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Sam's Japan Travel Journal
by Sam, staff writer of japan-guide.com

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2017/02/09 - Crane Watching in Kushiro

Cranes performing a mating call at Tsurui Ito Tancho Sanctuary

The area around Kushiro in eastern Hokkaido is not only revered for its natural beauty but also as the last home of the Japanese Red-crowned Crane. "Tancho" as they are called in Japanese were found all across Hokkaido and Honshu up until the Meiji Period, when over hunting and the disappearance of their natural habitat brought them to the brink of extinction. The species was thought to have been completely extirpated from Japan in the early twentieth century, before a small flock of 20 birds was discovered in the Kushiro Marshlands in 1924.

Since then a huge effort has been made by the locals and the Japanese government to conserve the species by providing them with food in the harsh winters, and also by actively breeding the tancho. A famous national symbol and a majestic creature, the bird can now be seen in large numbers at various locations in Kushiro, where, thanks to the afore-mentioned efforts, around 650 now survive and thrive in these wetlands.

Crane landing seen from the Tancho Observation Center

My first stop in my quest to see tancho was at the Akan International Crane Center, located around 45 minutes' drive from central Kushiro. This facility is dedicated to the breeding and research of the Red-crowned Crane and is made up of different sections including an exhibition hall that educates about the species through diagrams and photographs (with explanations in English). There are also several outdoor aviaries where cranes are kept for breeding. The most popular attraction is the adjacent Tancho Observation Center from which cranes can be seen in their natural habitat.

Inside the center's exhibition hall
One of the outdoor aviaries

The birds flock here during winter to be fed. Feeding times are traditionally 8:30 and 14:00, but the afternoon feed is presently discontinued due to concerns over a bird flu outbreak and potential infection of the tancho from other species, such as eagles, that are attracted to the fish served in the afternoons. There is no definitive date when the afternoon feed will resume, but it is thought that it will remain discontinued for the rest of this year's season. It costs 470 yen for combined entry to the center and the observation area, with the observation area open November through March.

A great vantage point for photos
The red crowns on some birds were particularly eye-catching
Zooming in
Tancho Observation Center is located adjacent to the main center
Photographers wait patiently
Mating calls
A crane paddles in the water

A 50 minute drive from Kushiro lies the quaint village of Tsurui, home to multiple spots ideal for crane watching. Otowa Bridge is great for early risers when, just after dawn, tancho can be seen in the adjacent river, remaining for a short time after roosting here at night due to the relative safety of the river. I arrived early to find myself beaten by droves of photographers already snapping away. As much of a social event as anything, it was great to enjoy the atmosphere and amazing morning views that this spot offers; of birds feeding through the river's mist.

A crowd gathered on the bridge
Some of the equipment used was impressive
Quite the morning view
Up early and ready
Spot the fox

Tsuruimidai is a feeding ground by the side of the route 53 where tancho are known to flock in large numbers. I personally wasn't lucky enough to see any birds here despite waiting for a while among groups of tourists that had arrived on tour buses.

Beautiful scenery but no cranes
A shop and restaurant lie across the street from Tsuruimidai
A group of tourists was gathered to wait

The final stop on my tancho tour was Tsurui Ito Tancho Sanctuary. With a backdrop of expansive snowy fields under bright blue skies, this proved an ideal setting for observing Red-crowned Cranes and to make things better, they were flocked here in large numbers. As with other spots in the area, the birds are fed through the winter, with the sanctuary only being open to the public October through March. A stone's throw from the feeding ground stands a small nature center from where it is possible to view the birds. The place was cozy and full of information, but it was all in Japanese.

It was possible to get very close to the cranes here
A large flock of cranes
Watching and waiting
In flight
Great weather and great views
Close up
Bird flu preventative measures here too
The nature center lies next to the sanctuary

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List of Posts:
2017/07/27 - On the road in Tohoku: Driving through Miyagi and Yamagata
2017/06/22 - Mount Shirane reopens for exploration
2017/05/30 - Exploring Nikko
2017/04/27 - Wisteria Watching at Ashikaga Flower Park
2017/04/24 - Nemophila flowers at Hitachi Seaside Park
2017/02/21 - Tokyo Early Spring Update
2017/02/16 - Renovations start at Kiyomizudera's main hall
2017/02/09 - Crane Watching in Kushiro
2017/02/07 - 2017 Asahikawa Winter Festival
2017/02/06 - 2017 Otaru Snow Light Path Festival
2017/02/06 - 2017 Sapporo Snow Festival
2017/01/16 - Early Blooming in Atami

2016/12/31 - Travel Highlights 2016
2016/09/13 - Walking the Roots of Japan
2016/07/28 - Hakone Update
2016/04/26 - Tonami Tulip Fair 2016
2016/04/19 - Kyoto Railway Museum