Day 6.2: Norikura & Matsumoto

Thursday, 16 May 2013: Part 2

This entry follows on from Day 6.1: Kamikochi and Norikura which covered our morning in Kamikōchi and journey up to the bus station on the top of Mount Norikura.

We intended to climb the extra few kilometres to the summit and had just returned to the trail-head after our initial retreat back to the bus stop. We were now armed with sunglasses to protect us from the visual onslaught of the bright sky and reflective snow.

So, we continued from trail-head along the fenced snowy path that curved around Tsuruga Pond.

It was quite challenging to walk through the snow and although we did our best to walk in other peoples foot prints the snow was deep and slippery. It was quite a short distance but thanks to the snow it took us way longer than what it would otherwise.

Eventually we came out to a rocky clearing on the other side of the pond.

I think we could see the road that led down the Nagano side of the mountain and there was also a sign pointing out the prefectural boundary. Gifu on one side and Nagano on the other. Most interesting for us though was one that read 山頂 (Mountain + Summit = SanChō).
We followed the sign to a path devoid of snow that wound around a nearby peak.

The lack of snow made it pretty easy to walk along although it was quite narrow in places.

We did actually notice though that due to the high altitude we were huffing and puffing way more than we should. The atmospheric pressure is about 70% of sea level at the height of Norikura and as we had ascended quite rapidly and hadn’t had much time to acclimatise.

Also, while it had been cold enough at the bus stop for me to put on my big down jumper, the walking had warmed me up enough for me to just wear my T-Shirt.

Anyway, upon rounding a corner we encountered a big slap of snow over the path. The edge was roped off (hopefully), but it was still a little scary and slow going.

We continued along the path and it alternated between rocky ground (yay) and snow (boo!).

We couldn't see the main peak yet but we did notice that we were approaching some kind of astronomical observatory.

There were not many other people around and for the most part we were completely alone during our walk.

It was really cool walking up here and watching clouds swirling down beneath us with a blanket of smooth snow stretching out into the distance. Beyond the snow and rocky peaks we could see distant mountains and the ground far below. A closer look at tops of some of the peaks revealed tiny figures wandering around on top. Looking even closer still, I noticed that the soil beneath our feet had become quite reddy/orange in colour.

After walking for about half an hour we came to another sign stating 山頂 (Summit) and continued along the path in the same sort of direction.

As we continued along from here we encountered patches of snow as usual but this time we did not have the aid of rope showing us the edge. There was also much higher amount of loose gravel. Worst of all, the snow gradually increased until eventually we could not make out any path at all.

We had a feeling we had to make our way up to the peak behind us but had no idea how to get there.

Kate thought we should continue in the same direction we were headed thinking that path would reappear and curve around up to the observatory. I disagreed and thought the best idea would be just to cut straight up the snowy hill from where we were.

It was about lunch time at this point and since there were a couple of people located about a fifteen minutes walk behind us we decided to stop, have lunch and watch to see what they’d do.

Lunch was simply what we had bought (obviously) and I don't have much to say about except that Kate wasn't too impressed with her jam and cream sandwiches. Though they sounded delicious to me. I guzzled my Pocari Sweats.

As we ate we noticed that there was a bird making strange noises and waddling around in the snow!

It was an Raichō (雷鳥 = Thunder + Bird) or Japanese Rock Ptarmingan

It was pretty cute!

While we were eating lunch we watched the couple reach the sign and, after pausing for quite some time in apparent confusion and pointing at us a bit, started walking along the way we had come.

The path up
Upon reaching the point where the path disappeared the other people looked as confused as we did. Ultimately though we saw that they decided to take a right angled turn and head straight up the hill.

They took forever!

The guy went first and after checking with a hiking pole he'd spend about a minute or two packing down the snow under his foot. He'd do this one foot at a time, step by step, and the girl would follow behind. Granted, sure, a little packing was probably necessary but it was pretty intense!

It took them about ten to fifteen minutes to climb up the ten metre incline.

Can you spot the lone skier? See below for a close up!
It was good for us though as once they'd reached the top we followed in their footprints and were able to climb all the way up in about a minute!

We came out onto a rocky ridge at the top and which we walked across to a small wall. Upon scaling the wall we found ourselves at the Observatory we had seen earlier.

Apart from the other two people there was no one else up here and it dawned on us that we might have perhaps taken a wrong turn somewhere. On the other side of the observatory from where we had climbed up we could see across a valley to a line of people (about 25?) climbing up the main peak.

Within the valley were some huts and as we surveyed the route ahead we realised that we had so far probably not even come half way. In addition the snow looked even worse than what we had encountered so far.

We had to concede that there was no real way we could make from here all the way top and back in time for the bus back to Matsumoto.

Instead, we decided to make the most of the peak we had climbed up. It was the Marishiten peak (魔利支天岳 = Demon + Profit + Branch + Heaven + Peak)  which at 2872m high is only 154m lower than the main one.

Most interestingly though, this peak came equipped with the Corona Observatory (コロナ観測所 = Korona + Outlook + Measure + Place)

The observatory buildings themselves were quite cool and we climbed around to check them out. They had been locked up for the winter and were a bit old. One interesting thing we noticed was that large boulders were used to keep the access hatches shut.

Beyond the observatory down below us we could see clouds billowing about and when the view cleared we could see the ground far below.

Looking closely at the surrounding snow we could occasionally make out isolated people which closer inspection revealed to be skiers.
Zoom, Enhance!
The other couple were also wandering around up here and it looked like they had reached the same conclusion as us regarding walking to the main peak.

I hope we didn't lead them astray!

Once we'd sufficiently appreciated the view and observatory we decided to head back. We didn’t have any problems climbing down the wall and across the rocky ridge but did have some trouble climbing back down the snowy incline.

Climbing back down we could see the whole path back
We couldn't use the old foot prints easily as they were angled and facing the wrong way. I also think the snow was melting more in the sun by now as it was collapsing pretty badly wherever we put our hands and feet.

The key was to move quickly but not so quickly that we'd slip and tumble to a possible death and/or a sprained ankle.

We also had to be careful about hidden holes that were lower than the average ground level.

The fast way down!
At one point Kate got stuck and freaked out a little but was thankfully able to work her way free.

At this point she discovered that the snow would actually hold her weight if she sat down and she therefore decided to just slide down.

Once safely back down we returned to where the dead end path had started and at this junction we were finally able to realise our error!

These guys have the right idea
Basically we finally noticed that it was actually a junction rather than just a check point and found that the "山頂" sign actually had an arrow beneath it. We still might’ve been alright but unfortunately it was pointing to the left, the complete opposite to where we had gone!

I had a bit of a look of where it was pointing and we could see how it worked its way down to buried buildings and then up to the main peak!

Perhaps if we hadn't missed the sign initially we might have been able to make it to the top, though I'm not really too sure about that.

At any rate we definitely wanted to come back one day when there was less snow and take another crack at it!

Anyway, we continued back and along the way some of that cloud we had been watching waft around below us decided to blow up to our level.

It got really foggy and we became a bit worried that it might start snowing or perhaps turn into a blizzard or something. You know what they say about this changeable mountain weather.

Visibility got pretty bad and we could only see a few metres in front of us, which was enough to see the path but not much else. The clouds were pretty fast moving and the visibility changed quite rapidly as we went in and out of fog with differing thicknesses.

When we were walking out towards the summit earlier we had noticed a path going up a nearby peak and then after we climbed around the edge we saw it come back down.

This edge had been particularly snowy and now, upon reaching the hill on we decided we'd go over instead of around. The path up the mountain also looked better defined, so we'd be less likely to get lost in the fog.

This hill is the "富士見岳" (Wealth + Samurai + See + Mount = FuJiMiDake), and reaches a height of 2817 metres above sea level. I don't know for sure but the name seems to indicate that Mt. Fuji may be visible on a clear day.

Climbing up was a little tiring but more or less comparable with the effort it would take to struggle through the snow.

It was a bit slower going at the start than it should’ve been though since we got stuck behind a group of guys lugging up snowboards and a bunch of other winter equipment.

Thankfully we were able to sneak past and hurry up to the top.

Looking back we saw the snowboarders decide on a point along the path to suddenly pull out their boards and then slide down into the abyss.

For our own part we were enjoying the lack of snow, though Kate did have a bit of a run in with some bright red mud.

It was pretty foggy the whole time we were climbing and we didn't really have much of an idea where exactly we would  come out on the other side.

Spectacular view of the fog from the top!
For all we knew we would perhaps have to climb a part of the way around anyway- except this time without the aid of our long distance vision or any memory of the path.

I wasn't too worried as I could hear mechanical noises coming from the bus stop and so figured we were not too far away.

When we finally reached the bottom the fog suddenly cleared and we saw that we were closer than even I suspected.

We were at the first clearing we had reached at the start of our walk (with the prefectural boundary), which meant we only had to walk through the little bit of snow surrounding the lake. Kate used this snow to wipe the mud off her boots.

This guy is the mascot for the Hida Prefecture
Once we arrived back at the bus station there was not much time left before our bus left!

We did have time enough though to get the stuff we had stored in the lockers and to have a quick look at the souvenir shops.

Since my hands had become really cold I had a craving for some of that warm bottled milk that I’ve seen for sale before at these kinds of locations.

Unfortunately a thorough search yielded no milk. There were hot drinks in the vending machines but by the time I had ruled out the glass bottled milk I wasn't as desperate for a hot drink.

While we were looking at the shops we noticed that the line for the bus was growing quite rapidly!

We definitely did not want to miss out on a seat (or get left behind) so I hurriedly joined the queue and let Kate have a bit more of a look around.

Once it was time to depart two buses bound for different locations turned up. I caught that ours was going to Hirayu-Onsen but I didn't really pay any attention to where the other bus was going.

In the end neither bus was very crowded and we easily managed to get a seat. We also noticed that down the centre of the isle there were extra seats that could fold down if need be.

Kate asked me where the other bus was going once we were already on ours and as it was ahead of us I spent much of the rest of the trip back down trying to read the front.

Despite the loopy road, I wasn't able to as both vehicles were travelling way too fast.

It was a bit foggier and darker on the way down than it had been on the way up and the snow tunnels were as cool as ever!

As we descended we watched our water bottles get all crushed due to rising air pressure.

At one point both buses stopped because some snow had collapsed over the road. We had to wait a little while for a small bull dozer/snow plough to move the offending water crystals.

Although quick, this delay meant that it looked like we were going to miss the tight connection to our Matsumoto bus. The driver seemed aware of this though and actually modified the route so we went straight to Hirayu rather than dropping in at Honokidaira first.

Upon arriving we quickly ran over to the ticket window and got two single tickets to Matsumoto.

The trip back to Matsumoto was pretty uneventful and Kate spent most of the time asleep. I, along with someone else on the bus, tried as best as we could to take photos of the passing scenery.

Our bus was due to arrive into Matsumoto at around 16:10 which, if we rushed, would give us just enough time for a quick visit to Matsumoto Castle. While pretty exhausted from the day's events, upon arriving, we nevertheless quickly rushed the one and a bit kilometres down various streets to the castle.

There were buses that left from near the station but we decided to run down since any time advantage they provided would probably be lost looking for the stop and then waiting for a bus.

We only managed to arrive just before last entry (at 16:30) and were the last people through before the big front gates got shut. After last entry we had another thirty minutes to look around before we'd all be kicked out at closing time.

Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan's few surviving original castles and is considered to be one of the best and most well preserved. It was built in the late 16th century for defensive purposes and because it's not built on a hill or river it is regarded as a flatland castle 平城 (Flat + Castle = Hirjiro).

Like Okayama castle, which we visited last year, Matsumoto Castle is also known as the "Crow Castle" but despite having identical kanji (烏城 = crow + castle) the pronunciation is different with Okayama's castle pronounced "U-Jō" and Matsumoto's as Karasu-Jō. The name for both castles comes from their black exterior. Karasu-jō is quite large for an original castle only the first (or second) of Japan's nine (or ten) we've visited (depends if you include Hirosaki Castle).

The grounds surrounding the castle were quite nice and pretty with lots of flowers blooming, though we saved a closer look for later and headed straight for the castle keep.

Before entering we had to take off our boots and carry them around in a little bag.

It was certainly the best castle we'd been inside so far in Japan and much more interesting than any of the reconstructions.

Steep Stairs!
The interior was quite extensive and seemed to go on and on with evermore rooms, stairs and floors.

The stairs were actually really quite steep- almost ladder like, which was really fun. We also definitely had to keep an eye out for our heads at all times.

On each of the floors there were good explanations on the use and history of the rooms in both Japanese and English.

There were also many artefacts that were also explained in both languages, though to be fair there was far more Japanese.

It was very busy inside and absolutely packed with mainly international Asian tourists.

The very top floor of the castle was the most crowded and it was very hard to move around without getting in the way of someone else’s photo. Some of the cameras were even being swung around on extendable sticks!

Still, despite all the people we were able to walk around and have a look out of the windows in each of the four walls and they each gave us a good but different view of Matsumoto and the castle exterior.
Next it was time to start making our way back down.

I can’t remember precisely where everything was but another floor I remember was a really short hidden level that was used for storage and was regarded as a hidden floor since the lack of windows made it invisible from outside.

Once it was nearly closing time we got hurried along a bit by the staff.

I wasn’t looking forward to pulling my wet sweaty shoes back on though.


The socks were not happy.

Anyway, we exited the building with enough time though to quickly appreciate the gardens and attempt to take some photos of the castle's exterior.

It was a little tricky due to the position of the sun!

I think I managed to take an alright one though.

Next up, food!

We were both starving!

Just across the road from the castle park we found a convenience store where Kate brought some curry cup ramen.

Kate had really been craving them ever since our last trip to Japan and had searched in vain for some in Brisbane. I didn't really feel like convenience store food myself and just got a couple of boiled eggs to tide me over.

We ate outside on some seats but had to be quick as some smokers turned up.

Once we finished eating we trudged back to our hotel and checked back in. I asked at reception about our bags (we'd left them here yesterday morning before going to the mountains) was told that our bags were already waiting for us in our room!

Although we had booked with exactly the same options each night, when we went up to our room today we found that it was much bigger than the one we had the night before last.

I think there was about three times as much spare space plus we also had a much better view out of our window.


Despite all this extra room we didn't hang around too long and soon went back out to have a coffee for Kate, get something to eat for myself and to have a look around Matsumoto. We ended up at a Starbucks where Kate got her coffee and I ate some banana pancakes and probably drank a hot chocolate. There were no cherry muffins :(.

Next we had a look at a supermarket located at the base of a big building opposite the station. Kate really enjoys the supermarkets in Japan and we're always on the lookout for shops to explore. I found this quite interesting as well and undertook some stealth photography.

There was also some interesting seafood on display.

I loved the outrageous prices of some of the fruit!

Nine thousand eight hundred yen (¥9800) for mango!

In Australian dollars it's only $98 bucks, but, holy crap, $98.

We both made a few purchases before leaving, a bag of kit-kats for myself and for Kate some low fat curry noodles and strawberry chocolate.

After the supermarket we had a quick look around the rest of the building and mainly focussed on an upper floor that had UFO machines and some other cool shops. I think I remember a toy shop that had big tables set out that you could use to play with LEGO blocks.

American Drug Hyper Store. I wonder what makes them American?
We were really tired by this point and soon returned back to our hotel.

Though I had already eaten some eggs and pancakes I was still quite hungry and upon looking through our hotel papers I found the menu of the Cafe Gusto (located down stairs) and saw some delicious hot chips. 

I had actually wanted chips all day so this was perfect!

I went down by myself and it was easy enough to order. They came with both tomato sauce and aioli. I had only just discovered the delight of aioli so was pretty happy with them.

The price was certainly right too and a huge plate cost me only ¥299.

They were delicious!

And really filling!

Once I finished I returned back to our room which wraps up today!

Map of Mount Norikura walking paths and peaks
Another map of Mount Norikura walking paths and peaks 
Matsumoto Castle Ticket
Matsumoto Castle Pamplet - English (Reverse)

Tomorrow we will be leaving Matsumoto to travel through the famous Tateyama Kurobe Alpine route over  to the city of  Toyama.

Look forward to it!

The report should be out Monday, 26 August 2013 at 19:07

Continue reading Day 7: Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route

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