Get to know Japan’s New Golden Route

When the sun melts the ski fields of central Japan, Nagano and Gunma come together to create a surprising natural playground, writes Rachelle Mackintosh.

The earthy breeze whispers through Shinano-machi’s towering beeches as I follow forest-therapist, Taeko Yoshikawa, through the wilderness. When we arrive on Lake Nojiri’s glittery banks, she leads us in mindfulness activities that connect us to nature: we soak our feet in the cool water to experience hydrotherapy, then meditate to tune into the surrounding forest’s peace, and feel it flow through us with breathing exercises. It’s all part of our shinrin-yoku experience – a Japanese practice that promotes immersion in nature to cleanse away stress and boost mental health. After three hours of tuning into the serenity here, I feel a deep sense of calm that continues throughout my week-long journey around central Japan, even when I’m a little out of my comfort zone. 

Forest door at Kumano Koutai Shrine; Kumano Koutai Shrine
Forest door at Kumano Koutai Shrine; Kumano Koutai Shrine © Rachelle Mackintosh

Japan’s New Golden Route 

The classic traveller’s trail between Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto is well-traversed by Aussie visitors, but now the Land of the Rising Sun is spotlighting a New Golden Route. In summer, Nagano and Gunma Prefectures’ 100-plus ski resorts and their alpine surrounds transform into a wild wonderland, less than two hours from Tokyo. 

As forest covers around 75 per cent of the New Golden Route, there are trails for every level of hiker, and charming Karuisawa, in south-central Nagano, is in the heart of the action. Here, I take a quick but scenic trip on the Rokumon sightseeing train to get my bearings; visit Shiraito Falls and the Ryugaeshinotaki cascade, and explore Kumano Koutai Shrine, where an enchanting pink door leads into the forest. Then, ready for a more challenging hike, I head to the Togakushi Kodo trail, a 10km return journey that winds through giant cedars and ninja training grounds to 1200-year-old shrines. While the track up the mountain is steep in sections, the magic in the air keeps the spring in my step. 

Trail to Ryugaeshinotaki cascade
Trail to Ryugaeshinotaki cascade © Rachelle Mackintosh

Experience the mountains in summer

Knowing some of these slopes made cameos when Nagano hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, I invite my inner-scaredy cat out to play on them with a mountain-biking tour of Nozawa Onsen. The adrenaline starts with a thrilling glass-floored gondola ride to the trailhead, then peaks on the 10km downhill run. As a first-timer, I find the beginner’s trail equal parts challenging and fun, but there are additional courses for experienced riders. 

Shiraito Falls
Shiraito Falls © Rachelle Mackintosh

Wild waters course through the New Golden Route, too, and in Gunma’s Minakami area, Ziggies Adventures leads rafting trips on the Tone River. As I’m visiting late in the summer, the shallows show no sign of the challenging Class Four rapids the area is famous for (spring is the best time for those). But this roll on the river reveals a whole new view of this wild landscape – especially as I float on my back in some of the clearest waters I’ve ever seen, looking up at a cobalt sky framed by sleeping volcanoes and emerald forests. It’s a fitting, awe-inspiring end to a gentle adventure in Tokyo’s wild backyard.

Local pottery; Harunire Terrace shopping area, Karuizawa
Local pottery; Harunire Terrace shopping area, Karuisawa © Rachelle Mackintosh

Visit the Japan National Tourism Organization for more information.

TRAVEL FACTS

How to get to Nagano

All Nippon Airways (ANA) offer daily flights between Australia and Tokyo. To access the Nagano/Gunma area, take the train from Tokyo Station on the JR Hokuriku-Shinkansen (about 90 minutes). 

Where to stay in Nagano and Gunma

Karuisawa: The Twin Line Hotel
Nowaza Onsen: Ryokan Sakoya
Minakami: Bettei Senjuan

street performer Karuizawa train station
Street performer Karuizawa train station © Rachelle Mackintosh

Read more:
A beginner’s guide to island hopping Japan’s Seto Inland Sea
Get a taste of the real Japan in Nagano and Kanazawa
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