Exploring Japan's First World Natural Heritage Site

Akita Shirakami is a pastoral paradise for nature lovers

By Paul McInnes    - 4 min read

People visit the vast wilderness of beautiful northern Japan to find themselves and to resonate with nature. Japan's very first UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site was Akita Prefecture's epic and dramatic Shirakami mountains and forests which have an impressive 8,000-year history.

The Shirakami mountain range straddles the prefectural border between Aomori and Akita prefectures and is a precious mountain area where the cold temperate beech forests that were once widely distributed in northern Japan have been left undisturbed. In this pristine forest, an ecosystem has formed that nurtures a wide variety of organisms, including more than 500 species of plants and precious wildlife such as golden eagles and black woodpeckers. These are recognized as rare and precious examples of nature and were registered, along with Yakushima, as Japan's first World Natural Heritage Site.

Visitors to this pocket of Akita have the opportunity to canoe in the gorgeous Yoneshiro River; visit the Shirakami Sanchi World Heritage Conservation Center Fujisato-kan; sample the local culinary specialty of kiritanpo (pounded rice sticks); trek through the Tanashiro Marsh and Dakedai Forest; as well as participate in kimono wearing and sampling some of the best sake that Japan has to offer.

The sublime forests
The sublime forests

Shirakami Sanchi Mountains World Heritage Conservation Center (Fujisato-kan)

At the Shirakami Sanchi Mountains World Heritage Conservation Center Fujisato-kan at the southern foot, you can enjoy and learn more about the Shirakami mountains. The value of the surrounding forest may be difficult to comprehend at first glance, however, if you want to deepen your knowledge about the culture of the forest, it's recommended to listen to the commentary by the resident nature advisor.

Hiking the trails
Hiking the trails

Shirakami autumn leaves excursion

After meeting at the World Heritage Conservation Center Fujisato-kan, drive to the Shirakami mountains and walk around the well-known spots for viewing the autumn leaves. You can also see symbols of Shirakami including the 400-year-old beech tree and the Mononoke Beech. Shirakami's mountains and forests are said to have partly inspired the hit animation film Princess Mononoke. Visitors can be led by guides who know every nook and cranny of Shirakami. Guests can also choose to experience a nabekko (hot pot) picnic unique to Akita. This hotpot dish is special to this prefecture and famous around Japan for its hearty and nourishing qualities, it also includes kiritanpo sticks. This picnic can be experienced from late September to October.

Nabekko hot pot with kiritanpo simmering alongside the veggies
Nabekko hot pot with kiritanpo simmering alongside the veggies

Dakedai Forest and Tanashiro Marsh

Visitors are able to enjoy a peaceful stroll through the tranquil, primeval beech forest of the Shirakami mountains, even wearing sneakers. Tanashiro Marsh is a rare high-rise marsh in the Shirakami Mountains equipped with wooden paths that make walking more comfortable and easier.

Yoneshiro river canoeing experience

A canoeing experience where certified instructors give a gentle and fun introductory course can be completed in one day on the Yoneshiro River which flows near Shirakami Sanchi. Learn from the guides and immerse yourself in the bountiful nature of the Yoneshiro River.

A serene canoeing experience
A serene canoeing experience

Kaneyu kimono experience

The former-restaurant Kaneyu was founded in 1890 by the first Yusuke Kanaya. It's a building that symbolizes Noshiro City and was widely used for entertaining guests during the city's heyday; and even known as one of the best restaurants in the prefecture. The current incarnation of the building was built in 1937 by the second Yusuke Kanaya. It was registered as a national cultural property in 1998 and closed for business at the end of August 2008. However, it was eventually donated to Noshiro, where it's been used as a location for guests to try a fascinating kimono experience and learn about the building's fascinating characteristics.

A kimono experience
A kimono experience

Getting there

It takes about one hour from Haneda to Akita Airport and Odate Noshiro Airport by plane.

From Tokyo Station, you can take the Akita Shinkansen Komachi directly to Akita Station in Akita Prefecture, which takes about four hours. It takes about two hours from Sendai Station to Akita Station by the same shinkansen.

From Akita Station, you can take the Ou Line to Higashi-Noshiro Station, which takes about an hour.

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Paul McInnes

Paul McInnes @paul.mcinnes

I'm currently content manager at Japan Travel. I worked as editor-in-chief of Metropolis magazine and writer and contributing editor at The Japan Times, Tokyo Weekender, Stylus, Tokyo Fashion, Time Out Tokyo and many other publications in Japan and overseas. 

Join the discussion

Sherilyn Siy a week ago
Whoa, 8,000 years. And I thought the 1,300 year history of our area was impressive. :)
Kim a week ago
I'd love to explore this area!
Sleiman Azizi a week ago
That looks like just the spot to be...
Bonson Lam a week ago
This is a very special part of Japan. I had overseas visitors practically begging to go on a tour here.
Elena Lisina a week ago
Great vacation!