Snow Monkeys & Cranes

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Tour Description

This extraordinary Japan expedition blends an array of fascinating wildlife with the exquisite wintertime landscapes of the country. Birders and photographers are in heaven as we visit Arasaki, Kyushu, where nearly 12,000 hooded and white-naped cranes winter each year. We continue on for our snow monkeys expedition, visiting these stirring creatures in Jigokudani in central Honshu, as they soak in the region’s thermal baths. Our Japan tour culminates with a boat trip to the ice edge of the Shiretoko Peninsula, where we greet Steller’s sea eagles, the planet’s largest and most powerful raptor.

Japan Expedition Highlights:

  • Immersion in the amazing crane population of Arasaki Crane Reserve, with expert guide, Mark Brazil, by your side.
  • Visit to the 1966 World Heritage Site of Gassho-Zukuri Village, with its iconic tall, gabled-roof architecture.
  • Accommodations during the snow monkeys tour at an artistic and delightful hotel in Jigokudani, with its own onsen (natural thermal spring).
  • Observing flocks of 100 or more red-crowned, or Japanese, cranes as they leap, pirouette, posture, and trumpet around us.
  • A must for Japan adventure travel, a visit to Akan National Park, with its scenic crater lake and steaming sulphuroles.

What to Expect:

Japan adventure travel, particularly during winter, is exhilarating. However, we must always remember that when encountering unfamiliar customs, food, accommodations, etc., it is our culture that is the alien one. Flexibility is key, as is an adventurous spirit—the temperatures may be as low as 20°F on Hokkaido, the large northernmost island. During this snow monkeys expedition, much of our time will be spent in the countryside where the culture may seem vastly different, yet rest assured, your experienced guide will be on hand to explain all aspects of Japanese wildlife and society.


Day 1

USA / Nagoya, Honshu, Japan

Depart USA on your independent flight to Nagoya.

Day 2


Arrive late afternoon in Nagoya and check in to our hotel for dinner and overnight.

Day 3

Nagoya / Kagoshima, Kyushu / Kirishima

An early-morning flight takes us to Kagoshima, on Japan’s southern main island of Kyushu. From Kagoshima we drive through wooded hills into the Kirishima-Yaku National Park. Here we visit the ancient Kirishima Shrine and local waterfalls for our first taste of Japan’s fascinating blend of culture and nature and walk in the beautiful mature laurel forests around Lake Miike to observe wintering waterfowl. Dinner and overnight at our hotel in Kirishima.

Day 4

Arasaki Crane Reserve, Izumi

This morning we drive through the cultivated lowlands of southwest Kyushu on our way to Arasaki. The fallow rice paddies around the coastal village of Arasaki are the site of a spectacular winter gathering of Asian cranes. The sights and sounds of the massed ranks of about 12,000 hooded and white-naped cranes make this one of the most powerful wildlife experiences one can hope for, and a photographer’s dream. Overnight at our hotel in Akune for the next two nights.

Day 5

Arasaki Crane Reserve

With a full day to concentrate on the cranes, we explore the Arasaki area, visiting the main concentration of cranes again, of course, and hoping for a clear dawn to enjoy their mass departure from the roost. After breakfast we seek out family parties in the surrounding fields, and hope for portraits of adults and juveniles. We have time to focus on different aspects of crane behavior and to look for any unusual additions to the crane flock and for other wintering birds.

Day 6

Izumi / Shirakawa-Go, Takayama, Honshu

Today we leave rural Kyushu in southern Japan for the snowy mountains of central Honshu. We pass through areas of green tea groves on our way first to Kagoshima Airport then fly back to Nagoya’s “Centrair” Airport. From here our coach takes us to Gifu Prefecture to visit the village of Shirakawa-go, located in an isolated, steep, mountainous area of the Sho River Valley in the Chubu mountain range.

This 1966 World Heritage Site showcases the unique architectural style (called Gassho-Zukuri) of the houses that resemble “praying hands,” their steeply-pitched roofs like steepled fingers. Some of these gable-roofed houses rise four stories high and accommodated up to 50 people. We visit in the late afternoon as darkness falls to see the houses magically illuminated. Overnight in Takayama.

Day 7

Takayama / Jigokudani

This morning we explore the historical town of Takayama, visiting local saké breweries, miso stores, and local crafts shop before continuing by road through the Japan Alps and via Matsumoto to Jigokudani in the mountains of central Honshu. It is here that we have the extraordinary opportunity to watch and photograph the snow monkeys, though more accurately these particular monkeys are the “hot-spring monkeys.” We arrive in time for dinner at our delightful hotel. Quiet simplicity and style are its hallmarks; its attractive and artistic interior is matched by its delightful garden. With its own onsen (natural thermal spring) we are be able to emulate generations of Japanese people (and the monkeys) as we enjoy a relaxing and therapeutic soak in the mineral waters. The views from the baths to the snowy outdoors are wonderful—suitably rounding off our days. We overnight for the next three nights at Kambayashi Onsen.

Day 8-9


Jigokudani is a steep-sided valley set amid forested mountains. Its name, which translates to “Hell Valley,” comes from the gushing steam spring here. The sun arrives late to this valley and leaves early, so after breakfast we walk along the gently contoured mile-and-a-half trail to the viewing area. Here we spend a leisurely day observing and photographing the two local resident troops of Japanese macaques as they feed nearby and soak in their very own hot pools. We also keep a lookout for the shy and elusive Japanese serow, an ecological equivalent of the North American mountain goat, and birds such as the brown dipper and alpine accentor.

Day 10

Jigokudani / Kushiro, Hokkaido

Today we drive across Honshu and then fly from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Kushiro. Arriving in eastern Hokkaido, more wildlife spectacles await—huge numbers of Japanese cranes, flocks of mist-enshrouded whooper swans, magnificent Steller’s sea eagles—and we have the possibility of encountering Eurasian red squirrels, sika deer, and red fox. Overnight at our hotel in Tsurui-mura for the next three nights.

Day 11-12

Kushiro Region

Although Hokkaido is at about the same latitude as southern France, prevailing winds from Siberia transform this northern island into a snow-filled wonderland in winter. Our goal is to observe and photograph the tall, red-crowned, or Japanese, cranes, the largest and most northerly of the cranes in Japan. We should expect to see flocks of 100 or more of these magnificent birds at ranges down to just 30 feet or less. Greeting ceremonies and courtship dances involve leaps and pirouettes, posturing, and trumpeting cries. Such behavior can be infectious, spreading through the flocks in waves, and oftentimes dozens of ecstatic cranes are leaping and trumpeting in a thrilling display.

Day 13-14

Akan National Park

Our next location, though not far from Kushiro, is an entirely different setting— the volcanic scenery of Akan National Park. The Kawayu area is geothermally rich, and we are presented with a variety of visually stunning subjects: steaming sulphuroles, Hokkaido’s most scenic crater lake, and flocks of vociferous whooper swans gliding among the steam and morning mist. In the evening we retreat to our delightful lakeside hotel for a gourmet meal.

Day 15

Rausu, Shiretoko Peninsula

Today we drive to the fishing port of Rausu, on the Shiretoko Peninsula, another of Japan’s World Heritage Sites. This rugged, mountainous finger of land attracts good numbers of white-tailed eagles and Steller’s sea eagles, truly immense birds, half again as big as the bald eagle. Weather permitting, we visit the edge of the sea ice by boat and lure these impressive raptors with fish scraps. Over 2,000 of them winter on Hokkaido. Tonight we stay at a local inn overlooking the sea.

Day 16

Shiretoko Peninsula / Yoroushi

We have a second opportunity to visit the eagles and, weather-permitting, greet the sunrise and the eagles at the ice edge. Following breakfast we continue our explora-tion of eastern Hokkaido, first along the Shiretoko Peninsula for more views of winter wildfowl and raptors, and to watch for foxes, deer, and seals. Sightings of Steller’s sea lions and harbor seals are possible, and we also look out for sea-urchin harvesters. Soon we must leave Shiretoko behind and head south to our accommodations inland at Yoroushi. Our architecturally modern inn has feeders busy with birds, a superb hot spring, and delightful artwork. Overnight for the next two nights at Yoroushi.

Day 17

Yoroushi / Akan And Notsuke

Our base lies a little to the east of Akan National Park, allowing us to explore the very different scenery of the southeast coast of Hokkaido, where there are more chances of encountering herds of deer, wandering foxes, and wintering swans, ducks, and raptors. Time permitting, we also visit the workshop of a local wood-block printer.

Day 18

Kushiro / Tokyo

After breakfast and our last chance to watch birds at the feeders outside our lodge, we complete our circuit of eastern Hokkaido as we drive back to Kushiro for our flight south to Tokyo. We will pause for our last glimpses of cranes and our last views of Kushiro marsh before saying farewell to Japan’s wildest island, Hokkaido. Overnight at our hotel in Tokyo with a special farewell dinner.

Day 19

Tokyo / USA

Board your independent international flights and re-cross the Date Line to arrive back in the USA on the same day. Connect with homeward flights.


Pricing Information

Land-based Accommodations

All prices are in US dollars and do not include international airfare, unless otherwise noted.

Prices displayed are based on the lowest season base price and assume double occupancy. Prices are shown in U.S. dollars and may or may not include administrative fees, taxes, meals, airfare (where applicable) and Single Supplements. Cancellation penalties, blackout dates and other restrictions may apply.

Options and Extras

Tour Notes

Flights are not included in the cost of expeditions; however, Zegrahm Expeditions has a fully-staffed air department that can assist you with flight arrangements. Since many of our expeditions embark and disembark from remote destinations, the airports that serve these areas often have limited carriers and/or daily flights. As such, our air team is well-versed in planning complex routings for our travelers.