Rising from the bottom of the ocean at incredible speeds, the Sekida Mountains formed between about 1 million and 700 thousand years ago, with Mt. Madarao and Mt. Kuroiwa being formed later by volcanic activity between 700 and 500 thousand years ago. The strata of the mountains consist of sediment layers from the Sea of Japan, which started penetrating the mountains about 15 million years ago and continued to add layers up until 3 or 4 million years ago. The area lying between Tomikura and the northern region of the mountains consists of 5 million year old mudstone, making the area very prone to landslides.
Since about 1 million years ago until present, The Sekida Mountains have been growing at an average rate of about 1mm per year. The Sekida Mountains are exceptional in that they were formed over an extremely short period of time- they are the only mountains in Japan that have reached heights of 1,000m given a time span of only 1 million years. They are also the tallest mountains in Japan to exhibit stratifications that are characteristic of the Quaternary Period of the Cenozoic Era. These quaternary period strata are extremely fragile- shaped incredibly quickly by volcanic activity, the bases of the Sekida Mountains contain countless fissures and gaps. Compared to the curved, gradual slopes of the Nagano side, the steep precipices of the Niigata side are a landslide prone area even today.
The terraced rice paddies seen in the ravines of Niigata were forged by hand by local ancestors after major landslides. As landslides are caused by an excess of water, the aftermath made a perfect environment for growing rice. Paddies also help to solidify unstable slopes and drain moisture out of hazardous places. Working and living with nature has prevented these disasters from expanding to wider areas.
The area can be divided into three characteristic regions: the south, middle and north. The southern region from Mt. Madarao to Wakui consists of the volcanic rocks that make up Mt. Madarao and the intrusive rocks that form Hakama Peak and Mt. Kenashi. The middle region, which runs from Wakui to Mt. Nabekura, is a perfect example of the snow-eroded strata land formations and steep precipices found on the side of the Iiyama Basin. The northern region from Mt. Nabekura to Mt. Amamizu exhibits landslide and collapsed landforms, most notably in Niigata. This allows for many spectacular views of this area.
* Excerpts have been taken from Hitoshi Minaki’s Sekai Ichi no Yamanami: Sekida Sanmyaku.
The Sekida Mountains, about 30 km away from the Sea of Japan, receive some of the heaviest snowfall in the world. The north westerly seasonal wind from the Eurasian Continent, absorbing as much vapor as it can when passing over the Sea, brings heavy snowfall on the Shin-etsu region as it collides with the mountains. Snowfall can be up to 2 meters deep in the lowlands and 6 meters deep near the mountains. Historical records for snowfall from around this region, include the 7.85 m deep snowfall in Sakaemura (Nagano) on February 12th, 1945, and the 8.18 m deep snowfall in Jōetsu-shi Itakura-ku (Niigata) on February 13th, 1927. The months between April and October are good for trekking, although early spring and late autumn may see sleet along with temperatures falling below zero °C. Between May and June, snow may still remain in some places. Be quick to respond to climate changes, and know your maps and directions well.
This area is filled with a wide variety of forest scenery, perhaps most notable being the beech trees. Providing the locals with fuel and food, beech trees have been the very essence of local people's lives since olden times. In addition to beech forests, there are also extensive pre-war cedar plantations, as well as broadleaf forests of Japanese oak and other deciduous trees that flourish after logging.
Just as the snow starts to melt in early spring, anise magnolia, beech and painted maple flowers are out in full bloom. After the snow melts, the Shin-etsu Trail becomes dotted with alpine snowbells and snow camellias. Additionally, the Sea of Japan region of the country is host to several species of plants that have adapted to the heavy winter snows. Wetland flora such as Nabekura skunk cabbages (indigenous to Sekida Mountains area), Asian skunk cabbages, and marsh marigolds are common examples. Many plants in this area have larger leaves than their counterparts in other regions. This is because longer winters means shorter growing periods, and thus the need for more efficient photosynthesis. Many of their names contain the prefixes, “oo-“ or “ooba-“, meaning large or large leafed plants.
In autumn, beech, Japanese rowan, maple , and cranberry trees welcome hikers with their brilliant fall colors.
The Sekida Mountains are home to a variety of animals, including large mammals like the Asiatic black bear and the Japanese serow, predatory birds such as eagles, hawks, and owls, as well as a variety of small animals and even microscopic lifeforms. If not for this fertile natural environment, shaped by the deciduous broadleaf forests of beech and Japanese oak, the coniferous forests of pine and larch, along with expansive fields and the many basins of the Chikuma River and Seki River, this variety of life forms surely would not exist.
While trekking, you will frequently encounter insects such as butterflies and dragonflies, as well as many birds. There are also many nocturnal animals, including rabbits, foxes, raccoon dogs and martens. Even if you do not see the animals themselves, you will find evidence of their activities, such as droppings and scratch marks on tree trunks.
A rich variety of birds can be found around the villages and mountainsides of the Sekida Mountains. The Shin-etsu Trail Club conducted an unprecedented survey of the surrounding birds, reporting 82 new species. This area is filled with everything from yellow buntings, meadow buntings, narcissus flycatchers, blue-and-white flycatchers, Japanese thrushes, ashy minivets, cinnamon sparrows, to families of chickadees and woodpeckers. In autumn, spotted nutcrackers and red-flanked bluetails, which are normally subalpine species, can be seen near Maki Gap and near the peak of Mt. Madarao. Additionally, ten different species of raptors can be found in this area, including endangered golden eagles -- further highlighting the spectacular diversity of the local ecosystem. An abundance of rabbits and snakes, along with wide open fields and an ascending air current that comes in from the north make this area perfect for hunting, creating an ideal habitat for these birds of prey.
Cedar waxwings, rosefinches, oriental honey-buzzards, common buzzards and grey-faced buzzards all use this mountain range for their seasonal migration routes. Flocks of common buzzards which travel along these mountain routes, along with Individual common buzzards that nest in Mt. Nabekura, have also been discovered.
Used for cultural, historical and life exchanges since the beginning of the history, there are several passes that weave through the ridges of Mt. Nabekura and Mt. Kurokura, roughly the center of the Sekida Mountains. There are 16 passes that connect Nagano and Niigata, formerly known as Shinshūu and Echigo.
The fact that most of these passes were named after nearby villages of the Echigo side, emphasizes that these passes were very important for the Echigo people, being the major trade and traffic routes to Shinshū. Additionally for the Shinshū people, it was seen as prestigious to marry a hard working Echigo girl, and many happy couples were borne over the border.
There are records of salt, rice, sake and mulberry material for papermaking being carried over from Echigo to be handed over to Shinshū tradesmen. People also used the passes for visiting Zenkoji, as well as Nozawa Onsen for refreshing hot-spring treatments. There were teahouses placed around the pass, using the fresh spring water for brewing tea, as well as hotels for travelers and tradesmen. During the Sengoku Period, Kenshin Uesugi built mountain castles and military passes for the campaign in the Battle of Kawanakajima. There were also settlements where Echigo Goze (also Takada Goze: blind female traveling musicians) and Naniwabushi artists gathered, raising cultural standards and making important cultural exchanges.
There is an old saying, "There are no yakuza in snow countries." Yakuza are members of the Japanese mafia, and the saying highlights the idea that cooperation is a must for survival in the harsh living conditions of cold, snowy regions.
These days, we of course have machines to clear snow out of the roads. But in the olden days, snow clearing was a big job, and every family had to combine their efforts to get the job done. Together, they stomped down the snow to ensure that vital passes were usable, and raked off rooftops so that the houses would not collapse. Small, moat-like structures called, “tane” were built around houses to melt the raked snow. In summer, tane were used to wash farming equipment as well as refrigerate vegetables. This water too was the gift of the heavy snow and beech forest-covered mountains.
Try stepping of the trail from time to time to wander through these villages -- getting a feel for the historic culture and lifestyles of the area will undoubtedly be an experience not soon forgotten.
Japanese beech trees (excluding Inubuna, Fagus japonica) grow almost exclusively in areas of heavy snowfall. Because of this, side of the country that faces the Sea of Japan is replete with several forests made entirely of beech trees. Where as little as 50cm of snow is enough to damage or even break most trees, beech trees are especially suited for areas with heavy snowfall. They are flexible and survive by bending under snowfall rather than breaking under it. Snow, also protects beech seeds against the bitter cold, increasing the chances of the beech’s growth. Spring leaves bud quickly and allow for a longer photosynthesis period than other trees, all in all making beech trees a winner of snowy region botanical competition. The Sekida Mountain area is home to one of the most dense beech forests in Japan, most notably that just north of Mt. Nabekura. The Shin-etsu Trail running through this area could be rightly dubbed, “the Trail of Beech”.
The fact that people were and are able to inhabit this area of extreme snowfall owes a lot to the existence of beech trees. The beech tree’s superb water holding capability functions as a natural reservoir, providing water for drinking and irrigation. Despite some beliefs that beech is not an appropriate building material, a survey of many of the old surviving dwellings in this region shows that beech was used even for supporting beams, and that they show no signs of shrinking or twisting after all these years. By preserving the mother trees and only logging surplus growth, local people kept alive the healthy, sustainable forest from which they obtained their housing material, along with the fuel necessary for living.
Animals too benefit from the beech forests bears and other animals consume the beech's highly nutricious seeds, a staple for prehibernation preparations. Beech forests are truly forests of life.