Weaving its way along a mountain range that divides the prefectures of Nagano and Niigata, the Shinetsu Trail offers hikers a scenic combination of ridge walks and forest trails. Despite being a relatively short long-distance trail, the lack of English-language information and the sometimes quirky Japanese hiking customs can be confusing for foreign hikers. That’s why I felt it was time for a Practical Guide to the Shinetsu Trail!
Even though the Shinetsu Trail uses mountain paths that have been around for centuries, it was only developed as an official trail in 2008. Still, it is probably one of the less busy long-distance trails in the country. It consists of six sections, leading from the top of Mount Daimyojin to the summit of Mount Amamizu, some 80 kilometres northeast along the Sekida mountain range. It often takes you on sections of ridge walks where on clear days the vista stretches out on both sides while offering views of both the Mikuni mountains to the south and the Sea of Japan to the north.
As always, happy trails start with a little preparation. Preparing for the Shinetsu Trail means getting ready for wet, windy weather in spring and autumn, and hot, humid tropical weather in summer. With that being said, let’s get into more detail!
Level of difficulty
At ‘only’ 80 kilometres, the Shinetsu Trail isn’t particularly long when compared to other, more famous trails around the world. If you are a somewhat experienced hiker, this trail shouldn’t take you more than four to five days. However, it is exactly because of this relatively short duration that the Shinetsu Trail offers a great way to experience Japan’s natural beauty for those short on time.
This doesn’t mean the Shinetsu Trail is an easy trail for those looking to camp and walk it in its entirety; when you’re carrying a large backpack the trail can be quite demanding in some sections. First of all, the trail is primarily designed for people walking it in daily sections with light daypacks, getting picked up by a hotel shuttle at the end of each day. It features steep, sometimes near-vertical ascents as it attempts to climb every possible hill along its route. Quite often you will encounter trees growing across the trail, forcing you on hands and knees if you’re taller than the average Japanese person.
Second, on the early sections, the campsites are located somewhat inconveniently for those looking to complete the trail in under five days. This forces you to hike for a bit longer on your second and third day to make it to a campsite. This campsite issue can be ignored if you’re carrying a hammock tent, but more on that later. Third, when it rains the dirt tracks become steep mudslides where you’ll have trouble keeping your footing, especially when carrying a large pack.
All in all, the trail isn’t overly challenging for experienced hikers, but the issues mentioned above should be taken into consideration when attempting a camping thru-hike.
Most people hiking the Shinetsu Trail walk one section a day while having themselves dropped off and picked up at section trailheads by their hotel shuttle. This means the daily trailheads can be difficult to reach if you don’t have a car to get there. Of course, when you’re walking the Shinetsu Trail in one go you won’t have to bother with daily pickups; you’ll be using the campsites along the trail.
From Tokyo, the quickest way to get to the Shinetsu Trail is to take a Shinkansen bullet train to Iiyama and take a bus to Madaraokogen in front of the station. A cheaper way would be to take a long-distance bus from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo to Nagano, from where you can take local train services to Iiyama.
There are a number of bus companies operating between Tokyo and Nagano/Iiyama. All of them require you to reserve a ticket online, but not all of them feature English-language websites. Kosokubus.com is one of the fortunate exceptions, and is probably your best bet for a cheap ticket to and from Tokyo!
Public transportation will get you from Iiyama Station to the town of Madaraokogen, from where you can walk to the trail’s start atop Mount Daimyojin. From here on you’ll be on your own, unless you have arranged for a pickup beforehand or are willing to hitchhike your way off-trail. At the end of the trail, you’ll have to backtrack along the last section to reach Misaka pass, and from there either arrange a pickup, hitchhike or walk down to Hirataki Station in the valley below.
Food and supplies
In Iiyama you’ll find plenty of options to buy supplies for your hike along the Shinetsu Trail. Right next to Iiyama Station you’ll find a Tsuruya megastore, where they sell almost anything you need. I recommend buying noodles, (prepared) vegetables, instant miso, smoked chicken and rice to get you through your daily nutritional needs.
Unfortunately, instant hiking meals are not very common in Japan, so bring them from abroad if you can! In Tokyo, you can try the Montbell stores for outdoor gear and even a small selection of instant meals. In Iiyama Station, there is a Shinetsu information desk where they rent out equipment and sell gas canisters (it is illegal to carry gas canisters or fuel on trains and buses in Japan!).
Resupply options along the Shinetsu Trail are scarce, and will always involve lengthy detours off-trail to nearby villages. It is best to carry all you need from the start!
The route is divided into six sections, each representing an easy day’s walk. For those attempting a thru-hike of the trail, there are official campsites providing an opportunity for setting up your tent. Unfortunately, the campsite locations do not match the daily sections everywhere, meaning thru-hikers will face longer days on the trail. Nevertheless, this should not prove too difficult for even moderately experienced hikers.
There are six designated campsites along the Shinetsu Trail:
- Akaike Pond Campsite. Situated right along the trail, this campsite is free to use (although a voluntary contribution of 1000 Yen is still asked for).
- Katsuraike Pond Campsite. Also located right along the trail, this campsite sits at roughly 3/4 of section 3 of the trail. Costs: 1000 Yen per person, per night.
- Tondaira Campsite. Situated off-trail, it is a 10-15 minute walk from the Hotokegamine trailhead to this campsite. Its close proximity to the previous campsite means that thru-hikers can skip this one. Costs: 1000 Yen per person, per night.
- Hikarigahara Campsite. A 15-minute walk from the Shinetsu Trail, this campsite is located close to the Greenpal accommodation, in a park. Costs: 1000 Yen per person, per night.
- Nonomikogen Campsite. Situated next to Nonomi Lake, this campsite is also a short 10-minute walk away from the trail. Costs: 1000 Yen per person, per night.
- Daigonjikogen Campsite. This privately-owned campsite lies to the north of Mount Amamizu, quite a way off-trail. It might be easier to backtrack along the trail to campsite 5, and then head down into the valley the next day. Costs: 200 Yen base fee, 600 Yen BYO tent fee, 1000 Yen site fee (1800 Yen per tent, per night).
Bringing a hammock tent will make camping along the Shinetsu Trail much easier! Avoid camping fees and overgrown rainforests by pitching your hammock between the ever-present trees! Just make sure to keep your food well away from your camp to prevent curious bears from visiting you in the night.
Looking to save money by camping on your trip to Japan? Check out my post on camping in Japan to learn more about spending your nights in nature while exploring this quirky nation!
As it cannot be omitted from any hiking guide, here’s a list of must-have gear on the Shinetsu Trail!
I will list only what I consider to be the essentials here; I’ll leave it up to you how much extra gear you want to bring.
- Sturdy hiking boots. Solid hiking shoes are recommended, as most of the trail consists of steep, sometimes slippery tracks.
- Comfortable backpack. The fewer items you bring, the smaller your pack can be. Just make sure to leave enough room for food and water!
- Lightweight tent(when camping). A hammock tent makes finding a suitable place to camp easier.
- Season-appropriate sleeping gear(when camping). A sleeping bag and whatever item you prefer to sleep on. Just make sure to prepare for the season’s nighttime temperatures!
- Season-appropriate clothing. Light and fast-drying in summer, waterproof in spring and autumn.
- Cooking gear and fuel(when camping). Unless you plan on eating cold rations for a few days, bring something to heat up your food or make tea with!
- Water reservoir or water bottle. Either get a lightweight water reservoir for your backpack or a large drinking bottle of at least one litre (33 oz). In summer, temperatures can get quite high, so bring enough! I always bring a lightweight water filter for those occasions where I can’t trust the water quality.
- Map or GPS (and navigational skills). Although the Shinetsu Trail is well-marked, an overview of what’s ahead can come in handy.
- Medkit and basic first-aid skills. As with any multi-day hike, a certain degree of self-reliance is always a good thing. Make sure you bring something to send out emergency signals with as well, just in case.
- Sunscreen. The sun burns hot during Japanese summers!
- Swiss army knife or multitool. Don’t leave home without it.
- A (phone)camera. It would almost be a crime to not make pictures of the beauty of this trail!
- A bear bell (optional). Personally, I didn’t use one as they tend to get pretty annoying. However, making a little noise every now and then is recommendable to scare away any bears!
BEAR SAFETY: There are multiple sightings of Asian black bears each year along the Shinetsu Trail. This species of bear isn’t very aggressive, and will almost always run away at even the slightest hint of approaching humans. Nevertheless, you should take care to never prepare and eat food in or around your tent, never leave food scraps or waste behind and make a little noise while walking, so that you don’t accidentally startle a nearby bear. Clapping your hands every now and then, talking with your hiking buddy or carrying a bear bell will work best.
Official trails in Japan are maintained and well-marked. The Shinetsu Trail is no exception, and this makes the use of an official map more of an optional thing than an absolute necessity. You can buy the official 3-part maps at the information centre in Iiyama Station, or download a full PDF here.
Free information brochures are also in circulation and give basic info on the trail, its sections, the route, location of campsites and other related subjects. These brochures can be found in the Shinetsu information centre in Iiyama Station. These are great information sources for those on a budget, but they’re not to be used as a replacement for an actual map! Fortunately for those not willing to buy a map, as long as you have at least some basic navigation skills, getting lost on the Shinetsu Trail is almost impossible.
As for the trail itself, it mostly follows the high ridges of the Sekida mountain range between Mount Daimyojin and Mount Amamizu. The six sections of the trail are counted from the official start on the summit of Mount Daimyojin, but it is also possible to walk the trail in the opposite direction, of course.
The first sections lead through forest-clad hills, and you won’t encounter the trail’s signature ridge walks until the fourth section. The first three sections can be demanding for those carrying a large backpack in wet conditions; the many steep climbs and descends turn into mudslides during periods of heavy rain. On the later sections, the mountain ridges tend to be more even in terms of elevation, with only a few climbing sections that might prove a little challenging in hot weather.
Despite Japan’s reputation for being an expensive country, hiking the Shinetsu Trail can be quite a cheap adventure. Most of your spending will be on transportation and accommodation, with food and drinks bought in supermarkets costing about the same as in Western Europe, the USA or Australia.
Like I said before, transportation will be one of the biggest drains on your budget. The fastest way from Tokyo to Iiyama would be using the Shinkansen bullet train, a notoriously convenient but expensive way of travel. A one-way trip from Tokyo to Iiyama would cost upwards of 8000 Yen. Of course, it is possible to get a JR Rail Pass that will save you money if you’re planning on using the Shinkansen trains a lot.
A cheaper way would be to take a long-distance bus to Iiyama. This will cost you around 2500-3000 Yen for a one-way trip. Seat reservations must be made online before departure.
As for shorter distances, the local train networks usually offer a cheaper alternative to the expensive Shinkansen train lines. There is a local train line running from Hirataki Station below the end of the Shinetsu Trail to Iiyama Station. A one-way ticket will cost between 500-800 Yen.
Food and drink
As long as you buy your food supplies from large supermarkets, you can avoid overspending. Those cute family-owned grocery shops should be supported, but they do not always offer the lowest prices or a consistent inventory. Remember that convenience stores like Lawson and 7-11 are convenient, but not exactly cheap.
Expect local food items like rice, noodles and miso to be priced the same compared to local food items in most developed western countries. A 2-kilo bag of rice will cost between 900-1200 Yen. Four days worth of dried noodles and instant miso soup works great as trail food and will set you back no more than 1000 Yen. Smoked chicken and preserved vegetables can be had for reasonably low prices, too.
Alcohol, local beef, western food items and sliced bread are comparatively more expensive in Japan.
Along with transportation, your daily accommodation will be the largest drain on your budget while in Japan. With hotels and traditional ryokan famously expensive, your best options will be hostels or camping when on a budget.
Most hotels in the area around the Shinetsu Trail will cost between 5000-13000 Yen a night depending on the season. There are numerous lodgings available in the many ski resorts around the area, though quite a few may be closed in the summer months. Backpacking hostels are scarce, but some lodges sometimes offer dorm rooms. A bed in these dorms will cost you around 2000-4000 Yen a night.
Campsites typically cost anywhere between 500-2000 Yen a night, depending on the type of campsite. Wild camping is generally allowed in Japan, as long as you stay away from private property.
I always recommend getting a good travel insurance. Even more so in a country where medical care can get quite expensive, like Japan. As always, I recommend World Nomads for their easy-to-use website and great coverage that includes hiking up to 6000 metres.
Always make sure to thoroughly check your insurance plan, as conditions may vary for your nationality or itinerary.
Note that I do not get anything for promoting them! This is an honest personal recommendation. I just think their insurance plans are perfect for adventurous world travellers like us!
And this concludes my Practical Guide on the Shinetsu Trail. As always, I am available to answer any questions you might have; just send me an email or contact me on social media. Feel free to leave additional tips or questions in the comments below!
See you on the Trail!