Climbing Mt. Tsubakuro

September 1st, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities

The final stretch of trail to the peak of Mt. Tsubakuro is incredibly picturesque.

Mt. Tsubakuro (2,763m) is a very popular destination in the Northern Japanese Alps due to its unique appearance and beautiful alpine flora. Its well-maintained trails, convenient rest areas and lodges, and beautiful scenery make it a must-hike spot in Nagano.

The trailhead begins from Nakabusa Onsen at an altitude of 1,462m. The trail continues through the forest for a majority of the climb before breaking through the tree line for the last hour or so. Rest areas are spaced evenly throughout the hike, with four bench areas in the woods followed by the Kassen-goya hut and the Enzanso mountain lodge above the tree line. From the lodge, the peak is approximately 40 minutes.

The trailhead starts from Nakabusa Onsen at 1,462m.

Roundtrip, the hike takes about 9.5 hours (6 hours up, 3.5 hours down), with an altitude difference of 1,300m. Most people stay at the night at the Enzanso lodge, but it is possible to hike in a single day with the proper level of fitness.

In the distance you can make out the conical shape of Mt. Fuji and the Yatsugatake mountains to its right.

This hike’s amazing views begin around the fourth bench. From here, you can see the Yatsugatake mountain range and Mt. Fuji standing proudly in the distance. From higher still, you can see the Hakuba mountains and Mt. Tsurugi as well. Once you reach Enzanso, the landscape opens up and you can enjoy panoramic views of the Northern Alps as well as Mt. Tsubakuro’s magnificent features.

Most striking is the peak’s vivid collage of grey, green and white. The ridgeline is covered in granite outcroppings, verdant shrubbery and swaths of bleached gravel. Viewed closer, the rocks take on unique and recognizable shapes. Along the trail you can find a lounging gorilla, a breaching dolphin, and a pair of glasses pointed at Mt. Yari. At your feet, small, pink komakusa flowers.

Mt. Tsubakuro’s famous dolphin rock, breaching in front of Mt. Yari.

And from the top of Mt. Tsubakuro, one can see the most beautiful view of all: the tan ridgeline of Omote-Ginza zigzagging along towards the rest of the Northern Alps. On the right day, the clouds lap the gravelly slopes of the mountains, curling and twisting like the great waves off Kanagawa, and the distant Enzanso lodge appears to float in the sky.

The Omote-Ginza ridge is breathtaking on a clear day

Mt. Tsubakuro’s scenery is breathtaking and is a must-hike peak for any climbing enthusiast. Its safe trails, convenient rest areas, and fully-stocked mountain lodge make it a great climb for families as well. Enjoy unparalleled views atop the Roof of Japan!

Access to Tsubakuro

Nakabusa Onsen can be reached by bus or taxi from JR Hotaka Station on the Oito line. From the Station, the ride to Nakabusa is approximately 60 minutes long. One-way bus fare is 1,700 yen, and one-way taxi fare 7,500 yen. You can see the bus schedule in Japanese here.

For drivers, there are three parking lots in the vicinity of the trailhead as well, and they have a total capacity of 120 cars. Because they fill up very quickly, you may want to park at the Miyashiro parking lot (next to the Yama-no-Takahei hotel and hot spring) and take a taxi from there instead (approximately 5,000 yen).

Accommodation and Hot Springs

Nakabusa Onsen

Nakabusa’s hot springs are rich sources of minerals and bubble out from the ground at a scalding 90&degC. The waters are natural cooled without the addition of water and pumped into the baths at a comfortable temperature. Guests can spend the night in the hotel and make use of a variety of hot spring baths. Day-users can enjoy separate indoor and outdoor baths for 700 yen. Open from late April to late November

Half Board: 9,500 to 21,000 Yen
Day-use hot spring hours: 9:30 to 16:00
Day-use entrance fee: 700 Yen


Enzanso Lodge

The Enzanso mountain lodge is one of the oldest lodges in the Northern Japanese Alps, originally built in 1921. It has since been renovated and can hold a capacity of 650 climbers with space for 30 tents. They have free bathrooms, plentiful benches, and food and drink for guests and passersby. Reservations can be made online here or via telephone. Open from late April to late November

Half board: 10,000 Yen
Room only: 6,400 Yen
Tent space: 1,000 Yen


Yama-no-Takahei

The Yama-no-Takahei hotel and hot spring is located about halfway between Hotaka Station and the Tsubakuro trailhead. The day-use hot spring is open late, so people making their way down the mountain in the early evening can still take a dip. The hot spring water here comes from the same mineral spring as Nakabusa.

Drivers may also want to park their car at the Miyashiro parking lot next to Yama-no-Takahei and take a taxi to the trailhead, as parking spaces near the trailhead fill up quickly.

Half board: 10,000 to 15,000 Yen
Day-use hot spring hours: 10:00-21:00
Day-use entrance fee: 500 Yen


More Hikes in Nagano!

If you’d like to learn about more hikes in Nagano, check out some of the links below.

Canyoning in Hakuba

August 8th, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities
Sliding down a canyon in Hakuba

About to drop into some seriously refreshing fun

There’s no better way to cool off during summer than taking a nice, long dip. Swimming, kayaking, rafting, and SUP are all popular ways to enjoy the water, but recently, canyoning has come into its own as a thrilling and refreshing summertime activity.

What is canyoning, you ask? Think of it as a series of natural water slides, zip-lines, and cannonball jumps. It’s a water park for adults, but with crystal clear streams, verdant forests and exciting vertical drops.

The Evergreen Outdoor Center in Hakuba offers several canyoning tours, so my friends and I signed up for a day of adventure.

A Full Day of Canyoning in Hakuba

Cannonball dive into the river

About to make a splash!

We arrived at Evergreen’s base center, Roots Café, just before 9 a.m. to sign in for our tour. From there, we met our guides for the day, Mitsu and Luke. They passed out our gear and showed us how to put on our wetsuits. It was my first time wearing one and oh boy was it snug. Next, we jumped into a pair of vans and headed up a winding gravel road towards our starting point.

Start of the canyoning tour

Walking through a shallow bed of rocks before reaching the first waterfall

The river was a 15 minute hike from where we were dropped off, giving us a chance to warm up and sweat a bit before jumping into the water. Aside from a few climbing pitons and ropes there were no other signs of civilization. We waded into the river and opened up our wetsuits to let in “refreshingly” cold water. Mitsu and Luke then taught us a few important hand signals for our adventure, and off we went!

The first zip-line along the canyon

There were a number of cliffs and waterfalls to descend that day, and depending on the height, we slid, jumped or zip-lined down them. The flow of water had carved out many impressive and comfortable slides in this valley, and there were a number of deep pools that were perfect for cannonballing into (or doing backflips if you were Luke).

Floating lazily in the water

Taking a break in one of the many clear pools along the ravine.

Despite the 36°C weather in the city, our shady canyon felt like paradise. We leisurely floated in clear pools of water while waiting for everyone to finish, and enjoyed splashing about and taking showers under the falls. All in all, it was a perfect mix of excitement and relaxation for hot summer’s day in Nagano.

Additional Information

The Evergreen Outdoor Center in Hakuba offers canyoning tours from May through October. You can learn more about them on their English website.

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A Summer’s Day of Sup at Iiyama’s Lake Hokuryuko

July 23rd, 2017 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Lake Hokuryuko is located in the northern part of Iiyama City. You can get a bus up there from Iiyama Station. I reckon strong cyclists could ride up to it in less than an hour from Iiyama station too. It is famous for being heart-shaped, but honestly, I couldn’t really notice from the shore. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of things to love about it.

A local outfitter rents kayaks and SUP (stand-up paddle) boards there. You can get lessons and guides as well. I am pretty confident in a kayak, but I had yet to try SUP so I thought I would give it a go. We had five in our group, so we could try the super SUP. It is massive! Apparently it can hold eight people, but we only had six on it including our guide. It is a really fun experience. I feel there aren’t many things nowadays, as an adult, which give you that same excitement and joy that you felt as a kid. Super SUP is sure to make you laugh and scream like you were six again. It’s not that hard to do, but it is just such a foreign feeling. Everyone’s little movements affect everyone else. There is no real sense of fear; the worst that could happen is that you fall in the lake, but we are all in life jackets anyway, so no danger. But there’s something about it, perhaps just the ridiculousness of the whole thing, which really brought a smile to my face.

There was another group doing super SUP too. We raced, chased, and rammed each other across the lake. You never get going that fast and it takes a lot of effort and communication to maneuver that thing, so it is pretty funny trying to manage all that without falling down.

You don’t, of course, have to paddle the thing like a maniac. With just five people on it, there’s plenty of space for everyone to sit with your legs in the water or even lie down to work on your tan.

Once we got our super SUP legs stable, we took a crack at normal SUP. It is about the size of a longboard surfboard. Standing on super SUP is a little tricky, but standing on SUP is hard. It is much more responsive and much less forgiving. I got the hang of it pretty quickly, but I was by no means good. Unlike kayaking, where you have a double-sided paddle, you only have a single paddle for SUP. This means that you have to keep switching sides every few strokes, if you want to have any semblance of going straight. Our guide could somehow paddle on just one side and go straight, but I couldn’t at all.

Again, something cool about SUP is that it is entirely up to you how you would like to experience it. If you want to take it easy, it feels perfectly stable from a seated or kneeling position. You can leisurely float about and relax on the lake. Or if you are feeling lively and want a thrill, you can try paddling as fast as you can, try different stance positions, and try to turn as sharply as you can. You can even challenge another SUPer to a match of SUP sumo!

To wrap this up, in my opinion, SUP is much more comfortable than other paddle sports, simply because you don’t have a “seat.” This may seem counter intuitive, but most of the water crafts that I’ve been in are kind of cramped, have very limited seating or position options, and are just not comfortable. But SUP is very free. You can sit or lie any way you wish.

Lake Hokuryuko also has camping, a café, and a rather nice looking hotel and restaurant with onsen hot springs boasting great views of the lake and the Chikuma river valley. In closing, Lake Hokuryu is a great place to spend a summer’s half-day or even a few days if you want to explore hiking around Kosuge as well. Definitely consider it if you are taking a trip out to Iiyama City or Nozawa Onsen Village.

Summer in Nagano: SUP on a Mountain Lake

July 20th, 2017 by
Category: Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities

Iiyama’s heart-shaped Hokuryu Lake is hidden in a valley on mystical Kosuge Mountain.  Not fed by any rivers or streams, the pristine lake is filled only with snow melt run-off and natural springs.

Romantic heart-shaped Hokuryu Lake

Recently my daughter and I had the opportunity to appreciate the lake doing SUP.

Stand-Up Paddling, a combination of surfboarding and canoeing, is a relatively new sport but it is gaining in popularity and is scheduled to make it’s Olympic debut at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.  Despite it being our first time, thanks to some skillful coaching by Powerdrive R117‘s charismatic owner, Gyaruman, we got the hang of SUP surprisingly quickly.  Soon we were skimming across Hokuryu Lake and enjoying the mountain scenery.  As we got more comfortable with the paddling, we tried a few rounds of SUP Sumo.  Losing was actually rewarding as it meant falling into the lake for a refreshingly cool splash.

Nagano is blessed with many scenic mountain lakes, and SUP is a perfect way to appreciate their natural beauty.  Friendly outfitters make it easy to enjoy even for beginners.  Besides Gyaruman and Powerdrive R117 at Hokuryu Lake in Iiyama, other popular alternatives include Evergreen Outdoor Center / Hakuba’s Lake Aoki and Sunday Planning / Nojiri Lake in northern Nagano.

Polynesian demigod? No, charming Gyaruman the SUP pro.

Hot Springs and Waterfalls in Matsukawa Gorge

June 29th, 2017 by
Category: Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities

The Matsukawa Gorge is especially beautiful during autumn.

The Matsukawa Gorge is a secluded area behind Takayama Village in Northern Nagano, and is a great stop for a day outdoors in nature. The steep walls of the valley hide a number of hot springs and waterfalls that are fed by mountain streams and volcanic activity, and the high altitude keeps the area cool even in summer.
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Little-known Great Spots in Kiso Valley Samurai Trail

May 7th, 2017 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Sightseeing

Nowadays, walking the old Nakasendo Road at Tsumago, Magome, and Narai is popular among foreign visitors, but they are crowded, especially in the early May ‘Golden Week’ holidays in Japan.

I visited the Uenodan area of the post town of Kiso-Fukushima (not Fukushima Prefecture) and Kozenji Temple near there to find some of the little-known great spots in the Kiso area. They are accessible by train (20 and 10 min walk from Kiso-Fukushima Station).

Uenodan is one of post towns in the Nakasendo Road. It is smaller than Tsumago and Narai, but very historical and cozy.
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Rafting with Cherry Blossoms in Spring

May 1st, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Last week at the height of cherry blossom season, we headed down to Azumino to enjoy some early spring rafting! The combination of fast currents, snow-capped mountains, and blooming cherry trees are perfect for an exciting and scenic day on the water.
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Hanami with a Tengu

April 19th, 2017 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

The Togura Tengu looks out over the Chikuma River Valley from his perch above Togura Station.  The park around him, Togura Kitty Park, is ablaze in pink at the moment, clearly pleasing the Tengu.

The park is within walking distance from Togura Station on the Shinano Railway Line, in between Ueda and Nagano Stations.  Besides the Tengu, there are a gazillion rabbits, 3 goats, 2 sheep and a godzilla.  Plus the longest slide you’ll ever see, a mini zip-line and other playground toys.  All with a great view of the valley below.  And all bathed in pink with cherry blossoms now.

Hakuba Happo One Ski Resort and the 2017 IVSI Congress

March 29th, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Report

Ski instructors from around the world train together during IVSI.

While the slopes are relatively quiet during late March, the Hakuba area welcomed delegations of ski instructors from around the world during the 2017 IVSI Congress (International Federation of Snowsport Instructors) for a week of skiing workshops, demonstrations, and lectures. Held every four years, this was the 13th congress and the second one to be held in Japan (Shigakogen in 1989).
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