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!!