AT FIRST, THERE was silence. An open expanse of snow was all that could be seen for miles on either side of the narrow ledge we’d been allowed to stand on. Photographers from around the world crouched, their cameras switched on, their lenses ready, their eyes glazed in both anticipation and the cold. The temperature was around minus 4 degree Celsius and there was little to protect our faces from the biting wind. Every few minutes, the need to brush away condensed snow would take over, and I’d do so quickly, not wanting to miss the spectacle we’d been waiting over an hour for.
The sweeping noise caught us all off-guard. In under thirty seconds, nearly 300 red-crowned cranes appeared over the horizon and in a brilliantly coordinated show, every one of them swooped down onto the field before us. The cranes had arrived for their afternoon feeding at the Akan Observation Centre in Kushiro. All throughout the harsh winter months of Hokkaido, where temperatures can plunge to below 15 degree Celsius, this field is home, playground and the future for these birds.
The Tancho, or the red-crowned crane, has been a symbol of longevity and good luck in Japan for millennia. With its long white neck and torso, jet black legs and a crimson cap on its head, this is the second rarest crane species in the world. In Hokkaido itself, despite its fabled status, there were less than 40 of these birds left in the wild in the 1940s due to the destruction of the natural wetlands where they hunted for food in the winter. Being more nomadic than migratory, the cranes don’t have the ability to fly south, preferring instead to move around the different wetlands on Hokkaido in their hunt for grain, reeds, small amphibians and insects.
In 1950, with the birds on the brink of extinction, one man in Akan decided to give the cranes access to his corn fields. Sadajiro Yamazaki, now known as the ‘steward of Kushiro marsh’, was the first man to artificially feed the Tancho in the wild. Since then, his land has been converted into a feeding ground, observatory, breeding facility and crane research centre. The resident Tancho population in Hokkaido is now close to 1,000. Yamazaki not only saved these majestic birds from extinction, he also brought their ritual romantic dances to the attention of the world’s media. Every year, hundreds of postcards, posters, calendars, clothing and photographs of the Tancho make their way to markets across South East Asia.
Today, with the winter slowly retreating and the sun making its presence felt once more on Japan’s northern- most island, the joy of these birds is palpable. Their bellies full of corn, the birds gather in pairs to announce the arrival of spring with their partners. The dance we see is one that they will perform several times over the coming years, to strengthen their lifelong bond, to pledge themselves to each other through nothing more than movement, touch and sound. First, there is a piercing cry to signal that the dance has begun. The cranes then bow to each other, and, throwing their heads back in unison, they bow once again. They prance and hop, facing one another, and then throw themselves up into the air at the exact same second, their wings spread wide, their beaks shimmering like yellow spears. They do this again and again, till all around us, each pair begins to look like a single giant black and white butterfly, flittering around in the snowy gust. After around ten minutes, the Tancho who had been lucky enough to share this moment with someone special, return to their food, leaving the rest, who had been silent spectators, to sulkily preen themselves (the ardent dance had clearly ruffled some feathers).
“The sight of the Tancho, even just its shadow over the snow, was like an affirmation that life and beauty still exists when you haven’t seen proper sunshine or a sign of life for weeks on end,” says Shinriki, an elderly male member of the Ainu tribe. The Ainu were the original inhabitants of northern Japan, especially Hokkaido which is believed to once have been part of mainland Russia before it got separated by the sea (today, Russia is only a 20-minute boat ride away from the northern parts of Hokkaido). The Ainu began trading with the Japanese from Honshu in the 1600s. However, they were only given recognition as an indigenous Japanese tribe in 2008. Today, there are around 25,000 Ainu left in Hokkaido and many see themselves as protectors of the region’s ancient customs and beliefs.
Fishing on lake Akan happens both in summer and winter. The lake, which is known for its giant balls of green algae, freezes in the winter months
“Catch!” says a loud voice behind me. I turn around and find a large orange disc being hurled in my direction. I bend down and my fingers clasp the edges of what turns out to be a ceramic plate just in time. When I stand up, I find myself in the middle of a circle of ten young Ainu women. They are all in traditional attire— ankle-length, full-sleeved dresses (almost like a kaftan) with geometric prints, a headband to hold back their jet black hair and a simple neckpiece made of local stones. “Let’s play,” says one of them to me. And they all begin tossing plates at me, one after the other. Each time they throw, they twirl around, hold out one leg and then gracefully touch their toes. The object of this little ‘plate dance’, I soon discover, is to catch as many plates as I can. However, the women don’t throw the plates when you expect them to, they will twirl and dance and pretend to throw several times, till you suddenly find a huge disk coming straight for your face. I caught four before the fifth crashed and shattered into pieces. One woman tied together the shards for me with some string; it was now a belt. “Even in despair, one can find something beautiful,” she mumbles in broken English.
This, as I go on to learn during my three-day stay at Lake Akan, an onsen or hot spring town in central Hokkaido, is the philosophy for all life on this island. Even when food is scarce, travel halts, water pipes freeze and everything is snowbound, people and animals find ways to keep themselves going. This is evident in the way the eagles practise catching food by tossing a dead mouse to one another on a dark, misty morning. It can be seen in the ice carnivals and fairs held in every village. It is there in the origami crane (with wings that flap when you pull on its tail) that a stranger will hand you at a bus stop because you look like you could do with a paper bird to play with while you wait for transport that shows up only once every four hours.
“If you cannot embrace the goodness of life, it will pass you by as you sit and complain,” says Shinriki, as we share cups of green tea and sandwiches. One of them turns out to be preserved bear meat, another has salted squid guts and the third, dried salmon. I eat them all. Shinriki is delighted because Western tourists usually turn everything down except salmon. “Hunting is strictly regulated to ensure sustainability. Females and kids are never touched and it’s only for a short season. It is a fair hunt. The animal dies an instant death if caught. It is nothing compared to the life of torture and misery that farm animals in the West endure, being bred only for death and waiting in line to have their heads chopped off,” he says. Put this way, I didn’t feel too bad helping myself to a second salted squid stomach toastie.
On my last day, my phone stops working. I am later told that there is a magnetic pull in the area that can be fatal for some models. With no alarm clock, Google Translate and limited access to an English-speaking person, I feel lonelier than I have ever been in my life. The idea of being in a remote northern Japanese village, slowly begins to lose all appeal. Shinriki tries to cheer me up with a fishing and snowmobile riding expedition. It is an intensely cold morning, the sun having gone back into hiding and I am reluctant at first to venture out. But with nothing to do except wait for my flight to Tokyo the next morning, I eventually give in.
Fishing on lake Akan happens both in summer and winter. The lake, which is known for its giant balls of green algae, freezes completely in the winter months. Holes are dug and temporary sheds constructed for the enthusiastic angler. After slipping nearby and banging my head on the ice, I am now crawling around inside the shed on all fours, much to the amusement of my Ainu companions. It doesn’t help that when it’s time to skewer live worms onto hooks, I squeal and drop three before finally hooking one. Shinriki then hands me a scissor to slice the worms in half, for the smell of fresh blood will attract more fish. All of us drop our hooks into the icy water. Every minute, we have to lift the rod slightly three times in a row and then stop. This is to test for the weight of a fish. When we reel the line in, I am the only one without a catch.
Snowmobile riding doesn’t make things better. I step into water on my way to the tent where the helmets are kept. Now my sneakers are soaking wet. Cold and cross, I don’t think twice before pressing the accelerator on the snowmobile. I am pushed with so much momentum that I all but fly off my seat. Shinriki arrives to put a seat belt around me, hand me a pair of gloves and offer me a change of shoes. It is hard to feel unhappy in the presence of so much thoughtfulness. “The Ainu are known for being resilient. When we were persecuted by the mainlanders, not given formal recognition, looked down upon in society, we stuck together and persevered. Today, the young Ainu might not know as much about our hard history, but we still teach them basic culture, including our music and dance and tapestry weaving,” says Shinriki, as we ride past Mount Akan, one of the volcanoes located in the region’s active volcano belt. After 30 minutes of driving towards the edge of the lake, Shinriki gestures for me to pull over. And there, at the edge of a lake that was responsible for short-circuiting my phone, with my lips frozen and my eyes glistening from the ever-present cold, I see one of the island’s rarest winter phenomenon: frost flowers. These extremely delicate ice formations happen only when winds are minimal and conditions cold. “Always something beautiful can be found, if you look for it,” Shinriki reminds me.
Before I leave, the island has one last experience in store for me. A visit to the Akan onsen. The water is sourced directly from underground thermal springs and are visited by people from across the world for its restorative properties.
The onsen rules are strict. No clothes are allowed and nobody with a tattoo may enter the hot springs (the public display of tattoos was banned years ago, taken as it once was as a sign of belonging to an unsavoury gang). To stand naked in sub-zero conditions under the open sky with a frozen lake and an active volcano right in front of you isn’t nearly as relaxing as I thought it would be. Instead, it is deeply unnerving. I feel adrenaline rush through my body and my heartbeat increase as the contrast of hot water and cold air meets my skin to form goosebumps under the dark sky. In one last show of its majesty, Hokkaido rains diamond dust down on me. Flakes of snow, glistening like tiny solitaires, come descending from above. On Hokkaido island, disaster and miracle are truly never too far apart.