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New year, new you? Thanks to its excellent accessibility from a number of cities such as Tokyo, Kanazawa, and Nagano, the 70km (44 mile) long Shin-Etsu Trail is one of our favourite undiscovered hiking trails and the perfect place to blow away those December cobwebs.
The six sections take you through various terrains, from dense cedar woods to peaceful beech forests, across verdant marshland, and along narrow ridge paths with panoramic views. Whether you’ve only got a day or two free for some walking, or you want to spend a full six days enjoying the entire route, the Shin-Etsu Trail is a great outdoor experience to include in your Japan trip.
Top 5 Reasons for hiking the Shin-Etsu Trail
The Shin-Etsu Trail runs along the ridge of the Sekida Mountains that separate the prefectures of Niigata and Nagano. As you make your way along the trail you’re treated to views out over both prefectures; Nagano, with the Chikuma River snaking along the valley floor and the mountains behind it, and Niigata with the Sea of Japan and distant Sado Island.
Even if you end up hiking on a rainy day, you won’t be disappointed. Due to the elevation you’ll likely end up standing above the glorious ‘sea of clouds’ – a phenomenon where the clouds gather in the valley below you. Have your camera ready!
While it’s easy to hike the Shin-Etsu Trail on your own, we highly recommend having a guide for your first day. The guides (who work for the NPO Shin-Etsu Trail Club and maintain the route) know the area like the back of their hands and are full of fun anecdotes and fascinating nuggets of information.
Spending a day with them will leave you with a greater understanding of the history of the region and the trail, and the flora and fauna you’ll encounter along the way.
Delicious food is reason enough to go pretty much anywhere in Japan, but the food along the Shin-Etsu Trail journey is extra tasty. Each day you’re provided with a hearty, home-made bento lunchbox – packed with rice balls, vegetables, and yummy snacks – and meals at the accommodation have course after course of unfussy yet delicious local food. Itadakimasu!
When I first hiked the route, I didn’t meet another person (except my guide) for the whole six days –quite a feat for Japan! The Shin-Etsu Trail attracts a number of Japanese visitors during the autumn leaf season in late September through to October, but generally you can enjoy the hike without hordes of other people. This is a blissful contrast to other popular hiking routes in Japan which can sometimes feel like you’re in a traffic jam…
The Shin-Etsu Trail doesn’t have the religious importance of the Kumano Kodo, nor is it as well-known as the historic Nakasendo Way that used to connect Tokyo and Kyoto. Yet it does have its own regional cultural importance. The 16 passes that cross the trail were historically used as trade routes between Shinano and Echigo provinces (modern day Nagano and Niigata).
People from Shinano would trade precious washi paper and rapeseed oil for salt and seafood from Echigo; meanwhile, according to local guides, the people from Echigo would make the trek over the mountains to Shinano simply to enjoy the onsen hot spring baths. That’s dedication.