Introducing Kushiro Shitsugen National Park
Kushiro Shitsugen National Park, at 269 sq km, is Japan's largest expanse of undeveloped wetland. Sitting directly north of the coastal city of Kushiro, it was designated a national park in 1987 to combat urban sprawl and protect the wetland habitat of numerous different species of wildlife, but chiefly the tanchō-zuru (red-crested white crane), the traditional symbol of both longevity and Japan.
In the early 20th century, Japanese cranes were thought to be extinct due to overhunting and habitat destruction. In 1926, however, a group of about 20 birds was discovered in the marshes around Kushiro, and with concentrated conservation efforts, they now number more than 1000 birds. The cranes can be seen year-round, but the best time is in winter when they gather at feeding spots. Popular with Japanese photographers, the cranes often dance exotically in pairs.
While it is difficult to get out into the middle of the park, the JR Senmō line that links Kushiro with Kawayu Onsen, Shiretoko-Shari and Abashiri, runs up its eastern fringes. Similarly, Rte 53 runs up the park's western fringes.
On the western side, the Akan International Crane Centre is accessible by the Kushiro to Akanko bus (¥1410, one hour) that travels on Rte 240. Attached is the Crane Observation Centre. This is a winter feeding ground and your best chance to see cranes.
If you have your own wheels, you can explore the park at length, including the Kushiro Marsh Observatory with exhibits about the surrounding marshlands and a number of boardwalks. This is a 10-minute drive north of Kushiro on Rte 53.
Train-users can ride from Kushiro to JR Kushiro Shitsugen Station (¥350, 20 minutes), then walk uphill for 15 minutes to the Hosooka Observatory (細岡展望台) from where you can easily appreciate the grand scale of this wetland preserve.
Two stations further north, Kushiro Shitsugen Tōro Youth Hostel is a couple of minutes' walk from JR Tōro (塘路) Station. This is an extremely friendly and efficient place with bunk-style rooms and a great viewing deck from which you can survey the national park. From May to November the hostel runs canoe tours and offers a guiding service, while from December to March there are tours to see the cranes.