River Sports and Shirakami Sanchi, Japan’s First Natural World Heritage Site

The sea alongside Fukaura Town, Aomori Prefecture, resembled a blue glass tabletop as we leisurely paddled our kayaks toward where the ocean touched a cloud-layered sky. Our guide pointed out Mt. Shirakami, part of Japan’s Shirakami Sanchi Natural World Heritage Site. East Asia’s largest virgin beech forest is protected within. The heritage site is within a larger mountainous area stretching across Akita and Aomori prefectures. It is an enticing area for outdoor sports lovers.

man in kayak on ocean with cloudy sky

The coast of Aomori is a beautiful area for kayaking. Photo: Greg Goodmacher

Attractions in Aomori – Gangara cave

However, that day we wanted to explore eye-catching cliffs and islands born of ancient volcanic ash flows along Aomori’s southwestern coast. I wished to enter the locally famous Gangara Cave, which is accessible by kayaks only.

We paddled northward parallel to the Fukaura coast for about half a mile. Then, glided between numerous islets projecting from the windless, waveless sea. Finally, trailing our guide, we came into a small bay. He led us toward an island of craggy rock, looking like a hard scone, dried grey under the hot sun.

Gangara Cave’s entrance was a yawning cliff crack that quickly swallowed our guide’s orange and yellow kayak. We followed into a small but awe-inspiring world fifty yards deep inside the rocky island.

double image - top person in kayak at mouth of cave, bottom - view from person of person in kayak exiting cave

Top: The mouth of Gangara Cave is accessible by kayak only. Bottom: The cave was incredible, even on our paddle out. Photos: Greg Goodmacher

After our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we noticed hundreds, if not thousands, of bats roosting and flittering along the cave roof about ten yards above. Sunbeams at the cave entrance transformed the sea surface into a brilliant aquamarine color when we turned around. Blowfish stared up at us as we stared down at them. For moments, we savored the natural quietness and exotic nature of the cave before paddling outward.

Returning, we passed a solitary fisherman casting his line between close islets. I asked if he had caught any fish. He replied that he hadn’t, but he had caught a great view.

fisherman standing on rock with sea in background

This fisherman was fishing for spectacular views. Photo: Greg Goodmacher

Shirakami Sanchi World Heritage Site – Anmon Valley Route

The following day, we drove to the Shirakami Sanchi World Heritage Site to explore a spectacular riverine trail within an eight-thousand-year-old beech forest.

The Anmon Valley Route winds through a narrow gorge that curves around steep fern-covered cliffs. The highlights are three cascading waterfalls ranging from 26 to 42 yards high. The third waterfall is closed to the general public to protect wildlife and human lives. The trail turns extra steep, wet, and slippery after the second waterfall. However, forest officials grant access to visitors hiking with eco-guides.

looking up at large beech tree

The Anmon Valley Route winds through an 8000-year-old beech tree forest! Photo: Greg Goodmacher

Reaching the second waterfall took slightly more than an hour of hiking/strolling. We often stopped to contemplate and photograph green moss carpeting felled trees, light filtering through trees clinging to cliffs, and golden leaves drifting slowly onto streams.

I heard the plunging waters before the waterfall became visible. My wife and I stood silent, mesmerized by the sparkling cascades. Then, impulsively, I waded into the pool at the waterfall’s base and submerged myself in the chilling and invigorating mountain water. Afterward, we sat on solar-heated rocks, ate sandwiches, and listened to the waterfall sing.

double photo R: person swimming under waterfall L: person looking up at the river while hiking

Left: We stood contemplating the beautiful river. Right: We swam underneath the chilling and invigorating waterfall. Photos: Greg Goodmacher

Shirakami Sanchi World Heritage Site – Conservation Center

We later dropped into the Shirakami Sanchi World Heritage Conservation Center to learn more about this spectacular region of ecological importance.

First, a friendly worker explained that the park was divided into two sections. The buffer zone, including the waterfall walk, is for the general public to enjoy. The protected core is only accessible to visitors who apply for permission and trek with local eco-guides. Then, he showed me a personal video he had taken of a healthy black bear strolling downriver while he was walking upriver in the core section. Both large mammals kept a respectful distance away from each other.

I spotted frogs, herons, eagles, hawks, squirrels, monkeys, river fish, Japanese raccoon dogs, martens, and more within a few days.

river surrounded by trees and greenery with person in background

Many areas in northern Japan, including the Anmon River Valley, include rivers surrounded by lush greenery. Photo: Greg Goodmacher

The relatively undisturbed ancient forests provide habitats for many creatures and filter the melted snows. Northern Japan receives more snow than most areas of the world. As a result, rivers, streams, and waterfalls surge with pristine water surrounded by lush greenery. Maps show numerous brooks and streams where thirsty hikers can taste the mountains’ offerings.

The remote, steep-sided mountains and valleys provide kayakers, rafters, canoers, and river trekkers with many choices. Also, an amphibious bus drives around Tsugaru Dam and swims across Tsugaru Lake in Nishimeya, Aomori, a rustic village that borders the World Heritage Site.

mountains with clouds and trees in foreground

The remote, steep-sided mountains of Shirakami Sanchi provide kayakers, rafters, canoers, and river trekkers with many options. Photo: Greg Goodmacher

behind view of person in kayak going up river

We paddled upstream in the clear waters of Shirakami Sanchi. Photo: Greg Goodmacher

Canoeing Near Tsugaru Lake

Since my hotel was in Nishimeya Village, my wife and I chose a canoe trip through a section of nearby Tsugaru Shirakami Lake. We were the only canoers I saw on the vast lake. First, the guide from A’ Grove Canoeing and Rafting checked that we could safely manage our Canadian canoe. Then, he led us through a strange forest of still-standing leafless dead trees in the lake created when the dam was built.

However, the slopes leading down into the lake were lush and green, and, surprisingly, the air smelled like cookies. Our guide explained that we had detected the smell of Cercidiphyllum japonicum, which is often called the caramel tree.

person in canoe on lake with trees in background

We were immersed in green on the lake, offering an incredible view. Photo: Greg Goodmacher

The lake surface reflected the lush greenery on the slopes. Monkeys, our guide said, often come to the lake to feed on nuts and leaves. Unfortunately, though, we did not see monkeys until we were back on land. Instead, a great white heron glided gracefully by us and rested on a nearby tree. We also saw numerous small schools of tiny fish when we slid up the transparent shallow water of a small stream.

Ascending the tributary brought us to a warm sandy beach. Our guide surprised us by unfolding camping chairs and covering a small table with decorative fabric. Then, he served us locally produced apple pie and hot apple juice. Aomori is the apple basket of Japan. After our delicious snack, we headed back the way that we had come. Though the lake water was flowing slowly, time in the Shirakami Sanchi had flown much too fast.

double photo T: heron in trees near a lake B: monkey on land with trees in background

Top: A great white heron rested on a nearby tree, watching canoers. Bottom: We saw one of the locals when arriving back on land. Photo: Greg Goodmacher

Trip Summary

Tour: Sea Kayaking By Aone Shirakami Twelve Lakes
Tour: Canoeing By A’Grove Canoeing and Rafting
Accommodation: Green Park Mori-No-Izumi
To Get There: Hayabusa Shinkansen  bullet train from Tokyo to Shin Aomori Station from Tokyo Station. Flights to Aomori from New Chitosei Airport in Hokkaido and Haneda Airport in Tokyo are also available. Take a local train to Hirosaki. Then, board a 50-minute bus from the Hirosaki Bus Terminal. Due to the remoteness of the region, driving a rental car is recommended.

Have you been to the world heritage site at Shirakami Sanchi and participated in any water sports? Share your insights in the comments below.

This entry was posted in Destinations, Homepage Featured and tagged , by Greg Goodmacher. Bookmark the permalink.

About Greg Goodmacher

Greg Goodmacher loves water when it falls as snow, drops from waterfalls, flows in rivers, and heals his body in hot springs. He enjoys his life in Japan and aims to share his joy through his writing. He is a part-time writer of EFL textbooks, travel articles, and a blog about Japanese hot springs. His full-time position is university professor at Keiwa College in Shibata, Japan, where he teaches English conversation, intercultural communication, and environmental issues.

2 thoughts on “River Sports and Shirakami Sanchi, Japan’s First Natural World Heritage Site

  1. You are a great writer! “a yawning cliff crack that quickly swallowed our guide’s orange and yellow kayak”. Great article!

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