Ever since the Kumano Kodo was christened with UNESCO and also Lonely Planet accolades, a Japan beyond electric buzz, temples, and food has risen to the forefront. Japan’s beautiful nature has gained popularity among tourists, particularly pilgrimage routes such as the Kumano Kodo. However, there’s much more to Japan than these main tourist routes. Two prefectures that offer incredible hikes, views and spirituality, are Nagano and Niigata. Located North West of Tokyo, each prefecture can be reached by Shinkanse in around one to two hours.
Rice terrace trekking in Niigata
One of our favorite spots surrounds the high elevation terraced rice fields of Niigata, known as the Tokamachi Tanada trek. Just a short jaunt from Matsudai Station are starting points to the Uesugi Gundo trail. With not a soul in sight, your moderate physical efforts will be rewarded with awe inspiring views at nearly every turn. And with just a little planning, you can arrange your hotels or inns (why not make two nights of it?) to provide access to and from the trail. Throw in some soothing natural hot springs, some classic Japanese mountain cuisine, and a little cultural enrichment, and you’ve got the makings of a perfect trip.
One of the best things about the trail walking here is the unpredictability of it all. A little up, a little down, a gentle curve, then a tighter one. Also, as opposed to areas where logging drastically changed the face of the mountain, around here there still thrives a great variety of flora. This trail has just enough maintenance to make it imminently manageable, but not so much that it feels, well, pedestrian. And there’s a lot to be said for that.
Access & Basic Information
By car: Can only be accessed by car. Cars can be rented near Tokamachi Station.
Duration: 1-2 days
Website: Tokamachi Tourist Information
If you’re looking for something less challenging, head on up to Myoko Kogen (highlands) for easy riverside walks or slightly more arduous walks into the mountains, but do be sure not to miss the main attraction, the Naena Waterfall. One of Japan’s Top 100 waterfalls (there are a lot of waterfalls in Japan!), Naena attracts visitors with flow, force, presence, and just plain old beauty. Though the path up to it is not wheelchair accessible, it is quite easily managed by even the most average of city dwellers. After taking it all in, the nearby areas offer an abundance of hot springs, lodging, and food for all budgets. One great place to make your base camp is APA Hotel Joetsu Myoko-Ekimae, they have an open-air bath for you to unwind after a long day of trekking.
Access: 15-minute walk from the carpark area
Getting there by car: Take the Joshin-etsu Expressway and exit at Myokokogen Interchange. Take the Niigata Myokokogen Park Line 39 for Sasagamine. After four kilometers, turn left at the Naena Falls entrance.
Getting there by train: Take the train to Myokokogen Station, then take a 15-minute taxi.
Website: Myoko Tourism
Osado-ishina Natural Cedar in Sado Island, Niigata
When it comes to breathtaking forests, both Niigata and Nagano prefectures have a bounty that’s hard to beat. Two of our favorites are the Osado-ishina Natural Cedar Walking Path back on the mainland. For interestingly shaped, old growth forest, Osado-ishina has got your ticket. The prevailing winds and heavy snowfall chisel out a landscape that is most likely not like any you’ve seen before. The sense of time and place truly is palpable as you meander about, entranced by what rises above and sprawls out below. Not to say that this is the only stroll where wonderment unfolds apace: a catwalk of timelessness in nature struts across all corners of this magical island. Let your senses tell you where to roam, and then go with it.
Niigata University’s Field Practice Forest, Niigata
For a more strenuous walk, go on a guided hike of Niigata University’s Field Practice Forest. Here, you can see rare Japanese endemic cedar trees, which is why for preservation purposes, only those who have booked a guided hike can explore the area. Bookings can be made in advance through the Sado Tourist Information Center.
Togakushi Shrine, Nagano
If you are looking for something more spiritual, the Togakushi Shrine is a must-see. The cedar trees tower like giants along an unwavering path. There are five shrines in total and the walk between the shrines is a traditional pilgrimage route. The ascent is around 2km and is challenging. You may find the walk back, despite the physical path being the same, to be a very different experience. Such is the inherent magic of the place.
In Japan, excitement's in the bag, but serenity can also be yours
What’s your pleasure? Gorgeous, mountainous landscapes with giant trees thrusting into the sky? Strolls about mountain-contouring rice paddies? Gushing waterfalls with all the resort trappings nearby? Trekking through the evolutionary spur that Sado’s island geography has fostered? You can have it all with a breezy hopscotch around the largely unbounded nature that beckons in Niigata and Nagano. Surprised how much there is to see, do, and absorb? Prepare to be even more pleasantly surprised by how quick a trip it is into this natural wonderland from the buzz of Tokyo. Best of all, there are bargains to be had using the very handy JR EAST PASS (Nagano and Niigata area). What you get once you’ve arrived is more than words can say.
This article is sponsored by Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Hokuriku-Shin'etsu District Transport Bureau,East Japan Railway Company, Sado Tourism Association, Niigata Pref. Intl. Tourism Theme District Promotion Council, & Nagano Tourism Organization.
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