Birding in Hokkaido is a fantastic experience with such a diversity of birds and other species. Across Japan, over 600 species of birds have been recorded. The majority are migratory, more than 60%. Approximately 60 species are endemic or sub-regional endemic. The reason Japan is so rich in wildlife, especially for the birding photographer and Japan bird watcher, is Japan’s flora and fauna are divided by two ecological lines, the Blakiston’s Line, which is between Hokkaido and Honshu, and the Watase Line, which is just below Kyushu. Hokkaido wildlife is internationally recognized for its abundance and diversity so that you can enjoy birding and experience encounters with other wildlife all on the same day. Last winter, a first-time private photo tour client who has been to Hokkaido and mainland Japan several times remarked on our last day, “Blain, on your Snow Monkey, Hokkaido Photo tour I saw every species I came to see and much more and all in a week.”
I wanted to hear more of his story, so I sat down, and we started a conversation, and this is when I found out that this first-time client had never laid eyes upon the Shima Enaga, or the Pygmy Woodpecker, the Ezo Squirrel, or had visited an Original Samurai Castle or an ancient Japanese Shinto Shrine. What struck me the most was that he had never visited or photographed Mt. Fuji or visited with the snow monkeys; in my opinion, two must-sees for any photographer joining a Japan Photo Tour. I was dumbfounded, but after a few minutes of talking and asking who he came with before, I was not surprised any longer. The other Japan Hokkaido Photo tour groups he had been on had leaders who were international photographers but not locals of Japan. So they do not know the language or the lay of the land; in short, they do not have a backup plan if the weather or species is not in the region they had mapped out in their itinerary, or they don't know elsewhere the species could be and even worse, they drive themselves or have a paid driver or bus driver and a tour guide who is not a pro photographer or explorer. Still, some do, and these are the lucky ones, but there are only a few pro photographers in Hokkaido that I would trust with my wellbeing. I strongly dislike photo tours that use guides who are not pro photographers; 99% they do not know the best times of day for lighting and are so slow, believe me, you may even feel like Hunter S. Thompson gave me a lousy tab; I was on one of these lousy tab photo tour twenty-five some years ago and I quite halfway in. Please don’t get me wrong, I co-lead with other international photographers several times a year, but the difference is I am not a tour guide; I am equal parts pro photographer, instructor of the visual arts, and an explorer, plus a historian and I enjoy sociology and language of Japan. I do this job for my love of being out in the natural world with like-minded individuals. And every year, we have newcomer explorers who have never participated in a photo tour and find that they love the pace of my Japan Photo Workshops, fast, nonstop, always going for the best shots. And my team and I never travel solo, we always travel in pairs with private clients, and with larger groups, we often use 3-5 SUVS with a backup driver. It is my goal to provide once in a lifetime photo ops but also to travel in complete safety and business class at all times.
I recall a few times landing in Kushiro on the first flight in from Tokyo Haneda airport, and quickly packing gear in the SUV’s and photographing the Red-Crowned Cranes in the AM, then making a quick run out to Rausu for an afternoon private boat cruise in pack ice to photograph the Steller’s Sea Eagle & White-Tailed Eagle. Then we had enough time to head back to Nakashibetsu to photograph the Ezo Sika Deer, Shima Enaga, and just at sunset, we arrived at our lodgings to photograph the Blakiston Fish Owl. This was a perfect day, and everyone was tired after a full day of adventure, so the first order of business after returning to our lodgings was a soak in the healing hot springs before our first dinner together in Hokkaido and a toast to the beginning of the next week of exploration. On this Hokkaido tour, the weather was with us, and we got to venture out in Rausu 3 times, and one time was in Zodiacs, and the group got to visit and photograph the largest herd of Ezo Sika Deer on our planet. And we got to visit with my Ainu friend the First Nations People of Japan. I love these Japan Hokkaido photo tours when all the stars align, and all omens are good ones. Japan will be open for international photographers, I believe, by next autumn, and I look forward to my friends and clients returning for autumn and our 2022 Hokkaido photo tour.