DAY 4 (3/3): MOMENTS OF ESCAPE, Tsuruya Ryokan (つるや旅館), Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉), Nagano Prefecture (長野県), Japan, 2018.05.28
At 2pm, we returned to Tsuruya Ryokan (つるや旅館) to check in. Although there were hiking trails venturing further out of Shirahone Onsen, we weren’t in a hurry to go out. Instead, we opted for spending a relaxing time at the ryokan. Since there weren’t any restaurants available, we made ourselves delicious local cup noodles bought at the souvenir shop on the main street. Our room was spacious and decorated in traditional Japanese style. The air was filled with fragrance of the tatami. Yet the thing that delighted us the most was the large window looking out to the dense vegetation. We ended up spending the entire afternoon reading novels, devouring local snacks and enjoying the ryokan’s hotspring bath from time to time.
Near the bus stop of Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉) , a sign board indicated the availability of onsen bath at each ryokan for outside users.
At 2pm, we checked in at Tsuruya Ryokan (つるや旅館). The ryokan is located adjacent to a lush green ravine.
Shirahone Onsen remained quiet during weekdays. The lobby of Tsuruya Ryokan was airy but felt a little empty.
Our room was a comfortable Japanese style room came with traditional furnishings.
Through the large window, we could just stare at the lush greenery and circling insects all day long and wouldn’t get bored.
It was the perfect time to open a bottle of beer from the Japanese Alps.
The Nissin cup noodles we bought from the souvenir shop came with flavor of local miso, and it was undoubtedly one of the best cup noodles we ever had.
Adjacent from the onsen bath, the drinking room offered two water sources: local spring and the famous milky hotspring of Shirahone Onsen. The mineral rich onsen of Shirahone Onsen is drinkable and said to offer a number of health benefits.
The bath facility at Tsuruya Ryokan was neat and clean. Outside of weekends, it is quite possible to enjoy the bath all by yourself.
Similar to many traditional ryokan, the indoor bath at Tsuruya Ryokan is a large wooden pool filled with the milky hotspring.
The outdoor pool was definitely my favorite. It felt divine to breathe in the cool fresh air from the Mount Norikura (乗鞍岳) and enjoy the lush green scenery while submerging into the milky hotspring of Shirahone Onsen.
Like many ryokan, dinner and breakfast were included in the booking. For dinner, we had Hida beef sushi as one of the appetizers.
Yaki-zakana or grilled local fish was another tasty dish.
Sashimi of various types, including carp fish, was a delightful alternative to the grilled fish.
In the next morning, we had some delicious steamed local vegetables and hotspring congee for breakfast.
Soap made with the milky hotspring water of Shirahone Onsen was a decent souvenir.
After a day of pure relaxation at Shirahone Onsen, it was time for us to get moving again. There were only a few buses leaving the onsen village each day. We took the 10:15am bus to leave Shirahone Onsen.
We get off at Sawando Iwamidaira (さわんど岩見平) and crossed the road to wait for a bus heading to Takayama (高山), our next destination.
DAY 4 (2/3): RETREAT IN THE JAPANESE ALPS, Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉), Nagano Prefecture (長野県), Japan, 2018.05.28
After two days of hiking in Kamikochi (上高地), it was time for us to take a dip into one of the famous onsens of the Japanese Alps. Out of the many hotsprings in the region, we picked Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉) because of its unique milky water. “Shirahone” literally means “white bone”, referring to the milky colour of the calcium carbonate rich hot spring water that resembles white bone soup. Shirahone Onsen is located at the eastern side of Mount Norikura (乗鞍岳) in the Northern Japanese Alps, in a secluded resort village tucked away from the country road between Matsumoto and Takayama. Public transportation to Shirahone Onsen remains scarce throughout the day, as most local visitors would go by their own cars.
We took a 8:25am bus from Kamikochi to Sawando (沢渡) Bus Terminal and National Park Gate, where we switched bus for Shirahone Onsen.
The Sawando (沢渡) Bus Terminal and National Park Gate serve as an access hub for Kamikochi visitors. Due to the restrictions on private cars and tour buses, many would park their car in Sawando and hop on a shuttle bus for Kamikochi.
From Sawando (沢渡) Bus Terminal, our local bus drove along a river gorge and through a series of tunnels before reaching Shirahone Onsen. We get off at right at the village entrance. Time was still too early to check in at our ryokan. We dropped down our backpacks at Tsuruya Ryokan (つるや旅館) and ventured outside hoping to tour around the village and grab a bite.
Looking down to the gorge from the main village road, we were disappointed to discover the damaged public onsen bath. Probably damaged by local flooding, it seemed the public bath would be out of service in the near future.
It was a Monday morning and Shirahone village was extremely quiet. Other than a souvenir shop, almost everything was closed including the tourist office and the main restaurant. We were fortunate to stumble upon Baikoan (煤香庵), a traditional restaurant/ hot spring facility owned by Yumoto Saito Ryokan (湯元齋藤旅館), the oldest ryokan in the village.
The restaurant at Baikoan was not open, though the staff kindly made us coffee and chatted with us for a bit. He told us that outside of summer holidays, most restaurants would be closed on weekdays. All shops and restaurants were having difficulties to find helpers.
The dining hall was filled with interesting objects from the area, including a small “bear”.
Fire pit and hanging iron pot are common household features in the Japanese Alps.
Suggested by the staff, we each rented a towel and tried out their outdoor onsen.
At Baikoan (煤香庵), we each had our first dip into the milky water of Shirahone Onsen, the famous hot spring water with minerals that were said to work wonderful things to the body.
After the hot spring bath, we spent some time wandering in the village, checking out each of the buildings, small shrines, wild flowers, etc.
Near the village entrance, we found a long row of small stone kannons lined along a lush green wall.
The 33 kannons were donated by visitors in the Edo Period who came to Shirahone Onsen for curing their illness.
Right by the main road Route 300, a series of small waterfalls known as Ryujin Falls (竜神の滝) was a little surprise.
Down from Route 300, we descended into a densely vegetated gorge.
At the bottom of the gorge, we walked onto a wooden bridge to photograph a water cascade.
The wooden bridge was quite wet and covered with green moss.
The water cascaded out from a cavern about two hundred meters from the bridge.
Back to the main road, we climbed up a small berm to check out a small Shinto shrine.
Before checking in at Tsuruya Ryokan (つるや旅館), we stopped by the main village shop to get some snacks and drinks.
Kamikochi Valley and Hida Mountains or Northern Japanese Alps are the results from a series of geological processes that began 2.6 million years ago, when the Azusa River carved out a deep valley while the adjacent mountains rose abruptly. Further volcanic and sedimentary activities continued to transform the Kamikochi Valley until recently. Nowhere can illustrate the dramatic transformations of Kamikochi more evidently than the Taishoike or Taisho Pond (大正池), when the eruption of Mount Yake (焼岳) in 1915 dammed the Azusa River to form the beautiful Taisho Pond. Today, the tranquil turquoise pond right by the foot of Mount Yake has become the most popular destination in Kamikochi.
After two nights at Kamikochi, it was time for us to move on to Shirahone Onsen for a dip in its famous milky hotspring. Before leaving Kamikochi by the 8:25am bus, we opted for our last hike to visit Taisho Pond before breakfast. We headed out at 5am. The sky was grey compared to our previous two days.
Time was still early and the sun had yet risen beyond the mountains, though the air was fresh and filled with a sense of tranquility.
The trail to Taisho Pond soon led us into a forest. Bear sighting was an unlikely possibility. The last time someone saw a bear in the area was three weeks prior to our visit.
The trail led us passing through some wet and shaded forest area before reaching a wetland right by Azusa River.
It took us about 45 minutes to reach the Taisho Pond. Mount Yake (焼岳), the volcano whose eruption in 1915 caused the formation of the famous pond, stood right behind the turquoise water.
Unfortunately, the sky was grey and the early sunlight was still weak. The colour of Taisho Pond was not as vivid as we hoped.
Nonetheless, the peaceful scenery and the pleasant colour palette of Taisho Pond still looked magnificent.
The beautiful reflections on the mirror like water revealed how peaceful the Taisho Pond was.
Taisho Pond is the ideal place to admire the scenery of Mount Yake.
Taisho Pond seemed to provide a desirable habitat for wild ducks.
Fallen logs in the water dated back to the last eruption of Mount Yake.
A long boardwalk provides convenient access to the lookout of Taisho Pond.
On our return journey to Nishi-Itoya Mountain Lodge, we passed by a lush green wetland.
A small detour from the main path led us to the picturesque Tashiro Pond (田代池), a peaceful wetland with crystal clear water.
Along the way, we passed by a stubborn duck that refused to step aside from the middle of the main path.
Back to Nishi-itoya Mountains Lodge we had a close encounter with two Japanese macaque monkeys.
After two hours of hiking, we felt total satisfied for devouring the fantastic breakfast.
After two nights of delightful stay, it was time for us to check out of Nishi-itoya Mountain Lodge.
We made it just in time to catch the 8:25am bus to Sawando (沢渡) where we would make a transfer for Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉).
After consulting a staff at the Visitor Centre, we decided to take the Dakesawa hike instead of climbing the Mount Yake (焼岳). According to the national park staff, snow could be an issue even on the Dakesawa (岳沢) trail as we didn’t have snow crampons with us. Anyhow the Dakesawa trail was still the better bet for us in comparison with Mount Yake. We decided to go as far as the trail conditions allowed.
From Kappa Bridge, we walked northeast in the direction of Myojin Pond (明神池). Soon we reached the picturesque Dakesawa Marsh (岳沢湿原), where a small path led us towards the trailhead of Dakesawa Trail.
At the trailhead, a sign post indicated that it would take us 2 hours to reach Dakesawa Hut. Without snow crampons, Dakesawa Hut would probably be our destination of the hike. From July and September, the Dakesawa Trail would be busy with hikers aiming for Mount Mae-Hodaka (前穂高岳) and Mount Oku-Hotaka (奥穂高岳).
The first hour of the hike was a steady uphill walk in the forest. At midway, we reached a spot called “Wind Cavern (風穴)”, where chilly wind from uphill came down via a gully.
Out of the forest, we reached an open and rocky ravine flanked both sides by high peaks of Mount Hodaka.
We rested upon a pile of rocks. The environment was perfect to devour a can of local tomato juice.
Down below, we could see the Kamikochi Valley, the turquoise Taisho Pond (大正池) and the Akandanayama (アカンダナ山).
In the last half hour, snow began to appear on the trail. The snow was slippery but we managed to climb up step by step.
We met several groups of hikers along the way, including a group of visually impaired hikers and their attentive guides.
Finally, after rough 670m of elevation gain, we arrived at Dakesawa Hut. At 2,216m above sea level, the hut was the highest point for our hike. Nested in the embrace of the Hodaka peaks, the hut enjoyed fine views of the surrounding mountains and Kamikochi Valley down below. A few staff were making repairs here and there.
The notice board at Dakesawa Hut provided information on trail conditions and other useful notes for hikers. From Dakesawa Hut, it would be another 4 hours of steep hiking towards the junction of Mount Mae-Hodaka (前穂高岳) and Oku-Hotaka (奥穂高岳).
Inside the hut, there was a small eatery and souvenir shop.
We gratefully sat down and ordered curry for lunch. The menu was simple and slightly pricey, due to the fact that all food up here were transported by helicopter from down below.
On the desk, chairs and benches offered hikers a lovely spot for rest.
The helipad nearby was essential as most provisions at the hut were transported by helicopter.
Behind the hut, reaching the peaks of Mount Hotaka would take another 4 hours of hiking at least.
We took the same route for the descend.
Too bad we didn’t encounter any wildlife during the hike. With the lovely scenery and pleasant hiking experience, Dakesawa trail offered us a decent introduction to the magnificent alpine scenery at Kamikochi.
It took us less time returning to the trailhead at Dakesawa Marsh (岳沢湿原).
A zigzagging boardwalk took us to a small deck at Dakesawa Marsh (岳沢湿原). We sat down at the edge of the deck to admire the alpine scenery. A leisure stroll took us back to Nishi-ito-ya Mountain Lodge, where the refreshing hot bath awaited for our return.
Dawn came before 5am. Taking a walk in Kamikochi before most tourists came out was a charming experience. Walking southwest along the serene Azusa River before reaching Kamikochi Onsen Hotel (上高地温泉ホテル), a small metal plaque at a small water pond reminded us the early mountaineering history in Kamikochi back in the late 19th century. Known as the Weston Memorial, the bronze plaque was made in honour of Walter Weston, whom many referred to as the “Father of Mountaineer in Japan.”
Before the late 19th century, the Japanese Alps was largely unknown to the Western world, and climbing mountains just for fun was a non-existence. Employed by the Meiji government, English surveyor William Gowland became the first foreigner to summit Mount Yari (槍ヶ岳) of the Hida Mountains (飛騨山脈) in 1878. His adventure started a trend of mountaineering in Japan and was the first person to coin the term “Japanese Alps (日本アルプス)”. In 1891, English missionary Walter Weston also climbed Mount Yari. Sometimes referred as the “Father of Mountaineer in Japan”, Walter Weston wrote about his experiences and published “Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japan Alps”, an important travel literature that promoted this part of Japan to the Western world. He continued to adopt also Gowland’s term “Japanese Alps” in his publications, and established the first Japanese Alpine Club in 1905. Each year, the Weston Memorial Festival takes place in Kamikochi to commemorate Walter Weston.
Walking at 5am along Azusa River was a lovely experience. The charming scenery under the early morning sun gave us an uplifting spirit.
The turquoise water of Azusa River led us southwest towards the volcano Mount Yake.
It seemed that our fortune with perfect weather continued.
The rising sun was behind us as we moved along the river in a leisure pace.
The volcano Mount Yake in the distance was our intended hiking destination later in the day.
Before reaching Kamikochi Onsen Hotel, we came across the bronze plaque of Walter Weston. The memorial could be reached via stepping stones in the pond.
Soon we reached a path that led to the trailhead of Mount Yake (焼岳). The trail up to Mount Yake (焼岳) can be done in a 6 hour hike (round trip). It was our intended destination for later today. But our hotel manager said the snow conditions on the trail was not too convincing, and recommended us to do the day hike of Dakesawa (岳沢) instead.
Continuing south we reached the Tashiro Bridge (田代橋), where we had a fine view of Azusa River, Kamikochi Onsen Hotel (上高地温泉ホテル) and the mountains beyond. Crossing the bridge, we began to turn back towards Kappa Bridge.
Along the riverside, there were occasional park benches and tables where hikers were enjoying outdoor breakfast.
On our way back, the rising sunlight finally reached the summits of Mount Hotaka (穂高岳).
Before the arrival of tour groups, hikers can enjoy a moment of tranquility in the early morning.
Looking at Mount Yake (焼岳) from Kappa Bridge, we decided to drop by the Visitor Centre to ask for their advice on the trail conditions of Mount Yake.
If the hike up Mount Yake was not possible, we would turn to the Dakesawa (岳沢) trail going up the slope towards Mount Hotaka (穂高岳).
At the Visitor Centre, the staff confirmed that the trail up Mount Yake was still quite snowy at the upper section. Unless we had snow crampons they advised us not to go for the volcano. They said even the Dakesawa trail could be covered by snow at the upper sections, so we could go as far as we could accordingly to the trail conditions.
Back at Nishi-Itoya Mountain Lodge, we enjoyed our scheduled breakfast at 7am. It was a tasty and filling meal before we embarked onto the hike up to Dakesawa Hut.
DAY 2 (5/5): ARRIVAL IN KAMIKOCHI (上高地), Chūbu-Sangaku National Park (中部山岳国立公園), Nagano Prefecture (長野県), Japan, 2018.05.26
Sometimes referred to as Japan’s Yosemite, Kamikochi (上高地) in the Chūbu-Sangaku National Park (中部山岳国立公園) is a picturesque valley in the Hida Mountains (飛騨山脈) or Northern Japan Alps. With an altitude of 1500m and a length of 18km, Kamikochi is bounded by Mount Hotaka (穂高岳, 3190m) to the north and volcano Mount Yake (焼岳, 2455m) to the south. The turquoise water of Azusa River (梓川) flows through Kamikochi and passed under the famous Kappa Bridge (河童橋) where most tourists gather when they arrive. Chubu Sangaku National Park was established in 1934 for natural conservation. As the crown jewel of the national park, Kamikochi sits in the midst of alpine peaks, marshlands and hiking trails.
Most visitors come to Kamikochi from Matsumoto (松本) or Takayama (高山). A traffic regulation was introduced in 1975 to prohibit tourists to enter Kamikochi in their own cars. Most visitors arrive in Kamikochi by bus, either directly from a nearby town or from a bus stop next to one of the many parking lots along the main road. A wide range of accommodation options are available in Kamikochi, from campsites to luxurious resort hotels. We chose a mid-range mountain lodge called Nishi-Itoya Mountain Lodge (西糸屋山荘) near the Kappa Bridge. At the heart of Kamikochi, Kappa Bridge (河童橋) is the most important landmark in the valley. First built in 1891, today’s Kappa Bridge is the fifth iteration of the original. There are eateries, souvenir shops and convenient stores at either side of the bridge for hikers to stock up supplies and fill up their tummies.
We were delighted to arrive in Kamikochi in perfect weather. We immediately fell in love with the crystal clear water of Azusa River (梓川).
Just a few minutes walk from the bus station, we arrived at the famous Kappa Bridge (河童橋). In Kamikochi, the bridge serves as the most important landmark.
Standing at the Kappa Bridge, the iconic view of Mount Hotaka (穂高岳) and Azusa River (梓川) was quite impressive.
Looking out Kappa Bridge to the opposite side from Mount Hotaka, we could see the mighty volcano Mount Yake (焼岳).
Shops right by the Kappa Bridge carry everything from snacks to souvenir. We got ourselves local yogurt, juice and beer for the night.
A few minutes walk from Kappa Bridge, we arrived at Nishi-Itoya Mountain Lodge (西糸屋山荘) where we would stay for two nights.
We took off our shoes at the vestibule and left them in the shoe storage room.
The spacious lobby of Nishi-Itoya Mountain Lodge was mainly finished in wood. A heater near the reception reminded us that it could get quite cool after sunset.
Next to the lobby there was a small cafe and souvenir shop.
On the upper level, we had high anticipation for the common baths, where users could enjoy the hot mineral bath and magnificent views of the snow capped Hodaka Mountains at the same time.
Since 7am in the morning, we departed from Shinjuku Station of Tokyo, made a whirlwind tour of Matsumoto and hopped onto a train followed by a bus into the Hida Mountains, and at last arrived at our hotel room in Kamikochi in the late afternoon.
The private room in Nishi-Itoya Mountain Lodge (西糸屋山荘) was clean and spacious. The setting was relaxing and the room was filled with fragrant of the tatami flooring.
At about 18:30, we went downstairs to the dining hall for dinner.
Just like many hotels in Kamikochi, the food served by Nishi-Itoya Mountain Lodge mainly came from the surrounding area.
After dinner, it was time to shoot some night photos. Unfortunately, the moon was already up and relatively bright.
Tourists still gathered at the Kappa Bridge despite the darkness.
Standing on the Kappa Bridge, the picturesque view of Kamikochi was enhanced by the lights from lodges along the river.
Despite the bright moon, we could still see some stars at the darker areas in the sky.
I set up the tripod facing Dakesawa (岳沢) and Mount Hotaka (穂高岳) to capture the starry night.
Dakesawa (岳沢), Mount Hotaka (穂高岳) and a bend of Azusa River (梓川) gave us the perfect image of Kamikochi.
With a population of less than 250,000, peaceful Matsumoto (松本市) is renowned for its beautiful mountain views, in particular the Hida Mountains to the west. Coming from Tokyo, we could immediately sense the relaxing air of the mountain city as we stepped out the train station. We spent 5 hours in Matsumoto, visiting the castle, art museum, and performing arts centre. All three sites were within walking distance from the train station, and we were able to cover everything on foot. Near the castle, we passed by small weekend markets where vendors were selling snacks, handicrafts, straw hats, accessories, local produces, artworks, etc. Our brief stay in Matsumoto provided us a moment of transition between busy Tokyo and tranquil Kamikochi (上高地) in the Japanese Alps.
At 09:40 we arrived at Matsumoto Station (松本駅) by JR East’s Super Azusa.
It was Saturday morning. Most shops near the station had yet open their doors except this sake store. Sake, the popular Japanese rice wine, is in fact quite famous in Nagano Prefecture, where clean water, good sake rice and cool weather can be found.
With red polka dots all over, the Town Sneaker bus is undoubtedly designed by Yayoi Kusama (草間彌生), the world renowned artist from Matsumoto. This inner city loop service is a convenient way for tourists to get around the city.
In front of the newly opened Shinmai Media Garden, a lively street market captured our attention. Designed by Toyo Ito, Shinmai Media Garden is a shopping centre with an interesting trade mix, including a local beer restaurant, cultural workshops, rooftop cafe, restaurants, apple cider shop, lifestyle store, small exhibition spaces, etc.
At the street market, we could find different local products from handicrafts to snacks.
Even doughnuts were made with local ingredients.
Straw broom (houki) of Matsumoto (松本箒) is a famous traditional handicraft of the city since the late Edo Period 150 years ago.
This minimalist building right by the Metoba River is a small retail complex with a barber shop, restaurants, and fashion boutiques.
Behind the retail complex stands the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum, which hosts a collection of timepieces donated by Chikazo Honda and other local citizens.
Nawate Dori, also called Kaeru Machi or “Frog Street”, is a small street near the castle famous for its traditional shops. Frog sculptures can be found along Nawate Dori. Made by students of Tokyo University for Arts, this sculpture of frog samurai is one the most impressive.
Some say the abundance of frog sculptures at Nawate Dori is a result from the typhoon incident in 1959, which flooded the area and forced the original Kajika frogs of the Metoba River leaving for higher ground and never returned. The frog sculptures have since become replacements to retain the original spirit of the place.
The streets of Matsumoto were full of surprises.
The abundance of nice boutiques and delightful cafes at downtown Matsumoto reveals the youthful energy and desire for a cozy lifestyle.
Matsumoto has a decent student population with its universities, junior colleges, secondary and elementary schools.
At 14:45, we hopped on the Alpico Kotsu’s Kamikochi Line at platform No. 7 at the station. The 14.4km train ride took us as far as Shin Shimashima (新島々駅) in half an hour, from where we switched to the Kamikochi bound bus for the final leg of the journey.
At Matsumoto Station, we picked up two bento boxes from a convenient store. They were tasty and decent looking, perfect for a relaxing train ride.
As soon as we stepped out of Shin Shimashima Station (新島々駅), we could see the bus parked outside. It was a smooth transfer as we boarded the direct bus for Kamikochi.
On the way to Kamikochi, we often passed by picturesque rice paddies.
The bus ride took about 60 minutes through mountain valleys and small villages. All we could hope for was pleasant weather in Kamikochi, where we would make day hikes to explore the mountains.