Snowshoeing and frozen waterfalls in the Japanese Alps

Norikura Kogen (plateau) is likely our favourite spot in the Japanese Alps. In winter the lush green of the valley turns into snowy white and there are plenty of activities to spend a weekend.

You might have seen in our earlier posts how fond we are of this place, so we couldn’t believe our luck when the opportunity arose to visit again in mid-February. This time we were invited to a guided snowshoeing tour organised by ALPICO, the bus company that goes into the Alps, for foreign residents living in Matsumoto. We were very excited as this was going to be our first experience on snowshoes.

At the Norikura Kanko Centre (visitor’s centre), we geared up with the provided ski clothing and snowshoes and then we were dropped at the trailhead where, after a brief warm-up, the tour guides explained how to use the snowshoes safely. It is not difficult but it takes a few steps (an a few falls on your bum!) to get used to walking with the shoes (useful tip: when going down-hill, walk on your heels, going up-hill, walk on your toes).

Our destination was the frozen waterfall of Zengoronotaki. It is not far from the visitor’s centre and the tour can easily be done in half a day. The forest was covered by a thick blanket of snow and although we were several degrees below zero, the day was sunny and with almost no wind, so the tour was very pleasant.

The waterfall had an amazing sky blue colour, much more beautiful than the last time we saw it, in mid-November. The tour guide explained to us that the ice becomes bluer as winter progresses due to increased compression within the ice. We had time to take some photos with the group and even to taste some icicles. It is spring water straight from the mountains so it’s totally pure! On our way back, distracted by the need to focus on our newly learnt snowshoeing skills, we ran into an ambush that turn out to be an all-out snow ball battle with the group that was ahead of us! Not really sure which team won. After receiving a snowball to the face my vision was obscured through my wet glasses – I guess that means I didn’t win.

Once safely back at the visitors centre, we were treated to a feast made by a group of local women, of local food specialities such as soba (buckwheat) noodles in warm broth, oyaki (dumplings) stuffed with mushrooms, wild vegetables and azuki (sweet redbean paste) and vegetable tempura. We also had pickled vegetables, including nozawana, a local speciality. Catherine was extra happy as they had gone out of their way to provide vegetarian food especially for her.

On the afternoon after lunch, some of our group chose to visit the nearby onsen (hot springs spa), while others decided to go sledging to the Kid’s Ski Park. We decided to spend the last hours, exploring Norikura Kogen a little more by walking along one of the trails that leave from the visitors centre. The forest was cold and silent and we felt very relaxed.

If you plan to go snowshoeing to Norikura as we did, you do not have to worry about having all the gear that you may need. At the visitors centre you can rent ski gear, snowshoes and walking poles. If you want to go to Norikura Kogen, here is a link to our blog post explaining how to get there. ALPICO also serves many other lines to other locations in the Japanese Alps. If you enjoy mountains and being outdoors, we’d thoroughly recommend you explore the area.

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