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Away from the tourists hordes – The Alpine Route

Thu 1 Aug – day 82  It was another grey and rainy day as I checked out of the hotel and travelled by bus back to the station.  I was heading for the Alpine Route, a 90km trip between Tateyama and Kurobe that crossed some of the highest peaks in the Japanese Alps; I was also hoping to get away from the hordes of tourists that thronged Kyoto and the surrounding districts.

I used my JR Railpass as I travelled on the Limited Express Thunderbird 7 from Kyoto to Toyama on one the direct trains and was glad that I had reserved a seat as the whole train was full.

I was leaving Kansai, which is said to be the heart of Japan and heading for Central Honshu.  The railway line ran alongside the western shore of Biwa-ko, the country’s largest lake, although it did not look particularly attractive today because of the rain squalls rushing across the surface.  Just after passing the northern end of the lake the train travelled through a long tunnel and when it emerged the sun was shining.  From here to Toyama the line ran slightly inland from the Sea Of Japan, but occasions the calm blue sea was visible off to the left.

I alighted at Toyama after an on-time arrival and the station was undergoing a massive reconstruction as part of the new Nagano to Kanazawa Shinkansen line which was due to open in 2015.  At sometime in the future there were plans to extend it to Shin-Osaka, but when this would happen was anyone’s guess.

It was just a short walk from the JR station to the adjacent Dentetsu-Toyama station, starting point for the private Toyama Chihō Railway.  JR Passes were not valid on the private railway, but in the ticket office there was a special desk that sold tickets for travel across the whole, or part of the Alpine Route.  When I brought my ticket I had to specify a time that I wanted to travel from Tateyama to Bijodaira on the cable car (what we would call the funicular railway) as this only had a limited capacity.

On the station wall were hanging all the destination plates that the drivers placed on the front of their trains.  The Toyama Chiho Railway had two main routes, to Tateyama which was the cable car station at the start of the Alpine Route and was where I was heading today, with the other line going to Unazuki-onsen in the Kurobe Gorge, my destination in a few days time.

Once the train had left Toyama behind the scenery became rural very quickly and it then changed as we climbed up into the mountains.  The train was a one-man operation and he was quite happy for me to stand at the front and take pictures as we went along; by the time we reach the mountains there were no locals on the train only people heading for the Alpine Route.  As we made our way along the driver gave a commentary (in Japanese and passable English) on the sights as we went by and where there was something interesting to photograph he slowed or stopped the train until everyone had taken their pictures.

The train stopped at every station and just before we reached Tateyama the train went over a steel girder bridge and 40m below was a river with water pouring off the mountain; in the spring melt it would be a raging torrent.  Further upstream a series of concrete cascades had been constructed in order to slow the effects of erosion by the fast flowing river.



At Tateyama the station and most of the other buildings looked as if there have been transplanted from a European Alpine village.


The Tateyama – Kurobe Alpine Route is visited by more than a million people every year and as you would expect was very well organised and efficiently run.  The route is impassable during winter as the blizzards sweeping down from Siberia can dump up to 20m of snow onto the mountains and it takes 2 months at the start of each season to open the road using bulldozers and snow ploughs.

From Tateyama the cable-car (funicular railway) took just 7 minutes to reach Bijodaira[ where everyone transferred to a coach for the 23km journey up to the summit station at Murodō.  There were queues for the many groups (large and small) that were making the trip and then a very short queue for the few independent travellers.

I was only going as far as the Midagahara Hotel where I would be staying the night; as the coach set off we entered low cloud and mist and so the visibility was much reduced.  The road up the mountain was well maintained, but rather twisty and steep and so the coach rarely got out of low gear all the way.

When the coach reached the hotel the manager with some of the reception staff were at the entrance and greeted us with low bows; some of the other guests did a double-take when they saw me as this was not where they expected to see a gaijin.

Having checked in I managed to get a half-decent picture of the view from my room when the mist lifted slightly.

As it was only mid afternoon I decided to go for a walk around the area by the hotel and a bi-lingual map by the road gave me directions.  The hotel was situated 1930m amsl, so higher than any point in the UK, but I had no problems with breathing as I walked around.  A boardwalk trail had been created around the hotel so that walkers did not damage the fragile landscape as they went along; the marshy area through which I was walking contained a number of clear pools as this was the start of one of the multitude of rivers that flowed from the mountains.

On my way back to the hotel I passed one of the many huts on the mountain that were used as overnight accommodation for groups and whomever was staying here were obviously having a great time as the sound of singing drifted out of the open door.

Dinner was a full-blown Japanese affair and I sampled everything even if it did not look too appetising.  The cold noodles in some sort of sauce was definitely something that I was not enamoured with.

The post dinner entertainment was aimed at the other guests as I was the only non-Japanese staying the night and so I decided to give it a miss and went to bed.


Fri 2 Aug – day 83  After a good night’s sleep I rose early to pack my rucksack because I didn’t want to carry it around all day and was using the luggage forwarding service to Shinano-Omachi with the rucksack being dispatched on the first shuttle of the day.  It was an expensive way to forward my bag, but then they have a captive clientele.

While I waited for the bus one of the waiters came up and enquired whether I would be having breakfast, no was the answer as (a) I was not hungry and (b) Japanese breakfast were not my ideal way of starting the day.

I had to walk from the hotel the short distance up to the wooden hut that served as the bus stop / shelter but that was no problem as it allowed me to fill my lungs with fresh mountain air.  The mist had not lifted and so it still hung like a clammy shroud over the mountain.


As you would expect the coach arrived right on schedule and we then carried on up the mountain towards the summit car park at Murodō.  There was still some snow about, including the remains of the snow wall which had been built when the road was first opened after the winter closure; however it all looked very dirty and was not something you would want to use for snowballs.  The higher up the mountain we went the worse the weather got and it was now raining quite heavily so the coach window was streaked with rain drops.

As we turned a corner the Murodō Hotel came into view and having seen it I was glad that it was full when Inside Japan tried to book me a room for the night.  It was a concrete monstrosity that had been dumped on the mountain side with absolutely no thought about the visual impact.  Just as bad was the Murodō terminal (2450m amsl) and it was made worse by the large car park where the coaches that had arrived disgorged people dressed as if they were about to tackle the north face of the Eiger rather than walk a couple of kilometres on a well marked trail.

A map indicated all the walking paths and the most popular ones were paved with stone in order to prevent erosion.  I set off on what was described as the large loop, a distance of some 8km; this was about as far as I could walk if I was to see the rest of the sights and still get to the far end of the Alpine Route before the last bus left.

Even high on the mountain there were shrines and temples so that visitors could pray for their safety and I saw people doing just that.


One of the sights I passed was the first ever hut erected on the mountain by the Japanese Alpine Club and now restored as a museum.  Next to it was the modern equivalent and this was more like a hotel than a refuge for mountaineers.

There a number of lakes which had been formed when water filled extinct calderas, as this area like the majority of the mountains in Japan had been formed through volcanic activity.


Having returned to the Murodō terminal and taken off my rather damp waterproof trousers I joined the queue to board the trolley bus, (one of only 2 in the country and the other is further along the Alpine Route) that ran in a tunnel through the mountain to Daikanbo.  This was the upper ropeway (cable car) station and while you stood in the queue to board the gondola you could watch live CCTV feed from various locations along the route.  These showed that the mist and not lifted and at Midagahara it had got worse.

At Daikanbo they have even placed signs on the floor so that people knew which queue they had to be in and from here we descended by ropeway to Kurobedaira and as the gondola came over the last support it emerged from the low cloud and mist into bright sunlight.  At the lower station I walked down the steps and boarded the cable car (funicular railway) which took me further down the mountain to Kurobe-ko.


This was the only section on the entire Alpine Route where you had any significant distance to walk between the different modes of transport and as it was now bright and sunny, it would be a pleasant stroll.  However I was going to take a boat trip around the lake that had been created when the dam was built.  All the seats on the boat were inside, but it had an open deck at the rear from where I could take photographs of the scenery.  There were a few houses high above the lake and all of these had their own boats as there was no road access.

Having arrived back at the pontoon it was time to walk across the massive Kurobe Dam, the tallest in Japan.  Looking over the side and down the valley was not advisable if you suffered from vertigo as it was a long way down.  Having taken a picture at the centre of the dam I finished walking across it and then went down to a viewing platform from where I could see the whole majestic structure and the vast water jets shooting from the dam’s face.  The water level was below its maximum which was probably reached following the spring thaw.





It was then time to move on and so I boarded another trolley bus through a tunnel that was constructed to enable men and materials to be brought to the site of the dam when it was first built.  Having travelled through the mountain we emerged at Ogizawa which was dominated by a large car park and from here it was a coach ride the five miles to the station at Shinano-Omachi.





During my whole traverse of the Alpine Route I only saw three other westerners, so this was definitely not on the main tourist route.

Having collected my rucksack I then boarded the local train on JR Oito Line to Matsumoto and this trip took just 1 hour 5 minutes.  The views from the train of the Alps to the west (right) were magnificent, but the photos failed to capture their grandeur.

It was just a short walk from the station to my hotel for the next two nights and when I checked in I was told that my suitcase had arrived and been placed in my room.

So after a shower it was time to do the laundry once more, but this did not take long.

There was an American style diner as part of the hotel complex and so I had a rather good meal with a couple of beers.  After the excellent repast I was looking forward to another good nights sleep.