Although I am a winter child, autumn is my most favorite season and I am a big fan of autumn leaf viewing as well as hiking in this season. If I have to recommend only one autumn hike in Japan that could take anyone’s breath away and suit any level of fitness, my answer is Kamikochi in Chubu Sangaku National Park, Nagano Prefecture.
To be fair, there are more easily accessible places to hike in fall and if you don’t live in Chubu region, Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto, going to your local spot will save more time and cost. That doesn’t mean Kamikochi is super expensive or difficult to reach though. Home to some of Japan’s most imposing mountains or Northern Japan Alps (including Japan’s third tallest peak or the 3,190-meter tall Mount Okuhotakadake), Kamikochi is also the country’s birthplace of recreational mountaineering. The valley remains as pristine as can be with tourism by forbidding private cars in the area except for authorities and those with special permission, so it offers some of the country’s ultimate waterscapes and is one of Japan’s Eight Most Scenic Landscapes (Nippon Hakkei) as well.
Kamikochi can be an easy weekend escape, a not-too-difficult-but-extremely-enjoyable adventure, or even a strenuous multi-day trek as you desire and design. I will categorize my Kamikochi trip as a not-too-difficult-but-extremely-enjoyable adventure that included walking the easy trail.
Since I lived in Nagoya, that means I was conveniently already in Chubu region. My professor also conveniently cancelled our Friday seminar that week, so I could escape to Nagano Prefecture on Friday morning, visited a beautiful forest shrine on Friday afternoon, and spent a day in Kamikochi before going back to Nagoya on the same day with time to rest on Sunday before going back to class. It was November 1, 2020 and that year, the autumn leaves were in peak conditions not only in Kamikochi area, but also on the way to the valley. I took the first train of the day from Matsumoto Station to Shin-Shimashima Station and transferred to the bus for Kamikochi. Although tired and very sleepy from another hike the day before, I didn’t sleep at all during the one-hour bus ride because the mountains and forests were mostly ablaze in red and orange.
The valley of Kamikochi is about 18-kilometer long. For those with very little time or those who don’t want to do a long walk, the most popular route is the mostly flat trail from Taisho Pond to Kappabashi Bridge, approximately about four kilometers. Kappabashi Bridge is close to Kamikochi Bus Terminal, restaurants, and other facilities including Kamikochi Visitor Center. You can even easily take a bus all the way to Kamikochi Bus Terminal and only walk in Kappabashi Bridge area, where you can see the postcard-perfect views of the wooden suspension bridge over the turquoise-colored Azusagawa River against the backdrop of sky-high peaks.
A longer but still easy trail is the trail from Kappabashi Bridge to Myojin Pond and back, about seven kilometers in total. To conserve nature, the area further from Kappabashi Bridge is closed to all kinds of transportation. Though you have to walk back the way you come from in order to take a bus back into the city area, I think the Myojin Pond route is worth the walk too.
So for those who can dedicate a day to Kamikochi and don’t mind a long route that is still pretty easy, let’s take the Taisho Pond-Kappabashi Bridge-Myojin Pond route and walk back to Kamikochi Bus Terminal near Kappabashi Bridge. Let the (virtual) tour begin.
Taisho Pond Bus Stop was where I got off the bus and Taisho Pond is just a few steps away. The sky kept alternating between cloudy and sunny as expected from a mountainous area, but I was thankful it didn’t rain.
The birth of Taisho Pond was quite recent, just in 1915 during Japan’s Taisho era because of an eruption of Mount Yakedake, which is Kamikochi’s only active volcano. The volcano and the Hotaka mountain range are reflected on the mirror-like surface of Taisho Pond.
The mountains surrounding Kamikochi become snow-capped in October and in the valley area that we walk, sleet or snow falls as November deepens. When I visited, the temperature was already around 1-2 degrees Celcius in the morning and the tall grass frosted. This is why the nature trails of Kamikochi are open only from mid-April to mid-November.
Mount Yakedake eruption left a melancholic yet beautiful view of dead trees around Taisho Pond in its wake.
Fall in Kamikochi is dominated by the yellow leaves of karamatsu (Japanese larch trees). The trail from Taisho Pond is well-maintained and even has wooden boardwalks in some areas, so we can comfortably stroll amid autumn colors.
Even now, I still can’t choose what my most favorite view in Kamikochi is. The golden Tashiro Marshland with the Hotaka peaks in the background and the blue of Tashiro Pond and the Azusagawa River on the way to Kappabashi Bridge are also stunners.
If you want an overnight stay right in the valley, there are Kamikochi Imperial Hotel (also Japan’s first mountain resort hotel) as well as other hotels and campgrounds along the Azusagawa River. You can wake up and have Kamikochi to yourself before the first buses of the day arrive.
I was a daytripper, but I briefly checked the Imperial Hotel out and crossed nearby Tashiro Bridge to gaze at more fall colors. Not too far away is also the Weston Relief. The monunent depicts Walter Weston, a British clergyman and alpinist who reached the spear-like summit of Mount Yarigatake in Kamikochi area in 1891. Before that, mountain climbing in Japan was considered spiritual training and pilgrimage, but since Weston explored and conquered the mountains of Kamikochi, mountaineering for leisure has grown more popular and Weston is now honored as the Father of Mountaineering in Japan.
I only looked at the Northern Japan Alps from afar though. The multi-day trek on Kamikochi-Yarigatake-Hotakadake circuit is among the extreme trails in Japan both in terms of distance and trail conditions. Actually tougher than climbing Mount Fuji or Japan’s highest mountain. Proper gear is necessary since you will have to go over 3,000 meters above sea level and some parts of the trail are vertical and very craggy, requiring you to conquer loose rocks, exposed and narrow ridgelines, chains and steel ladders hanging off the steep mountains, as well as volatile weather. But if you are experienced and/or prepared to climb, unforgettable views, sunrises and sunsets over the clouds, starry nights, and mountain hut stay or camping experience await.
When you reach the picturesque Omagari Bend with larch trees lining the Azusagawa River, that means Kappabashi Bridge isn’t so far away.
The river comes from melted snow of the Hotaka mountains. After reaching Kappabashi Bridge around noon and taking a short break, I crossed the suspension bridge and continued to Myojin Pond. Kappabashi Bridge boasts some of the best views of Mount Myojindake and other Hotaka peaks.
And Mount Yakedake too.
The trail to Myojin Pond has a few ups and downs, but still generally flat and well-maintained, also passing sunlit Dakesawa Marsh.
The finish line for my Kamikochi hike was Myojin Pond and everyone has to enter through Hotaka Shrine area.
Since I visited on Saturday, there was already a line waiting to offer coins to Hotaka Shrine Okumiya by Myojin Pond. The colors reflected on the tranquil surface of the sacred pond were very worth the walk and the wait though.
I planned to eat at a small restaurant near Hotaka Shrine because I only had some snacks that I packed before, but it was crowded. I recharged a bit more with a vending machine drink and walked back to Kappabashi Bridge area.
Back at Kappabashi Bridge, I bought croquette and soft serve ice cream to reward myself before boarding the bus.
I made sure to spare the last few exposures on my film to take photos of the views during my bus and train rides back to Matsumoto. Unfortunately, none of those photos came out after developing. I am so sad I don’t have any picture of some of the most brilliant fall foliage I have ever seen, but I still want to mention this, so that you don’t miss out on the views on the way.
If you can’t go to Kamikochi in autumn, I still highly recommend going in spring and summer months. I am sure you will love the cool temperature and the greenery.
When to visit: For daytrippers who want to go to Kamikochi by bus, you can plan your arrival time and departure time using the timetables of trains and buses from Matsumoto to Kamikochi and vice versa. However, be sure to take the opening and closing dates (from mid-April to mid-November) of Kamikochi on the official website too.
How to get there: Matsumoto is a city with well-developed facilities for tourists and convenient access to Kamikochi. From Matsumoto Station, take the Alpico Line train to Shin-Shimashima Station. Then transfer to Alpico Bus for Kamikochi. You can get off at Taisho Pond Bus Stop, Teikoku Hotel (Imperial Hotel Bus Stop), or Kamikochi Bus Terminal depending on your hiking plan.
To get to Matsumoto, if you are already living in Chubu region like Nagoya or Nagano, you can take the Limited Express Shinano train.
If you travel from Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, or Nagano, you can take a direct bus to Kamikochi. Check the express bus schedules here.
Entrance fee: Kamikochi is free to visit, but to enter Myojin Pond area, it costs 300 yen.
This post is part of the #giftograph_film series (roll #4: Lomography Simple Use Film Camera Color Negative 400)
This post is also part of the Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge (Landscapes or Waterscapes), Flower of the Day (recent challenge), One Word Sunday (Multiple), Fan of… (recent challenge), Water Water Everywhere (recent challenge), and Which Way (recent challenge) Photo Challenges.