In the middle of summer, when the concrete jungles are stifling and humid and you are barely managing to get through each day, you can either spend your weekends inside with air-conditioning… or you can leave the city and head UP!
One of my favourite summer getaways to date has been to the remote Hida mountains of Nagano prefecture. Tucked away in a valley near Mt Hotaka is an area called Kamikochi. Although at the base of a mountain range, it’s still 1,500 metres above sea level! The surrounding peaks are all around 3,000 metres high. The area is part of a national park and the only way to enter is via a special sightseeing bus or taxi. The park is open from mid April to mid November, before they close it off for the snowy winter months.
Stepping off the bus, I felt like I’d stepped straight into a picture-perfect fairytale. Through the lush green forest, the first thing I saw was the well-known Kappa Bashi suspension bridge. The water swirling past under the bridge was crystal clear and seemed to change from teal to turquoise to emerald depending on where you looked. The river looked so pure and inviting. Of course, this water was running down fresh off the mountains and was ice cold. Even dipping your toes in would give your body a shock! And the mountains… Wow! It was a drizzly, overcast day. Looking up towards Mt Hotaka, I could see a lot of white. It couldn’t be snow, could it?! I thought I may have been imagining things. But when the clouds and mist lifted, the white streaks were still there in the crevices of the mountain. I couldn’t believe I was seeing snow just a few hours away from cities that were sweltering in 35 degree heat!
The area around Kappa Bashi is closest to the bus terminal, and as such is packed with tourists. But if you go 5 minutes in any direction, the crowds quickly disappear. There are a few trails, some with boardwalks, others just a path through the forest. Some hikers take on the vertical climb up to one of the peaks, but I decided just to follow the river downstream towards the volcano Mt Yake.
Along the way, I came across all sorts of wonderful sights. There are a bunch of swamps and marshes where the water is so still it looks like glass. Taishiro Pond is also one of the most photographed spots in the area. An ex-colleague, who is also a photographer, gave me a stunning photo he took of this pond in winter when the whole place was covered in mounds of untouched snow. I’m not sure how he was able to get in there in January (maybe that’s a whole other story), but I was very impressed!
There’s also plenty of wildlife to see. I came across a family of monkeys carrying bark they’d ripped off trees. It was very bizarre! A few were up in the trees and for a brief second I thought I was seeing koalas! They weren’t worried about the humans passing by and went about their business as though we didn’t exist.
At the end of the trail was Lake Taisho. On a still, clear day, you can see a beautiful mirror reflection of the mountains. This large pond was actually created from a volcanic eruption in 1915. Oh, so I guess we should say… Happy 100th birthday! The lake is known for the trees which stand decayed in the middle of it and since 1928 it has been protected under a law because of its natural scenic beauty.
Kamikochi truly is one of the treasures of Japan!