Japan: Where to Observe the Cranes and What is the Best Time to Photograph Them (Part 3)
Updated: Oct 21
The Japanese cranes are undoubtedly the most depicted animals in traditional Japanese painting. Any photographer traveling to Hokkaido in winter must go and observe them in the village of Tsurui. A striking and emotionally rich spectacle. Experience feedback and practical tips for getting to the best spots.
© O. Robert
Frequently made from paper in the art of origami, Tanchozuru cranes also accompany prayers in Buddhist temples where necklaces of hundreds of paper cranes are offered by practitioners. They are also the emblem of Japan Airlines.
Where to Observe and Photograph Tanchozuru Cranes in Hokkaido
Observation Spot #1: In Kushiro City
Upon your arrival in Kushiro, you may wish to familiarize yourself with these majestic birds before heading to Tsurui. You will find 2 sites dedicated to cranes in Kushiro. The "Akan International Tsuru Center" and the "Kushiro City Tanchozuru Nature Park." Admission to these 2 parks costs around 450¥.
Although these locations do not allow you to photograph the cranes in their natural habitat, you can observe the birds frolicking in a large field. You'll also find some useful information and a restaurant there. With a bit of luck and if the weather is on your side, you could capture some interesting shots.
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Observation Spot #2: 'Tsuru Midai Spot' in Tsurui Village
Upon approaching Tsurui Village, you will find on your right a designated area for welcoming cranes in transit to other sites. This site is very popular among tourists, and it's not uncommon to see buses arriving, making observation difficult and photography nearly impossible.
Additionally, the presence of cranes at this location is a matter of luck. Not being fed at a fixed time like in Tsurui, the cranes much prefer to head directly to the observatory.
Lastly, you'll also notice that the surrounding landscape and background are not conducive to capturing great images. It's better to stop here to familiarize yourself with these birds in their environment. But don't expect to get your best shots at this location.
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Observation Spot #3: Otowa Bridge
If you plan to spend a few days photographing Japanese cranes, we also recommend making a stop at Otowa Bridge over the Setsuri River, ideally arriving early in the morning. This bridge is easily recognizable from a distance by its red-painted structures.
The cranes generally spend the night in this river not far from the bridge. In the morning, they leave the river to go to the Tsurui sanctuary where they are fed at a fixed time. Therefore, you'll have to choose between observing the cranes in the river or their arrival at the Tsurui sanctuary.
Be cautious, however, as you'll need to arrive (very) early. Photographers gather in large numbers in an area that is not very wide and set up their large tripods, making it difficult to easily approach the barrier.
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The frosty landscape in the early morning is absolutely beautiful, even if the cranes have already departed. Be aware, it's not uncommon for the thermometer to drop to -20°C at this location. Plan accordingly!
Observation Spot #4: Tsurui Ito Sanctuary
This sanctuary is undoubtedly the most popular observation location, and for good reason. It was designed in 1987 by Mr. Yoshitaka Ito (1919-2000). During that not-so-distant time, the crane population in Hokkaido could be counted on one hand. For several years, only 10 cranes only were identified, which led to concerns about the imminent extinction of the species.
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Fortunately, thanks to the dedicated efforts of Mr. Ito, the crane population increased from just 10 individuals to over 1,000 within a few years! Today, the crane population is stable and hovers around 1,000 birds, much to everyone's delight.
The observatory is open 24/7 and offers multiple free parking lots. Admission is, of course, free. Given the number of parking spaces, you quickly understand that this location is very popular among tourists and photographers.
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The observatory also features a Nature Center that is open from October 1 to March 31, 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM, every year. The Center is open on public holidays and closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission is free. Many volunteers, students, or scientists lend a hand at the Center, and it's not uncommon to encounter foreigners. You can easily converse with them and learn more about the cranes if you wish.
Best Times to Photograph Tanchozuru Cranes
The cranes are fed every day starting at 9:00 AM. During winter, they cannot fend for themselves around the village of Tsurui. Therefore, the Center feeds them dry corn (300 grams per crane per day) twice daily, around 9:00 AM and 2:00 PM. The rest of the year, they fend for themselves in the surrounding wilderness. Hence, it is pointless to hope to observe or photograph them during the rest of the year, unless you are extraordinarily lucky.
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The courtship display is a surprising spectacle to witness. However, it only occurs a few days each year. So, if you've missed this period of courtship displays, don't worry! When the cranes are fed, they dance and call out in a very similar manner. This promises spectacular photos, as the poses adopted by the birds at this time are striking.
Generally, I have observed the arrival of the cranes around 8:00 AM. This is, in fact, one of the best moments to experience, and it's crucial to be on-site so as not to miss this arrival.
Be ready, camera in hand and not on the tripod! The cranes arrive either alone or in small groups, flying at a distance of just a few meters above your head for about 15 minutes.
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If you're a landscape photographer, this is the time to try your hand at wildlife photography! Don't miss this special moment of the cranes' morning arrival. You won't get a second chance to see them flying over you unless you return the following morning.
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The cranes leave the Tsurui Sanctuary around 5:00 PM to return to the river. This is another magical moment not to be missed. Generally, they take off from the opposite side from where they arrived in the morning. Given their considerable weight and despite their wingspan, the Tanchozuru cranes require a significant distance to gain momentum for flight. Be ready once again, but this time prepare your zoom lens. The cranes take off at a distance far from the observatory, and this moment doesn't last long.
© O. Robert
Be patient! The Tsurui Sanctuary and observatory are among the most visited places in Japan. Therefore, I recommend arriving at the parking area as early as possible to secure a spot. Once there, you will then have to wait for a long time either in your car or outside for the more resilient ones.
Near the intersection of the main road, before making a right turn, you'll notice a Seven-Eleven, one of those small stores that Japanese love, often referred to as "Combini" (short for Convenience Store). You can warm up there with a hot drink after spending several hours motionless in the cold, or buy some food.
Upon arriving at the parking area, don't forget to set up your tripod near the wooden barrier, which serves as the line not to cross. Choose your spot and place your tripod there.
This is a custom among professional photographers at this location. Don't worry, it won't be moved. Let's not forget we are in a country where respect for others is paramount. So, there's no risk of your precious tripod being stolen despite the gradually growing crowd.
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Depending on the time of year you visit Tsurui, expect to be surrounded from morning till night by a throng of enthusiastic photographers. This situation can initially be a bit disconcerting when trying to find inspiration, especially if you're accustomed to shooting alone and in silence. Use this experience to practice any Japanese phrases you've learned with your neighbors.
If you're a landscape photographer used to wide-angle lenses and smaller setups, you'll likely be impressed by the bulky and expensive gear that wildlife photographers proudly sport. It can be quite a shift, but also an opportunity to gain insights into different types of photography and equipment.
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Whether or not you specialize in wildlife photography, encountering the cranes of Japan will undoubtedly be one of the most memorable experiences in your photographic journey. In the face of such a spectacle, emotion quickly takes over, and ultimately, that's what matters most for producing authentic photography.
Part 3: Where to Observe the Cranes and What is the Best Time to Photograph Them
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