Some of the best travel adventures are ones you are hesitant about, when you are full of doubts that your plans might not work out.
Snow walls in a Japanese spring fell into that category for me. To achieve it, I’d have to get off the usual western tourist track, and venture on public transport. I don’t speak Japanese – an added problem – and internet searches weren’t providing me with enough good information to give me confidence in my itinerary.
Apparently the best snow walls are in the main island’s Northern alps on the the Tateyama-Kurobe route. They can get up to 20 meters in height, with big tourist buses morphing into dinky toys next to them! They draw big crowds -not usually an attraction for me!
I had three other people following my lead on this particular trip, so I decided to leave Tateyama-Kurobe to another time as the logistical problems of doing a day trip there seemed fraught with difficulties and unknowns.
All was not lost as I heard that smaller snow walls up to 17 metres high could be seen in the Norikura Highlands, also part of the Northern Alps – but further inland on the flanks of the Hida Mountains. And, according to the internet, we could access them by public transport from Matsumoto. So I went for this option. The added risk was our timing. we would be there mid May – would the snow walls have melted?
I researched the trip as much as I could online, but information in English was scant and confusing. I emailed the Alpico Group, Nagano’s leading bus operator that provides intercity and sightseeing bus routes. I’d given up on a reply when suddenly one appeared in my email box. Perhaps their office had been closed when I first tried to contact them?
The email advised that in the one day we could go to both Mount Norikuradake and the very popular tourist mountain town of Kamikochi in the Chubu-Sangaku National Park, popular with trekkers. I queried this in a reply email, but they insisted we could achieve it.
They even suggested a timetable, but reviewing it, I trusted my instinct that we would be pushing our luck attempting to visit both destinations. The travel timing seemed a tight and tricky with a number of bus changes involved, none of us had ever visited the area before, and our lack of the Japanese language could hinder us. I pictured us stuck out in the wilderness – four senior Aussies – missing a bus and trying to get a lift back to Matsumoto as night closed in on us!
I also wondered if something already had been lost in translation when the Alpico emailer suggested a two day pass for our one day trip. So I put the proposed destinations to the vote of our little group – we could go to either the Mount Norikura snow walls or Kamikochi – but not both. Luckily for me, the snow walls came up trumps. I would have been disappointed to have missed them.
When we reached Matsumoto, I found that a two day pass, at around $A77 each, also covered the city’s ‘sneaker’ sightseeing bus, and discounts to various museums, an historical village and the famous Matsumoto castle. So good value after-all! You could pay for the public transport as you go, and it might work out cheaper. But having a ticket to cover the various stages of the journey – a train and two buses there – seemed a good idea for travellers who couldn’t speak Japanese and with a very sketchy idea of where we were going.
Mount Norikura is the third highest peak in the Northern Japanese Alps, and at 3026 metres it offered the possibility of wonderful views of the surrounding peaks and countryside. Buses start running late April to the snow walls.
We caught a local train from Matsumoto on the Matsumoto Dentetsu Line to Shin-Shimashima station which is the last rail stop and where we would transfer to a bus.
I was advised by Alpico to leave Matsumoto by train around 10am, but I made the mistake of ignoring this advice and getting on the train to Shin-Shimashima an hour earlier – reasoning that we could probably catch an earlier bus up the mountains and spend more time at the snow walls. Wrong.
We ended up having an hour to spare before our bus arrived. Lots of other buses came and went – packed with people and all bound for Kamikochi. None for the Norikura Kogen Highlands. Nor were there any other people waiting to go to our destination. Why not? My anxiety began to peak again!
After confirming that our bus was still a long way off, we had a wander while we waited – it was a quiet little town and easy to explore. We bought some icecreams, and spotted a stuffed bear at a local shop. Bears are a growing problem in wilderness areas of Japan and trekkers are advised to carry a small bell that, for some reason, helps to ensure your safety. Well, truth is, while this one looked ferocious – he was in a sorry state and losing his stuffing! But he was the only bear I saw in Japan, and I didn’t need to ring a bell to frighten him off!
Finally our bus arrived – and it was a big one – a little too big for just five people – us and the driver! I was really doubting my travel instincts by this time. Would he pick up people en route? Well – no. Just us in a big Highland Express bus and no sight of snow as we moved through scenic valleys and higher into the mountains.
As ‘leader of the pack’ I was getting a little worried. I’d promised my hubby and friends snow walls. What if I dragged them up a treacherous narrow winding road high into the mountains and failed to deliver? The bus, by the way, seemed to grow larger as the mountain roads became narrower. I could hear my sister in law behind me muttering about the scary steep drops on her side. I was going to be in big trouble for a long time if snow walls did not appear soon!
Eventually we arrived at a snow resort to switch buses, and our driver indicated to us to hurry. Amazing what can be achieved with sign language. We had no time to check out the resort as we had minutes to spare before the second bus left! Again, an almost empty bus. Us, one other passenger who seemed to be aboard for only a short distance, and a chap with an emergency kit who scouted the road ahead for the driver. He watched carefully at each sharp narrow mountain road turn – and was equipped with items such as a shovel. Was he expecting an avalanche? Would we all have to get out and dig snow from the road? Not so far fetched. It happened to me in Europe once!
Our nervousness increased as we continued to go higher – mine, in particular, as I still could see no snow and I was still perplexed as to why more people weren’t heading to Mount Norikura. A feeling of dread strengthened as I became certain I’d made a big mistake! Perhaps we should have headed to Kamikochi with all the other tourists?
Then suddenly my despair turned to joy. There it was – snow! And it became deeper as we climbed higher.
Finally, after a long ascent, we arrived at our destination, with snow walls climbing up both sides of the road ahead of us. Nowhere near as high as the snow walls on the Tateyama-Kurobe route – but no crowds either!
It was a brilliantly blue sky day, and warm. The scenery was magnificent. I’m sure skiers are familiar with the beautiful Japanese snow clad mountains, but this isn’t what you usually see on brochures for the every day tourist in Japan. It should be. I even felt a bit sorry for all those people who had gone to Kamikochi. I’m sure they had a good day, but they missed out on the special treat that is Mount Norikura.
It was the end of the ski season. Ski tows were no longer operating. The snow on the upper slopes of the mountain looked a little thin. But a handful of diehard skiers were still there, climbing the mountain to achieve a good ski run.
A couple of ‘senior’ skiers who spoke English told me it took them two hours to climb up, and one hour to ski down. Of course, it didn’t really take an hour to ski down – they said they continually stopped along the way to savour their final ski of the season.
As for us, we wandered up and down the road, taking in the scenery. We wrote Mothers Day messages on the snow walls with our fingers – it was Mother’s Day back in Australia. A Mother’s Day I won’t ever forget.
A small handful of other sightseers were there, arriving in their own cars. Maybe they managed to get to the two destinations in the one day? A snow plough sat silently as it had done its work.
There was a little wooden cabin shop still open selling hot drinks, food, and a few trinkets. I was so enthralled by the snow walls and the magnificent views, that I forgot to go into the shop until the last minutes of our visit. Now that’s saying something for shopaholic me! Our time there was glorious. It was peaceful. It was pure bliss.
Finally it was time to go. We felt reluctant to board the bus – always a good sign that you’ve enjoyed yourself. This time the bus was full. In fact, there were three buses waiting to clear the mountain – the last of the day – and Sunday skiers piled on board. One young bloke just made it, climbing up into the bus still with his goggles on and skis in hand.
I’m not sure if ours wasn’t the very last bus of the season for those who wanted to see the snow. It was melting fast, and soon other visitors would arrive to see the emerging spring flowers on the mountainside – something I’d like to do on a return trip.
I highly recommend this trip to Mount Norikura. The journey didn’t turn out to be as complicated as I expected. And my fellow travellers rated it one of the best days of our whole Japan trip.
Could we have also fitted in Kamikochi on the same day? Seriously, I don’t think so, unless we had our own car. And then – driving on that mountain road ourselves? No – definitely happy to leave that to the professional bus driver. As for Kamikochi – it’s in the bucket list for my next Japan trip.
Finally – I liked the message on the mountain about garbage (trash) .. or as we in Aussie call it – rubbish. Carry your own out with you. That can well apply here in Australia. Too often people leave their rubbish behind on roadsides. If you can’t find a bin, take it with you!