Keeping the Peace in Kamikochi

Kamikochi is the perfect antidote to the mania of Japan’s big city life. Its ancient forests, soaring mountains and translucent waters are reached by a dramatic coach ride through mountain passes and long, dark tunnels carved into the hillsides.

Since 1975, private cars have been forbidden entry into Kamikochi beyond the Kama Tunnel to preserve its natural environment, and development in the area has been restricted to a smattering of inns, lodges and stores. Remoteness and inaccessibility add to its sense of serenity.

That, of course, doesn’t deter the locals, but few international visitors take the four-hour bus ride from Tokyo. Those who do will be richly rewarded.

Listed as one of Japan’s areas of scenic beauty by the Agency for Cultural Affairs, Kamikochi became the country’s first designated protected forest in 1916. Located in a basin of the Hida Mountains, or northern Japan Alps, it’s often compared to the Swiss Alps, or Yosemite in the US. It’s surrounded by many mountains, including the 3190-metre Mount Okuhotaka, the highest peak of the Hotaka mountain range and the third highest in Japan.

The Azusa River weaves gently through, reflecting the maples and sky and, like excited children, nature pilgrims walk the 1500-metre high, 15-kilometre long plateau in search of untouched landscapes and clean air.

Monkey business

Crashing through the foliage, a troop of wild macaques (known as snow monkeys) provoke squeals of delight from tourists. The macaques are one of the drawcards of the area, but the encounter highlights a growing issue: how to shield wildlife from the effects of human visitation.

Conservation regulations prohibit feeding, disturbing, capturing or harming the wildlife at Kamikochi. Part of Chubusangaku National Park since 1934, Kamikochi is not only home to the macaques but also antelope, Japanese serow (a goat-antelope), many species of birds and, it’s rumoured, bears.

Leaving the macaques behind, we follow the well-defined hiking route into the forest. Radiant-faced elderly Japanese men and women hobble along, some with hiking poles, cheerily greeting passersby. The path meanders to the Kappa Bridge, a wooden suspension bridge that is the focal point of visitor activity.

Cafes, hotels and shops thrive at both of its ends, offering souvenirs, packaged foods and refreshments. To refuel, hikers grab a green tea or a steamed rice bun stuffed with pumpkin, or dine in for seasonal delicacies such as soba with local river fish and wild vegetables.

It’s the season of kouyou (autumn leaves) and the bridge is as busy as Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station. Artists line the banks of the river painting the view to the Hotaka mountain range. But despite its 1.5 million annual visitors, Kamikochi retains its spiritual essence, with tourists adapting a zen-like demeanour out of respect.

A Buddhist priest called Banryu is said to have been the first person to scale the Kamikochi mountains. Motivated by faith and worship, he climbed 3180 metres to the peak of Mount Yarigatake in 1828, a time when mountains were revered as spiritual objects. Today many visitors retrace the steps of Banryu and the paths are silent enough to hear leaves fall.

A bell reverberates through the forest, and a Japanese couple bow before Hotaka Shrine. From here it’s just a few steps through the forest to the hushed expanse of Myojin Pond, surrounded by bamboo and red and gold maples. Along this path is Kamonji-goya Hut. Constructed in 1880, it is named after the woodsman who built it and is considered the oldest building in Kamikochi. The hut is now home to a restaurant, where you can sample the signature dish — grilled iwana (river trout) cooked on an irori (traditional fireplace).

The great indoors

Late afternoon is the perfect time to retreat to an outdoor hot spring bath, or onsen, to warm up and relax after hiking. The area has four, all located in hotels and inns.

At Kamikouchi Onsen Hotel, the heat of the steaming rock pool, naturally warmed by an active volcano, provides an exhilarating contrast to the crisp air of the mountains. Despite the bliss of the outdoor onsen, visitors don their yukata robe and head back to their rooms for kaiseki, a traditional multi-course dinner. It’s served ryokan style in a central room that is both the dining and sleeping quarters. Our host, Chizuru (it means ‘one thousand cranes’), arrives dressed in a pinafore and with a gracious smile. She piles the low table with soba noodles in broth, artfully presented mushroom sushi and mushroom steak, rice and a steaming earthenware pot of tofu and vegetables.

“That’s only the first course,” Chizuru says in perfect English.

What follows is an unhurried meal of small dishes — a total of 12 or so courses — served in three stages. We’re given whole fish, salmon, yam, daikon, Japanese pickles, shrimp tempura, and egg custard, the flavours enhanced with sauces and a bowl of salt. Sake is served throughout and the meal ends with a tiny dessert of fig, apple, vegetable cake and green tea.

After the elaborate dining ritual, a male staff member arrives to prepare the futons. Impeccably polite, he fields inevitable travellers’ questions as he positions the mattresses, pillows and covers.

When asked about the impending winter and the experience of Kamikochi under snow, he says: “I have never seen snow here. I know it snows but we leave before that. It’s too cold for visitors — only a few serious mountain climbers. The whole park closes on November 15 and reopens in April.”

It’s not merely the cold that shuts Kamikochi down, but the perils of avalanches, extreme weather and falling rocks. The park’s shutdown, marked by an annual closing ceremony, also allows this protected highland sanctuary a time of well-deserved recuperation.

Words by Linda Moon - Published in Voyeur October 2014
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 12,500,000
Time Zone GMT + 9 hours
Languages Japanese (national)
Currency Japanese yen (JPY)
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