Day 5.1: Okuhida

Wednesday, 15 May 2013: Part 1

Continues from Day 4: Mt Fuji and Matsumoto

Well, we had a big day planned today!

So big in fact, that I've had to split up this blog post into two parts!

This first half covers the morning when we visited the Shin-Hotaka ropeway in Oku-Hida. The next update will cover our afternoon exploration of and ryokan stay in Kamikōchi.

The vague sort of idea we had when we planned our trip was to head the mountains west of Matsumoto and see as much of Oku-Hida, Kamikōchi and Norikura as possible.

A day or two prior to today I had read that it was possible to hike all the way into Kamikōchi from the Shin-Hotaka ropeway. The hike would travel up around 700m to the top of Mount Nishi-hotaka (2,909m) before descending 1409m down into the Kamikōchi valley on the other side.

I thought it would be great fun, and we’d save a heap on bus and ropeway fares but I was unfortunately brought back to reality when Kate looked in The Japan Book and noticed that it mentioned hiking was only possible between July and September- when there was no snow.

So that plan was scuttled.

Instead, Kate spent some time studying the timetables and came up with a brilliant plan that would let us fit in the ropeway, all the walks in Kamikōchi as well as a climb up Mount Norikura-Dake. All in the space of the two days we had available!

First we would head to the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway and travel to the top to have a look around. Then we'd come travel back down to catch a bus into Kamikōchi. It would already be early afternoon by the time we arrived but we would still  have enough time to do the top half of the walks before dinner. The next morning we’d get up early and finish the remainder of the Kamikōchi walks before catching a bus up Mount Norikura. Later in the afternoon we'd return to Matsumoto by bus.

These were all very much outdoor activities but happily we had nothing to worry about weather-wise as the next two days were predicted to be fine and sunny!

This morning was the first day we hadn't been able to include a meal with our hotel booking. We'd really got used to them so it would've been sad to miss out but all we had to do was buy it on the day for ¥800 yen ($8), which is about the price we would've paid to pre-book it anyway.

Some pretty flowers near the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway
We caught the elevator down to the hotel's reception desk on the second floor and upon payment received a coupon for breakfast. The attached restaurant Cafe Gusto was located down on the first floor and we arrived after a short elevator ride.

Maybe buffet style meals are not as common as I thought in Japanese business hotels because this restaurant also had set meals for breakfast. This time though we were able to choose from a number of options including pancakes, sausages and egg, salmon and nattō, another fish and nattō as well as chicken risotto.

It wasn't completely set meals though as there was also quite an extensive self-serve buffet section that included things like drinks, salad, soup and rice.

I ordered the salmon meal and Kate got sausages and egg. We're both such picky eaters though! Kate didn't want to eat the sausages and I avoided the nattō. My salmon was really nice though and Kate enjoyed her eggs on thick toast.

Even though we skipped parts there are set meals still contained plenty food and once we'd helped ourselves to the buffets we were completely stuffed!

After breakfast we went back up to our room to collect our luggage so we could leave it with the hotel. We'd left a bit of time just in case anything went wrong and we had to find something else to do with them. After we checked out, I explained to the lady at the desk that we were going to Kamikōchi today and we'd be returning tomorrow so could we please leave our luggage here.

She understood straight away and it was done!

No need to worry at all!

Now, although we had gotten rid of our huge luggage we were still carrying two bags each and it was quite a lot to carry. Loosening in the straps on my smaller bag and tightening them on my bigger bag let me carry both of them on my back- which was quite a good system. And certainly a lot better than rolling the huge luggage around.

The bus we were catching out of Matsumoto left from the Matsumoto Bus Terminal which we had noticed was a separate building on the other side of the road from the train station, a short walk from our hotel.

Once we arrived at the terminal we went inside and found a personnel counter as well as some ticket vending machines. It was quite new and fancy inside, as far as bus terminals go, and looked like it had been newly built or refurbished.

As with the Fuji-5 Lakes, there were certain bus passes available that would give significant discounts but we were completely unsure which ones would be best for us. We spent quite a lot of time uhming and ahing about them.

All the buses individually (with no pass) for the two days looked to cost a little over ¥10000 ($100). Quite expensive! There was an unlimited two day pass available for only ¥5000 ($50) but it really annoyingly had a validity that just hit on the edge of the two places we wanted to go. Another four day pass that covered everything was ¥10000, but it would only pay off if we did everything. We were actually a bit worried that we might not be able to make it up Mount Norikura the following day (due to snow) so in the end we just decided to buy single tickets. It wasn't like we were going to save heaps with the pass anyway.

I had a look at the ticket machine but on Kate's insistence we went up to the ticket lady instead and I asked for a one way ticket to Hirayu-Onsen (平湯温泉 = Flat + Hot water + Hot + Spring). In the Oku-Hida (奥飛田 = Interior + Fly + Rice Field) region, Hirayu-Onsen is one of five famous onsen towns renowned for their outdoor baths (露天風呂 = Rotenburo) and unique spring water.

It's also located on the main road between Matsumoto and Takayama and is a bit of a major interchange for the local and highway bus routes. We were set to visit every time we changed buses while in the mountains and hoped it would be developed enough to allow us to buy tickets.

Since we'd left lots of time to sort out the luggage there was still a decent wait before our bus was due to leave at 08:35. I think it was around 7:45. We used this time to go to a nearby Circle-K (convenience store) and buy some snacks for lunch (sandwiches, ftuit, nuts, pancakes).

Kate also bought a floppy hat for around 1000 yen as she had been getting quite badly sunburnt the last couple of days. Particularly on the head.

Once we had our supplies we returned to the bus terminal and looked for our stop. To get to there we had to go through the inside door of the terminal building and out into a set of indoor bus stops. Our bus was ultimately bound for Takayama and after crossing over the road inside to a middle platform we sat and waited with a few other people.

The bus came fairly early and was a big highway type that had a large amount of storage and those who had big luggage had the driver it put underneath the bus.

The Matsumoto bus terminal, our driver is hidden from view
Not us though as ours was small enough to just take on the bus as carry on.

As we got on the driver checked our tickets and took a note of where we were getting off in a book. After we climbed up we managed to secure seats right at the front of the bus which would allow us to look straight out of the big front windows! 


We were excited!

There was still a bit of a wait though and our bus driver spent some time socialising with some other people outside. Inside the bus I noticed that there was a humidity checker and a thermometer. As it was a highway bus all seats had seatbelts and we made sure to buckle up.

Not long before it was time to go the bus driver hopped in and a few minutes later we departed right on time!

After leaving the bus terminal we imminently headed west to the mountains. The closer mountains didn’t have any snow on them but in the distance we could see snow caps peaking above.

Right on the outskirts of the main city area the bus stopped at Matsumoto Inter-Mae (松本インター前) and picked up a bunch of people. It looked like it was an option you could use if you had a car and wanted somewhere to park for the duration of your trip to the mountains- it cost only ¥300 yen per day.

You can see the train zooming along beside us behind the rice fields
The road we followed was pretty straight and we stopped at a couple of other places along the way to pick people up.
There was actually a train we could've got half way there to Shinshimashima but it wouldn't have made much sense as we'd just have to transfer to the bus anyway. It might work out if you were going straight to Kamikōchi though .

The road actually followed the train tracks much of the way and on either side there were lots of rice paddies filled with water which turned into trees as we drew closer to the mountains.

Another thing I remember about this part of the trip is that in a seemingly nondescript town a whole bunch of people climbed on.

After about half an hour we pulled into Shinshimashima Station and waited a couple of minutes. No one got on though. I guess because, as I said, it doesn't make sense to get the train for this connection.

The name Shinshimashima (新島々) if quite a mouthful to say and literally means “New Island Island”. The 々 in the name is a special symbol that means ditto for the previous kanji.

The station is currently the terminal stop of the Alpico line, which used to extend further up the mountains to Shimashima Station.

After passing Shinshimashima the road got truly mountainous and we weaved along rivers, over dams and passed through lots of tunnels. There were also quite a few bridges to cross.

The mountain scenery was really pretty and we watched it flick by out the bus window.

During the tunnels we couldn't see much that but they were cool themselves as the tunnels were dark and a little narrow.

One of them even had a Y intersection inside- which was quite interesting.

Crappy photo of tunnel Y-Junction

After about an hour we arrived at Hirayu-Onsen!

We found it was a large interchange with a number of stops outside a big wooden building with large parking area for buses.

Inside there was a souvenir shop and a second floor that I think contained a restaurant. The souvenir shop also sold mountain climbing and hiking equipment. Nearby there were a few other buildings, though we didn’t really have time to investigate them.

Surrounding us were the beautiful snow capped mountains of the Japanese Alps!

While most people stayed on the bus to continue to Takayama a few people did get off with us. We had a bit of time to transfer but didn’t yet have a ticket. Apparently, there was some deal that let you have two days of unlimited bus rides between Hirayu-Onsen and the Shin-Hotaka ropeway for less than twice the price of a single one way ticket. The tickets intended for those who want to tour the many hot springs located along the road and although we only needed to make a single return trip to the end and back, it was also best option for us.

Snow capped mountains surrounding the Hirayu-Onsen Bus Terminal
As I didn’t know what the ticket was called in Japanese I spent some time studying the vast amount of options on display at the ticket counter.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find it there and had to just describe what I wanted “two day from here to Shin-Hotaka ticket”. I don’t really like doing this as it’s really embarrassing when they don’t have what you expect. Luckily, she knew exactly what we wanted and after we paid we were given a large ticket stamped with tomorrow's date.

Once we had our tickets we thought we’d do something about our large backpacks. After a bit of investigation we managed to track down some dodgy looking coin lockers outside to the right of the building.

I think it was about ¥300 for a locker and since we didn’t want to have to pay for one each we tried to share the cost by stuffing our luggage into a single locker.

It was a very tight fit and after a lot of pushing and strategic insertion of coins we were able to get it shut.

With our things safely stored away we headed back to the bus stop but were stopped by something calling out to us in English. He looked like a backpacker and was sitting on the ground with a big backpack and a European accent- though I don’t know what country.

He asked us where we were going and when I said we were headed to the Shin-Hotaka ropeway he asked if we were doing any hiking. I said we had thought about climbing up over the mountain into Kamikōchi had to abandon that plan when we found out it wasn’t hiking season.

He said he’d also tried to go on a walk up a mountain and had also found that it was completely closed off. The backpacker then asked if we knew about any hot springs in the area.

I said that the whole area had hot springs in it and he replied that he knew that and was looking for an actual place. As in, he couldn’t find one! We at first thought he wanted to stay somewhere but it turned out he just wanted to have a bath. I said that he’d probably be able to use one after paying a small fee though I didn’t know where any specific ones might be. He then pulled out a lonely planet and said he’d look in there.

There was only a few minutes until the bus was due to leave so we continued over to the stop and waited. While we were waiting I realised that I was still only wearing a T-Shirt and had left both of my jumpers in the locker! Although it wasn’t too cold at current elevation, the ropeway rises to a height of 2156m where it would be much cooler. It would also probably be quite windy, so I really did need a jumper.

I was extremely annoyed as we’d already paid for the locker and the only way to get my jumper would be to forfeit the coins we’d used and pay again. I supposed I could just decide to bring my other backpack after all and not pay again but this wouldn’t be fair on Kate as she’d paid to have stuff kept in the locker.
It was a really quick photo!

In the end though Kate decided that she’d like to get her bigger jumper out (she was already wearing one) and offered to pay half. That way I only had to pay double the original amount rather than three times. Kate is so super!

A bit of a line had formed behind us at the bus stop so I offered to go back and swap our stuff. Once I had done so (fleece jumper for myself) I stopped to talk to the backpacker again, who had since taken off his shoes and was airing out his socks.

I told him that there was a building across the road that said “Tourism Information” and that the people in there might be able to help. He said he'd tried that already but all he'd been able to get out of them was a “Hai” (yes) whenever he mentioned onsen (hot springs) as they didn’t speak English.

I wanted to offer to ask in Japanese for him but our bus had just turned up and I had to go run over to get on. He was pretty laid back and wasn't really too stressed about the situation. I hoped he found somewhere to bathe though.

One final thing I remember about the Hirayu Bus Terminal is that there was an amount of material from the Kyoto Animation anime Hyouka around the place. I took a quick photo of one of the posters and decided that I’d do further investigations during another visit when we had more time.

The road to the ropeway was a lot more local than the one we’d been on and didn’t feature any big tunnels, though it was quite windy. We stopped at a number of different onsen along the way and people got on an off. That guy who wanted to bathe should’ve got on our bus! We passed a heap of them!

We arrived at the lower ropeway station at around 11:20 and quickly made our way inside to buy a ticket. It was almost lunch time and we had only just begun today's activities!

The Shin-Hotaka Ropeway is one of the top ten most famous of Japan's 170 ropeways and is well known for it's unique double decker design.

It also offers one of the largest gains in elevation and lifts passengers an extra one kilometre higher up the Hotake Mountain Range from the lower station. It's actually made up of two different ropeways though the lower one only covers a vertical interval of 188 meters and is not double decked.

The total length of the two sections is around three kilometres and not including interchange times the journey takes twelve minutes. Although located at an altitude of 2150 meters, the upper ropeway station is still far below the Peak of Mount Okuhotaka which, at 3190 meters tall, is the third highest mountain in Japan.

The procedure to buy a ticket was pretty simple and we both purchased a return each for 2800 yen.


The building itself was quite big and looked to have some sort of eating area attached, though we didn’t stay long enough to look around. Once we had our tickets we joined the line and not long later were moving onto lower section ropeway car.

It’s actually possible to skip this first part and start the ropeway climb with the upper section but only if you have a car or taxi. If you get the bus you’ll be dropped off at the lower station, you’d only save a dollar on the ropeway fare though so we didn’t mind and you also get more ropeway!

The lower section departed more frequently than the upper ropeway, though must travel significantly slower as the travel time difference between the two is not much at five and seven minutes respectively.

Due to the lack of a second story and overall smaller size the lower gondolas carried far less people than the upper section. Therefore, the upper section will wait for couple of loads of the lower section to be delivered until it departs.

After we climbed on we rapidly rose in altitude and looking down we were able to get a great view of the valley containing the road and some development.

At the lowest point we could see an energetic stream bubbling away and looking further up the mountain we could see some dams controlling its flow.

The ropeway followed the slope of the mountain and didn’t stray much higher than tree height. While many of the taller trees didn’t have leaves some of the smaller ones were green and we could see some new leaves starting to sprout.

As we climbed we could feel the air getting chillier.

View up the mountain from the middle ropeway station

Once we arrived at the second station we walked a short distance to a different building to line up for the main event!

The double decker gondola!

There was some snow still on the ground and a few other buildings and outdoor seating (restaurant?) in the area. There was one or two patches of snow around and according to Kate there was a bakery. As with the first station we hadn’t hung around too much so we could be sure we’d get on the next departure.

While waiting in line I saw a lady who had a bright blue beetle on her head. I wanted to say something to her but how do you bring it up? What would she do if she knew it was there anyway?

Since it didn’t look venomous or anything I just let it be.

Soon after we lined up we started to board the car and were able to choose if we wanted the top or bottom. Most people went to the top and it looked really crowded so we decided on the bottom.

We could always go back down in the top section if we wanted and once inside it didn’t seem to make any difference.

We couldn’t even tell we were on the bottom.

As we rose we saw the accumulated snow gradually increase as the leaves on the trees decreased and the air got chillier. We were also able to get a better view of the surrounding mountains. They were really pretty!

The lady who did the commentary was located on our level and as we approached the support towers would tell us to watch out for the violent swaying.

At the half way mark we passed the other gondola and were reminded it was a double decker!

I took some photos!

Apart from this bit which was somehow kinda yellow
Towards the top it was quite cold indeed and the scenery was completely different. It was a blanket of white snow!

Upon arriving at the top we climbed up some stairs past a restaurant, ticket counter, rest house and souvenir shop to the roof of the building which was an excellent open air viewing area.

There was no roof or anything obstructing our view apart from the mountains themselves.

They looked amazing!

The observation deck had a post box, a stamp station, konobori (carp) streamers, and information panels about the geology of the surrounding mountains.

The konobori were flying for Children's Day.

The ridge that can be hiked along during the summer months
You might think the stamp station is related to the post office but it was actually for rubber stamps that are highly popular at tourist destinations in Japan.

Although we didn’t really have anything to stamp, Kate really enjoyed them and would often stamp The Japan Book. She did so here.

Reading the geological information panels we learnt that the mountain opposite (Mt Kasa) was once a caldera volcano that formed around 65 million years ago. The recent uplift of the Hida mountain range (0.8 – 2.5 million years ago) has exposed a 1600 metre vertical cross section of the ash and lava accumulation.

Hard and dense welded tuff (a volcanic/pyroclastic rock) alternates with a softer material which helps create spectacular cliffs and smooth slopes due to the differing erosional characteristics.

Though we were nearly 2156 metres high we were still far below the highest peaks in the area which topped out at the impressive 3190m height of Mount Oku-hotaka. We could see up on the ridge the hut that can be reached from the ropeway station after about a ninety minute climb during hiking season. It is from here you can either descend down into Kamikōchi, or continue along the ridge to climb the peaks.

We couldn't actually see the Oku-hotaka peak from the observation as it was blocked by the closer Nishi-hotaka peak (2,909m) which can be reached in a three hour climb from the hut. Okuhotaka is another six hours from there and is really only suitable for serious mountaineers.

Due to the thick snow though none of the peaks was currently suitable for us to attempt.

Nishi-Hotaka peak of Mount Hotaka
The mountain hut on the ridge

Tomorrow though hoped to climb Mount Norikura which will take us almost as high as Oku-hotaka (its only about 150m lower).  due to it’s gentle gradient we’d be able to go a lot of the way on the bus. It was a little windy and cold at the viewing platform so we both put on our jumpers. I had my fleece one and Kate had a big puffy goose down jacket. I was actually saving my goose down for tomorrow's aforementioned hike up Mount Norikura.

Closer to the building we were on we could see deep corridors/paths cut out through the high snow outside. There were a few people walking around within them and it looked like fun. We wondered how we could get down there.

The snow is sadly obscuring the cool geology in this photo
Maze of tunnels visible in the thick snow around the station

As it was about lunch time we went to the rest house to warm up a bit and eat our snacks. There was some food for sale though we didn’t buy any as we had brought our own; I think I had some pistachio nuts and maple syrup pancakes. The ropeway had some peculiar signs in English about the place and I’ve included a couple here.

It turned out that the rest house was the entrance to the outside and near the door there were some gumboots you could borrow as well as some hiking forms to fill out if you were going climbing.

We also found a bunch of interesting signs about the place...

Next, it was snow time!!!

We didn’t need gumboots as we already had waterproof shoes and left the forms since we did not plan to get frozen in meters of snow attempting to climb any mountains so we left the forms.

The snow tunnels were high enough that it was higher than our heads at parts and it was really quite a lot of fun!

We ran our hands through the snow walls and looked at it sparkle. We also threw some at each other.

Sometimes my foot would disappear if I walked to close to the edge. It seemed like lots of fun at the time though in the following days I’d come to regard it as a far from jolly experience. Here and now though it was a hilarious surprise!

As we went deeper into the corridors it became eerily quiet. All the background noise got absorbed by the snow. The paths criss-crossed making it a bit of a maze and we made sure to walk along all the paths.

At one point we discovered a little shrine towards the back of the tunnels.

There were not too many other people around compared to the building and viewing platform but we did see a few.

One end opened out to the mountain path and we thought we'd walk along it a bit to see if it led anywhere interesting. There were a few snow footprints so it wasn’t like we were wandering out into the middle of nowhere.

There wasn’t a distinct path though and couple of times my foot would sink down deep into the snow.

A man overtook us at the start but ended up turning back before we did.

We went as far as the half buried building marking the entrance to the mountain trail. There was really nowhere to go beyond this and the snow looked very deep. Like in the snow corridors it was very quiet out here and the green trees in the white snow looked really serine.

It was also a little creepy and it was starting to get late so we decided it was time to head back down the mountain.

So, we walked back along the path to the ropeway  building and went down to the departure platform. The next gondola wasn’t due to leave for another ten minutes though so we went back up stairs to have a final look at the view and a poke around the souvenir store.

Once it was time to go we went down, joined the line then followed a crowd of people to the top section of the gondola. Like on the way up, the top section was busier than the bottom but not as distinctly so.

I can also confirm the experience in the top and bottom halves is identical except that there’s no commentary lady. We could still hear her though and wondered where she was until we remembered that there was a bottom section.

Oh- also, at the top of the gondola car there was an information graphic that pointed out the names of some nearby peaks. Among them, on the left side, we noticed Norikuradake was marked in. This was the mountain we were going to climb tomorrow! It was pretty far away but looking out into reality we could sure enough could see it peaking over some closer mountains.

That little bump in the background is where we'll be tomorrow!

It was a tricky photo to take but if you squint...
Finally, much closer to the bottom, Kate exclaimed that there was a bear in one of the trees!

There was!

It was just hanging out halfway up one of the naked trees It wasn't particularly huge but did look was quite big.

And cute!

It's surprising that the tree didn't snap under the weight of the bear as it looked quite flimsy. 

I don't know if seeing a bear is a rare occurrence or not as no one else seemed to notice it. I'm glad we didn't walk down this mountain though; it would've been pretty scary to see a big one in real life.

Upon reaching the middle stations we quickly made our way over to the first ropeway and caught it down to the car park.

When we arrived at the bottom we looked at our timetables and realised we really needed to get the next bus if we wanted to make the connection that would get us to Kamikōchi in time to do the walks. Though it wasn’t due to depart for a few more minutes the bus was already at the stop! This meant we didn’t feel too comfortable straying too far from the stop as it could leave without warning!

We did manage to quickly dash over to the nearby stream though and take a few photos of it bubbling away. There was no time to look in the shop however, which disappointed Kate a little.

After we had boarded the bus and once it was time to leave; we didn’t. A lady on the bus had asked for the driver to wait a minute because she was waiting for some food she had ordered.

A short pause later it arrived via a man running over from the building and the bus took off.

While we were travelling back I noticed that there were cherry blossom trees blooming!

They’d long since finished blooming in most of the rest of Japan but up here in the mountains must have been cold enough to delay the flowers! It was hard to get a photo due to the fast and twisty nature of the bus ride but I somehow managed to take a few.

Apart from the cherry blossoms there were also a number of other pretty flowers.

We had quite a tight connection at Hirayu-Onsen and since our stuff was still in the lockers we had to make sure we didn't mess around! Since it would be quicker if just one of us ran over I offered to go and get our bags while Kate worked out what bus we needed. We figured that we had no time to pre-buy a ticket and decided that we’d just be able to get it on the bus.

It turned out that though we didn’t need to rush so much and when we went to get on the driver said we could go over and pre-buy a ticket- he would wait. There were some vending machines next to the ticket window which I used to buy us a single ticket each.

Hirayu and Shinhotaka 2Day Open ticket (reverse)
Shinhotaka Ropeway Ticket (reverse)
Shinhotaka Ropeway Pamphlet (reverse)

Our next destination is the wonderful Kamikōchi valley where we'll spend the afternoon exploring the wonderfully scenic walks before returning to the ryokan we booked for a wonderful kaiseki dinner.

The report should be out Monday, 5 August 2013 at 19:07

Look forward to it!

Continue reading Day 5.2: Kamikochi


  1. I truly enjoy every bit of your trip reports. Well done !

    Sydney, NSW

  2. Thank you very much Kee!

    I really enjoyed your comment too, thank you so much for taking the time to leave a message!!!

  3. I admire the prep works and planning you have done for your trips, kudos for your effort !

    We are going to Japan for the 1st time next year April, can't wait !


  4. Thank you very much again!

    I'd love to go in April, it's the perfect time to view cherry blossoms! Definitely make sure you have a look at some, Japan-Guide publish reports so you can see what place is best while you're there: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2011.html

    I'm sure you'll have lots of fun!!