Explore A Living Outdoor Museum ― Adventure Tourism in Shirakami-Sanchi

Aomori’s lush Shirakami-Sanchi Natural World Heritage site is a mountainous basecamp for solo travelers, families, and beginning and seasoned mountaineers to experience deep ecotourism, culture, and wellness. Perched at the northernmost tip of Honshu, Japan’s largest island, Aomori escaped much of post-WWⅡ industrialization. As a result, Aomori is the most spectacular location to experience northern Japan’s unique ecology and culture. Yet, few foreigners journey to Japan’s first Natural World Heritage site, where biological diversity and authentic ecotourism flourish amidst Aomori’s rugged and pristine surroundings.

The Shirakami-Sanchi Mountain Range stretches from southwest Aomori’s ancient coastline across Aomori’s highlands and into rural Akita. These lush green mountains deliver crystal clear rivers, ponds of mysterious hues, animal tracks, earthy fragrances, bird calls, and misty peaks dripping waterfalls. The challenging topography of plunging valleys and steep summits (1,000-1,200 meters), some of the snowiest winters worldwide, and distance from urban centers limited logging and road construction.

Now, it’s a base of exploration for solo travelers, families, and novice and experienced mountaineers to experience fun, educational, and challenging ecotourism and outdoor adventures.

Back in the early 1990s, researchers studying the Shirakami-Sanchi discovered that the mountains harbored the most extensive primeval beech forests in East Asia. UNESCO declared that those forests remained in an “undisturbed condition.” This area of land, approved for its “outstanding natural value to humanity,” became the Shirakami-Sanchi Natural World Heritage Property, Japan’s first natural world heritage site. This large park is an immersive outdoor wildlife museum where visitors smell, breath, watch, listen and touch while exploring the ecological exhibitions.

The centerpiece of these natural exhibitions is an eight-thousand-year-old Seibold’s-beech-forest ecosystem. Rarely seen plants and animals still exist in this safeguarded habitat. More than 500 plant species thrive within its most famous beech forest, including 108 with specially protected status. The Japanese golden eagle and the black woodpecker are two of many endangered and rare animal species dwelling in this isolated area. In addition, black bears, foxes, serows, weasels, giant flying squirrels, martens, badgers, and more creatures survive in this sanctuary.

Conserving natural habitats and promoting human-nature interactions while keeping people, plants, and animals safe are Shirakami-Sanchi World Heritage site management goals. Therefore, they divided the property into a buffer zone and a core zone.

The buffer zone includes well-maintained trails of various levels and lengths that guide visitors to spectacular locations. For example, the Beech Forest Footpath is an easy walk on a carpet of colorful fallen leaves within a virgin beech forest. The Anmon Gorge Route (intermidiate-level difficulty) leads trekkers by one of the clearest riviers you may ever see. Three sparkling waterfalls feed that river. Athletic hikers will love the adrenaline-pumping trek, panoramic views, and bird songs along the Takakuramori Nature Observation Trail.

The heart of the Shirakami-Sanchi’s wilderness is the core zone. Visitors may travel inside but only with local, qualified eco-guides after submitting applications. The core is a trackless wilderness where, if lucky, you might spot a bear from a safe distance.

People of the Mountains - Spiritual Naturalists

Learning from locals who live on the border of the natural and modern world is a remarkable aspect of Aomori. The Matagi are a dwindling group of traditional bear hunters, charcoal makers, and foragers. They often traveled alone or in small groups through isolated wilderness far from human habitation, surviving on what they could find in the mountains. Though small in numbers, the Matagi today still maintain early cultural customs rooted in ancient beliefs.

They believe mountains, trees, waterfalls, bears, and other living and nonliving entities have spiritual essences. Over centuries of living with the natural world, the Matagi acquired a deep understanding of ecology and developed unique rituals for hunting and gathering. Conserving the land is almost a sacred mission.

Some Matagi have partnered with environmentally concerned guides to facilitate transformative wilderness experiences. For example, the Shirakami Matagi Sha organization leads eco-tours ranging from a few hours to three-day trips in and around the World Heritage property. One trip includes overnighting in a bare, traditional Matagi mountain hut made from natural materials only. Sleep in a forest beneath moonlit trees. Taste river fish, mountain mushrooms, and other locally foraged or sourced foodstuffs.

Natural attractions and adventures do not stop at the borders of the World Heritage property. Small local tour companies in nearby towns and villagers (Nishimeya, Fukaura, and Ajigasawa) offer four seasons of wellness and nature-based sports: canyoning, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, scuba diving, snowshoeing, tree climbing, rafting, hot spring bathing, and others.

More Aomori

If you want to learn more about Aomori’s unique ecosystem, interact with the adult-and-child friendly exhibitions at Nishimeya Village’s Shirakami-Sanchi Visitor’s Center. The staff includes English speakers. The Shirakami Natural Science Park, also in Nishimeya, holds seminars about nature, ecosystems, and climate change. Check if the talks will be English or Japanese only.