Transportation Report: Travelling from Matsumoto to Kamikōchi and back

The scenic highland valley of Kamikōchi (上高地) lies deep within the Northern Japanese Alps, in a remote corner of Nagano Prefecture. Yet despite its relative isolation, visitors from elsewhere in Japan (as well as from overseas) are able to travel there with relative ease. Today, we’ll go over how I visited Kamikōchi from the old castle town of Matsumoto, which is a great base from which to explore the valley as well as being a major tourist attraction in its own right.

Note: This report is based on my own experience of travelling from Matsumoto to Kamikōchi (and back) on 02 October 2019. Fares, timetables, equipment, boarding procedures and other details may change anytime without prior notice.

Of course, the best way to reach Kamikōchi depends a lot on your starting point. Summaries of the available options from Matsumoto and Takayama – as well as from more distant urban centres like Tōkyō, Kyōto, and Ōsaka – are available on Japan-Guide, on the website of transport operator Alpico, and on the Kamikōchi official tourism website.

My own starting point was the city of Matsumoto (松本), which in relative terms is practically a neighbour to Kamikōchi. Both are located in Nagano Prefecture, and indeed the entire Kamikōchi area lies within Matsumoto’s administrative boundaries. That said, the scenic valley is located far outside the urban centre, so one will need to set aside about 1.5 to 2 hours for the journey out of downtown Matsumoto.

The route to/from Kamikōchi consists of two legs: a train ride between Matsumoto and Shin-Shimashima Station, and a bus journey between Shin-Shimashima and Kamikōchi. Tickets covering both legs can be purchased from a vending machine at Matsumoto Station, with a round-trip passage costing slightly less than two one-way fares. Various discount packages and local passes covering the journey are also available; refer to the official website of Alpico (the local transport operator) for details.

Bear in mind that the Japan Rail Pass is NOT valid for travel on the trains/buses serving Kamikōchi, as they’re run by third-party operators including Alpico (not by Japan Railways). Of course, you can use a JR Pass to reach Matsumoto or Takayama using JR trains, and then pay separately for the final train/bus run to Kamikōchi.

Whilst advance purchases are possible for long-distance bus routes to/from Kamikōchi, seat reservations are not required – indeed, they’re not offered at all – for the local trains/buses between Kamikōchi and Matsumoto or Takayama. Seats are available on a first-come-first-served basis, and there’s also a special queuing system in place for trips departing from Kamikōchi (we’ll discuss this in detail later). [UPDATE (added 22/11/2020): Advance seat reservations are now possible; furthermore, they’re required for services departing from Kamikōchi. Click here and here for more details.]

Be aware that standing is not allowed on the buses, which are designed as highway coaches and travel on zig-zagging mountain roads; all passengers must be seated and buckled in for safety.

One other important piece of information: the timetable. Schedules for the Matsumoto-Kamikōchi route are available on the Alpico website. Note how Kamikōchi Line trains are synchronised with bus arrivals and departures to offer smooth connections at Shin-Shimashima Station.

Right, let’s head out!

OUTBOUND LEG: MATSUMOTO TO KAMIKŌCHI

Train: Matsumoto Station dep. 1045 → 1115 arr. Shin-Shimashima Station
Bus: Shin-Shimashima Station dep. 1130 → 1227 / 1232 / 1235 arr. Kamikōchi (time at each of the 3 stops in the valley)

My starting point was Matsumoto Station (松本駅, Matsumoto-eki).

I used a vending machine and paid 4,650 yen for round-trip passage between Matsumoto and Kamikōchi (picture below). The machine issued two tickets for this transaction: one outbound (ゆき, yuki) from Matsumoto to Kamikōchi, and one return (かえり, kaeri) from Kamikōchi to Matsumoto. Each ticket was valid for both the train and bus segments of its own leg.

You might have noticed the small machine-punched hole on the outbound ticket. At Matsumoto Station, I fed just the outbound stub into the turnstile, which allowed me through into the fare-paid area; the return ticket wasn’t needed at that point.

The station’s fare-paid zone is shared by the East Japan Railway Company (JR East) and Alpico Kōtsū (Alpico). The central section (consisting of tracks 0-5) is used by JR East trains. Tracks 6 (JR East) and 7 (Alpico) are located on a somewhat isolated platform at the station’s western edge, accessible through a covered walkway.

And here’s my ride: an Alpico Kōtsū 3000 series EMU, operating on the Kamikōchi Line.

About half an hour later, the train pulled into its final stop: Shin-Shimashima Station (新島々駅, Shin-Shimashima-eki).

Our arrival was timed to coincide with the 1130 bus service bound for Kamikōchi. The connection window was 15 minutes – more than enough given the station’s small size and the fact that the bus terminal was right outside the ticket gates. That said, the first-come-first-served policy re: bus seats spurred me straight through the turnstiles and onto the waiting vehicle, without pausing to take pictures of the station building. (Not to worry: I had plenty of time for that on the return leg so we’ll see what Shin-Shimashima looks like in due course.)

Show your ticket to the staff on duty, then walk into the bus and take any free seat (places are not pre-assigned).

An hour later, the bus finally crossed into the Kamikōchi area. Note that there are three bus stops for inbound services within Kamikōchi: one near Taishō Pond (#28, Taishō-ike), another near the Teikoku/Imperial Hotel (#29, Teikoku-hoteru-mae), and finally the Kamikōchi bus terminal itself (#30, Kamikōchi). For stop locations, please refer to the simplified map on Japan-Guide or the more detailed map on the Kamikōchi official site.

You may disembark at the stop of your choice, but bear in mind that the Taishō Pond and Teikoku Hotel stops are for Kamikōchi-bound passengers only; you won’t be able to catch a returning service from either of them. Passengers heading for Matsumoto via Shin-Shimashima should proceed to the Kamikōchi bus terminal and board from there. [UPDATE (added 22/11/2020): It is now possible to board outbound buses from the Teikoku Hotel and Taishō Pond stops, but advance reservations are necessary. Click here and here for more details.]

For my part, I wanted to hike north from Taishō Pond (close to the southern end of Kamikōchi) up to Kappa Bridge (near the bus terminal), so I pressed the buzzer to get off at the Taishō-ike bus stop. The driver collected my first (used) ticket as I disembarked.

After a long and enjoyable walk through this beautiful valley – which will be the subject of another post – I proceeded to the Kamikōchi bus terminal for the journey back to Matsumoto.

RETURN LEG: KAMIKŌCHI TO MATSUMOTO

Bus: Kamikōchi dep. 1515 → 1620 arr. Shin-Shimashima Station
Train: Shin-Shimashima Station dep. 1643 → 1713 arr. Matsumoto Station

The starting point for my return trip was the Kamikōchi Bus Terminal (上高地バスターミナル), not far from Kappa Bridge.

UPDATE (added 22/11/2020): Please note that the seiriken system described below has been phased out in favour of a new reservation-based process. You can guarantee yourself a place on a specific bus (but, as before, not a particular seat) by making a reservation either online or at the bus terminal. Refer to this linked page on the Alpico website for details.

So you’ve got a fully-paid ticket or transportation pass that covers the bus ride back to Shin-Shimashima Station. That means you’re good to go, right?

Well, not quite – as the signs shown below make absolutely clear.

As mentioned earlier, seat reservations aren’t necessary – or even possible – for the local buses/trains plying the Matsumoto-Kamikōchi (via Shin-Shimashima) route. In order to control outbound boarding, there’s a special queuing system in place where passengers need to request a numbered ticket (整理券, seiriken) from the counter in addition to a paid fare ticket (乗車券, jōshaken). Numbered tickets are free of charge and are issued per departure schedule; simply tell the counter staff which bus you’d like to board or what time you’d like to leave.

Here’s my seiriken (on the right), next to the return-leg ticket I purchased that morning at Matsumoto. Both were required for the journey home.

Note that the numbered ticket is NOT a seat reservation. It works like the queuing cards used at banks, hospitals, and other high-traffic service environments, in that the number determines the order in which you’re called to board the bus. About 10 minutes or so before the stated departure time, a staff member will call out numbers one by one, and passengers climb aboard when their number is summoned. Once on board, you’re free to take any unoccupied seat; the sequence number doesn’t refer to any specific row or place.

And away we go. Incidentally, the bus ride to/from Kamikōchi is quite scenic; it’s just that I couldn’t be bothered to snap a lot of pictures as we went (serenely enjoying the view worked better for me). Dams were an especially common sight, with the road running past or in some cases upon them.

After about an hour on the road, we finally arrived at Shin-Shimashima Station. The next train wasn’t due to leave until 1643, and boarding commences only after the compartments are emptied of arriving passengers, so I had time to spare for location photography.

Here are the ticket gates. Small station, manual ticket inspection (no automated fare gates or turnstiles).

It’s a fairly low-traffic stop (especially outside the tourist season), so there’s just one island platform serving two tracks.

And here’s the train that would bring me back home to Matsumoto. Same type as the one on the outbound leg: an Alpico Kōtsū 3000 series EMU.

After arriving at Matsumoto, I fed the return ticket into the gate and walked through to the station’s public zone. If memory serves, the ticket wasn’t returned – but that’s expected as it had already served its purpose.

And there we have it. Kamikōchi may be far from downtown Matsumoto, but the transport infrastructure that links the two seems perfectly up to the task of ferrying visitors swiftly, safely, and comfortably between one and the other.

Cheerio.

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