The Japan Alps are one of the country´s prettiest natural environments with popular hiking and skiing locations. Located in the Chubu district in the middle of Honshu island, the Japan Alps are within easy reach from Tokyo and Kyoto. This makes the Alps an excellent area to include in your trip to this country if you want to explore the charming rural Japan.
HOW TO GET TO THE JAPAN ALPS AND MOVE AROUND
Nowadays, the Japan Alps are well connected to major Japanese cities by air and train. There are airports at Matsumoto, Tatayama, Kanazawa and Centrair near Nagoya, offering railway and bus connection to smaller towns. The train is an excellent option to get to almost anywhere within the Alps. Depending on your starting point, it might be even more convenient than travelling by air. Check the Japan Railway webpage for more specific travel information.
WHEN IS IT BEST TO GO TO THE JAPAN ALPS?
Winter season is from November to March and hence, the best time to visit if you are planning to ski. If hiking is what you prefer, visit between May to early October. But bare in mind the Alps get very busy in the months of July and August.
I visited in late September when the foliage was turning autumn red and there was considerable amount of rainfall. If I could go again, I would go in between May and late June to see snow-capped mountains amidst the spring colours.
WHAT NOT TO MISS IN THE JAPAN ALPS
Kamikochi´s beautiful scenery is difficult to beat and probably my favourite spot in the Japan Alps. Because of its location between Matsumoto (48Km) and Takayama (64Km), Kamikochi makes for a great day trip from either town. And if you have a few extra days and are keen on serious alpine hiking, then Chubu-Sangaku National Park is an excellent option. It has an extensive trail network and mountain huts available. Also, it is a great place to disconnect from the urban lifestyle as no cars are allowed.
Visiting Kamikochi is about connecting with Nature and yourself. It is about soaking in the stunning lush forest and alpine landscapes. There is a visitor centre exhibiting photos, maps and information on the area´s flora and fauna. Here you will also find clean toilets, a few snack shops and a souvenir shop where you can buy rain coats, insect repellent and the very important bear bell.
The only way to reach Kamikochi is by bus from a variety of points of origin: Matsumoto, Takayama, Kyoto and Tokyo. From Matsumoto, you can also take a 30-minute-train ride and then a transfer bus to the visitor centre.
TATEYAMA – KUROBE ALPINE ROUTE
The Tateyama – Kurobe Alpine Route does not show up in many Japan travel guides or most popular travel itineraries in the country but it is very worthy of a visit. This long scenic route crosses the Northern Alpine Range from Shinano-Omachi (near Matsumoto) to Dentetsu Toyama through Mount Tateyama with a combination of transport means: bus, cable car and ropeway. The stunning scenery vary from lush valleys, alpine forests and volcanic landscapes.
The Shinano-Omachi station is around half and hour from Matsumoto Train Station on the JR Chuo Line – Limited Express or around an hour on the JR Oito Line. It is a great full-day trip from Matsumoto, starting early in the morning. You can choose to do the full length or reach to the highest point only (Murodo Station) and return the same way. Alternatively, you can allow 1 night at Murodo Station to complete the route at a more leisurely pace. I only reached the base of Mount Tateyama from Shinano-Omachi and return within the same day because I took my time to visit the Kurobe Dam and photograph the landscapes. You can also complete the route in the opposite direction, starting at Dentetsu Toyama.
This route is a unique and comfortable way to experience the Northern Alpine Range as you do not require hiking experience or equipment. Just bring a pair or trainers, warm outdoor clothing (especially for the higher altitudes) and a rain coat or poncho (just in case).
It is one of the largest cities in the Alps, located around 280Km Northwest of Tokyo. Although you can see the main sightseeing spots in one day, you could spend a few nights as a base to explore the surroundings mountain areas of Kamikochi and the Alpine Route.
Matsumoto is well connected by train and airplane. From Tokyo, you can take the JR Chuo Line from Tokyo Shinjuku Station (around 2 hours and 15 minutes); and from Nagano, take the JR Shinonoi Line (1 hour).
What you cannot miss in Matsumoto is a visit to the black-walled Matsumoto-jo (Matsumoto Castle), built around 1500 and further modified in the following hundred years. Its inner tower is around 30 meters tall and Japan´s oldest standing tower. Japan Folklore Museum is located within the castle grounds, where you can see former farming tools and samurai clothing.
Though there are a few other spots to visit such as Japan Wood-Block Print Museum (Nihon Ukiyoe Hakubutsukan) and Matsumoto History Village (Matsumoto Rekishi no Sato), I recommend walking around and soaking in the relaxed ambience at traditional tea houses. There are a few pretty gardens and interesting elaborate drinking water fountains spread around the city, I stumbled on a local outdoor beer festival, so you know where I stayed to mingle with the locals!
OTHER PLACES TO EXPLORE
Formerly called Hida, Takayama is a small rural town preserving its traditional architecture and charm. The A-frame thatch roofed houses in Hida no Sato (Hida Folk Village) are the town´s jewel, where you can learn more about traditional regional arts. You can reach from Matsumoto and Kamikochi by bus.
This pilgrimage town lies 217Km Northwest from Tokyo and reached within 100 minutes by the Shinkansen bullet train. Though Nagano does not have much sightseeing options apart form the Zenko Temple (Zenko-ji), it is well sought-after for its skiing resorts and natural hot springs.
HOW MANY DAYS TO STAY IN THE JAPAN ALPS?
The length of your stay in the Japan Alps will depend on the total time available in Japan and the main purpose of your visit. Ideally, I would recommend staying a minimum of 3 full-days (4 nights) for a first-time visit and basic itinerary. However, I am sure you will leave the Alps wanting to explore more. If you do not have the time. try to squeeze 2 full-days for a quick visit to Kamikochi or Takayama.
WHICH LOCAL DISH NOT TO MISS IN THE JAPAN ALPS?
When in Matsumoto, try the buckwheat noodles (Zarusoba) and wasabi (grown and farmed around the area). Also, there is a different Miso soup worth trying: Hoba Miso.