By Robert Grey
I’d been planning to walk the Shinetsu trail for some time. It follows the range of mountains you can see across the valley from Nozawa, and if that range was beautiful from afar, then what might it be like at close quarters?
I’d made a guess at when the autumn trees would be at their colourful best, and arrived in mid-October. The warm summer had delayed the changing of the colour of the trees and we were a little early, but certainly not disappointed with the beauty of the scenery.
We arrived on the overnight flight from Singapore and made our way to Nozawa Onsen, arriving at Address Nozawa in the late morning. We’d originally planned to hit the trail straight off the plane, doing a short warm-up section, but decided that an easy day punctuated by a few dips in Nozawa’s therapeutic baths would better get us into holiday mode.
The manager of Address Nozawa picked us up after an early breakfast and, stopping for a quick photo opportunity from the sunshine of Nozawa Onsen of the thick mist sitting in the valley below, drove us towards the trailhead. There are a number of entry points to reach Mt. Madarao, but I’d identified one on my previous trip that appeared to be the shortest route to the top. You reach it from a narrow forest road that winds out of the hamlet of Wakui, driving up till the road crests by a moderately obvious trail that heads straight up through the forest. We’d climbed back out of the mist by now, and the sun was shining warmly.
After the rituals of double-knotting boots, checking the map, and tightening pack straps, we were off. The trail was indeed more or less straight up, and very shortly we were panting and dripping with sweat. No gentle ease-in to this one! But being in forest and fresh air, out of contact with everything except yourself and your immediate surroundings, no email, no computer, no phone… what a buzz! The 1.5km trail was steep, stepped with tree routes, and, as with the rest of the trail, dotted with mushrooms. Faster than I’d expected, we reached the top of Mt. Madarao.
The entire trail is well below the tree line, and the top of the mountain (and the start of the trail proper) is marked by a pleasant grove, with gorgeous views over the Chikuma river valley. It was a Sunday, and there were a few other hikers there, enjoying the autumn sun and the views.
We set off on the trail proper, and the first section was a good taster of the rest. Much of the trail is classic ridge hiking, with steep drops off to the side, sheltered, with glimpses of distant views every now and again. Blissful ridge-top strolls alternated with short, steep climbs. The route took us through forest, to a gorgeous highland marsh, buzzing with dragonflies, where we stopped for lunch. We pushed on, past ponds and lakes, briefly crossing a road mid-trail. The weather was t-shirt warm, sunny… absolutely balmy.
We finished the trail at Nozomi lake, a little further than we’d planned. On this warm autumn day I cursed that I didn’t have my swimming goggles! Next time…
We’d promised the minshuku owner we’d call for a pick up, but there was no cell reception, so we walked another couple of kilometres, found a signal, and gratefully waited for our ride. The first day’s 14km was just right, leaving us with tired legs, still not quite mountain-fit, and looking forward to a bath and dinner.
Our host and his wife run Lodge Tarumoto pension, named after his home town. Once we’d settled into the beautifully maintained and tastefully decorated accommodation, he kindly drove us over to Tarumoto Onsen, a hamlet 10 minutes’ drive away in a very pretty, secluded valley that reminded me of central Italy. Sadly dying off, with fewer than 50 homes now, and crumbling snow-crushed abandoned houses dotted around, Tarumoto must have been idyllic in its heyday. I shared the onsen with an 80-something year old resident, who bounced enthusiastically between the tub and the washing taps, before hobbling home on his zimmer frame. On the way back we were rewarded by the sight of a tubby little tanuki, a Japanese raccoon (fabled as party animals, they’re the cheerful little chap you see at the entrance to inns across Japan, unfailingly carrying a flask of sake, and with testicles bulging in anticipation of imminent debauchery…).
The minshuku, in the ski resort area of Madarao Kogen, was wonderful, run by a very attentive and warm couple. The food was excellent – fresh and original - and I slept almost 12 hours’ straight! We woke to good weather, and our host, after taking photographs and generously giving us home-made jam as a souvenir, drove us back to the trailhead.
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