Japan’s incredibly scenic Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (立山黒部アルペンルート) is best appreciated on an overnight journey, or at least a full-day trip with a very early start (as I’ll demonstrate in a future post). That said, if one can spare only part of a day, the initial western section of the famous mountain traverse makes for a worthwhile side trip. In this report, I’ll describe how I reached the scenic Midagahara marsh – one of Japan’s largest alpine wetlands – on a daytime excursion out of Toyama.
Note: This report is based on my own experience of travelling from Toyama to Midagahara (and back) on 29 September 2019. Fares, timetables, equipment, boarding procedures and other details may change anytime without prior notice.
For today’s post, I’ll limit myself mainly to practical matters (more specifically about transportation). Let’s save the tale of my nature walk around Midagahara for a separate report.
Now then, a bit of Q&A to help set the stage.
Why not stay overnight? Staying at least one night on the Alpine Route (perhaps at Midagahara or Murodō) is highly recommended: more relaxed pace, more time for longer hikes and excursions. Alas, vacancies were thin on the ground for my dates of travel, and the remaining rooms were prohibitively expensive. This brings me to the next question…
Why Toyama as a base? Toyama (富山) is the closest major city to the Alpine Route’s western end, offering easy access via the Toyama Chihō Railway (along with a buffet of moderately-priced downtown hotels to choose from). In addition, Toyama is a stop on the Hokuriku Shinkansen line, with convenient high-speed services to Kanazawa in the west and Nagano/Tōkyō in the east.
Why no further than Midagahara? I arrived in Toyama from Tōkyō on 29th Sep, at about 10 AM – not early enough for a comfortable day trip across the entire Alpine Route. In any event, I’d already set aside a different day (1st Oct) to do an end-to-end traverse. Since there was still plenty of daylight left on the 29th, I decided to visit Midagahara (弥陀ヶ原) right then and there, paying close to 6,000 yen for tickets covering the round-trip journey. (It would not have made sense to use the more expensive Tateyama Kurobe Option Ticket I’d purchased in advance for 1st Oct, as that’s only valid for a one-way full crossing.) By exploring Midagahara on the 29th, I was able to skip it on the 1st, which freed up more time for Murodō and other places along the route.
Was it worth the extra time and cost? No right or wrong answer here, and your experience may vary … but yes, I thought it was worth it. Taking the various modes of transport along the way – especially the train and funicular – was quite good fun. (Helps that I’m a railfan though.) There was a lot of lovely scenery along the way, especially on the bus. And to cap it all off, I found the nature walk around Midagahara very enjoyable indeed. Besides, the extra 6,000 yen I shelled out for this side trip was just a fraction of what it would have cost me to stay at a hotel along the route itself, and yet this small investment got me the overnighter advantages of more time and a more relaxed pace for the full journey.
Where can I find more information about the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route? The best starting point is the official Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route website, which is packed with information on what to see and how to get there (including detailed timetables for all modes of transport along the way). The Alpine Route entry on Japan Guide offers a useful summary of the route’s attractions and transportation options. Between them, these two websites should have almost everything you need to plan a trip to, and across, the Alpine Route.
FIRST OUTBOUND LEG: TOYAMA TO TATEYAMA ON THE TOYAMA CHIHŌ RAILWAY
My starting point was Dentetsu-Toyama Station (電鉄富山駅, Dentetsu-Toyama-eki), the quaint little neighbour of JR West’s much larger Toyama Station.
For 1,230 yen (one way), a regular train service will take you from here to Tateyama Station in 60-80 minutes. A very small number of limited express services also ply the route, taking about 50 minutes to cover the same distance – but you’ll need to pay an extra 210 yen to board one of those.
For more details, have a look through the official website of Toyama Chihō Railway.
Right, off we go!
Now for the next leg.
SECOND OUTBOUND LEG: TATEYAMA TO BIJODAIRA ON THE TATEYAMA CABLE CAR
The train ride ended at Tateyama Station (立山駅, Tateyama-eki), where I transferred to the Tateyama Cable Car.
I mounted the staircase located right by the turnstiles…
…then rushed through the station lobby and straight out the exit.
That was no mistake on my part. You can’t simply walk onto the cable car platform and board the next Bijodaira-bound service, not even if you’ve got a Tateyama Kurobe Option Ticket. Whether you’re paying the fare directly (as I did on this occasion) or using the option ticket (as I did on another journey), you’ll need to approach the ticket office – which is located just outside the station’s main doors – and request a scheduled boarding ticket.
And here’s mine, issued for the 13:00 cable car service and valid for a round trip between Tateyama and Midagahara (including both the cable car and subsequent bus ride). I paid 3,120 yen at the time, but note that this was just two days before an increase in Japan’s consumption tax – from 8% to 10% – took effect nationwide. As of this writing, a round-trip fare to Midagahara costs 3,170 yen.
With a few minutes to kill before my departure, I popped into the station’s rest area and ordered a snack from the cafeteria counter. (There were also more substantial dishes on offer, but I didn’t have enough time for a proper meal.)
That done, I parked myself in the station’s main lobby to wait for the boarding call.
Shortly before departure time, the queued passengers were allowed through the turnstiles – with each ticket scanned at the gate – and up the station’s stepped boarding platform.
There are seats in the cable car if you’d prefer to sit down, but I rushed to secure a prime standing spot off to one side of the driver’s cabin (at the front of the vehicle). This gave me the perfect vantage point from which to observe our upward progress along the steeply sloped track.
After the short but interesting ride, I disembarked at the next transfer point for my final outbound leg.
THIRD OUTBOUND LEG: BIJODAIRA TO MIDAGAHARA ON THE TATEYAMA HIGHLAND BUS
The cable car deposited me at Bijodaira Station (美女平駅, Bijodaira-eki).
This is the starting point of the Tateyama Highland Bus line, which shuttles passengers as far as Murodō. Some buses travel the route non-stop, whilst others pause at Midagahara and Tengudaira along the way. There are separate queues for either service.
Since I wasn’t going all the way to Murodō on this occasion, I joined the queue for lane number 2.
Your ticket will be scanned just before you walk through the exit and onto the waiting bus.
All passengers are guaranteed a seat – important for safety on the long and twisting mountain route – but places are not specifically reserved; just take any unoccupied seat. I’ve also read that fold-down seats along the aisle may be deployed at peak times, but in any event, standing is not allowed (again for safety reasons). Best to join the queue as early as possible, or you’ll risk being forced to wait for another bus if all seats are taken before you climb aboard.
In my case, I managed to secure the place I usually aim for when travelling by bus: the one closest to the front door, with great views both to the side and through the windshield.
Off we go!
The route has some nice landscape views, with a couple of specific points of interest. One of these is the Sendō Cedar, said to be one of Japan’s 100 biggest trees.
Further along the road, our bus swung into a concrete platform next to a gap in the trees…
…from where we caught a glimpse of the Shōmyō Falls, the tallest in Japan, with a four-stage drop totalling 350 metres in height.
The bus continued on, with the forest on either side of us gradually giving way to lower vegetation as we approached the vast expanse of Midagahara.
And here we are! Well, here we are near the bus stop, that is.
The best part is yet to come: a long, scenic stroll around this expansive mountain wetland…
…but we’ll save that for another post.
Now let’s discuss something VERY important, something you’ll need to do straightaway if you’re not staying the night at Midagahara – namely, securing a place on the bus for the journey back (or journey onward).
MANDATORY BUS SEAT RESERVATIONS FROM MIDAGAHARA
This sign posted at the Midagahara bus stop has all of the essential details, so let’s pause for a quick read-through:
And that’s it, really. I’d recommend making the reservation immediately upon arriving at the Midagahara bus stop, especially during peak season, as seats on your preferred schedule might run out if you put this off until after doing the rounds of the wetlands. Now as to which departure time to choose … well that depends on how long you plan to stay at Midagahara, which in turn depends on how much of the area you’d like to explore. The staff at the bus stop will help you settle on an appropriate departure time, and I’ve also seen them pencil people in for earlier buses than they’d originally reserved (but only if space permits so don’t count on this as a guaranteed option).
HOMEWARD BOUND – FROM MIDAGAHARA TO TOYAMA
If you’re doing Midagahara on a round trip from Toyama (note: not possible with the Tateyama Kurobe Option Ticket as it’s only valid for one-way travel), the return journey will essentially be the same as the outbound, albeit in reverse. Do be aware that if you’re heading home later in the day, queues and waiting times may be longer as many other travellers will also be making their way down.
Bus from Midagahara to Bijodaira, then the cable car from Bijodaira back to Tateyama. No pre-determined boarding schedule was necessary for this direction of travel – I simply joined the cable car queue and hopped aboard the next available service.
After reaching Tateyama, I walked up to a ticket machine and bought admission onto the next available train to Dentetsu-Toyama Station.
I’m sure that some travellers still had more distance to cover from that point: perhaps onwards to Kanazawa or Nagano or even distant Tōkyō via the shinkansen. Fortunately, the hotel where I was staying was just across the street, with a comfy bed ready to offer relaxation after my all-too-short, but absolutely satisfying, afternoon spent in the great outdoors.
Please look forward to my next post describing the nature walk I enjoyed at Midagahara, and – beyond that – my future report covering the complete Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (shooting far past the point I’d reached today).
Until then, cheerio!