Shirakami-Sanchi World Heritage Site: Japan's Ancient Forest

written by Joanne Owen
updated 12/16/2021
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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.

Get the low-down at a high-class Shirakami-Sanchi visitor centre

It might sound obvious, but it’s well worth allocating a decent amount of time to the film hall at the elegantly-designed Shirakami-Sanchi visitor centre, as opposed to simply scooting around it. It’ll help you appreciate why this ancient forest is so extraordinary before you set off to explore the real thing.

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.

Shirakami-Sanchi Visitor Center, Japan © Don Kennedy

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.

Trek to the awe-inspiring Anmon falls

Easily accessed from bustling Hirosaki city, hiking to the three-tiered Anmon falls is an invigorating experience that showcases Shirakami-Sanchi forest in all its diverse splendour. From Hirosaki station, take a bus bound for Tsugaru-Toge and get off at Aqua Green Village Anmon (a 90-minute journey). From here, it takes around an hour on foot to reach the first of the three fabulous falls.

Anmon Falls in Shirakami-Sanchi © yankane/Shutterstock

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.

Discover Matagi culture

The Shirakami-Sanchi has been home to a hunting and gathering culture since Japan’s Jomon period, with the village of Nishimeya in Aomiri the site of the largest excavation of remains (c.13,000-3000 BCE) from this era. The Matagi continue to protect and manage this pristine forest today, with their subsistence attuned to nature’s cycles.

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.

Taking a Matagi tour in Shirakami-Sanchi, Japan © Don Kennedy

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.

Raft white-water rapids

If you fancy upping the adrenaline stakes during your trip to Shirakami-Sanchi, you might want to consider coming between early summer and early autumn, for this is the best time to soak up the exhilaration of riding the rapids of the Meya Ravine. Head to the town of Nishimeyamura to take a rafting, kayaking or canoe trip along the Iwaki River, with tours tailored to visitors’ experience level - beginner and child-friendly options are available alongside more epic jaunts, with expert guides on hand to keep everyone safe and thoroughly delighted.

Rafting in Shirakami-Sanchi , Japan © Don Kennedy

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.

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Ride the Resort Shirakami railway

There’s a reason the Resort Shirakami railway is known as the “Joyful train”. Running between Aomiri and Akita, it offers breath-taking views of Shirakami-Sanchi’s sublime seaside, with trains designed to harmonise with nature. They have hybrid electrical-diesel engines, with funky interiors (sustainably) embellished with wood from trees you’ll see alongside the tracks.

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.

Resort Shirakami railway, Shirakami-Sanchi, Japan © Don Kennedy

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.

Be exhilarated by Twelve Lakes Forest

After enjoying the Resort Shirakami, embark at Juniko Station and transfer to a bus to visit Juniko Lake in Fukaura Town. Created by an earthquake during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868), and named for the twelve lakes that can be seen from the mountain that presides over it, Twelve Lakes Forest (AKA Juniko Lake) is actually home to 33 lakes and ponds. An underground water source keeps water levels of the lakes constant, and also pure. As well as hiking in the area, you can take advantage of the abundance of water with boating trips and the like.

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.

Forest therapy in Shirakami-Sanchi, Japan © Don Kennedy

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.

Aoike in Shirakami-Sanchi © yankane/Shutterstock

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.

Essential information

Shirakami-Sanchi visitor centre:

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

Travel advice for Japan

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written by Joanne Owen
updated 12/16/2021
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Joanne is a Pembrokeshire-born writer with a passion for the nature, cultures and histories of the Caribbean region, especially Dominica. Also passionate about inspiring a love of adventure in young people, she’s the author of several books for children and young adults, hosts international writing workshops, and has written articles on the Caribbean and inspirational community initiatives for Rough Guides. Follow her @JoanneOwen on Twitter and @joanneowenwrites on Instagram.

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