Shirakami Sanchi 白神山地 is a mountainous area located in the Tohoku region of Japan. Spanning 130,000 hectares across the Akita and Aomori prefectures, it is the last remaining virgin beech forest that once covered the hills and mountains of northern Japan. The pristine environment untouched by human hands has earned it the reputation of the forest of gods, and the name Shirakami Sanchi literally means “the white god mountain area”.
The undisturbed wilderness is also home to a vast array of plants and animals such as the Japanese serow, black bear, macaque, and the black woodpecker. About one-third of the Shirakami mountain range was registered as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in 1993.
That goes without saying the place is a paradise for nature lovers. If you think visiting Shirakami Sanchi would be like going on an adventure in the middle of nowhere, the truth is everyone can enjoy the natural beauty of Shirakami Sanchi without having to become an expert mountaineer. Among the many walking and hiking courses available, the walking trails around the Juniko lakes of Shirakami Sanchi are highly popular. You can enjoy an invigorating walk through the woods while observing the beautiful forest, water, and mountains here.
Juniko 十二湖 is a collective name for 33 lakes and ponds located on the northwestern side of Shirakami Sanchi. It is believed that the Juniko was formed during the Edo period when a great earthquake struck the region and caused a mountain stream to be blocked and swelled to become Juniko. The lakes and ponds were named Juniko (means Twelve Lakes) because only 12 of them could be seen when observed from a nearby mountain. Since then, people started to refer these lakes and ponds as Juniko.
Notably, the ponds and lakes of Juniko are very clear that you can even see the swimming fish and fallen trees below the surface. Among all, the cobalt blue Aoike 青池 (means Blue Pond) is the must-see and one of the main attraction of Shirakami Sanchi. As suggested by the name, Aoike is blue colour – so blue as if it were dyed artificially. The shades of Aoike vary constantly depending on the levels of light, but the pond looks especially beautiful when the sunlight shining through and the trees surrounding the pond are reflected on the surface.
Be sure to check out the Nihon Canyon 日本キャニオン, a deep valley with bare rocky walls caused by erosion and deterioration. This miniature version of the Grand Canyon in the US is located not far from the entrance to the Juniko and can be accessed by a walking trail that connects the canyon with the Juniko. Don’t forget to try the delicious spring water as you go – look out for water stations where you can drink the clean fresh spring water flowing out of the ground.
Depending on your fitness level, you can choose the distance and difficulty of the trail you want to take. For example, the popular Juniko Walking Course is 1.5 km return and takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes including a break time. But do note that the access to Juniko is only possible from April to November as the trails are closed during winter.
Getting To Juniko
View from a train on the JR Gono Line.
Juniko is accessible by public transportation. The JR Gono Line 五能線 that travels between Akita and Aomori along the scenic coast of the Sea of Japan is a tourist attraction itself – it is one of the most beautiful train routes in Japan. Visitors can take the train from either one of the terminal stations, Higashi-Noshiro Station 東能代駅 in Akita or Kawabe Station 川部駅 in Aomori to the Juniko Station 十二湖駅. From the Juniko station, take an Oku-Juniko Parking Lot 奥十二湖駐車場 bound bus for 15 minutes and alight at the terminal stop. The bus service runs only from April to November.
Another great alternative is the Resort Shirakami リゾートしらかみ, a sightseeing train that travels between Akita Station 秋田駅 and Hirosaki Station 弘前駅 along the JR Gono Line. Visitors can board the train from either one of the terminal stations and get off at the Juniko Station, then transfer to an Oku-Juniko Parking Lot bound bus.
The special features of Resort Shirakami include extra large windows as well as live performances of Tsugaru shamisen and storytelling in local Tsugaru dialect. The train slows down around the scenic spots along the way so that passengers can take in the beautiful scenery. Local specialty foods and souvenirs are also available for purchase onboard. The train runs daily during the high season (summer) and only on Saturdays and public holidays during the off-season (winter). The train only offers reserved seats, so all seats on the train require advanced reservations.
Shirakami Sanchi is beautiful all year round, but the best season to visit the area is from spring to summer when the leaves are fresh and new, or autumn when the mountains are tinted with colourful foliage. During this period, public transportation services are more frequent and so making the visit much more convenient.
In winter (late November to April), access to the trekking courses is not possible and many of the roads leading to the area are closed, not to mention the limited availability of public transport. Nevertheless, visitors who are interested to explore Shirakami Sanchi in winter may join one of the snow trekking trips with a tour guide.
The Shirakami Sanchi Visitor Centre which provides helpful information and updates about the area also offers trekking courses. Visitors can also learn more about Shirakami Sanchi through the educational video and exhibitions at the centre.
A Japanese macaque in the forest
Lastly, everyone can do their part in taking care of the environment that is shared between humans and wildlife. During your visit please observe the rules of etiquette such as pack your trash and take it with you when leaving, don’t feed the animals, and stay on the marked trails, in order to protect the wilderness of Shirakami.
Shirakami Sanchi Visitor Centre
Opening Hours: 8:30 AM – 5 PM (April to October), 9 AM to 4:30 PM (November to March)
Access: From Hirosaki Station, take the Imoritai 居森平 bound bus for about 50 minutes and alight at the Nishimeya-mura Yakuba-mae 西目屋村役場前 stop.