Nagano is a fantastic spot for hiking thanks to its rugged mountains, dense forests and historical trails. The prefecture is home to three of Japanese Alp ranges and there are a growing number of trained guides helping visitors explore the almost untouched nature of the trails.
Things to remember when Hiking in Japan
Hiking in Japan is a common hobby but it is also taken very seriously. You will be among dozens on a rural bus headed to the trailhead on weekends, if not more, and even weekdays will have a collection of retired hikers joining you along the way. In Nagano, the weather in winter prohibits many courses, so unless you are an extremely experienced climber, it is best to stick to the warmer months. Keep a supply of warm clothes, food, water and emergency first aid, even for day hikes, as the weather can change. There are often mountain huts in popular areas and a night in one can be a truly memorable experience - but book ahead if possible. Bears are rare, but carrying a bear-bell, talking loudly or having bear spray are all good options.
Here are some popular hiking options in the Nagano area:
Mt. Tsubakuro: Queen of the Alps
At an elevation of 2,763m, the peak of Mt. Tsubakuro gives impressive panoramic views of the surrounding Northern Alps. It is especially famous for it’s lush alpine flora, which is in bloom in summer. The trail starts at Nakabusa Onsen and is mostly forested, with rest areas and occasional toilets along the way. The summit reward of the Omote-Ginza ridge is truly breathtaking, with swathes of green crossing the rocky ridge, suspended in clouds. While the hike can be done in a single day for more experienced hikers, many enjoy taking in the scenery and staying overnight at Enzanso Lodge. This is one of the oldest lodges in the Northern Alps range and was opened in 1921. It has room for 640 hikers along with camping spots and is open from late April to late November.
- Difficulty: Beginner to Intermediate
- Time: Approx 9.5 hours (6 hours up, 3.5 down)
- Access: The route can be reached from Nakabusa Onsen, which is a one-hour bus ride from JR Hotaka Station.
The Shinetsu Trail - An 80km Adventure
Running along the border or Nagano and Niigata prefectures, the Shinetsu Trail is an 80km packed-earth route along the ridge of the Sekida Mountain range in the Satoyama region. If you’re keen to hike the full course from Mt. Madarao to Mt. Amamizu it takes approximately six days with huts to spend each night in. Alternatively, you can select sections to suit your timetable. The trail is available from May until November, with specific dates depending on the snowfall, as it soon becomes impassable. Spring and Autumn are the most popular times to hike the trail as you can enjoy the fresh greenery and the Autumn leaves. Each of the six sections of the train feature highlights like the Satoyama Landscapes, the tall beech trees and the history of Samurai and ninjas who used the trail - with many historical sites remaining.
- Difficulty: Beginner
- Length: 80km
- Time: Up to six days for the full route
- Access: Dependent on route section
Mt. Yakedake: Hike an Active Volcano
Despite being the only active volcanic peak of the Northern Japan Alps, Mt. Yakedake is a surprisingly easy hike. The route runs between Kamikochi and Nakanoyu and can be completed in a day as it is only 6.4km. For those relying on public transport, there is a 3km walk between the nearest bus stop (Nakanoyu) to the trailhead, with buses available from Shinshimashima Station. The volcanic activity below ground heats the onsen (hot spring) water of Kamikochi Onsen and Nakanoyu Onsen and volcanic gasses are still released along with smoke on occasion. Sightseeing spot Taisho Pond, at the foot of the mountain, was created by an eruption in the early 1900s and the Butterfly Rock at the top of the mountain is another popular spot to visit.
- Difficulty: Beginner
- Length: 6.4km
- Time: 6 hours
- Access: There are parking areas at both trail points. Access to Nakanoyu via bus requires an additional 3km walk with buses available from Shinshimashima Station which is a 30-minute train journey from Matsumoto Station.
Nakasendo Trail: Japan’s Historic Post Trail
The Kiso Valley is known for beautiful trails, and the Nakasendo is a historic route that doesn’t require much experience. As the old postal route of Japan it stretches between Kyoto and Edo (present day Tokyo), with 67 key postal towns dotted along it. 27 of these twins are in Nagano with some of the best-preserved examples in the Kiso Valley. Tsumago-juku and Magome-juku are two popular spots, with guesthouses, onsen and local restaurants all ensuring you have a comfortable stay after a day of walking - you can even send luggage between towns from March to November. The trail is accessible throughout the year and the section between the towns is about 8km, with modest hills and forested sections. Be sure to stop at the single tea house half-way along the route, the host is always keen to welcome visitors.
- Difficulty: Beginner
- Length: 8 km (Magome to Tsumago)
- Time: 3-4 hours (Magome to Tsumago)
- Access: Magome can be reached by bus from Nakatsugawa Station in 25 minutes. Nakatsugawa is 45-75 minutes by train from Nagoya, depending on the train option.
Mt. Yarigatake: The 5th Tallest Mountain in Japan
There are a number of trails leading up the impressive Mt. Yarigatkae, but the Kamikochi Yarisawa course is one of the most popular. Considered ‘difficult’, it features a river and has steep ascents, with occasional lodges and small camping areas. The Autumn foliage is best viewed between mid-September and early October. While the train begins fairly easily, it is the final 6km which is steepest, so preserve energy and bring plenty of snacks and water to keep you going. The views from the top are unparalleled and on clear days include Mt. Fuji in the distance - a reward worth the effort. The trail is accessible from April to October and will require multiple days depending on your ability. If you are looking for more challenging routes, consider the Higashikama Route from the Nagano approach or the Nishikama Ridge from the Gifu approach.
- Difficulty: Experienced (Kamikochi Yarisawa route)
- Length: 39km
- Time: 3-4 days
- Access: Kamikochi Bus terminal can be accessed by bus in just over one hour from Shinshimashima Station, which is a 30-minute ride from Matsumoto Station.