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Autumn tours with Akita dogs in northern Japan

Experience northern Akita together with Akita dogs

Akita Prefecture in northeastern Japan is known for its excellent outdoors, unique traditions, delicious cuisine, and notably, for its dog breed, the Akita dog, which bears the prefecture name. Additionally, visitors to Akita can expect to see spectacular fall colors (koyo) in autumn as the leaves change their colors from green to vibrant hues of yellow, orange and red. It is said that Akita is one of the best places in Japan to see and experience autumn colors, and this is evident by the stellar koyo spots nearby like Shirakami Sanchi, Japan's last remaining virgin beech forest and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as Lake Towada and the Hachimantai mountain range in the Towada-Hachimantai National Park.

Odate City in Akita is the birth place of the Akita dogs, one of the six native Japanese breed of dogs, and contains several Akita dog-related sights like a visitor center and a museum to learn more about the breed and meet the dogs in person. Akita dogs are known to be a large breed with physical characteristics like a wide face and pointy ears, large paws, long and straight forelegs, bushy and curled tails. Of the six native Japanese breeds, Akita dogs are the largest ones measuring over 65 centimeters on their fours and can be over 160 centimeters when standing on their hind legs.

Akita dogs are known to be loyal dogs, and the most famous Akita dog is Hachiko, who continued to wait for his owner after he passed away unexpectedly, and whose image is commemorated at Shibuya Station in central Tokyo.

In late summer, I spent an overnight trip participating in three tours exploring northern Akita with Akita dogs. The three tours covered both land and water as well as the local cuisine, and they are part of a limited-time event "Explore with Akita Dogs" happening from October 21, 2023 to November 5, 2023. The Akita dogs who joined in the tours were from the Akita Inu Preservation Association, whose aim is to increase awareness and preserve this unique breed of loyal dogs. Tours start and end at Odate Station, and tour duration depends on the activity with the shortest taking 2.5 hours and the longest lasting approximately 5 hours door to door.

Trekking in a forest

First on my itinerary was trekking along a mountain stream, which starts from Mount Tashiro, a 1178 meter tall mountain in northern Akita. The mountain is located at the fringe of the Shirakami Sanchi mountain range, which contains Japan's last virgin beech forest and was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1993. Accordingly, hiking is a popular activity in and around Mount Tashiro, and I had the opportunity to explore the area with my expert mountain guide, Miki.

My two-part trekking tour started with a walk along the mountain stream dotted with waterfalls and various trees whose leaves change colors in the autumn. Along the way, Miki introduced the trees and pointed out the nearby mountains and the local flora and fauna. She also explained that the stream we were walking along was part of a pilgrimage route to pray for a good supply of water for agriculture.

Miki was such an excellent guide that I found the first part too short, but I was heartened when she said there was more to come. We proceeded to our next spot to rendezvous with the Akita dogs, and my longing for more trekking flew away the second I laid eyes on the cute dogs. We had a brief introduction to get to know the owners and their pets, and dos and don'ts when it came to handling the Akita dogs.

The second part of the trekking tour was walking with the Akita dogs in a cedar (sugi) forest. It was the first time for me to walk an Akita dog surrounded by tall, centuries old trees, and my attention was constantly split between petting the cute Akita dog and trying to appreciate the ancient sugi forest. Fortunately, there was ample of time to appreciate both, and I even managed to get a few excellent pictures of both the forest and the Akita dogs.

Canoeing in Lake Towada

The next tour I participated in was canoeing on Lake Towada in the Towada-Hachimantai National Park. The large caldera lake is known for its autumn colors, clear waters and views of the surrounding mountains. While large sightseeing boats take tourists for a cruise on the lake, canoeing is one way to get up close to the nearby shores and experience the tranquility of the lake. What is more, it is not very often that one can canoe with an Akita dog!

Organised by Towadako Guidehouse Kai, the activity uses a double Canadian canoe, which is two canoes connected together. My Canadian Canoe tour started with Yasu, my knowledgeable canoe instructor, introducing my Akita dog for the tour and its owner, then getting all of us - including the Akita dog - fitted with life jackets. Then we proceeded to learn some simple hand signals as well as basic paddling techniques.

From there, it was time to get on the water and head off. To be honest, I wondered if the Akita dog would be nervous or excited on water and rock the boat, but my best friend was amazingly calm on water and the double Canadian canoe was extremely stable. We spent some time familiarizing ourselves with paddling in water before moving deeper into the lake. Along the way, Yasu explained about the geography of the caldera lake, pointed out some interesting formations and introduced the local flora.

Depending on time and the conditions, there might be a chance to go ashore for a short break and exploration. Unfortunately we didn't have much time for that during my tour, and we instead, had a drink and snack in our canoe over a particularly clear section of the lake. The relatively calm waters and stable double canoe gave me the confidence to try standing up for a different view during our break, which gave me the unusual feeling like I was standing on water.

Before I knew it, it was time to return to shore and conclude the approximately three hour canoe tour. This was definitely one of the more unique experiences I've had, and I was very impressed with my calm Akita dog who was the best boy on the tour.

Visiting a local winery

The final tour I participated in this trip was visiting a local winery with an Akita dog. I visited the Kosaka Nanataki Winery, which is midway between Lake Towada and central Odate. The modestly sized winery contains a vineyard, winery and a tasting room/shop. I was not expecting to find a winery deep in the country, but the best things are always hiding in plain sight, and so it was with Kosaka Nanataki Winery, whose goal is to produce internationally recognized Japanese wine using native Japanese grapes.

I arrived at Kosaka Nanataki Winery and was met by the owner, and my Akita dog and its owner. You might be wondering, as I did, how does one visit a winery with a pet? Well, in this case, I got to walk the Akita dog in the vineyard as we learned more about the native grape varieties. Then I left the good boy outside the winery with its owner, while I went inside to learn more about the wine making process and continued to the tasting room/shop, which had both free and paid wine samples.

I tried some very interesting local wines, including one which tasted like grape gummies and another which had a very rich and syrupy mouthfeel, yet slightly dry aftertaste. The winery tour concluded with the Akita dog making a one-of-a-kind paw print to be hung on a bottle of wine with a limited edition tour wine label. It was the only tour with an Akita dog related souvenir to take home, one for drinks and the memories.

The Explore with Akita Dogs event will be held from October 21, 2023 to November 5, 2023. It is a unique opportunity to meet and get to know Akita dogs better. In addition to tours, visitors can also attend a special Akita dog show, which is a contest to choose the best Akita dog, as well as obtain an NFT exclusive to the event when visiting participating tourist spots. An NFT is a non-fungible token, which is typically a digital artwork that contains a unique identifier that ensures it is exclusive to the owner. Learn more about the event here and don't miss out on a trip with Akita dogs!