Sunday, 28 January 2018

First ponder


Well, it's been nearly four months since I first walked the Shinetsu Trail, and three months since Riki and I developed as a side venture of Riki's Tours Japan. We've also made some sales though it's slow going at the moment... In this post, I'd like to share with you why the trail inspired me so keenly.

Riki first heard about the Shinetsu Trail in 2016, when he attended the Visit Japan Travel Mart in Tokyo, where he met some representatives from Iiyama City, a place we knew nothing about. They told Riki about their amazing nature trail, and when Riki told me about it, we decided that we'd visit sometime. That time was late  September 2017. We took the new Hokuriku Shinkansen about two hours north-west of Tokyo to Iiyama, from where we were shuttled up the mountain to Madarao Kogen. Then for the next six days, we were wow'd by this beautiful place.

Walking the Sekida Mountain Ridge on the Shinetsu Trail

Where is it?

The Shinetsu Trail lies on the border between Nagano and Niigata Prefectures, stradling 'Shinshu' on the Nagano side and 'Echigo' on the Niigata side. Put these words together, and you get Shinetsu. The trail itself is about 80km, following the Sekida Mountain ridge. Although it's a wilderness of pristine forest, the trail is steeped in history with a number of points along the ridge having been important trading junctions between the two clans on either side of the range since the Nara Period (8th century).

Wilderness in Japan

As just mentioned, the Shinetsu Trail lies within pretty much a wilderness. What does this mean in terms of Japan? Well, for me, it's a place where I can walk in natural forests, at length, much like what I would expect of a bush walk in Australia. Sure, some of the access points to the trail have you walking up summer ski-slopes and through old farming communities, but once you reach the track head and step into the trail, you're in nature, complete nature, it's the real deal. You see, in Japan, a forest walk is more often than not, a walk through plantation forest. For instance, on the well-trodden paths of the Nakasendo and the Kumano Kodo, as lovely as they are historically, the nature just doesn't cut it for me. Nature in those two places is made up of roughly 90% plantation pine (Cryptomeria japonica) and 10% farm land. There is little if any native forest there. This means that there are no little critters about and no birds to see. The nature is lifeless and somewhat monotonous. And while your mind can wander off whimsically about the history of walking the actual paths once walked by roaming samurai (Nakasendo) and former Emperors (Kumano Kodo), as appealing as that sounds, it's all in your head, because what you see there nature-wise isn't very inspiring.

Some of the amazing fungi seen in September
But the Shinetsu Trail is different. It's full of native trees and plants and life! There's ancient beech forests; they're perhaps the biggest draw-card. But there's also birch, larch, maple, cedar and more. To go with this, you see abundant flora and fauna. The range and size of fungi is extraordinary. There's strange flowers I've never seen before. There's colourful centipedes and enormous frogs (when it rains, they hang out on the trail - pray for rain). There's snakes and spiders (just little ones). And bears (big ones, but sadly I've yet to see one). The forest is alive! And from the forest you can see views down either side of the valley into the farming communities below and out to the Japan Sea far away. But when you're on the trail, you're isolated from the human environment; the power poles and the concrete, and it's quiet, and there's practically no-one around. Like I mentioned, the Shinetsu Trail is like a good bush walk in Australia, but it's in Japan, so it's got some special treats that only can be found in Japan.

Enomoto-san doing his thing on the trail

Only in Japan

One of the uniquely Japanese things that makes the Shinetsu Trail so special are the members of the Shin-Etsu Trail Club. The club is a large group of local volunteers who are passionate about the trail. It was originally cut through the forest by them in 2003.  They keep the trail clear and maintain its good condition, and are keen to share it with walkers. And they've got great uniforms! We met a number of them while we were in the area, but I felt an immediate attraction to Enomoto-san. He's an elderly gent but he's fit and strong and warm and fun. He used to be a Greco-Roman wrestler! He looked after us for a couple of days on the trail and I missed him once he'd gone. Fortunately, I had the chance to meet him again when I was passing through the area a few weeks later.

What else? Well, even though you can camp up on the ridge, a uniquely Japanese thing about walking the Shinetsu Trail are the minshuku; the local inns where you (should) stay when you're walk the trail. The minshuku are located off trail in the small farming communities that you can see dotted about the valleys. In September, their rice fields are golden yellow. The owners of the minshuku pick you up from the track head each afternoon and drop you off again the next morning. They cook you hearty meals using local produce. They have onsen baths, in which you can soothe the joints. They lay a futon out on tatami mats for you on which to sleep. All of this is provided with the great customer service only found in Japan. What else could you possibly need?

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