Winging along to marvel at Izumi’s wintering cranes

by Mandy Bartok

Special To The Japan Times

My eyes have been carefully trained on the barren fields outside Izumi Crane Park Museum for at least 20 minutes, but I’ve yet to spot any of the locality’s most famous feathered friends.

It’s both laughable and more than a tad frustrating because, ever since I landed in this unassuming Kyushu city by the sea in northern Kagoshima Prefecture, I’ve seen images of the photogenic cranes everywhere — on posters, manhole covers, kitschy key chains, road signs and more.

Yet what’s brought me to Izumi from my Kumamoto home on this bitingly chilly morning isn’t the lure of any such stuff — but hopes of witnessing the great winter gathering here of Japan’s protected crane species. However, I’m finding that birding takes more than a bit of patience and luck.

Nonetheless, while it may boast no live birds of its own, Izumi Crane Park Museum is a trove of information on the area. Visitors learn, for instance, that overwintering cranes — mostly of the small, dark, white-headed Hooded (Grus monacha) and much larger, red-faced White-naped (Grus vipio) species — first appeared in Izumi sometime in the 18th century. Thereafter their numbers steadily grew from the tens to the hundreds, and as the size of the flocks increased, so did local and regional interest in them.

In fact, it appears that the early 1920s witnessed a crane-watching boom, with visitors coming from as far away as Honshu. In 1922, more than 440 birds were logged in Izumi — a record for the area to that date.

However, the construction of an airfield in Izumi during World War II caused the crane population to dwindle significantly. So, by the time the government designated the birds as protected species in 1952, only 263 specimens were counted during the annual migration.

Fortunately, local citizens weren’t quite ready to let the cranes go. The formation of the Kagoshima Crane Conservation Committee in the early 1960s virtually assured the birds’ continued presence in Izumi thanks to the creation of artificial roosts and the introduction of a daily feeding program. In fact hundreds of club members, whether unpaid volunteers or students, have long worked to monitor the cranes every winter, and now — according to a notice in the museum’s entryway — the count for this season is already well over 10,000.

The staff at the museum kindly slipped in with my brochure a sheet of crane-patterned origami paper, which I attempt to fold after viewing the exhibits. Cranes have long been a symbol of good luck and longevity in Japan, where they commonly appear in a number of mediums from paintings to kimono to postage stamps. Rainbow-hued origami cranes often feature in colorful chains outside shrines and memorials, though after several tries, it’s clear that my botched bird is unworthy of ever being displayed in public.

Not to worry, though, because after leaving the museum on the city’s handy sightseeing shuttle bus, I spot my first real cranes in a rice paddy just off the road. In a flash, we’ve rounded a corner and those birds are gone — only to be replaced by several more, all combing the fields for leftover grain.

As our bus chugs along toward Izumi Crane Observation Center, I relax in my seat and mentally cheer. The initially elusive cranes are now thick on the ground, more than I can count on fingers and toes. Then, as we near the coast and the center’s parking lot, the sky becomes fairly dotted with the streamlined elegance of soaring cranes.

If the Crane Park Museum has no live birds but all the information, the Crane Observation Center is just the opposite. While it does boast a few documentary videos along with a restaurant and the obligatory gift corner, the main focus is really on the myriad birds spread across Izumi Crane Park’s 245-hectare expanse.

From the rooftop terrace, it’s like listening in on a raucous cocktail party. Untold scores of the birds pack into the feeding area just in front of the center’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Red-tipped heads bob up and down in a seeming frenzy, gleaning whatever sustenance volunteers dropped in the field in the early morning.

For most of the season, the food on offer is wheat; at least 100 grams per day is allotted for each bird. In late winter, small fish are added to the feast, to fortify the cranes for their long flight back to their breeding grounds in Siberia and northeastern China.

From late December to the middle of January, the center normally records the largest swell of avian visitors, while in mid to late February the early risers start to depart according to their own mysterious clocks and compasses.

As I watch, pairs or small groups of cranes flit in and out, some flying off to try their luck grazing in other fields or paddies. When the true time of mass migration comes, the cranes mostly lift off in large flocks. Morning seems to be the preferred time to leave; come in the afternoon in February or March, the center cautions, and you may find that day’s departures have already departed.

But there’s more to Izumi than birds, no matter how it brands itself as Cranes Central.

In fact this ancient place lapped by the waters of the East China Sea also prides itself on its samurai district. Located a 20-minute shuttle ride from the Crane Observation Center, the historic preservation district is an appealing warren of quiet streets and massive entry gates, through which most allow glimpses of beautiful gardens within.

The shuttle drops me off in front of the Takezoe Residence, one of three old mansions open to the public. The gigantic wooden door stands open and I pick my way across the garden’s stepping stones to have a peek at the house deemed historic enough to be used in one of NHK’s popular historical dramas.

“The neighborhood’s original homes were built 400 years ago,” the mansion’s friendly docent explains as he leads me around the interior. A fire destroyed most of the quarter two centuries ago; the thatched roofs burned like matchsticks and nearly all the neighborhood’s 100 houses were razed to the ground. The mansions were rebuilt in much the same style, though, and the stone walls hiding each property from the street are all original.

I poke around the spacious Takezoe Residence — once used as a samurai school for boys, according to the docent — before moving on to the nearby Takemiya Residence. Like their neighbors, generations of heads of the Takemiya family held high posts in the local government right until aristocratic privilege was annulled following the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

Though the families’ surviving possessions on show in their former homes speak clearly of wealth, I am more taken with the elegantly sculpted gardens.

At the Takemiya Residence, as with so many homes in Izumi that I’ve seen from the bus, the garden’s pines are shaped into bonsai-style perfection. Clearly, tree-pruners here are in no danger of unemployment.

By late afternoon, it’s time for my own migration north, back to my home in central Kyushu. I punch my ticket for the shinkansen and then veer off into the tiny station shop for a spur-of-the-moment purchase of a crane key chain. After all, cranes are good luck — and I didn’t even have to fold this one myself.

Izumi can be reached via the Sakura Shinkansen; trains run once or twice an hour to Fukuoka and Kagoshima, with stops along the way. A tourist shuttle bus links the train station with the Crane Park Museum, Crane Observation Center and the samurai quarter. All-day bus tickets are ¥1,000 for adults and include admission to the Crane Observation Center (¥310) and the Crane Park Museum (¥210). The samurai residences are free to enter. All three attractions are open 9 a.m.-5 p.m.