Summer walk on the Shionomichi

After a long and damp rainy season, Kazuko and I were bursting to get out and do some long- distance walking, but we didn’t think our legs would be up to tackling a mountain peak yet. So we thought what better place to walk then the scenic and gentle second half of the Shionomichi (Salt Trail) from Omachi to Matsumoto.  This 48 km stretch runs through populated farming areas with terraced rice and soba fields and follows the gradually widening valley and gently descending rivers against the backdrop of the towering northern Alps.  With a number of interesting historical sites along the way, it is a relaxing and worthwhile walk and not nearly as difficult as the first half of the Shionomichi which goes through deep river gorges and rises from sea level to over 900meter passes.

We drove by car to the Salt Trail Museum in Omachi where we left the car for the day.  The museum is a well restored salt merchant’s house, shop and warehouses so you can get a good idea of what they were like.  It makes you appreciate how important salt has always been for people’s diets, for preserving foods and for farm animals.  Here is the front of the building:

Omachi means simply “Big Town” and as the main town on the 120km trail between the small port of Itoigawa and the large castle town of Matsumoto, I guess it was once bustling with travelers and merchants.  These days it is a very quiet town and the old shopping arcades near the train station were largely shuttered as most people now shop at the big mall outside the town.  The symbol of Omachi is the Raicho (“Thunderbird”) or Rock Ptarmigan.  This ground bird is famous for its camouflage and is only found in the high alpine areas above the tree line.  It changes colour from pure white in winter to mottled brown in summer and is a protected species.  It was nice to see it on the manhole covers as we walked through the town.

The trail starts in the town through narrow streets but within 20 minutes we were out in the countryside.  Our first stop was the Matsusaki Washi Factory.  Since the 12th century this area was the main washi (Japanese paper) making area of Nagano Prefecture and there were over a dozen factories a century ago, but now there is only one. We met the owner and he showed us around the factory where he still makes all his papers the traditional way, using native plants and well water. He used to have a dozen staff now he said he does it all by himself.  He was a bit despondent because Japanese people don’t use washi much these days, and with tourism ground to a halt because of Covid-19, sales are down.  Moreover, he said his children aren’t interested in taking over the business, so once he goes there will no longer be any traditional washi making in Nagano. Here is a photo of the owner in his factory and his washi shop.

Just a few hundred meters further came to what must be one of the largest and best preserved traditional farm houses in the area that is still being used as a working farm.

Walking around in Japan you always come across random interesting things – here somebody is proudly displaying in a glass case by the roadside their proud and joyful things!

Japanese who live in the countryside have large vegetable gardens and as it was the middle of summer the gardens were overgrown with ripe vegies.

We then came across a man who was wearing gum boots and the ubiquitous onsen towel around his neck and inspecting his rice fields.  We stopped to ask how his crop was going and he replied that it was looking good so far.  He got quite excited when we told him we were walking the Shionomichi because, as it turns out, he is a volunteer historical guide for the town of Omachi. We had a good chat with him and he gave us some good advice and some pamphlets which gave details about the temples and shrines of the area.

Here is the ground of one of the small shrines we passed with some lovely old statues.

Just in time for lunch we found a sheltered picnic spot where we could be away from the hot sun. This spot was chosen because it looks out over the valley and you can see most of the North Alps.  Unfortunately, the heat haze meant we couldn’t see much of the mountains but it was nice to rest in the shade.

Thankfully this section of the trail is on a back road running along the edge of the forest so we were shaded from the hot midday sun.  This stone Daikoku san (God of Wealth – he is standing on bales of rice) was growing moss in the shade.

Although we didn’t see any, apparently the forests here are full of monkeys which come and raid the farms and gardens. Omachi has trained some dogs to chase the monkeys away, but we didn’t see any of them either, but we found this sign asking you to slow down and not run over the dogs.

Nagano is the largest wine grape producing area of Japan, and the domestic wine industry is undergoing a bit of a boom. The area around Omachi is a new grape growing area and we passed several vineyards.  There are a couple of nice vineyards that do tastings but we didn’t have time to go there.

Our next stop is the most significant Shinto shrine on the trail, the Nishina Shinmeigu. It is a national treasure and is the oldest example of this architectural style predating the arrival of Buddhism from China in the 6th century. The buildings themselves are rebuilt in the same style every 20 years (we missed the ceremony for the rebuilding in November 2019) in the same manner as the Ise Jingu shrine that the Emperor’s family belongs to.  I liked the giant 700-year-old cedar trees leading up to the shrine:

After the shrine the trail was on a gravel path in the middle of soba fields and gradually descended to the next town, Ikeda.

Just before the town I spied a Tanuki (Racoon Dog) and its cub.  The mother ran into the bushes but the cub was happy to watch us while I photographed it.  These animals are known as tricky little devils in Japanese folklore tales, and statues of them can be found outside many businesses.  They are drunkards, lazy and don’t pay their bills! But this guy looks innocent enough.

There are plenty of nice old abandoned houses in Japan that just need some one to fix them up and live in them, like this one:

Friends of ours bought one like that and have beautifully restored it:

We then walked through the town of Ikeda and stopped to chat to a man who was cleaning his koi pond.

We came across this old shop on the trail going through the main street of town where an old couple cook fresh red bean cake sweets. Delicious.

Just before we reached the train station I spotted this little factory involved in making precision machinery parts (perhaps for Seiko-Epson which is based in Nagano). It has a very topical name: Corona Research Co! Hope they find a way to get rid of Covid-19 soon!

Finally, after 6 hours and 13.5 kilometers we caught the local two carriage train back to Omachi – it only took 10 minutes – to pick up our car and drive and stay overnight at a lovely ryokan (Japanese inn) and bathe in the relaxing onsen (hot spring).  Very enjoyable after a hot day on the lovely Shionomcihi Trail. The forecast for the next day was 35 degrees in Matsumoto and wouldn’t be very pleasant so we decide we would save the next section of this interesting trail for a cooler day.

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