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  Field Notes From
Japan's Winter Wildlife

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On Assignment
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From Author
Jennifer Ackerman

On Assignment

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From Photographer
Tim Laman

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Paul Kostyu (top) and Tim Laman


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Japan's Winter

Field Notes From Photographer
Tim Laman
Best Worst Quirkiest

Under the right conditions magic happens at the Setsuri River roosting site of the red-crowned crane. At sunrise, when it's very clear and cold—less than 5°F (minus 15°C)—mist rises from the river and freezes on the trees. The rising sun backlights the mist and frost and silhouettes the cranes as they roost in the water.
The conditions were perfect one morning in mid-January. Cranes seemed to recede in fading layers along the winding course of the stream. I set up my tripod and camera and waited for sunrise. And just as the sun broke through the horizon, a pair of cranes stirred and moved away from the main group. Every few seconds or so I switched between shooting away and jamming my numb hands into my pockets for warmth. Suddenly the mist cleared just enough to reveal one of the pair stretching and flapping its wings. This was the shot I had envisioned. Just as the bird opened its wings, I tripped the shutter. I knew that—if I had the right exposure—I had captured an image that expressed the essence of winter wildlife in Japan. At that moment, I didn't feel the cold at all.

When you rent a Land Cruiser in some parts of Africa, you're lucky if it has a gearshift and a brake. Not so in snowy northern Japan, where the rental car companies all provide brand new, fully loaded, four-wheel-drive vehicles. Unfortunately the incredible performance of my Land Cruiser on the icy roads made me a little overconfident behind the wheel.
One afternoon a good sunset was developing, so I decided to change locations. Racing the light, I drove too fast over a mountain road and started sliding as I went around a turn. (OK, I was also driving with one hand, eating, playing the stereo, and glancing at the GPS map.) I regained control, but not before the front left wheel bounced off the guardrail. Needless to say, I missed the sunset as I limped the car back to town with the wheel completely out of alignment. Fortunately insurance covered the damage, and I learned a valuable lesson without getting hurt: Never push the limits of my driving. No picture is worth taking chances on the highways.

The Japanese breed of deer hunter is rather different than the typical deer hunter I know from Michigan. The country inn where I stayed in Hokkaido was also the lodging for several hunters. One January evening when I showed up for dinner in the communal dining room, I found one group of hunters in a festive mood. They greeted me and said, "Just wait a few minutes. You'll be in for a treat. We got a deer today."
I congratulated them on their success and began my meal, expecting that perhaps venison teriyaki or some other appetizing dish might soon appear. Much to my surprise, a plate of raw sliced deer liver arrived. Well, I certainly had never been offered that by any of my deer-hunting friends or family in Michigan. Although I love raw fish and just about any other Japanese delicacy, this was a bit much. I had to decline due to a sudden loss of appetite.

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