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:
Around 8am, I left central Matsumoto City by car and drove up windy Route 158 towards Kamikochi before cutting over to Route 84, reaching the Norikura Tourism Center around 9am. NOTE: It is possible to take the train from Matsumoto Station to Shin-Shimashima and transfer to an Alpico bus to Norikura. Alternatively, spending the night at one of the 100+ lodges and inns in Norikura would allow for a more leisurely start in the morning.
The tour participants and I met ‘Matsu’, our guide from Little Peaks. After signing up for insurance, we walked over to the trailhead for Zengoro Falls.
After a 30 minute zig-zag ascent, we reached the falls. Legend has it that a fisherman named Zengoro caught a large char that dragged him downriver to the falls that were hence named after him. Matsu said that just two weeks prior, the 21.5-meter tall and 8-meter wide falls were frozen over and ice climbers were making their way up the massive icicle. Speaking of icicles, Matsu carefully made his way to the base of the falls to snap some crackled icicles for us to lick. (Chunks of ice and snow can break off and fall at any time, so the inexperienced should not approach the falls.)
After we left Zengoro Falls, a 30-minute walk through a picturesque birch forest took us to Ushidome Pond. On clear days during the green season, 3,026-meter tall Mt. Norikura reflects in the pond. Today it was frozen over, but still was a picture-perfect serene scene.
A further 15-minute stroll brought us to the Norikura ski area, from where we caught a ride back to the Tourism Center.
Trekking over the snow in snowshoes and seeing the dynamic Zengoro Falls and quiet Ushidome Pond was a delight, but Matsu’s fascinating explanation about the trees and wildlife were what made the walk extra special. Matsu taught us how the surface of the Veitch’s silver-fir (in Japanese, ‘shirabiso’) is covered in nodules filled with sweet-scented sap that protect the fir from the cold. He showed us distinct types of evergreen trees, including a unique pine whose needles come in clusters of 5 instead of 2. We were amazed to see the yellow berries of vine related to mistletoe, poisonous to humans and damaging to the host birch trees, but spread by birds who remove the shell and eat the gummy interior.
Matsu also arranged (?) for us to encounter a Japanese serow, and we got to see the stubby animal’s cow-like antics as he descended down a sharp hillside. it was probably laughing at us as we then clumsily maneuvered down the slope wearing our snowshoes. And there was a clump of branches high up in a tree, a sign a bear had been there eating acorns.
After the memorable snowshoe nature trek, we stopped for lunch and then finished off our Norikura excursion with a soak in the milky sulfur onsen water at the new Yukemurikan bath house. On clear days, Mt. Norikura can be seen from the baths. I can still smell the fragrant sulfur scent on my skin now as I type this, several hours later.
Snowshoeing, Norikura’s fascinating flora and fauna and dramatic water features, and the experienced explanation by the Little Peaks guide service — all in all, another classic Nagano adventure.
Little Peaks guided tours start from 5000 yen for 1/2 day treks. Equipment rental also available. To make a tour reservation, call or reserve through their website. Or, if you are staying in Norikura, your place of lodging could make arrangements. Northstar Alpine Lodge and Alpine Inn Mizushiro are two that especially cater to foreigners.