Located in the heart of the Japanese Alps, Kamikochi Valley with its breathtaking views and scenery will create a lasting memory.
Kamikochi Nagano Prefecture
Kamikochi (literally "upper highlands") is an area in Nagano Prefecture, in the southern part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park, known for its spectacular mountain scenery. Kamikochi is a popular hiking and climbing spot, especially in summer. However, the trails are closed from mid-November to late April.
Kamikochi is a plateau about 15 kilometers long in the Azusa Valley of the Hida Mountains, approximately 1,500 meters above sea level, and between the 3,190m Mt. Hodokadake and 2,455m Mt. Yakedake, which is an active volcano.
Lake Taisho, which sits at the foot of Mt. Yakedake, was formed after the volcano erupted in 1920. Some of the tallest mountains surrounding Kamikochi include Nishihotakadake at 2,909 meters, Okuhotakadake at 3,190 meters, and Maehotakadake at 3,090 meters. The Azusa River flows through Kamikochi and feeds Lake Taisho.
Kamikochi was "discovered" by the British missionary, Walter Weston (1860-1940), who helped popularize casual mountaineering in Japan.
History of Kamikochi
The Kamikochi area was used extensively by the logging industry until the mid 19th century. The British missionary Rev. Walter Weston (1861-1940) lobbied to preserve this area, and is given the credit for enticing the Japanese to hike and mountaineer.
Both logging and stock farms were shut down and closed. Weston is also said to have popularized the use of the phrase "Japanese Alps."
There is a plaque commemorating him set into the rock on the west side of the Azusa River, just north of the Onsen Hotel (Tel: 0263 95 2311) and Shimizuya. On the first Sunday in June, the Weston Festival is held to celebrate the opening of mountain-climbing season.
Kamikochi is considered part of the Chubu Sangaku National Park (also known as the Japan Alps National Park), and is protected from over-development. There are only a few hotels, hostels, ryokan, souvenir shops, cabins, and trails. There is a visitor center and a post office. Private cars are not allowed in Kamikochi, and the bus service consists of hybrid buses reducing pollution in the area. And it works!
The Azusa River has the cleanest, clearest water I have ever seen in a natural setting. It is amazing. You can see all of the colorful rocks at the bottom of the river. There are signs encouraging visitors to take everything brought into the area out with them - please don't litter.
When you arrive at the Kamikochi bus stop, you are just minutes away from the Kappa Bridge. This is where you will find a handful of hotels that house cafes and souvenir shops. It is a perfect location for lodgings as you can unload your baggage and walk light over the trails.
You can also get off of the bus at Teikoku Hotel Mae or Taishoike. The Teikoku Hotel Mae stop is closest to the Tashiro Bridge. Taishoike bus stop is right next to Lake Taisho. There is a hotel at each of these stops.
The visitor center is about two minutes farther up the east side of the river from the Kappa Bridge. This is a good place to start your hike because you can learn about the flora and fauna found along the trails before heading out. Keep your eyes open for monkeys, wild boar, and several types of birds. You'll gain a greater appreciation for the amazing scenery once you know the history behind it and the preservation efforts.
There are a lot of hiking trails, and the trails that lead toward the mountain summits are quite challenging. There are signs pointing the ways to these trails from the easier trail around the Azusa River. Not many of the trails have been laid with boards, so most are dirt paths. This simpler trail offers some of the most scenic views of the river and mountains.
From the Visitor Center, keep going up the east side of the river to Myojin Bridge. It takes about an hour. You'll pass one of the campgrounds. The campgrounds are marked, and you are not allowed to camp outside of these areas. This path is breathtakingly beautiful!
The bridge is picture-perfect from the river bank as well as on it. There are gorgeous views from the bridge. Crossing the bridge to the northwest side of the Azusa River takes you to the Hotaka Shrine and Myojin Pond.
The Myojin Pond is one of my all-time favorite places. They have built a dock out into the pond, and it really feels as if you are standing in untamed wilderness. If you just relax and listen to all of the natural sounds surrounding you, you can lose yourself in the moment. If you make the trip to Kamikochi, you must stop at Myojin Pond.
After soaking in nature at Myojin Pond, continue down the west side of the Azusa River. The trail continues through the Takezawa Marsh, so keep a lookout for photo opportunities. They are everywhere. This is where you have a chance to see some of the area's more unusual animals. You'll come back to the Kappa Bridge which is usually crowded with tourists traveling to one side or the other and people posing for pictures. Kappa Bridge is especially crowded during the summer holidays and the autumn leaf viewing season.
The park is busy, in general, during these times (mid July to August, and October) but Kappa Bridge is in the center of it all and, with all of the shops, makes for a great break area. The coffee and treats at the cafes are rather expensive. My small cup of coffee was 500 yen. So if you're traveling on a budget, you may want to consider taking your own snack food and drinks.
Once you're ready to continue around the river to the lake, keep heading down the west side of Azusa River. You'll see the Weston Monument in the rock on the right hand side, not so far from the Kappa Bridge. As you continue, you'll come to Tashiro Bridge. You do want to cross this to the other side of the Azusa River unless you plan to trek up to the summit of Mt.Yakedake.
After you cross the Tashiro Bridge, keep going downriver to Lake Taisho. It takes about 40 minutes. The path does break into two, but they come together again before heading to the lake. The lake makes for fantastic pictures. There are dead trees standing in the lake with the backdrop of tall green trees and the majestic mountains and clouds.
The sandy beach is full of tourists posing and taking pictures, or eating box lunches. It is a lovely, comfortable place to sit and just take in the view. You can really see how the mountains surround Kamikochi at Lake Taisho.
From the lake, you can head back up to Kappa Bridge, or catch the bus at the Taishoike stop to head back, or perhaps on to Takayama. Takayama is a charming, old-world Japanese town. The streets are narrow and the shops are what you imagine Japan to be before you get to Japan. The architecture is something to admire, and the story is that the best carpenters in Japan are from Takayama. All of the oldest buildings are still in use today, and things are done traditionally.
If you are a miso fan, you really need to visit Takayama. I bought about a pound each of two different misos at a wonderful shop that let you try every miso they offered. They also offered miso soup tastes from barrels. You can reorder by mail, too.
To get to Kamikochi from Tokyo, there are two trains that get you to Matsumoto. You can take the JR Nagano Shinkansen to Nagano. From Nagano, you have to take the Shinonoi Line to Matsumoto.
The other option is the JR Chuo Line. It's slower than the Shinkansen, but takes you right to Matsumoto from Shinjuku Station. At Matsumoto, you get on the Matsumoto Dentetsu Railway. That gets you to Shin-Shimashima. If you drive a car, you will park at Shin-Shimashima. Shimashima is as far as you can go. From here, you take one of the hybrid buses, or a taxi to Kamikochi.
From Nagoya the JR Shinano Express takes 2 hours to Matsumoto.
If you want to travel on to Takayama after your venture through Kamikochi, catch the bus at the same stop at Kamikochi near the Kappa Bridge. The journey takes about one hour. You can travel back to Shin-Shimashima to collect your car and drive along the main national road to Takayama, as well.