Kamikochi, Central Honshu, Japan

Kamikochi, tucked in the mountains between Takayama and Matsumoto, is a riverside onsen (spa) town with an emblematic view of the peaks towering over the Kappa bridge.

While tourists flock to get photos from the Kappa bridge, I found the views from Tashiro bridge more striking. It’s on the road past the Imperial Hotel just off the main road into town.

The mountains here, often referred to as the Japanese Alps, are volcanic in nature with steep peaks and are very, very green, a result of heavy rainfall. Very beautiful and somewhat reminiscent of Hawaii. That said, I wouldn’t come to Japan just to hike in these mountains.

On a world scale there are far more notable mountains but if you are touring Japan they make an ideal opportunity to explore Japanese hiking. In late September on a pretty Friday there were not so many people on the trail to the hut (see below). The lower trails around town were more crowded but not overwhelmingly so.

Hike to Dakesawa Hut

The evening before the hike we stopped at the Tourist Information Office at the bus terminal and got a recommendation for a day hike. A great hiking resource with good information from English speaking staff. As clear weather was predicted, she recommended the Dakesawa hike up to a hut with a good viewpoint.

This 4 to 5 hour hike is the first part of a longer hike to the peak. To the viewpoint it’s a 665 meter climb in 4.5 kilometers one way. They say it takes 2.5 hours up and 2 hours down. From the Kappa bridge it’s a .7K walk to the trail head. From there it took us 2 hours up and 1.5 hours down, going at an even but not too fast pace.

The walk up is mostly through a pretty, fairly open shaded forest with large trees. The trail is on stones so good shoes are important if you don’t want to feel every step. Some sections are on logs elevated above the path or bridging water ways.

It’s not easy footing if you have difficulty with that sort of thing. Otherwise it’s a steep but good climb up to the top on a well graded track. The trail is marked with numbers 1 through 10 so you can keep track of your progress.

If you have clear weather the views from the hut are quite impressive. In late September we had nice autumn color as we neared the higher elevations. The views down to the valley were somewhat hazy but still striking.

Kamikochi Onsen Hotel

The Onsen Hotel is very Japanese and from the lack of English I don’t think they get a lot of Western guests. They are very nice and try very hard to communicate as best they can. Despite their effort, however,  this is a tired hotel that is in dear need of a facelift and change of management.

Our room was a decent size, Japanese ryokan style room with a seating area with views of the river and mountains behind. The room had a toilet and sink but no bath. For bathing you need to go to the public bath down the hall where they have the typical Japanese set up – sit down shower stalls and indoor and outdoor bathing pools. Pleasant but nothing special.

In general the hotel feels worn and in need of some attention, especially the halls with stained carpeting and an off putting odor.

Kaiseki Dinner

The kaiseki traditional dinner was served in our room. The server was charming and funny even though she only spoke a few key words of English. They do, however, have an English translation of the menu.

The meal started out fine with and the interesting selection of appetizers included cheese; the fact that the cheese had bee larvae in it might be disconcerting for some but I thought it was delicious. (It has been a long time since I’ve had real cheese).

The boiled meat and vegies were nicely cooked table side in soya milk with glass noodles.

It was the second course selections, cedar wrapped salmon and tempura, that were very disappointing. Both had been sitting much too long and were simply not good. The fish was dried out around the edges and the tempura tough and cold.

They recovered some with the dessert -small bites of Muscato grapes, fruit cake and baked apple.

Breakfast Buffet

The breakfast buffet included a wide selection of Asian items and some western dishes, including decent rolls and not so great pastry. Many items had been sitting out too long including the fish and shumai (Chinese dumplings). Pity as they were quite tasty.

Driving to Kamikochi

Once we left the gossho-zukuri (thatched roof) villages and Route 156, the expressway to Takayama was mostly through tunnels. Convenient for driving but a shame if you want to see the mountains. Past Takayama the road passes through a developed rural area up into the mountains that become increasingly tourist centric as you climb.

This is a ski area that I imagine is quite busy in the winter. On a Thursday In late September traffic was relatively light and it was an easy drive to the Hurayu parking area for Komikochi.

They don’t let you drive directly to Komikochi. On the Takayama side the bus stops at Hirayu across the street from the Information Center marked on the Google map.

I don’t believe there is public parking at the Hirayu transit station. Instead we ended up parking at the Akandana parking lot, which is also marked on the google map. Unfortunately the road signs are only in hiragana あかんだな. Worst case, just follow the big P signs. It will lead you to a large parking lot. Walk down the stairs to the bus terminal where there are instructions in English on how to buy your ticket to Kamikochi.

The bus stop was pretty quiet at just after 2PM, but there were still attendants around to help you. A large sign – only in Japanese – has a map of the hotel locations and which stop you need to get off at. If you can’t find your hotel, just ask the attendant. For the Kamikochi Onsen hotel we got off at the next to the last stop. Once on the bus it’s easy as all the stops are shown on the display at the front of the bus and announced in English.

From the bus stop it was about a 10 minute walk to our hotel. Although easy to find it was a bit of pain rolling the bag on the bumpy paved road.

Final Thought

While the setting is beautiful and I enjoyed our overnight stay and hike into the mountains, I can’t say this is a world class destination. It may be so later in the season with an abundance of fall color or earlier in the year when the peaks are still covered in snow. In late September the crowds were quite manageable and the hiking trail pleasant with fall color emerging at higher elevations.

September 28-29, 2017

For links to all the posts in this series see the Japan page.