We have had an incredibly hot summer this year in Japan and it was 35 degree C (95 deg F) downtown that day, but in Kamikochi and Norikura, (altitude is 1500 meters), it was 25 deg C (77 deg F).
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If you have come to Nagano for hiking during the summer months’ rainy season you are in store for some of the lushest green vegetation and mistiest peaks of the year. So don’t let potentially in climate weather stop you from lacing up your hiking boots.
In late July, fellow Go Nagano Blogger Tom Jones led me and friends around some of Kamikochi National Park’s day trip treasures. Both Saturday and Sunday were spent under light rain showers which meant no crowds, heightened colors, and forests of sound.
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Everybody knows about Nagano’s Snow Monkeys. They’ve been on the TV… they’ve been in the New York Times… they’re even rumoured to have had a paw in the concept design for Bathing Ape T-shirts (But that is JUST a rumor, so don’t sue this website:)
But less widely-known among foreign visitors is that top Nagano-destination Kamikochi also has its fair share of wild Macaque monkeys. There are said to be 2 troops that live in Kamikochi along the banks of the Azusa River in the Japan Alps National Park. The Myojin troop alone has a population of about 70 monkeys, and we must have met most of them on a recent trip because the Myojin-bashi Bridge area was swarming with the little beasts who seemed untroubled by the pelting rain.
There were so many of them that I was sure the numbers must be on the increase, but one of the Visitor Centre Staff told me that this was not the case; according to their research, the populations have remained stable over the past few years. The same cannot be said for their range of movement; last Sunday morning they could be seen frolicking on the banks of the river, crossing the bridge and swinging on its metal support wires.
Unlike Jigokudani, where the Snow Monkeys live, the only time you are likely to see the Kamikochi monkeys actually IN the water is in March, as the first signs of Spring appear. Although the air temperature is still brutally cold, (it drops down to minus 25 degrees centigrade in the Winter) the river water is a few degrees warmer, although nothing like as cosy as at Yudanaka Onsen.
And even in the darkest depths of winter, the Azusa river is still home to Iwana. Although it is hotly disputed if the monkeys actually eat these fish, they may well gain nutrition from insects living on and around the river, as well as solace from this lifeline for local wildlife. More usually, the Kamikochi monkeys live off a diet of plant shoots and roots, topped up with dwarf bamboo sprouts and tree bark in the Winter, when they lie low over long periods, sticking close to their food source and sheltering from fierce snowstorms.
We visited in late June, towards the end of the breeding season, and saw lots of little baby monkeys piggybacking a free ride across the bridge. When the summer comes around the monkeys are on the move again, clambering up the steep sides of the Hodaka Range to reach the Alpine meadows and peaks above.
Although Mt Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan, and Tanigawadake the most dangerous (in terms of numbers of dead climbers), Mt Yari is possibly the best-loved among the climbing community due to its distinctive shape and enviable location at the heart of the Japan Alps.
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Walter Weston, a British missionary who introduced modern mountain climbing to Japan, first visited Kamikochi in 1891, and returned repeatedly over the course of the 15 years he lived in Japan to escape the summer heat and climb the surrounding peaks. Today, he is commemorated by the annual Weston Festival on the first Sunday of June, preceded by a group hike the day before which traces the original route into Kamikochi up and over the Tokugo Pass from Azumi.
Many foreign tourists travel around Japan using a JR Rail Pass. But when they get to Nagano Prefecture, they are hit with the realization that most of the most popular destinations like Kamikochi, Togakushi and Jigokudani Snow Monkeys (as well as my onsen town, Togura-Kamiyamada) all require non-JR transportation. Then there’s the issue of getting from Hida Takayama to Matsumoto, two major “Inbound” tourist destinations. Using JR would take over 5 hours to go around the Alps. However, another option would be the trans-Alps bus that takes just over 2 hours.
Well, the people at Alpico Bus have apparently been listening, and have come up with the following 2 new bus passes that are perfect for people wanting to explore the Matsumoto – Kamikochi – Hida Takayama area:
2 Day Free Passport Kamikochi / Norikura
*Price: 5,000 yen for adults, 2,500 yen for children
*Area: Kamikochi, Shirahone and Norikura to the west, Matsumoto, Asama Onsen and Utsukushigahara to the east.
*Availability: Buy at the Matsumoto Bus Terminal or Shin Shimashima Station from 01-April 2010 until 31-March 2011.
This pass covers Nagano’s most spectacular scenic spot, Kamikochi, which is also the launching area for mountaineers to climb the Japanese Alps, as well as secluded Shirahone onsen with its milky white hot spring waters and Norikura, outdoor sports paradise. Then you can ride back down to Matsumoto and see its world-famous castle, take a dip in the hot springs at Asama and Utsukushigahara Onsens, before riding back up to the panoramic views from Utsukushigahara Kogen.
4 Day Alps Wide Shinshu/Hida Free Passport
*Price: 10,000 yen for adults, 5,000 yen for children
*Area: Same as the 2-day pass PLUS Hida Takayama, Shirakawago, Shinhotaka Onsen and Gero Onsen
*Availability: Buy at the Matsumoto Bus Terminal, Shin Shimashima Station, and Takayama or Gero Bus Centers from 01-April 2010 until 31-March 2011.
Included in this Pass are the impeccably restored neighborhoods of Hida Takayama, the world heritage thatched roof farmhouses of Shirakawago, Shinhotaka Onsen on the western side of the Alps, and Gero Onsen, known from long ago as one of Japan’s top 3 onsens.
Fellow Nagano Inbound Ambassador Tom-san reports that Kamikochi is in fine spring form, so take advantage of these new passes from Alpico and enjoy!
For more information, contact Matsumoto Dentetsu at 0263-28-3111
And/or check out the official Kamikochi website.
Kamikochi, the southern hub of the Japan Alps National Park, opened for the 2010 season on April 27th with Swiss horns and a Lion dance, but the unofficial start line has just been crossed as the spring-like Nirinsou Anemone burst into life across the forest floor. The beds of white flowers takes their name from the twin stalks (Ni meaning two) and can be seen at Tokusawa, a popular extension route to the Myojin trail that takes around 2 hours round-trip from the Bus Terminal.
To get to Tokusawa, take a bus to Kamikochi then cross over the Azusa River at the centrally-located Kappabashi Bridge. Next, stroll upstream along the boardwalk through the Dakezawa Marsh, which looks murky enough to house a Kappa, the mythical water imp after whom the famous bridge was named. Follow the path upstream for 1 hour to Myojin, stopping off outside the shrine to pay your respects (and a 300Yen entrance fee). Nearby, Kamonji Goya marks the spot where Walter Weston’s Guide, a local hunter by the name of Kamijo Kamonji, lived from 1880 onwards – you can still see the British Missionary’s original ice axe hanging above the fire-place. Cross over Myojin bridge then head on upstream to Tokusawa (60 mins one way).
Now that spring is coming to Nagano, bears aren’t the only creatures that waking up after their winter hibernation. Here is a list of several areas and their creatures that are starting their 2009 seasons:
The Kappa (water sprites) of Kamikochi officially come out of their hibernation on the 27th of April every year. This year, the snowfall in the Alps has been less than average, and the road to Kamikochi is already snow-free. Kamikochi will hold its 41st annual official “Opening of the Mountains” festival, complete with Swiss horns, on Monday the 27th.
River Fish (Tsukeba Fish Shacks)
Even people with the strongest aversion to river fish should be able to appreciate eating just-caught fish served in a Tsukeba river shack along the shores of the Chikuma River. Togura Kamiyamada Onsen’s main Tsukeba, “Shomura”, opened for business this season on the 20th of April, and serves “haya” and “ayu” prepared in various ways in their multi-course meal (prices 2000~3000 yen per person). Shomura will be open from 10am to 10pm until mid summer. You can make reservations through local ryokans (including Kamesei, tel 026-275-1032, English OK).
Shomura Tsukeba Tel (080)5109-8901
Togakushi’s ninjas came out of their winter hibernation on the 18th of April. That’s when the Togakushi Ninja Center opened for business for the year. At the Center, there is a ninja artifacts hall, a shuriken range, and a ninja fun house, where you go through the building finding the secret doors from room to room.
Ninja Center Tel(026)254-2395
Oni (Oni Oshi Dashi)
An Oni is a Japanese ogre. On the flanks of Mt. Asama is an area that looks like a bunch of volcanic matter was pushed out of the mountain by an oni, hence the park’s name, “Oni Oshi Dashi”. It is a fascinating example of geological forces at work. The park has been open since March — apparently that’s when the oni hibernation ended.
Easy access from Karuizawa.