In Japan’s nature-worshipping Shinto religion, the crane has traditionally been a revered bird.
Among other things, it denotes longevity, and is commonly used symbolically in Japanese baptism and wedding ceremonies. An ancient legend promises that anyone who folds a thousand origami (Japanese paper art) cranes will be granted a wish by a crane, such as long life or recovery from illness or injury.
In the hierarchy of Japanese cranes, one stands out from all the rest, and – like all good things in this country – it lives in Hokkaido.
It is the Red Crested Crane, or tanchozuru – which has been designated officially as a living Japanese monument. Until very recently it was adopted by Japan Airlines as its company logo, appearing in stylised form on the tail fin of JAL commercial planes and perhaps providing comfort to nervous Japanese air travellers.
Snowy white, with black tipped wings and throat and a bright red cap, it is a magnificent creature, growing to a height of 1.5 metres, with a wingspan of 2.5 metres. Like the Australian brolga, it dances – bobbing, weaving and leaping spectacularly in courtship and other communication rituals.
Unfortunately, it is also extremely endangered, and its last real remaining habitat is in the Kushiro Wetlands National Park, a wide expanse of beautiful, but boggy, marshes just north of the pretty port town of Kushiro, on the south-east coast of Hokkaido.
A Government-sponsored artificial breeding program to try to ensure the preservation of the cranes has resulted in at least 20 of them now living all year round in the Wetlands Park, in addition to the truly wild ones that migrate seasonally back and forth between Hokkaido and South East Asia.
A well developed boardwalk system covers a large part of the marshes and offers close-up viewing of the cranes, and a nearby (very hot!) onsen, or hot spring, provides wonderful relaxation after a good walk. Abutting the park is an interesting horse ranch, where Dosanko, the chunky native Hokkaido ponies are bred and reared for riding. They are hardy little horses and are popular for long treks through the drier parts of the marshes.
The main town in the area is, of course, Kushiro. Like all other Hokkaido port towns, it is noted for its diverse range of fresh seafood. Because of the convergence of warm and cold ocean currents in the Pacific Ocean just offshore, the town is often blanketed in a soft, hazy mist – particularly in spring and early Summer – that gives it quite an ethereal atmosphere. Great for strolling at night around the colourful Fisherman’s Wharf restaurant and bar area close to the docks where the fishing boats tie up.
On its inland side, the wetlands gradually merges into the rugged and spectacular Akan National Park. At Akan, a string of majestic volcanic peaks are situated around three of Japan’s most famous lakes – Akan-ko, Mashu-ko and Kussharo-ko.
The Japanese preference is for Akan, where a well developed (overdeveloped?!) onsen town with blocks and blocks of rather tawdry souvenir shops crowd out the natural scenery. Mashu-ko is indeed spectacular, but rarely visible in the foggy depths of a deep volcanic crater, but this only adds to its appeal and ‘mysticism’ among Japanese tourists.
Our own preference is Kussharo-ko, which rivals Shikotsu-ko, near Chitose, for sheer natural beauty, but has the added benefits of an excellent Sumo museum dedicated to the greatest of all modern Grand Champions, Taiho (at Kawa-no-Yu Onsen, on the shore of the lake), and another onsen that bubbles up through the sands at Suna-no-Yu, a little further round the lake and forms a welcoming sanctuary for migratory swans fleeing the icy Siberian winter.
All in all, the Kushiro region and Akan National Park have something for everyone, and are well worth while adding to the list of ‘must-do’ seasonal trips in Hokkaido.