Joshinetsu National Park, which includes Shiga Kogen, is located in Honshu’s rugged mountainous interior. Signs of human activity quickly disappear just a few steps off the path in this pristine natural setting where wildlife encounters are common in green season. It’s famously home to an adorable group of onsen-lounging snow monkeys as well as one of Japan’s classic ski resorts. Yet when the temperatures rise in summer, the Shiga Kogen highlands are the perfect place for a refreshing escape.
The mountains in the popular Shiga Kogen Ski Area range from 1,300 to over 2,300 meters. This ensures great conditions when other resorts further down in the valley are struggling with lack of snow or warmer temperatures. The high altitude also makes the area a great place to beat the heat in summer while exploring a wide network of hiking trails. There are stunning alpine drives, traditional inns with soothing hot springs and outdoor fun and adventure for the whole family.
Lake Onuma and Akaishiyama Hiking
The four-kilometer hike from the trailhead to the teal blue Lake Onuma is a medium-level hike that takes two to three hours. Starting from Onuma Iriguchi Bus Stop, follow the gradually ascending gravel road through the native birch forest. There are benches and an open area at the lake to enjoy a snack or picnic lunch. Toilets are available in mid-summer only. Continuing further around the lake’s edge, there is an iconic Shinto torii gate reminiscent of the Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima. The blue volcanic lake contrasted against the bright red torii gate makes a perfect photo spot.
For a more challenging hike, follow signs towards Akaishiyama. This hike is another two kilometers up a steep winding trail with some rocky spots. Hiking gear such as boots and poles are recommended. The reward at the top is worth it, though. The views of Lake Onuma below and the mighty Northern Japanese Alps in the distance are unforgettable.
For an easier alternative, try the Ike Meguri course. Beginning near the Yokoteyama Ski Area, take the Maeyama summer lift to the summit. From here, a short walk takes you to Shibu Ike (Shibu Pond). Then, it is less than an hour to the Shijuhachiike Marshland via a well-maintained trail. There is a covered seating area and toilet at the Shijuhachiike Marshland. The trail continues to Lake Onuma, where you can catch a bus, though infrequent. You can return the way you came back to Maeyama or take another loop, climbing Mt. Shiga.
If you want to explore Joshinetsu National Park’s vast terrain, a drive from Shiga Kogen to Kusatsu Onsen or Manza Onsen passes the highest point in Japan’s national highway system. At 2,172 meters, the mountainous scenery and occasionally visible sea of clouds phenomenon seem endless. The contrast between the lush forests of Shiga Kogen to the other-worldly landscape of Mt. Shirane, an active volcano, is stark. Close the window though, as Mt. Shirane spews pungent sulfur. After the scenic drive, stay the night and enjoy some of the hot springs in Kusatsu or Manza Onsen. Consider looping around Takayama Village for another fun road trip with great views.
For the best lookout, take the Yokoteyama Skylator to Tenma View Terrace. There is nothing better than sipping a hot beverage and eating a crumpet from High Mountain Coffee while soaking in the view. For a heartier meal, visit the Yokoteyama Drive-in or 2307 Cafe. Try the mackerel miso soup, pizza or rice bowls featuring a locally foraged bamboo called nemagaridake. Canned bamboo is available for purchase to take home as a souvenir.
Alternatively, drive from Okushiga Kogen towards Nozawa Onsen or Akiyamago. Akiyamago, in particular, is one of the most remote villages in Japan, with only 200 residents and bear hunters still practicing ancient matagi hunting techniques.
Kiriake Onsen is a unique experience where hot spring lovers can dig their own bath, mixing cold river water with the hot spring. Nearby, Yusenkaku is a rustic ryokan experience with hot meals and onsen. Hammocks on the outdoor deck and Yusenkaku’s hot spring baths make for a chilled-out stay in the mountains.
Shiga Kogen Adventures
Shiga Kogen Mountain Discovery has stand-up paddle boarding, canyoning, and cycling experiences. Yutaro Yumoto is a resident rafting guide who has brought his adventure travel experience to the area in order to offer more outdoor adventures to visitors. There are family-friendly experiences, as well as more advanced options. After a tour, relax at Shiga Kogen Mountain Discovery’s office on the edge of Biwa Pond. If you still have energy, walk around the pond or go for a swim in the crystal clear water.
Okushiga Kogen Hotel offers activities such as fishing, cycling, trekking, and disc golf. The Grand Phoenix and Okushiga Kogen hotels provide the highest-end hotels in Shiga Kogen.
Local Spotlight: Shiho Nakamura
Shiho Nakamura grew up in Shiga Kogen where her family owns and operates Sachinoyu Hotel near the Kumanoyu Ski Area. Sachinoyu has a warm, family-run feel, with comfy Japanese-style rooms and home-cooked meals. In summer, local ski prodigies (including Nakamura’s children) come to train in Sachinoyu’s fitness facilities. Nakamura herself spent her high school years training in Vermont with plans to become a professional skier. She veered off course and instead returned to Japan and worked for Goldman Sachs in Tokyo.
After more than a decade in Tokyo, she yearned to return to the Shiga Kogen area and have a positive impact on her local community in rural Nagano. She first started Spark Outlands with a mission to help revitalize the Yamanouchi area. Among her other ventures, she manages the Shiga Kogen Yamanoeki gift shop while her husband runs the Hiroen co-working space in the same building. Nakamura and her female employee Haruhi bring a breath of fresh air and much-needed female perspective to Shiga Kogen’s conservative traditional culture.