I know know exactly what I didn’t use, and even bearing in mind the additional location we visit, I now know a number of things that I can leave at home. I’m only taking one tripod for one, and a couple of lenses will stay at home too. The only one I want to take but won’t is the 14mm. I love that lens, but I know that there’s only one place I’ll use it this year — Bihoro Pass. I’ll make do with my 16-35mm this year, and save a few ounces.

    Hi Roy,

    Yes, I’m usually well wrapped up, but we haven’t shot the owls for four years, and it was an exceptionally cold night. I learned my lesson though. I’ll certainly be wrapping up warmer next week. Also though, I won’t be sitting at a weird angle either, hopefully.

    I am very tempted by the new 600mm, as I think it could be sharper. It won’t be one of those lenses that I buy as soon as it comes available though. I’ll be taking my time on this one. ๐Ÿ™‚


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