Perseverance is the key! I am now on the 3rd (and maybe final) post of my Japan 2018 trip, and I will be introducing the main highlight, the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. This route was such a pain in the a** to plan, and honestly I have considered giving up planning many times and just follow a tour group up the mountain to save all my troubles. But (1) the tour packages are soooo not cheap, and (2) tour packages usually cramp Tateyama, Kanazawa, Takayama and Shirawaka-go into 2 days tour (I don’t know how they do that, it took me 5 days to explore all these places!), so ultimately I decided to just heck it and do it on my own, and now I’m so glad that I persevered with my plans!
Overview of the route
The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine route lies within the Japan Alps of Chubu region between Nagano and Toyama cities. Due to its high altitude, parts of the route experience snow as early as October, and the whole route closes from December to April as the huge amount of snowfall received puts the route at constant risk of avalanche. If you plan to visit in April, make sure to check out its website for the exact opening date of the route. The website displays all the valuable information that you need for your itinerary planning, including the transport arrival and departure time (very important!), the weather forecast and even webcam of the main highlights along this route. It will also update on urgent news, for example, in 2018, the opening ceremony had to be postponed because of blizzard (in April!). So be sure to constantly check out the website even after you have finalised your itinerary.
Travelling along the alpine route
Above is an illustration of the route and the different modes of transport that we took. Doesn’t this look frightening? And THIS IS ONLY HALF THE ROUTE!! I decided against travelling the entire stretch because (1) I’m bringing an elderly along and I think will be too tiring for him (2) I wasn’t sure if the weather would be good, so at least travelling half the route gives me more time to wait out at the peak for the weather to clear, and (3) I wasn’t even sure if I was going up the mountain at all because of point 2, so I didn’t want to fix my itinerary to continue from the other side of the mountain.
Kanazawa (7.23am) –> Toyama (7.46am) (8.13am) –> Tateyama (9.19am)
Since we based ourselves in Kanazawa, we had to make an additional 30mins travel by Hokuriku Shinkansen (bullet train) to Toyama station. From JR Toyama station, we had to make a 3mins transfer to Dentetsu Toyama station, where we bought return tickets to Tateyama station from an automated ticketing machine. The queue to take the local train to Tateyama station is directly beside the ticketing machine. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting any tourists in June as the snow wall would have melted a lot by then, so I was rather shocked at the number of people queuing up at 8.13am. I can only imagine how packed this place would be in April!
The local train to Tateyama is a rather jerky one through the countryside. In fact, the locals, especially the students, use this same train to travel to and fro their homes to Toyama station. Makes me wonder how the locals cope with the huge number of tourists everyday. Anyway, there is no reserved seating in this local train, so if you can’t get a seat, you will have to stand through the 1hr ride (another point for consideration).
Tateyama (9.50am) –> Bijodaira (10am)
After obtaining our return tickets at Tateyama station, we boarded the 7mins cable car (which is actually a funicular) up to Bijodaira station. Note that your tickets would state the cable car slot that you are allocated to take, so make sure that you are in the correct queue.
Bijodaira (10.10am) –> Murodo (11am)
From Bijodaira, we transferred to an electric-powered bus which took us on a 50mins scenic ride up Mt. Tateyama to Murodo, the highest point of the alpine route. Along the way, the bus will slow down for photo-taking at (1) a gigantic legendary tree called “Beautiful Woman Cedar”, (2) a far-away observatory point for Shomyo falls and (3) bird-eye view of the Midagahara wetland.
Besides these few photo spots, the bus will also make brief stops at Midahagara station and Tengudaira station. Do not get off the bus until you are chased off at the terminal!
From the moment the bus burst through the forest into the plains in its white glory, our whole bus went ‘wahhhhh’. All the cameras whipped out and were fixed to the window till the end of the ride. The shot below was accidentally taken while we were busy snapping away. Sneak peak of the our bus! Just as well, since I was in such a hurry earlier that I wasn’t able to take a photo.
Murodo: Hike around Mikurigaike crater pond
The hike around Mikurigaike was actually unintentional on our part. My initial idea was to follow the signage up to the observatory deck at the bus terminal of Murodo. But it was not obvious where the observatory deck was and we ended up following the crowd to Mikurigaike. The hike to Mikurigaike is 600m (or 30mins) from the bus terminal. However, on a snowy path without proper footwear, the walk felt so much longer! Seriously, if you are coming in April – June and have the intention to explore beyond the snow wall corridor, please make sure that you wear proper snow boots because you are bound to walk on snow paths. We slipped a number of times during the hike and my father even fell down! Thank goodness he didn’t sprain any body parts.
From Mikurigaike, we continued with our hike to Emmadai, which is the observatory deck of Jigokudani (Hell Valley). Many years ago, it was possible to hike around Jigokudani. However in recent years, the walking path was closed for safety concerns due to eruptions of large amount of sulphuric gas.
From this point onwards, we could either make a u-turn back to the bus terminal, or continue with the loop trail around Mikurigaike. Since the weather was so good (and I thought we had plenty of time), my sister and I voted unanimously to continue. The loop trail took us another 30 more minutes (or 1.1km more) to complete.
We arrived at the most dangerous part of the hike. Ok it definitely felt much steeper than it looks.
All the hiking and basking in the hot sun prepared our tummies for food. Unfortunately, there were not many options at the bus terminal, so these were all we had.
Murodo: “Yuki-no-otani” snow wall
To be honest, the snow wall corridor was…underwhelming. It’s not that the attraction was bad, we just came up at the wrong time. When we were there on 7 June, even though the highest point was 12m (which was still rather tall given that the wall opened at 18m in April), the corridor has grown a lot wider because the snow melted from the side, so it didn’t look as impressive as it should have been. Nevertheless, we were glad to have been-there-done-that. Thank goodness for the hike earlier, making our trip more value for money.
Murodo (2.15pm) –> Daikanbo (2.30pm)
We continued on our journey to Daikanbo by taking the trolley bus shown above which runs inside a tunnel through Mt. Tateyama. Daikanbo is the transfer station for the ropeway down to Kurobe Dam, which is the other highlight of the route. So usually, tourists will not stay long at this station. However, we did the exact opposite by staying here for about 45mins, just to soak in the majestic view of the Alps and enjoy the peace between rounds of tourists. I think my photos did not do this place justice. There is an outdoor terrace here for having some snacks, but it was unfortunately closed when we came.
Daikanbo (3.15pm) –> Murodo (3.40pm) –> Bijodaira (4.30pm) –> Tateyama (4.47pm)
From Daikanbo station, we had to retrace back our steps to Tateyama station. By this time, the dark clouds had gathered and the route turned really foggy. Once again, thank goodness we came up early. Note that after 3pm, the transport frequency will slow down, so it is really important to take note of the transport timings so that you do not end up waiting 1hr for the next ride or miss the last train back!
Tateyama (5.30pm) –> Toyama (6.37pm)
We missed the 4.47pm train back to Toyama, and had to wait 45mins for the next ride. This was the 3rd last train back to Toyama. By the time we reached Toyama, the sun had already set. So everything that I read on other blogs is true, it really takes at least 6-8hrs to make a one-way trip, and 8-9hrs to make a round-trip. So let me emphasize this again, please watch your timing carefully, and don’t be complacent like me! (I really thought we could finish by 4pm) To end off this trip, here are some sunset photos that I took on the train ride back, right before I doze off 🙂
Where is Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route and how to get there?
The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route lies between the two cities of Nagano and Toyama, so most tourists will stopover in either of these two cities for the night before transversing the route.
- From Tokyo: Take Hokuriku Shinkansen to Nagano (1.5hrs) or Toyama (2hr 10 mins). There are frequent trips every hour.
- From Nagoya: Take Wide View Hida to Toyama (4hrs) or Wide View Shinano to Matsumoto (2hrs) or Nagano (3hrs). The disadvantage is that these limited express trains are not frequent, so you will need to read up on the timings of the trains.
I’ve already described my experience travelling from Toyama to the alpine route. If you start from Nagano, there are direct express buses (1hr 45mins) to reach Ogizawa, the starting point of the alpine route. Or if you start from Matsumoto, you will need to take a limited express train to Shinano Omachi (you can check the timings on Hyperdia), and then a local bus to Ogizawa.
As I am a lazy person who did not take photos of the transport and stations, I have sourced some blogs with excellent pictorial descriptions of how to travel from Nagano to Toyama and vice versa for your reference:
- Nagano to Toyama (using day pass)
- Matsumoto to Toyama (using Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Area Tourist Pass)
- Toyama to Nagano (using Tateyama Kurobe Option Ticket)
At this point, I will like to caution that SNOW WALL CORRIDOR CLOSES AT 3PM! For this reason, most people will choose to transverse the route from Toyama side as it is nearer to Murodo. If you are going during the peak season in April, make sure to get a head start as early as possible because I read that the waiting time can be up to 2hrs at each station. It will be good to reach Murodo before 10am when all the tour groups start arriving.
Day-tickets: It is possible to purchase day tickets on the day of travel at the following stations. Note that the tickets will be valid for 5 days, but if you purchase one way ticket, you cannot u-turn back to previous stations like what I did.
Web tickets: If you are very sure of the date that you want to travel and are not using any passes, or if you are travelling to a weird station (Daikanbo) like I did, you can reserve your tickets using this website at least one day before use. This is good if you are travelling on weekdays during low season as you are entitled to some discount. After you booked your tickets online, you will be given a link to a barcode that looks like this:
You do not need to print out this barcode. Just save the link in your handphone and show it to the person at the ticketing counter at Tateyama or Ogizawa station. The person will be able to scan the barcode through your handphone. You will then be given a ticket like this:
Another important point to note is that you can only redeem your online tickets at Tateyama / Ogizawa station. This means that you will still need to purchase additional tickets from Toyama –> Tateyama / Nagano –> Ogizawa. The return tickets cost 2400 yen.
Tateyama Kurobe Option Ticket: If you are travelling to and from Tokyo, the most convenient method of travelling will be to purchase Tateyama Kurobe Option Ticket (9000 yen). This can be purchased at major JR stations in Tokyo, Nagano and Osaka. The ticket covers all the transportation along the alpine route between Nagano and Toyama, and is best combined with JR Pass (or other passes) for your travel to and fro Nagano / Toyama.
Again, you will need to purchase this ticket at least one day before use. There are two important points to note: (1) This is only a one-way ticket! (2) You will need to head to the ticket office at Tateyama or Kurobeko station (aka stations that you will be travelling by cable car) to obtain a numbered ticket (1,2 or 3). This ticket will indicate which queue you should join.
Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Area Tourist Pass: This is a JR regional pass which covers several destinations besides the alpine route (please refer to my earlier post for description). As with other regional passes, you will need to purchase this from your country of residence, obtain the Exchange Order, and then retrieve the actual pass at major JR stations when you arrive in Japan.
Similar to the option ticket, you will need to obtain a numbered ticket at Tateyama or Kurobeko station in order to take the the cable car.
Baggage forwarding service
A paid baggage forwarding service is offered just for travelers along this route, because there is no way you can bring your luggage up the mountain. In any case, there are no baggage deposit areas along the way.
If you read the opening and closing time carefully, it makes more sense to transverse from Toyama side because the baggage deposit counter opens from the first train onwards, whereas those at Shinano-Omachi and Nagano opens at 8am and 9am respectively. This is too late especially if you are go during peak season. Also, the closing time of the baggage deposit counters are about 5-6pm on both sides, except at Nagano station which closes at 8pm. Such timings seemed to be encouraging people to move from Toyama to Nagano direction.
If you are worried about being able to retrieve your luggage in time, an alternative will be to check with your hotel if they provide luggage forwarding service to wherever you are going next. Most hotels will use this service called Yamato Transport, which cost about the same as that provided by the Alpine operator. The catch is that you will need to be at your hotel by at least 3pm on the day of collection because this is usually when the courier service will collect the luggage, and the luggage will only arrive at your next hotel the next day. This means that you will need to pack clothes for an overnight stay and bring them along the alpine route.
My last suggestion (ONLY if you have JR pass, and if you are doing this as a side trip from Nagano or Toyama) is to leave your luggage with your hotel after you check out, transverse the alpine route, then take the bullet train back to Toyama/Nagano where you came from and continue your journey from there. I think it’s highly possible to do so since Toyama and Nagano is only less than 1hr apart by Shinkansen. What a good way to YOLO with your JR pass right?
I have finally reached the end of my long long post containing all my knowledge of this alpine route, phew. If it sounds complicated to plan, don’t be put off yet because once you get to the start point, the route will just fall into place. I highly recommend putting this into your itinerary because you will see a side of Japan that you can’t find anywhere else. Before I go, here’s a note from me:
Most importantly, have fun! 😉