Photos by James-Paul Jacob
Photos by James-Paul Jacob

My Paradise: Backpacking adventure through gorges, alpines in Japan

by James-Paul Jacob
Stripes Japan

Taking inspiration from YouTube travel adventures, our sights were set on traversing Toyama and experience the beauties within. Our goal was to backpack through the entirety of the trip bringing only the essentials, plus my camera gear: body, lens, tripod and extra batteries, all the while enjoying our time left in Japan. We needed just enough room to bring back some omiyage for our dear friends watching our pet cat!

The most well known attraction, the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, was our ultimate destination. However, we decided to take a quick detour to Unazuki Onsen Town for some much needed R&R. There are several ryokans nestled here but there are also hostels. One in particular was above a pizza parlor, the owner of both, he introduced us to a new, but, surprisingly delicious combination: whitefish, onions and corn personal pizza. Strange? Yes. But, still not as strange as Hawaiian pizza!

What is most notable in this area is the Kurobe Gorge Railway, a sightseeing train originally with the purpose of aiding the construction of the Kurobe Dam. Today, it runs along a 20km route between Unazuki and Keyakidaira stations through several bridges and tunnels. In between, there are stops where you can get off and explore such as the “man-eating cave.” The most popular time to go is in autumn when the foliage accentuates the red bridges and the train itself!

There are two car options: an enclosed and comfortably seated one where you can enjoy the route in a safe environment. The other option is an open concept car with a roof but open to the elements; if you choose this option, bring appropriate clothing as rain is common and it gets fairly chilly in the tunnels. Either way, you get to see panoramic views of this amazingly pristine gorge from mid April through November!

At Tateyama Station, you can buy a pass that will cover all the transportation expenses along the Alpine Route one way. We chose to go in the direction of going from Tateyama Station towards Nagano Station. Before starting our ascent through the Alpine route, we took a bus towards  Shōmyō (350m) and Hannoki (497m) Falls, the two tallest waterfalls in Japan. We hiked about 30 minutes from where the bus dropped us off. Words cannot come close to describe how majestic these two were side by side. As we walked closer and closer to these enormous entities, we felt no more than specs in the grandness of it all. It was truly a memorable experience.

Finally starting our ascent, we took a cable car followed by a bus towards Murodo where we would stay at one of the many accommodations located there. Along the way, you can see many attractions like a birds-eye view of the waterfalls as well as the snow corridor: a road flanked with up to 20-meter snow walls best seen in April after months of heavy snowfall. We missed it, of course, but it didn’t matter. We reached our checkpoint and bathed in the beauty of the Tateyama mountain range!

Japan’s rainy season has definitely given us some blues but upon our arrival at Murodo, our spirits immediately lifted. It was surreal seeing human settlements here and beyond it, a rolling sea of clouds. Literally the highest point along the Alpine Route, Murodo stands at about 2,450 meters above sea level. However, there are hiking trails up the mountain range which go above 3,000 meters.

Our greatest feat to this date was climbing Mt. Tateyama: a grueling 3-hour climb from our base camp towards the summit. After several sketchy snowy patches and steep rocky precipices with loose gravel, we reached the top! What awaited us was a welcoming hut where we bought snacks to replenish our energies for the hike down. We even bought hiking sticks to help support our descent! Admittedly, it was more of a keepsake and an impulse buy. Those who reach the top can be blessed by a Shaman via a traditional Japanese prayer as well as being given some sake! How about that on the way down? All jokes aside, it is a very steep descent and hikers need to be equipped with appropriate footwear and clothing.

My wife and I certainly have come a long way from when we first moved to Japan. We were always afraid of the language barrier and the “what ifs.” Admittedly, the “what ifs” are still there, but the desire to explore has given us some courage to tackle some real traveling expeditions in Japan. The people are also friendly and accommodating; some even know English very well and Google Translate is clutch!

I implore you to explore what’s right under your nose in this amazing country. We might even see each other during your travels!

 

More on the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route:
https://youtu.be/WXSBg5Xfe6U

 

 

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