By Yuka Matsumoto / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterTSURUI, Hokkaido — Japanese cranes come flying in pairs onto the snow-covered field and exchange calls. It’s breathtaking to see the beautiful, clear contrast of the black and white of the large birds flocking to the Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary in the village of Tsurui, eastern Hokkaido.
Designated as a special national treasure, Japanese cranes live mainly in the neighboring Kushiro Shitsugen marsh in summer. In winter, the red-crowned cranes come to this feeding site, as it is difficult to find food in the wetland. The number of birds visiting the site reaches a maximum 300 a day. Visitors can observe them over a fence, and information about the birds is provided at a nature center at the site that is open from October to the end of March.
Today, most Japanese cranes live in Hokkaido, but their academic name is Grus japonensis, which means “the crane of Japan.”
“They used to travel to the Honshu mainland until the Edo period [1603-1867], and [Utagawa] Hiroshige drew them in his ukiyo-e work,” said Osamu Harada, 55, the facility’s chief ranger. That may be why many places and families across the country have the word “tsuru,” or crane, in their names.
Due to overhunting and rampant development, the bird was once believed to have gone extinct. Shortly after the end of World War II, however, children in Tsurui found Japanese cranes crouching in a farmer’s field during a blizzard. Villagers thought that the birds, which symbolize a beautiful and peaceful Japan, were getting weak, and began feeding them corn, even though they had little food themselves.
It has been 30 years since the Wild Bird Society of Japan (WBSJ) established the sanctuary on the land, which it took over from a villager.
Its conservation activities there were recognized by the government, and the organization was entrusted with feeding the birds in winter at the Tsurui-Ito facility and the Tsurumidai feeding site, also in the village. The WBSJ also works on conservation and research of the wetland.
However, human beings’ relationship with the bird “is coming to a turning point,” said Kunihito Otonari, 49, a former chief ranger. The crane population across Hokkaido has grown to about 1,800 from 33 that were counted when the feeding began. Now the distance between Japanese cranes and people has shrunk, and the birds sometimes damage crops.
There have also been many accidents in which birds have collided with a car or an electric wire, and there are concerns about a possible pandemic of infectious diseases that could affect the species. Believing it is necessary to disperse their habitat in the wild, the government laid out a policy last summer to discontinue feeding the birds in the future.
The head of the local conservation group Tancho Community, Otonari currently works with villagers in preparing the bird’s feed and taking countermeasures to address the crop damage problem.
“Simply cutting the amount of feed we give them will not lead to the dispersion [of the species’ habitats],” Otonari said with a somber expression. He plans to canvas villagers’ opinions about the issue.
“I hope that conservation and utilization of the cranes will be an axis for the village’s development,” Otonari said.
A draw for tourists
The species has brought benefits to the village.
Before dawn in midwinter, when the temperature drops as low as minus 30 C, a number of photographers gather around the Otowabashi bridge over the Setsurigawa river, where the cranes roost. They aim to take fantastical photos featuring the silhouette of the birds spreading their wings as if dancing in the river fog.
With a population of 2,500, the village has more than 150,000 domestic and foreign visitors every year who come to watch the elegant birds. It’s like a recreation of the folk tale “Tsuru no Ongaeshi” (The grateful crane), in which a crane repays a man who helped her when she was injured.
“Let’s go see the birds in their sleep.” Saying this, Masahiro Wada — a 61-year-old local professional photographer who also serves as a guide for photo shooting tours — brought me to another river in the middle of the night.
On the display of my camera, I could see a few Japanese cranes under the moonlight. They were standing on one leg in the shallow water, with their heads put into their white feathers. It was such a quiet, solemn view, I felt it would be rude to get close to them.
“The cranes chose our village. We have to repay the favor,” Wada said.
Marsh view from horseback
Tsurui Dosanko Ranch, operated by the village’s promotion public corporation, utilizes Dosanko horses in tourism, playing a role in the breed’s conservation. Dosanko horses are a Hokkaido breed that contributed to the northern island’s development. According to the ranch, headed by Naoto Tsunoda, it utilizes a training method that does not rely on physical force to control the animal.
After traveling about seven kilometers on horseback from the field of snow for an observation site, the Kushiro marsh appeared below. Over the Miyajimamisaki and Kirakotanmisaki slopes — both of which prove that the area was once covered by the ocean — we saw a shining river winding its way through the wetland.
White mold cheese
The village’s key industry is dairy. Restaurant Heart’n Tree produces a camembert type of cheese named Haato no Shirokabi Chiizu (Heart-shaped white mold cheese) at its factory on the premises.
The product is made from the milk of cows that grow in an unconstrained environment at a farm run by a large family in the village. When I tasted it, the mild flavor of the milk spread through my mouth.
Rakurakukan, a stock farm product processing facility in the village, makes a series of natural cheeses under the brand name of Tsurui, and its products have won prizes at natural cheese competitions. Aged for at least six months, the Gold Label cheese of the series has a concentrated flavor.
The cheeses are available at the local Tsurubo no Ie shop, which sells the village’s specialty products, and other facilities.
The village promotes dishes using the meat of special pigs that are fed with sweet potatoes. The pork brand was named Sankeiton (Pigs of three natural blessings), as the pigs are bred with local soil, wind and water that is rich in minerals thanks to the location near the wetland. The pork is served at the restaurant Shokudo Yamato, Hotel Taito and other places.
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