Friday, 9 September 2016

Buzzed at the Hive


Finally got to see the Hive at Kew Gardens yesterday.  It was quite extraordinary and beautiful.

As we 'listened' to a talk using vibrations instead of ears to hear - we got buzzed by a real life bee!

We had gone mid-week but failed to find a quiet corner to just commune with the hive - not that that stopped some people! :(

 - like the bees it was busy!

And we kept on getting buzzed by something else!

More constant than the buzzing bees and higher flying

But sadly not high enough!

Can you tell what it is yet children?


Thursday, 23 June 2016

Socks go wild in Hokkaido - Part IV the Blakiston Fish Owls

After our morning of enchantment with the Dancing Cranes we finally set off for the coast and a rendezvous with a Blakiston Fish Owl. Our destination is Washi-no-Yado, a small minshuku (BandB) near Rausu on the North East Coast. We have been warned that the accommodation is VERY basic and that we should only stay there one night. The Socks don't do 'basic' anymore, these days we like a bit of luxury, our own facilities and a decent mattress... (I never go anywhere without my Granny Goose, feather travel pillow, not least for villa rentals where you don't know who has previously been dribbling on the pillow!).  So in view of this, we are hoping against hope that Blakey hasn't 'dropped off his perch' (see previous blog) as a sighting of this rare beauty will be the only thing making the overnight hardship worthwhile.

We set off for the coast in the glorious sunshine that is still blessing our stay, driving through the snowy, volcanic landscape.

The roads are surprisingly clear and traffic is light, but whilst my fear of being stuck in snowdrifts in the middle of nowhere (as had happened to people a few weeks previously) had abated, the next fear on my tick-list, coastal tsunamis, was beginning to kick in. Recent tragic news of another big earthquake in Japan shows just how unexpected and violent these events can be, but the fact is that they are pretty much a daily happening in this part of the world, most so mild they pass unnoticed. Unnoticed except by me, who for the last few weeks has been perusing the Japan earthquake site with fearful fascination.

As we near the coast I am watching the skies for birds and spot a large blob at the top of a tree.

We turn off the road down a snowy lane leading to some farm buildings and to our amazement realise the blob is actually a white-tailed eagle! As the Bedsock gets busy setting up the tripod I notice that the thicket of trees around the lane is bursting with bird activity - a pretty nuthatch poses around a tree only a couple of feet away from me,

higher up on the branches a vivid Japanese woodpecker.

I spot a strange looking bird with spikey head feathers but it moves quickly and it is not until I tweet the photo that my ever-helpful twitter friend @simiansuter tells me it was a brown-eared bulbul!

We are so fascinated by the little birds that we miss the eagle as it launches from the tree!

Finally we hit the coast, the last of the late afternoon sun lighting the small harbours filled with fishing boats - this is the Sea of Okhotsk coming down from Kamchatka - in the distance we can see the Kuril islands - disputed territory between Japan and Russia - exciting names and places I only recognise from playing Risk as a child never thinking I would one day visit.

I photograph a beautiful Japanese fox as we drive past - the first of many we will see living amongst the coastal fishing shacks.

We follow the sea road to Washi-no-Yado, directly after a tunnel just to the North of the small town of Rausu a steep gorge cuts into the side of the Shiretoko peninsula with a stream flowing out of it. The sides of the gorge are dotted with gates - presumably to help prevent avalanches of snow falling on the buildings below.

A  narrow snow compacted drive runs to the side of the stream and snuggled into the base of the gorge a group of slightly scruffy buildings and old dumped cars greets us. We have arrived! An elderly lady emerges from a further building and ushers us into our accommodation for the night.  Basic it might be... but we still have to go through the traditional footwear removing performance before we can enter the building - a process which takes me a good few minutes of hopping about and overbalancing due to the mobility restrictions of several layers of thick clothing added to my general state of decrepitude. We are shown to a small room at the front of the building one wall of which is floor to ceiling glass. This is our window on the owl spectacle - our own private bedroom/hide. Visitors are not allowed to wander out of, nor turn the lights on, during the possible owl visiting period between 8.00 and 12.00 pm. The room contains nothing but a heater (which has made it insufferably hot and stuffy but the minute we turn it down we feel frozen - it is -10c outside) and in the corner some thin mattresses, duvet-type-things, and those ghastly pillows full of beans which are probably sprouting, watered by years of accumulated dribble! Thank God for Granny Goose!   There are also some useful instructions on the best setting for your camera to photo the owls.  And a bottle of Jack Daniels - not my favourite whisky but one which has travelled with us all the way from Heathrow duty free.  We open it and in the absence of glasses take a quick fortifying swig from the bottle.

We set up the tripod and camera which takes up enough of the room to make it impossible to lay out both mattresses.  In any event I am still jet-lagged and know that if I put my head on my pillow I will just totally conk out! Another swig of Jack Daniels to keep me going.  We are called away for our evening meal which is fine and enough to soak up the Jack Daniels but not so great it warranted all the boots on and off procedure just to get to the dining shack in the next building.  We are the only guests there.

And so we return to the room and wait.... and wait... I have commandeered a couple of stools found in the outside corridor and we sit in the dark and wait. And have a few more glugs of Jack Daniels and wait.. Outside, about 10ft away from us is an 8ft tower holding floodlights that are aimed into a stony pool on the stream where the owl comes to feed.  Over the years the owls have got used to the floodlights.  We are in prime position directly opposite the most photogenic stream spot but it won't be much of a photo with no owl!

Suddenly I sense a presence, something has changed outside but I'm not sure what until I look to the top of the lighting tower and there, straight in front of us, is the silhouette of an enormous owl!  Blakey!!!!!! I'm on that camera clicking before I even draw breath!

And what a spectacle the owl puts on for us!

Dancing in the shallows,

shaking its fabulous feathers,

stalking fish,

then staring around at us as if it knows very well that cameras and curious eyes are hiding behind glass windows.

I pass control of the camera to the Bedsock so we both have time to photograph and time to just sit and stare.

The show goes on for maybe 15 minutes and then Blakey is gone.  We celebrate our experience with another swig of Jack Daniels.  The owl doesn't return and finally we are too tired to watch for it any more and sink onto the hard mattresses and into what is more of a stupor than sleep.  The jet lag awakes me at  3.00 a.m. I can feel vibrations coming up thru the mattress into my back. An earth tremor! OMG - what if it gets worse and the snow covered sides of the gorge just avalanche down on top of us! We will never get to show our Blakey photos to the world!  I look at the not quite empty bottle of Jack Daniels next to me - the level of the whisky is entirely flat no micro tsunamis in the bottle.  There are no tremors! It is 'merely' a mass of tiny mis-timed muscle spasms that I sometimes
get with my ME!  I finish off the last drop of Jack Daniels and fall back to sleep.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Socks go Wild in Hokkaido - Part III Dancing Cranes


Our second and last morning at the Wilderness Lodge and we got a lie-in! Ando had already disappeared with the next small group to be hauled out of bed at the crackov and carted off to see the cranes in their early morning river setting.  So it is a late 8.30 a.m. before we were packed and off on the snow covered roads.  We decided to drive around the marshlands for a while to see what we could find on our own and then return to the crane reserve at Tsurui in the hope that the cranes would turn up on schedule this time.  We had seen cranes in the evening, cranes in the morning, but had yet to see them in their full glory dancing!

We were so sad to be leaving this area, the beautiful intense brightness of the light and our luck to have such blue sky'd sunny weather had already improved my health and well being, the wildlife encounters turned my anxieties to excitement and cut through my general state of exhaustion, buoying me up with enough energy to keep going. How we wished we were spending longer here to explore this wilderness landscape. Even our short drive produced curious deer, buzzards, kites and distant eagles. We could have happily have spent a week or more there, instead of our meagre two days.

We returned to the crane reserve and waited patiently, with a few other photographers, praying that we would see a few more cranes than the couple pootling about in front of us in a desultory fashion.

And then the cranes suddenly raised their heads to the west and started hollering!  A small squadron of three more cranes was on its way

They looked so funny their large bodies so graceful in flight, a little ridiculous as they glided slowly over the tree tops. Daddy Crane, Mummy Crane and Baby Crane!

Mummy and baby (not yet old enough to develop the red crown of the adults) land first

then Daddy comes in to land


In Japan everything comes with a tune, like the announcements on the Shinkansen which start with a little jingle in my mind segueing straight into 'Young Gifted and Black'. Most videos of the cranes are accompanied by tinkly Japanese music - but as the next flight of cranes arrived all I could hear was Beyoncé  playing in my mind.  The Red-Crowned cranes were dancing to 'Single Ladies'.... , as in the video of  Beyoncé and her backing dancers,,

All the single ladies (All the single ladies)


All the single ladies (All the single ladies)


Now put your hands up!


Cause if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it
If you liked it then you should've put a ring on it

Wuh uh oh uh uh oh oh uh oh uh uh oh
Wuh uh oh uh uh oh oh uh oh uh uh oh

And then more and more cranes started to arrive, flights of three to six birds starting as distant dots until descending over the trees and landing like dancers in the field in front of us. After an hour we drag ourselves away... we have owls and eagles to see and our first view of the Hokkaido coast.  What a wonderful, life fulfilling, spectacle it has been - I laughed out loud at the joy of it and the crazy, funny, cranes.

The cranes are extremely rare and as their meat was prized they were almost wiped out by hunters in the early 1900s. And then, as in so many places, their breeding grounds were eroded by
rampant land development for agriculture the population reduced to fewer than 20 surviving in the Kushiro marshes.  As the population dwindled to the point of extinction, local people around Kushiro started to provide food for them in the winter and they gained legal protection. Over the years the population made a dramatic recovery - it is believed there are up to 2000 cranes around this part of Hokkaido now.  A wonderful story of conservation!

[Photography note: the Bedsock used the Canon 70D with 600mm sigma lens and tripod. I used the Canon 600D and 75-300mm lens handheld.  Both had their uses and drawbacks, it was more difficult for the Bedsock to track the moving cranes and to get a full 'squadron' in the photo. But obviously the quality of his pictures is better. I got better framed subject matter due to the ease of handheld and being able to change position more easily without a tripod - but the quality is not as good and I didn't have the camera on an ideal setting as I had forgotten to reset the sensor.  Nevertheless we are pleased that between us we got some pretty good and occasionally 'artistic' photos as a wonderful souvenir of our trip.]

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Socks go Wild in Hokkaido Part II - Owling

I recently read a birders blog who noted that according to the dictionary of Urban Slang 'Owling' means, not searching out and watching owls but
"the new viral craze; a bit like planking, except you crouch down, and stare like an owl. You then take a picture and post it on facebook. Brownie points for random places to owl"
Who knew?  I suspect that is another craze that has been long gone before I even heard about it.

I doubt Ando, our wildlife guide in the Hokkaido wilderness, would have been too impressed by this definition, although after his revelation of the previous evening, that he loved The Who, Brighton and wanted to be a Mod (rather than a Rocker) it was clear he was a man of many surprises.

General view of Kushiro wetlands

After breakfast we are loaded into Ando's van along with the students, and the 'Birders' who are fun company and a mine of interesting and useful information. First stop is the nearby feeding station where the red-crowned cranes are due to show up at about 11.00a.m. They don't! This is the trouble with wildlife - so flippin' unpredictable! As the cranes have refused to stick to Ando's schedule we are packed back into the van and driven along snow compacted lanes to our next stop - we have been promised a Ural owl!  And what an exquisite creature it is too, roosting in a tree that is picture perfect on its own.  Like so many things in Japan, the owl comes beautifully packaged.

Ural owl, Kushiro area, Hokkaido

But this is where the slight disappointment creeps in! Despite the general remoteness of the area, we are suddenly not alone! Another van load of people has turned up bursting into the reverent silence we and the Birders observe for our encounters with wildlife.  This is not just an owl, it's a tourist destination! Small groups at a time are allowed to clamber down the path, boots crunching deep into the snow and instructed to keep at a certain distance to photograph the owl.  The Bedsock and I are very excited by the chance of a good picture but the Birders are less happy with the experience, particularly as the other group seem more interested in chatting loudly to each other than watching the owl.  As it happens, the owl doesn't do much other than occasionally opening its eyes and glaring disdainfully at those disturbing its peace.

Ando explains that although he is a registered guide there are some who operate without license, picking up the GPS co-ordinates of the various wildlife sightings and driving (small) bus loads of tourists around them.  Worse, there is mention of some of the unregulated tourists chucking snowballs at the owls and generally being disrespectful.  We are saddened by this but aware that in terms of 'wildlife tourism' we are part of the 'problem'.  The fact is tourists bring money into areas and ultimately that helps in the conservation of wildlife.  The red-crowned cranes were hunted and eaten almost to the point of extinction before it was realised they were worth more to the area alive and dancing!

We leave the Ural owl to a bit of peace and quiet before the next visitors turn up and Ando drives us to a Sushi-go-round restaurant in Kushiro the largest town in the area, for lunch.  It's fun and cheerful, the sushi is the best ever and Ando orders some of the more unusual fish sushi for us to savour. Then onwards for cake and coffee at a rather chic cafe! We are amazed, last time we were in Japan we had some difficulty outside of the big towns finding places to lunch, and certainly not cake unless it was of the disappointing type that looks wonderful and turns out to be full of bean paste!  It's worth having a guide just to find the best local eating establishments.

Sika deer - might have been a great photo had it not been taken thru van window as we travelled

The Birders are doing a similar circuit of Hokkaido to us, arriving the previous day Ando has already taken them to see owls which they had all to themselves and also white-tailed eagles. We see a very distant solitary Steller's eagle on our tour but we hadn't expected to see them here at all.  We will be travelling to Rausu on the coast the next day in the hope of seeing both eagles and the famous Blakiston Fish Owl.  The owl is supposed to be a major highlight of our holiday but the Birders tell us that when they researched it they found that fish owls only live for about 40 years and 'Blakey' was nearing that so there was a possibility that poor 'Blakey' might have carked it! As the brochure described the accommodation for viewing the fish owls as  'VERY basic' they didn't want to risk it being a no show!  Blakey's possible demise would be terrible for the Socks but even worse for the poor owners of the 'very basic' shack which Blakey has turned into a moneyspinner for them over 20 years!  We speculate that they may have nailed Blakey to a perch and be working him with strings, in a tragic copy of the Dead Parrot sketch.

Whether Blakey lives or not remains to be seen on another day, for now there is another chance to see a different pair of Ural owls snuggled together on the edge of a small woodland.

Ural Owls, Kushiroshiysugen, Hokkaido

And then a stop for some beautiful landscape photography, a sighting of Hooper swans on a frozen lake in the Kushiroshitsugen National Park. 

Black kites circle overhead the scene and the light are amazing.

Our day out is over, the Birders go to the local onsen for a good soak in the hot spring waters but I am regrettably too exhausted for this and grab a quick pre-dinner snooze.  I can't wait to wake up and see what the next day holds... so much to see and so little time to see it in.  Will Blakey be a no-show? Will we be lucky enough to see eagles? Will we ever see the red-crowned cranes dance?  All will be revealed in the next few blogs.. I could be writing them for some time...

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

The Sock's Guide to the Breakfast Buffet


A tiny part of the Best Breakfast Buffet ever at the Tokyo Station Hotel

Tokyo, and at 6.30a.m. awoken by jet lag in the early hours of the morning we  decide to hit the breakfast buffet at the Tokyo Station Hotel before it has been 'Laverne'd'.

I'm going to let you in on one of those annoying private little made-up words that families or couples share. We coined the verb 'to Laverne' some years ago on our tour of Iceland...

Outside of Rejkyavik Iceland is mostly gloriously empty and unpopulated.  For those not venturing into the desolate interior, there is a road circuit around the island and a limited amount of hotels en route that everyone stops at.  When I say 'everyone' what I mean is the unexpected coachloads of Americans (we deduced, parents of the young military quartered in the (now closed) naval air station on Keflavik). We bump into these coachloads on too many occasions.

I don't remember much about the Icelandic breakfast buffets other than that at one of our more 'off piste' destinations, along with the various cured fish, meats and cheese, little shot glasses were laid out filled with a glowing golden liquid.  "How civilized - a little snifter with brekkie" I thought as I seized what I took to be an Icelandic 'Eau de Vie' and downed it in one.  Yurgggggghhh! My throat filled with a viscous slime and the disgusting taste of neat cod liver oil, leaving my mouth filled with a fishy after taste for hours afterwards.

Other than that the buffets passed without incident until our stay at Husavik for a whale watching cruise.  Perhaps the midnight sun affected our sleep patterns but we arrived late next day at the breakfast buffet and to our disappointment much of the food had disappeared and not been replaced. Worse, the remaining decimated meats and cheese had been mushed around, fingered and smeared. What was once a neatly piled plate of herrings, smattered and smashed. The butter covered in toast crumbs, globs of jam and other substances in an unappetizing, inedible mess.  Towards the  far end of the buffet strip a large American with a butt the size of China was still loading her plate Desperate Dan style, greedily mauling the remaining pastries. The Bedsock and I, with rapidly diminishing appetite, salvaged what we could from the remaining food massacre and retreated gloomily to our table.  Nearby I heard the Americans' tour guide say, without sarcasm, to the Large Lady "Enjoying your breakfast, Laverne?" 

And so a new word was born into the Socks vocabulary, to 'Laverne' meaning to decimate the breakfast buffet,  or used descriptively as in  'The breakfast buffet has been Laverne'd'.

The next morning, alarm clocks set, we ensured an early pre-crowd arrival at the buffet and noticed a sign had gone up saying "Food must not be taken outside the restaurant - sandwiches can be made and paid for on request!". 

I confess to a certain amount of guilt over this, not being above snaffling something tasty from the breakfast buffet for laterz.  On my childhood travels abroad YoungMaSock would carry an enormous handbag bought specially for the purpose of  packing full of goodies from the hotel breakfast tables which would then form our picnic lunch. In Figuere da Foz we breakfasted in our room, as usual in Portugal, breakfast came in an enormous basket laden with fruit and cakes. But to my and BroSock's disappointment pretty much all of it disappeared into YoungMaSock's bag to be doled out as meals for us kids over the next couple of days!   OldMaSock never grew out of this habit and for years carried a tupperware box in her handbag into which substantial portions of restaurant meals would be stored for later.  On an early acquaintance with OldMaSock, The Bedsock was unsuprisingly shocked to see her stuff two large sausages into her serviette and transfer the bundle into her handbag, despite the fact she was being well fed and watered by us and this being years before her becoming a tad demented!

As usual I have digressed, back to the Tokyo Station Hotel at a far too early 6.30a.m in the morning. As it is, even Laverne couldn't defeat the Japanese ethos of beautiful presentation and the Tokyo Station Hotel has the best breakfast buffet ever! No doubt, in the event of a Laverning the well-trained staff would discreetly repair the damaged buffet, restoring its pristine beauty for the next person.  But even with such a cornucopia of exquisite food there are still pitfalls to avoid!

The buffet is lined up on two sides of the long, elegant Atrium room at the top of the hotel (in this case the 'top' is in fact the third story in a refreshing change from the skycraper hotels around it!).  On one side a bar serving freshly cooked eggs etc., then an eclectic mix of European dishes, including cheeses, smoked salmon, shrimps in mayo, lasagne! (yes lasagne! whoever heard of lasagne for breakfast? Unless you are at home with a hangover eating leftovers from the fridge.) Moving on past  mouthwatering French and Danish pastries, breads, toast and jam, a sudden delve into various Chinese pancake rolls and dim sum. Leaping over to the opposite side where a variety of top class teas await (NOT the ubiquitous Twinings varieties that most foreign hotels offer when they think they are being posher than those who just dish out Liptons!) green tea, roast green tea - my favourite!, various fresh juices, fresh fruit, several delicious types of yoghurt.  Then on to the best of all - the Japanese breakfast! Rice dishes and 'select your own' sprinkles to go on top, miso soup to ladle into your bowl with your own choice of accoutrements, natta (this was a weird fermented thing that gave me wind but apart from that aspect the Bedsock thought it was rather tasty!).  Then various dishes of unknown provenance, mostly delicious and probably kelp and squid based - all accompanied by pickles and condiments for our delectation.   Then finally, the piéce de resistance (see top photo) almost too beautifully laid out to touch! But touch we did, filling our plates with raw tuna served with a spicey lime dip, tofu skin in little glasses (our absolute favourite), little sticks of burdock root in a sesame dressing, chopped up okra and yam, rolled omelette, herry spawn on kelp (whatever that is), pickled nozawa greens, and whatever was in the bowl filled with black snakey stuff in the middle which was probably so outré they refused to label it for fear of putting westerners off!

No worries here either about using our usual trick of digging to the bottom of the platter in case someone has coughed their germs all over the top layer!  Although on the occasions when I feel it incumbent on me to do this, I remove the article I want with precision and not leave the plate messy and Laverne'd for the next person.

The Bedsock's choice from a breakfast buffet in Hakodate - rice, salmon eggs, raw prawn and tuna!

The only peril was where to start? If we filled up on Japanese food would we have room for a croissant with our coffee?  As we were staying several nights we formed a plan to eat
a different 'style' of breakfast each day although I confess to wolfing down a quick croissant with my coffee whilst still having the taste of tuna with wasabi dressing in my mouth. At other hotel buffets we were shocked to see Japanese people (normally so delicate and fastidious!) piling their plates with a bit of everything in food combinations like, raspberry tart with salmon eggs, bacon, and pickled veg, that would give you indigestion just to think about! Which just goes to show there is a bit of Laverne in all of us.

Monday, 29 February 2016

The Socks go Wild in Hokkaido - Part 1 Dreaming Cranes


It's six o'clock in the morning and minus 20 degrees centigrade - the slowly rising sun is suffusing silver frosted trees with a soft pink blush, the shadowed snow banks on the river have taken on a bluish tint, so have my fingers, released from the confines of three layers of gloves in order to set up my camera.

I am standing on a bridge in the wilderness of Hokkaido, the quiet murmur of twenty or so other photographers and wildlife enthusiasts broken by the occasional distant caw and shriek of red-crowned cranes. Downriver is a scene, so mesmerizing, so dreamy, so exquisite,  that if the frozen air had not stolen my breath away I would have lost it anyway.  It seems surreal but then after the events of the last 24 hours we should be used to that.

[Photography note: The Bedsock is set-up with our Canon 70D, tripod and Sigma 150-600mm 1:5-6.3 telephoto. I am using the Canon 600D, Canon EF 70-300mm 1:4-5.6 IS USM telephoto handheld interchanged with the Canon EFS 17-55mm wide angle lens for landscapes. We take joint credit for most photos which are copyright 'Sea of Immeasurable Gravy' as it isn't always clear who took the shot - we swap cameras around. If it's handheld 600mm lens then it's usually the Bedsock's as I find it too heavy for my muscles to keep steady long enough to hold the shot. The Bedsock is considerably more adept at setting up a shot using the full camera's capabilities - if he sets up the tripod and the camera but I press the button whose shot is it?  A 'team' combination of both telephotos seems to work well, the 70-300mm giving more flexibility for capturing wider and moving images, the 600mm for a closer, more defined shot. Landscapes are generally mine.]

Me wearing many layers of thermals!

The bravest people are not the fearless but those who feel the fear and do it anyway! This is what I told myself at Heathrow airport four days earlier when I wasconsidering whether I was actually mentally and physically well enough to board a plane to Japan.  I had  hoped to be in as good a state as my health permits for what was planned to be both a dream and daring holiday, a big leap into the unknown.  But as usual things have gone awry and we have been down to the wire as to whether to cancel at the last minute.  Life events have conspired to add hugely to my already chronic anxiety on top of chronic fatigue and my entire being has been disordered.  Muscle spasms sending endless waves of small vibrations across my body, weird tingling sensations running like an electric current through my extremities, my mind fractured and broken, each anxious thought replayed constantly and obsessively. I wake in the night with my heart pounding out of my chest. At Heathrow the muscles in my throat spasm making it difficult to swallow.  I can't go........... I can't not go.

I think of my friend Helen who escapes the annual angst of English winters by holidaying alone abroad, I think of my sister-in-law travelling in a wheelchair to Bali for a last dream holiday before dying of Motor Neurone Disease, I think of the girl I used to be hitching around France and spending summers camping in Biarritz years before it was either acceptable or fashionable for women to travel alone. Over the years my health problems have closed too many doors to me, I must make the most of those doors I can open. Feel the fear and do it anyway... I can't not go.

Somewhere down the line I have lost myself..and the less I have believed in my own existence the less I have been perceived to exist.  I feel like I have become nothing and am treated accordingly. I need to feel real again, to feel worth something, to feel inspired to write on my much neglected blog and to have something interesting to write about.  What better place than Japan which we loved so much on our last trip five years ago.  The food, the onsens, the landscape, the quirkiness, the amazing all-singing and dancing toilets and above all the respect that the Japanese people pay to you, to each other and to their country.  Respect has been in short supply the last few years.

For someone with various free floating anxieties I could list some of my top fears as, flying, earthquakes, tsunamis, tunnels, trains, high rise buildings, people.  So my obvious dream holiday choice is Japan, with its daily earthquakes, tragic tsunamis, skyscraping cityscapes, undersea tunnels in earthquake zones, and billions of people. I can confront all my fears at once!  In any event we must go.. I have spent the last couple of months stocking up on silk thermals and snowboots.  The Bedsock also desperately needs a holiday, I can't let us down, I can't not go.

After three nights in Tokyo - shaking off  the worst of the jet-lag in the long awaited sunshine, taking in the fish market, Japanese cuisine and an unexpected and life affirming close-encounter with a kingfisher in the Imperial Palace gardens - we have flown north to Hokkaido for our wilderness adventure.  Inspired by the BBC series 'Japan: Earth's enchanted isles', coupled with our increasing interest in wildlife photography, we have become entranced with the idea of seeing the red-crowned cranes. We have booked a two night stay at the Hickory Wind Wilderness Lodge where the owner, award winning photographer, Makoto Ando, will be our guide to the cranes and other wildlife for a day. We are driving there having picked up a hire car at Kushiro airport.  Most of the few tourists around this area are part of small tour groups, bussed from destination to destination, but in spite of the very real possibilities of being caught in snow drifts or blizzards we prefer the independence of our own transport.  We are lucky - there is a coating of snow everywhere but the main roads are clear and some of the smaller roads passable with care on the compacted snow.  We have already seen our first cranes, slewing the car to a halt as I screech 'Cranes! Cranes! Look there's cranes..' as three huge graceful birds sail over the road in front of us disappearing into a snowy field as we go into a frenzy unpacking cameras and grabbing what shots we can.

As we approach our destination we find another field full of the cranes lit by the red-gold of the setting sun as they mosey around humming and strutting, twerking their bottoms before raising their heads to make a long ululating caw.  We leap from the car and grab some photos but can't stay long as I want us to find the Hickory Wind Lodge before it gets dark.

A fox is scuffling around on the snow searching for prey and again we stop,  the Bedsock whipping the camera out of the car to capture it mid-leap!  Everywhere we look there is a photo opportunity.

[Photography note: Canon 70D with 600mm Sigma lens in low light, handheld - not bad for a quick photo grab!]

The Hickory Lodge, stands alone a short distance from the main crane sanctuary in Tsurui, the wooden building more reminiscent of a New England house than our idea of a Japanese dwelling.  We are greeted (without the usual Japanese great ceremony) by a man I take to be Ando and shown to our sparse but comfortable room.  We weren't expecting luxury - this after all is a wilderness lodge, but I  am slightly perturbed that we seem to have wifi!! I had been looking forward to an enforced break from it and the possibility that bad news from reality might intrude on our adventure. I came to the wilderness to be cut off and refuse to open my ipad for the next few days!  We tuck ourselves up on the beds, open a bottle of sake and rest-up until a knock at our door signals supper-time!

The dining/living room is on the first floor, a wonderful, homely, higgledy-piggledy mess of photography, artwork, books, guides and knick-knacks for sale.  A log stove is burning away in the corner and a large table, central to the room, has another eight or so people waiting for us.  We later learn these comprise of the owner Ando, a couple of birders* doing a similar tour to us, some chap from the National Geographic magazine and his wife and several young, Japanese, photography students who are apparently here for work experience, looking after the visitors and the house in exchange for spending time with the master!

Curiously, there is also a line of guitars against the wall - when we arrived we had noticed a music room in the owners part of the house which was also burgeoning with guitars, we are about to find out why!

Ando cooks our supper over a table griddle, okonomiyaki - a kind of Japanese pancake crisscrossed with sauce and mayonnaise and served on noodles. Hearty, filling, street food.  On hearing we are from Brighton, Ando's face lights up! "Brighton! Mods and rockers, Pete Townshend my hero!". Ando is not content with being an award winning photographer and wildlife guide - he has a not terribly secret desire to be a rock star, hence the many guitars! After dinner he treats us to an extremely good rock rendition of Norwegian wood.

Next up, the National Geographic guy gives a photo slideshow of the area.  He says he has taken 11,000 pictures in two days and these are the best. They are fantastic but part of me felt that even BroSock (who can't take a decent picture to save his life) could probably have managed a couple of goodies out of 11,000.  And how has he found time to go through that many photos to pick the perfect ones out? Was that his wife's job? These unspoken questions go unanswered as my jetlag is catching up with me, rendering thought and speech difficult.  The best advice from National Geographic man is never to dwell on the photos you didn't get but be happy with the ones you did.  A bit like the way you have to treat ME, think only of what you CAN do not what you can't - and in spite of everything, I CAN go to Japan and photograph wildlife in the wilderness.

A final slideshow from Ando of some of his amazing photos leaves us daunted that our own photos will do justice to this extraordinary location but totally inspired to start snapping.  I go to sleep dreaming cranes..

And so we came to be on the bridge at the crack of dawn, the mist rolling back from the riverbanks to reveal the cranes at their early morning feeding place.  I can't feel any of the usual weird tingling sensations in my feet, I can't even feel my toes! The stinging, Siberian cold has penetrated through three layers of socks and my snowboots!

I've cropped some of the photos but otherwise they are how it was... Unforgettable.

We return to the Hickory Lodge at eight a.m. for a typical Japanese breakfast - rice porridge drizzled with sesame oil, fish, rolled omelette, kimchi, tiny cooked shrimps eaten whole, pickles etc.  a delicious and welcome start to a day which will be filled with wildlife encounters, laughter, sushi and cake..and the dreaming cranes will finally start dancing for us. But that is another story....

* The other British couple staying at the lodge identified themselves as 'birders'. This being people who were interested in finding and watching birds and enjoying the whole location, rather than the more aggressive 'twitchers' who may travel miles to sight and photograph a rare bird so they can strike it off their 'tick list'.  We identify ourselves as amateur wildlife photographers, enjoying our attempts to capture the beauty of wildlife on camera, but not to the extent that our only view of it is through a lens.

SocksTopTip: Gel footwarmers (like the little hand ones you slip in your gloves) can be purchased at the Lodge! I wish we had known this before my toes nearly fell off! We later found that gel warmers could be bought in all shapes and sizes for pretty much any bit of your anatomy!!