Located in the most northerly reaches of Japan’s main island, the majestic Shirakami-Sanchi was the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its steep summits and undisturbed ancient forest wilderness exude timeless magic - it’s not for nothing that Shirakami-Sanchi inspired the opening scene of the Princess Mononoke anime film.
Encompassing 130,000 hectares, its mountains were formed by the uplift of the Sea of Japan’s sea floor, with the beech trees for which the forest is famed having grown here for some 8000 years. From marvelling at unique flora and fauna to engaging with Matagi hunter-gatherer culture, to enjoying exhilarating outdoor activities, Shirakami-Sanchi is a must-visit for travellers who like to immerse themselves in nature. And we mean full-on immersion of the soul-stirring kind.
An informative film reveals the forest’s beautiful beech trees in all their round-the-season glory, with a life-size imitation tree sitting centre stage in the facility (this is, after all, the world’s biggest beech tree forest). Suspended from the ceiling, the display also features a real beech tree trunk, with its root system on show to reveal its intricate anatomy.
Elsewhere in the centre, you’ll learn how the region’s mountains were formed, and why beech trees thrive here. Fascinating fact - the reason the forest remains pristine is largely due to beech wood being unsuitable for construction, as it warps easily. Indeed, the kanji character for beech tree combines the characters for ‘tree’ and ‘nothing’ – that’s to say, it’s the tree that can be used for nothing. (In fact, beech wood was very important as a fuel for heating and cooking until it was replaced by fossil fuels.) Another highlight of the centre is the area devoted to the region’s Matagi hunter-gatherers (more on their culture later).
Before leaving, be sure to check out the food court and shops in Rest stop “Tsugaru Shirakami" Beech Nishimeya (it’s right across the road). This is a popular lunch spot for locals. The complex is also home to a winery and honey counter that serves delicious ice-cream, and the stylish Shirakami Coffee Studio. It’s also a great place to pick up souvenirs, from locally-produced wine, to traditionally embroidered bags and shoes.
During the three-hour round-trip to see the falls you’ll traverse the river several times, crossing pretty bridges surrounded by beech, pine and maple trees. Opportunities to see wildlife are plentiful too - the forest is home to the likes of Japanese martens and macaques, serow mountain goats and black bears.
Best visited in autumn, when the forest is transformed into a blaze of glowing reds and yellows (made even more spectacular when sunlight strikes through the canopy), this trek is a real treat for bird-lovers, with magnificent mountain hawk-eagles and golden eagles gracing the sky.
In spring, wild vegetation is foraged and bears are hunted, though in small numbers for a short period of time - bears are considered to be a blessing from the gods. Come summer, fish are caught and plants are gathered. Then, after collecting mushrooms and nuts in autumn, smaller animals like hares, copper pheasants and Japanese antelopes – which are now a special natural treasure – are hunted through winter.
To learn more about the Matagi culture and the forest, one of the most rewarding ways to explore the forest is to take a tour. You’ll stay in a Matagi dwelling, gather wild vegetables and mushrooms in the forest, cook over a bonfire, go trekking and learn more about this ancient way of life.
Given that the blasts of white-water rapids are short, there’s ample opportunity to appreciate the jaw-dropping scenery that unfolds along the way. The meandering route affords unique views of the landscape and the fauna it supports - look out for nests on the sheer cliffs as you drift by. The ultimate rush comes right at the end of the trip, where you can leap into the river from a five-metre-high ridge.
Passing small towns framed by rice fields as it winds along Japan’s north-western Tohoku coastline, taking this train is a relaxing way to experience the region’s show stopping scenery. For the best views, try to bag a seat at the front or back of the train.
Trains also boast an on-board bar serving delicacies from the towns and villages that dapple the route, plus there’s a small gallery selling local pottery and crafts. You might also get lucky and be aboard for a storytelling show or music performance. There’s also an opportunity to make a swift stop-off at Senjojiki Station to walk an eerie coastline that was formed by an earthquake in 1792.
To appreciate this landscape in all its sensory wonder, consider booking a tour with a local guide. From learning how to tune into the forest’s sounds, to discovering its tactile delights, this is a back-to-nature experience of the most rewarding variety.
Best known for enchanting Aoike Pond (its colour shifts from green to bright cobalt-blue as you shift position), this beech-based eco-system delivers beauty at every turn, with Boiling Pot Pond another highlight. While guided treks run from one to four hours, this is a not-to-be-rushed kind of experience, so consider taking a longer option.
If you feel inspired to discover more about this enchanting region of Japan, take a look at Experience Shirakami for more information about what to see and do during a trip that's sure to stay with you for years to come.
Address: 61-1 Kanda, Tashiro, Nishimeya village (Tel. 0172-85-2810)
Open: 8:30a.m-5pm (1 Apr-31 Oct), 9am-4:30pm (1 Nov-31 Mar )
Closed: 2nd Monday/4th Monday in August/Every Monday and Thursday between January and March (or the following day in case of a national holiday)/29 Dec-3 Jan.
Find out more: http://www.shirakami-visitor.jp/
Top image: Shirakami-Sanchi Visitor Center, Japan © Don Kennedy