The Red-Crowned Cranes – called tanchozuru in Japanese – are deeply treasured in Japan. Quite literally the stuff of legends, cranes of all varieties have long been regarded as mythical as dragons, with their fabled 1,000-year lifespan making them synonymous with happiness and longevity. There is even an ancient Japanese legend that promises whoever folds 1,000 origami paper cranes will be granted a wish.
Today, Japan’s sole surviving community of Red-Crowned Cranes lives in a place that feels as mythically far-flung as it is desolately picturesque: the Tsurui marshes, remote and rural, on Japan’s northernmost island Hokkaido, an area tinged by iced Siberian winds (it’s considerably closer to Russia than Tokyo).
Here, a resident population of around 1,300 of the rare birds – a community painstakingly nurtured to four-figure numbers after nearly dying out entirely in early 20th century Japan – lives among its mudflats, freshwater marshes, flowing rivers and paddy fields (The total number globally – mainly in China, Korea, and Russia – is not that much higher: an estimated 2,800-plus).
The marshlands of Tsurui – located near the small city of Kushiro in eastern Hokkaido – span 45,000 acres and have become a protected sanctuary for its ever-growing community of Red-Crowned Cranes.
The most beautiful time of year to visit is during the calm, quiet winter months when the landscape – unusually flat compared to the mountainous archipelago that defines the other main islands of Japan – is shrouded in dense white snow.