City Meets Country on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
By Sara Wille. Posted on November 28, 2014
If you’re looking for a balance between city and nature, I recommend spending a couple days in Toyama and Nagano prefectures to travel the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.
The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is a one-day course through the Tateyama Mountain Range by way of the Kurobe Dam. It’s a fun and efficient way to see a variety of the breathtaking landscapes that make Japan so remarkable – mountains, forests, wetlands, a waterfall, and even a crater lake – all in one afternoon! Transportation is conveniently situated throughout the journey, making it possible to ascend into the mountains and come back down on the other side, with stops to admire the scenery along the way. As a bonus, since the Tateyama Mountains straddle Toyama and Nagano prefectures, it is easy to bookend a day spent in nature with a more urban adventure in Kanazawa, Toyama, Matsumoto or Nagano City.
My husband and I skipped town for a trek on this gorgeous trail in mid-October. Our itinerary included an overnight visit to Toyama on the eastern side of the mountains, one day to travel the Alpine Route, a night in Omachi Onsen town followed by a quick visit to Matsumoto.
The three-and-a-half hour train ride from Nagoya to Toyama passed quickly, and we arrived in time to try black ramen for dinner. Many different restaurants serve this local favorite, but we chose to sample it at Menya-Iroha Ramen, which won the Tokyo Ramen Show for three consecutive years (from 2009-2011). The black ramen broth is typically made from a combination of chicken or fish stock and soy sauce. Though the dark-colored soup looks a bit unusual, the salty flavor is delicious and surprisingly complex.
I wish we could have stayed longer in Toyama to see Zuiryuji Temple or the Toyama City Folk Art Village, but we had to get an early start the next morning. I was glad that we stayed in a hotel close to Dentetsutoyama Station, because we checked out early to catch the 7:11 train to Tateyama Station. With convenience store pastries and canned coffees in hand, we claimed seats in the first car so we could watch the scenic ride out the front window.
Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
In Tateyama an hour later, we followed the signs to the web ticket office to pick up our reserved tickets as well as an English guide and timetable.
With enough time to comfortably catch the 8:40 cable car, we spent our extra minutes browsing the gift shop. Unfortunately, we got carried away looking at the souvenirs and found ourselves at the back of the line to board the cable car. We didn’t get a view out the window, but the seven-minute ride went quickly anyway.
At Bijodaira Station, we transferred from the cable car to a comfy coach bus to drive up the winding mountain road. During the ride, we admired the bright fall colors of the forest. Occasionally, a recorded Japanese and English narration would play over the speakers, sharing information about the area. The bus pulled aside for a brief stop when Shiyo Falls, the tallest waterfall in Japan, was visible in the distance.
After 30 minutes, the bus made a brief stop at Midagahara, where my husband and I chose to disembark to go for a stroll on the boardwalk that stretches through the alpine wetlands. Since fall came a couple weeks early this year, it was too late to see the colorful foliage at this higher altitude. Even so, the scenery is spectacular between seasons. With the mountains towering over us, the city stretching into the distance, and the intricate ice crystals on the plants at our feet, we were in love with the scene.
Back on the bus an hour later, we continued up the mountain. Everyone became aflutter with “oohs” and “ahhs” when Mt. Tate came into sight, impressed by its grandeur. Soon after, we reached Murodo, the peak of our journey in both altitude and reverence. We walked the trail around Mikurigaike Pond, a crater lake, taking picture after picture with each step. In every direction, everywhere we looked, the vista was stunning in a new way. Surrounded by lush greenery next to patches of austere terrain and crystal blue waters in the middle of it all, the variety in the landscape was striking. Now too high to see the city in the distance, it felt like we had stumbled into a secret world.
We were reluctant to leave, but after an hour and a half at Murodo it was time to begin our journey back down the mountain. We boarded the tunnel trolley bus to Daikanbo, and then the Tateyama Ropeway to Kurobedaira. From the ropeway carriage, we watched the golden autumn leaves come back into sight, looking like sunshine reflected on the trees.
After one more cable car ride, we finally reached the impressive Kurobe Dam. The water was not flowing that day, but the autumn leaves and vibrant blue lake were beautiful. We ate lunch on the second floor of the Rest House, which serves delicious curry and rice shaped to look like the Dam. The local Omachi Hacider drink was a nice compliment, mildly sweet and made from the spring water of the area.
By this time, we were nearing the end of our alpine journey. A tunnel trolley bus took us from the Kurobe Dam Station to Ogizawa Station, where we caught a bus to Omachi Onsen town and arrived at around 3 p.m.
Omachi Onsen: Hotel Keisui
Our hotel, Keisui, was a splurge, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that we will always remember. After an early morning and traveling all day through chilly weather, we were thrilled to end the afternoon in a beautiful and traditional Japanese room, pampered by exceptional service. By the time we arrived, the open-air bath tub on the deck was already filled with steaming water and the electric tea pot was turned on, ready for the perfect cup of green tea.
That evening, we were treated to a fabulous dinner in a private dining room downstairs. The meal included many Japanese specialties, including sashimi, crab, tofu, beef, pickles, and fish. It was authentic food, yet many of the courses were accessible for a typical Western palette. By the time we got back to our room, our suitcases had been moved aside, the futons were laid out, and the tea cups we used had been cleared from the table. It was a perfectly relaxing end to the day.
Well-rested again the next morning, we took a train to Matsumoto for a more urban experience. Our first stop was the Japanese Ukiyo-e Museum, which houses the largest private collection of woodblock prints (ukiyo-e) in Japan. I was excited to see a variety of styles and content represented in the gallery. The permanent exhibit includes scenes from “Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido”, a famous collection of ukiyo-e, while the current special exhibit is for bijin-ga (portraits of beautiful women). It is impressive how the artists could make wood carvings and manipulate the ink to either create incredible detail with fine lines or to craft a much softer, watercolor-like image. My favorite piece was a woman wearing a kimono covered in images of crows, as colorful and exquisite a kimono as I’ve seen in real life.
A short taxi ride from the museum took us to Matsumoto Castle. The dark exterior of the building is unusual, supporting the mysterious and commanding ambiance of the fortress. Throughout the year, many exhibits and events are held on the castle grounds. We were lucky to time our trip during the temporary Chrysanthemum Exhibition.
On the train back to Nagoya, my husband and I reflected that the weekend was one of the more exciting and refreshing trips we have had in the past year of living in Japan. The distance we traveled from city to city was manageable, while the mix of city and nature, activity and rest was a fulfilling balance.
As you plan your trip to Japan, many guidebooks and tourism sites will point you (rightfully) to the popular sake breweries, kabuki plays and historic temples in the metropolitan centers, but don’t forget to allow some time to explore the beautiful countryside of this remarkable country. A trip on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is an exciting way to get the best of both worlds!
Here are some travel tips for your trip on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route:
Toyama Station is currently a 1-hour flight or a 3.5-hour train ride from Tokyo Station. Starting in March 2015, the new Hokuriku Shinkansen line will take you from Tokyo to Toyama by train in only 2 hours.
Transportation along the Alpine Route can be very crowded during the peak seasons, so if you want to sit down or have a good view out the window, get in line early! This is especially true for the cable cars, trolleys and the ropeway.
When you board the bus at Bijodera Station, the seating is first-come, first-served. If possible, choose a seat on the left side to get a better view of the scenery and Shiyo Falls.
If you choose to get off the bus and look around at Midagahara, you need to go to the Midagahara Station building and make a reservation to board a future bus.
The higher altitudes can be quite cold in the spring and fall, so it’s wise to wear layers or bring cold weather gear like a hat, scarf and gloves.
The Alpine Route is temporarily closed from the end of November until mid-April.
If you travel between April and June, you can walk along the snow corridor in Murodo and experience towering walls of snow that average 7 m high.
For travel during peak seasons, reservations are highly recommended and can be made online before you go.
More information about the Alpine Route can be found on the official website: http://www.alpen-route.com/en/
Sara Wille is an American living in Nagoya, drinking as much tea as she can and enjoying all of the cute things Japan has to offer. She believes that Japan has something for everyone and hopes to persuade others to experience this amazing country.