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.


With the exception of Mt. Fuji, which is further east, the highest mountains in Japan are located in the Japan Alps. 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. Kita-dake (10,474 feet) is the highest mountain in the Alps, from its summit there are magnificent views of Mt. Fuji

Most of the Japan Alps are located within Nagano prefecture, which is home to about 2.2 million people and famous soba noodles, hot spring resorts, undeveloped towns, and working farms. Website: Wikipedia Wikipedia

Minami National Park (in the Southern Japan Alps) features the magnificent mountain scenery of the Akaishi Range. Many peaks soar over 9,000 feet. Among them are Kitadake, Hijidake, Mt. Komagatake and Shirane. Website: Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan


mountains on Matsumoto area
Matsumoto (2 to 3 hours by train from Tokyo and Nagoya) is major economic and transportation centers noted for its prosperous silk weaving and precision instrument industry. Home to 200,000 people it is gateway to Japan Alps and Chubu-Sanaku National Park. The center of town with a nice selection of restaurants and shop is not far from the train station. Horsemeat sashimi is a speciality of the area.

Worth a look are the Japan Folklore Museum and the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, with prints, paintings, screens and old books from the 100,000-piece private collection of the Sakai family, one of the largest of its kind in the world. The exhibits include works by Itamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige and Kokusai. The Ukiyo-e Museum can not be reached by train. You have to take a taxi or drive.

Websites:Matsumoto City Tourism Guide Matsumoto City Government site City Government site Map: Matsumoto City site Hotel Web Sites: Matsumoto City site Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Matsumoto is accessible by air and by bus and by train from Tokyo (two and three quarters hours) and Nagoya (two and a half hours) and other Japanese cities. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Matsumoto Castle is a six-story structure originally built in 1504, is the oldest wooden castle and the oldest extant castle in Japan. One of four castles in Japan designated as a national treasure, the fine black and white wooden structure was designed for gun warfare. In the towers, walls and keeps there are many holes: with the rectangular holes used for archers and round holes for muskets.

The castle was originally surrounded by three-tiered moats for defensive purposes. The innermost moat was 60 meters wide, a distance regarded as beyond a gun’s range. The main buildings were all located inside it. The castle consist of five parts: the small 16.8-meter tall northern tower, the 12.3 meter roofed passage, the 29.4-meter-tall main tower, the 14.7-meter southern wing and 11.1-meter moon-viewing room. The gentle-sloping stone walls are made mostly of rough, coarse and asymmetrical stones.

One the first floor are openings from which heavy stones were dropped on enemies climbing the stone walls. From the top story are splendid views of the Japanese Alps. Inside is a display of antique guns and explanations of how they were made and used. The grounds are lovely and embrace the remains of the three-tiered moats that once encircled the castle. Nearby are some samurai sword shops. Websites: Matsumoto City tourism ; Wikipedia Wikipedia

Near Matsumoto

wasabi farm
Outside of Matsumoto in Azumino is a picturesque area of farms and wasabi fields. The latter, which produce Japanese horseradish, are made up of vines growing in knee-high flowing water. Bicycles can be rented near the Hotaka train station, a good jumping off point for exploring the area. There are also nice hot springs in the area.

Utsukushi-ga-Hara Open Air Museum (reached by a winding mountain road from Matsumoto) is a spectacular sculpture garden located on the top of a mountain. Opened in 1981, it embraces 400 sculptures covering a 7,000-foot peak that is shrouded in clouds and mist. The museum is open from late April through Mid November. Deep snow close off the road the rest of the year. Cows often graze in the museum in the summer.

Describing the museum, Peter Klivans wrote in the Washington Post, "As a setting for art, Utsukushi-ga-Hara is simply overwhelming. Nature and art can interact in ways that are impossible in a building...On this mountaintop, the pure sunlight bounces off art, the wind whispers through it and the rustling alpine grass frames it."

Among the 120 sculptures are Venus of Milo in the Castle of Venus ; Clouds, which really seems to float on the clouds; Aspect of Nothingness , surrounded by nothingness; View, which blends with its setting; Affection Plaza ; and My Sky Hole , composed of four tall pillars and a reflecting ball, best viewed from under the reflecting ball. Website: JNTO article JNTO

Kiso Road

Thomas Swick wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “For centuries, the 51-mile Kiso Road was the central part of the ancient 339-mile Nakasendo, which connected Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto and provided an inland alternative to the coastal Tokaido road. For centuries, merchants, performers, pilgrims, imperial emissaries, feudal lords, princesses and commoners traveled it. “Murders, robberies, elopements, love suicides, rumors of corruption among the officials,” Shimazaki Toson wrote in his epic novel, Before the Dawn , “these had all become commonplace along this highway.” [Source: Thomas Swick, Smithsonian magazine, October 2010]

The road was officially established in 1601, but carried travelers as early as 703, according to ancient records. Unlike the industrialized Tokaido, the Kiso Road remains very well preserved in places. Large flat stones appeared underfoot, part of the Kiso Road’s original ishidatami (literally “stone tatami”). Some of the Kiso Road follows modern Route 19 which runs along much of the original Kiso Road.

Kiso Valley Region (south of Matsumoto) is a good place to see traditional Edo period homes set in small villages in beautiful mountain scenery. Many people come to the area to do the walk between Magome and Tsumago, both small villages with traditional houses. Hikers pass by forests, rice fields, waterfalls, traditional and modern homes, bamboo groves, farms with green tea, lettuce and leaks and can stay in guesthouses for the night, The walking is pretty easy. There are not any large hills. In some places the path is paved. I did a section of the trail in 2005 and saw a large troupe of monkeys on the side of the road and a bear.

The hike from Hideshio to Magome is about 55 miles. Magome is one of the Kiso Road’s 11 post towns (precursors of rest stops). Hirasawa has some nice lacquerware shops. Narai is a thin town stretched along railroad tracks. The main street is lined by dark wooden houses filed with day-tripping tourists. There are sloping roofs, small shops, and cloth banners.The path to Torii Pass narrows, steepens and turns to dirt. Switchbacks break the monotony. An hour and a half of climbing brings hikers to level ground. Next to a wood shelter stood a stone fountain, a ceramic cup placed upside down on its wall.

Kiso-Fukushima is another town with several old dwellings, Many people come to hike around Mt. On-take, a very active volcano whose crater is often closed due to unpredictable volcanic activity. Kiso-Fukushima is one of the larger town on the Kiso Road. Houses dating to the Tokugawa shogunate (which lasted from 1603 to 1868) line a street that was the original Nakasendo. Across the river, the garden at the former governor’s house provided a beautiful example of shakkei, the practice of incorporating the surrounding natural scenery into a new, orchestrated landscape. The old barrier building---a kind of immigration and customs bureau---was now a museum. Despite a dramatic gorge on its outskirts, Agematsu is be an unremarkable town. Suhara’s downtown consists of gas stations and strip malls along Route 19.

Tsumago is a town of street-hugging houses with overhanging eaves and dark slatted facades. The ancient, unspoiled air reminds people of of Narai, but there was something about the contours---the undulating main street, the cradling mountains---that made Tsumago feel even more prized. Like many small tourist towns, the busloads of Japanese tourists leave by late afternoon, and those that stay can have the place to themselves. Hanging lanterns provide a soft yellow glow to dark shuttered shops. The only sound was the trickle of water.

Swick wrote, “Magome was more open than I had pictured it, its houses and shops tumbling down a main pedestrian street and looking out toward a snow-patched Mount Ena. Because it had been rebuilt after a disastrous fire, the town had the feel of a historical re-creation. A museum to Shimazaki, on the grounds of the old family honjin, offered a library and a film on the writer’s life, but less of a feeling of connection than our walk in the woods. At the Eishoji Temple, on a hill at the edge of town, the priest had added a small inn. We were shown the Shimazaki family ihai, and our room, whose walls were literally rice-paper thin.”

Websites: Japan Guide japan-guide JNTO PDF file JNTO Wikitravel Wikitravel Map: JNTO PDF file JNTO Hotel Web Sites: JNTO PDF file JNTO Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Magome and Tsumago are accessible by train lien between Nagoya and Matsumoto. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet


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 the Chubu-Sangaku National Park in the region of Nagano Prefecture known as Azumi. 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. 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, ☎ 0265-39-3206) offers taxi service to and from Kamikochi and trail heads in the Japanese Alps.

Mt. Yari
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 Map: Kamikochi Official site kamikochi.or Hiking Map Hotel Web Sites: Kamikochi Official site kamikochi.or Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of 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. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Hikes, Onsens and Mountains in the Kamikochi Area

Hut below Mt. Hotaka, photo: John Koons
Mountains in the Kamikochi Area: The two most popular climbing mountains, Mt. Yari (10,433 feet) and Mt. Hotaka (10,466 feet) are difficult to climb. In the past 30 years over 500 climbers have died trying to reach their summits. Yari means "spear" in Japanese and the dangerous hike to top of this mountain takes three days. The ascent of Hotaka, the third highest mountain in Japan, isn't as difficult;. At the top you can often see eagles riding the thermals. Still people have died climbing it. In August 2006 two people died after falling off some cliffs onto rocks.

Karasawa Cirque (below Hotaka mountain neat Matsumoto) is 2,300-meter-high valley that is known for its spectacular Alpine scenery and brilliant red colors in autumn in early October. The valley is still covered with three to five meters of snow in May, allowing people to go skiing there over the Golden Week holiday.

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 City Tourism

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: Onsen Express ; Secret Japan ; Matsumoto City site

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: Onsen Express ; Secret Japan

Hirayu Onsen (between Takayama and Kamikochi) is another popular onsens area. Located near the beginning of the Kamikochi road, it embraces mostly hotel-style onsens.

Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route

Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route (west of Nagano) is 90 kilometer route that 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 pint 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.

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.

5) 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 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 ; JNTO PDF file JNTO ; Japan Guide Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Hotel Web Sites: Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books

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.

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.

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: JNTO article JNTO

Mt. Asama and Jo-Shin-Etsu Highland National Park

Jo-Shin-Etsu Highland National Park embraces a mountainous area in central Japan covered by primeval forests with white birch trees and alpine flora. It is also the home Mt. Asama and Mt. Shirane, two active volcanos, which are popular with hikers.

The Tanigawa Mountain range in the northeast of the park is a group of mountains with alpine rocky cliffs. At the foot of the volcanos are the Shiga, Sugadari and Myoko plateaus, favored ski areas. There are also a number of spas and lakes, which offer fishing in the summer and skating in the winter. Website: Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan

Mt. Asama erupting
Karuizawa (southern entrance of Jo-Shin-Etsu Highland Park) is popular summer retreat for wealthy Tokyoites. Located at an elevation of 3,000 feet, it offers a number of recreation opportunities and expensive hotels. John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent several summers at the Mampei Hotel in Karuizawa. Karuizawa is also a jumping off point for Mt. Asama. Near Karuizawa is the Hoshino Wild Bird Sanctuary.

Websites:Karuizawa Town site ; Japan Guide Map: Karuizawa Town site Hotel Web Sites: Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Karuizawa is accessible by bus and train. It is only a two hour train ride from Tokyo’s Ueno Station.

Mt. Asama (on the border of Gunma and Nagano Prefectures) is a very active 2568-meter-high composite volcano that has erupted at least 50 times and has a large eruption every four or five centuries. In 1783, pyroclastic flows killed 1,151 people. In 1911 there were sporadic eruptions with numerous deaths. In 1930s there was some volcanic activity. Six died near the crater in 1930. There were three more deaths in 1931. In 1947, 11 mountaineers died after being hit by rocks and cinders from an eruption. In 1721 the same thing happened to 15 mountain climbers

In 1973, Asama erupted after being dormant for more than 11 years. Scientists recorded 4,000 small explosions in a four month period. Eruption in 1982 and 1983 sent ash beyond Tokyo Bay to the Boso Peninsula. There were minor eruptions with some ash fall in 1990 and again in April 2003. Today, tourists check out the blocks of solidified lava produced by eruptions in the Edo period in the 17th to 19th centuries.

Asama came to life in 2004, with four mid-size eruptions between September and November. Smoke and ash was hurled more than a mile into the sky, falling on Tokyo 90 miles away, and damaged crops in the vicinity of the volcano. Hundreds of tremors were recorded. Shocks from the eruption blew out windows at the Asama Volcano Museum near the base of the mountain, set off some forest fires, and forced the evacuation of some houses. A farm 20 kilometers north of the crater was hit by a shower of rocks. No one was hurt.

Mt. Asama crater
Minor eruptions continued for several days, Lava spewed out the crater in fountains and poured down the slopes. A magma dome---the first since 1982---was formed. In December 2004, Asama was releasing 2,000 to 4,000 tons of gas a day and lava could be seen at the bottom of the crater.

Asama erupted off and on until June 2005. A huge andosite boulder that was five meters tall and 5 meters deep and weighed 200 to 300 tons was ejected and came to rest about 200 meters from the crater. Scientist think it was part of a lid at the bottom of the crater that was smashed during the eruption. The boulder flew 170 meters, bounced once, leaving a 13-meter wide hole, rolled a little further and stopped.

Mt. Asama experienced a minor eruption in February 2009.. Smoke billowed more than 2,000 meters into the air and rocks were thrown more than a kilometer from the crater. Ash fell as far as central Tokyo and Chiba Prefecture. A warning of an eruption was issued two days before after swelling at the top of the volcano was detected and people were told not go within four kilometers of the crater. Scientists say there is a possibility of large eruption in the not too distant future as magma has accumulated in shallow area near the peak.

The summit area of Asama is often closed due to worries about eruptions. Sometimes an area within a four kilometer radius is closed off and guards are posted on the trails to turn back hikers. Hikers can explore some major lave flows though. Website: ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet Asama Volcano Museum (Japanese language site)


Olympic ski jump
Nagano (1½ hours by bullet train from Tokyo) hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998. Founded in the 12th century, it is a modern Japanese city with 360,000 people. Some of the Olympic events were held in the city itself. Others were held at facilities outside Nagano. A new shinkansen that opened before the Olympics was built at considerable expense to move people quickly from Tokyo ro Nagano

Websites: Nagano Prefecture site Go Nagano Maps: Snow Japan Hotel Web Sites: Nagano Prefecture site Go Nagano ; Hotels Combines : Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Nagano is accessible by air and by bus and by train from swveral Japanese cities. It is only 90 minutes away from Tokyo by shinkansen. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Nagano Olympic Venues: The figure skating and speed skating events were held at the "White Ring" arena in Moshima, about four miles from the Olympic Village. With a futuristic dewdrop-shaped sloping roof, the indoor rink measures 60-x-30 meters and can seat 7,300 spectators. The hockey and short track speed skating events were also held in Nagano city.

The bobsled and luge events were held on the tracks in Asakawa in Iizuna Kogen. The 1,360 meter, 15-curve course is nicknamed the Spiral. It I the first of its kind to be built in the side of mountains and have two uphill sections. The freestyle skiing events were held nearby

Zenkoji Temple (1 mile from Nagano Station) contains one old Japan's oldest Buddhas. Brought to Japan from Korea in A.D. 552 and known as the Amitabha, it is gilded bronze statue that is said to have such strong miraculous powers that it must be kept hidden away lest anyone become injured or blinded by it. Other than a pair of tenants who take care of it, the statue has not beeen seen for 305 years. Even the Emperor can't view it. Models of the Amitabha have been made. But even these are only shown once every six years.

Zenkoji attracts pilgrims from all over Japan. Many of them as well as ordinary people descend into a dark tunnel under the temple’s main hall and grope for a key to salvation that is supposed to bring good fortune and enlightenment to anyone who touches it. The temple has a reputation for being especially welcoming to women. Visitors are allowed to attend morning rites and have their head touched with the prayer beads of a monk.

The original temple was built in the 7th century. Today, Zenkoji contains 40 buildings, and a 332-year-old bell. The main hall is one of the largest wooden temples in Japan. The structure was erected in 1707. Website: Wikipedia Wikipedia

Matsushiro Headquarters (in Nagano) is perhaps the most interesting place to visit in the Nagano area. It is a huge network of tunnels built for the Emperor and top government officials at the end of World War II. Big enough to drive through, the tunnels were built by Korean forced laborers, 300 to 1,000 of whom died. Most of the seven miles of tunnels are closed to visitors. Each year the site attracts around 130,000 visitors with about a fifth of them being students. Website: Wikipedia

Near Nagano: Togakushi is a popular starting points for hikes of Mt, Menoyama and Mt. Kurohime-yama. Obuse is the home of the Obuse Hokusia Museum, with works by Hokusia, one of Japan's most famous artists.

Around Nagano

Onsen in Nagaono area
Hakuba (25 miles east of Nagano) lies a the center of one of Japan's premier skiing areas. A tiny village of only 9,000 people, it hosted the ski jumping, Alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, and Nordic combined events at the 1998 Winter Olympics.

The jumping events were held on the 120-meter and 90-meters parallel jumps at Hakuna Ski Jumping Stadium. A unique turret design was adapted for both the in run and outrun, and special features include snow making equipment that allows the facility to be used throughout much of the year.

Hakuba refers to the town and the 9,619-foot mountain. About 3.7 million skiers, hikers and hot springs lovers visit Hakuba every year. Popular hiking destinations include Mt. Shirouma-dake, Great Snowy Gorge, Yari Onsen (an open air onsen with mountain views) and Tsugaike National Park. Businesses in Hakuba include the Magic Mushroom surf shop, Groovey At Space hair salon, Shop Jaha Jah and the Tijuana Café.

Shirouma-dake Hike: 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.

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.

Websites: Hakuba Tourism ; Snow Japan Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO ; Snow Japan Hotel Websites: Snow Japan ; Hakuba Tourism Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Hakuba is one hour by train from Matsumoto and connected to other cities by train. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Happo'one Ski Area (near Hakuba) hosted the men’s and women's downhill, Super-G and combined slalom events at the 1998 Winter Olympics. Situated on the eastern foothills of Mt. Karamatsudake, the ski area attracts 2.6 million skiers annually and is known for it's long challenging runs. In the summer it attracts many hikers intent on climbing 2,696-meter-high Mt. Karamatsi-dake. Website: Snow Japan

Snow Harp (near Hakuba) hosted the cross-country skiing events at the 1998 Winter Olympics. There were three different Olympic courses that could be set up for routes ranging in length from 5 kilometers to 50 kilometers in length. Nozawa Onsen hosted the biathlon events. Website: Snow Japan

Shiga Kogen is one of Japan's largest ski areas with 21 resorts and 80 runs. Websites: Shiga Kogen site ; Snow Japan Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO

Yamanouchi (in Shiga Kogen, 17 miles northeast of Nagano) hosted the snowboard giant slalom and the snowboard half pike events at the 1998 Winter Olympic. The men and women's snowboard giant slalom events were held at Mt. Yakebitai and the snowboard half pike was held at Kanbayashi snowboard park.

Hakusan National Park and Onsens Around Nagano

Hakusan National Park is home of Mt. Haku, one of the three most sacred peaks in Japan along with Mt. Fuji. The three main peaks of Mt. Haku---Gozen, Onanji and Kengamine---are each over 8,000 feet high. There are also beautiful primeval forests and a wide variety of Alpine vegetation. Website: Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan Lonely Planet Lonely Planet ; Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Hot Springs around Nagano include Sensi Onsen and Nozawa Onsen (with 13 major hot spring facilities). Kaminoyu (the "Bath of the God") has several mineral springs: the coolest is 118̊F and the hottest is 172̊F.

Yudanaka is the home of Jigokudani (Hell Valley). Located in a steep-sided valley on the western flanks of the Shigakogen highlands, Jigokudani means "hell valley," a reference to the large number of volcanic vents and hot springs in the area.

Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park is most famous for the troops of monkeys that come in from the wild come to bath in outdoor springs to stay warm in the winter.

Jigokudani Wild Monkey Park has no fences. The macaques are fed wheat grains and soy beans three times a day. The feeding times are 9:00am. 12:00 noon and 3:00pm. A these times the monkey come down from the mountains for hand outs from rangers. Visitors are not allowed to feed the monkeys.

There are currently two troops at the park. One has about 220 members. The other has 60. These are larger than what you would find in the wild. The smaller group usually feeds first and gives way the larger group when it approaches. The park can be reached by a half hour hike in the woods from the Kannashi Onsen bus stop. Admission is ¥500.

Websites: Jigokudani snow monkey site ; Zeno’s Snow Monkey Guide ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ;

Higashi-Kurosawa (in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture) is a center for water and mountain thrill sports such as canyoning, climbing waterfalls, tramping through streams and shooting natural water slides. trips are sponsored by the Forest & Water Company. Website: Canyons Adventures

Unjo no Yu (“Bath Above the Clouds”) is the highest open-air hot spring in Japan. It is located at 2,150 meters above sea level in the Yatsugatake mountains at the foot of Minamimakimura in Nagano prefecture.

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: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

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