The legend of Lake Tazawako (Akita Prefecture)

The mountains of Shirakami is an ideal place for forest bathing. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

JAPAN HERITAGE Shirakami mountains: Walk softly in a forest dark and deep

September 23, 2011

The mountains of Shirakami at the border of Aomori and Akita prefectures are fertile ground for one of the nation’s great natural resources–vast forests of very elderly Japanese beech trees. Knarred and knuckled, they stand covered with moss and creeping vines, watching as centuries pass away.

Because of efforts of conservationists the forests have been spared the ax, and in 1993 became, along with Yakushima island in Kagoshima Prefecture, Japan’s first entry in UNESCO’s natural World Heritage list.

Of about 130,000 hectares of what is known as the Shirakami mountain range, 17,000 hectares make up the World Heritage site.

Although entry to parts of the “core zone” is prohibited, tourists are quite welcome to visit the impressive beeches in the “buffer zone” that surrounds the core. First-time visitors are advised to take one of the guided eco-tours to get a true feel for the place.

The highest peaks in the range are Mount Mukai-Shirakamidake at 1,250 meters and Mount Shirakamidake at 1,235 meters.

Many years ago, even among locals, only a few hunters and loggers ever ventured into the deepest parts of the forest.

But then, in the late 1970s, a bureaucrat had the bright idea of tearing up the forest to make way for–what else–a road. This misguided affinity for concrete and macadam galvanized conservationists and by the early 1980s the area was in the national spotlight.

Ultimately the road warriors were repulsed and the massive beeches and other forest inhabitants like the rare black woodpecker (kumagera) gained enough stature and recognition to keep the ax and the bulldozer at bay.

In addition to the excitement of trekking in the mountains, there are other attractions nearby.

One is Lake Tazawako in Akita Prefecture. It is the deepest caldera lake (formed by a volcanic eruption) in the country. The lake is 423.4 meters deep and 21 kilometers around.

On the western shore stands a bronze statue of a woman sculpted by Yasutake Funakoshi.

Legend has it that a beautiful woman named Tatsuko longed to hang on to her looks for eternity. The Buddhist goddess of mercy, Kannon, suggested she take a sip from the lake.

Not one to ignore the advice of a goddess, Tatsuko drank and was instantly transformed into a dragon and the mother of the lake. While not precisely what she was hoping for, Tatsuko did gain immortality and a Shinto shrine out of the deal. Those interested will find the shrine on the northern shore.

The area surrounding the lake is dotted with inns and hotels and equipped with facilities for outdoor activities including cycling, boating and camping.

Certainly not to be missed is the hot spring resort of Koganezaki Furofushi Onsen in Fukaura, Aomori Prefecture. Do go–how many people can say they took a dunk in an outdoor bath seemingly a part of the Sea of Japan?

Lucky bathers can watch the sun set while soaking in the bath supplied by a spring that spouts 400 liters of hot water a minute from a depth of 200 meters.

* * *

The Shirakami mountains can be reached by rental cars and buses from Aomori, Akita and Odate-Noshiro airports.

From Odate-Noshiro Airport, sightseeing bus tours to Fujisato, a town in Akita Prefecture which serves as an access point to the World Heritage section of the Shirakami mountains, are available.

JR operates services to Aomori, Hirosaki and Akita stations.

Night express buses operate between Tokyo and Hirosaki, Akita and Aomori stations.

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