Nagano is known as a powder paradise for skiers and snowboarders, but it’s also nirvana for snowshoeing—for those looking to experience the winter landscape at a more relaxing pace while soaking in the sights, sounds and serenity of the season.
Imagine you are deep in the woods in a white, wintry landscape. The leaves are long gone from the trees, and the branches reach up toward the sky like skinny arms. You have entered a black-and-white painting, you notice things you never paid attention to. The shape of snowflakes, the wind rustling the trees, the drip-drip of icicles melting. The change from Japan’s vibrant green summer and nostalgic autumn colors is stark, but this white world is stunning.
The trees occasionally release snowballs from their branches in thunderous bursts. The glittering diamond powder in their wake catches the sunlight as it drifts down. Sometimes it seems the trees are aiming for you. Snow absorbs sound, so the surroundings are noticeably quieter, except for an occasional bird chirping and the crunch of feet sinking into the snow with each step. You inhale icy cold, clean air into your lungs and breathe out white mist, basking in the glorious warmth of the light. It’s getting darker and colder, but the hot bath and cold beer waiting at the ryokan provides plenty of motivation.
Snowshoeing is magic. It is an endeavor where every step on fresh powder is where none has tread before. It provides the freedom to explore in a setting inaccessible to skiers, snowboarders or hikers. It is also a great alternative to these activities, a way to reset, rest sore muscles or explore the mountains in spring when the snow is too slushy for skiing.
It is also accessible for those with various physical abilities. Some people want to take a quick walk around the forest, bring sleds or have a snowball fight. Other serious hikers can summit a mountain or ride otherwise inaccessible winter terrain. Northern Nagano’s snowy, hilly landscape offers almost limitless snowshoe options for those who know where to venture. Snowshoeing is worth checking out on your next adventure to Japan’s snow country.
Then and Now
Snowshoeing began as a practical way for indigenous peoples to move across snowy landscapes. Nowadays, technology has advanced, but the fundamentals remain the same. A broad surface prevents snowshoers from sinking into the snow, and spikes underneath provide traction when ascending or descending. Backcountry snowboarders who strap their snowboards on their backs also snowshoe up while climbing mountains and riding down untracked terrain.
Before you go, remember some basics to make the most of your snowshoeing experience:
- Hire a guide in unfamiliar terrain. Guides take you to the most interesting or exciting accessible snowshoe areas matched to your ability level. Winter landscapes present serious safety concerns, including avalanches, streams or holes under the snow, hypothermia and frigid weather. Hire a guide the first few times to enjoy the experience while remaining safe.
- Use good gear. Cheap snowshoes slide around, are challenging to strap on and break. Rent or buy high-quality snowshoes and gear. You will not regret it. I recommend the brand MSR for anything snowshoe related.
- Bring the right gear. Winter weather changes rapidly, and you need equipment for all conditions. Snowshoeing can be hard work, so you might sweat while ascending, then get chilly while descending. Bring or wear several layers under your jacket. Bring long underwear, two sets of gloves, a hat, sunglasses (the snow is bright), sunscreen, snow boots, two pairs of socks, food, water and hiking poles with snow baskets.
- Stay within your limits. People get into trouble when they push the boundaries and get overly ambitious. Snowshoeing is tiring and different from other physical activities so ease into it.
Nagano’s “Hidden Door” is Perfect for Snowshoeing. Togakushi is a national park and collection of Shinto shrines located above Nagano City. It is famous for its buckwheat noodles, Togakure-style ninjas, and stunning natural setting with an abundance of snow. Starting from Okusha Shrine, there is a network of trails that lead to ancient cedar-lined avenues, open forests, views of Mt. Togakushi, lakes and streams. Unless it has just snowed, there are usually other peoples’ cross-country ski or snowshoe trails to follow. Togakushi is around 1,200 meters above sea level and can reach temperatures under -10C. So make sure to bring warm gear for cold conditions. Togakushi’s combination of spiritual and natural elements makes it a profound experience.
Rentals and Tours: Kotori no Mori in Togakushi offers snowshoe and equipment rentals. The owner also provides snowshoe guiding—in Japanese only— as is their website at kotorinomori.jp. Guest House Lamp in Shinanomachi offers English-speaking Togakushi snowshoe tours. Visit go-nagano.net/en/experience/id=19220
Nabekura Kogen is one of the snowiest places in Japan, making it an excellent place for snowshoeing. Located at the base of the Seki mountain range, the forests and wide open fields used to grow vegetables in the summer offer a unique snowshoeing experience. Unplowed roads with telephone poles visible even in the winter make it harder to get lost. Cozy up with a cup of coffee or herbal tea at Nabekura Kogen Mori no Ie when finished.
Rentals and Tours: Visit the Nabekura Kogen Mori no Ie website for details nabekura.net.
My Secret Stash
Although there are popular destinations that attract snowshoers, my favorite places remain secret spots I have discovered over the years. I have one remote area in the forest where I have never seen anyone else snowshoeing. Sometimes I go by myself to exercise, think, drink some hot chocolate and get away from the bustle of life. It’s my little secret paradise and there are special places in the mountains waiting for you to discover them. I never stop exploring because I know many more hidden spots are out there.
That’s the beauty of snowshoeing compared to any other activities—there is always a new path to walk because the options are limitless. It is an ideal way to slow down, reflect and come away with renewed energy. Finishing off a day snowshoeing in the mountains with a hot spring bath and a sake, beer or your favorite beverage is tough to beat.
Daniel Moore moved to Japan when he was seven months old where his father attended graduate school. He grew up immersed in Japanese society and culture in Tokyo and Nagano, attending Japanese elementary and middle schools. After graduating from Azusa Pacific University, where he played collegiate tennis, he traveled to Kenya selling fuel-efficient cookstoves in Nairobi. He’s been wandering ever since, traveling to more than 50 countries and guiding pickle ball trips around the globe (he’s won multiple U.S. national championships) and promotes the growing sport in Japan. He lives near Shiga Kogen’s famous snow monkeys and runs an AirBnB as well as Active Travel Japan, a company he started to share his knowledge with travelers and take them to place they can’t find on their own.