Yamagata’s drastically alternating seasons and vast mountain ranges create a constantly rotating offering of outdoor splendor and experiences for travelers to discover. One hidden destination that has recently been buzzing among locals—and even started to draw people from abroad—is the eerily submerged forests of Iide, which is only accessible for a month each spring.
Imagine gliding over clear water among a lush green forest that you soon discover emerges from deep below the surface. This surreal phenomena is the result of a unique collaboration between the local farmers of the town of Iide and Mother Nature herself. In preparation for the planting season of the vast rice fields in the valley below, the local dams in the mountains swell to their capacity with freshly melted snow until it’s time to release mineral-rich water later in May.
During this brief one month period while these reservoirs are full with fresh meltwater, sections of parks and forests surrounding the dams are submerged. The water is released before any damage can occur to these trees, but during this spring period travelers can experience what is quickly becoming a popular draw for outdoor enthusiasts in Tohoku, enjoying a view of the forests normally reserved for the birds.
One such group, the Iide Canoe Club, is a local operator that offers kayaking experiences on the lake above the Shirakawa Dam during the green season, with special tours of the submerged Iide forests. After hearing about it at bars and during hikes with friends, I signed up for one of their tours.
After a short refresher session with the kayak guides, I headed out into the lake and was dazzled by the willow trees that seemed to emerge out of nowhere from the crystal clear water. Following my guide, we charted a course through the forest rich in fresh green colors, serenaded by the sounds of spring as dozens of birds flew through the tree branches. The view of the deeply submerged natural canopy is surreal as the calm water reflects the forest like a mirror. It’s an unforgettable image.
This seemingly impossible sight made gliding through these forests like something out of a dream. As we made our way to a clearing in the forest, we floated over a bridge with the railing visible just under the water. The guide explained that normally there is a river that flows many meters beneath this bridge, giving us a sense of just how high the waters were in parts of the forest.
After making our way out of the forest and onto the main lake, we returned back to shore after the unforgettable 90-minute kayaking experience. As much as I love the beauty of the cherry blossoms that bloom around the same time in Tohoku, the unique fleeting sight of the submerged forests of Iide leaves an equally long-lasting impression.
When to Go
The window for this experience, while brief, is fortunately very predictable thanks to the human elements involved. Starting at the end of March, the submerged forests can be seen until early May when the water begins to drain and kayaking quickly becomes impossible in the forests.
Visiting in April is recommended to account for unpredictable weather and to ensure you see the forests when the willow trees have leaves in bloom. An early to mid-April visit will also pair nicely with the cherry blossoms which bloom at the same time (each year is slightly different so be sure to check the forecasts). The water levels of these dams reach peak levels from April to May. For more detailed information on booking tours visit thehiddenjapan.com/iide-canoe
The easiest way to get to the area is a 2.5 hour ride on the Yamagata Shinkansen from Tokyo Station directly to Akayu Station. From here you can take a local train to Teneko Station followed by a short taxi ride to the dam. There is also plenty of free parking at the Shirakawa Dam for those who can drive there directly.
Places to Stay
Shirakawa Dam has a mountain lodge right next to the lake which offers lodging, breakfast, lunch and dinner options. Guests looking to take advantage of Yamagata’s many natural hot springs may also opt for a luxurious stay at onsen ryokan in Akayu Onsen or Kaminoyama Onsen, which are nearby the lake.