The Japanese Alps are a series of mountain ranges that bisect the Japan mainland. Encompassing of Northern Alps (Hida Mountains, 飛騨山脈), Central Alps (Kiso Mountains, 木曽山脈), and Southern Alps (Akaishi Mountains, 赤石山脈), the mountains have been one of the popular holiday destinations to escape the summer heat in Japan.
Because of the same reason, Nagano, being the prefecture where you can find all three of the Japanese Alps, has been a popular destination among Japanese people and expatriates who seek some relief from the muggy weather that hits places like Tokyo and Kyoto in the summer. Specifically, its second largest city of Matsumoto is easily one of the best places to visit for the glorious mountain views.
In this article, let’s learn some of the mountain destinations you can visit from Matsumoto to explore the awe-inspiring beauty of the Japanese Alps.
- Kamikochi 上高地
Kamikochi is a highland valley in the Hida Mountains range, famed for its spectacular scenery and alpine landscapes. Located in the Azusa River Valley, the plateau is about 15 kilometres long, at about 1,500 metres above sea level.
Taisho Pond and Tashiro Pond are the top scenic spots of the area, together with the impossible-to-miss Azusa River and Kappabashi suspension bridge. Notably, Kappabashi is very popular as a photo spot, the view of the bridge with Mt. Hotaka as the backdrop has become a signature image of Kamikochi. Besides marshlands and alpine flora, seasonal flowers such as Japanese azaleas and cotton grass can also be seen during the summer months.
There is nothing more enjoyable by taking a leisurely walk in such a beautiful natural place, or if you are a serious hiker, Kamikochi is known for having some of the most difficult climbs in Japan. Note that Kamikochi is closed during the winter months (from 15 November to late April).
How to go
Most people enter Kamikochi via public transportation because private cars are banned from Kamikochi, and access is only possible by bus, taxi or bicycle.
Take the Alpico Kamikochi Line from Matsumoto Station 松本駅 to Shin-Shimashima Station 新島々駅, then transfer at Shin-Shimashima Station to a bus bound for Kamikochi.
Bus schedule and fare information: http://www.alpico.co.jp/en/transportation/detail.php?id=20
- Norikura Kogen 乗鞍高原
Norikura Kogen or Norikura Highlands is another plateau in the Hida Mountains, located on the eastern slope of Mt. Norikura. The area is a popular winter destination completed with ski resorts and hot spring towns. It is one of the few places in the country where skiing is still possible even in the summer.
Image: jun.skywalker on flickr / CC BY 2.0
The highland is no less interesting in other seasons. Apart from hiking, it also has a number of attractions worth checking out. One of the highlights of Mt. Norikura is the massive snow walls which can be seen from late spring until early summer. Walking between these towering walls is really quite an experience itself, not to mention the amazing mountain views and a lot of snow even in June!
The summer months of July and August are great for exploring Norikura’s rich nature, from Ichinose Meadow to Ushidome Pond to Tatamidaira Plateau, the lush greenery and blooming alpine flowers at these places are truly sights to behold. Another must see in the area are waterfalls; among the popular ones are Sanbontaki, Zengoro, and Bandokoro Falls, known as the Three Waterfalls of Norikura.
How to go:
Take the Alpico Kamikochi Line from Matsumoto Station to Shin-Shimashima Station, then transfer at Shin-Shimashima Station to a Norikura-bound bus, alight at the Norikura Tourist Information Centre terminal.
Bus schedule and fare information: https://www.alpico.co.jp/tourists/en/kamikochi/route04/
Up in the highland, Alpico operates bus services from the tourist information centre to Tatamidaira near the summit of Mt. Norikura. Note that private cars are not allowed in the road to the summit so bus or taxi is the only transport option to the top of the mountain.
The bus, named “Haruyama Bus” from late April to late June, is the means to see the snow walls of Norikura from late spring to early summer. From July through October, the bus is renamed “Summit Shuttle (Tatamidaira)”. Fares for these buses are 1,450 yen one way, 2,500 yen return.
More info: https://norikura.gr.jp/product/haruyama-bus/
- Utsukushigahara 美ヶ原
Utsukushigahara or literally means “beautiful plateau” is a gently sloping mountain located on the eastern edge of Matsumoto City. The top of the mountain is relatively flat, with Ougatou (2,034 metres) being the highest peak of the mountain.
At 2,000 metres above sea level, the scenery in Utsukushigahara is very much different from Kamikochi and Norikura Kogen. Come on a clear summer day you will be rewarded with Utsukushigahara’s signature view – highland pasture with grazing cows, and 360 degree panoramic view of the Northern Alps, Southern Alps as well as Mt. Fuji. Around the centre not far from the meadow, there is also a bell tower “Utsukushi-no-tou” once used to guide those lost in the fog but has now become the area’s symbol.
Sea of clouds in the early morning
Wildflowers such as azaleas, roses, and alpine flowers which bloom at different times from May to September are also Utsukushigahara’s attraction. Located 1.5 kilometres away from the bell tower is the Utsukushigahara Open Air Museum, where you can find about 350 interesting sculptures being put on display under the sky, as well as indoor art exhibitions.
How to go
Driving is the best way to reach Utsukushigahara, which is about 75 minutes by car from Matsumoto IC.
Utsukushigahara Open Air Museum
Hours: 9 AM to 5 PM
Closing period: November to late April
Admission: 1000 yen
Speaking about Nagano, the first things that come into many people’s minds are perhaps Matsumoto Castle, Snow Monkey Park, and ski resorts with lots of high quality powder. Even so, summer can also be a great time to visit Nagano too, which in this case Matsumoto given the amazing mountain destinations.
If you are thinking about visiting Japan in the summer, why not consider a trip to Matsumoto and check out some of the attractions above? With the natural scenery and relatively cooler climate, I believe you will have an enjoyable vacation here!