I’m not much of an outdoorsman, but I do enjoy the occasional side trip into Japan’s rugged and beautiful highlands. One particularly rewarding detour that requires little time or hiking experience involves tackling the easy riverside trails of Kamikōchi (上高地): a remote mountain valley located less than two hours from downtown Matsumoto.
I’ve written a separate Transportation Report describing how I travelled between Matsumoto and Kamikōchi, so let’s set the there-and-back journey aside and plunge straight into the valley.
Not counting a few omissions and stray segments, the route I’ve plotted above very closely mirrors my actual footsteps in Kamikōchi. This, in turn, broadly follows the southern half of what one might describe as the “classic” day-tripper’s itinerary through the valley: a leisurely hike along the Azusa River from Taishō-ike to Tashiro-ike to Kappa-bashi to Myōjin, then back down to Kappa-bashi and the nearby bus terminal. I cut my own visit short at Kappa-bashi (about 1 to 1.5 hours on paper from Taishō-ike), omitting the northern trail to Myōjin (which would have added about 3 hours of round-trip walking time).
Under different circumstances, I might’ve gone all the way to Myōjin – or at least the scenic Dakesawa-shitsugen area (not far beyond Kappa-bashi) – but a number of considerations nudged me into abbreviating the hike. Fear of overexertion was one, time was another…
…and then there were the bears.
This was the first information board that greeted me after I got off at the Taishō-ike bus stop. Hardly a reassuring welcome, especially for a chap with anxiety issues; the fact that the sighting had taken place more than a month earlier did little to dispel my fears.
Pushing the notice aside in my mind (or at least trying to!), I walked a short distance from the bus stop to Taishō-ike (大正池 / Taishō Pond). This small natural reservoir is so named because it was formed in Taishō Year 4 (=A.D. 1915), when eruption deposits from the nearby Yake-dake volcano partially blocked the Azusa River channel. Even today, a few withered tree trunks can be seen poking out of the surface: remnants of the riverside forest drowned by the trapped waters more than a century ago.
From here, I joined the main hiking trail and began moving northwards, with Taishō-ike to my left and the main road (thankfully obscured by greenery) somewhere to my right.
Eventually, I emerged into a rocky clearing near the northern tip of Taishō-ike. This fan-shaped gravel “beach” was formed out of erosion deposits carried down the slopes of Kasumizawa-dake (one of the mountains on the river’s east bank).
Looking to the west, I was rewarded with a great view of Yake-dake (焼岳 / Mount Yake) – the volcano whose 1915 eruption led to the formation of Taishō-ike.
I resumed my northwards trek, passing through a forest of larches and birch trees. The Kamikōchi valley is about 1,500 metres above sea level, right around the boundary between the (lower) mountain zone and (higher) sub-alpine zone; the local flora thus includes representatives of both.
Before long, the forest thinned out as the trail took me across a patch of grassy wetland. Forsaking the main route that began to turn west at this point, I followed a branch that snaked off towards the east.
The path brought me to the edge of Tashiro-ike (田代池 / Tashiro Pond). This shallow body of water was once much deeper and larger, but the gradual accumulation of sediment and decomposing plant matter has turned most of it into wetland.
This is a particularly scenic place, and perhaps one of my favourite spots in that small area of Kamikōchi I’ve visited so far. Let’s give it its due with a panoramic shot (click to enlarge).
I retraced my steps and joined the main path, following it west until I came to a fork in the road.
Here, visitors are presented with a choice between two nature trails. Left for the riverside course that runs along the bank of the Azusa-gawa, right for the course that goes through an evergreen forest.
According to the signboard, the riverside route has fewer ups and downs than the forest trail, but is occasionally impassable when the water level is high.
I eventually settled on the riverside course, partly because of the more level path…but also because the bear warning was still fresh in my mind. Even if I’d known for certain that none of the beasts happened to be out and about on that occasion, I don’t think my sanity could have withstood a long walk through a thickly forested area where every shadow and every noise might be perceived by my imagination as a concealed animal poised to attack. Far from a refreshing walk through nature, the entire hike would have mutated into a long mental torture chamber.
Interestingly, the so-called “Azusa-gawa River course” seemed more like a woodland trail for much of its length…
…and indeed, the rushing waters of the Azusa-gawa only came into view towards the latter half of the course. That said, I did not regret the choice – and I regretted it even less after I found a great viewing spot right on the water’s edge.
I paused here for a few minutes to soak up the calming atmosphere. It seemed as though all the accumulated concerns of my mind were slowly being borne away by the flowing waters of the river.
I returned to the hiking path and continued north, stopping now and again to enjoy the relaxing sight and sound of the Azusa-gawa to my left.
Not long after I passed the point where the two nature trails merged back into one, the Tashiro-bashi (田代橋 / Tashiro Bridge) finally came into view. This is actually just the eastern half of a double bridge built across the Azusa-gawa, providing access to another trail on the opposite bank. (The western half bears a different name, Hotaka-bashi.)
I elected not to make the crossing, preferring to maintain my course on the eastern trail. I did spare a few moments to admire the river from either side of the bridge.
It’s worth noting that there’s a public lavatory not far from Tashiro-bashi. The only other facility south of here is the one near the Taishō-ike trailhead, so anyone hiking between these two rather distant points might wish to do their business in one and relieve themselves of any, er, accumulation upon reaching the other (especially if they’ve consumed more liquid than necessary along the way).
After availing myself of the public convenience, I planted my feet back on the trail and resumed the northerly hike. In due course, I came upon a large bend where the Azusa-gawa turns sharply northwest before swinging back into its southwards course. Here was an excellent vantage point from which to observe not just the river itself, but also the Hotaka mountain range to the west and Roppyaku-san to the east.
Now for a panoramic shot to better illustrate the scene (click to enlarge).
Time for another break. I briefly halted my northward advance and gently immersed myself into this glorious setting, filling my lungs with cool mountain air and savouring the sweet music of the rushing current.
Let’s press on.
North again I went, occasionally glancing towards the river and the mountains beyond.
At one point, I spied the busy parking lot of the Kamikōchi Bus Terminal through the trees on my right. This indicated to me that the endpoint of my (abbreviated) walk was just minutes away.
After putting the last stretch behind me, I finally caught sight of Kappa-bashi (河童橋 / Kappa Bridge): one of Kamikōchi’s most famous man-made landmarks. The surrounding area is the most heavily transformed in the valley, with a small cluster of hotels offering dining facilities and other conveniences for visitors.
Now then, time to refuel.
I walked over to a nearby stall and treated myself to some ice cream.
Fantastic stuff, this. I’d say it easily ranks amongst the best vanilla soft-serves I’ve tasted thus far.
All right, time to head back to Matsumoto.
Down the tree-lined main road, right turn into a side path, and straight on to the valley’s main bus terminal.
One thing to bear in mind – the bus terminal’s lavatory requires a small “donation” (read: “fee”) to use.
I’d love to return and hit some of the valley’s other trails, perhaps spending a night or two in one of the local hotels to permit a more relaxed pace of travel. But as a simple day trip out of Matsumoto, I feel that the trimmed-down experience I’ve described here is well worth doing (especially for visitors with very little time to spare).