Archive for February, 2019



It could have been declared the national bird of China but for its literal translation (from its Latin scientific name Grus Japonensis) of “Japanese Crane”. That red patch on its crown gave it its more popular, and shall we say non-controversial and more acceptable name — the red-crowned cranes. Among the rarest and heaviest species of cranes, many migratory cranes breed in spring and summer in Siberia and northeastern China before migrating in flocks to Korea and East-Central China to spend winter there. BUT Eastern Hokkaido — the Kushiro wetlands, in particular — is home to non-migratory red-crowned cranes. If at all, they move less than a hundred miles to their wintering grounds within Kushiro such as in Akan and in the village of Tsurui. Interestingly, Eastern Hokkaido is home to more than half of the world’s red-crowned cranes. Graceful big birds weighing as much as 20 pounds and as tall as 5 feet. We visited the Tsurui-ito Tancho Sanctuary in Kushiro to see these magnificent birds. The sanctuary was named after Yoshitaka Ito, a local farmer, who started feeding these cranes for many years. Such is Japanese farm life here.

The Courtship

So why do these species of elegant birds call Kushiro their home? Within Kushiro is Tsurui-ito where a sanctuary houses as many as 1,800 red-crowned cranes. Come feeding time, you’d see some 300 of them, eager for nourishment. In the sanctuaries, the cranes live as long as 40 years. In the wilds, they live only up to 20 years average. The wetlands in Kushiro are breeding grounds to these elegant, charming birds. Volunteers in the area help maintain their breeding grounds and even feed them dent corns. The Japanese have a strong bond with these cranes which they consider to bring good luck. They also think these lovely birds bring peace and happiness. Volunteers here even attend work camps to learn and join conservation activities like creating natural feeding grounds. No wonder these cranes are non-migratory. They are so loved by the people here.

Major establishments have used the crane as their corporate logo. Japan Air Lines and Kuok Group, to name a couple. It also appeared on the old 1,000 yen bills. This is because cranes symbolise strength, long life, fidelity, purity and peace. Cranes mate for life and it is quite a spectacle to see pairs honking together, in unison, as a prelude to their “dance”. They flap their wings and perform ballet-like, graceful moves, turning, twirling, fluttering their wings as they suspend in air for a few secs, all that time crowing. And all that crowing and honking comprise Kushiro’s soundscape. The same birds have likewise become iconic images of happy relationships because crane “couples” develop strong, loyal partnerships and mate for life. Now, humans can learn from that, right? So next time we find a Japanese origami of a crane, we can now appreciate this special bond between these birds and the Japanese people. 💕

check this video:

https://youtu.be/CIhx6UaetNQ


We came here with a few ideas in mind. From our hotel’s lake view room window, we found a frozen lake. Early morning, we watched some activities: people on snow mobiles circling the frozen Lake Akan along designated paths, a lone snow mobile dragging a banana boat filled with screaming people, and snow buggies! From a distance, it really looked like fun. I can hardly contain my childish excitement over breakfast as a mantle of snow fully covered the Lake near this Ainu Village. For good measure, I had to ask our guide Nobu-san if the ice is thick enough considering such a flurry of snow activities.

Riding through the snow 🕸🎼🎹

Ice Land Akan is one winter attraction not to be missed here in Kushiro. The lake surface gets thoroughly iced and both kids and adults can enjoy many snow rides and activities plus fireworks and an Ainu Festival Performance at night. The colourful banners and tents, the ice slide along with some snow sculptures of the much revered owls and bears dot the frozen surface that now serve as playground. The rides include a snow mobile-pulled banana ride, snow buggies and the snow mobiles. I think I also saw some paddle boards and small groups intent to do ice fishing. What to fish? I hear it’s lake smelt called wakasagi by locals. Yum.

The snow mobiles follow paths hemmed in by colourful banners depending on how long you’re riding. It’s a breeze sneaking into a tent to choose and fit a helmet , then choosing your ride. On a banana boat, I thought I tried taking a video — good for a few secs, then you hear only the screaming as the boat twisted and turned. And the snow buggies? The old boys got a high riding and racing them! Just like me getting a high on the snow mobile. ⛄️🥶🌨

What a high!

With Megumi and Nobu-san. 👏👏👏

The evening program included a bonfire and some performance numbers by the Ainu tribe. Fire 🔥 is a significant element to this people as it provides warmth and light. The improvised stage was lighted in varying colours and the revered owl was the centerpiece. A bonfire was set at the end of the evening program. On this night, you don’t mind being squished by the crowd as temps hit the floor. You bet the fireworks capped the night!


The very first activity we had upon arrival in Memanbetsu in the Shiretoko Peninsula is a short walk towards the Oshinkoshin Waterfalls. Hard to miss as it’s right by the coastal road if you’re driving towards Utoro. Short climb but slippery, as the snow has started to melt and grown icy. Like an old lady, I held on to the railing as I gingerly climbed, and then slid down. 🙄 I can imagine the gushing waters during Spring but I certainly didn’t mind seeing my very first frozen waterfall.

Oshinkoshin Falls

The next day, we did the drift ice-walking (yass!) followed by snow walking in the nature park after a lunch where we shucked our own uni (sea urchin) and then some. We did away with the snow shoes and simply walked a good half hour towards a promontory where the frozen Furepe Waterfalls looks majestic even in its frozen form against an unusual panorama of ice slabs floating off the Sea of Okhotsk. These ice floes drifting from Siberia and Sakhalin Island look so surreal and the frozen Furepe Falls is a bonus after a half hour walk from the Center. The park is home to deer, foxes and other wildlife. Walking it is the best way to appreciate the stillness of the “white beauty” surrounding us. Just had to remind ourselves not to stray from the path as some areas are thick with snow as deep as 2 meters. Certainly deeper in other areas. Now, you wouldn’t want to sink your shoes, your lower limbs or worse, your entire body, in there!

Best to come here to walk off a hearty lunch. The time we visited, we skipped wearing the snow shoes since the weather improved (from negative temps to zero Celsius 😜) and the walkways looked manageable. Also, our guides reminded us to wrap up good to stay warm. The forest trees, snow-covered Mountains, the frozen waterfalls and if you’re in luck, a deer or two, are waiting for those who love Nature. The stillness makes you feel warm and fuzzy. Yes, even in the dead of winter. You can’t take it home, but this scenery sparks joy 😊 The image clings to your memory and claims a spot in your heart ❤️

Spring here must look so cheery! All green, lush trees and flowers abloom. In winter, it offers an entirely different landscape. Not exactly gloomy, but the “stillness” is what will hit you. All in a good way. Walking in the forest bathed in white powder while snow flurries gently hit your cheeks is not your everyday activity. Still and quiet, but for those snowflakes landing on your face and the birds crowing as if reminding you to mind your steps.

The ice floes drifting in the Sea of Okhotsk which spills out to the Pacific Ocean is just mesmerizing. There are no dry suits to protect us now from this harsh weather. Just our 4 layers of clothing, fur-lined boots and warm company to keep us dry and cozy. Unlike other vistas, we don’t have the privilege of lingering to enjoy the beauty around us. Spending an hour is enough without risking frostbite. I wonder how Nature makes it possible for deer and foxes to stay out here. Even my brain won’t function properly. A case of brain freeze? For obvious reasons, the park grounds look so Christmas-y to me, pine trees and all. Only thing lacking is Santa 🎅🏼 and a snowman ⛄️.


Among the adventures we’ve lined up here in Shiretoko Peninsula is a wildlife-watching cruise. We tried managing our expectations considering that it’s only an hour-long cruise and we weren’t that confident we can stay on the boat’s deck for most of the journey. The waters weren’t exactly calm, adding to the excitement as we reached the ice floes where eagles hovered over the floating ice. So many birds and I can only name the Steller eagle and the white-tailed eagle. Migratory birds who “shuttle” between Russia and Hokkaido. Consider them birds with dual citizenship. 😊 Frankly, we only learned all these trivia from our guide Nobu-san, who further explained that Russia’s Sakhalin Island is only 28 miles across the Sea of Okhotsk. Bird lovers would love it here. No chance for owl-sightings on this trip as such is a nocturnal activity and winter isn’t the best time to be outdoors at night. We weren’t lucky with spotted seals too but the bird scenes were enough to remind us of that movie by dear Alfred Hitchcock.

The wildlife we were looking for are the Steller sea eagles, which the Japanese call “owashi”. These aggressive eagles visit the island of Hokkaido, specifically the ice floes found in Rausu, every winter. Looking powerful and haughty, it was a big thrill seeing them on the ice floes while our boat’s skipper allowed one of his crew to throw out fish for these migrant birds to feed on. Another type of eagle found here are the white-tailed eagles. Both types of eagles competed for the fish throw. It would have been exciting to capture these birds of prey catch and clutch their fish with their talons but my fingers weren’t that quick and my simple iPhone camera no good for some otherwise NatGeo shots.

Some trivia: the owashi eagles feed on salmon in their breeding grounds in Sakhalin and Siberia. In Japan, they feed on cod. But we learned they also feed on squid, shellfish, crabs, and also ducks and other small animals. With a wingspan reaching up to 8 feet, one can imagine these birds being Kings of the wide, open sea. 🦅


In Russia, it’s called Okhotsk Sea. In Japan, it is called the Ohōtsuku- Kai. Among the many adventures in Shiretoko Peninsula is “drift-ice walking” where you’re suited into this swimming gear that feels like a mini-sauna but absolutely keeps you dry while you are flailing about off this marginal sea of the Pacific Ocean. Best time is from January to March but peak season for drift ice is February. The week before we arrive, temps were hovering around double-digit negatives but this group of adventurous foodies from the Tropics brought sunshine with them. Temp was at zero Celsius which the locals compare to “spring weather” and “too warm” for winter. Luckily too, it wasn’t windy at all! How’s that for an auspicious morning for water adventure?

Ready to Rumble!!!

Those ice floes! No, we didn’t do the ice walk here. 😜

Before we set out to do “the walk”, we struggled putting on these suits. Oh, how we struggled! I had to go on my back, lift my legs to get our guide pull the suit up my legs and thighs. It doesn’t stop there. Getting my head through the “hole” and finally zipping me up was another struggle. And just when I was getting the hang of walking in this suit out in the open, frozen sea, I slipped! But slipping in and out of water in between drift-ice walking was really this morning’s activity. The guides made us walk towards a certain area off the frozen Sea, by the breakwater I think, then challenged us to jump while saying “I love Japan”. Jumping together on what our hindsight tells us must be thin ice was all it took to break the ice. We floated for a while, then some of us climbed over the floating ice slab. Then there were those who quickly gained the confidence, jumping here and there, breaking more ice! At some point, one of the boys jumped in and went down body limbs, head and all!

Getting into it is an adventure by itself!

We’ve met others who went ice diving. I cannot imagine how they put on their more complicated gear and what nerves of steel they must have. What we did was nothing compared with their adventure. But I’m sure we drew more laughs as we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves lying down on the icy sea and floating among the ice floes. Some of the pictures and videos are simply too funny to be posted. For sure, we’d talk about this adventure for many years to come. 🥶😜🙄😊

Check this out:

https://youtu.be/ooAfed1M7ZY


Late last year, this same group trooped to Vienna and Bologna and braved winter for the love of food. You bet we’re at it again. This time to Hokkaido for a taste of its “cruel winter”. Call us insane but we have very specific reasons for being here. Beyond the freezing temps and snow flakes, we’re here to spot some very rare species of birds like the red-crowned cranes, Blakiston’s Fish Owl, some whooper swans, the rare Steller’s sea eagles and white-tailed eagles. Many of these birds have chosen Hokkaido as their home and hopefully, we can spot them as we walk on the drift ice. Yes, that’s what we plan to do. Walk on drift ice! Yup, that’s the plan. So go ahead. Call us insane 🙄.

Packing for this trip was a real struggle. I pack my stuff on a day by day basis. This way, I need not have to decide which shirt to pair with which pants or skirt. With previous trips, one packing cube is typically good for 3-4 days of clothing. Not this time. One day’s wardrobe fills an entire packing cube! An inner/thermal shirt, a wool shirt, a fleece vest, a winter jacket. Four layers. Paired with winter pants and fleece leggings. Warm enough? Throw in those mufflers, beanie and gloves. And an extra pair of socks for good measure. Phew! And don’t start asking me for my nighttime wardrobe. You bet I feel like a grandma in wools and a bonnet.

All packed and ready for snow adventures? Temps have risen but are still in the negatives. Early this morning of our arrival, I can almost feel those ice crystals landing on my cheeks and forehead as the wind blows. Yay, can we actually walk on drift ice tomorrow? It’s our first activity on this trip and my nerves are going haywire. Hmmm…. go ahead. Call us insane. 🥶