„Oh yes, that is very blue!“ – „Oh, look – how blue it is!,“ shout the Japanese tourists, looking in awe at the Aoike. Aoike means Blue Pond, and the water is indeed very clear and blue against the backdrop of the fresh green beech trees of the Shirakami Sanchi beech forest. In the Japanese summer, the clear ponds of Juniko (“12 ponds”) emit a pleasant atmosphere of coolness. The “12 ponds” are one of the most accessible and most visited areas within the huge expanse of Shirakami Sanchi Forest. For its many ancient beech trees, the area is listed as a UNESCO Natural World Heritage since 1993. During our travels in Japan we have visited other UNESCO Natural Heritage sites like the Shiretoko National Park in Hokkaido and the Yanbaru Region in Northern Okinawa. In fact, we often find that the most remote and difficult to access places are particularly lovely. For instance, we also immensely like the remote Noto Peninsula on Japan’s North coast.
Scarce information about the Shirakami Sanchi beech forest
Actually we have toyed with the idea of visiting the Shirakami Sanchi Forest for quite a while. Still, we have never been quite able to figure out what there is to see and to do. Even in Japan, and reading Japanese, the available information on the world heritage area seemed vague. There are several visitor centres and several hiking trails, none of them easible accessible by public transport.
So this time we rented a car for three days in Akita (Northern Japan) and equipped with some brochures from the Akita tourist information set out for the nearest visitor centre in Fujisato. In the brochures it was difficult even to locate the UNESCO World Heritage core zone. We realised that the Akita prefecture leaflets just cut off most of the beech forest area in the neighbouring “rival” prefecture of Aomori.
Everything is closed!
When we arrive in the mountain village of Fujisato numerous signs welcome us to to the “UNESCO World Heritage”. In the Visitor Centre, we get about a dozen more leaflets (but most of them similarly elusive). Moreover the ranger informs us for the first time that all roads around the core zone are closed this year. Going to the Aomori side of the park would require an enormous detour. He suggests a hiking trail in the vicinity, about 40 minutes by car to the starting point.
A sign also warns of bears, but apparently none of the staff had ever actually been to Shirakami Sanchi. “Bears? Well, if you are afraid, you could camp right here at the river,” the ranger suggests slightly surprised.
The region of the white gods
Shirakami Sanchi – the mountainous region of the white gods, according to the name – is the last remaining expanse of primeval beech forest. In prehistoric times this forest covered much of Northeast Asia . The core zone of the World Heritage protection area is off-limits to all visitors. Even scientists can only be enter it with a special permit. No trails and facilities may be built there. But even for the buffer zone there are restrictions. So the activities in the park consist of only a handful of – mostly rather short – trails. All of them start from parking areas outside the buffer zone and lead into the beech forest. Some trails are real mountain hiking paths, others are accesible for groups with barrier-free slopes and information panels.
Camping in the wilderness
We walk around the strolling paths at Dakedaira. This leads to the hiking path to a nearby mountain, Fujisato Komagadake, which crosses a few flowery meadows. The beech trees with their bright green are indeed unusual for Japan. Different from Europe they are accompanied by a thick undergrowth of sasa bamboo-grass. At our campsite at Kurumidaira, up in the mountains and very lonely, no bears and free, the forest creates a very powerful and tranquil atmosphere.
The next day we go along the coastal road halfway round the mountain area. In between we make a stop at Futatsumori to do a 90 minute hike that leads to the edge of the core protection zone – again beautiful forest and good views. However, it takes almost one hour by car each way on a winding mountain road from the coast to reach the start.
By contrast, our next destination Juniko (the twelve ponds) is closer by the sea. Conveniently an almost hourly bus goes up to the lakes, from where you can hike into the buffer zone. Most visitors stay at the blue Aoike, though, and don’t venture further into the wild beech forest.
On the forest trails, we only meet a number of bird watchers with huge cameras – and birds. Not surprisingly for such a huge, fiercely protected area, Shirakami Sanchi boasts a high biodiversity and numerous rare bird species.
Protection vs promotion
As with all World Natural Heritage Sites, there’s the dilemma of protecting nature by preventing human intervention. This while at the same time promoting the abundant nature as a tourist destination! How shoud that work?
There is no easy solution to this conflict. We have found that not every UNESCO World Heritage site is a perfect (or even particularly worthwhile) destination for tourists. The forests of Shirakami Sanchi, as far as you can visit them, are certainly beautiful, but for hiking and outdoor exploits there are better opportunities in Japan.
Similar Beech Forests in Europe have also become UNESCO World Heritage sites and are easier to access. Among them is the Beech Forest in Serrahn near Neustrelitz, where you can go on a guided walk with a ranger.
What are your experiences in visiting UNESCO natural sites?
Should you visit the Shirakami Sanchi beech forest?
If you have limited time in Japan you probably need not bother visiting this remote part of Japan. That’s especially true if you are from a country where you have abundant forests and green nature. Even if you are into hiking, there are much better options in Japan.
On the other hand, if you are looking for a few relaxing days with some easy walking in a non-alpine environment, you might enjoy the area. In the far north of the Honshu main island, it is reasonable to combine Shirakami Sanchi with other attractions such as the scenic coastline of Matsushima or the magnificent temples and gardens of Hiraizumi. Just don’t expect to learn much about the ecosystem and such in the Visitor Centres.
How to get to the Shirakami Sanchi beech forest?
Fujisato side (Visitor Center): By car – even if you get a slow train and bus combination to Fujisato itself you are still far from the hiking trails and even the UNESCO buffer zone. To reach the trails and the wonderful Kurumidaira Campsite you need a car.
Hiking Trail to Futatsumori: Access to the parking lot at the start of the trail is only by car.
Juniko (12 Lakes): About 8 buses per day from Juniko station. They travel on JR Gono Line along the Aomori / Akita Coast.
NB: We were not sponsored for this blog post in any way. All the expenses, we paid ourselves. This post does not contain affiliate links.
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