Welcome to the ‘Roof of Japan’. The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is a mesmerizing way to experience the Japan Alps - a popular series of mountains that straddle between the Prefectures of Toyama and Nagano, a 90-km (56-mile) long route. And everything it has is BIG. From the Shōmyō Falls - the highest waterfall in Japan - to the country’s tallest dam at Kurobe. Even transient features such as the famous 'snow walls’ near Murodō are like snow drifts on steroids. The likes of Mt Akazawadake (2678 m/8786 ft) and Mt Tateyama (3015 m/9885 ft) are just some of the impressive peaks that dot this beautiful volcanic landscape. The following are just some of the impressive sights that await visitors in this corner of Japan.
1. Kanden Tunnel Trolley Bus from Ōgizawa Station to Kurobe Lake
This trolley bus whisks passengers from the starting point at Ōgizawa Station to Kurobe Lake, a journey of roughly 6 km (3.75 miles) which takes about 15 minutes. Most of the journey takes pace in a tunnel and features a voice-over describing the history of construction on Kurobe Dam, where you are heading. Those looking to take the vehicle should bear in mind, however, that it can at times be as busy as a train in a city centre commute, so it’s worth getting a seat early. Indeed, the service can carry more than a million passengers in a year.
Kanden Tunnel Trolley Bus
Website: Kurobe Dam
2. Tateyama Ropeway
The Tateyama Ropeway is a great way to get to the peaks and marvel at the vistas beneath. It leaves from Kurobe Station and can accommodate up to 80 people in each cabin. This so-called ‘moving observatory’ offers great 360 degree panoramas and views of Lake Kurobe during the 7-minute journey along its 1 mile (1.6 km) length. Passengers may have to wait 1 or 2 hours for sufficient space to board at particularly busy times of the season, but Kurobe Station has its own rooftop observation deck and garden in which to unwind in the open air. Those feeling more bold may wish to walk one of the local trails while they wait.
Website: Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
3. Kurobe Dam
Welcome to the tallest dam in the whole of Japan. Kurobe Dam stands a whopping 186 m tall (610 ft) and stretches almost half a kilometer (a third of a mile) across from one side of the valley to the other. An impressive feat of engineering it may be, but it came at a cost - 171 people lost their lives during its construction in the 1950s and 1960s. Today it is a popular tourist attraction within the Kurobe Gorge - indeed between late June and the middle of October water is pumped out through its spillway so onlookers can marvel at the sight. And, if you catch it during one of these events, then keep your eyes peeled for the rainbow which forms on sunny days.
Address: Ashikuraji, 立山町 Nakaniikawa District, Toyama Prefecture 930-1406
Website: Kurobe Dam
4. Kurobe power station tour
Those impressed by the dam and eager to see more may wish to take a tour of the power station. Tour places are only allocated via a public lottery however, so whether you’ll be able to embark on this trip inside the dam’s inner workings will depend entirely upon luck. But even if you fail to secure a spot in advance there are other sightseeing events hosted at the dam - including rare night-time tours, when its dramatic illumination will provide some unique and spectacular photography opportunities.
5. Murodō Station
Murodō Station is another spot that those traveling the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route will inevitably pass through. This station, which serves the 3.7 km (2.3 m) Tateyama Tunnel Trolley Bus, sits at the highest point of the entire route - some 2450 m (8000 ft) above sea level on the alpine plateau. This makes it a popular jumping off point for walkers and hikers eager to explore the great outdoors and the surrounding peaks several hundred meters higher up. There is also a hotel and eating options at this terminal, for those looking for a little rest and relaxation among the mountain air.
6. Autumn on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
The landscape offers unique views whatever season you visit - the impressive snows of early winter or the impressive blue skies of a perfect summers day. However, if you time your visit for autumn then you’re in for something truly special. The russets, ambers, yellows and greens of the autumn leaves will linger long in the memory of those who see this beautiful spectacle. The views from the area’s cable cars are a particular highlight. The roads to the Alpine Route from Toyama on the coast, and Omachi to the east, also offer plenty of colorful scenery at this time of the year.
7. The bus to Toyama and the Shōmyō Falls
And, speaking of those roads, a bus journey between the route’s western end and Toyoma will give you the perfect opportunity to sit back and soak up the scenery as it whizzes by. A particular highlight of this journey is the Shōmyō Falls, which at 350 m (1150 ft) is the highest permanent waterfall in the country. Right next to it is an even taller waterfall, the Hannoki Falls, but this is dry for much of the year - only cascading its 497 m (1640 ft) length between April and July when the spring snow melt feeds it, but making for a dramatic sight if your trip happens to coincide with this spectacle.
Address: Ashikuraji, 立山町 Nakaniikawa District, Toyama Prefecture 930-1406
Website: Tateyama Town
8. Go hunting for some 'fall art'
Other seasonal gems to keep your eyes peeled for are the myriad of alpine plants that call the plateau and surrounding mountains home. A particularly striking species is the Tingleuma, which blooms across the valley around Murodō and is popular among tourists in July and August, before its petals give way to fluffy seed bearing strands in the autumn that are equally photogenic. This so-called ‘fall art’ will be a particular highlight for any budding photographer.
9. A sea of clouds: enjoy the viewing point near to Midagahara
Those looking for a truly memorable view may wish to check out this vantage point during their travels along the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. Just 20 minutes from Murodō is the hotel at Midagahara, which is close to a stunning view point looking west. This vantage point’s elevation above the distant bay also makes it a great spot to experience a ‘sea of clouds’, when the rolling mists cover the low-lying landscape below. The local landscape is also home to a large wetland that covers several kilometers and is a great habitat to go looking for the area’s alpine plants, insects and butterfly species.
Address: Japan, 〒930-1412 Toyama Prefecture, Nakaniikawa District, Tateyama
Website: Midagahara Hotel
10. Mikurigaike hot spring and hostel
Of course no visit to Japan is complete without relaxing in an onsen - or hot spring. The country’s volcanic landscape means there are plenty of these dotted about - indeed, even many hotels offer them. But few can compete with the bragging rights that come from visiting the highest altitude hot spring resort in the country. The Mikurigaike hot spring sits an impressive 2410 m (7900 ft) above sea level and offers the chance to sit back and relax while enjoying the beautiful mountain setting. What’s more, it’s easy to reach from Murodō Station, which is just 15 minutes away on foot.
Address: Japan, 〒930-1414 Toyama Prefecture, Nakaniikawa District
Website: Mikurigaike Onsen
11. Yuki-no-ōtani snow walls
A memorable sight that visitors will find hard to forget is that of the Yuki-no-ōtani snow walls that line the road on the approach to Murodō Station. Enjoying some of the heaviest snowfalls in the world may be great for snow sport fans, but it requires serious efforts to keep the roads clear. The results are these truly epic creations on either side of the road. And by epic, I do mean epic. The walls, which typically last until about mid-June, can stretch to up 500 m long (1600 ft) and tower 20 m (65 ft) high! Can you resist a selfie or two in front of the power of nature?
12. Will you spot the thunder bird?
The thunder bird—with a name as evocative as that, it’s highly likely you’ll be eager to spot one for yourself during your travels. The raichō, whose Japanese name translates into this wonderfully mysterious moniker, is a rock ptarmigan and happily lives all year round on the peaks - shedding its white winter plumage for darker tones each summer. And these little birds have been taken to the hearts of the Japanese people - it’s the official bird of the Nagano, Gifu and Toyama Prefectures and enjoys protected status nationwide. Will you spot one? Cameras at the ready…
13. The summits around Murodō await
Many of those who reach Murodō will likely take one look at the surrounding peaks and eagerly anticipate taking on the remaining several hundred meters to scale their lofty heights. Well there are certainly options available to do just that. There are hiking courses from the station to one of the summits of Mt Tateyama - Mt Oyama - just over 3000 m (9850 ft) above sea level. Mt Murodō and Mt Jodo can also be reached via separate courses - with the added reward of a view into the stunning caldera. Just be mindful on these hikes - snow persists in summer and the altitude makes the air thinner.
Located some 1900 m (6200 ft) up, the picturesque alpine wetlands around Midagahara are a popular place to spot some of the area’s alpine plant species and associated wildlife and are the largest of their type in Japan. Boardwalks snake their way over this delicate landscape, which was recognized as one of the most ecologically valuable wetlands on the planet back in 2012 when it was registered in the Ramsar conventions. Those exploring the wider immediate area may also wish to check out the Tateyama Caldera viewpoint.
15. Mikurigaike pond circle course
The Mikurigaike pond course is chock full of spectacular sights and will prove appealing to walkers and hikers. As well as the Yuki-no-otani snow wall and the crater lake of Mikurigaike pond itself, the route also throws up such diverse natural wonders as the view above the Mikurigaike hot spring from the Emmadai observation deck, the Chinoike blood ponds of the wetlands - the iron oxide rich waters giving them their distinctive color - and Tateyama Murodō, a mountain hut that could be as much as 300 years old and is the oldest in the country.
16. Trek to the Raichozawa for a small taste of the mountains
Those looking to sample a little taste of the mountain treks around Murodō without actually scaling all the way to the summits may wish to head from the station along the courses to the Raichozawa. This campground is situated at the top of the Mikurigaike course - mentioned in the previous option. It is a 2-hour trip there and back from the station and will serve as a good introduction to those wishing to test their acclimatization to the altitude - or simply looking for something a little less strenuous. What’s more, the campsite is home to mountain huts where you can soak in hot spring baths for a fee.
The Japanese Alps await
With so many beautiful sights and impressive landmarks, there’s plenty to keep even the most ardent lover of the outdoors satisfied.
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