As you approach the mountain resort of Tateshina—after the final twist in the road, and just before the sudden dip that gives you your first view of the town, barnacled around the lake rim in white-gray clusters far below—you will see, on your right, a billboard welcoming you to “the home of the Silver-Crested Winter Crane, our own Loch Ness Monster!” Beside these words the bird is painted in mid-flap, beak pointing skyward, wing tips extending beyond the sign’s borders, a nice touch that, for just a second, as the sign comes into view, creates the illusion of three-dimensionality, of motion even, as if the bird is leaving the flat confines of the board for the actual unpainted sky.
Until recently, the earliest surviving pictorial representation of the Winter Crane was believed to be an Edo-period sliding-door panel attributed to Kano Tan’yu (1602–1674). The painting, ink and color on paper, shows the bird in the foreground, legs buried in snow. Snow—depicted negatively through the simple use of blank space—surrounds the crane, filling most of the panel. It is a spare, austere painting, and has for this reason been associated with Kano’s later screen work; aside from the bird itself, the only colors are a small patch of green in the lower left corner, where snow has melted, and, to the right of the crane, a single cherry blossom petal drifting above its blue shadow. The petal suggests a sudden spring snow. Wings partly unfolded, the bird has lifted its head and opened its red beak as if to sing or to cry out. The pose is dynamic and evocative; what exactly it evokes, though, is open to dispute: it has been variously interpreted as celebrating the arrival of spring and mourning the end of winter.
For many years the screen resided in the home of a private collector in Austria, having arrived there under somewhat shadowy circumstances. When it was put up for auction in 1998, experts examining the piece claimed it to be a forgery, created in the 20th century. Does the original screen reside somewhere else? Was it destroyed at some point in the past? Or was the Winter Crane never in fact the work of Kano Tan’yu at all, but rather a fabrication, a myth, the creation of the forger?
The billboard’s comparison of the bird to the Loch Ness Monster is no doubt confusing to the average tourist, coming in winter for the skiing or in summer to escape the humidity of the lower altitudes. These people know the crane, if at all, from the common folktale describing its origin; the only flying creatures they hope to see in Tateshina are the famous hang-gliders who wheel above the town in their polyester wings. Even to those arriving on tour buses for the express purpose of spotting the bird, the hyperbole of the sign may be hard to fathom. The Silver-Crested Winter Crane is, after all, not exactly a prehistoric monster.
It is, however, in its own way perhaps no less elusive than “Nessie”: although Grus hiberna has appeared in countless paintings and texts, and although there are many who claim to have seen it, the bird has to date never been captured or reliably photographed. You won’t find it caged in any zoo or stuffed behind glass in any natural history museum. Officially listed as Highly Endangered, some ornithologists believe it is already extinct. And there are even those who argue that the Silver-Crested Winter Crane never existed at all, that its frequent appearance in Japanese works of art has always been as emblematic as the appearance in other cultures of unicorns or griffins.The crane has been painted, sculpted, described in great detail. We could draw it down to the last feather, but we have yet to hear its voice.
Tateshina’s claim on the crane is not due to actual sightings, but to the largely unsupported assertion that the folktale originated here before spreading throughout Japan. One thing is certain: the town has succeeded in promoting and capitalizing on the bird more successfully than any potential rivals in the region. Ornithologists devoted to preserving the crane complain that this commercialization only damages their cause, encouraging the notion that the threatened bird is fictitious, and reducing the chance that its plight will be taken seriously. Tateshina persists, though: every day tour buses drive past the billboard and descend to the town, carrying passengers eager for a glimpse of the legendary creature.
And it turns out your love
Was about as real as a Winter Crane
–chorus to “Winter Crane,” by Japanese salsa/speedcore
band The Clicking Mandibles (translated from the Japanese)
If the Winter Crane exists, it will not, most scientists believe, be found in Tateshina, or for that matter anywhere on Honshu, where agricultural development has resulted in severe habitat loss, but rather on the chain of uninhabited islands that speckle the Japan Sea. Uninhabited doesn’t necessarily mean untouched, as regularly scheduled boats take ecotourists to the islands in search of the Winter Crane and other rare animals. These are day trips; Japanese law prohibits the public from camping or remaining overnight. The only exception made is for the Japanese Ornithological Society, which has established permanent research centers on a number of the islands. Most of the researchers are Japanese, but among them is a single American, ornithologist Richard Bedrosian. He is fluent in Japanese and seems at home there with his colleagues. Bedrosian originally came on a grant from the National Audubon Society to make a comparative study of the American Whooping Crane (Grus Americana) and the Japanese Red-Crowned Crane (Grus japonensis). While there he learned of the search for the controversial Silver-Crested Winter Crane. He has been visiting annually ever since.
Bedrosian is confident that the bird will be found. “There’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence,” he says. “Plenty of sightings. Then there’s the secondary evidence—droppings and feathers, for example—that we feel fairly sure can be traced to the crane. It’s only a matter of time before we come across a bird or a nest.”
What is the call of the Winter Crane? Does it resemble the brassy declaration of Grus americana? Or is it, like the call of its presumed cousin, Grus japonensis, a tremulous woodwind arpeggio, a three-note query? Or something else altogether? There is, surprisingly, no mention of it in the literature, with the exception of the origin myth, where it is simply called “sad.” The crane has been painted, sculpted, described in great detail. We could draw it down to the last feather, but we have yet to hear its voice.
The target demographic for Tateshina’s Winter Crane tour is Japanese, elderly, and middle-class; more specifically, active seniors with an interest in Japanese history and legend. The tourists are transported in tall luxury buses equipped with tinted UV-blocking windows, vibrating massage seats, and pretty, white-gloved tour guides wearing three-pointed caps and smart epauletted uniforms that make them look like anime Intergalactic Space Fleet Officers. (By contrast, the budget tours aimed at younger consumers tend to be strictly no-frills, usually packed overnight buses bound for Tokyo Disneyland, Universal Studios Japan, or one of the meticulously replicated European villages—complete with imported foreigners in period dress—that can be found scattered in unlikely spots across the Japanese countryside.)
The tour, known as the “Winter Crane hike,” is part of a larger package with a variety of options, all presented attractively in photo-illustrated brochures. In addition to visiting Tateshina, tourists can, for instance, fill plastic bottles with the restorative spring water trickling down a mossy fissure in a roadside cliff, the water blessed by the statue of the goddess Kannon a hundred meters above; visit the reconstructed site of the ancient Princess Himiko’s palace; move in hooded raincoats through the dripping caves of Yamaguchi, where blind albino creatures swim in underwater streams; or photograph each other at the Sacred Temple of Seikenji, reputed scene of the monk-scholar Nenjin’s self-immolation (which, grand name notwithstanding, turns out to be nothing more than a broken stone altar encircled by vending machines and a rusted link fence).
Arriving in Tateshina, the seniors descend and disembark, one after the other. The tour guide will already have stepped off the bus, and waits on the asphalt, smiling, a color-coded pennant on a stick held aloft so no one will get lost or end up following one of the other tours. But these are not doddering old fools. These seniors are, for the most part, alert and purposeful, cameras and binoculars ready. They follow the tour guide in their floppy hats and hiking boots, sturdy, genderless, leather-skinned, zippered pouches bulging from waists, like a special race evolutionarily adapted to the task of stalking the Winter Crane.
The tour guide ushers them across the parking lot, past the souvenir shops and breaded octopus stands—on the way back they will be given exactly ten minutes to make purchases—and then, lowering her pennant so it won’t hit the branches, leads the way into the forest’s maze of crisscrossing footpaths.
The Origin of the Winter Crane
The Queen of the Moon had everything she might want in her kingdom of ice and snow—everything except for fish. She looked down on Man as he caught and cooked them, and the smell of the fish broiling in salt and bean oil rose up to her kingdom, filling her with envy. So she asked the River God to let her have a fish for her frozen waters, but the God refused. Incensed, the Queen waited until the full moon, when the wind blows the lunar drifts into a circle and the moonlight unfolds its broad path to the world, and then climbed down to a riverbank. As she caught a trout in her trap the River God, who had been secretly watching, rose up in a mighty splash and punished her by changing her into a crane. Her white skin grew into feathers, the rings on her fingers became silvery wing tips, and her crown was transformed into a silver crest.
“Now you can eat all the trout you like!” he said.
The Queen begged his forgiveness, stretching her long neck pitifully and flapping her beautiful wings until the God, relenting, said: “You may resume your true form—but only when your kingdom’s light fills the sky; and you may return home—but for only one night each month, when the moon is full.” By day she was condemned to live as a crane, remaining near the river and feeding on its creatures so she would forever be reminded of her misdeed. (In truth, the River God had fallen in love with the Queen, and wanted her bound to his side.)
“I guess you could call it an obsession,” Bedrosian admits with a laugh. “But it’s not your typical . . . It’s an obsession that sneaks up on you.”
At one time the Winter Crane was a common heraldic symbol. Most famously, it appeared on the coat of arms of feudal baron Hirai Masaie. Blamed for an assassination attempt on the life of regent Toyotomi no Hideyoshi, Masaie was forced to commit ritual suicide, his family was disgraced, and the Winter Crane abruptly vanished from heraldry, the regent having banned its use as a family crest. The crane, it was claimed, had been the identifying mark of the secret society formed by Masaie to topple the government. For years afterward, the Crane Society was rumored to persist, an invisible league of conspirators patiently plotting its coup against the regency. The bird had become synonymous with shame, treachery, and official paranoia. The symbol was later “rehabilitated” under the Tokugawa shogunate, and even underwent a brief vogue: flaunted as a sign of the new shogun’s victory over the former regime, the crane gleamed atop official roofs, and shone silver and white across the gold foil of court panels. But the damage was done: the bird had been darkened in the public mind by mystery and intrigue, and even today this most Japanese of symbols is absent from the crests of virtually all Japanese families.
And so the Queen wandered the world’s rivers and streams. One morning, while chasing a frog through tall reeds, she found herself caught in a snare. When the trapper who had laid this snare came to check on it, he was surprised to see a strange bird thrashing its long wings and snapping desperately at its roped leg until its beak was red with blood. (This is the reason why the Winter Crane has a red beak.) The trapper watched, and experienced an unfamiliar feeling: part pity, and part exultation at the sight of beauty trapped there by his own crafty hand. And in gratitude for this new feeling that he couldn’t name or understand, he let the bird go. It hopped away, graceless in its sudden freedom, then seemed to remember itself and took to the air. A hand shielding his eyes, the trapper stood there following its flight, turning slowly in place as the bird turned in the sky.
The Queen tried to leave the place, fearing the traps that the man cared for so lovingly, coiled and sleepless things that waited in shadows, patient as snakes. But she found herself returning, watching from above as the man collected his daily catch and took it home to the hut where he lived alone on the forest edge. And she found that she couldn’t leave him, as if she were still caught in the snare and beating her white wings into the dirt.
So when night fell and moonlight returned her to her true form, she approached his hut in what she told herself must be gratitude for having been freed. The hut was empty; the man was still out trapping in the woods. The Queen entered to wait for him. When he finally returned, he stood gaping at her in the open doorway, his catch squirming in the bag dangling from his hand.
She told him she was lost and hungry. Once the trapper recovered, he offered to let her share his dinner. They ate pheasant and chestnuts and yams, new tastes that she relished. She devoured her food, ignoring his questions and forgetting, for the moment, her reason for coming. He gave up finally on trying to learn how this strange, pale woman had arrived at his hut. He told her she could remain for the night. When he woke at daybreak, she was gone. The next night she came again; and the next. But each morning he woke alone. The trapper, who had fallen in love with the Queen, begged her one night to live with him as his wife. She agreed, but made him promise two things: first, that he would never ask her where she went during the day or when the moon was full; and, second, that he would never try to follow her.
For a long time those interested in the Silver-Crested Winter Crane had a hard time finding a home online. They were ridiculed when they ventured onto the terrain of serious bird-watchers, many of whom believe the crane to be apocryphal or extinct. Yet they found themselves equally unwelcome at cryptozoological forums devoted to Sasquatch, Bearwolves, and the fanged Puerto Rican goat-mutilating Chupacabra; the crane was perhaps too innocuous—it lacked glamour. So other sites developed, first in Japanese, but increasingly in other languages as well, featuring cell phone photos or video clips of blurred white birds in motion. Eventually clear pictures were posted too, lauded by some as proof of the bird’s existence, derided by others as the result of clever photoshop editing. Online, the bird has flourished. The internet reports proliferate, as if the crane is reproducing, thriving in its new habitat, moving through blogs and jpegs and chat rooms in as yet mysterious migratory patterns . . .
The Queen and the trapper lived happily together for many years until, one day, the trapper spotted a familiar bird drinking at a stream. He hid behind a tree and watched it, remembering the bird he had set free once, and remembering his nameless emotion at seeing the snared creature beat its wings and snap its bloody beak. And then he found himself thinking of his wife. Not as she was now, but as she had been when he opened the door of his hut and discovered her sitting there at his table, trembling slightly, watching him with terrified eyes and a smile like a grimace. She had reminded him of a wounded animal that had lost its senses and seemed ready to fly straight into the jaws of its pursuer.
The trapper followed the crane down the stream, moving silently from tree to tree, and as the evening waned and the light failed, he was shocked to see the bird making its way along the path to his hut. It opened the latch with its beak and stepped through the doorway. But when the trapper followed it inside, he found only his wife, waiting for him as always.
(All of this had been planned by the River God. Jealous of the love between the trapper and the Queen of the Moon, he had lured her with fast-moving trout to a point in the stream near where the man was setting his trap.)
The man said nothing to his wife, but he could not rid himself of a strange suspicion. Finally he was unable to resist: before dawn, when his wife rose as she always did and left the hut, he followed her into the woods, moving as stealthily as if he were hunting a wild animal. But the Queen sensed him behind her and, circling back, surprised him just as dawn broke. She opened her mouth to speak, perhaps to curse him for his betrayal, perhaps to forgive him for it, perhaps to say farewell. But before she could speak her red lips lengthened into a beak and her voice became a bird’s sad call. Then she hopped out of reach and flew into the brightening sky.
She didn’t return that night, or the next. And although the trapper searched for her by day, and waited for her in his hut at night for weeks, then months, then years, she never returned.
The common Japanese crane is often called “the bird of happiness.” Sighting it is supposed to bring good luck. What, then, is the Winter Crane? What does sighting it bring?
Bedrosian packs his things. First thaw will come soon. He’ll be back next year, he says. He doesn’t see the trip as a failure. He feels—although he realizes it’s illogical—that each time he fails to locate the bird it brings him closer, as if each search is blacking out another section on a map until, finally, only one bright square will remain, and in the center of it a Silver-Crested Winter Crane, waiting.
Midway between the cities of Fukuoka and Kitakyushu, next to the elevated highway, there is a love hotel called The Winter Crane. To be visible to drivers, the seven-story hotel has added a three-story façade which rises high enough so that the white neon characters for “Winter Crane,” two stories high themselves, appear at eye level as you course along the highway. Passing the luminous white words, you experience—if you are among those who have found themselves becoming obsessed with the bird—a little jolt, as if the car has suddenly accelerated, even as you laugh at yourself for imagining, if for only a second, that a love hotel might offer some clue to the existence of the crane.
The hotel lobby presents straight-faced its chipped and faded burlesque of opulence: plaster statuettes—nymphs, satyrs, cupids—are arrayed in curtained alcoves; a fountain squirts weak jets of water at a prodigiously endowed Poseidon ringed by mermaids; Romanesque columns erupt at random spots from the imitation marble floor. In the center of the lobby a board displays lit photographs of the rooms above. There are fantasy rooms made to look like torture dungeons from old B movies, or like science-fiction space capsules; there are rooms devoted to individual Disney characters: the Pooh room; the Minnie room. Other rooms reproduce actual places, from offices to subway cars. To select a room, you push a button below the picture. The picture goes dark. Then an elevator speeds you to your floor, and blinking bulbs in the carpet point you down the hall to a light flashing urgently above your door, as if imploring you to hurry through before you’re locked out forever.
(A curious feature of love hotels is that they are completely keyless. Once the door closes, a faint click can be heard: you are now sealed inside. When you want to leave, you insert bills into a machine near the entrance, and the door unlocks. In love hotels, there is no coming and going, no trips down the hall to the ice machine, no visits to your neighbor’s room. You are trapped with your partner in your chosen dreamland until you’re ready to step outside again; no second thoughts are permitted.)
Airplane lavatories, minotaurs, ergonomic reclining dental chairs, flying elephants: the hotel, you realize, is a world, boxed into faded compartments that smell like cigarette smoke. Wherever you look—in the lobby alcoves, in the patterned wallpaper, in the carved headboards—you will find replicas of things real and imagined, terrifying and adorable, that belong to the world outside, but no matter how long you search there in The Winter Crane Hotel, you won’t find a single Winter Crane.
The pretty tour guide leads the seniors deeper into the forest, her brass buttons winking as she moves in and out of leaf- shadow. Her pumps are treacherous here on the path, with its irregular dips and looping tree roots; and they make her ankles ache besides. She tries not to look like she’s walking carefully. Behind her, the seniors march, sure-footed, tireless. She’s grateful for the peace and quiet after all that talking on the bus. Today’s group is, as always, cheerful and gregarious; they treat her like a granddaughter. On the drive from site to site some of the women will offer her food from their bento boxes; some of the men will flirt harmlessly. She likes them, likes her job, but the break is welcome. Of course, she can’t stay silent forever: at predesignated points along the trail she’s required to stop and, nearly whispering, as though the Winter Crane might be waiting around the next bend or behind that mottled clump of bushes, point out interesting features of the landscape. This has all been precisely timed and scripted. The tour service knows, after all, that to lead people on a hike through the woods without any real hope of ever sighting their quarry, they will be disappointed; so it’s made into a nature trek, offering its own value. The bird is not forgotten, though: here and there the tour guide recites parts of the myth, as when they finish crossing a footbridge above a river famous locally for trout fishing, a spot perhaps not unlike the one where the River God in the tale rose up angrily and transformed the Queen of the Moon into a crane. She finds herself getting animated as she recounts the story, maybe even a little carried away; and, looking from face to face, she can see that they’re enjoying hearing the familiar tale again too. Then they’re off again, down the path. Sometimes the seniors tend to linger, enchanted suddenly like children by the most ordinary thing: a spider suspended between bamboo trunks; a glittering shelf of sunlit rock; a butterfly the crisp color of a fall leaf. She keeps them moving, though. They’re on a tight schedule: after the crane hike it’s a two-hour drive to Ryuganji, where the dragon painted across the curved ceiling is said to move—a rippling of red scales, a subtle undulation—if viewed with believing eyes while lying supine, head pointing south, on the temple’s stone floor.
From The Involuntary Sojourner by S. P. Tenhoff. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Seven Stories Press. Copyright © 2019 by S. P. Tenhoff.