In the middle of summer, when the concrete jungles are hot and humid, you can either spend your days in front of the air conditioner… or you can leave the city and head up to where it’s naturally cool!
One of my favourite summer getaways is the remote Hida Mountains (part of the Japanese Alps) in Nagano prefecture. Tucked away in a valley deep in the mountains is an area called Kamikochi. Although situated at the base of the mountain range, it’s still 1,500 metres above sea level! Even in summer, the temperatures barely rise above 20ºC.
Kamikochi is part of a national park in which private cars are not permitted to enter. The easiest and cheapest way to get there is via a bus which takes you to the Kamikochi Bus Terminal.
Stepping off the bus, it feels like you’ve found yourself in a picture-perfect fairytale. Through the lush green forest, the first thing you see is the well-known Kappa Bashi suspension bridge. The water swirling past under the bridge is crystal clear and seems to change from aqua to turquoise to emerald depending on the depth. Of course, this water runs down fresh off the mountains and is ice cold. Even dipping your toes in would give your body a shock!
And the mountains… Wow! The surrounding peaks are often hidden above the clouds. But if you’re lucky, the clouds will lift and reveal white streaks in the crevices of the mountains. It’s hard to believe you’re seeing snow just a few hours away from cities that are sweltering in 35ºC heat!
The area around Kappa Bashi is closest to the bus terminal, and as such is packed with tourists. But if you go 5 minutes in any direction, the crowds quickly disappear. There are a few trails, some with boardwalks, others just a path through the forest. Some hikers take on the vertical climb up to one of the peaks, but a non-strenuous route follows the Azusa River downstream towards the volcano Mt Yake.
On the trail, you will come across all sorts of wonderful sights. There are a number of swamps and marshes where the water is so still it looks like glass. Tashiro Pond, fed by a hot spring, is one of the most photographed spots in the area. In the winter months, while mounds of snow cover the surrounding vegetation, the water itself remains unfrozen.
Rest your feet in natural boiling-hot spring water
There’s also plenty of wildlife to see. While the odd bear has been known to roam the woods, it’s not uncommon to spot wild monkeys. They can be seen up in the trees or down on the ground transporting branches they’ve ripped off the trees! They aren’t concerned with the humans passing by and go about their business as though we don’t exist.
At the end of the trail is Taisho-ike, a lake created from the blockage of the river after a major eruption in 1915. On a still, clear day, you can witness a beautiful mirror reflection of the mountains.
Depending on how much exploring you want to do, a stay in Kamikochi can range from one hour, a few hours, or even a multi-day hike. Entry is restricted to the non-winter months only, so plan your trip between April and November.
Getting there by bus:
If you’re travelling from Tokyo, a highway bus service is available direct from Shinjuku Station. Travel time is roughly 4 hours 40 minutes on the morning bus, or 7 hours on the overnight bus. The fare varies from 6,200yen to 9,200 yen depending on the season and seat type.
Getting there by train:
Alternatively, take the JR super limited express train from Shinjuku Station to Matsumoto Station. From Matsumoto Station, take the ALPICO line train to Shinshimashima Station. The final leg is a bus trip to Kamikochi bus terminal. In total, this option takes 4 hours 15 minutes (not including transfers), and costs 9,030yen.
If you’re planning to spend some time in this region of Japan, you’ll be happy to know there are many other noteable places to combine with a trip to Kamikochi. Directly east is Matsumoto city, where you can check out the striking black ‘crow castle’. And to the west is Takayama city, where you can travel back in time in the atmospheric Old Town.
Kamikochi truly is one of the treasures of Japan. Escape the heat this summer and experience the spectacular Japanese Alps!