Hiking the beautiful Shio-no-michi and Shinetsu Trails in Autumn

Hiking along ancient trails has only become popular with foreign visitors to Japan in the last few years, with trails like the Kumano Kodo and Nakasendo, now seemingly on every foreign traveller’s must do list, and becoming quite over-crowded.

So, when an old pal, Tom, contacted us wanting to take a group of hikers on a trail ‘less travelled’ but which involved 4-6 hours walking daily without packs and staying in onsen/traditional accommodation, we were more than happy to take on the challenge.

Our research revealed that there are dozens of ancient trails across Japan but finding ones that had good well-marked trails and appropriate accommodation was not so easy. But after some exploratory trips, including Tom acting as a trailblazer several years ago, we managed to find two very scenic trails that not only met all the criteria but on which we hardly met any other tourists.

Tom’s group, affectionately known as the Koalas (the Japanese we met loved the name), are part of a regular walking group from Sydney, and were a terrifically fun and adaptable group who made the most of their time in Japan.

The first trail we took them on was the Shio-no-michi (Salt Trail) which runs from Itoigawa on the Sea of Japan for 120km to Matsumoto, in the centre of Honshu Island. As far as we know, the Koalas were the first group of 10 tourists to walk the trail, although we only completed the more interesting first 70kms.

The trail is quite ancient and was the main thoroughfare for carrying salt, dried fish and rice from the coast to inland of Nagano prefecture. Sections of the old trail remain as do several buildings which are now museums. The trail runs along a steep sided valley at the foot of the Northern Alps, once famous for jade and with scattered mountain villages. Further inland the trail runs along the foot of the Northern Alps and Japan’s most famous skiing area, Hakuba. One day we caught a chairlift and walked up to a 2,500m peak high above the valley.

We stayed in various kinds of accommodation, but they all had wonderful onsen baths to revive us at the end of the day, and we had an incredible variety of delicious dinners at every place we stayed in.

Our second walk was on the Shinetsu Trail, which runs through mainly virgin Buna (Japanese beech) forest, along the top of a 1,300m mountain range. We timed our walk to be during the peak of the golden yellow and vivid red autumnal colours.

The trail is well marked and was made by volunteers less than 20 years ago and still maintained and run by volunteers. Our guide, Miki-san, was one of these volunteers, and his local knowledge and help on the walk was invaluable.

The accommodation was a mixture of hotel, ryokan and cabins, and we had delightful hot onsen to relax in at the end of every day and some excellent local cuisine. The unique feature of this walk is that for no extra cost, our accommodation providers would take us up the mountain at the beginning of the day to the start of our walk and pick us up at the end of the day, provide us with obento lunches, and take our gear to the next accommodation.

Several of the Koalas had family with them who didn’t want to walk every day, so Kazuko organised and took them on daily sightseeing tours nearby. These included visits to the 1,200 year old Zenkoji Temple in Nagano, exploring the historic towns of Iiyama and Obuse, with its wonderful Hokusai museum, and doing a washi (paper making) workshop, and visiting many interesting local shops!

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