September 27, 2017
The Alpine Route is a series of 7-9 different legs of transportation that cut across the northern Hida Mountains in central Honshu, often called the Japanese Alps, linking Shinano Omachi in the east and Tateyama in the west. It’s a sight-seeing experience on one ticket that includes 2 tunnel sections by trolley bus, another 2 by cable car, a ropeway, i.e., gondola, 2 bus rides and one or two train rides depending on your starting and ending point. Along the way there is the massive Kurobe Dam – the highest in Japan – and plenty of scenic vista points and hiking opportunities.
One of the biggest draws is the snow packed banks in spring that tower above the side of the road creating a sort of open tunnel. At the end of September there was no sign of snow, but the fall color was just beginning to make an impact creating a patchwork of yellow, red and green on the hillsides.
At around 10,000 yen per person it’s expensive but a very interesting and fun trip, especially if you plan it when it is not too crowded. Midweek at the end of the September was great. Short queues, decent weather and nice fall color at the top.
We started the journey in Omachi Onsenkyo on the Shinano Omachi end of the route. We woke to a beautiful morning, checked out and left our bags to be delivered to the Dententsu Toyama train station* at the other end of the Route. Click here for more information on the baggage delivery service. We were leaving before the 7AM hotel breakfast so we asked to have a bento box prepared for us. The boxes were waiting for us at check-out. They would have driven us to the bus stop but without luggage and on such a beautiful morning we decided to walk the 7 minutes.
The bus arrived promptly at 7:23 (there might be a 6:30 bus at this time of year) but midweek (Wednesday) there were very few people on the bus and
no queue for tickets at the Ogizawa station for the 8AM trolley bus to the Kurobe Dam.
The dam is a huge, impressive project with pretty mountain views overlooking the lake and the river in the opposite direction.
There are plenty of viewpoints on the walk from the trolley bus to the cable car at the other end of the dam. Plan for around 30 minutes to cross the dam if you want to snap a few photos at the viewpoints.
The 5 minute cable car ride to Kurobedaira runs through another tunnel.
Here there is a small garden that can easily been seen in the short 10-minute transfer to the ropeway. Although some may want to queue straight away for the best spot on the gondola.
The views from the gondola were beautiful, especially in the autumn when the leaves had started to turn.
At the end of the ropeway is the Daikanbo viewpoint on the rooftop of the station. For us we had more time than we needed before the trolley bus through another tunnel to Murodo.
Murodo is the high point of the route and largest station with more extensive hiking trails and the best opportunity to get lunch or a snack.
We took a walk around the Mikurigaike pond which took us longer than the 15 minutes suggested in Lonely Planet. You could go directly to the pond and back in less than 30 minutes, but looping took us about 40 minutes and we missed the next bus down to Midagahara. This turned out not to be so bad as we had time to get a Chinese baozi bun and a cup of coffee.
The bus ride back down is along a beautiful winding road, the hillside shrubs a patchwork of autumn colors. I’m sure it is different but beautiful in any season.
There were two buses heading back down, one a direct to Bijodaira and another that made stops. We wanted to stop at Midagahara to do the .9K walk to the caldera viewpoint. We only had 40 minutes between buses but easily made it to the viewpoint and back.
It’s uphill to the caldera viewpoint but it still only took us 10 minutes. There wasn’t much to see at the viewpoint, and unless you have very clear skies I wouldn’t waste my time on this stop. We found the walk at the next stop much prettier. That said there was autumn color at Midagahara but not at Bijodaira.
Note that when you descend at the Midagahara bus stop you need to ask at the ticket office for a reservation on the bus you want to take onward to Bijodaira.
At Bijodaira there are a couple of walking routes through an old growth cypress forest. Massive trees, very green, and very little traffic. We passed only one person in the short time we were on the trail.
This was one of my favorite stops on the Alpine Route and it was not mentioned in Lonely Planet. The walks begin just across the road from the station. We needed to get to Toyama so we were a bit short of time here and spent just 20 minutes on the trail, but it was well worth it.
Catching the 1:20 cable car down to Tateyama we arrived at 1:27 with just a minute to catch the 1:28 to Toyama, which we did. We were planning on taking the 1:40 train, but after I looked at the schedule again I wasn’t so sure that the 1:40 ran every day. Check the coding next to the times on the schedule and ask which trains are running on your day if you really need to make a connection.
It’s an hour-long ride on a rickety old train with red velour seats that feels like it’s from another era. It probably is.
The train finishes the descent down from the mountains and soon you are rolling through a flat agricultural valley.
While the crops are interesting and sometimes pretty with a backdrop of jagged peaks, this is working Japan. Not the most interesting architecture or pristine homesteads.
Arriving in Toyama at 2:30 our bags were not in yet. We had time to get something to eat and get the paperwork for the car rental organized. At the Toyota car rental agency they didn’t speak much English, but the agent was very efficient nonetheless and we were able to get our car with very little hassle. Just remember to get an international driver’s license. Japan is the only country we’ve found that actually asks for it at the car rental agencies.
Once we finished the paperwork we walked back to the train station and our bags were waiting for us at the Dentetsu train office at 3:30 just as promised.
We were now ready for the hour-drive our next destination, Ainokura village. It had just started to rain so that slowed us down some. They lower the speed limit to 70kph on the expressway when it rains. There was very little traffic in Toyama and getting out of town and onto the expressway was easy. Using Google maps we found our way to the small village with little difficulty.
*The Dentetsu Station is a small station that runs old rickety trains to Tateyama and I imagine other local destinations. It is located just next door to the large modern JR shinkansen (bullet train) Toyama station.