This picture was taken in late April. Well into spring already but up here on the Midagahara plateau, I am still standing on ice and snow at least eight metres deep. Only the tips of the trees can be seen. All around is a wintry landscape of white and blue. The 90km-long Kurobe Alpine Route is one of Japan’s most interesting itineraries. Not least because it boasts breath-taking scenery in the short time when it is open, but also for the sheer variety of transport options that bring to life the saying that it’s not so much the destination that counts but the journey.
For couch potatoes like me, this is probably also the easiest and most accessible way to get up this high into the Japanese Alps without breaking a sweat. For serious hikers or skiers (depending on the season), the Kurobe Alpine Route is a good way to get up to those high elevations, a start point for many rewarding hikes in the alpine meadows or a good downhill run. You could ‘do’ the alpine route in one day but why rush? We savoured the route slowly with an overnight stop at Midagahara. The entire journey can only be described as one big epic production. Leaving Kanazawa early in the morning, the first leg took us from JR Kanazawa to JR Toyama station. This took us about half an hour (950yen without a JR pass). From JR Toyama, it was a bit of detour on foot to get to the Dentetsu Toyama station thanks to the makeshift walkways put up to divert foot traffic. Construction was underway for the new shinkansen station and line. Soon it would be another easy hop from Tokyo to get to Kanazawa, Toyama and other places on the Sea of Japan coast.
Once at the Dentetsu Toyama station, it was easy to buy tickets for the alpine route from the ticket windows. We bought a one-way pass that covered the entire length of the route until Ogizawa, the last stop. The pass cost about 15,000yen each if I recall correctly. It was valid for two days which allowed us to take our time and break the journey with an overnight stay.
The little electric train, similar to the one that brought us from Shin Uozu to Unazuki Onsen, chugged its way deep into the valley, following a river at times (above picture). Yes it was drizzly and dark, but more atmospheric that way, to make a journey into the unknown highlands in a light misty rain, with clouds rolling in to cover the hills. It was quite scenic and the train journey took only about an hour, gently ascending from sea level to 475m.
At the terminus, we all got off to take the Tateyama cable car to make the steep ascent – and a big jump in altitude – to 977m. We didn’t have to long to wait. The cable car comes quite frequently. They call it a cable car but where I come from, its called a funicular. Well, whatever works! The trip from Tateyama to Bijodaira was pretty fast, taking only less than 10min, considering the steep ascent of more than 450m in that time.
Up on Bijodaira, there are actually a couple of walks you can take to see giant cedars and also a shuttle service to the viewing site for Japan’s highest falls – Shomyo Falls. A good idea might be to come early, store the bags in lockers, go out for a look-see before coming back, picking up the bags and heading onwards to Midagahara or to Murodo for the night. The Kurobe Alpine Route also has a baggage forwarding service where you can have your bags forwarded from Toyama to selected points along the route, especially useful if you intend to go from Toyama to the end point at Ogizawa or vice versa.
Because it was dark and drizzly, we didn’t venture out of the terminus at Bijodaira but took the onward bus to Midagahara. Note that you should observe the signs and take the correct exit queue for the buses. If you intend, like us, to make a stop at Midagahara, make sure you take the line for the #2 counter indicated as “Stopover” or you’ll find yourself going all the way non-stop to Murodo.
Hybrid buses run the route between Bijodaira and Murodo. No other vehicles are allowed on this road, even in summer. The road up was slick and wet with rain. The snow was thick on the ground but grew obviously deeper the higher we went. By the time we stopped at the Midagahara stop, the snow was so high that you couldn’t see a complete tree – only the tips were visible.
We spent the night at the Hotel Midagahara. This was the priciest hotel of our stay in Japan at 22,000yen per person including two meals. At 1930m, the hotel is not Japan’s highest – that honour went to the Hotel Tateyama at Murodo. It would be nice to come in summer because the hotel is flanked by alpine meadows and one of Japan’s highest wetlands with a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna worth exploring on the many boardwalk paths. Unfortunately in late spring, Midagahara was still gripped by winter and thick snow and that day, all we could see looking out from the hotel were either dark grey skies or an endless spread of white, at times so bright you can’t tell where the light ended and the snow began.
Being ‘stranded’ up there, we took part in a ‘nature walk’ (tramping in the snow with umbrellas and snow boots thoughtfully provided by the hotel). It was all in Japanese so we couldn’t understand anything but it was just fun to spazz about in the snow.
The next day the weather turned around completely and we woke up to blue skies and sunshine! And wow, the scenery was awesome – grand, sweeping and magnificent, the kind that makes you feel glad to be alive in this world!