Japan’s major cities are great places to visit but can be packed to the brim with tourists and at times overwhelming. If you step out of the urban sprawl, you can see a completely different side of Japan filled with magnificent mountains, solemn historical sites, and delicious local cuisine.
Matsumoto is perfectly located for a long trip into Central Japan’s history and nature. With the Japanese Alps to the West, the Kiso Valley to the East, and one of Japan’s most popular castles smack dab in the middle of the city, Matsumoto has incredible sightseeing at its fingertips.
To get the most out of your stay in Matsumoto, we’ve put together a three-day trip to one of Nagano’s most cultured and happening cities.
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The Chougatake mountain hut facing Kamikochi and the Northern Alps.
The rainy season has ended and the time for hiking is officially here. Monday’s weather was perfect, so a couple of us decided to climb Chougatake, a 2,677 meter high mountain in Azumino. Bordering Kamikochi to the Southeast, it has splendid views of the Northern Japanese Alps.
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An English guide pamphlet of Kamikochi, the popular scenic national park and gateway to the Japan Alps in Matsumoto, was newly issued this September.
It contains a map with photos and explanations of attractions along the walking trail, campsites, bathing including hot springs, climbing courses, and wild animals.
Also contains access information including tips of tickets, hotel list with rates and room types (western/Japanese/dormitory), Kamikochi’s historical episodes with photos, climate, clothes, etc.
You can get the pamphlet in TIC’s in Matsumoto and some hotels.
You can see PDF version here (2 pages, 8MB).
Kamikochi, the gateway to the Japanese Alps, will hold its official “Mountain Opening” ceremony on Friday April 27th this year. The road to Kamikochi opened today, April 20th and busses have started making their regularly scheduled runs as of today. A few of the inns and facilities at Kamikochi have started to open but everything will be running in full gear as of the 27th. Still lots of snow in places, and the season of spring growth in the trees won’t be until later in May. But Kamikochi is starting to show signs of spring in the valley, and the snow-covered Alps are as majestic as ever.
Kamikochi Official Home Page
More pictures of the current (late April, 2012) conditions at Kamikochi
Kamikochi starting to come out of hibernation. Picture courtesy of my buddy Aoyagi-san of Kamikochi Onsen Hotel
Kappa Bridge and Japan Alps Mountains in the background
I hiked in Kamikochi
, which is a popular hiking and sightseeing spot and also a trekking gateway to the Japan Alps, with two Japanese, one Brit and one American.
I think May and June is the best season in Kamikochi if the weather is fine (despite the rainy season) because we can see the Japan Alps mountains covered with snow, some wild flowers and the fresh green of trees and it is less crowded than summer.
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As the snow in the highlands starts to melt, Nagano shifts from white season to green season.
The Kurobe-Tateyama Alpen Route opened on 16-April, the gateway to the Northen Alps, Kamikochi ‘opened’ on 27-April, and Togakushi’s Ninja House opened in time for Golden Week.
Many train and bus schedules are adjusted for the green season. I have updated the schedules connecting our onsen town, Togura Kamiyamada with Togakushi and Jigokudani for post-white season.
Note: Togakushi has been undergoing a ‘power spot’ boom from last year resulting in overflowing parking lots. If you go, taking the bus from Nagano Station may actually be more convenient. Feel free to use this schedule.
Selected Bus and Train times for Nagano Station to Kanbayashi, trailhead for Jigokudani and the snow monkeys
Note: Jigokudani’s snow monkeys are cute even when there’s no snow. They still soak in the onsen baths in the summer, and the new babies will be born soon so you’ll be able to enjoy seeing the little fur balls running all over the place. Hopefully this schedule will make sense out of the bus and train options.
Selected bus times between Nagano Station and Togakushi
Although the Ozzies bagged the No.2 spot for inbound overnight stays in Nagano Prefecture last year (thanks to the colony of snow bums camped out in Hakuba:) the vast majority of overseas visitors are still from East Asia. Taiwan claimed top spot – AGAIN! – in 2009 and Hong Kong came in No.3., so I was glad of the chance to join a recent tour of some of Hong Kong’s top journalists to visit Kamikochi and get an Asian perspective on the Nagano inbound scene.
Kamikochi was looking at its most picturesque, with the mountains reflected in the still pondwater of Taisho-ike. Also, we were able to enjoy a Guided tour, with colourful explanations of the plantlife and local legends (do YOU know where the secret tennis court is?!?)
After a loop hike to Myojin, and a meeting with the wild monkeys, we stopped for Lunch by Kappa Bridge then headed on back down to Taisho where the sun was dropping down behind the volcano.
The Autumn is a great time to travel around Japan, coz there is a brief window of opportunity when it’s not too hot and not too cold AND plus you get to check out the falling leaves into the bargain. Unfortunately, although that was the theory behind last weekend’s trip to Takayama, the reality was a little different…
First off the rain came down cats and dogs, forcing visitors off the streets into the coffee shops and Hida-gyu restaurants of Takayama. No problem there, since there are street upon street of hidden gems to choose from. Next, though, when the sun did come out on Sunday it seemed like the rest of the world and his dog had the same idea as us, maybe because the festival (always held on the 9th and 10th) had by chance fallen on a 3 day weekend this year!!! Anyway, the event lived up to its billing as one of the Big 3 Float Festivals in Japan (be warned! there is also a Big 3 of Illumination Festivals/Ice Festivals/Floating Ice Festivals…).
As well as the festival itself, we also had a great time picking our way through the morning market and checking out the old town. There were loads of international tourists from all around the world, and plenty of locals as well. Maybe it has something to do with their Kansai nature, but the locals aren’t shy in the slightest but are ready to mix it up with the inbounds, and as much as bartering for local goods the market is just a great place to swap stories and photos. ※Note: Takayama is on the West and Matsumoto the East side of the Japan Alps, with the mountains making up the border between Kansai/ Kanto in olden days Japan. Nope, I didn’t know that either until I visited 🙂
On the way back from the Takayama festival, we stopped off at Kamikochi, in time to catch the best weather of the 3 day holiday and see the golden Autum colours. If you haven’t seen the falling leaves of the Alpen forest it’s well worth a visit but best be quick about it as Kamikochi closes for the winter from early November. (The easiest way to do the Takayama-Kamikochi route by public transport is the Alpico 4 Day bus pass (Alps Wide Shinshu/Hida Free Passport) which costs Y10,000 and gives unlimited travel between Matsumoto, Kamikochi, Takayama and the Hida area).
※The 4-day Alps pass is available at the following 4 locations: *Matsumoto Bus Terminal, *Shin-Shimashima Station (the gateway to Kamikochi), *Takayama Bus Center, *Gero Bus Center.
Last Saturday, there was a Kamikochi Monitor Tour run by Chuo Taxi. The tour was designed to meet the needs of inbound tourists who want to see several of Nagano’s top destinations in a short space of time, such as one weekend or a few days.
First up was a 9AM pick-up at Nagano Station for an Ozzy from Tokyo with her Mum. Next, the taxi picked up a German guy from Tyler’s Onsen, and the team was on its way!
En route, they stopped off at Azusagawa Service Area before arriving at Kamikochi in time for lunch. Fortunate enough to enjoy bright sunshine and warm weather, the team was treated to great views of the Hodaka mountain range and Yakedake, the only active volcano in the Japan Alps.
After lunch at Nishitoya, everyone walked downstream to Taisho-ike Pond. This short hike along the Azusa river is a great favourite among Kamikochi visitors because it takes in a variety of natural attractions such as Tashiro marsh and Tashiro-ike Pond, and cultural ones such as the Weston Plaque and Yamanokami shrine.
After having a good luck around the National Park, everyone piled back on the bus to the next stop, which was the Fuketsu Wind Cave further down the valley on the way back towards Matsumoto. This natural cellar is used to store local Nihonshu, the Japanese sake for which Nagano is famous. It makes use of a unique set of geographical feature which keeps the temperature at a steady 5-6ºC even during the height of summer, and was once used by Nagano’s extensive sericulture industry.
Many thanks to all the organizers and participants that helped make this tour such a success. Watch this space for details of upcoming tours and events 🙂
The Kamikochi/Norikura 2 Day Free Pass, launched by ALPICO earlier this year, is a great way of getting around the Japan Alps National Park. Not only does it save you the hassle of researching and buying a load of one-way tickets to get you up to the mountains and back again, but also you can make considerable savings IF you use the pass to the max. So that is what we did!
On the first day, we caught a direct bus up to Kamikochi from Matsumoto; there are a couple of these every day, and it cuts down on the journey time becuase you don’t have to change at Shinshimashima. Down on the plains, Matsumoto was a warm sunny memory as we arrived at the Kamikochi Bus Terminal and the temperature plunged! Although the sun was shining by the time we arrived at Myojin, the clouds had closed in again as we returned to Kappa Bridge. It was going to be a long night, with the mercury dropping to Zero for the first time in the year – just the night to camp out in summer tents and sleeping bags!! Luckily we got a good camp fire going and spent the night sharing wine, cheese and body heat 🙂
The next day we were glad to get up and moving, catching the 8AM bus to Norikura. A couple of hours – and 2 nifty bus changes later – we arrived at the 3000m on top of the Alps. Getting off at Tatamidaira, there were panoramic views of Matsumoto on the Nagano side and Takayama on the Gifu side. No sign of the autumn leaves yet but still stunning scenery in every direction. The only area we couldn’t see too clearly was the Yari-Hodaka range to the North, as it was hidden by a persistent cloud bank, but the smoke rising from Yakedake was clearly visible.
Leaving our bags at the bus terminal we climbed up to the peak, passing some serious looking mountaineers and a couple in high heels! The Kami-sama was watching over the shrine at the top, nibbling away on a rice offering as he did so.
On the way down we hit up a great Onsen in Norikura Kogen. There was still no sign of Yari, although we did find a likely replacement. Maybe Yari will have to wait until next year…