This post is part 1 of 3 on hiking destinations in the Japanese Alps.
Kamikochi is mountain paradise. The meaning of its name “the place where the gods descends to Earth” confirms it. Closed in by the surrounding rugged mountains and active volcanos, it’s a place to go to realise how small you really are. Walk around the boardwalks and trails to discover hidden wetlands, streams and lakes. Search for snow monkeys in the undergrowth, or relax in a cafe by the side of the Azusa river enjoying the views with a slice of apple pie. There is a hike here for every ability.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a well kept secret. At certain times of the year this place can see many tourists. If you plan to come, try to make your trip on a week day, and preferably not in the school holidays in August. The top picture shows a typical Saturday in mid July. The areas popularity does mean it has plenty of facilities. There are numerous places to eat and there is accommodation to suit all price ranges – although if you are on a budget, your best options are limited to a) bringing a tent, b) renting a tent, or 3) renting a bungalow. Options and pricing can be found here. Clean public bathrooms can also be found in various spots, although beware most of these are Japanese style.
Here is a map of the valley and hiking routes. A typical day hike would follow the Azusa river and take in numerous streams, ponds and wetlands. For the more adventurous, there are trails up to the mountain peaks in the area of different levels of difficulty. For many of these you will need to over-night in a mountain hut, or at a campsite at the trail head in the Kamikochi valley. These hikes are not for the faint-hearted, particularly the hike known as Dai-kiretto, where a few people die every year. Whilst we like hiking, there’s no way we’d do that trail across an exposed mountain ledge! To plan your hike, visit here for information and details of difficulty. There is also a really nice visitor information centre to look out for which provides information, amongst other things, of when and where the last bear sighting was – yes, there are black bears in this area! Be alert, but don’t be worried. The amount of visitors to this region and how shy they are mean they aren’t really a danger.
We have visited Kamikochi valley many times in the last 6 months, both in summer and winter as this is my main research area for work. It’s amazing to see how much it changes through the seasons. If you are looking for monkeys, we have had most luck seeing them around Myojin bridge area. These monkeys are the most northern living of all non-human primates, and unlike their relatives that live in more tropical environments, they have adapted to tolerate the harsh conditions in winter.
Kamikochi is car – free, meaning the only way to get here is by public transport or designated taxi. To get here from Matsumoto, the nearest city, you will need to catch a train (platform 7 at Matsumoto) to Shin-shimashima (30 mins) and then a bus direct to Kamikochi (60 mins). It’s a really easy journey even if you don’t speak Japanese. When you get to Shin-shimashima, look down to the floor. You’ll see a painted line that will direct you to the bus you need. No chance of getting lost here! The bus only runs in the summer months between April and October. If you want to go in winter, you have a long hike into the park. Be prepared for wintery conditions of deep snow and temperatures way below 0 °C.
This journey can’t be paid for by JR rail pass. A return trip from Matsumoto currently costs 4550 Yen, however if you plan on travelling around the area and visiting other places such as Norikura (look out for our next post!) it might be worth considering a 2 – day or 4 – day pass. Information can be found here.
That’s all for this post on Kamikochi. Have you been here before or are you planning a visit? Leave us a comment to let us know your thoughts.
Our next post will be on the Norikura Highlands. Check back in a couple of days for more on hiking in the Japanese Alps.