Right out of a Christmas postcard right?
Up here at the observation deck of the Nishihotakaguchi station of the Shin Hotaka Ropeway, the view takes the breath away. Except for another 15 people, we have the place to ourselves.
Pity we could not really explore the place. All thanks to the GPS Voice of Doom!
We’d left Shirakawago at noon, believing we’d make good time to Okuhida. But on the expressway, we obediently followed The Voice of Doom which, at the turn-off to Takayama, just told us to “keep on current course”.
That brilliant bit of instruction took us at least 30km out of our way before we could get out of the expressway at the next exit and make a u-turn. Back on the expressway, you’d think the GPS would tell us the correct turn-off to Takayama but again, it told us to “keep on current course”. At first, we thought we missed the instruction the first time round so like two fools we trusted the GPS again and listened closely, following instructions once more to “keep on current course”. To our horror, we found ourselves shooting past the turn-off, and into a 10km tunnel which led straight back to Shirakawago! Argh!!
By now I was seriously capable of committing road rage against the infuriating monotone of the Voice of Doom on that blasted GPS! I fished the map out and grimly decided to go old school – ignore the GPS. And this time, we made the right turn-off. And yes, the Voice STILL insisted on “keep on current course”!
By then, we’d easily lost more than 2hours just trawling up and down the expressway. It was frustrating, to put it mildly.
Thankfully once we got on route 158, the instructions were more accurate although I kept an eagle eye on the map, tracing our route. And with little traffic, we made good time.
The drive into the Okuhida area was beautiful. By then I’d relaxed enough with the GPS to gawk at the view of mountains soaring above on either side of the road, with cantilevered ribbons of steel that perch precariously and wind around the sides of the mountains, jutting out into air and then disappearing into tunnels. How did they construct these structures that looked, from afar, more like silver metal art installations than mundane transportation infrastructure?
We passed the road to Kamikochi, launchpad for serious mountain hikers in an area famous for its alpine beauty. It was closed and would only open a couple of days from then, in late April. I made a mental note to come back one day and make the turn-off to Kamikochi.
We headed deeper into the clefts and the valleys until we came almost to the end of the road where we would stay for the night – the Yarimikan.
By then it was already late afternoon and late though it was, we realised that this would really be our last chance to go up the mountain on the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway. The next day would be spent driving to Matsumoto to drop the car off, before taking another train down to the Kiso valley. It would have been a pity to miss the ride up, especially since Mr Ikedo had gone to so much trouble to arrange this for us.
So we dropped our bags off in our rooms and drove the last few hundred metres to the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway station. Said to be the largest and longest of its kind in Asia, the Shin Hotaka ropeway whisks you from ground level up 3200m to the rooftop of the Japanese Alps in a matter of minutes. For couch potatoes like me, it was the best way to travel in the mountains without breaking a sweat!
We were just in time to catch the last ride up. Which would give us barely 15min up on the summit before we had to make tracks down again on the last gondola for the day. We were not the only ones doing the quickie tour. The gondola was nicely filled with some other Japanese also bent on seeing the mountains on the run.
The ride up is plenty thrilling – lots of five-star views of snow-capped mountain ranges, still in deep snow. We glided above lines of animal and human tracks that dotted the white expanse beneath. The treeline looked close enough to touch. But mostly we were just happy to look out at the vast expanse of snowy mountains encircling us.
Although there were other people up there on the observation deck with us, we didn’t have to jostle to get a view and it was quiet enough to remind me that the mountains have its own unique hush. You really hear nothing but the breath of the wind – just the merest whisper of sound. It was the same familiar reverential hush I heard while traversing high above the Mer de Glace, in a rickety gondola between Italy and France 15 years ago.
There was a maze in the snow which I’d love to explore had we more time. But we only had 15min before the last gondola descended so I took a short 5min walk around the icy corridors alone. KH begged off – his shoes were not made for snow. Thanks to Syn’s hardy Timberlands, I could kick, stomp, stride around in the snow with no worries about damp seeping in.