Shirakami Sanchi is a vast region of forested mountains in northern Japan, straddling the border of Aomori and Akita prefectures. It is home to one of the largest virgin beech forests in the world, which has had barely any human impact over the centuries. That is why the core area of Shirakami Sanchi has been registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993.
On this edition of Journeys in Japan, Catalin Munteanu visits this ancient forest, which is also a popular destination for trekking and river activities, such as rafting. Catalin is from Romania, a country that also has extensive beech forests and is keen to see how they compare.
On this edition of Journeys in Japan, he encounters the Mother Tree, a beech thought to be 400 years old. He is guided through the forest of Shirakami Sanchi, meets the people who live there and explores this beautiful mountain area in early summer.
Enquiries: Shirakami Public Corporation
219-1 Tashirokanda, Nishimeya-mura, Nakatsugaru-gun, Aomori Prefecture
Tel: +81-(0)172-81-5050 (in Japanese only)
Enquiries: The Shirakami Mountain Preservation Society
86-1 Aza-shina, Hamadate, Aomori City, Aomori Prefecture
Tel: +81-(0)17-743-8314 (in Japanese only)
219-1 Aza-kanda, Tashiro, Nishimeya-mura, Nakatsugaru-gun, Aomori Prefecture
Tel: +81-(0)80-2836-1735 (in Japanese only)
Enquiries: Hiroshime Restaurant
146-2 Aza-Okazaki, Fukaura, Fukaura Town, Nishitsugaru-gun, Aomori Prefecture
Tel: +81-(0)173-74-2255 (in Japanese only)
1-5-4 Toyohara, Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture
Tel: +81-(0)172-34-8715 (English spoken)
Enquiries: Koganezaki Furofushi Onsen
15-1 Oaza Henashi Aza-Shimokiyotaki, Fukaura Town, Nishitsugaru-gun, Aomori Prefecture
Tel: +81-(0)173-74-3500 (English spoken)
Traveler: Catalin Oreste Munteanu > More Info
Occupation:I work for a multinational financial corporation.
Length of residence in Japan:22 years
Reason:I came to Japan together with my family as a teenager and fell in love with the country. I returned by myself to pursue my academic interests.
This was my first time in Aomori. A mere three minutes after pulling out of the airport, it became obvious why the prefecture has its name. The kanji characters for Aomori literally mean "Green Forest." The road soon began winding through lush green rolling hills, that stretched as far as the eye can see.
Anmon Village lies on the outskirts of the Shirakami Sanchi UNESCO World Heritage site. As we approached, I could see the first beech trees in all their splendor. The diffuse light through the foliage and the distinct pattern of the bark brought back vivid memories of summer holidays spent tracking through beech forests in Romania with my parents.
My guides had a wealth of knowledge. I learned that you can estimate the age of a beech from its circumference. I also found the trees are considered young until they are about 100 years old, because that's when their flowers first bloom. Beeches are large trees and require plenty of space. In their early years, saplings compete with each other for light and nutrients. Only a few reach old age.
As we moved deeper into the forest, we encountered the Mother Tree, an imposing beech that is more than 400 years old. At 27 meters it towers above the surrounding forest.
In Nishimeya Village I had the opportunity to go rafting in the rain through this magical landscape. This village is also the location for international kayaking competitions, and one of Japan's Olympic contenders is based here to train with his kayak ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
At Fukaura Port, we arrived just as the squid fishing boats were returning with their catch. During my visit, I was lucky to witness a boat bringing in bluefin tuna. I learned from the fisherman that the rivers from the beech forest are rich with nutrients from the soil. Their water flows down to the sea and feeds large shoals of fish.
Later I was introduced to the Bunako wood crafts workshop. Young craftsmen work in a converted elementary school, showcasing the beauty of beechwood through handcrafted plates, bowls, trays, stools, lampshades and even speakers.
Back in the mountains, I met a traditional hunter who learned his skills from his father. Since the UNESCO designation, he is no longer allowed to hunt or fish inside the Heritage Site, but he still keeps the hunting lodge that he built together with his father in the 1950s. He treated us to hunting stories from his youth. Talking with him, I realized that Shirakami Sanchi is a symbol and cause of pride for all the people in this area.
During my trip, I witnessed firsthand how human and nature can coexist. For centuries, the people here have enjoyed all that the mountains and the sea offer, and have always treated the forest as the giver of life. There is a lesson for us city dwellers here - that any interaction we have with the natural environment must be done with the utmost respect.
Throughout the trip I was amazed by the warm welcome and willingness of my guides to share as much as possible about Shirakami Sanchi. Combined with the landscapes of beech forests familiar from my childhood in Romania, this made me feel truly at home.