One of the scenic highlights of walking the Shionomichi (Salt Trail) are the views of the awe-inspiring North Alps. The entire length of the 120-kilometer Shionomichi trail runs along the bottom of these mountains that rise to over 3,000 meters and include some of the best skiing, snowboarding, and alpine hiking spots in Japan. There are many places where you can leave the trail and get up into the Alps. On our walking trips we usually make one diversion to hike up to see the views and spectacular autumn colours from Tsugaike, which is in the Hakuba mountain area. Its relatively easy because the gondola takes you high up before the start of the hiking area, around a lovely pond and marshy area.
Further along the Shionomichi trail closer to the start/finish in Matsumoto, near the town of Azumino (famous for wasabi) there is a pyramid shaped mountain that dominates the valley called Jonen Dake(Peak). It is one of the 100 most famous mountains of Japan. I recently hiked up this 2,857m peak on a beautiful autumn day. Jonen Dake gets its name from the pattern of melting snow that looks like a Buddhist Monk holding a staff. In fact, it is common all over mountainous areas for farmers to look at the patterns of the melting snow and see shapes and when those shapes are visible it’s an indication that it is warm enough to start planting the rice. Anyhow, the warm wet summers ensure that there is no snow left on the mountains by autumn, and the rice fields along the Shionomichi trail were golden yellow and ready for harvesting.
Driving through the forest at the foot of the mountain I was startled by a troupe of about a dozen monkeys crossing the road. When I arrived at the car park at 7am, which takes over 100 cars, it was almost full. Japanese like to start hiking very early in the morning and take advantage of fine weather. The mountain trails in the Alps are well marked and generally safe, but the weather can change quickly and the trails can become dangerous in bad weather. Nagano was hit badly with record breaking rains a year ago from a typhoon, and many trails were washed away. Indeed, the trail up Jonen Dake had had to be re-routed in several places because of landslides. The trail starts at 1,300m and follows the side of a swiftly flowing river through lovely mixed deciduous forests which was just turning into pretty yellows and reds.
After 4 hours of steady climbing the trail tops out at a large pass just as the tree-line is reached at around 2,400m. As you enter the pass the you look across a big valley and can see the main range of the Alps, dominated by the spectacular Mt Yarigatake , which really does look like a spear head for which it is named. There is also a large mountain lodge and camping ground at the pass which serves meals and snacks and sleeps over 200 people during the busy summer season. I ate my lunch in the warm sunshine on a bench outside the lodge lapping up the views.
The steep and rocky climb up another 400m to the summit of Jonen Dake from the pass was well worth it with the reward of 360-degree views of just about every major peak in Japan, including Mt Fuji, over 100km away.
After taking a lot of photos I headed down the mountain and almost walked into one of the mountain’s famous residents: a Thunder Bird (Raicho). It’s a small ground bird that lives only in the high Alps and is unique because of its camouflage. Indeed, can you spot the male Raicho in this photo? He seems to be enjoying the view of Mt Yari.
Despite the signs warning of bears in the area I didn’t see any, but I did see plenty of monkeys. These are the famous snow monkeys, and they were busy scavenging the forest for chestnuts and other foods and intent on putting on as much fat as they could before the start of the long cold winter.
It was much easier walking back down the 1,500 vertical meters to the car park which I reached just on sunset, and then drove to the nearest onsen to relax my weary muscles.