Sunday, June 29, 2014

Kamikochi and the Japan Alps

Kamicochi is a place that Kaitlin and I had been talking about for months. We are both big fans of mountains so being in the heart of the Japanese alps was high on the list. No better place to do this than Kamikochi in the Chubu Sangaku National Park. We took two scenic bus routes into the Japanese Alps passing the mountainous countryside and small ski resorts (sans snow). There were also an abundance of cyclists on this road, which was nice to see.

Road up to the Japan Alps

Upon arrival, we figured out where to drop our bags and visited the visitor center (a common hub for good hiking advice, this was no exception). We decided to hike towards Dakesawa, heading up Mt. Mae-Hodaka. This is the beginning to a nice trail with several huts where hikers and climbers can stay along a mostly peak dominated route. Kaitlin and I had spoken about trying to do this before the trip, as we are both backpackers and mountain enthusiasts. Alas, our travel time (late May) would have required technical gear that neither of us had or had the skills to comfortable operate in a foreign country. Seeing the hikers going up and returning with ice axes and crampons solidified this as a good decision.

The hike crossed a famous bridge we had seen in the guidebooks called Kapabashi. This was swollen with tourists taking the pictures seen in the guidebooks of the suspension bridge with impressive mountain backdrop. A few people were even painting the bridge. We continued to hike up the path, with almost everyone reciting "konichiwa" to the foreign tourists. I found this interesting, because more than any other time, this is the scenario where I have been repeatedly greeted us with "Konichiwa." Mountains have a way of making everyone friendly!
Kapabashi bridge.
View close to the bridge.

The hike started along a marshy area, with raised, two way platforms. Think raised platform with two one way options. Because of everyone stopping to take pictures, and the staggered starting times of various parties, this resulted in hopping from board to board. I try and be very aware of how people are walking in Japan, as they drive on the opposite side of the road from the USA. I just can't seem to get this right. 
Hiking through the swamp.

swampy area with many Iwana fish.

Once we were off the raised platforms, we were climbing through some of the most beautiful forest I've been in. Japanese maple, small sword ferns, madrone, and cute peeping birds. We hiked and chatted, remarking on the similarity of forests of the world we had visited, and ran into relatively few other hikers. After awhile, we started to hike up a lateral moraine, and the vegetation became more scarce. This allowed for a wonderful view down the Asuza river valley and a look at Mount Yake. Mount Yake is the most active volcano in the Hida mountains. In 1915, there was a major eruption that created a lava dam and subsequent lake that remains today, Lake Taisho.

Up we go!

Mountains! Hiking along a lateral moraine up towards Mt. Hotaka.

We sat and enjoyed lunch from snacks picked up at the supermarket the day before. Anticipation had been mounting for some cheese filled dumplings we bought. Alas, these were disappointing. Imagine kraft single in liquid, jack cheese form, in a bland dough ball. Maybe they would have been better warm, but the peppering of trail appetite "seasoning" failed on this food. Regardless, the scenery was primo and we enjoyed lunch with a nice view.

We had originally intended to make it to the first hut, but time did not allow and we headed down after lunch. While soaking our feet in the river, a Japanese man asked if he could speak english with us. We told him where we were from and it quickly became apparent he was a docent or tour guide tasked with speaking with people about the Kamikochi area. He was very fun to talk to. He told us about how the local fish , the "iwana," was mostly a hybrid of the native iwana and an American Brown Trout. Native iwana still like in a few parts on the river due to local efforts.

Brown trout were brought over from the US after the Japan Alps were "discovered" and publicized by English missionary Walter Weston in his book "Mountaineering and Exploring in the Japanese Alps". When teaching us about this history, our new friend said something along the lines of "when the American and Japanese fish met, what language did they speak? English or Japanese?" It was a fun interaction and we all laughed heartily. We had a chance to ask him about a symbol we were seeing everywhere which looked like a duck/man with a bad haircut. He explained that it is the Kappa monster that lives in the local pond and was quite the poltergeist (his word). Before the bridge was built, people would strip and carry their clothes across the river. The local folklore said the Kappa monster would come out of the water and steal socks and articles of clothing, while the unsuspecting river travelers were drying off. We were glad to have some insight on the local folklore and environmental issues and urged our friend to come visit California in the future and see our beautiful Sierra Nevada.

A stream where Iwana run.

After parting ways, we headed back to the bus station, picked up our luggage, had a snack and sampled the first "microbrew" that I had encountered. From Kamikochi station, we took a series on buses and a train down to Matsumoto. The drive was absolutely gorgeous, winding down fiver valleys (gorges, if you will) and some impressive reservoirs and dams.

First experience with a microbrew style beer. Survey says: Tasty!

After some wandering (all who wander are not lost), we found our "guesthouse" which was more of a person's house than a hostel. The hosts were very nice, but the facilities lacked some things that westerners would think as necessary. For example, the door had no lock. This brought up a red flag for us as travelers, but the Japanese culture does not experience quite as much theft. There is no second thought given to leaving baggage unattended in a hotel lobby, in the train station or in public. This is something we are still getting used to.

Panorama of the Azuza River Valley.

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