“Nihonjin de yokatta! (I`m glad I`m Japanese!),” a young woman shouted at the top of Mount Futatsumori. For miles in all directions all we could see was virgin forest, all bunched together on steep slopes, “like heads of broccoli,” according to the guide.
I needed a guide with a car as the Shirakami mountain range is a bugger to get to. In this case, being a bugger to get to was a virtue. If Shirakami was easily accessible, axes and chainsaws would have chopped its broccoli heads off long ago.
The 69 year-old guide was blunt and gruff at times, but he did possess: A) A very big car, B) Coffee making facilities, and C) A large packet of biscuits for lunch. The Gruff Guide also had long experience and knowledge ofShirakami.
He stressed the mountains owe their World Heritage status to a long but succesful fight against the diggers who wanted to lay road through the National Park in the 1970s.
Mountain tourism is still new in much of Japan. When Gruff Guide tells his neighbours he is off to the mountains, they all ask him what plants he is going to pick – the only conceivable reason to go into the mountains.
I felt fortunate to get into the World Heritage Site at all. Another popular Shirakami spot at Fujisato has been cut off by a heavy landslide casued by this summer`s heavy rains. The road won`t reopen for two years: this year is for surveying the damage, next year for rebuilding. “A lot of tourist business has disappeared. My Shirakami guide friends are all in tears,” the Gruff Guide said.
The start of our hiking trail to Mount Futatsumori (Two Forests) 1086m was a 45 minute drive inland from the National Highway, the most accessible walk in the Shirakami. The trail itself was steep and rough in places, and narrow enough that Gruff Guide felt the need to gruffly caution other walkers to wait on the mountain side of the trail when letting others pass.
Along the way we saw the haguro plant used by brides to blacken their teeth, the fast-growing kibushi (spiketail) and green mizu stalks which can be eaten or made into sake. Dense, waist-high sasa (bamboo grass) lined the trail all the way to the top; the bamboo grass is the biggest obstacle to climbing mountains according to Gruff.
It was all worth the effort though. It was a fantastic view from the top, fantastic because nobody lives there; no need for grey roads or tall electricity pylons needed. Shirakami`s isolation keeps it alive. Even Gruff Guide in his big car can`t get there in winter. It was incredible to think we had just trampled through a forest older than the Japanese nation itself, certainly older than 4 by 4s, coffee and biscuits.