Graceful red-crested cranes preen and breed in protected Kushiro Wetlands, which constitutes 60% of Japan's remaining marshes. These rare cranes, whose feathers were thought to bring good luck, were ruthlessly hunted at the beginning of the 20th century and were even believed to be extinct until a handful of survivors were discovered in 1924. They now number about 650. The crane—long-legged and long-billed, with a white body trimmed in black and a scarlet cap—is a
symbol of long life and happiness. Legends hold that the birds live 1,000 years, and indeed, in captivity some have made it to a rather impressive 80 years of age. They pair for life, making them the symbol of an ideal couple and are frequently alluded to in Japanese wedding speeches.
November to March is the best season for wild-crane watching. This is when the birds fly in from Russia, China, and Korea and gather at feeding stations such as Tsurumidai, off Route 53. In summer, nesting birds retreat deep into the swamps to raise their chicks and can only be spotted with binoculars.
Canoe paddlers on the Kushiro River have a chance to see cranes and other birds: canoe rental companies are at Lake Toro, off Route 391, and by the Norroko-go, a slow sightseeing train from Kushiro (July and August only). The marshland comprises 71 square mi and viewing areas with wooden walkways and observation towers are located off Routes 53 and 359.
Tancho no Sato Crane Park. At this sanctuary you can visit the nature center to watch eggs hatching, baby chicks taking their first steps, and staffers providing medical care for these stately creatures. When the crowds are mostly gone in winter, you can watch the preening cranes strut. The park is about one hour south of Lake Akan. 23–36 Akan-cho, Shiretoko National Park, 085-0245. 0154/66–2330. www.akan.jp.