05/08/2013

Day 5.2: Kamikochi

Wednesday, 15 May 2013: Part 2

This   post   follows   on   from Day 5.1: Oku-Hida and  covers the afternoon and night we spent in Kamikōchi.

The turn off to Kamikōchi wasn’t far from Hirayu-Onsen and was guarded by a couple of guys who were checking to make sure no private cars were attempting entrance.

Due to limited parking, only taxi’s and buses are allowed travel up the road to Kamikōchi. Once we’d passed the guards we entered a tunnel in which we stayed for a large part of the rest of the journey.

Once we came out we travelled through a forest for a bit and then suddenly came across a beautiful river!

This was the Azusa River and if that name sounds familiar, it’s because it’s what one of the trains we caught yesterday was named after!

It was a really beautiful blue colour and we could see a large amount of people milling around on a pebbly bank opposite.

The bus slowly continued from here for a fair while and along the way we stopped off at a couple of different hotels. Our hotel was the Kamikochi Nishi-Itoya Mountain Lodge located near the terminal stop, which we reached a few minutes later. The bus stop station was quite developed and there were a large number of buildings. They were designed to blend in a bit with the surroundings a bit so didn’t look too over the top or anything, there was a large number of people though.

As we really wanted to get going with our walk we immediately headed to our hotel to store our bags and check in. Our Inn was located not too far from us as the crow flies but as we were not crows or any sort of bird at all really, we had to walk up the river to the Kappa Bridge. This bridge is a central landmark of Kamikōchi and one of only three places you can cross the river without getting wet.

Upon crossing the bridge we walked back down the river to our hotel.

Kate recognised our inn from a picture she had seen and I was able to confirm it was correct by reading the name.

Though described as a mountain inn the hotel is basically a Ryokan and was by far the best value available in Kamikōchi.

Ryokan (旅館 = Travel + Building) are traditional Japanese style inns and generally include a Japanese style room where you sleep on a futon on a tatami mat floor, full Kaiseki Dinners with lots of little delicious items, Onsen baths and Japanese hospitality.

Due to the elaborate meals and service it usually costs around double what we would pay to stay at a cheap business hotel and so we hadn't really stayed at many before. In fact, this was only our second time ever. When considering the meals (breakfast too) they can really be pretty good value; tonight had only cost us ¥10500 ($105) each.

When we went inside we noticed that there was a small ledge that indicated that you were supposed to take off your shoes. After we pulled off our big boots we went up to the counter and I said we had a booking. While our passports were being scanned we were asked when we wanted to have meals and decided upon a late dinner (1830) and an early breakfast (0700). Towards the end of the process we were given a present- some sort of  handkerchief apparently- and told that our room was the 明神 (Myōjin = Bright + God).

We had a view of the Azusa River from our room!
I also checked to make sure they had got my no-onions email and he said they’d got it. We'd booked our room on their website and since they didn't have an online payment system we just paid in cash on the day. After paying we received a receipt and a handy walking map of the area.

While we were talking our shoes had been taken away and once we’d finished a different man came to show us to our room. He took us past a small shop that had free tea and coffee, past the dining room and then up to the second floor to show us where the toilets were located. Next we were shown the location of the hot spring baths before finally being taken to our room. Once we arrived we were left with the key and after a quick look around the room we headed back out for our walk!

As we walked into the hotel earlier I had checked to see where our shoes would be put; a nearby shoe room. And as you'd expect, it was pretty smelly inside. Our room name 明神 was written on a piece of wood and attached to our shoes. Once we’d strapped our feet back in we began our walk! It was about 1530, so we had three hours until we had to be back for dinner.

Kamikōchi (上高地 = Above + High + Land), as the name suggests, highland mountain valley located in the northern part of the Japanese Alps at an altitude of 1500m.

The central part of the valley is quite flat and contains the fast flowing Azusa River which pools in certain locations to create a variety of marshes and ponds.

Kamikōchi is highly renowned for its spectacular mountain scenery and the sixteen kilometre long valley is surrounded by tall mountains (and a volcano!) that tower another 1500 metres into the sky.


Designated as one of Japan’s National Cultural Assets the Kamikōchi area has been preserved as a protected part of the Chūbu-Sangaku National park. Despite being a popular tourist destination development has not been excessive and efforts to preserve the area in a natural state have been successful.

Apart from attempting to scale the surrounding peaks (currently impossible due to snow), the most recommended way to enjoy Kamikōchi is to spend some time walking along the various walks that follow the river. All up there’s about 4-5 hours of the central walks to experience and it’s possible to do most of them without doubling back too much. There’s a pretty good map and description of Kamikōchi on the Japan Guide page.

The walking map we had received was even better but I've unfortunately managed to lose it!

According to both maps it would take us about two hours to walk around the top half of the Kamikōchi valley from the Kappa Bridge to Myōjin Pond. For no particular reason we decided on a clockwise direction and proceeded up the left side of the valley.

The scenery was incredibly beautiful. The river was crystal clear, fast flowing and filled with large pebbles. The trees were a lush green and surrounding us on either side were tall rugged mountains capped with snow.

Everywhere we looked was like it was out of a painting.


Or rather, some of what we saw were actual paintings!

At the very start of our walk we had encountered four elderly Japanese people painting beside the river bank. It was quite amusing as they all had the same setup with a palette in one hand, brush in the other and a canvas attached to an easel.

I guess it might've been funnier if all their paintings were identical but they were vastly different in quality and style. One of the ladies was panting over the top of a house and a garden.

The trail up the river was really nice and the path varied between gravel, split and single boardwalk, ramps, open areas and stairs. The scenery we saw along here was even more beautiful and picturesque than what we’d previously seen and although photos do not do it justice I’ll have to let them do the talking for the most part.

The various marshes (especially Takezawa) were very pretty and walking along the split boardwalks was exciting. I think there reason they were split like this was to stop gunk getting stuck below as tends to happen with the wide boardwalks.


Takezawa Marsh: one of the "Photo Ops"
The path and boardwalks were in very good condition and the only sign of human activity. Apart from a few occasional humans we saw.

In stark contrast to the heap of people we’d seen when we first arrived walking we didn’t really see very many other people along our walk, though it was by no means deserted.

Some of the most spectacular scenic points were marked on the walking map with a picture of a camera. Kate called these “Photo Ops”.

At one of the so called “Photo Ops” we overtook a middle aged couple who had a very large camera on a tripod.













At another point along the path we saw our first monkey for the trip!

The temperature was very pleasant, only very slightly chilly, and we had taken off our jumpers for the walk.

Rather than try and describe every scene I'll let the photos we took do most of the talking.








































































































Although the path continued some unknown (to us) distance up the river we were only going as far as the Myōjin Bridge and pond, which covered the best parts.

 As we drew near the path opened up and we could see the bridge ahead in the distance.

Before crossing we took a slight detour to pay a visit to Myōjin pond. The location wasn’t immediately obvious where we first arrived but a small sign pointed out what direction we should head.

If the name sounds familiar it’s because it’s actually what our room was named after!


The pond belongs to the Hotaka Shrine and a boat festival is performed on the lake every October. Since it was part of the shrine we had to pay a small entrance fee of 300 yen to visit.

Upon entering we found a very pretty pond with a little jetty and a small wooden boat. Another couple had entered just before us so we had to wait a little before we could go out to the jetty to take some photos.

Once we’d appreciated the jetty sufficiently we walked around the outer edge of the pond on some low boardwalks. They were nowhere near as well maintained as the non-shrine boardwalks and were therefore pretty exciting!


It looked like they’d easily flood over if there was just a little bit more water in the pond.

The boardwalks ultimately led to dead-end and after confirming we couldn’t go any further we returned back to near the jetty. Since we were doing well for time we decided to stop and have a bit of a relaxing sit on some seats. It was at this point I noticed that the drink in my bag had leaked! Oh no!

Right when we were about to leave a man burst out of the boardwalks we’d walked along before! He was Caucasian and looked quite a bit surprised- we were too since we had thought that way was a dead end. Where had he come from?

Anyway, once he’d disappeared off somewhere we also left the shrine and pond and made our way over to the bridge.

At the bridge we came across the old couple with the tripod we had passed earlier on our walk. They looked a little lost trying to find the pond but seemed to work it out alright.

When we crossed the bridge we were shocked to find a big ryokan on the other side!

It would be a long way to have to carry luggage though it would certainly be very quiet and peaceful at night.


Walking back down the river on the eastern side was not quite as pretty as western side but it was nice to see something different. If we were not completely spoilt from the western side we’d be very happy with this side on its own.

There was a bit more snow hanging around in places and less boardwalks. I guess the path focussed a bit more on the vegetation and less on the river on this side.

We walked through one rocky/sandy area that looked like it held water when the river flooded.

I’m not sure if it was the time of day or location but we also saw a lot more monkeys!





Towards the end the path bifurcated and we got slightly confused about what way we should go. In the end it didn’t matter though and we just passed through a camp ground and a picnic area.

By the time we arrived back at the shops it was early twilight and they had all closed. We had made excellent time for our walk and dinner was not to be served for another forty five minutes. Since we thought we might be rushed in the morning we decided to walk down to the bus stop and see if we could get a copy of some bus timetables. I had a few in The Japan Book, but I wasn’t completely confident about their accuracy; the times published at the stop were more likely to be true.

Fixed Taxi Prices from Kamkikochi: Matsumoto ¥16,800; Shinshimashima ¥11,700; Norikura Kogen ¥10,000-12,000; Mount Norikura Summit ¥11,000 (Via Hirayu), ¥17800 (via Norikura Kogen); Takayama: ¥16,100; Hirayu - Summit - Takayama ¥18,800; Shinhotaka ¥18,800 (I think- it's just "Shinho")
Hover mouse for translation
Things were pretty shut at the bus stop though and there were not any loose sheets available to take. Instead I managed to take some photos of the timetable signs using my phone. While we were there we noticed there was a fixed price taxi sign and I took a photo of it as well. When I did that a taxi driver asked me where I wanted to go and I had to explain that it was for tomorrow and we were probably going to get the bus. We just wanted to know about the taxi in case we got into a bothersome situation (like missed the last bus).

We then said bye to the taxi drivers, walked back to the hotel, put our shoes away, took some hotel slippers and returned to our room. There was still some time before dinner and Kate floated the idea of having a bath. We didn’t know if we’d go tonight as we were very nervous and embarrassed about the whole communal bathing situation. We were a bit sweaty though and Kate was feeling brave so we decided to risk it.

There was only one key for our room, which I took since I’d probably be back first as Kate wanted to blow dry her hair. We both took a towel each and grimly wished each other good luck.

I was lucky to find the baths completely deserted!

I knew even before I entered, and this is a good tip. Everyone wears the same slippers around the ryokan which get taken off being going into the bath. Usually you can see how many slippers are outside before going in and therefore infer how many are using the bath. In my case it was zero for both!

The bath was pretty nice, it was kind of traditional looking, had mineral laden water and there was a window you could look out to the outside. After cleaning at the wash stations I had soak in the baths found the temperature to be really warm and pleasant. It’s really relaxing! Although it’s less embarrassing if someone comes in while you’re bathing I made sure to make it a pretty snappy trip lest I get sprung.

It was a success!
A fish we saw during our walk!

I went back to our room and waited for Kate. Upon arriving she also said that her baths had been deserted! Going right before dinner seems to be a good idea to avoid people. I also want to briefly state that the communal toilets were very clean and we didn’t see anyone in there either- they’re separated into stalls like normal. Just make sure to use the special toilet slippers.

There was still a couple of minutes before dinner and we were thinking about waiting until it was right on time but were instead surprised by a loud announcement that came out from our phone! It said that dinner was served!

We were a bit worried about the saeting arrangements as it was the traditional sit on the floor affair and neither of us were sure if we could last the whole time sitting seiza (正座 = correct + Sit)- which is a special way of sitting that can hurt your feet after a while. It's even used as a mild punishment in some circumstances! 

We needn’t have worried as we found that our room key was positioned on top of one of four high western style tables with normal chairs. We were the last to arrive and we saw another young Caucasian couple like us, an old Caucasian couple and a group of four middle aged Japanese people.

Japanese Version
Dinner was really good and as we ate more and more dishes kept coming out!

There was a menu in Japanese and English and it told us that we had:

  • Assorted Samples 
  • Roasted Venison 
  • Green Sesame 
  • Tofu Udo with Vinegar 
  • Miso 
  • Sashimi: Local Salmon 
  • Grilled Char with Salt 
  • Tofu Skin with Salute Mountain Vegetable
  • Tempura Bud of Angelica Tree 
  • Bud of Deciduous Tree 
  • Udo 
  • Beef Fillet steak with Grated Wasabi 
  • Rice & Vegetable Pickles Clear Soup Dessert

We were very happy with our meal! Almost everything was delicious and it was lots of fun trying various foods we’d never eaten or seen before. Much of the time we had no idea what it was exactly (we only noticed the menu at the end).

The only thing I really couldn’t eat was the head of a fish (it had eyes :( and teeth), though I ate the rest of it. Unfortunately, it was only once we’d finished that I thought to take a photo so all you can really see is our scraps.

In the future I made sure to take photos of as many meals as possible before eating.


After dinner we went and had a quick look at the little tea room and coffee shop. There were quite a few souvenirs inside as well as the expected hiking goods. We saw the present we had got (a kind of wall scroll) for sale and hanging up on one of the walls. There were also some Kamikōchi T-Shirts that Kate was interested in.

After the shop we headed back to our room and found that the low table in the middle had been moved aside and our futons had been laid out for us (they were stored in a cupboard previously). The futon bed was really soft and cuddly and pleasantly warm.

I’ll give a quick review of our room as I neglected to earlier in our rush to go walking. It was a traditionally Japanese styled room with a Genkan , sliding Fusuma and Shōji doors and a tatami mat floor. There was nice art work on the doors and we also had a balcony from which we could see the river! The room was quite small but the space was well utilised and we didn’t feel cramped in or anything.



While getting ready for bed we discovered that the younger Caucasian couple we saw at dinner were in the room next door to us when we heard them making a fair bit of noise.

They had the TV up loud and were laughing a lot- I think in a kind of “look how strange all the stuff is” way. They soon settled though and not long after we went to sleep.

Myōjin Pond ticket (reverse)

Tomorrow we'll be getting up early to explore a bit more of Kamikochi before breakfast before finishing the rest of Kamikochi and then catching a but to the top of Mount Norikura. If the afternoon we'd then return to Matsumoto and if there's time, see Mastumoto Castle.

So, another big day!

The next travel report will be out Monday, 12 August 2013 at 19:07

Look forward to it!

P.S. I enthusiastically welcome and love to reply to any and all comments or questions received! 

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Continue reading Day 6.1: Kamikochi and Norikura

4 comments:

  1. Thank you very much!

    I loved reading your comment!

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  2. We have just returned from 3 amazing weeks in Japan...LOVED Kamikochi! We stayed at the Nishi-itoya Sanso following your recommendation! (We got 10% discount by booking through the Kamikochi Tourist Association) It was on of the highlights of the trip. I wondered too about the split board walks and decided it was for one-way foot traffic each way in the peak tourist season!

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    Replies
    1. That's fantastic!

      I'm really glad to hear that you had a good time in Kamikochi- it really is a very scenic place!

      Sorry for the lateness of my reply, I've been in Japan for the last few weeks and google decided that signing in from Japan was suspicious enough to lock down my account. Thankfully I've managed to get it all worked out again.

      Oh yeah, one of the places we went to this time mentioned that the scenery rivalled Kamikochi but I disagree, Kamikochi was much prettier!

      Thanks for the information about this discount too! There's still some things we've yet to do in the area so it could be useful if we go again. I'll modify the main post too with that tip :-)

      You're a genius about the split board walks! I've seen that in other places and that explanation makes perfect sense!

      Thanks once again for the comment and I'm really happy to hear you had a fun trip!

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