„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 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.
Actually we have toyed with the idea of visiting the Shirakami Sanchi Forest for quite a while, but 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. They had been printed in Akita prefecture and they 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, which covered much of Northeast Asia in prehistoric times. The core zone of the World Heritage protection area is off-limits to all visitors and can only be entered 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 that 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.
We walk around the strolling paths at Dakedaira and part of 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, and 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 and make a stop at Futatsumori to do a 90 minute hike (plus almost one hour by car each way on a winding mountain road from the coast) that leads to the edge of the core protection zone – again beautiful forest and good views.
By contrast, our next destination Juniko (the twelve ponds) is closer by the sea and 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, and promoting the abundant nature as a tourist destination. There is no easy solution to this conflict, and 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, such as 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, especially 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. Just don’t expect to learn much about the ecosystem and such in the Visitor Centres.
How to get to the Shiramkami 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 on JR Gono Line along the Aomori / Akita Coast.