Kamikochi, Japan Alps
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.
We took a chance and travelled to one of Japan’s premiere holiday spots during the busy “Golden Week” national holiday – and managed to have a good time doing it. The crowds thinned out the further we strayed from hotspots such as Kappa-bashi Bridge, and be arriving a day late and leaving a day early missed the worst of the crowded buses and trains. Unfortunately, we didn’t bring crampons and trekking poles to climb the still snow-laden trails into the mountains, but we managed to have a great two-day trek along the Azusagawa River which runs through the valley surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of Japan’s North Alps.
The bus into Kamikochi makes a stop at Taisho-ike Pond. The pond formed in 1915 after the eruption of Mount Yakedake, and even now under the clear shallow water of the pond you can see metallic browns and greens and blue sediments on the bottom. Unfortunately, glare from a cloudy sky made it difficult to get good pictures of the pond bottom without a polarizing filter. Still, the clear water, multi-colored pond bottom, and dead timber of the flooded forest at the base of snow-capped Mount Yakedake form a striking composition.