The bus journey to Togakushi winds through the mountains of central Japan on narrow icy roads. I see snow fall for the first time as we leave Nagano’s mucky slush behind. Our guide, Nicholas Hall, shares a Japanese folk tale about a princess while the bus inches its way up the densely forested mountains. After it crests the final ridge, it sweeps into Togakushi, a sedate and ancient Shinto village nestled among 900-year-old cedar trees.

I see lots of lightning-shaped origami hang from the shrines and trees. “These represent the spirituality of the place,” explains Daniel Moore, our other guide. “It’s a line separating us from the outside world.”

I’m an unbeliever, so I wonder if their gods would let me in. I say nothing but smile, and proceed to get my snowshoes on. These stubby plastic contraptions look like short skis, but are nothing like skis. They grip with metal teeth and are the gems that extend your hiking season into the winter, letting you enjoy the cold solitude without having to trudge through deep snow. All you need is to slide your boots in and clip into place. It isn’t rocket science, but I spend a good 30 minutes stumbling and being awkward before pulling myself together for our first 1.5km trek into the snow country.

HIKING WITH STRANGERS

It is late February, and I am the only journalist among seven other paying customers on Walk Japan’s last Snow Country Trek of the season. I meet Alan Jones from Australia, an owner of two tabby cats who absolutely hates bagpipes. I also meet fellow Singaporean Desmond Chan who’s here alone because his wife hates the snow, and Esther Tan, a thrill-seeking doctor now on her 11th trip with Walk Japan.

There are diehard fans like her who have become addicted to these off-the-beaten-path experiences. Walk Japan has set the benchmark for such outings since 1992, shooting to fame with its signature Nakasendo Way tour.

 

Walk Japan has set the benchmark for such outings since 1992, shooting to fame with its signature Nakasendo Way tour.

The tours can be demanding in various ways – time, cost, stamina, etc. The Hokkaido Hike for example is a full 10-day trek for which you need to be physically and fiscally fit. But you’ll be happy to spend that money because you’re also helping Nicholas and Daniel keep Japan’s countryside businesses alive.

Nicholas is an Australian-Japanese who obsesses over the shakuhachi (Japanese flute) and scribbles notes on the back of his hands. Daniel, an American pickleball player, has spent most of his childhood in Japan. They both speak fluent Japanese, making me feel extremely inept for knowing nothing beyond ohaiyo, arigato and hai.

We spend the first two nights in a traditional pilgrim’s inn. Owned by the Gokui family, its wooden posts are worn smooth, polished by generations of hands. The rooms are warm and cozy, with sunlight filtering feebly through the windows. But here’s the surprise: head of the household, Norio, is a former rally driver who had raced in Monte Carlo. Now a priest, he conducts a morning ritual on the third day and hands us a traveller’s amulet. “Get rid of it by year’s end,” he warns. “Otherwise, it’s bad luck.”

Of course I don’t believe him, but it does add mysticism to our trip.

Traditional Snowshoes

We leave Norio and his family for a place with thicker snow. One snow dome village and 90 minutes later, we arrive at a charming log cabin in Nabekura, where we struggle to put on traditional kanjiki snowshoes made from bamboo and rope. We explore the hamlet with a local, struggling with our strange shoes. Everyone’s getting clumsier and I’m frustrated from falling over and over. But the view makes up for it. Past the snow-crusted trees and rabbit trails, we finally arrive at a 150-year-old thatched hut, famished. The good news is, we’ll be eating oyaki. The bad news is, we have to work for it.

Oyaki for Lunch

THE CLIMB CONTINUES

Hikes are planned for every day, but day four’s trek up Mt Hanatate-yama takes the cake. Scrambling up a steep mountain for three hours, I’m sunburnt, hot and sweaty. Once we break to dig into our cold bentos before the tremendous views and quiet, it is heaven… until a snow mobile pulls up.

The night ends with a multiple-course dinner at Nozawa Onsen, a ski resort and home to Japan’s many winter olympians. A strong public bath culture is fostered here, as with the rest of Japan’s countryside. Here’s where you have to walk in butt-naked on similarly bare beings, grab a stool and cubicle, and rinse away the day’s grime before getting into the tub. You can cover your jewels, or your face, with a small towel, if you’re embarrassed. The water feels scalding at first, but gradually to bearable and then mellow. After the fourth time in an onsen, the heat doesn’t sting any more. I lean back to relax and feel the knots in my shoulders melt away.

A matagi (bear hunter) and his family

Down to our last two days, we travel deeper into the snow country of Koakasawa. Lunch is prepared in the home of Kazuhito Fukuhara, one of the few remaining matagi (hereditary bear hunters). There’s little economic gain, and he makes no secret of it. He carries on doing it because he feels a duty to keep the tradition alive.

And sadly, so do we. It is one last hike, one last bath and snowball fight before we take the train back to Nagano, where the same dirty, grey snow await us.

Three Snow Country tours are available early next year, starting the 15th of January. The tour will last you six nights and cost at least $4,084 (flights excluded). Visit Walk Japan for more details

This story was published in the AUGUSTMAN July issue. All images were taken by Hannah using a Nikon D5600

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