Forget Fuji. Forget the cheesy megaphone music, overpriced souvenirs and endless lines. For natural grandeur without the kitsch or the crowds, try the mountains of Kamikochi.
The Western Nagano highlands (literally—the kanji mean “upper high land”) were a favorite stomping ground of British missionary and mountaineer Walter Weston, who made the area famous with his 1896 book, Mountaineering and Exploring in the Japanese Alps. Though Weston is not credited with naming the range as such, it can be said that he was responsible for popularizing the area with an audience outside Japan.
Kamikochi, simply put, is one of the most beautiful places in Japan—right the on the world list of scenic mountain regions. Entering the area from a winding canyon below, visitors soon emerge on an alpine plateau. The dramatic entrance winds around the cleanest, clearest river imaginable—then, turn a corner, and the valley opens up to an impossibly wide amphitheatre, a coliseum of mountains weaving angelically up to the sky, alternating verdant green hills with snow-capped peaks. Overall, a pretty nice place.
The plateau that makes up Kamikochi stretches for roughly 15km, surrounded by four principle peaks ranging from 2,500m to 3,200m—one of which is an active volcano. The area is part of the Chubu Sangaku National Park, about 1.5 hours west of the town of Matsumoto. Thankfully, it has been spared amid the development rush in the last decade. There are just a few sporadic hotels, souvenir shops and restaurants.
Forward-thinking planners have closed the area to private cars, so we arrived by bus, getting off at the Taisho-ike pond, which has an eerie feel to it. The transparent body of water reflects the surrounding palisades, and dead trees stand as sentinels in the middle.
The center of activities is a one-hour walk away. While the Taisho area never draws many visitors, Kappa-bashi bridge occasionally gets crowded. As such, the bus terminal, hotels and restaurants are situated here, though it is possible to find more solitude by walking up or down the bank of the Azusagawa river. While it may be tempting to stand staring at the clear water as it flows under the bridge… this is just the beginning.
An easy 10-minute walk up the canyon reveals the graceful beauty of the Takezawa marsh, with its lazy green waters beckoning visitors to pull up a rock and sit a spell. Further on is Myojin Pond, and beyond that the landscape flattens out. Not many people tend to wander this far, to the final campground and bungalow area before the mountains jut out of the earth.
This is the birthplace of Japanese mountaineering, and Kamikochi is home to an amazing alpine trail system. With time and stamina, it is possible to hike northward for days, along the entire length of the Northern Alps, eventually coming down to the ocean in Toyama.
For those keen to make the journey, there are a series of yamagoya mountain huts along the way that make it an easier undertaking. At night, seek shelter in these, get fed and stock up on supplies. The food is actually quite good; as they say, “hunger is the best seasoning.” Unlike Mt. Fuji, some of these places are quite comfy—and have no reason to turn anyone away.
Reaching Kamikochi by train takes 2hrs 40min from Shinjuku on the JR Chuo Honsen Limited Express to Matsumoto station. From there, take the Matsumoto Dentetsu line 30min to Shin-Shimashima station, and a bus will take you to Kamikochi in 1hr. By car, take Route 158 from Matsumoto or Takayama. Cars are not allowed inside, and parking is about ¥500/day. From the lot, the 30-minute bus ride inside will run you ¥1,000; a taxi will run about ¥4,000. It is possible to camp at the two sites (¥500-700/night; tent rental ¥2,000; bungalow ¥6,000). Other accommodation options include mountain huts (from ¥8,000 including two meals) and the Myojinkan Ryokan (¥8,400/person, ¥10,550/private room).
The top of the line is the Imperial Hotel (from ¥27,500/night), but reservations must be made about a year in advance. Climbing up takes some energy but is doable and safe. Some trails, especially those going north, require the climbing of chain ladders. The area is open to tourists from Apr to Nov. The Autumn Kamikochi Fair is Oct 21-Nov 14, before the official closing on Nov 15. For more information, see http://www.kamikochi.or.jp/english/