Straddling the border between Aomori and Akita Prefectures, Shirakami Sanchi was one of the first World Heritage Sites registered in Japan. Literally meaning, ‘Mountain Land of the White Gods,’ the area encompasses an expanse of some three dozen mountains, within which can be found the largest stretch of pristine beech forest remaining in the world.
Siebold’s beech trees once covered all the hills and mountains of northern Japan, but most of them were cut down during Japan’s years of rapid modernization. Conservation activities in Shirakami Sanchi began in response to a proposed road through the heart of the forest in 1982, and following the discovery of the protected black woodpecker (kumagera) in 1983, construction was terminated in 1989. World Heritage status was bestowed in 1993, concurrent with the induction of Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture and the ancient forests of Yakushima in Kyushu.
Shirakami Sanchi now holds the oldest beech trees in Asia, with some over two centuries old. Eighty-four species of birds can also be found in the area, as well as mammals such as the Asian black bear and the Japanese serow (Nihon kamoshika), which looks something like an antelope interbred with a wolverine.
Of the site’s 1300 square kilometers (502 square miles), only a small central tract of 169.7 square kilometers (65.5 square miles) is recognized as a World Heritage Site. The biosphere here dates back some 8000 years, having never been touched by human development, and is exemplary of a cool-temperate zone forest in the northern hemisphere.
While permission from Forest Management is needed to enter the World Heritage area, casual tourists can enjoy a collection of a dozen lakes and ponds best known for Ao-iké (Blue Pond), a compact pond of clear azure that reveals every fish, rock, and fallen branch in its 9-m (29.5 ft) depth. Visitors can get a taste of the beech forest by meandering through the Buna Shizen-bayashi (Natural Beech Grove) located nearby.
Published June 2010. Photos © 2009 Michael Kanert.