A late arriving winter; Matsumoto, Nakasendo, and Southern Nagano Alps

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December 31st 2019
Published: December 31st 2019
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With snow shoes in hand, and poles acquired with pre Christmas sales, we were set.

Decathlon Spain set us free from needing to rely on gear hire locations for any winter hiking. The snow shoeing bug hit us after two previous winter trips together here, and my natural aversion to skiing/ snow boarding (with its injury risk) plus P2s passion

for photo taking lends itself to ‘snow the slow way’.

Comparable to such trip costs in NZ, we have come again for a fairly economical holiday ‘fix’!

Trawling the snow forecasts across a few sources had informed where we would choose to go. Fast forward to December 2019 post-Christmas, and barely a flake had fallen in parts of Nagano prefecture, where we’d begin.

Air NZ again took us to Narita, and the flight, seat choice, and changes to select gluten-free free meals make it a comfortable 11 hour journey. The slightly later departure meant a later arrival but there’s not much happening after 6pm anyway, our former

hotel arrival time.

Raddison Narita served up the usual breakfast (for a non-discounted price this time, things are changing ....) the next day. On to the Terminal One free bus at 11am, where we joined a lengthy queue to get our transport sorted - the Japan Rail passes. Peak

season meant a mid-morning wait of nearly 60 minutes.

Delays helped us out though, with an incident on the main line into Tokyo putting back the 12.20 departure to 12.40 enabling us to then connect at Shinjuku station and take a later 3pm train north to Matsumoto-Shi. The cloud had cleared by then to a beautiful

sunny afternoon, even catching a rare glimpse of a clear Mt Fuji summit coming into Showa area.

Dormy Inn Matsumoto, a play on ‘dormir’ of course in Spanish, worked out to be a five minute walk from the station. With the hotel, it transpired there were several good perks which we learned as the following days unfolded. The rooftop open air onsen,

free washing machine described by signage as ‘on’ the onsen, free hot drinks after breakfast had ended, free nightly ramen after 9pm, and a free gift of a mask or noodle bowl, if we were to not need room servicing.

Not much thought went into our first nights meal, the street full of cheap ramen restaurants and us feeling fairly weary. Smoking seemed conspicuously absent at several spots we scoped out for dinner too. A quick google search showed that ahead of the

Olympics, a restructuring of where it is permitted has banished the habit to special restricted areas, or parts of the outdoors.

Our first day, and the last open day before the New Years closures, had to be to the well preserved Matsumoto castle. The city is at the junction of the Tagawa and Azusa rivers, on the plains, and this castle sits grandly in the city’s centre complete

with manicured gardens and a large moat.

Our early 8.30am start was rewarded by seeing a crew of castle ‘cleaners’ gear up for their day. Passed by a journalist and photographer for the Matsumoto ‘shinbun’ on our short walk there, her story would soon be local news, as this was no ordinary clean

up but an ‘Oshoogatsu’ special!

Shoes off, we climbed all six floors slowly and carefully, facing health and safety obstacles like large wooden framing at head height and steep slippery steps. Within five minutes of entering, my feet were like ice. One guard shared his thoughts to me

that they had taken the fridge’s contents and placed them in the castle! His new English word for the day was ‘fridge’.

P2 had the idea to warm up afterward in the nearby castle souvenir shop, a modest building full of regalia to relieve a little more yen from us.

Leaving him loitering at the castle precinct, I headed off to discover the Shonai swimming pool, to the south of our accommodation by two kilometres. The welcome was smiling and bright, it was an ample 25m pool, and I got allocated by the guard to what

was meant to be a faster lane. All for only ¥310. Cheaper than NZ.

Household gardens and mostly dry brown foliage covered the roadside on my walk back to Dormy, with a fortunate glimpse of Fuji again.

An afternoon walk to Nakamachi dori and Nawate dori street was lively, the blue sky and chilly temperatures continuing. Yohashira temple beside the Metoba river occupied a little more time, Nawate street (on which it is) showing signs of growing New Years

tourism and it’s famed dedication to the frog. Nakamachi, in contrast and over the other side, was an alley of latticed architectural gems in local style.

Dinner of a more elaborate standard was had across road from Dormy Inn, with the theme of a hot broth always a winner when it’s zero degrees outside.

Taking one of my ideas for a day out, the Nakasendo way is a key route in Japan traversing several regions in Honshuu. I’d walked part of 11.5 years prior on my own,
and having seen a documentary on it, P2s interest was piqued to give it a go.

Heading out on the 8.36 departure to the southern most point of the day, Nakatsugawa, its late departure by ten minutes threw out our plan to connect to the 9.55am bus to Magome. Just as we stepped out of the station at 9.54, the bus promptly drove off.

A taxi it would need to be, and an amended itinerary too. A gloved driver gave us an estimate to a set point and off we went.

Starting north east of Nakatsugawa, 3.5km from Magome, we picked up a horse trail that crossed a river and began to climb through rural scenes and a few friendly locals. Magome loomed into view around 11.30am and we calculated a rough three hours for the

remainder 11km to Nagiso.

Up and up through the souvenir-central of Magome, the ever present old irrigation channels flanked the road and tourists lingered around the humble soba, sake, or Japanese sweet shops. The view
to Mount Ena to the east was hazy with the rising sun and

warmth, a big change from the minus 5C at 7am that morning.

Through a mix of road and trail, we reached the saddle and began a steady descent to Tsumago, frost on this side of the hills being thicker on the ground. From here, the Kiso valley flattened out and became a natural end point at Nagiso station. We could

definitely have lingered longer in quieter Tsumago!

A sleeping train station attendant was left unbothered as we passed through to the platform, on to the ‘wanman’ (katakana script) carriage to Matsumoto. Cramped as it was, we eventually got to sit and enjoy a squashed lunch of onigiri, as the mainly Japanese

crowd came and went at each rural stop.

This activity had to be succeeded by another therapeutic onsen experience, and choosing to avoid the apparent peak hours of 8 to 11pm, we bathed early and went off in search of a quick meal up Nakamachi dori. When the sun sets at 4:30, and afternoon tea

is after dark, it feels very odd that dinner could then be 3 hours or more away!

We then had a contingency day in deteriorating weather. Waking to rain and snow flurries made for a chilly jog along the river but the truth is rain reigned. After a few errands we took (on a whim) a local train to Shimo-suwa on the outskirts of Okaya

and in another climatic world. The sun poked through the clouds in Nagano prefecture, then one tunnel and under five minutes later we entered a snowy scene beside Lake Suwa, the biggest lake in this region. Rain fell lightly but our purpose was a pre-New years

temple visit.

Absolutely nobody was at the sequence of temples that led to Jiunji, a Buddhist temple, but for a few birds, plenty of moss, and clumps of snow. Around the corner near part of the ancient Nakasendo trail again was a shrine, Suwa Taisha Shimosha Harumiya,

where we found company visiting for their New Years prayers and offerings. We cleansed, contemplated and navigated back to our ride home, a stop-at-all-stops train.

By 4pm, dusk loomed. I dragged P2 to

Joyama park where I’d seen a woodpecker the previous morning, and although it had flown off, we had a grand view over the Matsumoto metropolis. And clouds gathering over the Nagano alps were telling - snow was forecast!

Deciding to use New Year’s Eve for seeking out snow and hiking was a winner of a choice. But a day starting as warm as 11C in Matsumoto city didn’t logically predict what we would face later on. The first north bound train at a reasonable time left at

9.20 on the JR Shinano service, a wanman special stopping at all the local spots. Slowly we wove up the lower valley to Shinano, devoid of snow altogether.

Once connecting to a second local train service, it was twenty more minutes to Minami Kamishiro where of three that slighted we were two. One teenager waited with his skateboard, whilst we prepped ourselves at the station toilet block fitting extra clothing

for the possible subzero temps.

Within a kilometre of walking we’d discovered a low key resort with dotted lines on maps.me that could only indicate either a hiking path, or a variation altogether from a road to a narrow worn trail underfoot.

Bashing our way though light forest behind the resort to a bridge, the ‘dotted line’ and snowy path appeared. Ascending for around twenty minutes, it got thick enough to snow shoe in our minimum depth (which we later discovered might not have been minimum

enough with gear damage!).

Up and up for another half an hour we went, as snow fell heavily. However reconciling the GPS marker on on our phones against the terrain around us, we’d gone slightly off course even though it was a well formed trail to what now appeared a water resource

building ahead. To the side, 200m back, what seemed to be a no-exit path was actually the path proper but with hibernating summer and autumn overgrowth, the track was almost unrecognisable.

‘Safety first’, as despite having GPS on the maps function, we were weary visitors, not locals.

Back down to the low key resort, we spotted a cafe for the promise of hot beverages for cold hands. Corn soup, ubiquitous here, but scarcely a vending machine in sight with it.

As we left, I commented to P2 that a dreadlocked guy working there looked like an Antipodean, who then waved to him as we left the cafeteria. Hellos were said, and after detecting a rolling of the Rs, he mentioned he was from Wanaka and ‘had been on and

off working here for thirty years’. As snow shoe folks, and not boarders or skiers, we felt at-home with this kind of welcome. And thirty years - that is service!

Over to lake Aoki was his subsequent walk recommendation, and following P2s itinerary as well, we took an old salt road that had been used to carry salt from Itoigawa to Matsumoto many years ago. Aokiko was looking calm and beautiful with now settling

fresh snow on the trees, that only a few hours ago were coloured a dull grey-green.

Couldn’t think of a better way to spend ‘Oshoogatsu’ than this.

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