When the word Alps is mentioned, we think of the famous mountain range that spread across Europe. But there is also an Alp in the other side of the world in Japan. The Japan Alps are a series of mountain range that encompass the Hida Mountains, Kiso Mountains and the Akaishi Mountains, with the highest peak at Mount Hotaka (3190m above sea level).
On the 18-19 July 2016, my partner and I went on a 2D1N trip to the Northern Japan Alps via the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. The Alpine Route can be toured in a day in about 7-9 hours but we decided to spend more time and opted to camp overnight. The Alpine Route crosses mountain ranges and can be access via various mode of transportation.
You may visit the official website here at http://www.alpen-route.com/en/about/introduction.html
Here is the map of the Japan Alps: https://www.alpen-route.com/en/wp-content/uploads/walkingmap.pdf
The website is very detailed but I will be sharing even more on the trip that would benefit you readers should you plan to go there.
The Alpine Route is located between Toyama and Nagano prefectures. You can access the Alpine Route either via Toyama or Nagano. There are various ways to access via domestic flights, trains and car. We chose the route which started from Toyama and ended in Nagano. We took the Hokuriku Shinkansen Kagayaki which is about 2 hours ride from Tokyo to Toyama. It will be advisable to buy a JR Pass that allows you to travel for unlimited rides on the JR line. Below are 2 recommended JR pass that you can buy to get to Toyama or Nagano
National JR Pass – 29000¥ Allows you unlimited ride on every JR train in Japan
Hokuriku Arch Pass – 24000¥ Covers a limited route but sufficient to let you travel unlimited ride around Tokyo Metropolitan Area and the Shinkansen to Nagano and Toyama. For more information on the route covered, please click on this link http://hokuriku-arch-pass.com/en/
How to purchase the pass?
The pass can be purchased via online platform below
Do print out your email confirmation before collecting your pass. Go to any JR office at the train station or the airport and show your email confirmation to collect the pass. It is best to collect your pass from the airport JR office as you can immediately use it to take the Narita Express train from the airport. While collecting our pass, we also purchased the Tateyama Kurobe Option Pass. This pass will cover all transports required to travel along the Alpine Route and us saved 3000¥ with any JR Pass to go along with it. The option pass is valid for 5 days and is a one way ticket only: if you start from Toyama, you need to end at Nagano and vice versa.
The Hokuriku Shinkansen is a fully reserved seating train and you need to reserve your seats at the JR office before boarding the train. If you miss the train, you need to go and reserve another seat for the next train.
The Hokuriku Shinkansen
There are a few types of Hokuriku Shinkansen. The fastest train is the Kagayaki that takes 2 hours to travel from Tokyo to Toyama. The other Hokuriku Shinkansens would take a longer duration as they stop at more stations.
Once arriving at Toyama station, exit the station and walk towards Dentetsu Toyama Station to take the Chiho Railway. This is where the Option Pass can be used. We flash our pass and boarded the train for an hour ride to Tateyama station.
Upon reaching Tateyama station, our alpine journey begins. We proceeded upstairs to rent our camping gears as there is a rental store at Tateyama station. The rental store provides all sort of outdoor and camping gears. The good thing about the rental is that you need not have to come back to Tateyama station to return the items. You can return it at a locker at Murodo. Please inform the person that you are not coming back and they will tell you where to return the items.
After renting our equipment, we proceeded to board the cable car to Bijodaira.
Note* The full route only opens from April to November. This will be the best time to go as you will experience the full alpine route.
When we alighted the cable car we initially wanted to go for a hike at the Bijodaira Forest which contains 1000 year old cedar and beech trees and around 60 species of native birds and if lucky, mammals such as the Japanese Antelope. We did not had the time luxury to explore the forest and thus gave it a miss as the shortest route will take about 2 hours to complete. Hence we proceeded to take the highland bus towards Midagahara Wetland.
If you are going for the hike, there are lockers at the station to deposit your bags.
Interior of the cable car
The highland bus took us to the next stop which is the Midagahara Wetland. It is the highest wetland habitat in Japan at 1930m above sea level. The wetland consist of beautifully constructed 2 way boardwalks that cut across the wetland and provided us with breathtaking views. The appearance of the wetland would change according to season. We deposited our bags into the lockers provided and took whatever we needed for the walk.
The boardwalk brought us to an open wetland with breathtaking view of the mountains at the backdrop with a seemingly long stretch of path that never ends.
Midagaraha Wetland, highest wetland habitat in Japan
A typical hike would take about an hour to complete, but we wanted to take our time to explore and take pictures and we took 2 hours to walk the wetland.
We board the highland bus again and proceed to Murodo, the main attraction of the alpine route. From April till June, the bus will pass through the massive 500m snow wall as high as 20m as Tateyama has one of the heaviest snowfall in winter. When we travel past the snow wall had already subsided with a little snow still visible along the way.
Snow wall that can be seen from April to June. photo credit Pietro Zanarini https://www.flickr.com/photos/zipckr/6841197557/
This the main highlight of the alpine route with the most breathtaking views of the Japan Alps. After alighting at Murodo station, we took a short break at the station to have our lunch. The station do sell food and souvenirs. We managed to find the only vegetarian friendly food there which is the vegetable and red bean bun. After our break we proceeded to trek Murodo en-route to our campsite.
The view at Murodo was jaw-droppingly beautiful. Flowers bloom over the green grass bed with the view of the mountains at the background.
As we proceed further we came to this picturesque view of Mount Tateyama with Mikurigaike Pond. The view was simply breathtaking and peaceful. With luck, one can spot the Rock Ptarmigan aka Raicho in Japanese, the official bird of the Toyama Prefecture.
Mount Tateyama with Mikurikaige Pond.
Just slightly above Mikurigaike Pond is the hot spring facility. Toilets are available should you need to answer nature’s call.
After a toilet break we proceeded onward towards our campsite. We would pass by a volcanic area where the smell of rotten eggs filled the air as sulfuric smoke were released. The vegetation in this area were in stark contrast from those that we saw earlier as dead plants filled the landscape, which look eerily beautiful.
Bare vegetation near the volcanic area.
Volcanic area that releases a foul smelling sulfuric gas into the air.
Raichozawa Camp Site
There are also hotels available at Murodo station but a one night stay would cost as much as 800SGD which was insane. There are also a few huts and inns but they are not English friendly and booking online in English is virtually impossible.
Hence we decided to be more adventurous and rented a tent for less than 100SGD. We managed to pitch our tent amateurishly before it gets dark. The camp site fee is 500¥ per person for one night and 1000¥ for two nights or more.
Our amateurishly pitched tent.
The campsite serve as a base camp for those who like to climb to the summit of Mount Tateyama, or as a family camping ground for the locals.
There were no hot water facilities at the campsite hut so you need to bring your own burner to boil, as we learned it the hard way and had to walk to a nearby mountain restaurant to ask for hot water. We barely made it to the restaurant as it closed after 6.30pm. We also managed to get some snacks from the restaurant.
Sufficient winter clothes and sleeping bag are utterly important when camping overnight as temperatures at night plummet to as low as 10 degrees Celsius in summer, and gets unbearably cold as the night passes.
On a clear moonless night, one can see a star-filled sky and even the Milky Way during the right timing. During our stay, the bright moonlight shone onto the campsite, giving it a surreal outer space atmosphere to the surrounding as though we were on another planet.
Raichozawa campsite at night
When the sun finally rises, it brought the most comfortable warmth ever. We rushed out from the toilet and basked ourselves in the heat the moment the sunlight touches the campsite.
We had breakfast before packing up and head out to Murodo terminal where we came from. We were very lucky to bump into a female Rock Ptarmigan at close range on our way out. The Rock Ptarmigan, also known as Raicho (meaning thunderbird) in Japanese, is the official bird of the Toyama Prefecture. We spent some time watching the bird going on her business before continuing our way out.
Female Rock Ptarmigan aka Raicho, the official bird of Toyama Prefecture.
Downhill from Murodo, we arrive at the Kurobe Dam via the trolley bus (the only one left in Japan), ropeway and the cable car. At 186m high, the Kurobe Dam is the tallest dam in Japan. It was a difficult engineering project that claimed 171 lives over the course of construction between 1956 -1963. The dam was built to provide electric power to the Kansai region after the area suffered from drought.
Gorgeous view as we descended via the ropeway.
Kurobe Dam with the magnificent Japan Alps at the back.
Powerful winds capable of blowing off your hats can be felt as 88 m3/s of water came gushing out from the dam into the river streams. When the angle is right, rainbow can be seen near the water outfall.
Tourist can walk up the metal steps and head up to the observatory to have a scenic view of Lake Kurobe and the mountains. There is also a cruise ride available at the dam, where people could take a cruise around Lake Kurobe. It is the highest altitude cruise ride in Japan.
Lake Kurobe with Kurobe Dam as seen from the observatory.
The end point to the alpine route after taking the trolley bus from Kurobe Dam. From here, we took the express bus to Nagano train station for our Shinkansen ride back to Tokyo. There is also an alternative route via local bus to Shinano Omachi train station and then to Nagano train station.
Things to note about the trip
It is advisable to use a backpack to tour the alpine route whether you are doing a day tour or if you wish to stay overnight either at the camp site, hotel or lodge.
For holders of the one way Tateyama Kurobe Option Pass, the ticket does not allow the holder to U-turn back to where they start from. You will either start from Toyama or Nagano and end at Nagano or Toyama respectively. Hence, those with luggage would need to find a way to transport their luggage from one point to the other which is seemingly impossible.
During our trip, we left our luggage in Tokyo at a relative’s place and only pack the necessities for 3D2N before heading back to Tokyo again. For those who do not have a friend to help accommodate your luggage, you may try asking your accommodation eg hotel to store your luggage while you are away if you are coming back to the same place.
Most importantly, plan your trip well and bring the necessities and enjoy to the fullest!
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