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.

Hiking the Nakasendo trail: Yabuhara to Narai

This post is part 3 of 3 on hiking destinations in the Japanese Alps.

 

Compared to our last two entries about hiking in the Japanese Alps, this one is probably the easiest hike, and includes a strong cultural/ historical component. The Nakasendo trail is a well-known mountain route developed during the Edo period (1603 – 1868) to connect the important cities of Tokyo with Kyoto. The Tokugawa shogunate – the last feudal military government of Japan – used this route to maintain control and communication over their territory. The route passes by 69 post towns where travellers, including messengers, samurai and monks, could rest along their journey. Some parts of the trail can still be hiked today, either as multiday journeys or one day trips from nearby cities, and provide the opportunity to enjoy Japan’s beautiful forest trails and traditional mountain villages.

From Matsumoto, were we live, the most accesible part of this trail by train is the stretch from Yabuhara to Narai. Both towns have a train station with direct links to Matsumoto, so you can get off in one town and get back on the train at the next.

Forest walk
Taking in the full magnitude of the forest

Get an early train to Yabuhara to enjoy a morning hike and then lunch in Narai at the end. From Yabuhara train station, get a map of the route, and head off to the start the trail. You’ll soon find that the town gradually disappears until all you can see are the trees that surround you. We have now done this trail twice, once in June and a second time in September. Both times we’ve had the whole trail almost to ourselves, so it’s easy to enjoy the sounds and sights of nature. In summer the noise of the cycads is almost deafening! The hike takes about 2 hours to complete. You’ll start off heading up hill and will have some beautiful views over the mountains when the trees open up at different points. When you reach the highest point, you’ll see some picnic tables and a side option to go up some steps. Take this option. It isn’t far and it leads through a massive torii gate to a beautiful isolated temple in the forest. You can retake the original trail from the other side of the temple, so no need to backtrack down the steps. At other points you will find other short side trails that lead to seating areas or view points. It’s worth spending a bit of time in these to really get a feel for the calmness of the forest. When you’re heading down towards Narai, the forest will open up to give you some views of where you are, so you can hear the river below and see the streams you are crossing.

Once you get to Narai, you will be at the half way point along the trail between Tokyo and Kyoto. Narai comprises one long, main street where the traditional buildings have been preserved. Here you will find gift shops, tea houses, traditional accommodation and restaurants. There are a number of temples worth a visit in the area too – try exploring some of the side streets shooting out from the main street. For lunch, you have a number of places to chose from. Try some soba noodles in one of the traditional restaurants, a delicacy in the Nagano region. Or, if you want to save some money, or just prefer a picnic, it’s worth picking up some food before you leave in the morning as there aren’t any shops in Narai where you can get food to go. If you are looking for somewhere nice to have a picnic, continue to the end of the main road and then turn right. You’ll cross the train lines and will come out at a park close to the river with a beautiful wooden bridge. This is a nice quiet spot for a picnic. We’d recommend going to one of the tea rooms whilst you’re here. Trying a matcha and sweet in this traditional setting takes you back in time.

Safety

Throughout the trail you’ll see bells hanging from trees – ring these a few times to warn off any bears that could be in the area. Bear attacks are rare in this part of Japan, but they do appen. The best way to avoid them is to not come as a surprise to any bear – which could then feel threatened and attack. Make noise – talk to your travel companion, ring these bells, but dont worry too much about it, very few people encounter bears.

Getting here

Direct trains from Matsumoto to Yabuhara take about an hour, or there are trains with changes in Shiojiri and a single ticket currently costs 760 Yen (January 2018). The return from Narai takes 50 minutes and costs 580 Yen. Look at time table on Hyperdia.

 

 

 

Japanese hiking routes: Norikura

This post is part 2 of 3 on hiking destinations in the Japanese Alps.

If after a trip to Kamikochi you are still craving more hiking time in the mountains, or you purchased the Alpico multi-day bus pass (see here for the previous blog post) and are considering where to go next, Norikura is the place. Norikura is a 3,026 m high mountain located between Nagano and Gifu prefectures in Japan. In summer Norikura hosts a variety of trails to appeal to all abilities, from alpine forest paths at Norikura Kogen (plateau) to high altitude climbs at Norikura Tatamidaira (summit). A visit to Norikura Kogen in spring to admire the wild flowers and towering snow walls on the way to Norikura Tatamidaira. In summer you might find raichou, the thunder bird (ptarmigans) around the summits. In fall the forest change their green colours to yellows, reds and browns.  In winter Norikura Kogen comes alive with snowshoeing and skiing. We think it’s always the right time of year to visit this place!

If you decide to visit Norikura Kogen to enjoy the alpine forest, it is easy to combine views of a couple of waterfalls and a pond into a daytrip. Zengoro falls, in the image below, is close the bus drop off point and is spectacular in summer or winter. Once you get off the bus, head into tourist information (Kanko Center) to pick up a map of the regions trails. If you want to walk more, you can continue to Sanbon falls. This area is also the last point that can be accessed with private car.

Zenoro falls
An easy hike is to the Zengoro falls at Norikura Kogen, seen almost frozen in late November.

If you want to experience high altitude without too tough a hike, this is a great place. You can catch a bus up to 2,700 m a.s.l., where you can find a gift shop, somewhere to eat and toilet facilities. From there you can hike to the summit (Kengamine-dake) in less than 2 hours, with beautiful views of the Japanese Alps all around. Many people do this then take the bus back down, or hike back down alone hiking trails. When we did this in early July, we planned on hiking down, however the trails were just meltwater rivers at that time of year due to the large snow packs melting, so we decided to walk down following the road. This was the BEST decision. We loved this route. We saw almost nobody apart from a few hardcore bikers going uphill. Over the couple of hours it took us to hike back down, we probably only saw 2 buses on the road, so it felt safe. The great thing about this was the view. If we’d have followed the hiking trails down, we’d have been entering gorges and eventually we’d have been under the cover of trees, by staying on the road we were in the open all the way down with panoramic views of distant mountains and never ending forest. We’d completely recommend walking down the road!

Never ending forest
Hiking from the summit of Norikura to Norikura Kogen along the main road.

How to get here

To get here on public transport, you need to catch the train from Matsumoto to Shin-shimashima (30 mins), the same as if you were going to Kamikochi. From Shin-shimashima, you catch a bus to Norikura Kogen (45 mins). Here is were you need to go to to walk around the alpine forest and visit waterfalls. The return journey costs 3,300 Yen. To get to close to the summit, you then catch another bus from the bus top besides the tourist information, that will take you along a windy path up the mountain to Norikura Tatamidaira at 2,700 m altitude – if you get travel sick, take some tablets in advance! The return cost of this journey is 2,500 Yen. Bus timetables can be found here.

 

That´s all for Norikura. The next post will be in a few days talking about the Nakasendo trail, the old post route travelled by Samurai between Tokyo and Kyoto.

Hiking in the sacred mountains of Kamikochi

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.

 

Snow monkeys at Kamikochi
Snow monkeys at Kamikochi

Transport

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.

 

 

Matsumoto and the Japanese Alps

For our second post we thought we’d tell you a bit about our new town in Japan. About 2 and a half hours from Tokyo by train, Matsumoto is a cute little town nestled in the Japanese Alps. It’s the perfect place for people who love the outdoors as it is surrounded by mountains, some over 3000 m a.s.l. It’s main attraction is it’s castle. Built in 1592, it is one of only five castles in Japan that are classed as a national treasure. It’s a great place to base yourself for a few days to enjoy a different pace of life after visiting some of the bigger cities in Japan. We’ve really enjoyed being able to explore Matsumoto and the surrounding area. It’s such a peaceful place where even in the city you feel you can connect with nature thanks to the mountain views and the sparse street lighting at night.

Some of the most popular nearby hiking destinations are easily accessible by public transport. These include Kamikochi, Norikura and the Nakasendo trail. Here we’ll provide a brief introduction to each these places and over the next few days we’ll include longer blog posts about each one, to help you plan your trip.

 

Kamikochi

Located within the Chubu Sangaku National Park, and the highest mountain range in Japan, Kamikochi is a popular place to visit. Hikes can include a gentle stroll along the river, where you can enjoy views of the towering mountains and look out for monkeys. Along the length of the river you can find restaurants, public toilets, hotels and campsites, making it a nice day out for all the family.

It you prefer to push your self further, there are numerous peaks you can summit from Kamikochi, with mountain huts meaning you can spread the hike over a couple of days.

Azusa river

Norikura

Our favourite place for a hike. Easy to get to but in our experience less crowded with tourists tan Kamikochi. Here you have two options. 1) Enjoy the numerous trails around the forests and waterfalls, or 2) get a bus to close to the mountain peak (2,700 m) to enjoy the views from above and wonder around meltwater lakes. From here you can hike to the summit at 3026m. This is a great hike if you want to experience high altitude without too much effort.

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Yabuhara to Narai, the Nakasendo trail

The Nakasendo trail was the old postal path between Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo period. Now, parts of it have been preserved and you can walk through deep forests and mountain passes between traditional villages. From Matsumoto, the easiest part of the trail to get to is between Yabuhara and Narai.

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Us

Hi! Welcome to our new blog, we’re so happy you could join us. We’re Miquel and Catherine. We’ve travelled a fair bit between us and thought it was about time we made a blog to share our stories with the world and provide helpful tips for anyone who might find themselves in the same part of the world or the same situations as we find ourselves in.

We both love travel and being outdoors. A lot of our posts will be about places we have been hiking. We tend to travel only on public transport, which can sometimes be difficult as we want to go to remote places! We’ll share how we manage this in our posts. Along with the more outdoorsy stuff, we’ll share our trips to cities and the cultural intricacies we learn along the way – this is the stuff we wish we’d known earlier, for example, did you know in Japan it is rude to pour your own drink, but someone should do it for you?! Or did you know that in Argentina, work meetings start by greeting everyone with a kiss on the cheek, regardless of gender? Do this in Chile however and I’m sure you will get some strange reactions!

Miquel and I met in 2010 whilst volunteering on a nature reserve in the Ebro Delta, a couple of hours south of Barcelona. If you love paddy fields, birds (flamingos!), and deserted beaches you should definitely check it out. I (Catherine) lived there for 10 months, whilst Miquel visited regularly from his hometown further north. We’re lucky that our work allows us to travel. We are both researchers, Miquel researches invasive species, particularly birds, and how they are introduced and become established in new regions and I research Arctic and alpine rivers and how climate change is impacting them. Since we met, we’ve travelled a fair bit between us, including stints living in Austalia, Spain, the UK, and (currently) Japan, and trips to Greenland, Svalbard, California, Scotland, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Cambodia and Korea to name only a few! We hope you find our blog interesting. Feel free to leave us a comment and share your thoughts.