Traveling Around the Japanese Alps by Bus

August 9th, 2019 by
Category: Accomodations, Information, Outdoor Activities, Sightseeing


The village of Shirakawa-go
The Hida Mountains straddle the borders of Toyama, Gifu, Nagano, and Niigata prefectures. Also known as the Northern Japanese Alps, these mountains rise to 3,000-meter heights.

These precipitous, natural barriers have separated the geographic center of Japan from cities like Kyoto and Edo, allowing unique rural communities and cultures to develop. Even today, you can see the remnants of small farming villages tucked away in steep valleys and old trade towns that retain their Edo period atmosphere.

Famous sights such as Matsumoto Castle, Takayama City, and Shirakawa-go are all within reach of the Japanese Alps. And who would want to miss the majestic scenery of the mountains from Kamikochi and Mt. Norikura?

Take a 3-Day trip to the Japanese Alps to enjoy the best it has to offer.

Table of Contents

Day 1: Matsumoto, Kamikochi, and Shirahone
Day 2: Norikura Kogen and Takayama
Day 3: Takayama and Shirakawa-go
Access around the Japanese Alps

Day 1: Matsumoto, Kamikochi and Shirahone

Matsumoto

Counter-clockwise from top: Matsumoto Castle, Nakamachi-dori street, the Matsumoto City Museum of Art, the Yayoi Kusama exhibition

Matsumoto City, located in the middle of Nagano Prefecture, is famous for Matsumoto Castle. One of five national treasure castles in Japan, it fascinates visitors with its unique architecture and stunning black and white contrast.

Along the river just south of the castle are several streets which retain an atmosphere of times gone by, like the Showa-retro Nakamise-dori, sometimes called “Frog Street,” and the Edo period-like Nakamachi-dori, lined with rows of white, earthen-walled storehouses. There are many souvenir shops selling Matsumoto crafts and stylish cafes and bakeries where you can relax and enjoy the scenery.

Before heading into the great outdoors, visit the Matsumoto City Museum of Art’s permanent exhibition of the works of Kusama Yayoi, a native of the city. You’ll see her characteristic polka dots many places throughout town, on flowers, on posters, and even on the city’s buses.

If you love traditional Japanese woodblock prints, you may also want to check out the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, a museum that features the largest single collection of Ukiyo-e prints in the world—the exhibitions, however, are admittedly small.

Getting to Kamikochi from Matsumoto

After taking in the castle and culture of Nagano’s most creative city, begin your adventure into the heart of the Japanese Alps.

Take the Kamikochi line train from Matusmoto Station to Shinshimashima Station, then take the Kamikochi line bus to Kamikochi from there.

Kamikochi

Counter-clockwise from top: views from Kappa Bridge, tranquil Myojin Pond, Dakesawa Marsh, and Myojin Bridge.
Kamikochi is a 1,500-meter-high basin that sits at the foot of the Japanese Alps. The views of the Hotaka mountains from the Kappa Bridge, with their palettes of verdant green, cerulean blue and glistening white, are simply stunning.

The flat basin is easy to walk, allowing almost anyone to enjoy the unspoiled nature of Chubu Sangaku National Park. Routes around the park start at just about an hour and can reach five hours or more, depending on how far up the river you want to go. There are also numerous mountain climbing routes to the alps’ highest peaks, which range from single day to multi-day treks.

Some of Kamikochi’s most scenic points include Taisho Pond, the Kappa Bridge, Myojin Pond, and Dakesawa Marsh. You can start at Taisho Pond and loop around them all in just about 4 to 4.5 hours.

After you’ve enjoyed trekking in Kamikochi, you can stay in nearby Shirahone Onsen.

Getting from Kamikochi to Shirahone

One direct bus to Shirahone departs from Kamikochi every day at 15:35, reaching Shirahone at 16:19. To reach Shirahone at different time, take the Shinshimashima—Kamikochi line bus to Oyakidaki, then change to the Shirahone line bus from there.

Staying in Shirahone Onsen

Counter-clockwise from top: Shirahone’s famous konyoku hot spring: Awa no Yu, the entrance to Shirahone Onsen, Yumoto Saito Ryokan, and Shirahone’s quiet wooded street.
Shirahone Onsen, or “White Bone Hot Spring,” is a secluded hot spring area known for its milky blue waters with powerful healing properties. People say that if you soak in the springs here for three days, you won’t catch a cold for a whole year.

There are many hot spring hotels and traditional Japanese ryokan inns where you can relax the night away. The peaceful surroundings and healing waters will be a memorable and rejuvenating experience. Popular hotels include: Shirafune Grand Hotel, Yumoto Saito Ryokan, Awa no Yu, and Sansuikan Yugawaso.

Hot spring therapy, called touji, was once a common treatment for a variety of ills. Patients would bathe—and even drink—hot spring water, improving their circulation from both inside and out. For an authentic experience of Japan’s hot springs, why not do the same? You can drink fresh hot spring water from several fountains around Shirahone, and the ryokan here even prepare their meals utilizing Shirahone’s mineral-rich spring water. Delicious!

Day 2: Norikura and Takayama

In the morning, take the Kamikochi—Norikura—Shirahone line bus from Shirahone to the Norikura Kogen Tourism Information Center.

Norikura Kogen


Top: Zengoro Falls, bottom middle: Azami Pond

Norikura Kogen is a highland area at the base of Mt. Norikura, not far from Shirahone and Kamikochi.

The highest peak of Norikura, Kengamine, is 3,206 meters high and is the 19th tallest mountain in Japan. It is also the easiest three-thousander to climb in the country, as the Tatamidaira line bus takes you all the way up to an altitude of 2,716 meters. From Tatamidaira, you can make a round-trip hike to the top in just three hours.

There are also plenty of trails in the highlands below Mt. Norikura. From the Norikura Information Center, you can take a trail around many of the area’s waterfalls and ponds. Zengoro Falls, a 21.5-meter-high and 8-meter-wide waterfall, is just a 30-minute walk from the center. (See Zengoro Falls in winter)

The trail is well maintained with many wooden bridges spanning the running rivers and staircases on steeper sections. Continuing on to Ushidome and Azami ponds, the trail lasts about 3 hours in total, ending back at the Norikura tourism center.

Getting to Takayama from Norikura

There are two ways to get to Takayama from Norikura.

One: from the Norikura Kogen Tourism Center, take the Norikura bus towards Shinshimashima/Kamikochi and get off at Oyako-daki. From there, cross the street and board the next bus heading towards Takayama.

Two: from Tatamidaira, take the Norikura—Hirayu bus to Honoki Daira, then switch to the Shinhotaka—Takayama bus headed to Takayama.

Takayama


Scenes from Takayama’s old town

Takayama is located in modern day Gifu Prefecture to the west of the Japanese Alps. Thanks to the plentiful lumber in the area, Takayama prospered in woodworking and become famous throughout Japan for its skilled craftsmen and elegant products. Now, slices of Takayama’s old Edo Period townscape can still be seen to the east of the Miyagawa River, where many shops and sake breweries still stand today.

The Takayama Festival (held in April and October) is one of Japan’s most famous festivals, where extravagant wooden floats are paraded through the streets of old town. Showcasing the impeccable craftsmanship of Takayama’s carpenters and woodworkers, some of the floats are even decorated with mechanical puppets called karakuri ningyo, which you can see performing during the festival.

If not visiting during the festival, you can still see some of its parade floats at the Yatai Kaikan exhibition hall next to Sakurayama Hachiman Shrine.

Stay in Takayama

Hanaougi Bettei Iiyama in Takayama City
There are many ryokan inns and western-style hotels around Takayama City and its old town from which to choose. You can see some of Tayakama’s most highly recommended ryokans and hotels here.

If you’d like the full Japanese experience with delicious kaiseki meals and soothing hot springs, we recommend visiting Hanaougi Bettei Iiyama—a cozy and elegant inn just outside of town. The interior decor is reminiscent of a Japanese countryside home, with exposed wooden beams, fresh tatami floors and a traditional irori hearth. The rooms share a similar design and are equipped with modern comforts such as TV, Wifi, and soft, raised-off-the-floor beds. Dinner, of course, features the area’s famous Hida Beef.

Day 3: Takayama and Shirakawa-go

Take a morning shuttle to Takayama Bus Terminal and from there board the bus to Shirakawa-go. The trip takes just about 50 minutes.

Shirakawa-go


Counter-clockwise from top: Shirakawa-go seen from the castle observation deck, butsudan altar inside a gassho-zukuri house, rafters, and the Minka-en Heritage Museum
Shirakawa-go is a Unesco World Heritage site, easily recognized by the tall a-frame houses with thatched rooves. This style, called gassho-zukuri in Japanese, is said to resemble the hands of monks in prayer. The steep rooves were important in the Hida region due to the heavy snowfall in winter.

Many of the gassho-zukuri houses remain here in this rural village, still occupied by locals. You can even see inside some of the houses, which, having been abandoned, are now open to the public as museums (see the Wada House, Nagase House, and Kanda House). You can see traditional fixtures of Japanese houses, like irori hearths and butsudan altars, as well as the construction of the houses themselves. The tall a-frame afforded these houses three stories, the second and third of which were usually used to cultivate silk worms.

The best views of the village are from the observation deck atop a nearby mountain ridge. A shuttle bus runs regularly from town. You can also walk up yourself if you’d like a bit of a workout (20 min. from Shirakawa-go Bus Terminal).

The Minka-en Heritage Museum has many gassho-zukuri houses that were abandoned and relocated, showcasing a traditional village from a bygone era. You can walk inside all of the buildings and learn more about their construction, how they were used, and the lifestyles of the people who lived in them.

From Shirakawa-go Onward

Around the Japanese Alps are many ancient villages, idyllic basins and highlands to explore. And thanks to their location near the center of Japan, they are also conveniently close to many other popular sightseeing areas. Kanazawa and Toyama are just a bus ride away from Shirakawa-go and Takayama, and the post towns of the Nakasendo and the Daio Wasabi Farm are just a train ride away from Matsumoto, with Jigokudani Yaen Koen just a few hours away. Depending on what else you’d like to see during your visit, you can make your trip from Matsumoto to Takayama or the other way around.

Access around the Japanese Alps

Train and Bus

Japanese Alps Access MapShinshimashimaStationMatsumotoStationNorikuraKogenShirahoneOnsenKamikochiSawandoHirayuOnsenShinhotakaRopewayTakayama Nohi Bus CenterHonokiDairaTatamidaira12356410AsamaOnsenUtsukushigaharaOnsenOyakodaki1112Shirakawa-go987

Matsumoto and Takayama cities are your main gateways to the Japanese Alps. Access to the alps is covered by the Alpico and Nohi bus companies, as well as the Kamikochi train line, which connects Matsumoto and Shinshimashima Station.

You can see timetables for each of the bus lines at the links below.

Buses and Trains around the Japanese Alps

  1. Kamikochi Train (check timetables via Hyperdia)
  2. Shinshimashima—Kamikochi Bus
  3. Matsumoto—Hirayu-Takayama Bus
  4. Shinshimashima—Norikura Bus
  5. Shinshimashima—Shirahone Onsen Bus
  6. Norikura—Tatamidaira Bus
  7. Tatamidaira—Honoki Daira Bus
  8. Takayama Bus Center—Hirayu Onsen–Shin-hotaka Ropeway Bus
  9. Takayama—Shirakawa-go Bus
  10. Hirayu—Kamikochi Bus
  11. Asama Onsen Bus (timetable in Japanese)
  12. Utuskushigahara Onsen Bus (timetable in Japanese)

The Alps Wide Free Passport

The Alps Wide Free Passport covers all of the buses included in the access map above for a period of four consecutive days. If you plan to spend several days around the alps visiting areas like Kamikochi, Takayama, Matsumoto and Shirakawa-go, then this pass may be beneficial to you.

In addition to the regular 4-day pass, a 4-day pass that includes round-trip fare along the Shin-hotaka Ropeway is also available.

Price

Ticket type 4-Day 4-Day + Shin-hotaka Ropeway
Season Apr. to Nov. Dec. to Mar. Apr. to Nov. Dec. to Mar.
Adults 10,290 8,800 12,000 9,800
Children 5,150 4,400 6,000 4,900

Access by Car

Those with cars should be aware that access to Kamikochi and Norikura are restricted. If you’re planning to visit Kamikochi, park your car at Sawando Bus Terminal and take a bus from there to the park. If you’re planning to visit Tatamidaira at the top of Norikura, you can park your car at the Norikura Kogen Tourism Information Center and take a bus from there.

Two Days of Driving Around the Roof of Japan

August 16th, 2018 by
Category: Accomodations, Culture Art, Information, Sightseeing

Driving among the clouds
Surrounded by the 3,000-meter-high mountains of the Japanese Alps, Nagano Prefecture is called “the Roof of Japan.” Its gorgeous alpine scenery and breezy highlands attract visitors year-round.

In Central Nagano, several highland areas extend from the base of the Yatsugatake mountains past Lake Suwa towards Matsumoto. Ranging in heights from 1,400 to 2,200 meters, the lofty plains here have panoramic views of the Northern, Central and Southern Alps. They’re the perfect place to escape the summer heat and enjoy a scenic drive. On these roads, you’re at eye level with the clouds—like you’re driving through the sky.
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The Japanese Alps are an Overlooked Gem

July 17th, 2018 by
Category: Accomodations, Information, Miscellaneous

If you are planning a summer trip to Japan, blocking off time to spend in the Alps is a must!

On a recent two week trip to Japan, my wife and I spent three nights in Nagano prefecture. If your research has gone anything like ours did, very little information online or in travel books is devoted towards this area specifically- besides a mention of the world-class winter sports available during the winter months. As far as the summer, the recommendations are nearly non-existent.

We came to Nagano for a friend’s wedding; knowing little of the area beforehand, we were amazed at the region’s beauty when we first arrived. The green forests and lush mountains, whether set in sunrise or sunset, were striking against the canvas of pinks, purples, yellows, and blues in the sky. We spent much of our time taking in the panoramas of mountains unlike any others we had seen in the past. Aside from the views, we appreciated the mountain life. The slower pace was refreshing after being around the buzz of bustling Kyoto and Tokyo.

Suwa-Shi, Nagano The serene beauty of the lush forested mountains atop smaller towns and roads will take your breath away.

Hoshino Risonare Yatsugatake
Nearly in any direction you looked, glimpses of the multiple mountain ranges were visible.

Kobuchizawa Station, Hokuto
Even the stops at train stations and the interlays of shrines & statues were beautiful.

Hoshino Risonare Yatsugatake
The resort displayed a whimsical appreciation for the seasons with the fun display of colored umbrellas for the rainy season.

We ended up staying at a Risonare Yatsugatake in Yamanashi wine country. This resort was magnificent between phenomenal staff, a plethora of available events/activities, and the quality of the facilities. Whether you want to actually book nights there (which we highly recommend) or just decide to make the day trip, there is plenty to do. The Hoshino resort’s campus holds an array of activities including: shopping, cafes, restaurants, a wave pool, wine tastings, ropes course, horseback riding, bike rentals, arts & crafts, and even a public bath for those staying at the resort. While we were unable to venture out much during our stay, since all the wedding festivities were on campus, we never got bored due to the multitude of options available.

The awe-inspiring sacred mountain continued to warm our hearts and souls at all times of day.

Lastly, the resort and surrounding areas provided ample opportunity to catch glimpses of Fujisan even 75+ miles out. While we only spent slightly more than 48 hours in the Alps (of our 11 day trip), this region now holds some of our fondest memories. We wished we could have done more while there, but now we have even more of a reason to return in the coming months and years.


Bio

My name is Brandon Shell and I currently find refuge amongst the beautiful long leaf pines, lakes, mountains, beaches, and community of North Carolina in the United States. While my wife and I both grew up here, we have always had a passion for changing the trajectory of our families’ legacies through authentic travel experiences. The relationships made while traveling are the most satisfying aspect of our adventures.

We are passionate about leading relationally within our own professions and hobbies all the while blogging our passions on the side. We strive to share with the world how to live intentionally and ethically by seeing daily choices as opportunities for making an impact on communities, both near and far. We document our travels, health, and nutrition choices in a variety of capacities on our blog and on Instagram @wecausewecare. We hope that we can continue to travel for the rest of our lives and leave a legacy that even our grandchildren will one day be proud of!

Social Media:
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Experiencing the Japanese Countryside in Chikuma

November 30th, 2016 by
Category: Accomodations, Culture Art, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities

Tyler shows our group some Showa era graffiti on a local earthern wall.

On a beautiful fall day, I joined a group of foreigners on a cycling tour of Togura Kamiyamada Onsen south of Chikuma City. The area was once home to several mountain castles and a post town so there is a wealth of history in the area. Our guide, local ryokan owner and area expert Tyler, took us along beautiful mountain roads and pointed out interesting relics and features along the way.
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Nagano’s Quiet Samurai Town

June 21st, 2016 by
Category: Accomodations, Experience, Sightseeing

Matsushiro castle in spring.

Matsushiro was once the domain of the Sanada clan, the samurai family starring in NHK’s newest historical drama, Sanada Maru. The Matsushiro domain covered the largest area of the Shinano province and thrived as a castle town during the Edo period. Now the Matsushiro area is a sleepy, undeveloped town with pristine artifacts of its Samurai history.

A group of us visited Matsushiro recently to learn more about its history and enjoy some cultural activities and local food.

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Norikura Nature Walk, Snowshoe-style

March 7th, 2016 by
Category: Accomodations, Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

The Japanese Alps are a treasure trove of natural wonder, and knowledgeable guides at Little Peaks in Norikura are just the ones to  reveal the splendor.  Today I had the pleasure of joining in a magical snowshoeing tour of Norikura.

Here is how the adventure went:

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Japanese-Style Illumination Has Started at Asama Hot Spring, Matsumoto

December 26th, 2014 by
Category: Accomodations, Events, Onsens (Hot Springs)

In Japan, the winter is a season of “illumination”. There are some beautiful illumination spots lighted up by LEDs. In Nagano, Karuizawa, Azumino, and Suzaka’s ​illumination events are famous.

This winter, not large but unique illumination has started at Asama Hot Springs in Matsumoto. It is Japanese taste design lighting in front of Hot Plaza Asama, a day trip hot spring​ facility. You can watch the “healing illumination” while soaking your feet in the free foot hot spring.

Japanese-style illumination of origami cranes and Matsumoto temari balls, made and played in the castle in Edo period.

The lights on trees are designed to twinkle by natural wind, like stars in the sky.

Because of the M 6.7 earthquake that occurred on 22nd November and damaged some portions in Hakuba and Northern Nagano, even hotels in Asama Hot Springs suffered from cancellations, even though Matsumoto is in the center of Nagano Prefecture and didn’t have any direct damage.

Now, there are no problems at all sightseeing spots and ski resorts in Nagano, including transportation.

Kick-off ceremony of illumination

People in Asama Onsen hope this beautiful illumination will overcome the quake.​

Asama Hot Spring is located in a convenient place in Matsumoto, Nagano. It is just a ten minute bus ride from Matsumoto Castle. It also has a very long history, 1,300 years or more and feudal lords of the Castle visited there in the Edo period (17th century).

All the lights are LEDs using small amounts of electricity

The illumination​ is shining 5pm to 0am until April 19.

More than twenty traditional Japanese ryokans in Asama Onsen and the illumination​ are wating for you.

Nagano’s Ryokans Recognized by TripAdvisor.com

January 26th, 2013 by
Category: Accomodations, Information

Tripadvisor.com, which features travel reviews from people around the world, announced their Travelers’ Choice 2013 Awards.

For the B&B / Inns category of the Top 25 that received the award, 7 are from here, Nagano Prefecture. That’s the most of any prefecture — more than even Kyoto! That goes to show the high level of customer service provided by ryokans in Nagano.

The 7 ryokans from Nagano that received the award are:

Biyu no Yado, Shimaya Ryokan and Matsuya from Yamanouchi Town by the snow monkeys,

The venerable Hanaya Ryokan in Bessho Onsen,

Historical Fujioto Ryokan in Tsumago, a post town along the old Nakasendo Road,

Friendly Seifuso in Matsumoto in between the castle and Asama Onsen,

and a certain little inn here in our onsen town, Togura-Kamiyamada.

Of the thousands of inns throughout Japan, 7 of the Top 25 as selected by tripadvisor.com‘s reviewers are in Nagano. So when you think about where to experience a stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan, Nagano Prefecture is a great place to consider.

Tripadvisor.com Travelers’ Choice 2013 Top 25 B&Bs and Inns in Japan

Omachi: Onsen and horseback archery

July 4th, 2012 by
Category: Accomodations, Events, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs)

Lately I have been  ‘researching’ Nagano’s top onsens.  One I went to recently was Omachi Onsen in the foothills of the Japanese Alps, north of Matsumoto and south of Hakuba.

Omachi Onsen is relatively new, having come into existence around the construction of the Kurobe Dam and the Tateyama Alpine Route in 1971. It’s a planned onsen resort with spacious, wooded lots (average hotel lot size is 7000m2) and nice, wide lanes. Perfect for walking or cycling, with a tributary to the Takase River to play in and views of the grand Japanese Alps. Besides being the Nagano gateway to the Alpine Route, Omachi is also convenient to Aoki Lake and Azumino (famous for art museums and wasabi fields).

Omachi Onsen’s 14 hotels offer a wide variety of accommodation. From 11-room boutique-like Azumino Kawasho to massive 170-room Tateyama Prince Hotel. In between is the posh Shoen (part of the Hoshino Resort chain), Ryokan Kashiwa-sou with the charismatic Sachie-san charming the guests, the German Alps-themed Kurobe Kanko Hotel, and more. There is also an onsen bathhouse for daytrippers, Yakushi-no-Yu.

The onsen water originates in Kuzu Onsen, 10km upstream where it comes out of the ground at 66.3C. The water is simple mineral water with low alkalidity and low osmotic pressure.
大町温泉郷Omachi Onsen

I’d like to introduce two of the onsen facilities, the daytrippers bathhouse Yakushi-no-Yu and the ryokan where I stayed this time, Hotel Yamada-ya.

Yakushi-no-Yu is Omachi Onsen’s main bathhouse. I went during an off-peak time on a weekday morning, but there were still plenty of bathers. It’s a popular bathhouse. One of the indoor baths is pure onsen water but the temperature was so low, nobody was bathing in it. Instead, everyone was in the larger indoor bath which is heated and recirculated. The outdoor bath was spacious but would have been more enjoyable if it had a view of the Alps. The outdoor bath made of river rocks is apparently only operating in the summer, so unfortunately I wasn’t able to enjoy it.
薬師の湯Yakushi no Yu

Yakushi no Yu's entrance

Hotel Yamada-ya’s owners provide surprisingly friendly service considering its size (51 rooms). The indoor bath was nice and spacious but I always like outdoor baths more.
大町ホテル山田屋 Omachi Hotel Yamadaya

Hotel Yamada-ya's Inviting Outdoor Bath

During my visit, I had the privelege of meeting the mayor of Omachi. It turns out Ushikoshi-san is an avid archery fan. I promised to put the word out about Omachi’s upcoming horse-back archery event, Yabusame. Officially called the Omachi Nyakuichi-Oji Festival, the main event will take place on Sunday 22-July this year (2012) with a procession to start at Omachi Station around 10am, winding up at Nyakuichi Oji Shrine around 3pm for the childrens’ archery demonstration.
Omachi Yabusame Archery Event (English – translation by Yours Truly)

Access to Omachi is via Route 147 from Matsumoto, or via the JR Oito Line from Matsumoto Station.  There is regular bus service from Shinanoomachi Station to Omachi Onsen and continuing on to Ogisawa, the start of the Tateyama-Kurobe Dam Alpine Route.