Takayama’s compact bus terminal is alive and kicking, despite the early hour and near freezing temperature. We join a bleary-eyed queue and huddle onto a shuttle bound for Kamikochi National Park. Grateful for the warmth and padded seats, we soon drift off and recoup an hour of sleep.
We wake up to a staggering landscape. The bus has snaked into the heartland of the Japanese Alps, a place of tall green and auburn pines, looming snow-capped peaks and endless waterways that disappear from view only to emerge again in different guises. The sky is ice blue and the sun intense, amplfied by the altitude. Despite this, the thermometer will max out at four degrees today and, as we disembark our heated cocoon for the park entrance, it is clear it will take a while to reach this point.
In the late 19th Century, Englishman and keen mountaineer Reverend Walter Weston spent a great deal of time in the Kamikochi area. Along with his guide Kamijo Kamonji, he pioneered across the mountain range and forged a number of the pathways that are still in use now. Without the pair of them, there is a good chance this national park would not exist and so they deserve high praise.
Weston is widely credited for coining the name ‘Japanese Alps’ and for bringing popularity to hiking as a sport in Japan. He was in fact so succesful that in 1937 Emperor Hirohito bestowed on him the Japanese Order of the Sacred Treasures. As if that wasn’t enough, each year at Mt. Ena on 11th May the Weston Festival officialy marks the start of the hiking season. More on the good Reverend and Kamijo later.
Back in the present day, we march out from Kappa-bashi Bridge swaddled in layers and crunching frost underfoot; the pace is quick and hands are stuffed in pockets. We are dwarfed on all sides by the dense, needle-straight forest and further still by the peaks of Mt. Myojin Dake, Mt. Yariga-take and Mt. Otensho-dake to name but a few. The aroma from the pine swirls everywhere as we walk and the early morning sunshine slants through the narrow gaps in the trees.
The further we go, the less people we see. We know this by sight, but also by sound. It seems there is a local penchant for portable bear bells, jingling like Christmas from a number of backpacks. I have a fleeting, masochistic urge to spot a bear, just to break the tension.
But we do not see one. On our return from Shinmura-bashi Bridge what we do see though is a wild Macaque monkey. First, a solitary one whips across the path in a blur of red face and pale-brown fur. Then there are lots. A group of nitpicking adults, squabbling adolescents and curious babies. As a clanging fellow hiker strides through without giving them a second glance, it is clear the bells don’t work on Macaques. They remain unperturbed and amble after us down the path.
Soon after, we cross over the Myojin-bashi Bridge to visit the Hotaka-jinja Shrine and continue along the opposite bank. Next to the shrine is the mountain hut built by Kamijo Kamonji which is now run as a trailside cafe by Kamijo’s fourth generation descendant, serving up hearty ramen and other cold-warding treats. Above the hearth, great-great grandfather Kamijo’s original hunting rifle and ice-pick (a gift from Weston, honouring their long friendship) are displayed.
As we arrive back at the Kappa-bashi Bridge we are greeted with an awe inspiring view of the Dakesawa peak to cap our round trip.
And we did finally come face to face with that bear too.
N.B. As you might expect there are lots of different hikes around this area (from longer/shorter day trips to some spanning several days). In the winter, you will need crampons and proper gear to get into the mountains but as a day trip (as long as the park is still open up to the 15th Novemeber!) the walk described above will be fine. If planning to do longer expeditions and camp, I would advise you to check in with the Tourist Info Centre in Takayama (by the JR Station) and at Kamikochi Park Centre itself for up to date info.