Here in Nagano during the the month of May, the rice fields are filled with water in preparation for planting. The flooded fields create a mirror-like surface, reflecting the majestic snow-capped peaks of the surrounding 2,300 meter mountains. For the local population, who are accustomed to occasional snowfall, even in April, this is sure sign that the long winter is finally over and the green season has arrived in Nagano!
People who primarily associate Nagano with winter sports may not be familiar with the pleasures of the green season. But please think about it like this:
Problem: What to do when the snows you enjoyed sliding down in winter have melted off the mountains?
Solution: Enjoy some of Japan’s finest trails, freshly exposed by the retreating snow.
Yes, we are talking about Hiking!
In a series of articles beginning with this post, we would like to introduce some recommended summer trails around our home here in Nagano. There are, of course, hikes that take in the beauty of our natural environment, but also historic trails that follow ancient roads. We are sure that the same can be said for many countries around around the world, but for the Japanese people who have always lived in close proximity to the mountains and forests of these islands, nature and culture have had a profound impact upon one another, and the two are inextricably intertwined.
Additionally, Snow Monkey Resorts (SMR) have published the “Best Trails in Nagano”, introducing a number of destinations that can be enjoyed during Nagano’s green season. If you find a trail that interests you in this article, please take a look at the page for useful information on guided tours or visiting these attractions under your own steam.
Let us begin with the mountain trails. As most visitors to Nagano are no doubt aware, the area is surrounded by tall mountains and as such we feel it is essential to highlight these spectacular trails from the outset.
1. Northern Japan Alps
Known as the ‘Roof of Japan’, the 3,000m peaks of the Northern Alps make up Japan’s foremost mountain range. The area has been designated as the Chubu Sangaku National Park. Contained within the park are some of Japan’s premier mountain resort destinations, including Kamikochi and the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.
Some English (and other) language guidebooks detailing this region have been published abroad, so if your local bookstore has a Japanese special interest section, you may be able to find one. A variety of trips are possible, from brief day hikes to multi day traverses, staying overnight in mountain huts.
Due to Japan’s increasing popularity as an international hiking destination, there are some mountain guides able to provide services in foreign languages. There are also attempts to develop new guides in the region and it is expected to become an increasingly accessible destination in the coming years.
If traveling on JR trains from Tokyo, we recommend making Matsumoto, the town of Matsumoto Castle, your gateway to the alps. The city is directly accessible from Shinjuku via the Limited-Express Azusa. From there an attractive rural area extends north through Azumino and Omachi at the feet of the Northern Alps. It is a region where you can enjoy local foods produced using clear meltwaters from the mountains above, including visits to a wasabi farm and sake breweries.
If you are visiting the Snow Monkeys via Shinkansen to Nagano Station then it takes about an hour to reach Matsumoto on the JR Shinonoi line. For activities other than hiking, be sure to check out our group tour from Nagano Station which includes soba making and sake brewing experiences alongside a visit to Matsumoto’s famous castle. On the “1-DAY MATSUMOTO CASTLE & LOCAL FOOD EXPERIENCE TOUR” guests can visit the famed architectural icon of Matsumoto Castle and enjoy culinary experiences that deeply reflect the character of the local area.
Those wishing to hike on the mountain trails are required to submit a climbing report document detailing their planned route to the local authorities before setting out. Please visit the tourist information offices at either Matsumoto or Hotaka Stations for more information. Also, be sure to check your travel insurance etc. beforehand.
2. Shiga Kogen Mountain Trail
Shiga Kogen is the closest highland resort to the Snow Monkey Park. Best known as Japan’s most expansive winter resort, its reputation for high quality powder snow has seen the area gain increasing recognition from overseas. As resorts in Niseko and Hakuba become more and more crowded, Shiga Kogen is seen as an upcoming destination for winter sports lovers from abroad.
Shiga Kogen was registered as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1981, and has been protected within Japan as part of the Joshin’etsukogen National Park. Japanese people have enjoyed sightseeing on the plateau since ancient times and efforts to coexist with nature have been pioneered and adopted here over many years.
There are also a number of trail-running events held in the area. Select an event that fits your level and enjoy running through the highlands! In contrast to the rugged peaks of the Northern Alps, the trails here provide a different kind of enjoyment, tracing over more gentle summits while providing outstanding views over a rolling sea of mountains.
Thanks to its proximity to the Snow Monkeys, the area has been introduced in numerous articles on the SMR website. Please take a look!
3. Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
Although Tateyama is part of the Northern Alps, the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is a particularly unique sightseeing spot so we will introduce it here separately. One of the world’s deepest snowfall areas, many people make the journey to this relatively remote location to witness the towering walls of snow and enjoy the unique alpine nature. It is also a key spot in terms of ‘Industrial Tourism’, as the route takes visitors across the top of one of Japan’s most famous dams. It is a destination where you can get a sense of two distinct aspects of Japan in a single location.
Transport along the route utilizes a variety of forms of transportation including electric busses, trolley busses, cable cars, and a ropeway. A number of hikes and treks are accessible from the various connecting stations along the route. These include Kurobe Dam, the highest dam in Japan (you can hike around the dam’s lake), light hiking around the ponds of Murodo, longer treks up Mt. Tateyama itself, and trails that take in the autumn leaves of the Midagahara area. Walking beneath the towering snow walls in spring is also popular (we have a tour for snow wall, of course), though perhaps shouldn’t be counted as an actual trail.
The easiest course is the hour long hike from Murodo to the Mikurigaike Pond that also affords great views of the area below. Murodo is also home to Japan’s highest hot spring, the perfect place to freshen up after a hike or enjoy a cold glass of beer if you have time before your bus or trolley bus back down to the world below. Although the transportation costs are rather high, there is nothing quite so fun as a summer trip on the Alpine Route.