Earth’s Enchanted Islands: An Insiders guide

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In this blog post, we take a behind-the-scenes look at the recent BBC2 documentary series entitled ‘Japan: Earth’s Enchanted Islands’.

Here at InsideJapan Tours, we have an amazingly talented and knowledgeable team of individuals. One ex-staff member in particular, Ester De Roij, is someone who has gone on to use her knowledge and passion for Japan elsewhere, by combining it with her other passion for wildlife photography. Ester left us to join a small TV company called the BBC, maybe you’ve heard of it?

Her new job as a researcher took her back to Japan, but this time it was to film the BBC2 series, “Japan: Earth’s Enchanted Islands” – something a bit different to the usual ‘wacky Japan’ programmes you may have seen in the past.

Now that the series has ended, Ester has come back to give us a little ‘behind the scenes’ look at this inspiring natural history programme and her top five filming moments from the series. Here’s what she had to say…


Ester filming on BBC2's 'Japan: Earth's Enchanted Islands'
Filming on BBC2’s ‘Japan: Earth’s Enchanted Islands’

I’m sure all of you wonderful IJT travellers have been watching the latest BBC series, called Japan: Earth’s Enchanted Islands. I was part of the IJT-gang once, until I left to work on this series for the BBC as a researcher. People often ask me what a ‘researcher’ in natural history television does, and it’s usually a very varied role, depending which part of the process you’re in – it can be anything from finding stories and speaking to scientists, filming out in the field, to fact-checking scripts.

I spent about 20 weeks in total last year out in Japan filming all over the country for the series on 8 separate shoots. Every shoot is different – in length, day or night, different camera operator, different stress levels. It’s my favourite bit of the process and I saw some places in Japan I’d always wanted to go to. It’s hard to make a list of my absolute top-5 filming moments, but here’s as close as I can get (with the order being fairly fluid, and this is based purely on a natural history perspective, not on the crew members.)

Stellar's sea eagles in Hokkaido earth's enchanted islands
Stellar’s sea eagles in Hokkaido
  • Steller’s sea eagles
    I had previously seen the red-crowned cranes in the summer, and after seeing Vincent Munier’s photos of them in the winter, I wanted to see them in the winter as well. But on the same shoot we went to film the Steller’s sea eagles off the Shiretoko Peninsula and they were my absolute favourite. The majesty of these birds in incredible – one of the largest eagles in the world, but they actually walk a fair amount and when they do, the way they stretch out their wings is very reminiscent of vultures. They look stunning with these impressive yellow beaks, and beautiful black and white colouring, and despite their size overnight they roost in trees with as many as 25 birds in one tree. They are an icon of toughness and true kings of the sky.
The Atlas moth in Okinawa earth's enchanted islands
The Atlas moth in Yonaguni
  • Atlas moths
    Atlas moths are the largest moths in the world and in Japan can only be found on Yonaguni. They were almost all completely wiped out in the past were it not for the dedication of one man, Mr. Matsumoto, who runs the atlas moth centre. By collecting cocoons and hand-rearing them he was able to enable their population to recover after a horribly-timed typhoon. So beautiful yet so fragile, the males will only live for 3 days in their mature form with a sole purpose to mate. Neither have mouthparts and the females will die once they lay their eggs after 8 days. Matsumoto had located some cocoons before we arrived but waiting for them to hatch was a disaster – it took forever. We thought we had timed it right, but then we took shifts to stay up for 3 full days until finally, we spotted some antennae starting to come out of the cocoons. Once out they will spend about an hour pumping liquid through their wings so they expand, and then they will wait for another 2-3 hours for everything to fully dry out before they can fly. It was a real privilege to see though filming at night – starting at 9pm and finishing at 6am – was really really tough.
Ester BBC2 Red-crowned crane on earth's enchanted islands
Hokkaido’s red-crowned crane
  • Red-crowned crane parents
    Apart from being very excited to be doing a shoot with Barrie Britton, THE man for filming birds, red-crowned crane chicks are very hard to find as they’re usually hidden in the reedbeds. We managed to find two nests with different aged chicks in them – we think one was a week old and one was about 3 weeks old. Filming in the summer in Hokkaido is slightly different to UK summer as it still gets dark around 7pm but it gets light as early as 3am! We had a hide up to be able to get close to the birds, but in trying not to disturb them we wanted to get in there before it got light – this meant leaving our accommodation at around 2 in the morning. It is typical, apparently, to have lots of low-lying fog in June in Hokkaido so as we drove up to site to get to the hide really early only to hear the parents calling to their chick already wide-awake, you can imagine how disappointed we were! But the fog kept us hidden for long enough so we managed to disturb the birds as little as possible.

    Filming on BBC2's 'Japan: Earth's Enchanted Islands'
    Ester filming Macaques on Yakushima
  • Japanese macaques on Yakushima
    This was one of the longest shoots – we had 3 weeks for this sequence – and it must have been one of my favourites and not just because of the place we were staying at! It was this great little minshuku run by sisters who were so careful with us – the place is mainly for scientists so they don’t see foreigners regularly but the food they cooked was out of this world. Spending 3 weeks with the monkeys was brilliant as well. We sometimes spent days not finding them, and our filming hours were very limited by daylight hours – we usually had to stop by about 3-4 in the afternoon because it was too dark in the forest. And tracking them when it was blowing a gale and rain was beating down was also extremely hard because the minute you move away from the road it is exceptionally mountainous terrain. The most physically demanding of all shoots but they were such curious characters – a snake slithering down the road had one individual look very intrigued, the smell of our food sent them charging at us once very ferociously, and when I was recording some of their calls one juvenile was so interested in my microphone that it decided it was cautiously going to sit on it and jump up and down as if it were a branch! Definitely a highlight for me.

    Filming on BBC2's 'Japan: Earth's Enchanted Islands'
    Filming on BBC2’s ‘Japan: Earth’s Enchanted Islands’
  • MOVI and Octocopter use on the rice paddy shoot
    These days filming technology is ever-changing. Things are becoming easier, and cheaper too. An octocopter is a ‘drone’ (called Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in telly to avoid army connotations) with 8 blades – it’s still fairly big and needs 2 operators: one to operate the machine and one to move the camera. This type of filming, although it doesn’t replace helicopter filming altogether, makes a lot of shots in a sequence possible – such as moving from being close to your subject to quite far away. Another one of these ‘new’ tools is the MOVI, which is basically a stabilised unit so you can move the camera around freely without any shake. Again, it needs 2 operators: one to hold the unit and one to move the camera. Both of these have really opened up and changed filming people stories enabling you to film more interesting moves in the sequence, and I was very excited to be able to see them in operation on a shoot after hearing so much about them.

This mini-nature series really was pretty special. If you can, take a look on catch up (unfortunately, it is probably not avaialbe outside of the UK). If you can’t watch the programme, we can take you to see all of these amazing places and the wildlife that lives there – just drop us a line.

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