Kamikochi is a place I longed to go to for a long time. Located deep in the mountains of Nagano prefecture, access is not possible in Winter. Indeed, Kamikochi is not a ski resort but a nature paradise that reminds me a lot of Switzerland. The Azusa river delivers crystal clear water along the valley and with the surrounding mountains it is a great destination for hikers and day visitors at the same time.
Another thing that reminded me of Switzerland was the exclusion of private cars, like in Zermatt. Still, arriving by car to a nearby car park and then taking the shuttle bus might provide the most convenient access, but as you might know by now, I prefer using public transport.
Kamikochi can be accessed by several highway buses from Takayama, Matsumoto or even Tokyo. I came from Shirakawagô that morning and transferred at Takayama and Hirayu Onsen on the way. The JR pass was not valid for that area so I bought tickets in Takayama and had a quick lunch before boarding.
Kamikochi is very walkable as it just consists of hotels and souvenir shops clustered around Kappa bridge in the center of the valley. I stayed a night in a hotel to take full advantage of two days for hiking.
Funnily, the hotel I chose (it was the cheapest one) was the most expensive night I spent this year – and it was in a dorm-style room. Still, it was not a rip-off because the hotel was quite decent and the price included half-board and access to the in-house onsen.
I quickly headed out again to explore the area. On the first day I wanted to make a round along the Azusa riverbed, both upstream and downstream. I was able to complete the loop from Kappa bridge to Myojin bridge, down to Taisho pond and back in four hours but that was at a high pace and might not be possible for everyone.
The weather was not ideal this week and uncommonly for August it rained a lot. The weather in Kamikochi changed constantly, sometimes it rained lightly, then it was cloudy, and back to rain. Eventually, the sun showed itself for a short time, which was a nice end to the day.
The trail lead through the forest and from time to time I could see the shallow river with the crystal clear water.
First I headed North until Myojin bridge on the Western side. From there it is a short walk to Myojin pond, where a shrine and a restaurant can be found. The place just closed as I came by but the charcoal grilled fish looked delicious. A TV crew even came to film it.
Crossing the bridge, I returned in the downstream direction. If I had more time, I would have walked further upstream to Tokusawa.
After passing Myojin bridge, I continued downstream to arrive at Tashiro pond and then finally Taisho pond. The latter was formed rather recently after a volcanic eruption stopped up the river.
I made it back to the hotel just in time for dinner. A kaiseki-style dinner awaited me there and the menu made me happy. All the local delicacies were present, including local beef sukiyaki, fresh mountain vegetables, grilled fish and shinshu freshwater salmon. The dessert was watermelon (not sure that was local) with a jellified salt dip.
After the satisfying meal I soaked in the bath to wash away the fatigue and headed for bed early – to have plenty of time the next day.
On the second day the weather improved a lot and it stayed sunny throughout the day. I could say it was even too good, because I got a light sunburn after spending the whole day outside.
After I explored the valley along the Azusa riverbed, I wanted to climb a mountain next. Kamikochi is an ideal starting location for multiple multi-day hikes deep into the Japanese Alps. With my limited time and lack of mountaineering equipment I found a sweet spot in hiking/climbing the Yakedake.
First things first, I made sure to wake up early, had a short bath and arrived at the restaurant with high expectations – which were not disappointed. A delicious Japanese breakfast already waited for me. Grilled fish in miso, shinshu soba, vegetables among other things built a foundation for the day.
The hotel also offered a bento box which I happily ordered and took with me on the hike. I left the majority of my baggage behind in the hotel and walked towards the trailhead.
Yesterday the scenery was already pretty but today in the morning sun it was even better.
After a kilometer or so south of Kappa bridge on the Western riverbank I found the trailhead of Yakedake. Not far was another one leading to a different mountain, so be careful.
The trail had a length of about 6 kilometers and a height difference of almost 1000 meters. Of course, the distance is doubled since I wanted to return to Kamikochi. There are also other trails leading up to the mountain, so crossing the mountain into another valley (to Nakanoyu Onsen) is also an option. The round trip should take 6 hours without breaks. While ambitious, I was convinced of my fitness and started the hike.
The trail lead me through a lush forest which was almost like a turf because of the nearby river. The trail was clearly laid out and stepping over roots and rocks I slowly gained altitude.
After close to an hour I seemed to have passed the tree line. I walked through high grass through a narrow winding path and started to see the peak coming closer. After another half hour I passed by the single mountain hut on the trail.
It was necessary to climb ladders and use ropes and chains to ascend at times.
At this point I thought I made more than half of the way and the map also made me believe that. I underestimated the steeper second half where I had to climb up to the peak. I could see the peak of the mountain from here but it was still much further away than it appeared to be.
Shortly after the hut there was a plateau along the mountain ridge. From there I could look down to the other side of the mountain and spotted what probably is Shinhotoka Onsen village. Also, I could see several peaks in the North, one of them the Oku-Hotakadake, the third-highest peak in Japan (it can be climbed).
From there I needed to descend a short bit before climbing the final stretch. From here, the green colors were replaced with orange and brown. The singing of birds, buzzing of insects and the sound of running water all disappeared. Instead, I spotted white steam rising from the earth and appreciated that H2S is by far not the worst-smelling sulfur-containing chemical (people from my research group at ETH will know).
Oh, I think I forgot to mention Yakedake is an active volcano. Of course, I checked the metrological and seismic conditions beforehand and today the alert level was low. Needless to say, these considerations have to be made everyday. Doing the hike at good weather and in the company of other hikers is essential.
The last part of the climb was quite hard. The slope was steep and the loose gravel made it easy to slip. While exhausting, the view over the valley was fantastic.
Close before the final stretch the trail united with another hiking trail. After three hours pretty exactly I made it to the summit. The panorama alone was worth the long way but the trail itself was equally ejoyable (you know “the journey is the goal”).
I felt proud seeing from where I started the hike in the valley.
This volcano features a crater lake below the summit which should not be approached because of the high concentration of toxic sulfur gases. That is not necessary because it can be viewed from the top.
After taking in the view, I enjoyed my bento, which tasted especially good thanks to the effort I put in to savor it.
The decline was not straightforward, especially the beginning was tough because of the slippery gravel. Still, I made it down in one piece without injuries, just tired.
The people I met on the trail and along the river were completely different, not surprising maybe. Most people come for seeing the valley and not mountaineering.
Back in the valley, I needed to pack my things soon because I planned to leave the beautiful place behind for a more grounded place – a cheap hotel in Toyama (at sea level) – pun intended.
And that was one of my highlights of my August vacation in Japan. Stay tuned for more articles. I rarely find time to write long pieces like this one lately.