Story to the Northern Japan Alps


Article by Emma Nakajima
Photo by Emma Nakajima, Great Hikes Japan , Yama-kei Publishers

A Five-day Hike on the Azumino Panorama Ginza TrailThe highlights of trekking through the dynamic mountain scenery on the breathtaking Japan Alps

Day 1

Our fall hiking trip to the mountains started off with greetings from across the globe. The group consisted of eight members including Taichi from the Canadian Rockies and Nina, a French woman who lives just a two-hour drive from the European Alps. After the introductions were finished, our troupe boarded a train in Shinjuku, Tokyo and headed off to the JR Hotaka Station in Azumino. The city of Azumino is not far from the famous Matsumoto Castle and is known as the “Gateway to the Japan Alps.”

Day 1 photo
Day 1 photo

We were greeted at our destination by Mr. Kashu, a guide who specializes in hiking tours in the mountains. After renting electric-assist bicycles, we were off to spend our first day leisurely enjoying the sights around Hotaka Station.

The first stop was Hotaka Shrine where we would do a small prayer for a safe trip. The shrine has long been known as the home of the local deity who looks over the Japan Alps region. As soon as we arrived at the shrine gate, Nina tilted her head in slight puzzlement.

“Ah, let me explain!” Mr. Kashu said as he quickly came to the rescue.

Day 1 photo
Day 1 photo

He taught Nina the purification ritual of washing one’s hands before entering the gate. Watching the others, she then learned how to pass under the shrine’s torii gate and make a pray before the sanctuary.

Continuing on, we saw the humongous geta sandals that supposedly belong to the two guardian kings at Tokoji Temple; the old Todoriki Residence, which once served as accommodation for the lord of Matsumoto; and other historical spots. The modesty of the traditional Japanese architecture was truly an artistic sight to see. For lunch, we got our fill of Nagano’s famous soba noodles and then took to the small country roads.

Then, out of nowhere, we were surprised by a huge commotion.

“Whoa! What on earth is that?!” one of the group members cried out.

Day 1 photo
Day 1 photo

We had run right into a lively local festival. Kids in long, pleated hakama and headbands and men in happi coats were pulling a big, traditional festival float called an ofune down the road. Typical of the region, these floats are built to look like boats, hence the name ofune, which means “boat” in Japanese. The procession was accompanied by a troupe of traditional Japanese flute and taiko drum players and loud, vigorous chants. No matter what country you might be in, the exciting atmosphere of a festival is universal. What better way to enjoy the town than to directly experience its culture before your eyes!

Our day ended with a dip in the hot spring at our ryokan. This was apparently the first time for Nina to experience bathing completely naked with others in a public Japanese bath, not to mention her first time sleeping on tatami mats in a futon and wearing a yukata! After relaxing in the bath and savoring a gorgeous Japanese meal, Nina dozed off to sleep in her first futon. A stay at a traditional Japanese hot spring inn just might be one of the best ways to experience Japanese life all in one day.

Day 2

Finally, we were off to the mountains! On our first day, we would be making the trek from Nakabusa Hot Springs to Mt. Tsubakurodake. With Mr. Kashu in the lead, we slowly started our ascent of one of the Japan Alps’ three steepest climbs—the Kassen Ridge.

Day 2 photo
Day 2 photo

We were met by an endless wave of hikers going back down the mountains after a long weekend of trekking, each person greeting us with a friendly “konnichiwa!”

“One unique thing about hiking in Japan is that you say ‘hello’ to every single person you meet,” Mr. Kashu explained.

He continued to teach us about the hiking rules and manners in Japan as we moved up the trail. Once we passed Kassen Lodge, the outlook opened up into a spectacular view of the mountains painted in the fall colors. Unable to stop taking photo after photo, before we knew it, we had finished climbing the 1,300-meter ridge.

Day 2 photo
Day 2 photo

We left our heavy backpacks at the Enzanso Lodge and headed toward the summit of Mt. Tsubakurodake, which would only 60 minutes there and back. Among the sparkling white sand and granite rock at top, the ladies in our group cheerfully took obligatory instagrammable shots of their climbing accomplishment (another phenomenon you will see no matter what country you are in!). It was slightly cloudy but we were able to get a good 360-degree panoramic view from the peak.

Back at Enzanso Lodge, where we would overnight that day, we made a toast with a cold glass of draft beer.

“I can’t believe that we can actually drink beer from the tap on top of such a high mountain!” Taichi said with a big smile and beer glass in hand.

After dinner, the lodge owner, Mr. Akanuma, put on a French horn performance and a photo slideshow for us. With stories of the mountain history and discussions of the recent circumstances, we ended up staying up late into the night.

Day 2 photo
Day 2 photoDay 2 photo

Day 3

Rain pattered on the roof as we ate breakfast. Today we would unfortunately have to hike through rainy weather. We departed for Mt. Otenshodake as we prayed for the skies to clear up. Hues of red, yellow, and green covered both sides of the pointed ridge. Even shrouded in mist, the autumn colors were beautiful.

The way from Mt. Tsubakurodake to Mt. Otenshodake was an almost four-hour trek with several ups and downs across slopes to the east and west. Still, both Taichi and Nina were great walkers, conquering rough and rocky areas and jauntily moving forward even in the rain.

“They usually come out on rainy days like this,” one of the group members said as he scanned the surroundings trying to catch sight of a rare Japanese rock ptarmigan.

Day 3 photo
Day 3 photo

Then, as if they had been listening to our conversation, an entire family of ptarmigans appeared right in front of us. With half of their winter feathers already in place, the birds were fluffy and cute. The Japanese hikers in our group were ecstatic to see such a rare sight. Taichi laughed as he watched their delighted faces—according to him, there are apparently rock ptarmigans everywhere in the Rockies!

After making it past an unstable rocky spot in the trail, we finally reached Jonen Lodge. It’s not uncommon for mountain huts and lodges in Japan to be completely filled with hikers on holidays. Taichi and Nina were surprised to hear that people sometimes have to share their futons with another person. Americans and Europeans might not be happy with such crowded conditions, especially since they are used to beds. Luckily for us, it was a weekday and there weren’t many people in the lodge so we were able to sleep comfortably in a private room.

Day 3 photo
Day 3 photo

Day 4

The next morning when we opened the lodge’s door, the bright sun greeted us from among the clouds. As we continued watching, a magnificent sea of clouds formed right in front of us within just a few minutes. Talk about a wonderful surprise!

On our fourth day, our goal was to hike over Mt. Jonen and move towards Mt. Chogatake. This exciting course would allow us to have an extraordinary panoramic view of the mountainscape from Mt. Yari to the Daikiretto ridgeline all the way to the Hotaka Mountain Range.

Day 4 photo
Day 4 photo

“Look over there! That’s it!” one of the group members shouted as they pointed toward Mt. Yari.

We turned our eyes toward Mt. Yari. A rainbow ring had appeared just below its peak in a rare phenomenon called a Brocken specter. We had been lucky again.

As we continued up the steep slope of Mt. Jonen, all of us stayed in high spirits without a complaint to be heard. At the summit, we found a cloudless blue sky waiting for us. It turned out to be the most beautiful view of the entire trip.

Day 4 photoDay 4 photo
Day 4 photo
Day 4 photo

“Being able to walk across a ridgeline like this is amazing!” Taichi said excitingly as he pressed the shutter button down on his camera numerous times.

For him, one of best things about hiking the Panorama Ginza was being able to follow the ridgeline from peak to peak, something you cannot do in Europe or America, where traversing the mountains consists of trekking up and down a series of continuous cols, or the “saddles” between mountain peaks.

“I think the mountains in Japan are great. It’s something you guys can definitely brag about,” he continued.

Japan’s mountains are powerful and grand, yet have a special finesse to them. Descend into the cols between peaks and you will find mossy forests and lakes. The scale may be smaller than the mountains of Europe and America, but the magnificent beauty of Japan is tightly compacted into the available space. Needless to say, we were able to fully enjoy the hike to Mt. Chogatake and its ever-changing, dynamic scenery.

Day 4 photo
Day 4 photo

Day 5

The last day had finally come and we would be hiking the very long descent down Mt. Chogatake. Making our way down, a winding forested trail continued ahead of us. Although we were all still chatting as we walked, fatigue was starting to set in. Perhaps it’s impossible to avoid it after five days on the mountains, but we had something to strive for—a cone of creamy soft-serve ice cream from Tokusawaen! Beckoned by the promise of a delicious treat as we got closer and closer to our goal, we managed to make it down the Nagakabe Ridge.

“There it is!” someone shouted as Tokusawaen came into view.

Day 5 photo
Day 5 photo

Tokusawaen’s treats are popular among hikers. Their coffee soft-serve ice cream is just like sinking your teeth into an affogato. Nina was apparently in love with it! Now that we had refueled, we were ready to finish the walk to Kamikochi.

We walked along the river from Tokusawa to Kamikochi stopping at Hotaka Shrine’s okumiya sanctuary on the way. Our guests from overseas remembered the proper shrine rituals with no problem: Two bows, two claps, and on more bow to finish. The okumiya is also home to the same deity as the shrine we had visited on the very first day when we made a prayer for safe travels. This time, we made an offering of gratitude before returning to the final stretch of the trail.

Kamikochi was bustling with tourists. After four days and three nights on the mountains, we finished off our trip in perfect Japanese style—with a cold beer and refreshing dip in the hot spring.

A Five-day Hike on the Azumino Panorama Ginza Trail
Day 1 Japanese inn in Azumino city
Day 2 Nakabusa Mt. Tsubakuro Trail Head ~ Enzansou Mountain Hut ~ Mt. Tsubakuro (roundtrip to summit)
Day 3 Enzansou Mountain Hut ~ Mt. Otensho ~ Jonengoya Mountain Hut
Day 4 Jonengoya Mountain Hut ~ Mt. Jonen ~ Chogatake Hutte Mountain Hut
Day 5 Chogatake Hutte Mountain Hut ~ Tokusawa ~ Kamikochi