Japan City Guides: Izumi, Kyushu
On the Map Because of Cranes: Izumi 出水
The iconic Red-crowned Crane of Hokkaido, is as much a part of Japan's cultural heritage as it is of its natural history and as such attracts visitors from far and wide to its breeding and wintering grounds in east Hokkaido.
Despite its somewhat surprising status, as the bird to see in Japan - even for non-birdwatchers, its numbers are greatly exceeded during the annual winter gathering of cranes in Kyushu.
The spectacle that happens daily there, in Izumi-shi, has to be seen to be believed, yet remains a largely unsung attraction of rural Kagoshima Prefecture.
Each winter, between 10,000 and 12,000 cranes of four species gather on the coastal reclaimed land of Arasaki village. Commonest by far is the diminutive, sooty grey and white Hooded Crane, with in the region of 9,000 birds or more each year, representing more than 80% of the world population of this species.
Next comes the supremely elegant White-naped Crane. Taller than the Hooded Cranes, the White-naped Crane has multiple shades of grey, along with white and black, represented in its plumage. Most crane species have red somewhere on the forehead or crown, but this delightful crane sports a handsome red-face - an adornment that makes this an unusual and striking species. Its vociferous and animated displays only add to its great attraction, and in its lesser numbers - there are usually somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 (depending on the month) - it creates a beautiful contrast within the vast flock. About half of the world population of this species spends the winter here.
Two other, far less common crane species, reward the careful observer with binoculars for spending time to scan through the annual crane gathering; these are the inaptly named Common Crane (to give it its dues it is common in Western Europe) and the Sandhill Crane.
With one hailing from the west, and one from the northeast, these are scarce in Kyushu, together they usually amount to fewer than ten birds in the great flock. Even rarer visitors in the shape of the tiny, but attractively elegant Demoiselle Crane from the steppes of Asia, and the tall white Siberian Crane, only appear once every few years - they are the icing on the cake for any birdwatcher's visit.
For most visitors the sheer spectacle, and fabulous sounds of the crane flock will make a visit worthwhile. At night the birds gather together in a dense mass to roost while standing in shallow water in rice fields specially flooded just for them.
Soon after dawn, close to 07:00am, a small truck bearing food arrives, enters the protected area and the men working on it begin to scatter grain. Its arrival is welcomed by a swelling in the morning cacophony of crane calls.
Ultimately the whole mass of birds takes to the air in a stirring display of disturbance combined with anticipation. Overhead skeins, families and flocks of birds whirl and turn calling loudly. They circle awhile then settle back on the fields.
Now that it is properly light they begin foraging, searching for any food in the fields where they have landed; eventually they will converge in a seething mass on the food specially scattered for them. Having fed on this bounty for a while, the massed ranks of cranes disperse, scattering across the farmland of Izumi to spend the day in small family groups and small flocks.
Towards the end of the day the safety and security of the roosting site becomes ever more attractive and as the light begins to weaken, the birds return to their favoured spot not far from the Izumi Crane Visitor Centre.
The greatest spectacles to be experienced are those at dawn and dusk, when the birds are leaving and returning to the roost. Then, the sky is filled with the sights and sounds of thousands of birds on the move. It is absolutely breathtaking.
During the day the remainder of the day the pace of activity slows and this is a good time to enter the visitor centre, enjoy the displays and videos, or climb to the roof to enjoy a different perspective on the area and its enormous bird flock.
Its also an appropriate time to head off to explore the other attraction of Izumi city, the area known as Bukeyashiki, where a number of ‘samurai’ era residences are preserved and can be visited.
The first cranes arrive in Arasaki area of Izumi in early October. Thereafter the numbers increase to a peak of about 12,000 during late December and January. During February and March they begin to decline as the return migration begins and the cranes head back to their breeding areas in Russia, northeast China and easternmost Mongolia.
Designated as a Special Natural Monument (since 1952), the numbers of cranes in Kyushu has increased dramatically, though how much this relates to improved survival, or the attraction of birds that used to winter elsewhere is not clear. Nevertheless, at the national level it represents a tremendous conservation success.
The new Kyushu Shinkansen runs to Izumi Station. Journey time is 25 minutes to Kagoshima Chuo Station from Izumi by shinkansen.
National Highways Route 3 and Route 328 both converge on Izumi.
Izumi Cranes Video
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