Hokkaido: Winter Photography

Exploring the fire and ice of Japan’s frontier

with Michael Yamashita and Jock Montgomery

  • February 2-16, 2020, a 15-day photography tour


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.

Michael Yamashita

Michael Yamashita has been shooting for the National Geographic magazine for over 30 years, combining his dual passions of photography and travel.

A Personal Invitation from Michael

Documentary about Michael Yamashita


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.


  • Receive personal guidance from National Geographic photographer Michael Yamashita and adventure travel photographer Jock Montgomery
  • Boiling sulfuric hot springs and outside onsens of Noboribetsu
  • Hundreds of spectacular snow and ice sculptures at the world-renowned Snow Festival in Sapporo
  • Harajuku – Center of the colorful street, art and fashion scene in Tokyo
  • Asahidake – The tallest mountain on Hokkaido
  • Minimalist photography in Biei
  • Drift ice on the sea of Okhotsk
  • Swans and Red-Crowned Cranes at Lake Kussharo
  • Large and unique fish market at Hakodate

Larch trees near Daisetsuzan wilderness area

A birch tree covered in ice from a steaming hotspring

An igloo bar constructed on top of frozen Lake Shikaribetsu

Fishing buoys and nets at a remote coastal village

Lake Nakajima


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 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.

Map of our Journey

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

In the morning, we take a limousine bus to the airport, fly to Hakodate, and drop our luggage at our hotel. In Hakodate, we visit Jiyuichiba, a covered fish market featuring local seafood such as king crab.

At night, Mt. Hakodate, 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: Noboribetsu

Before breakfast, we visit the Hakodate Morning Market and then drive to Noboribetsu, Hokkaido’s most famous hot spring resort. On the way, we stop at Onuma Quasi-National Park, notable for its picturesque lakes and majestic volcanic mountains.

We have lunch at Lake Toya, which is ringed by shrines, and part of a national park known for hot springs and an active volcano that last erupted in 2000.

After checking in to the Noboribetsu Grand Hotel, we explore Jigokudani, also known as Hell’s Valley, an area filled with steam, bubbling pools, and geysers.

Day 5, 2/6: Sapporo

In the morning, we drive to Sapporo, passing Lake Shikotsu on the way, a 1,200-foot deep lake that never freezes. We have lunch at the Nijo Fish Market.

We stroll around Odori, a 1.5 km long park through the center of Sapporo that features iconic landmarks of Sapporo, such as the Sapporo TV Tower, the Maibaum monument from Sapporo’s sister city of Munich. We will be here during the world-famous Snow Festival, which features hundreds of spectacular snow and ice sculptures.

We have dinner in Susukino, an entertainment center teaming with nightclubs, restaurants, and Pachinko parlors.

Day 6, 2/7: Sapporo

We take a private bus to the Ishikari fishing port to watch the morning activity. At 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 Yoichi Distillery, one of Japan’s premiere distilleries.

We have dinner in Otaru and then walk along the historic canal lined with gas lamps and decorated with hundreds of lanterns amidst the deep snow.

Day 7 – 8, 2/8 – 9: Biei

On our way to Furano, 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, white birch trees. We may take the opportunity to explore the area on snowmobiles. We have lunch at a famous curry soup restaurant, and later explore the town

At Asahidake, the highest mountain in Hokkaido, we can take a covered chairlift to the top for a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains as well as skier and snowboarders. (If you want to ski or snowboard, this will be an option.)

Biei is known for its rolling hills covered in thick snow with lone trees emerging in the distance. The Blue Pond is colored from aluminum hydroxide where trees eerily emerge from the frozen pond. In the winter the lake is illuminated by lights.

We stay at Shirogane Park Hotel, known for its natural hot springs baths and situated near the base of Mount Tokachidake, a spectacular active volcano that will be covered in snow.

Day 9, 2/10: Monbetsu

We travel down from the mountains for 180 kilometers and to the sea of Okhotsk. The Ainu River empties fresh water into the sea, lowering the freezing point and allowing large drifts of ice to form. Okhotsk is the southernmost point where the ocean freezes. At the town of Ohmu, visit a local fishing port where boats will be neatly lined up for winter storage.

At sunset, we may take a boat out onto the ice-encrusted waters of the port.

We stay at the Monbetsu Central Hotel

Day 10, 2/11: Abashiri

We drive along the coast with ample opportunities to view the dense drift ice and stop in Tokoro, well-known for its world-class curling hall. At Lake Saroma, we can watch people ice-fishing for smelt and perhaps hang gliding above the frozen lake. At Cape Notoro we can see the lighthouse perched on a high cliff above the drift.

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 at Tsuruga Spa Resort, which features an outdoor onsen.

Day 11-12, 2/12 – 13: Lake Kussharo

In the morning, we board the Aurora, a specially designed ice-breaking boat, for a journey through the drift ice. We then drive to across the Bihoro pass and through the farmland of Bihoro, dotted with lakes with swans resting on the ice. At Kawayu, a town with numerous onsens, there are several craft and souvenir shops run by the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido.

Later, we explore the spectacular Lake Kussharo and perhaps view the legendary lake monster Kussie. We visit Mt. Io, an active volcano, Lake Mashu, one of the clearest lakes in the world, and visit the farmers of Teshikaga.

We stay at the Kawayu Daiichi Hotel, a spa with decorative indoor and outdoor onsens.

Day 13-14, 2/14 – 15: Kushiro

At Kushiro Marsh, we paddle down the Kushiro River through the morning fog and chunks of floating ice. Beneath trees encrusted with snow, we have excellent opportunities to view Red-Crowned Cranes and Japanese Cranes. At the small town of Akkeshi, well-known for its oysters in winter, we visit Kokutai-Ji, one of Japans most important Zen temples.

On the last day, we have time for a final photography review and critique before our group’s slide show.

We stay at the ANA Crowne Plaza, a large upscale hotel 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.

Fishing boats dry docked for winter and reflected in a snowmelt puddle at Monbetsu


Jock Montgomery

Jock Montgomery

In 1983 Jock moved to Nepal to train raft guides and lead river expeditions and treks across much of the Himalayas. He was based in Kathmandu for twelve years and now makes his home in Bangkok, Thailand.

He shoots magazine features, resorts, industry, portraits, products, and specializes in adventure sport photography.

His work has been featured in The New York Times, National Geographic Adventure, CNN Traveler, Travel + Leisure (SE Asia), Discovery Channel, GEO (Germany, Russia), Outside, The North Face, Patagonia Inc., Oriental Hotel (Bangkok), Marriott Hotel (Bangkok), Kodak, IBM, UNICEF, UNESCO and Thai International. Visit his photography website at: Jock Montgomery Photography

More about Jock Montgomery …

Michael Yamashita

Michael has been shooting for the National Geographic magazine for over three decades, combining his dual passions of photography and travel. His particular specialty is in retracing the paths of famous travelers, resulting in stories on Marco Polo, the Japanese poet Basho, and the Chinese explorer Zheng He.

Michael has been photographing this area since 1996 for National Geographic. Recently he has written and taken photographs for a book about this area entitled Shangri-La: Along the Tea Road to Lhasa

He has received numerous industry awards, including those from the Pictures of the Year, Photo District News, the New York Art Directors Club, and the Asian-American Journalists Association. Major exhibits of his work have opened throughout Asia, in Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Taipei, and Singapore, as well as in Rome, Venice, Frankfurt, and Perpignan, France. His work has been exhibited at galleries in Los Angeles and at the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

Michael has published nine books (most inspired by his thirty National Geographic stories): The Great Wall From Beginning to End; New York: Flying High, an aerial portrait of Manhattan; Zheng He: Tracing the Epic Voyages of China’s Greatest Explorer; Japan: The Soul of a Nation; Marco Polo, A Photographer’s Journey; Mekong: A Journey on the Mother of Waters; In the Japanese Garden; A Pictorial Tribute to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy; Lakes, Peaks and Prairies: Discovering the U.S. Canadian Border.

More about Michael Yamashita…


Ladakh, Himalaya, India


Photography Project

A slideshow of winter photography by Mike and Jock


February 2 – 16, 2020

Prices (in US $)

  • Per person based on group size
    • TBD
  • Single room supplement
    • TBD
  • Domestic Flights
    • TBD

Payment Schedule

  • Deposit: TBD
  • Balance Due: 90 days prior to departure

Cancellation Fees

  • 61-90 days prior to departure 50% of trip cost
  • 60 days or less prior to departure 100% of trip cost


What is Included

  • All ground transportation and entrance fees
  • All meals, except on the first day (only dinner is included), and on the last day (only breakfast in included)
  • 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.


1) Send Deposit

An invoice will be sent by email with instructions for payment. A non-refundable deposit is required to hold your place on a trip. If paying the full amount, an itemized invoice will be sent. (Same price for cash or credit.)

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 3) Purchase Travel Health Insurance

Traveler’s health insurance is required for all Compass Rose Expedition trips.

We strongly recommend trip cancellation insurance.

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