When the mercury climbs to record highs, our attention turns to snowy destinations on our Travel To Do list. Not many get more snow than Japan’s Alpine Route!
The Travel To Do List
To Do Lists. Everybody has one – or many – to keep tabs on everything from daily chores to life plans. Different than a Bucket List. There’s a verb in there, implying these are things you must do. Bucket Lists are where travel dreams gather dust, waiting for someday. To Do Lists demand action. It’s not just a list of dream destinations, it’s a list of places you’re going, things you’re doing. This is our Travel To Do List, our version of travel planning to turn dreams into realities.
Travel To Do: Japan’s Alpine Route
Attentive readers may know that TravelLatte World Headquarters is in North Texas, where summertime temperatures can soar right past 100-degrees like Tony Stewart at Texas Motor Speedway. (That is to say, quickly. Tony turned in the record qualifying speed of 200.11 mph!) It would come as no surprise, then, that we sometimes dream of cooler climes.
We sometimes dream of traveling to Japan, too. Those dreams come together in the Northern Japan Alps. This range, the Hida Mountains in the Nagano Prefecture of central Japan, features five peaks at or above 3,000 meters, and was home to the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. The area is on our Travel To Do list for a variety of reasons, none more impressive than the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.
Not Your Average Mountain Road Trip
What makes Japan’s alpine route unique is that it’s not just a mountain drive. The 37-kilometer route was completed in 1971, and is entirely restricted to various forms of public transportation. But don’t think you’ll be crammed in a smelly city bus the whole way. Ooooh no. To travel the entire Tateyama Kurobe route, you’ll be using seven different forms of transportation. Yes, seven. The map above shows the different transfer points; at each one you transfer from one form of locomotion to another. That’s an adventure in itself, but the star of the show is the scenery, and it starts before you do!
Kilometer Zero is at Toyama City, the capital of the Toyama Prefecture. The city is known for its beautifully reconstructed castle, dating from the 16th Century. The city is also a historical center of medicine, and makes a great hub for exploring north central Japan. From here, a train will take you to Tateyama Station in about an hour. It’s the first of eight stops, right at the foot of the mighty Tateyama Mountain Range.
The mountains form part of the Chubu Sangaku National Park. Rising above you will be Mount Tateyama, one of the highest peaks in Japan’s Hida Mountains. Get a good look, because later you will be right underneath it. Literally.
Funicular and Bus
From Tateyama Station, a cable funicular – the Tateyama Cablecar – will carry you to Bijodaira, a vertical climb of 502 meters. At Bijodaira, you will transfer to the Highland Bus for what could be the most amazing hour you’ll ever spend in a bus.
In the spring, you will be traveling the Tateyama Snow Corridor. This is the star attraction of the entire route! In April and May, the road cuts through high snow walls, sometimes 20 meters tall. (That’s about 65 feet to us Americans!) If you’re particularly fond of crisp air, a section of it is often open to pedestrians, with snow on the ground as late as June. This snow corridor is what first drew our attention to Japan’s alpine route, but we soon discovered there was much more ahead.
The bus takes you to Murodo. At 2,450 meters, it is the highest station on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. It’s popular with hikers and mountain climbers during the summer and fall. A network of hiking trails leads to campgrounds and mountain lodges. There is also a hotel near the bus terminal, said to be the highest hotel in Japan.
Among the mountains and valleys, snow melt in the summer results in lush greens and rushing waterfalls. In the fall, this is a good section for momijigari. It’s what Americans call leaf peeping, and literally means hunting red leaves. Peak season is late September to early October.
In stark contrast to the snowy pass, a trail of boardwalks lets you observe volcanic activity in the area. They call this area Jigokudani (which means “Hell Valley”) because of the sulfur smell, which sometimes forces trail closures. But don’t get too excited; this is not to be confused with the famous Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park.
Tunnel Trolley Bus
After exploring (or staying) at Murodo station, it’s back to the mountain. Or, actually, under it. The next section is aboard the Tateyama Trolley, electric buses that travel under Mount Tateyama to Daikanbo. An observation deck at Daikanbo station has sweeping views of the Tateyama Mountains. This stop is primarily a transfer point to the next mode of transportation, which may rival the Snow Corridor.
Don’t let the name scare you; it’s not made of rope. It’s actually a 1.7-kilometer-long aerial tram that has the distinction of being Japan’s longest one-span ropeway. There are no supporting towers between the upper and lower stations. (That’s the part that might scare you!) Views across the mountains to Lake Kurobe change with the seasons: Vast snow fields in the winter. Lush valleys, ponds, streams and falls in the summer. And, during the autumn, this is said to be another great section for leaf peeping.
The ropeway ends at Kurobedaira, and you’re roughly at the halfway point. By now, you could probably use a bite to eat. Conveniently, Kurobedaira has a restaurant, a souvenir shop, and more killer views before you board the Kurobe Cablecar. This is another funicular, which will take you through a tunnel down to Kurobe Dam.
Your Own Two Feet
That’s the form of transport that will carry you across Kurobe Dam. It’s the only portion of Japan’s alpine route that doesn’t have a motor! At 186 meters, it’s Japan’s tallest dam, completed in 1963. Most visitors come during the summer when water is released. There are also short cruises on Lake Kurobe (about 30 minutes). The walk across the dam is short (10 to 15 minutes), but there is a long, steep flight of stairs on the eastern side that take you to an observation deck, and the trolley bus station to continue the journey.
Kanden Trolley Bus
You’re on the downhill side of the day now. Literally. You’re also in a tunnel, aboard a trolley. After such amazing sights – the snow corridor, autumn leaves, Lake Kurobe – it seems a bit anti-climactic. If nothing else, you have time to reflect on your journey and decide whether you’re going to continue eastward, or turn around and do it all in reverse!
The last ride on Japan’s alpine route is regular bus service from the Ogizawa station, where you left the underground trolley, to Shinano Station in Omachi. You have traversed Japan’s alpine route. (Alternately, if you’re coming from Tokyo, this will be your starting point – just read from the bottom, up!)
From start to finish, the journey takes at least five hours of travel time. Add in time to hike, have lunch, snap photos, and warm up after walking the Snow Corridor. Each section (except the walk across the dam) has its own fare. They add up to 11,000 Yen, which is about $100 or €85. Alpen Route sells package passes that include train Japan Rail travel on either side of the Takeyama Kurobe Alpine Route for 17,500 yen adults/8,750 yen children (6 to 11). Check ahead as routes and trails are sometimes closed.
Omachi itself is a hot tourist destination: There are some 16 hotels and inns featuring natural hot springs. (See what we did there?) Ah, but that’s another Travel To Do for another day.
What’s on Your Travel To Do List?
We’d love to hear about what’s on your Travel To Do List! If you’ve been to Japan’s alpine route, we’d love to hear about that, too! Let us know about your travel dreams and experiences in the comments! And if you liked this trip idea, why not Pin it for later and share it with your friends?
Let’s Do This!
Find hotels in Toyama, the bustling city on the northern end of Japan’s Alpine Route. It’s a great hub to explore the Alps and the coast of the Sea of Japan.
Find hotels in Nagano Prefecture, one of the most popular areas in the Japanese Alps, and host of the 1998 Winter Olympics!