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Hakuba Ooike

The Japanese Alps offer an easy escape from the summer heat- and amazing views. A view of Hakuba Ooike
Tsugaike Kogen, near Hakuba, is a great place to beat the heat. Tsugaike’s gondola and ropeway (running from around 7:00 to 16:30) can be the starting point for a few hours stroll or a few days backpacking trek.
The ticket costs 3000 yen (with an additional 300 yen for bags weighing over 10kg) and brings visitors to the Tsugaike Shizenen Nature Park (additional 300 yen) via a gondola ride and a trip on the ropeway. There are a few easy foot paths between the two if you want to explore at leisure.
For the more adventurous, a trailhead for Hakuba Ooike (Big Pond) and Shiroumadake (Mt. Shirouma) begins at the top of the ropeway near the nature park.
I recently did an easy overnight hike to Ooike. To Hakuba Ooike it took about 3.5 hours up and 2 hours down. It’s another 3 hours to Shiroumadake from Hakuba Ooike. Although the day I started my hike was a bit cloudy, it only added to my excitement as I glimpsed mountain peaks, glaciers, and marshland through the constantly shifting clouds. When it was too cloudy to look up, the view near my feet held an abundance of wild flowers
Hakuba Ooike really is a big pond! The pond is crystal clear and on a sunny day, reflects the surrounding landscape like a mirror. Next to Hakuba Ooike is a mountain hut (8000 yen/night with breakfast and dinner) and tent sites (600 yen/person) and a free drinkable water source.
Once there, I continued up along the trail to Shiroumadake for a bit to get a better view. It’s a peaceful, beautiful place. The trail to Shiroumadake.
After an early night and a very early morning, I waited to catch a reflection of the sunrise in Ooike. But no luck! For a brief few seconds, the sun rose above the mountain ridges, turning the pond’s hillside rosy pink, before it was hidden by the pale grey rain clouds. Although I left that morning wet and without any fantastic sunrise photos, I knew the hike had been well worth the effort.

Let’s Go Hiking!

The early summer hiking season has begun! After anticipating mountaintop snow melt for the last month it was finally time to take advantage of the break between rainy days.
Hiking in the SnowAlpine
Mt. Ontake is the second highest volcano in Japan (3,067m) It is regarded as a very spiritual mountain. Pilgrims make the climb every year. For those of us who are just avid hikers, the various shrines along the trail serve as a great place to take a rest and take in the view.
My friend and I set off on the trail at 8:30am and got back to the parking lot around 2:30pm- a perfect hike to start the summer.
The view from the trail is breath-taking- the Kiso Valley, the Alps, the alpine and volcanic landscape, and Mt. Ontake itself. But don’t breath too deeply- near the top the smell of sulfur is unavoidable. Go explore the amazingly turquoise blue lake (still mostly covered with ice), the trail behind the shrine that goes along a crater ridge, or hunker down for a nice lunch. This is when you need your warm clothes!
There was still a bit of snow on some parts of the trail but I was fine in my normal hiking boots. My struggle up the snowy patches was rewarded by being able to slide down on my return trip.
A Shrine
After the hike, my friend and I decided to do a bit more exploring. On the road down Mt. Ontake, there are a couple places to pull over and admire waterfalls. If you have the energy, I highly recommend stopping to take a quick look. Or head straight to a hot spring and relax your weary bones.
Mt. Ontake is about 2.5 hours by car from Matsumoto. The drive itself is nice and relatively simple. Take Route 19 from Matsumoto and pass through Kisofukushima Town. Keep your eyes open for signs (in English) for the Ontake Ropeway and Ski Resort. The parking lot for the hike is just above the ski resort.

Utsukushigahara Open Air Museum

I had only seen the mammoth sculptures in passing on previous trips to Utsukushigahara Kougen (Plateau). Last weekend I made a special trip just to visit the Utsukushigahara Open Air Museum. At 1000 yen a ticket for adults, I had my doubts, but afterwards I was quite happy with my decision to pay. You can wander for hours! OK, maybe two, so bring some snacks.
A bit of the view.Sculpture Reflection
It’s definitely worth your time and money to stroll along the trails between, beside, and beneath the works of art. The sculptures range from awe-inspiring to quite bizarre. Basic explanations are in English on plaques next to the art. There is also a nice indoor gallery that is included with you ticket.
The day I went was quite cloudy but I still enjoyed the museum as misty clouds rolled across the plateau, giving a mysterious vibe to the place. But a clear sunny day would have been idea to appreciate the spectacular views of Nagano from the plateau.
If you’re still looking for more to do, check out the dairy farm (go straight instead of turning right for the museum when you’re on the main road). Or, if you’re hungry, look for a river fish “catch and cook” restaurant. There you can “go fishing” and have your freshly caught fish grilled right in front of you. To find the restaurant, which is really more like a picnic area in my opinion, look for “iwana”, a type of river fish, written in hiragana on signs.

Only 1000 Yen?! Are You Crazy?!

You’d be crazy not to! Yanaba Ski Area lift tickets are only 1000 yen this season. Take this opportunity to frugally enjoy some of the best things the winter season in Nagano has to offer- skiing and snowboarding.
Yanaba Ski Area has a great view of Lake Aokiko and the surrounding mountains. The snow is good and if you’re a beginner, the runs are perfect. About 70% of the runs are for beginners and 30% for intermediate skiers and boarders. There is no expert terrain; however, Yanaba has an excellent terrain park. A half-pipe, quarter-pipes, banks, boxes, rails, and a canyon jump await you.

The resort basically consists of one wide run with a few smaller runs along the sides of the main one. There are 3 pair, or two person, lifts and 1 quad, or 4 person, lift. It is a small resort good for families. Snowbums and bunnies may grow a little bored, but it’s only 1000 yen! And if you just can’t pull yourself out of bed in the morning, you can always check out night skiing.
Getting there is easy and painless. You can either drive up 148 or take the Oito Line from Matsumoto Station to “Yanaba Ski Jo Mae Eki” (In Front of Yanaba Ski Area Station). Also, the parking situation is idea- the lot is right in front of the ski hill. The ski resort is just outside of Omachi Town.
Check out these sites for some helpful information:
In English:
http://www.snowjapan.com/e/resorts/resortdetail.php?resid=307
In Japanese:
www.yanaba.co.jp

Skiing Nozawa Onsen

I recently made my first visit to Nozawa Onsen’s ski area. Now that I’ve gone, I’m hooked! It’s a negotiable large-sized ski area with a friendly feel. The ski area is owned and managed by the village of Nozawa Onsen, perhaps contributing to that friendly vibe. The weekend I went, the powder was fantastic.
The 20 runs totaling 50 km of terrain available vary in difficulty from beginner to expert. Two gondolas and 22 chair lifts help you get to anywhere you want to go. If you get tired of the busy bunny hill and you’re feeling a bit adventurous, take a trip on the Skyline trail and drop into one of the powder-filled expert runs. Once there, you may very well find you have the run to yourself.

For people who love to play in the park, Nozawa Onsen has that, too. Rails, jumps, bumps, and a half pipe are all waiting for thrill-seeking skiers and boarders. In addition to the alpine facilities there is also a ski jump, cross country course, and a kids’ snow park.
If you hope to make a weekend of your trip to Nozawa Onsen, there are plenty of places to stay, dine, and, if the village name doesn’t give it away, onsen to soak in. From Matsumoto, the trip to Nozawa Onsen takes about 2 and a half hours by a combination of train and bus. You can also drive on the express way which takes about 2 hours. Access information can be found on the village website at www.vill.nozawaonsen.nagano.jp/info/english/start.htm

Winter Wonderland: Snowshoeing in Kamikochi

The Matsumoto area offers breathtaking scenery all year long, with each season bringing its own unique beauty.
After having seen Kamikochi‘s autumn splendor last year, I decided to see what it had in store for February. Although getting there in winter is more difficult, making the extra effort, if you’re an avid day hiker, is more than worth it.
Kamikochi’s surroundings are peaceful and pristine. White snow blankets the landscape. Instead of the hurried buzz of buses and high heel-clad tourists, all you can hear is the meditative “crunch, crunch” of snowshoes on the white trail.
The beauty starts shortly after the Kama Tunnel at Taisho Pond. Overlooking the pond is its creator, Yakedake. This active volcano erupted in 1915, causing mudslides which created the pond by damming the Azusa River. The beginning of the trail wanders alongside the Azusa River and upon snow-covered boardwalks. On the way you may spot rabbit tracks near your own footprints, trout in shallow inlets, or monkeys searching for food in trees or on the rocky shore of the river.

Your final destination is Kappa Bridge. In the summer, this is the busiest site in Kamikochi, but for now, it’s quiet. Once there, you can take a well-deserved rest and admire the turquoise Azusa River and the soaring peaks of Nishihotakadake, Okuhotakadake, Maehotakadake, and Yakedake.
Please allow for a full day’s hike. It takes about two and a half hours from the starting point of Kama Tunnel to Kappa Bridge, not including breaks. The trail is relatively flat, but hiking in the snow requires a lot of energy. Be prepared for the winter conditions and be in relatively good physical shape. There are a few good informative websites that include maps, transportation information, and local inn listings. Please remember that there is no winter transportation to Kamikochi or open facilities, so you must drive and hire a taxi from the parking area or stay at an inn that provides transportation.


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