This Spring I decided to walk the last 40 kilometers of the Shionomichi Trail going to the start/finish of the trail in Matsumoto.
I did it on two separate days about a month apart. Spring is a wonderful season in the high plains and mountains of Nagano as the earth starts to warm up again and the bright blossoms and new green shoots replace melting snow and dull brown earth. The farmers are plowing their fields, getting ready to plant rice and vegetables, against the backdrop of the high Alps still cloaked in snow. For Japanese spring signifies a new fresh start, which is why schools, government and businesses start their years’ on 1 April.
The first day’s walk at the end of March was from Ikeda to Toyoshina, about 19 kilometers along flat country roads and bridges crossing swiftly flowing shallow rivers. The large flat plain leading into Matsumoto is the most densely populated area along the entire trail so the walk is either through towns and villages or farmland.
I drove our car and left it at Shinano Matsukawa station on the JR Oito Line that runs parallel to the Shionomichi Trail for its whole 120 kilometers. From the station it is a 2km walk to the trail where I joined it at the town of Ikeda. The first landmark is this unusual domed arch bell tower in front of a small temple. Apparently, it was brought from Edo (now Tokyo) 300 years ago.
The trail runs a-long the main road for a few hundred meters and there are a few well preserved buildings from the days of the Salt Trail, one of which is now the towns tourist information office.
In a quiet back road, I came across this delightful roadside shrine.
I met and had a bit of a chat with this retired farmer who was walking his dog.
A few kilometers further in the middle of a long stretch of rice fields I came across this shrine surrounded by a grove of pine trees with a lovely Sakura (cherry tree) blooming out the front.
The open fields were a good spot to admire the snow-covered North Alps, but as you can see, even though it was a clear day, it was very hazy. The reason being is that at this time of year strong winds can stir up the desert sands of the Gobi Desert and carry them thousands of kilometers west to Japan.
The Sakura blossoms were in full bloom.
Fresh mountain water for the fields runs through the culverts at the side of the roads in this village.
The trail crossed the railway in several places.
I had now entered the town of Hotaka – here is the pretty town manhole cover with the Alps and rhododendron flowers.
Azumino is famous for its wasabi which is grown in shallow swift flowing streams which are fed by underground springs that keep the water temperature constant throughout the year. There were several small wasabi farms next to the trail.
The largest wasabi farm open to visitors is the Daio Wasabi Farm which is around 2kms off the trail. We visited it a week earlier when the wasabi were flowering.
I also came across this fish farm. They look like trout or “Shinshu Salmon” which is also a famous product of this region.
It was lunch time and I was getting hungry and luckily I found this soba restaurant just off the trail and ordered this extra-large serving of soba and a non-alcohol beer to quench my thirst. Soba requires a relatively dry and cool climate and Nagano is the main growing area.
After lunch I visited the Rokuzan Art Museum as I was intrigued by the building from the outside. Ogihara Morie, known as ‘Rokuzan’ was a sculptor who studied under Rodin in the early 19th century and introduced western sculpture to Japan. He was born into a farming family in Hotaka and a Christian. He died in 1910 at the young age of 30. This museum, which houses several of his most important works which are designated as national treasures, was built in 1958 and resembles a church.
10 minutes from the Rokuzan Museum is the Hotaka Shinto Shrine – the largest and most famous on the trail. The shrine has an unusual history because it was founded by the Azumi clan who were fishermen from Kyushu, thousands of kilometers away. No one knows why or how the Azumi clan moved to this area over 1,500 years ago, but the region is called Azumino after them, and the Hotaka Shrine worships their god, ‘Hotakami no Koto’, who is the deity that takes care of travelers. The shrine has a number of festivals that demonstrate the Azumi clan’s seafaring origins, including several festivals involving boats. They also like horses!
The last stretch of 2 kilometers was the least pleasant of the day, as it was walking on a sidewalk on a busy secondary road, but fortunately I came across another intriguing museum which I just had to inspect. It was a traditional Nagano farmer’s house, and well preserved, but in front it had three tall flagpoles flying the Japanese, Asahi Shimbun and Union Jack. I went into the museum and was greeted by a pleasant man who said he could give me a guided tour.
It turned out that the museum is devoted to another local hero, Iinuma Masaaki, who flew the first Japanese designed and built aircraft from Japan to London at a record-breaking time of 95 hours, including 5 refueling stops. He and his co-pilot worked for the Mainichi Newspaper and were treated as heroes when they landed in London and were invited to the coronation of King George VI. They then did a ceremonial tour of other European capitals including Brussels, Paris, Rome and Berlin, where they were also greeted as heroes. The museum has an excellent display of all the media reports in English at the time, as well as videos. It turned out that my guide was also Mr IInuma and is the great-nephew of Iinuma Masaaki. We had our photo taken at the front of the museum.
It wasn’t much further until I walked to JR Toyoshina station where I caught the train back to JR Shinano Matsukawa. I took all of 20 minutes what had taken all day to walk.