Japan Photo Hike: Kamikochi in Winter

Snow trekking and photography in Japan’s North Alps winter garden.

kamikochiwinter-10

R. and I visited the popular mountain resort of Kamikochi in the Japan Alps for the first time back in May of 2015, during the busy Golden Week holiday here in Japan, and loved it. The volcanic ponds, the dramatic mountain scenery, and troupes of wild macaques along the rivers and in the forests more than made up for the crowds of daytrippers around Kappa Bashi bridge. So over the winter break we returned and discovered a whole new side in the off-season: Kamikochi as winter wonderland.

Maybe it’s the location, in a river valley high in Japan’s North Alps and accessible only by way of a 1310 metre (4300 foot) long, dark, underpass through the mountains. From November, the tunnel is closed to cars and buses; you have to hike in, ten sweaty minutes uphill in the headlamp darkness, the insect-like click of hiking poles on asphalt reverberating in the windy passage.

Or perhaps it’s the weather. Even in this El Nino winter of 2015, when Tokyo temps are still in the double digits, Kamikochi has a good 30-40 centimetre (12-16 inch) base layer of fine champagne powder snow, which transmogrifies the European Alps-like mountains, and the volcanic, particoloured ponds and streams around Taisho Ike Pond and Kappa Bridge into a winter wonderland, silent but for the  jingle of Christmas sleigh trekkers’ bear bells, the swish of snowshoes and cross-country skis, and the occasional, disconcerting avalanche-like boom of hikers on the boardwalk.

Or perhaps it’s the situation, the shops, hotels, restaurants, and guesthouses shuttered for the season.

For whatever reason, Kamikochi in winter has a secret-garden-like fuinke, atmosphere, to the place. This winter holiday, R. and I joined an overnight snow trekking tour based out of Taisho Ike Hotel. We were extremely lucky with the weather — the guide later said it was the finest he’d seen in years — and we took a lot of photos of snow-covered ponds and rivers, mountains, and tree-and-bamboo-grass forests.

 

 

8 thoughts on “Japan Photo Hike: Kamikochi in Winter

  1. Some great pictures here. I’ve visited Kamikochi in summer and it was amazing then. That said, there were a tonne of people there, especially around the bridge. Seeing these pictures makes me want to visit in winter. How were things at the Taisho Ike Hotel. When I went, I was based in Norikura Kogen and visited Kamikochi from there.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Taisho Ike Gotel is, apparently, open for only a few weeks in winter: this year was late December to early January. The facilities are definitely stripped-down: the dining room and ofuro (bath) were open, the heat was on, and the staff friendly, but the en suite bathrooms were locked, and even the closets were tied shut for some reason… The thirty or so guests all shared one sink in the laundry room to brush our teeth. Nevertheless, it was convenient to be based in Kamikochi itself, and if I return next year I’ll stay there again since there doesn’t seem to be a better alternative.

  2. Hi Aaron,

    Amazing photos! Your pictures make me want to visit Kamikochi in winter so badly. May I know if you have any contacts for the tour or guide? I sent an enquiry to Taisho Ike Hotel to ask if they organised such tours but they said they don’t. Would love to know more as I am heading to Japan this end December! Hope to hear back from you, cheers!

    Tricia

    1. Hey Tricia,

      As I think I mentioned in the post, Kamikochi shuts up for the season (though I did see what looked like winter campers headed up the tunnel). Seems that there are, however, one or two tours which run at this time (and are based out of Taisho Ike Hotel). The tours I’ve heard of – the winter hike I did last year and a photo tour running this year – are both offered by Club Tourism. How’s your Japanese? Club Tourism has info online, but the webpage – like the tour I was on – is in Nihongo.

      Hope you can work it out! Kamikochi is a beautiful area, despite the development, and in winter the crowds are gone. Of coutrse, this is the highlands in winter, so much depends on the weather…

      1. Thanks for your reply Aaron! Unfortunately I almost have no knowledge of Japanese😦 I did find out that there’s an English version of the Club Tourism website and they are having a snowshoe tour to Kamikochi early Jan! The dates are not ideal though. I do hope I manage to work it out somehow. Thanks again!🙂

      2. Hope you manage to make it work! Hey, can I ask you for the Club Tourism in English URL? I’ve looked for it but only found the Yokoso! tour… Thanks in advance!

    1. Got it Tricia! Thanks. Thought maybe you’d unlocked some secret English-language door to all of Club Tourism’s tours (they have a lot more than I can find on the YOKOSO page). Cheers, Aaron

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