This is a detailed post of my 2 weeks long solo backpacking trip to Japan. Please see a preview and itinerary/index of my complete trip on this post.
Day 14 – Alpine Route
A long day starts
I once saw pictures of huge snow walls and buses plying on the route on Facebook. Those pictures actually kindled the fire in me, to visit Japan Alps. Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is a naturally scenic route through Northern Japan Alps. What makes this route unique is various means of transport one has to take to cross over. Visitors have to take a bus, train, ropeways, cable car and a trolley bus to complete the route. Visitors can buy one single ticket to cover all modes of transport or individual tickets. To preserve natural habitat, the route is closed for private vehicles. This area gets heavy snowfall in winters and is out of bound from December to April. Alpine route is popular among local and foreign tourist alike. Few places are also popular for skiing. This year, 2016, the route was scheduled to open today, on 16th April.
On some days, I do not need an alarm to wake on time. This is one of those days. I woke up on my own a few minutes before 2:30 AM. I did not have anything to pack as I had packed everything last night before sleeping. I made myself a black coffee. The hotel had a free coffee machine in the cafeteria. I left my room before 3 AM. It was pretty cold but I was prepared for the worst as I had planned to go to higher altitude. As my hotel was just across the road I reached ticket window in no time. I did not expect this but I was the first person to reach there. Ticket window was scheduled to open at 5AM, so I had two hours to kill.
Now you may think why I wanted to be the first one to get the ticket?? Authorities have limited the number of tickets to be sold for Alpine route. The limitation is due to a slow cable car which can do only a limited number of round trips per day. So even if I get a ticket, I may be spending considerable time waiting in queues for each mode of transport. I wanted to begin early so I get ample time to shoot at all places, without having to worry about time and long queues.
In about 15 minutes I was joined by three guys from Ukraine. And then more people started coming. By 5 Am, we had a queue of at least 100 people. Ticket counter opened exactly at 5AM and I was the first one to get the first ticket for the day. A ticket that covers entire route and all modes of transport set me back by 9490Y. Once I got my ticket, I handed my baggage to a baggage transfer service. They charged another 1300Y for the service. But in hindsight, it was a great decision. I was only carrying a small backpack with my camera and snacks. Little to carry and little to worry. My plan was to start my journey from Toyama and end in Shinano Omachi. My baggage will be delivered back to me in Ogizawa.
Reaching new Heights
Here is a map of entire route and modes of transport in each of them. The entire route can be traversed in either direction or partial routes can also be done.
Toyama Chiho Railway
The first train from Toyama left at 5:30 AM
It a train ride through rural Toyama prefecture. The train is heated and quite comfortable. I could see many visitors carry big skiing boards in the train. The train journey takes around one hour and drops at Tateyama station. Tateyama station is the important mainly because visitors can buy woolen items like jackets, gloves, caps from here. I bought woolen gloves from here. No doubt it was already cold and my journey has just begun.
The Tateyama Cablecar ascends from Tateyama Station to Bijodaira Station lifting visitors by 500m in only seven minutes.
An air-conditioned bus takes visitors from Bijodaira to Murodo. Murodo is the highest point accessible by road on Alpine route. Standing at 2450 meters above sea level, Murodo is completely inaccessible in winter due to the heavy snowfall. Murodo is also the site of Snow corridors. The entire bus journey takes 50 minutes. There are a few ski resorts on this route. As bus reaches near Murodo, vast snow fields open up. I was getting restless sitting in the heated bus. Finally, I rang the bell to stop the bus at Tengudaira.
This bus service is like hop-on-hop-off. Visitors can get down at any bus stop (Ski resorts) and boards next bus. But it is necessary to inform the resort’s front desk to book a seat in the following bus. I spent some time roaming around and clicking snowy peaks.
Tateyama Snow Corridor
Tateyama snow corridor is an approximately one kilometer long. Both sides of the corridor have huge walls of snow. Up to 20 meters high when opened each season. This year snow wall height was around 13 meters due to low snowfall.
Snow corridors open in April month. I was visiting the corridor on the opening day itself and there was an opening ceremony. State officials were invited to inaugurate the corridors before it was opened for public. I reached well before the ceremony started. Snow corridors are open to public until June. During this time, a small section of road is dedicated to pedestrians and visitors can walk along the snow walls. Since this was the inauguration day, many TV channels reporters were interviewing visitors.
Murodo offers fantastic views of the Tateyama Mountain Range. It has a few shops, restaurants, and a nice viewing point. The Murodo Station complex includes Hotel Tateyama, Japan’s highest located hotel. Murodo is also a junction where most people skiing starts. I was prepared for the cold but I could see a few people wearing shorts and sandals. Weather near Murodo was cold and windy though it was sunny. Walking on snow made my sneakers wet and I had to spend some time drying them. In summers and Autumns, there are various hikes starting from Murodo. Snow corridors are just next to Murodo and can be easily walked.
Tateyama Trolley Bus
Electric powered buses take visitors through the tunnel between Murodo and Daikanbo. The one-way journey takes 10 minutes.
This is the transfer station between the Tateyama Trolley Bus and the Tateyama Ropeway. An observation deck above this station offers a splendid view of the snow laden mountains.
Tateyama ropeway is 1.7 kilometers long and operates without any support towers between the lower and upper stations, making it Japan’s longest one-span ropeway. The one-way trip takes around seven minutes. Due to low capacity and a limited number of round trips this ropeway can do, it is a bottleneck for traffic on the entire route. This is why a limited number of people are allowed to traverse through alpine route on any given day.
This is the transfer station between the Tateyama Ropeway and Kurobe Cablecar. The station has a restaurant, souvenir shop and beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.
This cablecar runs entirely inside a tunnel. The one-way journey between Kurobedaira and Kurobeko Station takes five minutes.
Kurobe Dam, with a height of 186 meters, is Japan’s tallest dam. From late June to mid-October, up to 15 tons of water per second are spectacularly discharged through the dam. Sightseeing cruises are operated on the lake from June to early November. Unfortunately, I can not have the amazing view of water falling from the dam as most of the water is still frozen.
Kanden Trolley Bus
Electric powered buses take visitors through another tunnel between Kurobe Dam and Ogizawa. The one-way journey takes 15 minutes.
Somehow this bus journey was not included in my ticket and I had to shell out another 1360Y. This is a regular bus which connects Ogizawa with JR Shinano-Omachi Station. The one-way trip takes 40 minutes.
I finally reached Japan Railway station Shinano Omachi around 4:30PM and next train to Matsumoto was after one hour. This train will be my seventh mode of transport in one day alone.
I met a couple from HongKong at Station while waiting and we discussed our journeys. The guys had been to Japan 4-5 times now. Perks of staying near to Japan have their own advantages.
Humbleness of Japanese people again floored me
My plan for the night was to stay in Matsumoto. Matsumoto is a small town, but still quite developed. My stay for the night was in Candela Guest House.
After a tiring day, I was looking for some Indian bread. A quick search on Facebook somehow pointed me out to Doon Shokudo Indoyama restaurant. I was trying to find the location using iPhone maps. Unfortunately, it took me to the wrong restaurant. Front desk guy did not know any English so I was not able to ask any help from him. A local family asked me about my issue. Although they did not speak much English but they could understand that I was looking for one particular restaurant. I showed them the exact address of Indian restaurant. One of the Japanese lady, who was still having dinner here, took me to the restaurant I was looking for. The Indian restaurant was a good 15 minutes walk from this place. I could not thank her enough for a kind gesture.
Doon Shokudo restaurant is quite small that it can host only 6-8 people on 2 tables at once. But I totally loved the concept of a homely kitchen. Ashish (person in yellow Tshirt), the owner of this restaurant, is from Indian city, Dehradoon. I met a few of his folks and his wife and had an amazing time talking about local culture and life in a small city (Matsumoto). Though I was very tired, I spent more than 2 hours chatting with Ashish and his folks.
I came back to my hostel around 10PM and crashed. A wonderful day just came to an end. Time to get into my warm bed and prepare for the return to Tokyo tomorrow morning.