Red-crowned cranes, a symbol of loyalty and longevity, are deeply entrenched in Japanese culture. Named for the discs of red skin that gleam on the black heads, they are considered to bring good luck since ancient times.
The cranes were plentiful throughout Japan during the Edo period, from the 17th to the 19th century. They were kept as pets — as well as being hunted and prepared as culinary delicacies — for the ruling shoguns.
However, by the 1920s, there were fears that the red-crowned cranes had gone extinct due to over-hunting and construction that wiped out much of their wetland habitats. Only about three dozen red-crowned cranes were left in all of Japan.
After a handful were discovered in Kushiro, a port city in eastern Hokkaido, local conservators and the Japanese government initiated a successful decades-long effort. Today there are about 1,900 cranes in Japan’s population and they are no longer at imminent risk of extinction.
Kushiro Shitsugen, a large marshland, is dedicated as a national park and the Japanese non-migratory red-crown cranes home. It is a particularly active feeding ground between November and March, and the snowy ground provides a backdrop that makes the birds’ elegant beauty stand out all the more. A visit here is a top priority on my things to do list.