Towering snow walls in late spring, grassy plains and wildflowers in summer, stunning autumn foliage, Japan’s tallest waterfall and highest altitude onsen, one of the 3 most important mountains in the country, unique modes of transport, 1000 year old trees, the list goes on and sounds like a whole Japan trip itinerary just in itself. However all of these can be found in the one place, the spectacular Tateyama Alpine Route. Spanning just 37 kilometres through the Japan Alps between Tateyama, Toyama and Ogizawa, Nagano, this may just be Japan’s premier mountain destination.
Our trip along the Tateyama Alpine route in early autumn began from Tateyama. Arriving early in the morning and slightly underprepared (as we planned to camp at the Raichozawa camp site near the Murodo terminal about half way along the route but were one sleeping bag short) we struck gold, discovering we could rent camping gear in the Tateyama terminal building. In all my Japan trips, I don’t think I’ve spent a better Y1600 yen! We arranged tickets, booking in the time we would take the first leg of the journey a cable car to Bijodaira. Before doing so, a side trip to Shomyo Falls was in order.
Shomyo Falls, is Japan’s tallest, falling 350m over 4 stages. It is eclipsed only by the Hannoki falls which seasonally appear just beside it at 429m. A 15 minute bus ride (Y500 each way, pay when you get off) up a valley of incredibly sheer, interestingly shaped cliffs drops you about a kilometre from the falls. When the falls come into view, the volume of water falling is quite amazing. The bus departs from directly in front of the Tateyama station main entrance.
Back at Tateyama, we boarded our cable car for Bijodaira. The Bijodaira area is densely forested with beech and cedar trees, some as much as 1000 years old. There are three walking trails of between 2 and 4km that you can take to explore the area.
When you are ready, board a highland bus from the Bijodaira station. Here you will need to decide, before boarding, if you are going to alight at the Midagahara area (highly recommended if you have time) or continue directly to the Murodo station. The highland bus winds through the cedar and beech forests with the driver pausing at certain spots to point out the highlights, a huge tree and a distant view of Shomyo Falls before the scenery opens up and you arrive at the Midagahara wetlands.
The Midagahara wetlands are located on a plateau 2,000 metres above sea level and on a clear day, you can see all the way back out to Toyama city and the Japan Sea. An incredible sight. When you get off the bus here, you will need to tell the station attendant which timetabled bus you will depart on for the next stop. On the day we visited, our stroll around the 2km boardwalk loop was lined with wildflowers and butterflies making the most of the feast. The Midagahara hotel is a nice place for lunch if you have time. We had more to see, so instead headed up to the nearby caldera viewpoint. A short climb and the sight of the caldera, formed by the eruption of Mt Tateyama over 200,000 years ago opens up suddenly in front of you. There were audible gasps from people as they arrived, me included. It is well worth the moderately strenuous climb.
Back on the bus, we were now headed for Murodo and our campsite for the evening. Travelling along the ridges above the tree line, the scenery is expansive and even at the end of summer, patches of snow remain here and there. The Murodo area is one of the main destinations on the route. There are perfect mountain views reflected in Mikurigaike Lake, the attraction of Japan’s highest altitude onsen and views of the source of the water in the volcanically active Jigokudani area. It is also the starting point for hikers climbing the peaks of Mt Tateyama.
From the opening of the route in April each year until about the end of June, the snow is the main attraction here. Depending on the season, the snow here can pile up as high as 20m and visitors can walk a 500m stretch of the road, marvelling at the snow walls on each side. The Murodo terminal contains a couple of restaurants, a souvenir shop and handy facilities such as coin lockers. Nearby, at the Mikurigaike onsen and hotel building another restaurant and café operate. Be warned though, most of the restaurants close around 3pm with the Mikurigaike Onsen café open with light meals until 4:30. If you are planning to camp in the area, come prepared for a very early dinner or the ability to self cater. We settled for a warming bowl of soba noodles before heading off to find the campsite.
The basic but very picturesque Raichozawa campsite is about a 40 minute walk, downhill from the Murodo terminal (but longer on the way back due to the many, many stairs! On our way we passed people returning from their day of hiking. Some looked quite ‘genki’ but most looked completely shattered, however, everyone we passed still managed a hello and us a word of encouragement in reply. At this point my sister and I looked at each other wondering quite what we had got ourselves into. Were we going to be able to pull this off? As we passed one group, they stopped to chat. The 70 year old man proudly told us they had started out at 6:30 in the morning from Murodo, it was now almost 4, and they had not only made it to Tateyama’s peaks but also traversed along the ridge line to Mt Tsurugi before descending. We felt better, we were only challenging Tateyama, about 5km (or so we thought) not the full day hike that these people had done. We settled into our camp for the night, in bed as soon as the sun went down because it was so cold. If you camp here, be prepared for cold nights, even in the middle of summer.
The next day dawned with clear skies (yay) and we had a choice, head straight to Tateyama from the campsite and return later to pack up the tent and collect our things or pack up, head back to Murodo Terminal and leave our belongings in lockers before taking the main trail up the mountain. We decided on the former and set off. This really is spectacular country. We walked along the river for perhaps a kilometre before the trail became rocky and started heading upwards. Just before the first rest area, the Ichinokoshi hut we met with the main trail which is paved and well maintained. Resting and enjoying the view and the warmth of the sun I popped over to look at the sign labelling the mountains we could see. The only name I could read was Mt Fuji, and what do you know, I looked up and could just see the tiniest tip in the distance. How lucky!
The next stage of the climb is rocky and a little slippery, so take care. It is also very steep. As we climbed higher, we could see more and more of the surrounding Alps and little by little, more of Mt Fuji too. The first peak that hikers reach is the Oyama peak. The rest area of course offers amazing views and atop this peak (at 3,003m) is a shrine. Entrance costs 500 yen. The highest peak on the mountain is Onanji peak (3015m) another 20 minute walk away. From here you can see right down to the Kurobe dam, one of the highlights yet to come on the route.
Heading down the mountain is trickier than up and a hiking pole really does come in handy. Eventually though we made it back to the campsite. Our tired legs were headed for a good meal and the onsen, they just had to make it up all those stairs from the campsite first. Eventually we made it, in time to get a meal at Mikurigaike Onsen and relax for a bit.
The next main stop on the route is the Kurobe Dam. Before reaching it, visitors pass through Daikanbo, which is reached by the tunnel trolley bus and has beautiful views from the observation deck. Next, the Tateyama Ropeway whisks you down to Kurobedaira and then finally another cable car takes you to Kurobeko. A 15 minute walk from Kurobeko brings you to the dam area. There are a couple of ways to explore the area. The first is of course, on foot along the dam wall and to the observations platform, where, from late June to mid October, it’s possible to see water flowing out of the dam. For a different perspective, take a 30min cruise on the dam itself.
The Kurobe Dam is the end of the route, from here another tunnel trolley bus runs through to Ogizawa, Nagano. From here a 40 minute bus ride will bring you to Omachi, a gateway town for the Japan Alps.Practicalities
The Alpine Route opens from mid-April to early November each year. Check the website for the specific dates which vary a little from one season to the next. The first few open days in April tend only to be partial openings so it is not possible to do the whole route from Tateyama to Ogizawa at this time. Once the route is fully open, you can travel in either direction starting out at Tateyama, Toyama or Ogizawa, Nagano. You can also purchase a round trip ticket to start and finish at the same point.
Tickets for the alpine route can be booked online here and exchanged at the ticket office on the day you wish to use them. Alternately they can be purchased at the Toyama Dentetsu station, Tateyama station, Ogizawa station and Shinano Omachi station. Once exchanged, the tickets are valid for 5 days, meaning it is perfectly fine to stay a night or two along the route without the need to buy tickets for each day. Do note though, that if you have a one way ticket, like a round the world plane ticket, you can only travel each section once and in the direction you are headed. Even with the round trip ticket, each leg can only be travelled once on the out leg and once on the return journey. It is not a ride-as-much-as-you-like ticket.
The official website has a calendar of expected wait times so you can see predictions of high visitor numbers (and try to avoid them) as well as timetables for the various legs of the journey.
Accessing the Alpine Route
From Toyama, the Dentetsu Toyama Chiho Railroad runs to Tateyama station. From the Nagano side, an express bus is available from Nagano or a local bus from Shinano Omachi to Ogizawa is the way to go. Both Nagano and Toyama are on the Hokuriku Shinkansen line, 1.5 and 2 hours from Tokyo respectively.
A luggage forwarding service is available on the route for large items. The website provides details and prices for the service.
There are half a dozen accommodation options on the route, with the majority in the Murodo area. Some, including the campground are up to a 40min walk from the terminal itself. These accommodations generally come with a half board arrangement. If you are planning to camp, a limited amount of gear is available to hire at Tateyama station. If you are travelling during a peak period, it would be wise to have someone call ahead and reserve the items you need.
Hiking Mt Tateyama
With an early start, Mt Tateyama could be done as a day trip however, it would not leave much time to enjoy the short walks at the other stations on the route. From the Murodo terminal, return, the hike is 5.6km and estimated to take around 3.5 hours. Our walk, from the campsite, return was about 7km and the walk back to the Murodo terminal was a further 2km. The campsite – Onanji return took us about 6 hours with plenty of stops for photos and, let’s be honest, to catch our breath and rest our legs! Taking the first transport of the day brings you to Murodo between 7:30 and 8:00 so if you are fit and healthy, you could knock the walk off by lunchtime and have the afternoon to enjoy the rest of the route. Take sufficient drinking water, decent hiking shoes and a hiking pole if you can.
When to go
For snow, the start of the season from April to June will give you the best chance to see the incredible snow walls.
For summer greenery and comfortable hiking weather go in late July (avoiding the rainy season), August and September.
For autumn colours, mid-September to late October are the best times to go.
In any season, mountain weather can be changeable and clouds tend to roll in and out even on fine days make sure you have warm clothes with you no matter when you go. I originally wanted to visit in both April and July, but finally made it in September, while I didn't get to see the snow walls, I was blown away by the beauty of the summer scenery, so short of a rainy day, I'd say any time you can visit is the right time!
If you are visiting Japan and want to experience the beauty of the Japanese Alps with the benefit of an excellent transport network, I cannot recommend the Tateyama Alpine Route highly enough. It is possibly the most spectacular mountain destination I have visited so far all my many trips to Japan. If you have the time to visit slowly, and climb Mt Tateyama it is certainly worth the effort and the sore legs in the following days. Happy travels!