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.

Three-Day Trip in Matsumoto

January 25th, 2019 by
Category: Information


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.
Read the rest of this entry »

Fantastic Views from Mt. Chougatake

July 22nd, 2016 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

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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New English Guide Pamphlet of Kamikochi

October 13th, 2013 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Sightseeing

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’s Official “Mountain Opening” to be April 27th

April 20th, 2012 by
Category: Information

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

Hike in Kamikochi

June 11th, 2011 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Kappa Bridge and Japan Alps Mountains in the background

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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May 10th, 2011 by
Category: Events, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Outdoor Activities, Report, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

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

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

Selected bus times between Nagano Station and Togakushi

from Hong Kong…to Kamikochi!

October 20th, 2010 by
Category: Events, Experience, Information, Outdoor Activities, Report, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

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.

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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.

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Takayama-Kamikochi

October 12th, 2010 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Experience, Outdoor Activities, Report, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

   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…

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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.pa100426 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 🙂

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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).

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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.

Kamikochi by Taxi

October 4th, 2010 by
Category: Events, Information, Miscellaneous, Outdoor Activities, Report, Sightseeing

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.

sany0613First 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.

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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.

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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 🙂