Walk out of Noshiro Station and you’ll see a small cafe with a wooden facade. If you can’t read Japanese, the bold “Coffee & Tea” signage will likely catch your attention. It’s owned by mountain guide, photographer, and Shirakami Communications business owner, Goto Chiharu.
For an hour now, Goto and I have been talking in Shirakami Cafe & Gallery, Goto’s one stop space for getting to know the Shirakami Mountains that doubles as his office for Shirakami Communications, a business that aims to protect and preserve Shirakami’s nature through education and first-hand encounters. He opened the cafe and gallery a few years back with his business partner Kikuchi Fumiko.
Located right across from Noshiro Station, it’s designed as a space where visitors can immerse themselves in Shirakami no megumi — a term frequently used by locals to refer to the blessings bestowed upon them by the Shirakami Mountains’ water, plants, and animals.
The space offers multilingual pamphlets about the Shirakami Mountains, photographs of the Akita Shirakami area, and trinkets made with twigs and nuts. In the spring and summer, the shop also sells an ever-changing lunch made with handpicked mountain vegetables and coffee brewed with natural spring water from the Shirakami Mountains. Today’s lunch featured takenoko, or bamboo shoots, mixed with rice, and stewed with other vegetables. Kikuchi, who’s the mastermind behind the recipes, takes pride in the freshness of the ingredients, avoiding frozen foods and anything with chemicals.
Although Goto is perfectly at home here in the countryside and among the mountains, he is not, in fact, a native to the area. Instead, he spent much of his life in the radically different setting of Japan’s capital. Living in Tokyo, Goto often sought to escape city life and its stresses with weekend excursions to more peaceful, natural locales. Avoiding expensive flights and instead opting for cheap train tickets that would take him over 700 km, he traveled through the expansive fields of Japan’s countryside to the northern tip of Tohoku from where he’d often take a ferry over to one of his favorite places, Hokkaido.
It was on one of these trips that Goto ended up on the Gono line, a scenic train line that travels between Akita and Aomori prefectures, passing through both Noshiro city and Happo town. From the windows of his train car, he could see the rolling Shirakami mountain range, extending from far to the east and cascading down into the rugged shorelines of the Sea of Japan in the west.
His girlfriend at the time (now wife) was coincidentally from Noshiro city, so during this particular trip he decided to stay a couple days in her hometown. Her father took him out fishing, and for the first time he intimately experienced northern Akita’s nature and its fresh food. It was after this trip that Goto’s interest in the Shirakami Mountains grew. He loved the sounds of the forest, the way the light seeped in through the thin beech leaves, and the mountain peaks that gave way to far-reaching views, unobstructed by artificial objects like guardrails and electrical poles.
Although Goto had grown up in Tokyo, he hated the crowds, traffic, and the notoriously demanding work culture. For 17 years, he rented an apartment near his work and would commute back home to the opposite side of the city every weekend to be with his family. During Tokyo’s sweltering, humid summers, he remembers sitting in his apartment listening to a CD he had bought of Shirakami’s sounds, transporting his senses to the middle of a forest, and cooling off with the gentle sounds of trickling stream water, frog croaks, and bird chirps.
So, twelve years ago, Goto moved to Noshiro city with his family. Newly retired, he wanted to invest more of his time into his passion for the outdoors. He was already nationally certified as a mountain guide but wanted to have a positive impact on the area’s nature and convey its value to the everyday person. It was then that he began his work with Shirakami Communications.
“People are used to feeling comfortable and protected. So put them in the middle of a forest and they can sometimes feel nervous. But with a little time, they get used to it and they begin to notice the life that buzzes all around them.”
Goto enjoys seeing this transformation from anxious to relaxed. He loves witnessing people’s realization of their place within the forest. Through Shirakami Communications, Goto has trained a new generation of mountain guides, and has encouraged both adults and children to establish their own connections with the forest and its life through regular excursions.
I asked Goto about his favorite hike in the Shirakami Mountains. He thought about it and replied with Mt. Futatsumori, a mountain in Happo town. Easily accessible, Mt. Futatsumori only takes about two hours to hike roundtrip. From the peak, hikers can see the silhouettes of Aomori’s Mt. Iwaki, Akita’s tallest mountain, Mt. Chokai, and the dense core zone of the Shirakami Mountains.
“Mt. Futatsumori is a good place to learn about the history of how the Shirakami Mountains became a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site. ”
The registration of the Shirakami Mountains as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site back in 1993, was a move spurred by a local grassroots movement that opposed the construction of a road that was to connect Akita to Aomori through the mountains. After a public outcry, road construction was ultimately stopped. It came to a halt at the foot of Mt. Futatsumori’s trailhead. He describes this to-be road as the kikkake wo tsukkuta michi, or “the road that created a reason.” He tells this story to demonstrate the importance of connecting people to nature, the very purpose of his second career among the Shirakami Mountains.
I look around at the scenic photographs on the wall, listen to the informational video about the Shirakami Mountains that’s been playing on a loop in the background, and see the box of fresh takenoko on sale still crusted with dirt and scraggly roots. Despite being such a small and simple space, I still manage to feel a connection to the area’s nature, to shirakami no megumi.
Photographs by Tri Phan