The Japanese Alps
Take this route up into the Japanese Alps, the roof of Japan, for ten plus days spent hiking, skiing and soaking in some of the most scenic locations in Japan - with a couple of more offbeat destinations, such as a ninja theme park and a wasabi farm, thrown in for good measure.
Arriving in Tokyo, you’ll need some time to shake off the jet leg and prepare yourself for an evening of neon lights, karaoke booths and alleyway bars filled with Japanese lanterns, merriment and plenty of sake.
A great first stop for those needing a tranquil retreat lies in Yoyogi Park – where you’ll find the Meiji Shrine awaiting you deep within a tranquil forest. Whilst there, you can get up close with Japan’s indigenous religion, Shintoism, and learn the correct method of paying respect to the Shinto deities (hint: it’s a series of bows and claps!)
From Meiji Shrine, head onwards to Takeshita-doori – one of Japan’s maddest shopping streets, which is great for tweens and teens keen on fashion bargains and Japanese idols. Once you’re through the crowds, you’ll be able to wander the pleasant back streets behind Aoyama-doori, where an assortment of stylish cafes, boutique shops and treasures awaiting you.
It’s possible to walk from here all the way to the magnificent Shibuya crossing – reputedly the world’s busiest – where you’ll bump into the towering Shibuya 109 department store. If you’re still looking for some serenity in your wobbly state, however, you could hop on the tube and head to upmarket Daikanyama instead, where an oasis of Japanese design awaits at the T-site; filled with books, much needed coffee and calm.
In the evening, if you’re up to it, seize the opportunity to appreciate just how large Japan’s capital really is by seeing it from above. Two great options for this are the Peak Bar or the New York Bar – made famous by the film ‘Lost in Translation’. With the lights twinkling below, a cocktail in hand and an abundance of friendly Japanese waiters and waitresses pottering around you, you’ll know that you’ve definitely arrived in Tokyo.
You will need to travel from Haneda or Narita Airport to central Tokyo. From Narita, take the Narita Express train or limousine bus. From Haneda, you can take the monorail to Shinagawa station, which connects many underground and JR lines, in 12 minutes. You can use a SUICA or PASMO card for this journey.
Matsumoto is easily accessed from Tokyo by direct train or bus. For JR Pass holders, take the Chuo Line Limited Express Super Azusa from Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station direct to Matsumoto Station (around 2.5 hours, 7,100 Yen). Alternatively, highway busses take around 3.5 hours and cost around 3,500 Yen.
Once you’ve dropped your baggage off at your hotel, you can start exploring. Top of the agenda has got to be Matsumoto Castle, one of Japan’s most beautiful original castles, with its characteristic and unusual black wainscotting whose brooding, sombre hues have earned it the nickname of the “Crow Castle” (Karasu-jo).
From the castle, it’s 5-10 minutes on foot to Nakamachi, a former merchant district, whose main street is lined by nicely preserved buildings including several “kura”, traditional warehouses with a distinctive lattice pattern on their whitewashed walls. A further 5-10 minute walk brings you to Matsumoto Art Museum, a contemporary art museum with works by Yayoi Kusama among its collection.
Hiking in Kamikochi or Kiso Valley
Matsumoto makes an ideal jumping-off point for hiking in two beautiful and unique areas of Japan. Walk part of the the former Nakasendo Highway, a preserved section of the busy ancient highway route that connected Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo Period, in the Kiso Valley. Or, go hiking in Kamikochi, a popular alpine resort in a car-free national park offering some of Japan’s most spectacular mountain scenery.
For the Kiso Valley, take the JR Shinano express from Matsumoto Station to Nakatsugawa Station, from where it is a 30-minute bus ride into Magome (hourly departures; not covered by the JR Pass). Follow the carefully preserved, plant-lined broad stone walkway north through the town past an old watermill and some museums, to access the hiking trail to neighbouring Tsumago. The 8km-long Magome-Tsumago Hiking Trail is well-maintained and signposted in English. It and takes around 2-3 hours to traverse at a leisurely walking pace.
Make sure to leave some time to explore Tsumago, one of Japan’s best preserved post towns. Motor vehicles are banned and power cables are buried underground in order to create an old-fashioned atmosphere and allow visitors to truly believe they have slipped back in time. The town also preserved its Honjin, the main inn for government officials, and the Wakihonjin, for travellers of lower status, which can both be visited as museums.
For Kamikochi, take the Matsumoto Electric railway 30 minutes direct to Shin-Shimashima Station from where it is a 60 minute direct bus ride to Kamikochi (the JR Pass is not valid on this train or bus). Alight at Kamikochi Bus Terminal, from where it is a short walk to the photogenic Kappabashi bridge.
From here, enjoy a few hours’ hiking on mostly flat terrain through Kamikochi’s 15 km long plateau ringed by lofty mountains - you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve been transported to Switzerland! (Kamikochi is only open from mid April until November 15, so time your visit for this period to avoid disappointment.)
The simplest and easiest route is a loop around all or part of the plateau, to Myoji Bridge in the north and Taisho Pond in the south. There are plenty of interesting sights to see along the way, including bridges, ponds, shrines, hotels, marshes and monuments - in addition to all that resplendent nature.
Matsumoto / Nagano
Take a side-trip from Matsumoto to a type of attraction you’re sure never to have visited before - a wasabi farm! The novelty of the experience is sure to make the effort of getting out to Daio Wasabi Farm on the outskirts of Matsumoto worthwhile.
Take the JR Oito Line to Hotaka Station (30 minutes, 1-2 trains per hour). On weekends and holidays from April-October, a loop bus for tourists runs between the station and the farm (10 minutes, 800 Yen for a 1-day pass). At other times, take a 10-minute taxi ride (around 1,300 Yen one way) or rent a bicycle from near the station for the 15-20 minute ride over to the farm.
Wasabi cultivation is only possible with a plentiful supply of pristine water, and the runoff from the snowmelt of the Japan Alps provides just that. One of Japan’s largest wasabi farms, it has multiple large fields criss-crossed by a carefully maintained network of small streams that constantly provide pure, clear water to the plants.
Take a stroll along the idyllic walking trails between the fields, small streams and rivers with old-fashioned wooden waterwheels (or even take a short tour by inflatable boat in the summer). The walking will also help you work up an appetite to try some of the farm’s many wasabi-inspired delicacies, from wasabi-flavoured noodles, curry and sausages to beer, ice cream and chocolate!
Nagano / Skiing at Hakuba
Time to pack up your bags and decamp to the next spot on your alpine adventure: former Olympic venue and winter powder paradise, Nagano. It’s around 1 hour by either the JR Shinano or JR Shinanoi Line direct to Nagano Station.
After dropping off your bags, visit Zenkoji Temple, one of Japan’s most popular temples. It’s a 30-minute walk through town. Nagano hosted the winter Olympic games in 1998, so on the way you’ll see futuristic-looking former Olympic facilities with funky names such as M-Wave, Big Hat and White Ring, which still dot the town. Alternatively, take a bus for 10 minutes or the Nagano Line (Nagano Dentetsu; not covered by the JR Pass) three stops to Zenkoji-shita Station, from where it is a 5-10 minute walk uphill to the temple complex.
Then spend the afternoon exploring Nagano’s other main attraction, the Togakushi area, home to a trio of popular shrines and handful of ninja-related facilities nestled in the forested mountains northwest of the town. The best way to access the area is by bus using the Togakushi Kogen Free Kippu ticket, which costs 2600 Yen and covers a roundtrip between central Nagano and the Togakushi area, buses within the Togakushi area, and a bus ride between Nagano station and Zenkoji Temple.
Togakushi’s trio of shrines are connected by both roads and hiking trails: it is 2km from the lower to the middle shrine, and another 2km from there to the upper shrine. Located a short distance from the middle shrine, the Kids Ninja Village, a small ninja theme park, makes the ideal stop-off midway. Kids will love undergoing “ninja training”, challenging themselves on the blow-darts, star-throwing and obstacle courses!
Of more interest to adult visitors, near the upper shrine is the Togakushi Ninpo Museum, telling the story of the local Togakure school of ninja. Aside from displays of ninja tools, weapons and photographs of ninja in action, the museum also features a ninja labyrinth house and a throwing star range for you to test your skills.
If you visit during winter, it is the perfect opportunity to add in a side trip to Hakuba, one of Japan’s most popular ski areas with over 10 major resorts, from either Nagano or Matsumoto. Try Happoone, the largest and most famous resort in hakuba, which hosted several alpine and Nordic ski events 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.
From Nagano Station, take a direct express bus from to Hakuba Station (1 hour 15 minutes, 1800-2000 Yen, not covered by the JR Pass). From Matsumoto, take the limited express train on JR Oito Line for 1.5-2 hours to Hakuba Station.
The next two locations can either be done as overnight stays or as daytrips from Nagano. First is Obuse, a pleasant town famous for chestnuts and Hokusai. It’s a 40-minute direct train ride from Nagano Station to Obuse Station (Nagano Dentetsu, Nagano Line; not covered by the JR Pass).
From the station, walk through the narrow streets of the Old Town, with its attractive, traditional buildings housing art museums, shops and restaurants, and Chestnut Alley to reach the Hokusai Museum (10-15 minutes). Katsushika Hokusai (1603-1867), one of Japan’s greatest printmakers, spent the latter years of his life here.
Obuse is also the place to fulfil all your chestnut-related shopping needs. Reportedly cultivated in Obuse for over 500 years, the local shops stocks a range of related products such as chestnut rice, chestnut jelly, chestnut cream and chestnut ice cream!
Obuse also runs a unique My Garden project, where local residents open up their own private gardens to visitors. Gardens participating in the program are recognizable by the “My Garden” sign hanging at the entrance, inviting visitors in.
Finally, if you have time, make the 25-minute walk out to Ganshoin Temple on the edge of town, to see the impressively detailed large mural of a scarlet phoenix painted on the temple hall’s ceiling, one of Hokusai’s last large artworks before he died.
Yudanaka Onsen (Onsen Monkeys) / Skiing at Shiga Kogen
Finally, the day you’ve been waiting for - time for your long-awaited encounter with those hot spring monkeys you’ve been hearing all about at Jigokudani Monkey Park!
From Nagano it’s a 1 hour journey by train (Nagano Dentetsu Line; not covered by JR Pass) to Yudanaka Station. Then hop on a local bus to Kanbayashi Onsen bus stop (10-15 minutes, 310 yen, 1-2 buses per hour), from where it’s a 30-40 minute walk up to the Monkey Park - bring sturdy footwear, especially in winter.
The wild monkeys (Japanese Macaques, in fact) can be seen bathing all year round, but look especially photogenic when the surroundings are covered in snow. The area is snowbound for most of December-March, but time your visit for January or February for the best shots.
If you get jealous of the monkeys (or just need to warm up) then Yudanaka Onsen and Shibu Onsen - in between Yudanaka train station and the Monkey Park - offer equivalent bathing facilities for humans.
Or, if skiing is your thing, then now is the time to add in a side-trip to Shiga Kogen, the largest ski area in Japan. Made up of 19 resorts, some of which hosted the slalom events in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, it has enough long runs and varied terrain to keep the average ski-ier entertained for at least a couple of days.
From Yudanaka Station, take a direct bus to Hasuike (30 minutes, 840 Yen, not covered by the JR Pass). From Nagano Station, express buses to Hasuike (70 minutes, 1700 Yen, not covered by the JR Pass) and other stops in the resort depart once per hour during ski season.
Pack up your bags and head to the furthest destination on your route: Nozawa Onsen. A sleepy, nostalgic town nestled in the mountains, it is known for two things: skiing and onsen.
From Nagano, take the Hokuriku shinkansen to Iiyama and change to the JR Iiyama Line. Closest stations are Togari Nozawa Onsen or Kamisakai Stations (around 45 minutes from Nagano), from where it’s a 10 minute taxi ride into town - many hotels will offer pickup for staying guests.
Nozawa is one of the best places in Japan to combine a traditional onsen town experience with great quality skiing. It has 13 traditional communal onsen baths (known as soto-yu) dating from the Edo period which are carefully maintained by the local community even today. The mineral-rich baths are free to enter but donations are gratefully received; central Oyu (literally meaning, “hot water”!) is the most famous, and a symbol of the town.
Opened in 1924, Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort is one of the oldest in Japan, but has all the mod-cons you need for great skiing. It has runs suitable for every skill level, and is especially “foreign-friendly” due to its history as an Olympic venue - it hosted the biathlon events in the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Stay for as many days as you need to get your fill of bubbles or powder.
Karuizawa / Tokyo
Pick up the shinkansen from Iiyama Station to head back to Tokyo for your flights home. From Iiyama, it’s just under 2 hours back to Tokyo Station. If you want to break up the journey on the way, elegant upmarket mountain resort Karuizawa, on the shinkansen route, or traditional hot spring resort Bessho Onsen (take the Ueda Railway 30 minutes from Ueda Station to Bessho Onsen Station, the terminus) are the best places to do it.
Add on extra days before or after to explore Tokyo, or extend your stay at one of Nagano’s fabulous ski resorts such as Hakuba or Shiga Kogen, or hiking destinations such as Kamikochi or the Kiso Valley, to make your trip up to the desired length.