JAPAN ALPS AREA: KAMIKOCHI, TATEYAMA, MOUNT YARI AND SHIROUMA

JAPAN ALPS

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Mt. Yari
The JAPAN ALPS (130 miles west of Tokyo) consist of three volcanic ridges that run from north to south through the central and widest part of Honshu. The home of numerous hiking areas and ski resorts, and centered around Nagano, the Japan Alps are named after the famous European mountain range because they both feature rugged glacier-carved slopes and numerous peaks over 10,000 feet.

The Japanese Alps encompass the Northern Alps (Hida Mountains), Central Alps (Kiso Mountains) and the Southern Alps (the Akaishi Mountains ). 1) The Northern Alps stretch through Nagano, Toyama and Gifu prefectures and a small part Niigata Prefecture and includes the mountains Mount Ontake (the volcano that erupted in 2014, killing 63 people), Mount Norikura, Mount Yake (Yakedake, a volcano that erupted in 1995), Kasumizawadake, Mount Hotakadake, Mount Yari, Mount Jōnen, Washibadake, Suishodake, Nakedake, Mount Tate, Kashima Yarigatake, Goryū dake and Mount Shirouma. 2) The Central Alps are located Nagano prefecture and include Mount Ena, Anpaiji mountain, Mount Kusumoyama, Mount Minamikoma, Mount Utsugi, Mount Hōken, Mount Kisokoma and Kyogatake. 3) The Southern Alps span Nagano, Yamanashi, and Shizuoka prefectures and includes the mountains Mount Hōō, Mount Nōtori, Mount Aino, Mount Kita, Mount Kaikoma, Mount Senjō and Mount Nokogiri (Akaishi).

With the exception of Mt. Fuji, which is further east, the highest mountains in Japan are located in the Japan Alps. ). The highest are Mount Hotaka (3,190 meters, 10,466 ft) in north area and Mount Kita (3,193 meters, 10,476 feet) in south area. Mount Ontake is a well known active volcano that killed 56 people when it erupted in 2014. Numerous streams running through the plateaus and between the mountains have carved out lovely gorges and ravines. Thick-wooded forests occupy the lower slopes, and of alpine flora and rugged rocky walls occupy the higher slopes.

Among the wildlife that can be seen in 420,000-acre Japan Alps National Park are bears, eagles and red-faced snow monkeys, who sometimes join bathers in the parks abundant hot springs when the weather is cold. The mountain were named by Englishman William Gouland in 1881. From the summit of Kita-dake there are magnificent views of Mt. Fuji. Most of the Japan Alps are located within Nagano prefecture. Website: Wikipedia Wikipedia

Chubusangaku National Park

Chubusangaku National Park covers an area of 1,743.23 square kilometers in Niigata, Toyama, Nagano and, Gifu Prefecture. Established in 1934, it is one of Japan’s first national parks. It occupies entire Northern Japanese Alps and contained some of Japan's most famous mountains of 3,000 meters. Many are in the Ushiro-Tateyama Mountain Range, including Mt. Shirouma, the highest peak, as well as in the Tateyama Mountain Range (Mt. Tsurugi and Mt. Tateyama), and Hotaka Mountain Range (Mt. Yarigatake) and Mt. Norikura located at south end of the park.[Source: Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan]

From steep rock cliffs, deep and precipitous valleys, alpine belts, rock ptarmigans, a blanket of snow over the valleys that lingers till summer months, glacier-eroded U-shaped valleys, lakes, and lava plateaus formed by volcanoes create a great variety of mountain landscapes to captivate many climbers. The trailheads in Kamikochi, Murodo on Mt. Tateyama, and Tatamidaira on Mt. Norikura offer great accessibility using public transportation.

As a major fault runs through the east side of the Northern Japanese Alps, the mountains were formed by crustal movements and subsequent intense erosion, while the volcanic activity further made the geographical features in this area more complex. The central region of the park is marked by numerous rivers of abundant water flow threading though deep V-shaped valleys as the Kurobe River flows to the north, Azusa River to the south, Takase River to the east, and the Kamata River to the west forming a magnificent mountain landscape surrounded by rocky peaks rising sheer and vast highlands.

The park lies within the heavy snowfall mountain terrain, and so some snow lingers during the summer, and the area is dotted with small to large gorges as represented by Japan's three famous snowy gorges, which are Tsurugi-sawa Daisekkei Gorge, Hakuba Daisekkei Gorge, and the Harinoki Daisekkei Gorge. Other features are the cirques and glacial troughs formed by glaciers as typified by the cirques found on Mt. Tateyama, Mt. Yakushi , and Karasawa, as well as the glacial troughs on Yarisawa and Mt. Tateyama.

Also, volcanoes dot the area adding variations to the terrain. Mt. Yakedake, which banked up the Azusa River by eruption forming the Taisho Pond, still shows signs of volcanic activity even now. The vicinity of Mt. Tateyama is also a sight to behold fumarole phenomena and crater lakes in Jigokudani and lava plateaus in Midagahara Plain, making it one of the foremost picturesque places in the park.

Hiking and Mountaineering in Chubusangaku National Park

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Hut below Mt. Hotaka, photo: John Koons
A wide variety of mountain scenery including chains of mountains over 3,000 meters, valleys, fields of flowers, high moord, and snowy valleys, and plant and animal life attracts mountaineers in large numbers. Some of the hiking is quite challenging, involving scrambling up cliff-like slopes, tip-toeing along ledges and uses chains as handholds and steps wedges into rocks to get through some of the tough parts.

Traditionally, the mountains such as Mt. Tateyama, Mt. Kasagadake and Mt. Yarigatake were worshiped as a sacred mountain and during the Edo era, throngs of pilgrims made their way to the summit of the Mt. Tateyama in particular, known as the Japan's "Three Sacred Mountains," alongside Mt. Fuji and Mt. Hakusan. [Source: Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan]

During the Meiji era (1868-1912), an English mining engineer, William Gowland, who is said to have made the first recorded Western-style ascent on peaks in Japan, named the mountains the Japanese Alps.The name was later introduced widely to the world by English missionary Walter Weston, opening up these mountains to both Japanese and Western Western-style hikers and mountainers. The area is now regarded as Japan's mecca for modern mountain climbing and hiking.

Animals and Plants in Chubusangaku National Park

Chubusangaku National Park boasts expansive primeval forests and nature with variations of vegetation zones depending on elevation. The alpine belt beyond 2,500 meters above sea level is inhabited by clusters of creeping pine trees and alpine belt, as well as a subalpine coniferous forest dominated by the Abies veitchiiand and Abies mariesii along with Erman's birch forests at altitudes between 1,500 meters and 2,500 meters above sea level, while the area at 1,500 meters elevation and below creates a habitat for a summer-green broadleaf forest consisting mainly of Japanese beech trees and Quercus crispula blume trees. Also interesting is a riparian forest as typified by the Salix arbutifolia growing along the Azusa River and the vegetation unique to wetlands in Kumonotaira and Tsurugaike.

The park's alpine belt is worth a close look to observe a variety of flora corresponding to the difference in environment such as the topography, geological features and snow depth. In particular, a stretch of Mt. Shirouma is famed for its abundance of alpine plants with some of the flora named after Mt. Shirouma, such as Allium schoenoprasum var. orientale and Gentianopsis yabei f. violacea are lined in perfect harmony.

Flowers blooms even on the gravel areas on the ridgelines of the high mountains. The Pink flower known as the 'Princess of the Alpine plants' resembles the face of a horse when seen in side view. Therefore, in Japan it is called "komakusa" or "horse plant" and can be seen on the ridgelines of Mt. Norikura and Mt. Tsubakuro, etc. in the Northern Alps in July and August.

The park is a habitat for mammals such as Asian black bear, Japanese serow, Japanese macaque, and the stoat and birds such as the golden eagle and mountain hawk-eagle, as well as rock ptarmigan and spotted nutcracker. The fish found in a mountain stream include Salvelinus leucomaenis pluvius and Japanese fluvial sculpin. In the alpine belt, you can find rock ptarmigan and alpine butterflies such as poplar admiral, asamana arctic, and the Colias palaeno.

Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus japonicus) is found only at high altitudes of the central region of the Northern Alps, etc. Designated as a National Special Natural Monuments, their numbers have dwindled as the deterioration of their habitats brings a fear of extinction of many populations.

Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos japonica) is a large bird of prey found in mountainous regions from Hokkaido to Kyushu. This park is characterized by a diverse natural environment and steep terrain, suited to the golden eagle in its position at the top of the ecological system.

Anthocharis cardamines is an alpine butterfly that reached Japan when it was connected to the continent in the ice age, and subsequently moved to higher altitudes when the climate warmed. Found in Japan only in the Northern Alps, the Southern Alps, Mt. Myoko, Mt. Togakushi, and Mt. Yatsugatake.

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Kamikochi

Kamikochi (between Matsumoto and Takayama, 120 miles from Tokyo) is arguably Japan’s best hiking jumping off point in terms of stunning mountain scenery and accessability. Located in a narrow 1500-meter-high valley at the foot of Mount Hotaka, it is easy to get to from Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya and is the starting point for some of the most spectacular hikes in the Japan Alps. Kamikochi attracts a half million hikers and trekkers each year Among them have been members of the Imperial family who, like many people, come here to escape Tokyo.

Kamikochi is a collection of expensive hotels and lodges and relatively cheap camping facilities, with shops, food stores and souvenir stands to cater to visitors that come here. Thanks to a high altitude it has pleasant cool temperatures even at the height of summer. Most of the facilities are set along clear Azusa River, which runs through the middle of valley. There views from the river of the Hotaka mountains are regarded as among the most beautiful mountain scenes in Japan. There isn’t much wildlife other than monkeys that sometimes raid the camping areas.

Kamikochi is located in Chubusangaku (Chubu-Sangaku National Park) in the region of Nagano Prefecture known as Azumi. Rocky ridges of the Mt. Hotaka and riparian forests, coupled with picturesque streams of the Azusa River provide a spectacular scenery of gorge, attracting hordes of visitors. The Taisho Pond was formed by a volcanic activity of Mt. Yakedake thus banking up the Azusa River. In the old days Kamikochi was accessible only foot. These days the road leading to the town that winds past forest, meadows, streams and the spectacular Azusagawa Gorge.

Tourism in Kamikochi

Due to heavy snows the road is closed from November to late April. Private cars are not allowed on the road. Visitors arrive by bus from Tokyo, Osaka of Nagoya or the small towns nearby. Arupusu Takushii (Alps Taxi, Tel: 0265-39-3206) offers taxi service to and from Kamikochi and trail heads in the Japanese Alps. Visitors can stay in a few lodges in the town or in the huts along the hiking routes or at the nearby hot springs of Sakamaki and Nakanoyu. A little farther away is Shirahone, known for its pleasant outdoor baths. The camping ground offer tent camping and accommodation in two-person “bungalows” and four person houses.

Websites: Kamikochi Official site kamikochi.or ; Chubu-Sangaku National Park Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; Japan Visitor japanvisitor.com Hiking Maps: Kamikochi Official site kamikochi.org ; Accommodation Areas: Murodo, Ogisawa, Kamikochi, Norikura Highland, Norikura Tatamidaira, Shirahone Onsen, Hirayu Onsen, Shinhotaka Onsen, Ariake Onsen,Hotaka Onsen Hotel Web Sites: Kamikochi Official site kamikochi.org Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books

Getting There: Kamikochi is accessible by bus from Takayama, Matsumoto and Tokyo and by night bus from Osaka and other Japanese cities. From Tokyo Station take the Hokuriku Shinkansen about one hour 40 minutes to get to Nagano Station. From there take JR Shinetsu Main Line/Shinonoi Line about 95 minutes to get to Matsumoto Station. From there take ALPICO Kotsu Kamikochi Line about 30 minutes to get to Shinshimashima Station. From there take ALPICO Kotsu Bus about 65 minutes to get to Kamikochi. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Kamikochi Visitor Center provides information to assist in understanding, enjoying and the natural environment of Kamikochi through exhibits related to the natural environment, outdoor nature classrooms, videos, and lectures, etc. Location: Kamikochi 4468, Azumi, Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, Tel: 0263-95-2606 (Tel Winter 0263-94-2537) Hours Open: 8:00-5:00pm (late April (when prefectural Kamikochi park road is open)-November 15), Closed Open daily throughout the season. Closed during winter.

Kamikochi Information Center provides information on the natural environment of Kamikochi, as well as on mountaineering, traffic, and accommodation, etc. Use the Center for information before a walk, or for a rest. Location: Kamikochi 4468, Azumi, Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, Tel: 0263-95-2433 (Tel * Winter 0263-94-2537) Hours Open: 8:00-5:00pm (late April (when prefectural Kamikochi park road is open)-November 15), Closed Open daily throughout the season. Closed during winter.

Sawando National Park Gate is where you change to a shuttle bus or taxi when entering the mountains in Kamikochi. The facility here provides information to assist in enjoying Kamikochi, and how the rules and regulations to be respected. Use the public toilets and rest on the benches. Location: Azumi 4466-20, Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, Tel: 0263-93-3355; Hours Open: While Kamikochi Shuttle Bus is running. (late April (when prefectural Kamikochi park road is open)-November 15), Closed Open daily throughout the season. Closed during winter.

Welcoming Foreigners in Kamikochi

Yuka Matsumoto wrote in the Japan News: “In the Kamikochi district, the clear Azusagawa river runs through the gateway to the Northern Japanese Alps. The scenic mountainous spot was “discovered” by a Westerner who brought modern mountain climbing to Japan during the Meiji era (1868-1912) . In recent years, the number of foreign tourists visiting Kamikochi has been increasing. [Source: Yuka Matsumoto, Japan News. September 15, 2016]

“When I visited Kamikochi at the end of July, there were not many Japanese visitors as it was the rainy season. But Europeans and Americans in trekking gear were conspicuous. Kamikochi’s image as an international tourist spot has become stronger, as reflected in the fact that signboards and instructions on how to use toilets are written in Japanese and foreign languages. The number of foreign tourists staying in Kamikochi, most of whom are from other Asian countries, is increasing. In 2015, the number rose to about 8,900, more than double the number of about 3,800 in 2013.

“In Nishiitoya Sanso, a long-established mountain lodge located near the Kappabashi bridge, foreign lodgers account for 30 percent of all lodgers. Japanese and English are written together in information posted inside the lodge, and the lodge accommodates dietary preferences and restrictions when it accepts reservations. Tsukasa Okuhara, the third-generation president of the lodge, who also serves as the president of Kamikochi Resort Hotel Association, said, “Kamikochi, in which mountains, forests and river are compactly concentrated, seems to fascinate foreign visitors as something other countries don’t have.”

“The association redesigned its foreign-language website this summer to meet such foreigners’ needs. Information on the website includes the fact that Kamikochi is the southern gateway to Chubusangaku National Park. The website touts the charms of the local nature and culture, explains rules for preserving nature and lists trekking and walking routes. Okuhara stressed the need for further improvement, saying, “To put Kamikochi on a par with mountainous tourist spots overseas, it’s necessary to prepare such conveniences as ATMs and fiber-optic internet access.”“

Onsens in the Kamikochi Area

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Shirahone Onsen (accessible by train and bus from Matsumoto) is a hot spring resort with a number of traditional inns and open-air baths. Some of the baths have a lovely blue, milky color and views of lovely Alpine scenery. In 2003, it was revealed that onsens famed for their milky-white water added a powder to the water to give it the milky color. Websites: Nagano Tourism go-nagano.net ; Shirahone site shirahone.net

Shinhodaka Onsen (1½ hours by bus from Takayama) boast a beautifully-situated hot spring with views of cloud-shrouded green mountains. The Shinhodaka cable car is the longest of its kind in Japan. It takes visitors near the peak of 2908-meter-high Mt. Nishi Hotaka-dake. There are many good hiking options in the area. Websites: JNTO artilcle onsenexpress.com ; Secret Japan secret-japan.com/onsen

Oku-Hida Spa Village includes the five hot springs areas at Hirayu and Shin-Hotaka within the park, as well as Tochio, Fukuji, and Shin-Hirayu. Plentiful water from the hot springs, allowing outdoor bathing. May be used without charge, or with a small donation. Footbaths and public baths are also available. Shin-Hotaka Ropeway connects Shin-Hotaka hot springs to Mt. Nishi-Hotaka. Used in climbing Mt. Nishi-Hotaka, and for access to the observation space on the roof of the Mt. Nishi-Hotaka terminus for superb views of the peaks of the Northern Alps. Hirayu Onsen (between Takayama and Kamikochi) is located near the beginning of the Kamikochi road, it embraces mostly hotel-style onsens.

Mountains in Chubusangaku National Park

Mt. Tsurugi is 2,999 meters (9,840 feet) high. Also called as a sanctuary of rocks and snow, this mountain is noted for its precipitous appearance influenced by glaciers. The mountain trails abound with many perilous passes, steep slopes with iron chains, and rock ridges, requiring climbers to have high skills and physical strength. [Source: Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan]

Mt. Tateyama has been known from ancient times as one of the three sacred mountains in Japan (together with Mt. Fuji and Mt. Hakusan). It is comprised of Mt. Oonanji (the highest peak), Mt. Oyama (the main peak), and Mt. Fujinooritate. The Oyama and Minemoto shrines at the peak of Mt. Oyama are visited by many devotees in summer. Mt. Oonanji is 3,015 meters (9891 feet) high.

Mt. Yarigatake is 3,180 meters (10,433 feet) high and is one of the more impressive-looking mountains, with a pyramid shape. It is also known as Mt. Yari. By the process of glaciation, the summit area became sharp and glacial troughs (U-shaped valleys) and cirques were formed. The shape of the mountain is reminiscent of the Matterhorn, some say, making it a much-sought-out destination for many mountain climbers.

Hotaka Mountains are a collective name for the peaks of Mt. Kita-Hotaka, Mt. Karasawa, Mt. Oku-Hotaka, and Mt. Mae-Hotaka with the Mt. Oku-Hotaka being the highest peak in the Northern Alps at 3,190 meters (10,466 feet) high. Besides the overwhelming spectacle of sheer rocky cliffs, the area fascinates climbers with the seasonal allure of alpine plants, crimson foliage and snow and ice.

Mt. Norikura is a chain of mountains that runs from east to west. The tallest peak, Mt. Kengamine, is 3,026 meters (9,928 feet) high. Visitors can use the Norikura Echo Line and Norikura Skyline to reach Tatamidaira situated at 2,700 meters above sea level via public transportation. The scenery is fabulous, especially during the fall foliage season in late September to early October, when the mountains are ablaze with yellow Erman's birch and red Japanese Rowan trees, creating a splendid contrast with the green creeping pine trees.

Midagahara Plain is a high moor that spreads across a lava plateau and is dotted with myriads of small ponds referred to as a field of pretas (Gaki). The wetlands are equipped with wooden footpaths where visitors can observe interesting varieties of alpine plants.

Popular Hikes in the Kamikochi Area

There are all kinds if hiking options. There are hikes to onsen and numerous mountain huts. For those who want an easy stroll, there is wide trail that follows the Azusa River. This trail is fairly level and can get quite crowded in the summer. Most of the other hikes are into the mountains. Some of these are quite steep, difficult and dangerous. There are a couple of dozen of mountain huts scattered around the area so there are plenty of options for places to stay. For details see Hiking in Japan (Lonely Planet).

Kamikochi is the starting point for climbs to the top of Hotaka mountain, Mt. Yakedake, Mt. Kasumizawa and Mt. Roppyakuku. One of the most popular hikes is a three-day circuit to Mt. Yari and Mt. Hotaka. Some sections are quiet scary and are not recommended people who are scared of heights. Yarigatake (Mt. Yari, on the border of Nagano and Gunma Prefectures) is a popular climbing destination. A mountain lodge capable of accommodating more than 200 people sits 100 meters below the summit, The summit is a cliff-sided hunk or rock that is reached by climbing ladders imbedded into the rock.

There are a number of other hiking options. Some people like to hike form Kamikochi to Shirahone Onsen or Shin-Hotaka Onsen, where they get transportation out. Other strike out for the Norikura-kogen plateau. The six-day hike between Tateyama and Kamikochi is regarded as the ultimate long distance hike in Japan. It traverses the entire length of the North Alps.

Norikura-Kogen Plateau (west of Matsumoto) is a 3026-meter-high plateau popular with hikers and known as the home of Mt. Norikura, a dormant volcano, Norikura Skyline Road and Norikura Onsen. There are extraordinary views from Tatamidaira. Website: Matsumoto Tourism visitmatsumoto.com

Places in Chubusangaku National Park

Tsugaike Nature Park is in a high moor spreads at an altitude of 1,900 meters above sea level. Enjoy the sights of gently blossoming skunk cabbage plants, large colonies of alpine plants, crimson foliage and other seasonal sceneries against the magnificent backdrop of the Hakuba Mountain Range. [Source: Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan]

Tsugaike Visitor Center is located at the entrance to the Tsugaike Nature Park, and provides information on the natural environment of the area. The exhibit room contains many samples and topographical models, and the lecture room introduces the plant of the marshland and the alpine plant of the mountains. Location: Chikuniotsu, Otari Village, Kitaazumi County, Nagano Prefecture, Tel: 0261-83-3113; Hours Open: 8:20-4:30pm (mid May-early November) Closed during winter. Admission: Adults 300 yen, children 250 yen, discounts available for groups of 15 or more persons

Kurobe Gorge is one of Japan's famous gorges that separates the Tateyama Mountain Range and the Ushiro-Tateyama Mountain Range. Renowned for its deep V-shaped valley, the area abounds with aesthetic landscapes and onsens (hot springs). The scenic trolley runs from Unazuki to Keyakidaira along the gorge where visitors can savor impressive scenery.

Happo-One is a place to observe high moors and famous as an important repository of various alpine plants, such as lingonberry and alpine butterflies. The area along the Happo-One Nature Study Trail extends from Mt. Kurobishidaira to Happo Pond

Norikura Highland Ichinose Picnic Site is encircled by a forest of white birch trees, This grassland is home to clusters of Japanese azaleas and other seasonal marshland plants. The ponds that dot the area also feature a variety of flowering wetland species, including skunk cabbage and bog-bean plants. The Maimeno-ike Pond is famous for the inverted image of Mt. Norikura as reflected in the surface of a pond in the foreground.

Norikura Nature Conservation Center is divided into five sections (e.g., plant and animal life, Ichinose ranch), introducing Mt. Norikua and the Norikura Highland. Observe the plant life of the highlands from the nature trails. The Center also holds a wide of events such (e.g., bird watching). Visit the following website for information on events. Location: Azumi 4306-5, Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, Tel: 0263-93-2045; Hours Open: 9:00am-5:00pm (mid April-mid November), Closed Wednesdays (open if Wednesday is a public holiday), closed during winter * Open daily during summer holidays (Jul 23-August 25)

Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route

Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route (west of Nagano) is a famous mountain sightseeing route connects Tateyama Station in Toyama Prefecture with Ogizawa, Omachi City, Nagano Prefecture via cable car, bus, trolley bus, ropeway and walking trail. Sights here in the northern part of Chubusangaku National Park include Shomyo Waterfalls, Midagahara Plain, Murodo and Kurobe Dam.

The 90 kilometer route is broken into nine sections and includes rides on cable railways, a highland bus, a cable car, and a trolley bus. It starts in Toyama and finished in Shinano-omachi (it is also possible to do trip in the reverse direction), and stops at Kurone Dam. The entire journey costs about ¥11,000. The most scenic spot in the route is Murodo, a starting point for many hikes. Many people do the journey from Toyama to Murudo and skip the rest. The route is closed because of snow from November to early May.

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walls of snow at Yuki no Otani
Covering an elevation change of 2,400 meters, the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route features some of Japan’s most dynamic mountain vistas. The nine sections are: 1) from Toyama Station in slow local train through rural scenery to Tateyama: 2) from Tateyama on a 70-minute cable car ride to Bijodaira; 3) from Bijodaira by bus to the alpine plateau of Midagahara and Murodo; 4) from Murodo it is a 10-minute bus ride through a tunnel under Mt. Takayama to Daikanbo. From Daikanbo you take a seven-minute cable ride to Kurobe-daira; 6) From Kurobe-daira it’s a five-minute cable car ride to Kurobe Dam. 7) you can then walk around Kurobe Dam; 8) From Kurobe Dam you travel by trolley bus to Ogisawa; 9) From Ogisawa there is a bus to Shinano-omachi station.

The journey begins with a steep cable car climb up to a virgin forest of mighty ancient cedars. Then comes a winding bus ride featuring a massive snow corridor with walls as high as 20 meters high. Next you’ll board an electric trolley bus and tunnel through the heart of sacred Mt. Tateyama, emerging to one of the world's most unique ropeways boasting incredible panoramic views of a steep alpine gorge. Then comes an underground cable car to Japan's highest arch dam, Kurobe Dam, and the beautiful mountain scenery reflected in the waters of Lake Kurobe. With hot spring resorts, hiking routes, campgrounds, and cultural and historic sites along the way, there’s truly something for everyone. Snack bars are available at each station. The entire trip will take 6-7 hours, and is best enjoyed from April to June, when the snow walls are at their highest. Tateyama Station is 3.5 hours from Tokyo by bullet and local train, with abundant accommodation options for those looking to stay overnight.

The walls of snow at 2,390-meter-high Yuki no Otani (“Great Snow Valley”) on the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route reached 19 meters high when the route was opened in April in 2006. Websites : Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route Official Guide alpen-route.com ; Japan Guide japan-guide.com Map: Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route alpen-route.com

Toyama Prefecture covers 4,247.61 square kilometers (1640 square miles), is home to about one million people and has a population density of 251 people per square kilometer. Toyama is the capital and largest city, with about 420,000 people. It is in Chubu in central Honshu island and has two districts and 15 municipalities.

Tateyama

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Kurobe Dam
Tateyama (west of Nagano) is small town in the northern Japanese Alps said to receive more snow than any place in the Himalayas. Located at the base of 2,316-meter Mt. Daikanbo, it is a jumping off point for numerous hikes and the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route.A popular hiking destination is Murado Sanso, said to be the oldest mountain hut in the country with ahistory that goes back to the 14th century. The current structure was built 300 years ago.

Tateyama Mountain (near Tateyama) is considers one of Japan's three holiest mountains along with Mt. Fuji and Mt. Haku and is comprised of three peaks: Oyama, Onanjiyama, and Fujinooritate. The highest is 9,892 feet. Climbing the mountain has traditionally been regarded as means of purifying the soul. For many years it was off limits to women and was climbed by 15-year-old boys to prove their manhood.

Tateyama crater is the largest non-active crater in Japan. Snow often endures here until late summer. On the summit of Tateyama is a Shinto shrine surrounded by thousands of personal shrines with offerings of cigarettes and food to thank the gods for such wonderful views.

Tateyama Nature Conservation Center provides exhibits and explanations of the precious plant and animal life such as Rock Ptarmigan and alpine plant, and field information for the Murododaira area. Naturalists also lead observation tours of Murododaira, Mikuriga Pond, and Jigokudani. Location: Ashikuraji (Murododaira), Tateyama Town, Nakanikawa County, Toyama Prefecture, Tel: 076-463-5401; Hours Open: 8:30am-5:00pm (April 16-November 15), Open until 5:30pm June 16-August 31. Closed during winter.

Hirayu Visitor Center provides easily-understood dioramas explaining the natural environment (e.g., topography and geology, plant and animal life) and the history and lifestyles of the population of the Chubusangaku National Park. A nature explorer route of approximately 2km extends from the Center, and provides a hands-on experience of the natural environment of the area. Location: Hirayu, Okuhida Onsengo, Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture, Tel: 090-8679-3573; Hours Open: 9:00am-5:00pm, Closed Wednesdays, closed during winter (December 1-March 31)

Shin-Hotaka Visitor Center is a reference library of material on the joys of the Northern Alps, and provides an opportunity to learn about the natural environment of Okuhida. Also holds a range of events including guided walks and snowshoe tours. Location: Okuhida Onsengo Kamisaka, Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture (Nabedaira-Kogen), Tel: 0578-89-2254; Hours Open: 8:30am-5:00pm (9:00am-4:30pm December-March), Closed Open daily (closed if Shin-Hotaka Ropeway is not running)

Kurobe Dam

Kurobe Dam is a 186-meter-high dam set between large mountains. It has been described as Japan's most difficult engineering project. A total of 171 workers died building it between 1963 and 1970 and the entire transformer substation is built underground to preserve the natural beauty of the area. Kurobe dam is one of the largest hydroelectric dams in Japan, It hold back 200 million cubic meters of water. Discharges between June and October are an awesome sight. So much sediment has collected behind the dam there are concerns it will be nothing but a tourist sight in the not too distant future.

Keyakidaira Visitor Center provides photos and multi-screens introducing the natural environment of Kurobe Vally, its scenery, the history of its development, and the plant and animal life in the area. It also provides information on the rules and regulations to be followed in the park. Visit when mountaineering or walking. Location: Kurobe Okuyama, Unazuki Town, Kurobe City, Toyama Prefecture, Tel: 0765-62-1155; Hours Open: 9:00am-5:00pm (when Kurobekyokoku railway is running)-November 30, Closed Closed during winter.

Getting There: From Tokyo Station take the Hokuriku Shinkansen about two hours 30 minutes to get to Kurobe-Unazukionsen Station. From there walk to Shinkurobe Station. From there take Toyama Local Railway about 40 minutes to get to Unazukionsen Station. From there walk to Unazuki Station. From there take Kurobe Gorge Coach Train about one hour 20 minutes to get to Keyakidaira Station.

Omachi

Omachi is a well known ski resort in the Japanese Alps. It received over 27 feet of snow in February 1927. Many people like to visit Omachi and Tateyama in April after the roads have been cleared of snow and huge walls of snow line the roads. Website: Omachi tourism site JNTO

Omachi Alpine Museum provides exhibits and events based on the valuable materials held on the natural environment and mountaineering history of the Northern Alps. Exhibits covering the plant and animal (e.g., Japanese Serow) life in the vicinity of the Northern Alps, and raising of the Svalbard Ptarmigan as a contribution to the protection and breeding of the Japanese Rock Ptarmigan. Location: Omachi 8056-1, Omachi City, Nagano Prefecture, Tel: 0261-22-0211; Hours Open: 9:00am-5:00pm (entry until 4:30pm), Closed Mondays, days following a public holiday, and end and beginning of year Open if Monday is a public holiday, and closed on following day. Closed during July and August. Admission: Requires a fee

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Shirouma-dake Hike

Mt. Shirouma is visited by hordes of hikers and mountaineers. At 2,932 meters (9,620 feet) above sea level, it is the highest summit in the Ushiro-Tateyama Mountain Range. The Hakuba Daisekkei Gorge is considered Japan's largest snowy gorge. The area is famous as an important repository of various alpine plants and a forest of Japanese beech trees can be observed along the Hakuba Daisekkei Trail at the base. [Source: Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan]

Shirouma-dake Hike (staring about 10 kilometers from Hakuba and Hakuba Station) is regarded as one of the best hikes in Japan. Describing the hike to Shirouma-dake, Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “For mountain fans, no summer would be complete without a visit to an ohana-batake, or alpine flower meadow. Some of Japan's finest alpine meadows are found on the ridges and upper slopes of 2,932-meter-high Shiroumadake peak, located in the Hida mountain range. These mountains, more commonly known as the Northern Japanese Alps, comprise a great range of 3,000-meter class peaks that include world famous Yarigatake and Hodaka (take or dake means "peak" in Japanese). The Shirouma mountains anchor the northern end of the range, with rugged Tsurugidake and the Tateyama peaks looming across the deep valley of the Kurobegawa river to the west. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, August 19, 2010]

"For exploring Shirouma's alpine meadows, an excellent route starts at Sarukura, about 1,200 meters above sea level on the eastern flanks of the mountain. The path starts off by climbing steadily along a gravel forest road bordered by beautiful groves of tall Japanese beech trees (buna = Fagus crenata). Breaks in the trees afford expansive views of the peaks and ridges. This easy trail comes to a sudden end about an hour or so into the climb, just above a small hut. The route from here is straight up the Dai-sekkei, a steep-sided ravine that retains a deep snow cover well into the season. Here hikers affix crampons to the bottom of their boots, and trudge for about two hours up the frozen snowfield.

"The trail resumes near the top of the snowfield, quickly turning into a long lung and leg busting climb up to the ridge. As compensation, however, some of the mountain's most beautiful flower meadows are found along this slope. The color palettes here are truly amazing. Yellow dandelions (tanpopo) and buttercups (kinpoge) mix with deep purple-blue wolfbanes (torikabuto) and bellflowers (kikyo), delicate pink geraniums (furo), white sweetvetch (ougi), and deep orange-red lilies (kuruma-yuri).

"Stopping to enjoy the flowers takes a good three hours from the top of the snowfield to the ridge, where two mountain huts provide meals and shelter for the night (about 9,000 yen per person for bed, dinner, and breakfast and a packed lunch the next day). The Shirouma Sanso, located at the southern base of the final slope leading up to the main peak, is the oldest mountain hut in Japan, originally constructed in 1907. Today the hut is one of the largest and best-equipped in the country.

"The view from the top of Shiroumadake is panoramic, with the Sea of Japan and Noto Peninsula visible to the north, and rugged Tsurugidake off to the southwest. To the southeast, Mt. Fuji peeks out from behind the peaks of the Yatsugatake range. For those with a week or two to spare, a well marked hiking trail traverses the entire north-south ridge line of the Northern Japanese Alps, with mountain huts at convenient intervals all along the way.

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"Most hikers continue north from Shiroumadake, eventually descending to Tsugaike by ropeway and gondola lift. Hard-core alpine flower enthusiasts, however, follow the ridge southward. The exposed, windswept ridge is an extremely harsh environment, where plants keep a much lower profile than they do further down on the better-protected slopes. Bellflowers and a beautiful species of greenish-white gentian (Gentiana algida = toyaku-rindo) anchor themselves in tiny cracks that form in the bare rock.

"The hardiest plant of all, however, is the komakusa (Dicentra peregrine). These tiny perennials in the Fumariaceae or fumitory family (megi-ka) are sometimes called bleeding hearts in English. Their pink and white flowers show four petals, the outer of which are expanded at the base but curved outward and upward at the tip. The grayish-green leaves are very tiny.The komakusa survive by being willing to live on shifting, unstable gravel slopes that form just below the ridge, a micro-environment so harsh that no other plant will even bother with it. In the past, they were collected extensively as an herbal medicine for treating stomach pains.

"The ridge trail is a knee-shaking series of continuous ups and downs, now climbing to the top of a peak, now dropping back down into a saddle. The route passes over Shakushidake and Yarigatake (a different mountain from the more famous Yarigatake to the south) before leaving the ridge to sharply descend the eastern flanks. Here again are abundant flower meadows, some dominated by tall white knotweeds (itadori-rui), others by tiny white and yellow avens (chin-guruma).

"A great side benefit of this route is that it passes through Yari Onsen, featuring a small hut, tenting ground and roten-buro open air hot spring bath. The stretch of trail just above the onsen, however, is very steep, and in some spots chains and ladders have been provided to help hikers cross stretches of slippery rock. The final section from the hot springs down to Sarukura is also long and steep, and traverses across several snowfields en route. The name Shiroumadake means White Horse Peak, and is sometimes (wrongly) pronounced Hakubadake. The name derives from a pattern of bare rock that appears on the mountain's eastern flanks as the snow melts in spring. This pattern resembles the figure of a horse, and in the past was used by farmers in the valley below as a sign that the time to begin working the rice paddies had arrived.

"The route described here is for experienced hikers in good physical condition. The elevation gain from Sarukura to Shiroumadake is 1,700 meters, and there are numerous crossings of snowfields and stretches of unstable or slippery rock. Less experienced hikers should take the gondola and ropeway from Tsugaike, then follow the ridge trail to Shiroumadake."

Image Sources: 1) Nagano Prefecture tourism map 2) 3) JNTO 4) 7) Nagano City 5) 8) Matsumoto City 6) Kamikochi site 9) Onsen Express, 10) 11) 12) Tateyama-Kurobe Route site 13), 14) Volcano Research Venter Univerity of Tokyo, 15) 16) 17) Nagagono Prefecture 18) Snow Japan Wikipedia, 16) Matsumoto City, 19) JNTO

Text Sources: JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization), Japan.org, Japan News, Japan Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan Ministry of the Environment, UNESCO, Japan Guide website, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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