Of all the places we went to on our travels, the crane nature park was the most out of the way and the most faff to get to. But it was worth it.
We started our journey the day before from Sapporo, we got the train to Kushiro which in of itself was not a short journey. Although we had Japanese Rail Passes for our time in Japan there are no bullet trains in Hokaido, so we had a four hour journey on the slow train, understandable as they are at opposite ends of the island and I imagine it would have taken even longer had we been travelling that distance at home.
We decided it would be best to arrive at night, so we could maximise our time in Sapporo and we couldn’t have managed it as a one day trip anyway, so when we arrived in Kushiro we went straight to our hotel, which we had booked right next to the station.
The next morning we set of early, getting the smallest train I have ever seen to Otanoshike Station. It soon became clear that not many westerners took this line by the stares we got; given that we suffered the least from stares in Japan of all the places we visited on the trip. Looking back on it now, we think that the expectation is that if you are visiting places this rural in Japan you would have a rental car, but we couldn’t afford one and had our JR pass, so this is how we went.
The next stage of our trip was to get the bus to Kushiro airport, we could have got this bus the whole way, but why not use the rail pass for part of our journey. The trouble was we had to wait for about half an hour, the weather forecast that day was -12 degrees Celsius, and while it felt warmer in the sun, most of the areas we could find to stand were in the shade, so we waited in the train station building. There was one other woman who got off the train at the same time as us, and she had a suitcase so this filled us with confidence, although she elected to wait outside for the bus the whole time.
The time for the bus came and went, which is very unusual for Japan, but then it was a bus rather than a train and had traffic to deal with. We were so glad when it finally did arrive and there was heating on board. There was a bit of confusion on when we tried to pay getting on, but I remembered what had happened in other busses, basically you look at the board when you first get on to find out your stop number which is displayed at the front of the bus along with all the preceding numbers, then when you get off you see how much the sign shows you have to pay from that stop and have exact change ready for the driver. We didn’t have to use this system too often as our pasmo and icia cards covered most travel, but not all of it.
Finally we arrived at the airport. We had found from our research that there was another bus from here, but we couldn’t find times for the bus online, so we went in search of the answer. This was at about 8:30 am, and the first bus wasn’t until 11 am, by which time we hoped to be finishing up our time at the sanctuary and thinking about heading back to Kushiro to catch our train back to Sapporo. The airport was clearly showing the cranes as their proudest feature as there was a beautiful mobile in the foyer as well as a couple of stuffed cranes with information in Japanese.
We tried to get a taxi, but were refused and pointed back to the terminal building, we weren’t sure if you had to buy a ticket inside or why we had been refused, but it wasn’t the first time a taxi refused us in Japan. After looking at it on the map my husband said it wouldn’t be too far to walk, and we headed off that way, but one look at the road and I was concerned there was no pavement and with the ice on the road I didn’t like the safety aspect, so we went back to the terminal.
The information desk didn’t open until 9:30 am, but the bus information centre was open, so we asked about transport to the crane nature park. We were told as we had already figured out that the first bus wasn’t for several hours, but there were taxis outside. So we explained that we had been turned down for a taxi earlier and she took us outside and talked to a taxi driver who was there.
The taxi driver was different than the one we had talked to earlier and he explained that the direct route to the crane nature park was closed at this time of year and it would take twenty minutes to get there. By this point we didn’t mind paying the extra fare, but both the taxi driver and the lady from the bus counter were protesting that it was too expensive (this also seemed to happen a lot in Japan), but what were we going to do? Just give up on the entire reason we were here? While I think that is what we were expected to do, we protested enough until the taxi driver agreed to take us.
After agreeing to take us the taxi driver was perfectly amicable and we arrived just in time for the opening of the park.
After paying and having the layout briefly explained to us, we entered a large building, with not a lot in it, but there was an exhibition hall and a “warm room”. We swiftly made our way outside the other end of the building to the nature park itself.
The park was basically a path that ran parallel to a number of large enclosures, with no roofs. A lot of the cranes here had been rescued after being in accidents and couldn’t fly, but there were also a number who could and they were able to leave their enclosures and come back as they pleased. Red crested cranes (which all of the one’s in the park were) are quite territorial and recognised their own enclosures as their territory.
I have to say that seeing the beautiful, snowy-white, elegant birds that symbolise good fortune and longevity made all the hassle to come and see them worth it; especially with such spectacular winter backdrops. It felt a little like we had walked into a nature documentary made to awe people.
Being that we were in Japan as well, the little considerations which may not be thought of in other countries were taken care of, such as providing little holes in the fence where you could stick your camera through so that the mesh of the fence wouldn’t get in the way of the shots. The holes were covered with quirky little flaps which had crane heads and in one case a crane footprint decorating them.
We continued up the different enclosures, seeing some of the cranes feeding themselves by poking a seed box with their beak and then eating the seeds released from the ground.
In most cases the cranes were hanging about around the feeding station or around the water in their enclosure, but one little crane got curious about my husband and decided to say hello.
There were little signs everywhere giving bits of information about the cranes, while these were in Japanese they had been presented in a cartoon style so you could figure out what the message was. My favourite was this one with the different types of birds all arguing about the best way to eat a fish.
We did actually see all of the other birds on the poster, I guess that is the thing with having open enclosures is that anyone could come and eat. The cranes being by far the largest bird though, I don’t think the others could have taken food if the cranes didn’t feel they had surplus.
I didn’t know much about cranes before we went there, apparently the red crest on the top of their head is actually skin, rather than feathers. I was also slightly surprised at some of the behaviours we saw from the cranes, as I always imagined them as serene creatures. While some cranes were just lazing around we saw a number of cranes flapping as though posturing and also making a racket, usually at the cranes in the enclosure next to them. I suppose this is understandable knowing now how territorial they can be.
The last enclosure on the path we had been told was special because it had a baby in it. Now because of the time of year it was more of an adolescent than a baby, but it was still nice to see the family unit all together. The younger one is the one whose head looks grey rather than black.
As we headed back along the enclosures we were lucky enough to catch feeding time, which seemed to consist of someone going into the enclosure and putting fish into those troughs we had seen and then the cranes fishing them out. We weren’t entirely sure if they were live fish or if it was just to simulate what they would have to do in the wild to catch fish.
By this time we were really cold and after the mandatory selfie by the cardboard cut out cranes we headed back into the warm room for a little bit. Inside the warm room there was lovely view back into the park, a little shop with some cute origami and other things as well as an exhibition where I learned the facts about the cranes head, territory etc.
You may have thought that our ordeal with travel was over after we arrived at the crane nature park, unfortunately we still had to get back. We looked at the bus timetable from the park to the airport and for some reason which I don’t entirely remember decided it would be better to walk. As we knew the road was closed we were less worried about the traffic, I was still worried about the prospect of walking along a closed road in a country where rules are so important, but my husband was pretty determined so off we went.
The first section we had to walk along was a pretty busy road with a fairly high speed limit and we had to walk on the verge. It was terrifying! My husband told me that we just had to get to a certain junction, unfortunately I thought he meant a closer junction than he did, but we did get there eventually.
Then we turned onto a much quieter road. At this point is wasn’t closed but we only saw one or two cars going really slowly. The snow wasn’t bad either, just a few centimetres, so I thought this would be fine. I would also like to point out that from before we set off I was saying about how much higher than us the airport was, but my husband was convinced otherwise.
We got to the closed off road and it was shin deep with snow and on a steep hill and we had a time limit to get to the airport so we could make our bus. This part of our journey sticks out in my husband’s mind as one of his favourite parts of being in Japan. It is safe to say that given I am not as fit as I could be, don’t like being rushed and not terribly steady on my feet in slippy snow, that isn’t why it sticks out in my mind, although I tried to look cheerful for the photo.
When we first passed the barrier, my husband pointed out tracks and said that clearly other people had been going this way walking their dogs. As we got further on though we saw that it was only dog tracks and no human tracks. I think it was most likely fox or wolf tracks which if it was the latter still gives me shivers. I am glad we didn’t meet whatever left those tracks.
Anyway, after a long uphill struggle in the snow (I can see why it was closed) we finally made it to the barrier on the other side and my fears of something happening to us and nobody ever finding us were revealed somewhat. However, my fears of missing our bus were high and I sent my husband on ahead to see if he could get them to wait if I didn’t make it on time.
We got to the airport at about 12:27 pm and our bus wasn’t due till 12:30 so we thought we had made it, so we waited and saw 12:30 come and go with no bus. My husband went into the terminal to ask about the bus, while I waited outside so it wouldn’t go while we were inside. I am still not sure if something was lost in translation but apparently there had been a bus at 12:30 but we never saw it.
We now had to figure out what on earth we were going to do. We wanted to be able to get back to Kushiro train station in time for a specific train back to Sapporo so we could go to the Sapporo beer museum that night, which I wrote about in a previous blog. The next bus wouldn’t have got us there in time. We had planned to basically retrace our steps and now it looked like we were either going to have to get a taxi or miss our train. It suddenly occurred to me that the Otanoshike Station had only been one stop on the bus and we would have had a wait between the bus and the train there anyway so we ended up just getting a taxi to Otonashike station which wasn’t too expensive.
After having been let down once that day standing on the tiny empty platform at Otonashike was nerve racking, but the Japanese rail network never let us down and the tiny train arrived right on time.
We got to Kushiro train station with about ten minutes to spare, I reserved our tickets (which was required for this particular train with a JR pass) and my husband ran across the roads to get our bags from the hotel. We quickly bought some convenience store food (which I might have to do a post on, the convenience store food in Japan is AMAZING) and made it onto our four hour train back to Sapporo.
Although it was quite a stressful journey there and back again to see the cranes, it was worth it and after all it was definitely an experience.