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Autumn Hiking in Northern Nagano

Nagano Prefecture—once referred to as “Shinshu” and “Shinano-no-kuni”—is home to some of Japan’s great mountains, attracting serious alpinists in search of challenging routes. Yet for those looking for a pleasant day in the mountains among Japan’s stunning autumn foliage, Shinshu’s northern region offers a range of hiking and outdoor activities for hikers, families and dabblers just looking to see some beautiful fall scenery. Here are five recommended day hikes easily accessible from anywhere in northern Nagano.

Lake Onuma, Shiga Kogen

Shiga Kogen is best known as one of Japan’s top winter sports areas, renown for the size, altitude and powder snow at the resorts that hosted a number of events during the 1998 Winter Olympics. The green season, however, is no less spectacular. Shiga Kogen is located in a national park and was named a UNESCO and Biosphere Reserve. The whole area is an untouched, natural getaway perfect for a break from the city.

Starting at Onumaike Iriguchi (Onumaike Entrance), it’s roughly a 90-minute, one-way hike up to the teal waters of Lake Onuma. The hike starts off as an uphill forest trail with some steps, then turns into a gently sloping gravel road. Once you arrive, walk as far as you can around the lake until you reach the picnic area. Have a break there before continuing a little further and walk out onto the peninsula with a red torii gate (the iconic symbol for a Shinto shrine). The Japanese believe beautiful natural places—lakes, rivers and forests—are home to kami (gods or spirits) and when you visit, you can see why.

You can either return down from here on the same path or continue on to the 48 ponds (Shijuhachi-ike) area. You can walk all the way to Yokoteyama Ski Resort via the 48 ponds but getting back to the car becomes a problem unless you leave a second vehicle there. Don’t forget to enjoy the famous yellow leaves that Shiga Kogen’s autumn season has to offer. 

By Car: 30 minutes from Yudanaka Station (the train station for the famous Jigokudani Monkey Park) or just over an hour from Nagano Station.
By Bus: From Yudanaka Station, take the bus towards Okushiga Kogen. Alight at Onumaike Iriguchi. Make sure to check the bus schedule when you leave as buses are infrequent.
Accommodation: Anywhere in Shiga Kogen, Yudanaka Onsen, Shibu Onsen, Nozawa Onsen or Nagano City.

Yonako Bakufu, Suzaka

Yonako Bakufu is one of Japan’s most iconic waterfalls. Ascetic Buddhist monks used to train here by meditating under the ice cold water. From Suzaka City, drive 30 minutes to the entrance of Yonako Bakufu. This route also has no public transportation access. From the entrance, take the 90-minute loop offering various vistas of the waterfall and surrounding mountains. The trail is not difficult, but is fairly rocky, so make sure to bring adequate footwear. The fall scenery here is famous among the Japanese people and is highly recommended in autumn.

Combine Yonako Bakufu with sightseeing in Obuse. Obuse has many sake breweries, art galleries (Japanese artist Hokusai spent his final years here), temples and gardens open to the public. Check out Kurabu restaurant for delicious traditional charcoal-grilled Japanese cuisine. 

By Car: 45 minutes from Yudanaka Station or Nagano Station.
Accommodation: Anywhere in Nozawa Onsen, Yudanaka Onsen, Shibu Onsen or Nagano City area. 

Togakushi, Nagano City

Togakushi is famous for ninjas, Shinto shrines and soba noodles, but many people don’t know that there is also a great network of hiking trails. For the shortest option, start at Okusha Iriguchi (Okusha Entrance) Bus Stop and walk towards Okusha Shrine. It’s a well-traveled and easy 45-minute round trip walk that takes you through a beautiful 400-year-old cedar forest and an iconic red gate. The cedars are evergreens but the forest around them turns into bright yellows and reds. Finish the walk at Okusha Shrine, where you can pay your respects before turning back. 

For a longer route, after visiting Okusha Shrine return to Zuishinmon (the red gate) and take the trail into the forest. This takes you towards Kagami-ike (Mirror Pond). Walk around the pond, admire towering Mt. Togakushi reflected in the lake on a clear day and loop back to Okusha Iriguchi in about 90 minutes. This is a well-marked trail with lots of hikers so don’t worry about getting lost. There is even a restaurant at Kagami-ike if you didn’t bring lunch. 

For a longer option, climb Mt. Togakushi from Okusha Shrine. This is a much longer route (six to seven hours) for experienced hikers only as there are some knife edges and extremely dangerous sections. Make sure you have proper equipment and experience before attempting this route. 

By Car: 60 minutes from Yudanaka Station or 45 minutes from Nagano Station.
By Bus: One hour and twenty minutes from Nagano Station to Togakushi. Make sure to check the bus schedule when you leave as buses are infrequent. 
Accommodation: Shukubo Gokui (Pilgrim’s Accommodation), Tsukiyama or Zen Hostel Togakushi. 

Lake Hokuryuko and Kosugi Shrine, Iiyama

Lake Hokuryuko is an easily accessible one-hour walk around a picturesque heart-shaped lake. There is no bus access, so you need a car to get here. Park your car at Hokuryuko Camping Ground. From there, you will see the gravel road leading around the lake. On the other side of the lake, make sure to check out the peninsula housing Japan’s seven lucky deities. There is a restaurant spot near the campground open irregularly and a nice outdoor rotenburo bath at Bunka Hokuryukan nearby. 

For a longer option, drive five minutes to Kosugi Village. Park your car below the village and walk up towards the wooden torii gate. From there, it is a two-hour round trip hike to Kosugi Shrine in the mountains. Like Togakushi, there is a beautiful cedar-lined trail that takes you deeper into the forest. This is a much more difficult trail with steep steps and uneven footing so go prepared. Just below the entrance (the torii gate) is a great soba restaurant with a well-manicured garden great for lunch before or after your hike. 

By Car: 10 minutes from Nozawa Onsen, 30 minutes from Yudanaka Station or just over an hour from Nagano Station. No public transportation. 
Accommodation: Anywhere in Nozawa Onsen, Yudanaka Onsen, Shibu Onsen or Nagano City area.

Biwa-ike, Shiga Kogen

Not to be confused with the much larger Biwako (Lake Biwa) in Shiga Prefecture, Biwa-ike is a short, 90-minute loop in Shiga Kogen that is family friendly and offers pristine views of the pond and ski area. Start from the large parking lot next to Sun Valley Ski Resort and walk down towards Biwa-ike. You can walk either clockwise or counterclockwise around the pond. Shiga Kogen Mountain Discovery located at the pond offers stand-up paddle board rentals and canyoning experiences. To make a day of it, combine the hike with SUP or canyoning.

There are a few options for extending this hike. You could hike up Asahiyama (30-minute round trip), or continue on from the far end of Biwa-ike towards Hasu-ike. This takes you on a trail leading to a series of lakes including Naga-ike, Sankaku-ike and Maru-ike. This option is quite a bit longer though (three to four hours). Visit Shiga Kogen’s visitor center at Yama-no-eki before hiking to pick up a trail map. 

By Car: 25 minutes from Yudanaka Station or just over an hour from Nagano Station.
By Bus: From Yudanaka Station, take the bus towards Shiga Kogen (You can also take buses going towards Okushiga Kogen, Yokoteyama or Shiga Mt. Takahara). Alight at Sun Valley. 
Accommodation: Anywhere in Shiga Kogen, Yudanaka Onsen, Shibu Onsen, Nozawa Onsen or Nagano City. 

Read More Stories from the Autumn 2020 Issue

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