Shirakami Sanchi (白神山地) is an extensive mountain range straddling the border between Aomori and Akita prefectures in the northern Tohoku Region of Japan. The central core of Shirakami Sanchi is made up of the last virgin beech forests in Japan, for which the region was declared one of the country's first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1993.
The main attraction of Shirakami Sanchi are the various hiking trails that lead through the forests to waterfalls, mountain peaks and lakes. The most popular hike leads to the Anmon Falls on the northeastern side of Shirakami Sanchi. The Anmon Falls are a set of three waterfalls that lie about 90 minutes into the valley from the trailhead (not accessible from late November to late April).
The trail to the falls is paved and flat in the beginning and gets elevated and narrow further into the valley. Shortly before reaching the first waterfall (26 meters high) after about 45 minutes, the trail steepens considerably. Ten minutes beyond the first waterfall lies the second one (37 meters) where many people stop to rest. Continuing on up the hill to the right of the second waterfall for another 15 minutes brings you to the final and tallest of the falls (42 meters).
Another popular destination are the Juniko ("twelve lakes"), a series of small lakes and ponds connected by hiking trails, on the north western side of Shirakami Sanchi along the coast of the Sea of Japan. The area offers scenic day hiking, fishing, boating and camping around its lakes and ponds, one of which, Aoike, has enchanted looking, almost unnaturally blue water. A small visitor center, the Juniko Eco-Museum Center Kokyokan, that explains about the area's forests.
Also be sure to check out the Nihon Canyon, Japan's miniature version of the Grand Canyon, with walls of colorful brown and grey rock found near the entrance to the Juniko. A walking trail connects the canyon with the Juniko's lakes and ponds. From late November through March, however, the roads to the Juniko and the Nihon Canyon are closed and the area is inaccessible.
There are various other hiking trails to peaks around Shirakami Sanchi, but many of the trailheads are only accessible by car. One of the most popular among them is the easy trail to Mount Futatsumori in the south west of Shirakami Sanchi along the prefectural border. The ascent from the parking lot to the peak is steep, but takes only one hour. Hikers get awarded with commanding views over the mountains and valleys of the World Heritage Site's core area.
Another popular, but considerably more time consuming hiking course on the northwestern side of Shirakami Sanchi leads to Mount Shirakamidake, the tallest peak of the mountain range. It is one of the few hiking trails that can be accessed by public transportation, as the trailhead is only a 30 minute walk from Shirakamidake Tozanguchi Station along the JR Gono Line. The entire round trip to Shirakamidake's peak takes about eight hours from the station.
There are also a few hiking trails on the eastern side of Shirakami Sanchi, including a small network of walking trails in the scenic Dairakyo Gorge, which lies along Route 317. An unpaved road branches off from the gorge into the mountains to a hiking trail which leads to the peak of Mount Komagatake and passes the pretty Tanashiro Swamp along its way.
The heart of Shirakami Sanchi's forest is the protected World Heritage zone that is not usually visited by tourists. Entering the core zone requires a permit, which can be obtained by mail at least seven days in advance (considerably earlier, if sent from outside of Japan), or in person at one of nine offices in the area up to the day of departure (on business days only).
Lastly, there are a few visitor centers around Shirakami Sanchi. The most informative of them are the World Heritage Conservation Center in Fujisato, Akita, which has a museum about the forests, and the larger Shirakami Sanchi Visitor Center between Hirosaki and the Anmon Falls which has an excellent museum with English information and an theater showing a 30 minute movie on the beech forests.
How to get to Shirakami Sanchi
Shirakami Sanchi is best accessed from the north from Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture, from the south from Noshiro in Akita Prefecture, about a one hour train ride north of Akita City, or through Odate-Noshiro Airport, which has daily flights from Tokyo's Haneda and Osaka's Itami Airports.
How to get around Shirakami Sanchi
A rental car is the recommended means of getting around Shirakami Sanchi, because public transportation is very limited and only serves a few attractions along the perimeter of the forests. The closest car rental outlets are found in Hirosaki, Akita, Noshiro, Odate and at Odate-Noshiro Airport.
There are only three main roads of interest for getting around Shirakami Sanchi:
- Route 101 travels all along the coast around the western and northern sides of Shirakami Sanchi. Juniko and the trailheads to Mount Futatsumori and Mount Shirakamidake are reached via roads that branch off Route 101. Route 101 is open around the year, but the road to Juniko is not accessible in winter from December through March.
- Route 28 leads from Hirosaki via the Anmon Falls trailhead and over the Tsugaru-toge Pass to connect with Route 101 near the Juniko lakes. The higher part of the route is a gravel road and closed in winter from mid November to late May. Access to the Anmon Falls trailhead is not possible from late November to late April. Note that the section west of Tsugaru-toge Pass is currently closed until at least 2024 due to damage caused by landslides.
- Route 317 runs from Noshiro City through the mountains on the eastern side of Shirakami Sanchi, passing the Dairakyo Gorge and a mountain pass to meet Route 28 near the Anmon Falls. The Aomori section of the route is a gravel road and the higher part is closed in winter from late November to late May. Note that the section on the Aomori side is currently closed until at least 2024 due to damage caused by landslides.
The JR Gono Line travels along the coast around the western and northern sides of Shirakami Sanchi between Noshiro and Hirosaki and is famous for its spectacular coastal scenery. The "Resort Shirakami" rapid trains run between Akita and Hirosaki via the Gono Line, stopping at Juniko along the way. Local trains also serve Juniko from Higashi-Noshiro Station.
The Resort Shirakami runs 1-3 times per day except during the winter (December to March) when it runs only on selected days. The trip to Juniko Station takes about two hours from Akita or 2.5 hours from Hirosaki and costs about 2500 yen one way from either city. All seats are reserved. Infrequent local trains from Higashi-Noshiro Station take about 75 minutes and cost 990 yen one way to reach Juniko Station. Note that it is not possible to buy tickets or make seat reservations at Juniko Station. Seat reservations should be made in advance.
From Juniko Station there are hourly buses to the Juniko lakes (15 minutes, 370 yen one way) from April until late November. Access to the Juniko is not possible during winter.
The only bus line that provides access to Shirakami Sanchi runs between Hirosaki and the trailhead to the Anmon Falls (and further to Tsugaru-toge Pass). The buses are operated by Konan Bus and run three times per day from mid June through October. The one way trip from Hirosaki to the Anmon Falls trailhead takes about 90 minutes and costs 1680 yen. A roundtrip ticket is available for 2520 yen.