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Hokkaido is Japan’s frontier, a sparsely populated island where ice mixes with volcanic activity creating unique landscapes, ever-present fog banks, and steaming hot springs … anesthetic lure of minimalist scenery. Winters bring cold weather from Siberia with staggering amounts snowfall–an average of twenty-five feet in places! Red fox, fish, owls, sea eagles, and Japan’s national symbol of longevity the red-crowned crane are common.
For thousands of years, Hokkaido was the traditional home of the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan who still inhabit the area and keep alive many of their ethnic traditions. Today, world-class cities, ski slopes that rivals the best spots in the world and winter festivals featuring stunning ice sculptures make the island a popular travel destination.
Travel through this remarkable winter landscape with National Geographic photographer and writer Michael Yamashita, and photographer and adventure travel guide Jock Montgomery. With their guidance, create a photographic journal that reflects the soul of Hokkaido in winter: streets lined with giant snow banks, sleepy winter harbors, chaotic sea ice, unspoiled nature with exotic wildlife, forests on vast hillsides of snow and patterns and textures in infinite shades gray.
- Receive personal guidance from National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita and adventure travel photographer Jock Montgomery
- Harajuku – Center of the colorful street, art and fashion scene in Tokyo
- Two large and unique fish markets at Hakodate
- Boiling sulfuric hot springs
- For a unique photographic perspective, flatwater paddling on the Shiribetsu River
- Remote fishing villages and oyster farms
- Hundreds of spectacular snow and ice sculptures at the world-renowned Snow Festival in Sapporo
- Snow shoes are provided for short walks through deep snow
- Take a cable car up mount Asahidake with its steaming fumaroles – The tallest mountain on Hokkaido
- Minimalist landscape photography in Biei
- Cruise on an icebreaker ship amid drift ice on the sea of Okhotsk
- Swans and Red-Crowned Cranes at Lake Kussharo
Gallery click here to view as selection of Mike’s work in 1980 and from Jock’s recent scouting trip this past March.
An Invitation from Michael Yamashita: Full Circle
Dear Fellow Photographers,
My first story assignment for National Geographic, published in January 1980, was Hokkaido: Japan’s Last Frontier. I spent four months over three different seasons for this 32-page story that launched my career at the Geographic. Twenty-eight years later I returned to Hokkaido to shoot a landscape story on my favorite location, Daisetsuzan (‘big snow mountain’) National Park which included 12 double-page photo spreads. (Photographers often track how successful their stories are according to the number of pages they run).
And now I am pleased to announce that I’ll be returning to Hokkaido in 2020 for a winter photo workshop organized by my good friend and colleague Jock Montgomery of Compass Rose Photographic Expeditions. We are planning the workshop for February when annual snow accumulations are among the deepest in the world — 20 meters or more are common. I was there over New Year’s 2019, and it never stopped snowing during the entire two weeks I was there.
So, grab your cold-weather gear and get ready to shoot this unique winter wonderland – with everything from ice sculptures, igloos and ice-filled fishing harbors to stark white landscapes, smoldering volcanoes and steamy hot springs. What is especially gratifying about returning to Hokkaido is that most of the scenes that inspired me over 30 years ago are still there, just as I first saw them, waiting to be reinterpreted by you. But there is much that is completely new too, like Australian backcountry skiers and heated roads to melt the ever-present ice. We will travel by four-wheel drive, snowmobile and an ice-breaker, with options for skiing and snow-shoeing. There will also be memorable meals along the way. Hokkaido is justly famous for its king crab, native salmon, ikura, oysters and ramen – all of which will also be our subjects in some of the most photogenic markets in Asia.
I am psyched to be returning to my Japanese roots and sharing with you my favorite locations. Please join me for an unforgettable adventure.
On our photography tours, we frequently work with serious amateurs and some pro photographers, but we are open to photographers of all experience levels, and accompanying spouses are also welcome to join us.
This photography tour concentrates first and foremost on helping you see and shoot in new and exciting ways. Every other day, we gather to review each other’s work. Michael Yamashita and Jock Montgomery will personally help you define your composition, create compelling content, and help you see the light. As you work towards nurturing your shooting style, you will learn how to personalize breathtaking moments that range from sweeping natural scenery to colorful human activities. For those who want to digitally enhance their photos, Jock is an experienced Lightroom instructor.
We provide a pre-departure document with detailed information on preparing for your trip, including suggestions for clothing, shooting in cold temperatures, how to protect your camera gear in snowy conditions, and other details.
Tuition note: At the time of registration a deposit of $1000 will be taken. At that point students are transferred to Compass Rose Expeditions for further correspondence and final financial arrangements.
We make every effort to keep our plans, but we also remain flexible so we can adjust to unexpected problems and take full advantage of photographic and other opportunities as they arise.
Please note: three meals a day are included in the cost except for first and last days as noted in the itinerary.
Day 1, 2/2: Tokyo
At 4 pm, our group will meet in the lobby of our hotel. After an orientation meeting head to dinner at Shinjuku, a busy commercial center of Tokyo and the location of one of the world’s busiest train stations. We visit Omoide Yokocho, an intimate alley with lantern lights, smoke shops, and crowds of locals; and the vibrant Kubukicho, an area rich in night life and one of the largest red light districts in Japan.
We stay at the upscale Shibuya Hotel situated directly above the famous Shibuya crossing, a place known for its interchange of thousands of people and hundreds of cars with each change of the light.
Day 2, 2/3: Tokyo
In the morning, we have an excellent opportunity for street photography. We walk from Shibuya to tree-lined Omotesando Street, which abuts the Meiji Shrine, and then to Harajuku, a hub for youth, fashion and boutique stores.
In the evening, we visit the upscale neighborhood of Ginza, known for large international stores, the oldest department stores in Japan, and people dressed in upscale clothes including kimonos. The Tokyo International Forum offers excellent examples of large-scale, modern architecture.
We have dinner at Tokyo Station, a newly renovated historic landmark. In the evening lights, we have a chance to photograph this architectural masterpiece that has been a backdrop to history.
Day 3, 2/4: Hakodate
Today we take the Shinkansen bullet train (which regularly travel at speeds of around 200 miles an hour), from Tokyo and arrive in Hakodate in the afternoon. We visit Jiyuichiba, a covered fish market featuring a variety of local and overseas fish, (photography is allowed and most of the merchants are happy to be photographed).
At night we take a cable car (called a ropeway in Japan) up onto Mt. Hakodate, which offers a spectacular night view of the isthmus and one of the most well-known images of Japan.
We stay at the La Vista Hakodate Hotel, which has a unique seaside setting and an upscale spa.
Day 4, 2/5: Niseko
This morning we meet to review and discuss our photographs from Tokyo. We visit the large Hakodate Seafood Market. with an impressive arrange of products from the sea (photography is also permitted here). We enjoy a seafood brunch with king crab!
We make our way to Niseko with some random stops along the way, primarily to shoot landscapes. Two places are worth mentioning: Mount Atika-Komogatake volcano is an active volcano (it most recently erupted in 1971); it and the adjacent lake, are quite beautiful. We visit some secluded farm fields and an abandoned property. In order to make the most of the photography and find the perfect setting, we provide snowshoes! They’re very easy to use and you won’t need to walk far, but one thing is for sure, the snow is definitely too deep to walk on!
We spend two nights at the Niseko Grand Hotel, which has an indoor onsen and an adjacent hot spring. It is popular with skiers and snowboarders.
Day 5, 2/6: Niseko
To add a unique perspective to our photography we head to the Shiribetsu River for a morning of flatwater rafting and photography. We also travel around the countryside looking for more tranquil scenery and ideal environments to photograph Hokkaido’s most dramatic volcano, Mount Yotei.
In the afternoon we head back to our hotel to do some editing and a review with Mike and Jock.
Spend a second night at the Niseko Grand Hotel.
Day 6, 2/7: Sapporo
Today we head to the Sea of Japan and a spectacular drive along the Shakotan-Misaki peninsula. We photograph the dramatic seascapes and we visit some of the fishing villages hope to shoot a few portraits of local fishermen and women. Near the seaside city of Yoichi, we visit Ebisu Iwa where massive rocks seem to teeter on small platforms above the sea. At Candle Rock, a giant spire extends dramatically toward the sky.
For lunch, we visit Kakizaki Shouten for fresh seafood and then tour the Nikka Whisky Distillery, one of Japan’s premiere distilleries.
We arrive in Sapporo in time to visit the Snow Festival and the impressive ice sculptures. We have dinner at the well-known Susukino restaurant and return to the snow festival after dark for some colorful nighttime photography. We stay at the Sapporo Prince Hotel.
Day 7 – 8, 2/8 – 9: Biei
On our way to Biei, we pass through the Furano area, known for its fields of lavender in summer and deep drifts of snow in winter, we drive beside forests filled with seemingly endless arrays of straight, both white and silver birch trees. We may take the opportunity to explore the area on snowshoes. We have lunch at a famous curry soup restaurant.
The Biei area, (where we spend two nights) is known for its rolling hills covered in thick snow with lone trees emerging in the distance, there are the Akashi River and others, so there is plenty to photograph in this region!
At Mount Asahidake (2,291m), the highest mountain in Hokkaido, we take a large cable car to the top for a spectacular view and to photograph the surrounding mountains and steaming fumaroles, as well as skiers and snowboarders. There is the option to walk for roughly 30 minutes in snowshoes next to the site of belching fumaroles. We can use Jock as a model like in Mike’s photo in this slideshow!(If you want to ski or snowboard, for just one or two runs this can be an option.)
We stay Shirogane Park Hills Hotel, known for its natural hot springs baths and situated near the base of Mount Tokachidake, an impressive active volcano that is covered in snow. Beside the hotel are a beautiful river and a hot spring fed waterfall colored blue from aluminum hydroxide that we undoubtedly want to photograph under various lighting conditions.
The Blue Pond where trees eerily emerge from the frozen pond. In the winter the lake is illuminated by lights at night and it’s not far from our hotel.
Day 9, 2/10: Mombetsu
We travel down from the mountains for a couple of hundred kilometers and to the Sea of Okhotsk. On our way, we plan to stop at a horse farm to see the huge and impressive Dosanko draught horses. They are indigenous to Hokkaido and used for farming and a popular summertime race.
Near Montebsu the Ainu River empties fresh water into the sea, lowering the freezing point and allowing large drifts of ice to form. The Sea of Okhotsk is the southernmost point where the ocean freezes. At the town of Mombetsu, visit a local fishing port where dry docked boats are neatly lined up for winter storage. We have a chance to do some seascape photography of the Montebsu lighthouse and the tetrapods used to block heavy seas from the port and to prevent erosion.
We stay in Mombetsu a small town based mainly on the scallop fishing industry, and stay at Hotel Hinode Misaki (with an onsen), beside the sea.
Day 10, 2/11: Abashiri
We drive along the coast with opportunities to view the dense drift ice and stop in the settlement of Tokoro, well-known for its world-class curling hall. Curlers from here did well in the last winter Olympics and the sport is very popular among students in this remote region. We have been given permission to photograph here.
At Lake Saroma, we can photograph people ice-fishing for smelt in the frozen lake. At Cape Notoro we can shoot the lighthouse perched on a high cliff above the drift ice.
For dinner, we have Okonomiyaki, a savory pancake of varying ingredients, cooked in front of us at one of the best-known restaurants in Japan!
We spend the night Abashiri Kanko Hotel which features an indoor-outdoor onsen.
Day 11-12, 2/12 – 13: Lake Kussharo
In the morning, we board the ship Aurora a specially designed ice-breaking boat, for a journey through the drift ice. The boat is a great platform for shooting the sea ice and the coastline.
We then drive over the Mokoto pass and through the farmlands. Higashimokoto Shibazakura Park is a mountaintop park that is closed in winter but the scenery in this area with wind battered trees is both eerie and beautiful. Far below is Lake Kussharo with the legendary lake monster Kussie. This area is dotted with lakes with swans resting on the ice or in water at the lakes’ edge. At Kawayu, a town with numerous onsens, there are several craft and souvenir shops run by the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido.
On our second day, we visit some other sites for photography and return to Mokoto Pass or go to Bihoro pass for more sweeping landscapes. We also take it easy today and take time out to recharge, do some more editing and have another photo critique session. In the evening we enjoy an Ainu dance ceremony.
We stay at the Oyado Kinkiyu Ryokan for two nights, it includes a traditional spa with indoor and outdoor onsens.
Day 13-14, 2/14 – 15: Kushiro
We head to the east coast of Hokkaido and the Pacific Ocean and the busy fishing port of Akkeshi, well-known for its gigantic oysters in winter, (even Mike found them hard eat in one bite!). We meet and photograph a family who runs an oyster farm.
Our last photography destination is the Kushiro area where we have excellent opportunities to view and photograph Red-Crowned Cranes and Japanese Cranes. In truth some of the popular sites are jam-packed with wildlife photographers; and although the cranes are more prevalent at these locations, we plan to opt out of the crowds and find the birds in secluded places.
On the last day, we have time for a final photography review and critique before our group slide show finale and dinner!
We stay at the Kushiro Prince Hotel located next on the Kushiro River and next to the Kushiro’s Fisherman’s Wharf.
Day 15, 2/16: End of tour
In the morning, we transfer to Kushiro Airport where you board a flight to your next destination.
February 2 – 16, 2020
Prices (in USD $)
- Per person based on group size
- $11,900 with 8-9 participants
- $11,550 with 10 participants
- Single room supplement
- Deposit: $1,000
- Balance Due: 90 days prior to departure
- 61-90 days prior to departure 50% of trip cost
- 60 days or less prior to departure 100% of trip cost
- Health insurance is required. See our travel insurance suggestions. Cancellation insurance is recommended.
What is Included
- All ground transportation (by mini bus) and entrance fees
- All meals, except on the first day (only dinner is included), and on the last day (only breakfast is included)
- Flatwater rafting on the Shiribetsu River
- Accommodations as specified
What is not included
- International airfares and visas
- Customary and optional tips for local guides
- Personal expenses including immunizations, laundry, snacks, drinks, alcohol, etc.
- Any costs arising out of unforeseen circumstances such as bad weather, landslides, flight cancellations, road conditions and any other circumstances beyond our control.