At the crack of dawn, we were woken by the all-too-familiar buzz of our alarms. Having packed up our belongings the previous night, we crept out of the dorm and made our way to Matsumoto Station to catch the 06:27 train to Shinano Omachi (¥670; £5.26). A little over an hour later, we hopped off the train and made a beeline for “Alps Roman Kan”, a small shop adjacent to the station which ships bags to the other end of the route for a nominal fee. After filling out some paperwork and labelling our bags, we sped off to catch the 08:00 bus to Ogizawa.
Forty minutes later, we arrived at Ogizawa and purchased our tickets for the Alpine Route. At ¥9490 (£74.50) for a one-way adult ticket, they’re by no means cheap – but since it was both a day out and a means for us to get to our next destination, we didn’t feel too bad about it. A sixteen-minute ride through Mt. Akazawa-dake on the Kanden Tunnel Trolley Bus took us to Kurobe Dam.
Constructed between 1956 and 1963, with construction costs estimated at a whopping ¥51.3 billion (that’s around £403 million), Kurobe Dam was a miraculous feat of engineering for post-WW2 Japan; to this day, it remains Japan’s tallest dam (186m). Construction costs and accolades aside, Kurobe Dam is a spectacular sight. Nestled between densely-forested mountains and akin to a turquoise lagoon, Kurobe Dam spurts out 10 to 15 tonnes of water every second. Multi-levelled viewing platforms offer photo opportunities galore, and we ended up spending rather a long time gawping in awe at this colossal dam. On a more reflective note, carved into the rock is a monument to the 171 men who died during the dam’s construction.
After a brisk ride on the Kurobe Cable Car (which resembles a San Francisco cable car) we arrived at Kurobedaira. Time was marching on, so we didn’t stay there long; after soaking up the panoramic views from the rooftop terrace it was onwards and upwards (in the most literal sense) to Daikanbo, via the Tateyama Ropeway (which is what us Brits would call a “cable car”).
With our hearts set on a nice hike at Murodo, after taking a few pictures we promptly caught the Tateyama Tunnel Trolley Bus through Mt Tateyama to Murodo. At 2450m, this is the highest point of the route; arriving just after midday meant we had sufficient time to explore the hiking trails in the area. After a bite to eat (i.e. more of those oh-so-(un)healthy crisp sandwiches) we set off on the so-called green route. It was overcast and fairly chilly, so we were rather glad of our sweatshirts up there!
Approaching Mikuriga-ike, the clouds began to clear revealing the peaks of the Tateyama Mountain Range.
Since we had plenty of time, we decided to reroute ourselves onto the pink route towards Jigokudani. Literally translated as “Hell’s Valley”, this valley is characterised by the pungent odour of sulphur. As we got closer, the smell became more intense; fortunately, dampened flannels were able to block out most of the rotten egg-esque stench.
Sulphuric aromas aside, it was a fascinating landscape; a barren, cratered ribbon carved its way through the otherwise vegetation-covered massif. Puffs of yellow, volcanic gas blended almost seamlessly with the low cloud; to me, it resembled the surface of the moon.
Coughing away – even with our DIY gas masks – we made our way back the way we had come, passing Chinoike (Blood Pond) again on our way back. These blood-red pools are the result of high levels of iron oxide in the water.
The steep incline, altitude and recurrent sulphuric fumes made it a tough ascent – but every step was a step away from the stench, so that helped on the motivation front!
Re-joining the green route, we looped past another pond before catching the Tateyama Highland Bus down to Bijodaira. The road was a series of hairpin bends and as such left both of us feeling rather travelsick; transferring to the Tateyama Cable Car and scoring a front-row spot for the penultimate leg of the Alpine Route soon perked us up. Once at Tateyama Station we had a short wait before transferring to the Toyama Chiho Railroad to reach Toyama.
Picking up our rucksacks in Toyama was a piece of cake; a member of staff led us over to the netted pile of rucksacks at the edge of the platform and we retrieved them easily. After some language-barrier related confusion, we succeeded in buying tickets for the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kanazawa – our base for the next couple of days. It’s safe to say that one ride on the 263km/hr train (according to Snapchat) was enough to convince us that Britain needs to adopt these high-tech trains. It didn’t take us long to find the Daiwa Roynet Hotel, deposit our belongings and head out in search of food. A platter of Japanese barbequed food and sashimi at Ginro did the trick, and after two busy days it wasn’t long before we felt the need to crash.
- If you’re travelling with large backpacks, make use of the bag forwarding service – it was 100% worth the ¥1300 (£10.21) fee per bag. For further information, see this page.
- An early start is essential if you want to take advantage of all the photo opportunities, hikes and vistas on offer; plan ahead and aim to be on the first shuttle bus of the day. If you plan on hiking some of the small trails at Murodo, allow two to three hours for this.
- If you intend to walk down towards Jigokudani, make sure you’re armed with a flannel (or a spare t-shirt!) and some water; soak the flannel with water and hold it to your face to avoid breathing in too much sulphur. Note: although there is a path which wends its way down the hillside to Jigokudani, this is closed to the public as a result of accidents caused by eruptions of volcanic gas.
- Kanazawa has an almost non-existent hostel scene, so knowing we’d be arriving late in the evening we opted for a budget hotel near the station; Daiwa Roynet Hotel, £177 for 3 nights in a double room (£88.50/pp.) The Japanese excel at customer service, so to us this felt like a deluxe hotel!