A Guide to Hiking Kamikochi: The Northern Japan Alps

17 Aug 2023

Kamikochi is a hiker's playground. It's a narrow basin that sits within the Northern Japan Alps and offers dramatic landscapes of Japan's highest peaks. It has trails for people of all abilities, so you can do a day trip or go for multi-day traverses. Here we tell you about our experience and how you can best plan yours.

It is early June. This is my second time in Japan and the Chubi Sangaku National Park, where Kamikochi valley is, is on my list. So we're doing it. I've spent about three hours last night driving from nearby Magome where we did the epic Nakasendo hike. We've stayed the night at Ryokan Tanaka in Hirayu so that we would be nearby and be amongst the first visitors.

We wake to 360 degree views of tree-covered mountains on all sides from our room. Later, walking down the street, I spot a steam of the spring water that runs underground. At the bottom of the street we board a coach to Kamikochi and sit in the air-conditioned cabin for about half hour. Then the coach stops at Taisho Pond and a few people get up to leave. On a whim, I decide this is where we're getting off. Taisho Pond is azure, clear and full of tourists. 

image of a clear river flanked by green trees and mountains

After some photos we choose a relatively short path through the forest and marshes. We see ponds tainted deep orange from iron and manganese. We walk along clear streams and all around us lush trees cover the forest bed. The forest itself is dense, except for the path we're walking on. The path is easy and well-maintained, and we stop at several scenic spots to take pictures. At some point we see a sign warning of a black bear sighting two days earlier. This crushes our sense of safety and we rush to close the gap between the hikers in front of us.

We're aiming for an easy day hike, so we're headed to Kappa bridge. When we get there, we sit for a lunch of bits and bobs we've picked up. The hike we took takes about an hour and a half; but between photos and stops it's taken us two.

It's a very hot and dry day, so for respite, we walk across the bridge  towards the Imperial Hotel. Known locally as the Teikoku hotel, it looks uncannily like Hotel Kusakaru from Studio Ghibli's 'The Wind Rises'.

It's late afternoon. We catch the coach back down to Hirayu and I drive us a couple of hundred metres to Hirayu no mori. This is an inn with dozens of outdoor onsen – indoor thermal baths. And it is the best one I've been to so far: I feel like Eve in Eden's Garden walking around these baths. What with the mountains in the background and all the trees and rocks around...

I must remember, when I'm back in the locker room, that the courtesy creams in the powder room are for hands and feet – NOT face. I have made that mistake before.

Is Kamikochi Worth a Visit?

Absolutely, yes. Kamikochi offers access to the heart of the Northern Japan Alps, which have been shaped in part by glacial activity. It has the most dramatic of landscapes, as the highest rocky mountains loom over azure rivers flanked by lush forests. Kamikochi is best enjoyed in Spring and Autumn. If you want to experience the natural beauty Japan has to offer, it's an unmissable experience.

When to Visit Kamikochi?

The Japanese mountains are most magical during the autumn as the leaves turns golden-amber. This is usually mid-October and can be tracked with an Autumn foliage forecast (google it to follow the forecast each year). Another great time is in May, June and July but beware that this is a higher season and you're likely to encounter more visitors.

How to Get to Kamikochi?

By bike: You can get there by bike and go pretty much straight to the heart of it if you're touring Japan by bike (lucky you).

By bus: For the rest of us, you can catch a direct bus from pretty much all the main cities near and far. Kamikochi is connected to Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka via this line. Or access from Matsumoto or Takayama (60 min bus), or smaller nearer towns. Our bus from Hirayu to Kamikochi took just under 30 mins and cost us about 1500 yen (£9).

By car: We rented a car and stayed the night in Hirayu, then took the bus from Hirayu.

It's a bit of a long way to get to Kamikochi from the main cities, but fits perfectly as part of a longer itinerary, where you'd include places like Matusmoto, the Nakasendo valley or Takayama.

How long do you need at Kamikochi?

For the ultimate experience, it's best to plan to hike according to your abilities. There are many worthwhile things to see at Kamikochi that you just can't see in a day. Taking camping gear and staying at least one night at one of the campsites within is recommended. However, if you only have the day, that's fine too.

I would recommend to stay the night in Kamikochi or nearby so you don't have to rush in or out.

What to see in Kamikochi?

There are so many beautiful things to see along your hike in Kamikochi. Here are just but a few of the highlights.

Taisho Ike Pond (大正池), it was formed after a volcanic eruption of nearby Mt. Yakedake in 1915. It's surrounded by lush greenery, with some decayed trees sitting within it. It's clear as a diamond and, on the brightest days, shines azure.

Kappa Bridge (河童橋), a suspension bridge over the Asuza river with goregous views of the river itself, the forest on either bank and the steep snow covered Alps in the North. Easily accessible.

Tashiro Pond (田代池), a small pond surrounded by marshland. It has beautifully delicate flowers surrounding it in the summer; and an understated calming green serenity.

Azusa River (梓川), the main river to follow along. It's got pristine clear waters that give the whole landscape an extra dimension.

Mt. Yake (焼岳), volcano. There's a hiking route from Kamikochi to Yakedake, an active volcano 2,455m above sea level. It can be done as a day trek and it's just about under 9km. 

The official Kamikochi website has thorough information for planning your day trip or multi-day hike.

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