The Shinetsu Trail
By Bill Ross
A long walk in the woods on one of Japan’s great trails.
There are many places in Japan where you can climb up to a mountain, stay in a hut or tent, then get up the next day and head off to climb another peak. In some places, you can even do this for several days on end.
But what has been largely missing is a place to do a real long-distance hike—trails where you can go off for multiple days, put quite a few kilometers under your boots, see animals, beautiful scenery and flowers, but not really do a lot of up-and-down.
According to Ken-ichi Takano, back in 2000 Nagano Prefecture was looking for a project to link Nagano City and the Sea of Japan, which is not too far to the north. “One of the first ideas to come up was a walking course of some kind,” Takano says. “Some national funds were available, and people were looking for some way to get local people involved as well.”
So, after three years of planning, preparation began for a course that would lead from Mt. Madarao in the south, along the Sekida mountain range to the north. Takano, who today manages Nabekura Kogen Mori no Ie, a combination nature center, lodge, and home of the Shinetsu Trail Club NPO, says he started working here from the early days in 2003.
“We knew we would need an organization to maintain the trail, so we established the NPO right away,” he says. “The first stage was a 50-km. course, from Madarao to Maki Pass that opened in April 2005. By September 2008, it had been extended even further north to Mt. Amamizu.”
Staying high on the ridgeline, there isn’t a great deal of variation in elevation and, depending on the section, the trail provides excellent views of the Nagano mountains from Shiga to Nozawa Onsen, the Chikuma River to the east, and the Kubiki Alps, including Mt. Myoko to the west, and even across to the Sea of Japan to the north.
“The main idea was that we wanted to use existing roads and paths as much as possible, without cutting down trees,” Takano says. “The image was to have a narrow, single-track path.”
For that reason, he says, hikers are welcome to do trail running on the trail, but it will not be used for racing. “Well, a small section is used for the 100K Shinetsu Five Mountain Trail Run,” he says with a smile, “but the rest is just too narrow for a race, and that’s the way we want to keep it.”
The Shinetsu Trail Club has developed some excellent information materials, detailed maps and a useful Web site (www.s-trail.net) that even includes an extensive English-language section, but experiencing part of the trail is, of course, the only way to feel the attraction.
After waiting for a break in August’s nearly endless rains, I gave up and decided to do a short portion of the southernmost of the six distinct sections, despite some occasionally heavy rain and fog.
Heading south from Rt. 292, one of the biggest roads crossing the trail, the path followed mountain and farm roads—all still pleasant and without any fellow hikers along the way—before heading into the woods along a narrow, well-marked and not overly worn path (this despite, Takano says, the 35,000 hikers annually during the main five-month season).
It was beautiful in the fog, with a rich variety of trees all around, the songs of countless birds, and a carpet of green that included sparkling red fruit, a variety of ichigo, somewhere between a raspberry and strawberry. The trail rose and rose, and I began imagining what it would be like to enjoy those berries—and then the bear came down from the tree.
I heard a human-size rustling, looked up, and down he came, claws raking the bark. I clapped my hands and hollered but didn’t hear him crashing off into the woods—so I thought it might be a good time to turn around.
“You were lucky,” Takano laughs. “There aren’t many bears along the trail except maybe in that section.” As much as I personally dislike bear bells, it might be a smart idea to attach one in the area, especially if there aren’t a lot of fellow hikers. Even so, he says, there has never been any incident along the trail.
There aren’t any figures, Takano says, on how many people have actually through-hiked the entire trail. “About 200 people have registered with us and received the official certificate of completion,” he says. “I’m sure a lot more people do the whole route, though.” The six sections are set up for each to be done in a day, although Takano adds that fast hikers will finish in four days.
“A typical hiker will do one section, then stay in a pension overnight,” he says. “Right now we have two tent camping sites in the northern sections, but we hope to have camping sites set up in all sections next year.” Camping along the course in other areas is officially not allowed, he says, although some people may be arranging with local landowners to camp for a night on their property.
For people with just a weekend to spare, Takano suggests the Madarao Kogen area. “There are a lot of courses there as well as the Shinetsu Trail,” he says. “You could do 50K there alone. There a lot of places to park a car, hike around and then come back. The view from the top of Madarao is also really beautiful.”
The alternative, he says, is sections 4 and 5, moving toward the northern half of the trail. “Along there you have really beautiful views of the Nagano mountains and the ocean,” he says. “There are also beautiful buna (beech) forests. Buna are very strong trees, so they can stand up to the heavy snows in the area.
“It’s unusual to find stands of only beech at these altitudes, so this is really a special area.” He does recommend caution during inclement weather, as the ridgeline here is not a good place to be in thunderstorms.
Many pension owners will drop off and pick up guests who are hiking and then staying in their lodges, he says; some sections also have bus and train connections as well.
He adds the winter is also a great time to travel along the ridgeline. “We snowshoe and hike on telemark or cross-country skis,” he says. He does suggest using a guide, as some of the sections are dangerous because of cornices and steep terrain.
“The Shinetsu Trail is also really interesting for people, and not only because of the natural beauty,” he adds. “You pass through old farm areas, you can see the towns, there are onsen everywhere, and great food. It’s a really good way to see Japan in a whole different way.”