Japan is one of the best places in the world for photography, and its northernmost island Hokkaido provides a wide range of subjects for your camera.

Hokkaido’s northerly latitudes ensure you’ll be able to photograph snowy scenes if you visit between late November and early March.

Why visit

Spending a week or two in Japan during the Northern Hemisphere winter is a great way to escape summer’s heat and humidity, find exciting new subjects for your camera and experience a different culture that is interesting and engaging. Hokkaido, blessed with an abundance of ice and snow, dramatic landscapes and seascapes and opportunities to photograph wildlife close-up, is located between the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Pacific Ocean.  

Ranging from Hakodate in the south to Wakkanai in the north, Hokkaido boasts the longest winter season in Japan, making it a magnet for anyone interested in snow sports. Visitors can participate in activities like skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, snow rafting, ice fishing, dog sledding and drift ice sightseeing cruises where the winter scenery is, literally, breathtaking due to sub-zero temperatures. 

Fortunately, Hokkaido is safe, clean, and easy to get to. It has excellent public transport, delicious and healthy food and even if you don’t speak the language, the people are courteous and friendly. Tourist visits peak between mid January and early March and many attractions are crowded at this time.

If you’ve never been to Japan before we recommend taking an organised tour to enable you to come to grips with Japanese culture, transport, accommodation and food. A Google search will provide plenty of tours to choose from, ranging from budget-priced through mid-level to ventures offering top-flight facilities. Specialised tours for photographers are also available.

The annual Sapporo Snow Festival attracts millions of visitors from Japan and across the world. The theme for the 2019 festival was Finland and the highlight was this huge replica of the Great Cathedral in Helsinki.

Tour options

A Google search on ‘photography tours in Japan in winter’ will bring up plenty of tour options; some designed for ordinary members of the public and others dedicated to meeting the needs of photographers. Most cover roughly two weeks, although a few are only a week long, which is the shortest time we think you should allow for. 

Since prices are variable you need to have a clear idea of what you want in the way of places visited, experiences offered and creature comforts. Low-to-mid-priced tours will often require you to use public transport, sleep and eat Japanese-style (i.e. on tatami mats) and buy the occasional breakfast or lunch from a convenience store (to make time available for shooting opportunities).

Small-group tours can include excursions into the drift ice, where it’s easy to get close-up shots of Steller’s Sea Eagles, attracted to the boat for feeds of fish. This shot was taken just off the coast near Rausu.

Small-group tours are generally better for photographers since they provide greater flexibility and there’s more chance of getting the shots you want with fewer people to get in your way. It’s also easier to tailor parts of the tour to meet specific needs.

If you opt for a tour, its pace will be dictated by the slowest member(s) in the group. Check beforehand to find out the typical age range of participants to ensure you’re a good match.

Note that day tours are available in many of the areas listed in this feature. An internet search on individual places should show you what’s available. Some day tours can be pre-booked online.

Getting there

Direct flights go from Tokyo to the main airport at Sapporo, and to regional airports at Hakodate, Kushiro, Obihiro, Asahikawa, Ozora, and a couple of smaller airports. It’s cheapest to take the one hour 40 minute direct flight to Sapporo and go on to other places by train or bus. 

Alternatively, if you have a Japan Rail Pass you can take the JR Tohoku/Hokkaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto (4 hours) and transfer to the Hokuto limited express to Sapporo (3.5 hours). Without the JR pass, the fare is roughly double the cost of a flight to Sapporo – similar to the air fare to the regional airports.

There are also long distance ferries between various ports in Honshu and Hokkaido, providing a more leisurely and inexpensive option. Departure ports include Niigata, Oarai (Ibaraki Prefecture), Sendai, Nagoya, Maizuru (Kyoto Prefecture) and Tsuruga (Fukui Prefecture). Most ferries arrive either in Otaru, 30 train minutes west of Sapporo or Tomakomai, 45-60 train minutes south of Sapporo. 

Getting around

If you’re taking a tour, transport and accommodation are part of the package and you will usually be met at the start of the tour and taken to your chosen transport at the end of the tour. If you opt for independent travel, consider investing in a Japan Rail Pass, which provides unlimited travel on the JR Railway, selected JR buses and ferries. It’s available from a number of online outlets, which are easily found.

Passes are offered in two levels, Economy and Green Class (which is more up-market). When this issue of Photo Review was published, prices for seven-day passes started at AU$365, with 14-day passes at $582 and 21-day passes costing $744. They work best for travellers who want to cover a lot of ground in a short time.

JR passes include travel on all but two of Japan’s 15 shinkansen train lines, which cover the entire country from Hokkaido in the north to Kagoshima in the south. Trains on these lines can reach speeds of 320 km/hour so you can cover a lot of ground quickly. Details can be found at Japan RailPass

Highway buses are another alternative and cover most of Japan. They are relatively cheap and comfortable. Best of all, you can find timetables and pre-book tickets. Visit japan-guide.com for more information.

Sapporo is particularly easy to navigate, with streets laid out on a rectangular grid and numbered according to the points of compass. ‘North 7, East 9’ indicates the 7th block north and 9th block east of the apex at the eastern end of Odori Park.

Visitors emerging from the subway in Sapporo to view the snow sculptures in Odori Park.

There are also three subway lines, a tram line and several bus companies (JR Hokkaido Bus, Hokkaido Chuo Bus and Jotetsu Bus), and you can purchase pre-paid cards that give you discounted ‘unlimited’ use on the subways and buses. Three-, five- and seven-day train passes are available for those without JR passes. They’re also accepted on most JR buses.

Buses are a cheaper way to travel more widely to explore the smaller cities and towns and visit scenic attractions. In most towns it’s easy to find the bus station and ask about your next destination. Signage is usually in both Japanese and English, the station masters are helpful and the buses are comfortable and always on time.

Where to go

Sapporo, the capital city of Hokkaido hosts its annual Snow Festival in mid-winter. In 2020 it will open on Friday 31 January and end on Wednesday 12 February. During the festival, the city’s centre is filled with spectacular snow and ice sculptures that attract more than two million visitors from Japan and across the world. They are illuminated between dusk and 10pm every day. 

Stages at intervals along the main site in Odori Park present entertainment that can range from ski-jump demonstrations through to pop-groups and dancing. Interspersed between them and the sculptures are stalls selling food, with the occasional souvenir outlet.  

This J-pop group attracted both fans and photographers to the temporary stage near the middle of Odori Park. 

A secondary site at Susukino, one subway stop south of Odori Park, has about 100 sculptures, while another site at Tsu Dome adds snow slides and snow rafting to additional snow sculptures. Shuttle buses to the Tsu Dome Site depart from the Odori Site and from Sapporo Station roughly every 15-30 minutes.

If you’re staying in Sapporo for a few days, it’s worth visiting the Historical Village of Hokkaido, an open-air museum that is easy to reach by train and bus. On display are 53 typical buildings from all over Hokkaido, dating from the Meiji and Taisho Periods (1868 to 1926). There are four different sections: a town, fishing village, farm village and a mountain village.

You can take a sleigh ride through the streets of the Historical Village of Hokkaido to help you decide what you’d like to photograph.

A 30 minute train trip from Sapporo in the evening will take you to Otaru, a historical port town for the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, which runs for 10 days in February. During this time, the city becomes decorated in lights and small snow statues, which provide attractive subjects for your camera.

There are two main areas for viewing the hand-made lanterns, both located within a fifteen minute walk of the train station. The closer is the Temiyasen Kaijo area, which stretches for about half a kilometre along the tracks of the abolished Temiyasen railway line. More popular is the Unga Kaijo area, which runs for about 300 meters alongside the town’s iconic Otaru Canal. Visit Otaru Snow Light Path for more information.

A child enjoys one of the snow lantern displays in the Temiyasen Kaijo area during the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival.

Organised day tours are the best way to see the main attractions in Abashiri, which is reached by a 5-hour train trip from Sapporo. Located on the northeast coast, Abashiri boasts a couple of historical museums plus opportunities to experience snowshoeing, ice fishing and drift ice walks. 

Rausu, on the eastern edge of the Shiretoko Peninsula facing the southernmost of the disputed  Kuril Islands, has a bit more to offer and is worth visiting not only for its scenery but also for its wildlife. In winter, you can participate in snow-shoeing trips through pristine forest – where you may see deer and Ural owls. 

Another option is a Drift Ice and Bird Watching Cruise, which takes you out through the drift ice for one to two hours. You’ll be guaranteed close-up views of White-tailed eagles and Steller’s sea eagles drawn to the ice-strengthened boat for feeds of fish.

Hokkaido is also famous for the dancing red-crowned cranes, which congregate at Kushiro Marsh near Tsurui. Like the eagles, the cranes are fed to keep them in the area and there’s a facility operated by the Wild Bird Society of Japan where you can view and learn about them.

A popular place for photographing them is the Otowabashi bridge, which gets crowded with photographers by sunrise, when the cranes leave their night-time roost. For more information, visit Hokkaido Travel Guide

Popular destinations can be crowded during the peak tourist season. These photographers are attempting to photograph the red-crowned cranes from the Otowabashi bridge just before 7am when the birds were due to leave their overnight resting place.

A lens with a focal length equivalent to 600mm in 35mm format was needed to obtain this shot of the cranes, which still hadn’t flown an hour-and-a-half after the bridge shot was taken.

What gear to take

Most modern camera equipment should be able to withstand Hokkaido’s sub-zero temperatures. However, it’s wise to stick with weatherproofed gear as you’ll want to range out into the landscape or on the sea to get the best pictures.

We’d recommend light equipment; M4/3 or APS-C cameras and lenses, rather than more bulky full-frame gear. For one thing light gear is easier to carry and many places will be crowded, making it difficult to manoeuvre your way into a prime position for shooting. All images reproduced here were taken with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 II camera and either the M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm f/4.0 IS PRO general-purpose zoom lens or the M.Zuiko Digital ED 75-300mm f/4.8-6.7 II.

Make sure you have a comfortable camera bag that provides good protection against rain and snow. Unless you have a specific shooting situation in mind where they might be required, leave your flash and tripod at home. Both can interfere with other photographers’ ability to get shots and a tripod, in particular, will impair your mobility causing you to miss good shooting opportunities.

Warm clothing is essential if you want to take part in snowshoeing excursions. The peak of Mount Rausu can be seen in the distance in this shot.

Make sure you’re warmly dressed with a scarf and/or beanie to keep your head and neck warm. Fingerless gloves with pull-over mittens are great for shooting in cold environments. Snow boots are also essential both for keeping your feet warm and for preventing you from slipping on icy paths.

Shooting tips

Turn off everything that might distract you from composing your shots so you can concentrate on shooting. Start by setting your camera’s auto ISO range to enable you to shoot hand-held in the lighting conditions you’re likely to encounter. 

During the day, when there’s plenty of light reflected from the snow, the auto ISO will default to the lowest ‘native’ value (ISO 100 or ISO 200). At night, you will probably need to use settings above ISO 1600 and often even higher. Adjust your camera to minimise the risk of camera shake in each situation. 

Take advantage of all stabilisation options available, whether in the camera or in the lens – or both. Concentrate on your shooting technique when faced with slow shutter speeds; hold the camera steady, keep your elbows in and squeeze down on the shutter button. 

Use single-shot mode, particularly in bright outdoor lighting. Even though storage is relatively cheap, burst shooting is wasteful and, if your shooting technique is well refined, unnecessary in most situations. The noise from the camera during continuous shooting is distracting – and may cause your subject to take off.

Aim to ‘nail’ each shot with a combination of timing and careful framing. All of the shots reproduced in this feature were taken in single-shot mode.

Check the brightness histogram before and after each shot. AE systems can perform poorly if left to their own devices in snowy conditions. Don’t be surprised if you have to apply between +0.7 and +3.0EV of exposure compensation.

Check the histogram regularly when shooting in snowy conditions, making sure the tonal bias is towards the right of the graph but not hard against the right hand edge. Highlight details will be lost if that occurs.

Shoot raw files as well as JPEGs to ensure you have the widest range of tones to work with when editing shots. Snowy scenes containing areas of dark shadows can have brightness ranges in excess of 15 stops, which is beyond the range of most sensors. When the histogram is jammed up against both sides of the graph, the brightness range is wider than the sensor can record. The AE system will average the values, causing you to lose both highlights and shadows. 

We think it’s best to ensure highlight details are recorded, particularly if they occupy a large part of the picture. You can ‘bring up’ shadow details when editing, although they might contain visible image noise. But that’s better than having large areas of detail-less white dominating the shot. 

Most cameras include high-dynamic-range (HDR) modes for handling wide brightness range subjects. However, they usually involve combining multiple exposures so they’re not suitable for moving subjects. The results can also look unnatural.

Article by Margaret Brown –  see Margaret’s photography pocket guides  

Excerpt from  Photo Review Issue 80 

Subscribe to Photo Review magazine