mountains on Matsumoto areaThe 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 Alpsstretch 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
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
See Separate Article on NAGANO factsanddetails.com
Matsumoto Castle Matsumoto (2 to 3 hours by train from Tokyo and Nagoya) is gateway to Japan Alps and Chubu-Sanaku National Park. Home to 200,000 people it is major economic and transportation centers noted for its prosperous silk weaving and precision instrument industry. 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: Official Tourism Site visitmatsumoto.com;; Matsumoto City Tourism Guide welcome.city.matsumoto.nagano.jp Matsumoto City Government site City Government site Maps: Tourist Map visitmatsumoto.com; Matsumoto City site welcome.city.matsumoto.nagano.jp Hotel Web Sites: Matsumoto City site welcome.city.matsumoto.nagano.jp Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth 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 welcome.city.matsumoto.nagano.jp ; Wikipedia Wikipedia
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
Zengoronotaki-Falls is a waterfall in the Norikura Highland of Matsumoto City in Nagano Prefecture. Mt. Norikura is visible from the top of the waterfall. Roads to the waterfall viewing platform are provided from the nearest prefectural highway. Since it faces east, rainbows are often seen in the morning sun.
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
Kiso Valley Region
The 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.
Tsumagois 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.
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.
Akasawa Natural Recreational Forest (75 kilometers south-southwest of Matsumoto) is a favorite forest bathing spot in Nagano’s forests. No swimsuit needed here. The Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing" invites the weary traveler to purify body and soul by taking in the healing air, sights, and sounds of living, breathing woods. The Akasawa Natural Recreational Forest includes Kiso’s 300-year old Japanese towering hinoki cypress trees and is one of the most beautiful forests in Japan. The area is easily and enjoyably accessible by way of eight scenic trails. The plethora of experiences with English guidance available in this protected corner of Nagano includes a forest railway, open from late April through November. Travelers are encouraged to spend the night at one of Agematsu’s elegant ryokan or rustic guest houses, and partake in local fare like soba noodles, a Nagano favorite. Location: Agematsu 71 159-3 Agematsu, Agematsu-cho, Kiso-gun, Nagano. Website: kiso-hinoki.jp
Websites: Kiso Valley tourism site kisoji.com ; Japan Guide japan-guide JNTO PDF file JNTO Wikitravel Wikitravel Map: Tsumago Post Town Sightseeing Map town.nagiso.nagano.jp Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth 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
Tsumago The Kiso Road (Kisoji) refers to a road that runs through tree-covered mountains that connects old 11 post towns (precursors of rest stops).on the section of the old Nakasendo 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.
The hike from Hideshio to Magome is about 90 kilometers (55 miles). Magome is one of the Kiso Road’s 11 post towns. 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.
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.”
Midono to Tsumago Section of the Kiso Road
Hiroshi Nishida wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “I walked the section between Midono-juku and Tsumago-juku, post towns in Nagiso, to get a taste of what travelers in the Edo period (1603-1867) experienced as they walked this path. Midono, which is about 1.5 kilometers north of JR Nagiso Station, was almost completely burned down by a huge fire during the Meiji era (1868-1912) . The site of the honjin main inn, marked by a stone monument indicating Emperor Meiji once stayed there, is among the vestiges of the former post town. [Source: Hiroshi Nishida, Yomiuri Shimbun, July 29, 2017]
“As I walked along the Kisogawa river, the Momosukebashi bridge — a 247-meter wooden suspension bridge completed in 1922 by businessman Momosuke Fukuzawa to facilitate electric power development in the region — came into view. A little further downstream stands the Yomikaki hydroelectric power station, built in the Taisho era (1912-1926) . Both facilities have been designated as important national cultural properties. The retro designs of these symbols of the nation’s modernization evoke feelings of nostalgia.
“As I leave the river and walk along the old Nakasendo road, I am surrounded by dense forest. Dotting the road are places of historic interest, such as the Kabuto Kannon shrine dedicated to Kiso Yoshinaka, a warlord in the late Heian period (from the late eighth century to the late 12th century), and a monument engraved with a poem by the monk Ryokan. On the way, I left this road and stopped at the remains of Tsumago Castle, a mountaintop castle dating back to the Sengoku (warring) period (1493-1573) . Only a trench and a few other ruins remain, but the magnificent view from the summit takes in the Kisogawa river, small settlements along the river, and the Central Alps in the distance.
“With a few diversions along some side roads, this trip took about two hours. The townscape of Tsumago, with a row of quaint old wooden houses made in the dashibari-zukuri (overhanging second-floor rooms) style that stretches for about 500 meters, came into view. There are no signs of modernity here — electrical poles have been moved out of sight from the road and cars are prohibited on the street. Stroll here and you can develop the illusion of having traveled back in time to the Edo period. The Association of Tsumago Lovers, a group formed in 1968 and involving all the residents who live in the district, has been engaged in activities to preserve Tsumago’s traditional buildings and landscape. “The association was a last-ditch measure to rebuild a town that was on the verge of falling into obscurity after losing its purpose as a post town,” said Yoshinori Fujihara, 69, a standing director of the association. “During the period of high economic growth, our town was losing its traditional old feeling. If we keep our historic things, in the future they will be admired as cultural assets and attract tourists. Inspired by this concept, the founder of the association exercised strong leadership to overcome the opposition of some settlement residents and get everybody going in the same direction.”
“The association does more than just preservation activities. The post office is a renovated old house that blends in with its surroundings, and the town’s main inn, which was knocked down in the Meiji era, was rebuilt in 1995 based on the original floor plan. The townscape has steadily been restored to its original state. The waki-honjin, a secondary inn built in the early Meiji period, retains its original, respectable appearance. It was also where Yufu, about whom Toson reportedly wrote the poem “Hatsukoi” (First love), lived after getting married. Upon entering, a staff member will accompany you to explain the history of the building and Tsumago. “Different people have different areas of interest,” said my guide, Kazumi Isomura, 40. “By providing a human response to our guests, rather than just an audio guide, I hope to convey the spirit of hospitality typical of a post town.”
“When the sun goes down and the lights come on, the town becomes even more charming. I was deeply touched by the sentiments of the people in Tsumago, who have gently turned back the hands of time. I visited Tsumago about 40 years ago, when I was a junior high school student. Compared to now, the district lined with old houses was shorter, and it gave the impression of being a rustic country town from the good old days. During my latest visit, I was surprised that the townscape had expanded and become beautifully organized, right down to the finest detail. I keenly felt the town was moving forward as it increasingly resembles its appearance of bygone days.”
Getting There: Shiojiri Station is a 2 hour and 30 minute ride from Shinjuku Station via the JR Chuo Line limited express, and Nagiso Station is a 1 hour ride from Shiojiri Station via the JR Chuo Line limited express. Nagoya Station is a 1 hour and 40 minute ride from Tokyo Station via the Shinkansen bullet train, and Nagiso Station is a 1 hour ride from Nagoya Station via the JR Chuo Line limited express. For more information, call the Nagiso Town Tourism Association at (0264) 57-2001 or the Tsumago Tourism Association Tourist office at (0264) 57-3123.
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