Eight Reasons Why Eastern Hokkaido Should Be Your Next Photography Destination
This visit to Hokkaido is my third over a four-year span but the beautiful island never fails to fascinate me each time. Perhaps the different season and travel theme conspired to maintain that novelty feel. Indeed, Hokkaido has been so successful in establishing herself as a winter holiday destination that the notion winter is the best time to visit sticks in the mind of most visitors. But I beg to differ, the island has so much to offer to anyone and everyone all year round beyond the powdery snow of Niseko.
I hope this travelogue will trigger readers’ interest in some activities that can be enjoyed in summer, in particular, Eastern Hokkaido. Why Eastern Hokkaido, you might wonder? This non-touristy region is blessed with some of the most diverse seasonal beauty, the freshest food from the land and sea, hot springs that reinvigorate the bodies and a stupendous choice of attraction that will make you wish the clock stops ticking. And yes, Hokkaido is very photogenic, so do be reminded to bring more memory cards.
A brief insight into Eastern Hokkaido
Hokkaido (literally “Northern Sea Circuit “) is Japan second largest island and northernmost prefecture. It is separated from Honshu by the Tsugaru Strait. The largest city on Hokkaido is its capital, Sapporo. Eastern Hokkaido is divided into different geographical regions, with each region differing slightly in culture and landscape but still uniquely Eastern Hokkaido. Some of the local hosts that I spoke with even identify themselves (humorously) as “Hokkaidians” rather than Japanese, apart from some local accent that distinguishes themselves from mainland Japan.
#01 – Beautiful Sceneries
Gorgeous sceneries abound in Hokkaido and you will be spoilt for choices of scenic spots. Some popular landmarks are more accessible while others will require experienced local guides to bring you as it may be their “secret” places off the beaten track.
Märchen no Oka (A fairytale hill) @ Memambetsu
Meruhen no Oka (meaning a fairytale hill) is one of the most popular landmarks you should not miss. Eye-catching artwork-like landscape with rows of cultivated farmland on the hillside and trees on the ridgeline beautifully transforming with the season, time of day as well as the different phase of the crops sprouting flowers at a different period.
Another part of the farm just steps away with meandering crops flanked by a roll of Japanese white birch trees. Certainly a lovely minder of Hokkaido summer colour. Come winter the area will be blanketed in snow with the landscape transforming into a monochromatic white.
Just a short seven to eight minutes drive away along the town road Asahi Minami no.10, this is another location featured in the renowned Akira Kurosawa classic film “Dreams”, like the Marchen No Oka venue earlier. If the movie name does not ring a bell, visiting these two places will surely arouse your curiosity in the dream-like movie.
At first glance, the flat and sparse brown-soil beach vista strikes a minimalist zen-like feel, till when you warm up to how this is like an artist palette, letting you put your creativity to the test. The beachscape changes with the tide, with certain areas forming a reflective surface that is ‘Instagrammable” as you seek the best angles.
Depending at various time of the day, the stream run-offs to the sea carve a picture that differs daily and by the tides flow. Just hope for nice clouds to enhance the effect.
You can make use of the different tones and textures for a unique feel. This is the location where tripod, neutral density and polarizer filters will be necessary.
There are 493 mountain peaks in Hokkaido and at least 80 in eastern Hokkaido alone. This is Mt. Oakan at 1,370 m. Many can be photographed at lookout points strategically set up at various points along highway routes.
Mt. Oakan as viewed from Lake Akan. The cloudscape are spectacular too, lending wispy texture to the skies.
#02 – Gorgeous National Parks
UNESCO World Heritage Site @ Shiretoko National Park
Naturally beautiful Shiretoko National Park is a must-visit for the gorgeous mountainscape and wildlife within the park. The UNESCO certified park will have you spellbound one way or another, like this reflective pond at the Five Lakes, a set of five small lakes formed long ago by the eruption of nearby Mount Io and fed by underground springs.
Apart from the three kilometres of regular nature trails that lead around the picturesque five lakes, the beautifully crafted elevated boardwalk itself is the perfect showcase of Japanese fine carpentry skill and attention to details.
Mt. Io and Akan Manshu National Park
Akan Mashu National Park is composed of two separate parts. The smaller, western portion contains Lake Akan with the lakeside hot spring resort of Akankohan Onsen. The larger, eastern part contains Lake Mashu, Lake Kussharo, Iozan (Sulfur Mountain) and centrally located Kawayu Onsen.
Nice walking trails offer a pleasant easy hike around the mountain with the longest path (2.5 kilometres) leading to the visitor centre of nearby Kawayu Onsen. This flat, well-maintained route passes through acres of blossoming azaleas flowers and shrub amid white birch trees during summer are a real treat for the senses.
Mt. Iozan (literally “Sulfur Mountain”) is an active volcano, located outside of the hot spring resort of Kawayu Onsen. The area with the volcanic activity is less than five minutes from the town centre by car. The ever-shifting wind will make this “hot steaming” site a joy to photograph. Just mind the sulphur smell in the air though.
Its yellow, sulfurous ‘hissing” vents can be viewed from a close proximity. Eggs, cooked by the natural heat of the mountain, are usually on sale at the site visitor centre.
#03 – Exquisite Japanese Cuisine
The Japanese attention to details and aesthetics, especially to food, are itself an area for food photography. The interplay of colour, texture and ingredients are themselves works of art. The best thing you do is to get a table near a window for the best natural lighting.
The inclusion of human elements into food photography will spice up the composition. Just don’t take too long to compose and shoot, it’s simply irresistible.
Go close and frame it tight. The photographic philosophy that “less is more” certainly applies to better food photography.
“Unposed” food photography adds to the spontaneity for a more natural feel. But you have to think and work fast to capture the moment.
The best part of food photography is that you get to eat it too. Nourishment for the eyes and stomach indeed.
#04 – Superb Activities That Excite
Fish Market Auction @ Rausu Seafood Market
Enjoy “intense” fish auctioning at the Rausu Wholesale Fish Market. While not on the same scale as the renowned Tsukiji in Tokyo, this auction is more accessible and time-friendly as you don’t need to wake up at 1 am and fight for limited visitation slots.
A cultural experience as well as “street photography” opportunity. Generally, in Japan, it’s not recommended to take pictures of people without asking for permission. But in this case, the auctioneer and fish buyers are in deep concentration and oblivious to the surrounding. Just take note not to obstruct their business in any way.
Engaging a licensed guide is the only option for an informative and enjoyable session at the market.
A great opportunity to see and take pictures of seafood that may not be available in our home country.
Cherry Salmon Run @ Sharigawa River
Spectacular nature comes alive with the annual salmon run between July and September at various rivers in Hokkaido. The returning Cherry Salmon at the beautiful Sharigawa River in Kiyosato offers an exciting opportunity for photographers to test their skill at capturing the salmon that struggle to swim upstream.
Photographers shooting the Salmon Run for the first time will need to harness their observation prowess in getting higher keeper rate in their pictures. The shoot will undoubtedly reaffirm the skill and techniques you have acquired so far. Unless you have shot a salmon run before, the challenges will induce a steep learning curve.
The perseverance and the relentless spirit of returning salmon as they fought against the torrent river to spawn at their birthplace are something that never ceases to amaze and inspire me. Such steadfastness in adversity and going against all odds are qualities we human beings can learn from them.
Scores of local and overseas photographers recording the “natural documentary” happening right in front of them. Video of the event can be seen in this travelogue video at the start of the article.
Blakiston’s Fish Owl Photography @ Washi no Yado
This is one of Hokkaido most popular bird photography venue. The owner of the lodge has perfected the creation of a natural hunting ambience necessary for the resident owls which have been returning to the same feeding spot for decades. Blakiston Fish Owl is the largest owl in the world and is a rare species. It is estimated there is only about 100 of this species on the island, so photographing them will certainly notch a milestone in many photographers’ portfolio.
They are efficient and deadly hunters, searching out their food by sight and sound during the night when they prey on small mammals, reptiles, birds and large invertebrates.
The strobe lights at the venue have been calibrated to give the perfect exposure at 1/80, F4, ISo3200. No flashlight is allowed or tolerated. Recommended lens focal length to be used is between 300-400mm. (based on full-frame). Focal range longer than 400mm will see parts of the owl’s wings cropped off when it stretches out its wings to take flight.
The photographers shooting gallery, non-residential guests pay about USD35 person per session to shoot from here as well as from a disused bus shell, customized as a shooting hideout.
The Ethereal Lake Kussharo
Lake Kussharo is a beautiful caldera lake in Akan Mashu National Park. With a circumference of 57 kilometres, it is the park’s largest lake. In winter, the lake freezes over and one of the highlights is the migratory Whooper Swans which fly in all the way from Russia. Out of winter, the lake takes on another facade with anglers fishing and kayakers on the lake.
The lake is also renowned for surreal mist and cloudscape at the different time of day and season. In summer, if you are lucky, you get to see pinkish mist as it catches the setting sun.
The lake also has several trees that are exceptionally photogenic. It may not be as iconic or widely photographed as the Lake Wanaka Tree in South Island (New Zealand), it nonetheless lends an aesthetic feel to the lake.
#05 – Rediscover Monochromatic Photography
Many spots around Eastern Hokkaido lend themselves to monochromatic interpretation, transforming scenic spots to “art pieces”.
A pair of “loving trees” by the Lake Kussharo. One scene, many ways of conveying various mood.
Just a typical farmer plot of land in the early morning as the soil releases mist in the heat of the rising sun, making the scene surreal.
A stream along the many bridges in the region lends itself to be transformed the way you want, how you want it.
The mist that shroud certain areas render a zen-like feel that acquits itself to black and white rendition naturally, without the need for desaturation using editing software. Eastern Hokkaido has all this and more.
#06 – Superb Wildlife Islandwide
Eastern Hokkaido is renowned for abundant wildlife. So you can be assured of encounters with a variety of wild animals. You just need a sharp-eyed nature guide to assist in the spotting and be ready when the opportunity presents itself. Like the White-tailed Eagle, we spotted when driving along the highway.
Watch out for raptors like the kite we spotted at a harbour along the Kunsahiri National Highway. Many mistaken kites for eagles as they look somewhat similar. Apart from slightly smaller size, their black beak will differentiate them from eagles’ yellow beak.
Ezo Red Foxes (Kitsune) sightings are especially common when driving through natural or mountainous areas. The foxes have fluffy and cute winter coats with “cunning” eyes that make them a favourite subject among photographers. The challenge is photographing them with an unusual facial expression like when they yawning or “smiling” with eyes closed.
Like Ezo Red Foxes, Sika deer frequently appear all over the island in increasing numbers. In fact, the population boom resulted in the local movement to cull the deer as they negatively impacted the vegetation apart from creating more accidents on the road. But they are still a nice subject to photograph among the lush Hokkaido landscape.
Red-crowned cranes breed only in Japan and are a precious nationwide-protected species. They’re the largest bird in Japan at 2.4m when they spread their wings. In kanji, red-crowned crane (“tancho”) is written “丹頂.” The 丹 means “red” and the 頂 means “top of the head.” It is said this is where the bird derive its name. Red-crowned cranes live in Hokkaido year-round. We were pleased to spot this family of Tanchos in the Kushiro Marshland, which is their key habitat.
#07 – Stargazing and astrophotography
Eastern Hokkaido light pollution is low and this facilitates stargazing and astrophotography, subject to the season, cloud cover and the moon phase.
Hokkaido northerly location meant that shooting star trails with the Polaris higher up in the skies give concentric rings trails, compared with that at the equator, which sees the north star close to the horizon which results in ‘half circle’ trails.
#08 – Nature Immersion
The highlight of any nature photography trip has to be at the Hickory Wind Wilderness Lodge, founded and managed by internationally renowned nature photographer Makoto Ando. His strategically located nature lodge will have visitors swearing to return time after time for unique and memorable experiences.
The lodge activity centre which is a hub for the creative souls. Makoto Ando is also a veritable musician apart from his many accolades.
Ando-san is also a “slow food” practitioner. Slow food promotes local food and traditional cooking. It strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming of plants, seeds, and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem. In short, guests staying at the lodge are rewarded with a culinary experience quite unlike anywhere else.
The laid-back country-side vibes of staying at the lodge are an experience that any visitors will savour. The high percentage of returning guests are their best testimony.
The protected marshland at Cape Kirakotan. The name originates from the time when the Kushiro Marsh was ocean and Kirakotan was a cape. Situated at the innermost point of the Kushiro Marsh, you get to savour serene marsh landscape and even drink spring water seeping from the hill. Designated as a National Natural Monument, the park is only accessible on foot and is a 5 km round trip from the car park. Entry is permitted only with licensed guides and Ano-san is one of them.
Ando-san sharing his valuable photographic tips to me. To be able to pick up precious knowledge from the master photographer is my personal highlights of the photo trip.
A picture of the oaks trees in the national park before Ando-san shared his tip. See the result below.
After a quick demonstration, I realised what a quick vertical panning can do to the otherwise “normal and mundane” scenery.
Likewise, I used the technique on the reeds at the bank of the stream, instantly imparting a dreamlike and “artsy” feel to the picture.
The travelogue is just skimming at the surface to what Eastern Hokkaido can offer to photographers during summer. Our trip was just five short days that showcased a quick overall view of what the region is blessed with. A trip to the beautiful island will definitely refresh and reinvigorate any shutterbugs’ sense of aesthetics and the valued opportunities to capture them. But one trip will never be enough. For my other trips to Japan, please feel free to have a peek here. Much appreciation for coming along the pixels journey.
Footnote: All pictures used in this travelogue are copyrighted to Jensen Chua Photography and all rights reserved. The opinion expressed is factual, objective and that of the author. The trip is sponsored by Hokkaido Tourism Board and organised by Nippon Travel Agency.