Wandering with wildlife in Kushiro and Rausu, Hokkaido
After chancing upon photographs of Ezo flying squirrel (エゾモモンガ Ezo-momonga) and long-tailed bushtit (シマエナガ Shima-enaga) and gushing at their sheer cuteness, I was determined to wander into the wilderness, hoping to cross paths with wildlife nestled in the faraway corners of Hokkaido (北海道).
It was my first time ever in Hokkaido where I landed directly in Kushiro (釧路)—located in Eastern Hokkaido—in the dead of winter in February 2020 after making plans for a 5D4N wildlife photography trip, armed with a second-hand telephoto lens, spare batteries, and a backpack full of thermals.
Kushiro: A sanctuary for tancho cranes
Red-crowned cranes in Kushiro (Image credit: Qiu Ting)
At JR Kushiro Station (釧路駅 Kushiro-eki), I signed up for a 1-day wildlife sightseeing tour and eagerly awaited the trip to the Akan International Crane Centre (阿寒国際ツルセンター Akan Kokusai Tsuru Sentaa), the sanctuary and breeding grounds of the red-crowned cranes (丹頂 tanchō).
Despite being a symbol of longevity in Japanese culture, the red-crowned crane is an endangered species in Japan due to their shrinking wetland habitats. That is why it’s extremely precious to bear witness to their beautiful courtship dances during their mating season in February.
Although I did not manage to catch their mating ritual, it was still surreal being up close to them, watching them tease and chase after each other, like little children playing catch in the neighbourhood.
Akan International Crane Centre (阿寒国際ツルセンター)
Address: 23-40 Kamiakan, Akan-cho, Kushiro-shi, Hokkaido, 085-0245
Nearest station: JR Kushiro Station (釧路駅)
Access: 1.5-hour bus ride from the station
Opening hours (Akan International Crane Centre): 09:00–17:00 (Open daily)
Opening hours (Tancho Observation Centre):
08:30–16:30 (1 February–31 March)
08:30–16:00 (1 November–31 January)
Closed from 1 April–31 October
Admission fee: ¥480 (Adult), ¥250 (Child)
Rausu: A sanctuary for Steller’s sea eagles
Oh my, drift ice! (Image credit: Qiu Ting)
After a day or two of exploring Kushiro, I was on a 3-hour bus ride to Rausu (羅臼), a coastal town located in the eastern part of Hokkaido in search of the wintering population of Steller's sea eagles. Rausu has been on my bucket list for a long time.
I boarded the Shiretoko Nature Cruise (知床ネイチャークルーズ) that would bring me closer to the drift ice, where the Steller’s sea eagles would often congregate. But they were nowhere in sight.
Camera in hand, I adjusted the lens, preparing myself to seize the moments in case I missed them.
Where are they? Oh no, what if I don’t get to see them? Why is it so cold? Why are my lenses so blurry? What is happening?
Sunrise over the Sea of Okhotsk. (Image credit: Qiu Ting)
A deluge of self-talk after, the sun peeked out from the horizon, and within minutes, sun rays reflected off the drift ice floating in from Russia.
The ice glittered before my eyes and my heart leapt. I have never seen so much drift ice in my life.
The formation of drift ice is a natural phenomenon that occurs when ice breaks off the frozen Amur river in Russia and ‘drifts’ over to Japan, often travelling southward along the eastern coast of Hokkaido.
Steller’s sea eagles: What are you looking at? (Image credit: Qiu Ting)
And then almost as though on cue, these majestic birds appeared—flying, gliding and steadying themselves on the drift ice.
Just look at this unlikely pair! (Image credit: Qiu Ting)
Watching the birds—Steller’s sea eagles, white-tailed eagles, crows, and seagulls—compete for attention, space and food felt like an action-packed movie, set in a winter wonderland.
501 photos later, my gloved fingers froze, pleading for a break from the non-stop action. That was when I found myself sharing a conversation with a staff member from Shiretoko Nature Cruise, who told me about a whale sighting a day ago.
Shiretoko Nature Cruise (知床ネイチャークルーズ)
Address: 27-1, Honcho, Menashi-gun, Rausu-cho, Hokkaido, 086-1833
Nearest station: Shiretokoshari Station (知床斜里駅)
Access: 1.5-hour drive from the station
TEL: +81-153-87-4001 (phone reservation)
Guess who is passing through Rausu! (Image credit: Qiu Ting)
While crossing the bridge and on my way back to the guest house, I stumbled upon a flock of Whooper swans wading gracefully along Rausu River (羅臼川). In a bid to get real close to them, I hid behind mounds of snow.
Whooper swans casually wading along Rausu river (Image credit: Qiu Ting)
Little did I know that a snow storm was headed my way that night. Back at the guest house, the windows rattled every time the wind howled. The snow collided against the window panes, creating a din.
I turned the volume up to distract myself by watching TV. I tried my best not to let my imagination run wild since I knew that I was the only traveller staying over.
The next morning, the town was blanketed with a knee-deep layer of white powdery snow. After waving goodbye to obaasan, I waited for the bus that would bring me back to JR Kushiro Station, where I would transfer to another bus bound for Sapporo.
The loveliest manhole cover in Kushiro. (Image credit: Qiu Ting)
In retrospect, there wasn’t much to do in a small coastal town like Rausu. Most people would stop over for an hour or so to grab a bite before making their way to Shiretoko Pass, but it was closed during the time I was there.
It felt like a ghost town in winter, when the number of wildlife far exceeded that of people—and walking around town with piles of snow stacked so high they looked like monsters.
But these are memories of misadventures, of serendipity, of conversations with people who I still remember to this day. Besides, who else could say they survived a snow storm as the only guest in a Japanese-run guesthouse, with owners fluent only in Japanese and reservations exclusively accepted by phone?
Header image credit: Qiu Ting