Japan is a country of matsuri-  or festivals –  which are usually based around the changing seasons. At the beginning of May each year, Golden Week – when three public holidays mean that most Japanese take the whole week off – also heralds the arrival of cherry blossom season in this area of Nagano.

 To celebrate, the towns of Otari, Hakuba and Omachi combine to present the annual Salt Road Festival.

The event attracts thousands of participants, who dress in traditional costumes, for a 10 klm Shio-no-Michi hike that passes along the ancient merchant road across the three towns.

Many participants carry traditional backpacks of wooden frames, with straw panniers containing consignments of salt. The fittest young men, clad only in loincloths-  despite the fresh spring weather-  replay the role of the express couriers who ran Japan’s ancient toll roads in the Edo period before Japan opened up to the West in the mid nineteenth century.

The old road winds through beautiful countryside and clusters of thatched farmhouses. Along the way local people sing folk songs, play taiko (Japanese drumming) and hand out free refreshments of tea and local sukemono (pickles).