Nestled among the dramatic peaks of the Japanese Alps lies the high plateau of Kamikochi; the name means ‘Where the gods descended’. The Azusa River flows through a valley formed by great elemental upheavals, including glaciers and volcanic eruptions, over many thousands of years.
Today it is part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park. We visited in October when the foliage was beautifully tinted with reds, golds and greens. The park, always popular with Japanese tourists, was busy even in the rain. And in the rain is how, for the most part, we saw it!
A rainy day walk in Kamikochi
We had been enjoying great weather on our trip through Japan, but in Kamikochi our luck finally ran out. Rain is not at all unusual here, but we got more than just rain; we got one of Japan’s autumnal typhoons! But neither the rain, nor the many visitors, could mask its beauty.
Determined to get out and see something of the park despite the weather we armed ourselves with waterproofs and umbrellas, to protect our cameras as much as ourselves, and set off on a walk along the valley. Most of the photos on this page were taken juggling camera and umbrella!
We started our walk at the Kappa-bashi Bridge, near our hotel. This wooden suspension bridge is 36.6 metres long and just over three metres wide. It is something of a symbol for Kamikochi. It is also the busiest point in the park as almost everyone crosses it at some point in their visit. By the way, bashi means bridge, but most English translations add the tautological ‘bridge’ to the name.
The bridge is named for a mythical creature, the Kappa, a name meaning ‘river child’. The Kappa is a trickster, as found in many mythologies, but a pretty malevolent one. They are said to lure people into the water to drown; to kidnap children; and even to drink the blood of their victims in order to capture their soul. Even today you may see a sign warning of the presence of a Kappa by some bodies of water in more remote Japanese towns and villages.
Some say that the various Kappa legends are based on the Japanese giant salamander or hanzaki, an aggressive salamander that grabs its prey with its powerful jaws. Others suggest that they are based on historical sightings of the now extinct Japanese river otter as seen from a distance. Otters have been known to stand upright; and a drunk, frightened or confused person might just think they are seeing a human-like figure rather a wild animal.
Whatever its origin, the Kappa is usually depicted looking much like a human and about the size of a child. Its reptilian skin ranges in colour from green to yellow or blue.
The bridge is surrounded by a number of mountains including Nishihotakadake, Okuhotakadake and Myojindake, which are all over 3,000 metres above sea level. But mountain views today were in short supply, so I had to focus on details closer to hand.
Walking in Kamikochi
Kamikochi is a park for walkers and hikers. There are paths to suit everyone, from an easy stroll by the river to a challenging hike up one of the mountains. In this weather however the riverside routes were the only practical ones and the area around the hotels and Kappi-bashi was busy with visitors. But many people don’t go very far from the hotels and bus terminal; we knew we would soon leave most of them behind.
I had picked up a small trail map at our hotel, but in any case the trails were easy to follow and clearly marked. There were also signs along the way describing the landscape, trees, bird life etc. These were in Japanese and English, and I found them very informative. But it was somewhat frustrating to see on some of them the pictures of the stunning mountain range that was totally hidden from our view by a blanket of low cloud!
The Weston Relief
This is the shorthand name given locally to the Reverend Weston Memorial Plaque, which we came to after a short walk from Kappa-bashi.
It commemorates the Reverend Walter Weston. He was an English clergyman and missionary of the Church of England during the late 19th / early 20th centuries. He first visited Japan at the age of 27 and was captivated by its mountain regions which he introduced to the world through his book, ‘Mountaineering and Exploring in the Japanese Alps’ (1896).
It is Weston who is credited with spreading the popular name for this region, the ‘Japanese Alps’, around the world. He was influential in establishing the Japanese Alpine Club in 1906 and was its first honorary member. In 1937, Emperor Hirohito conferred on him the Japanese ‘Order of the Sacred Treasures (fourth class)’. To mark this, the Japanese Alpine Club erected a bronze plaque in his honour here at Kamikochi. Today’s plaque is a 1965 reproduction of that earlier one which had got badly damaged over time.
About a kilometre from Kappa-bashi the path, which at first follows the northern bank of the Azusa River, crosses it via the Tashiro Bridge. The river views on and near the bridge are wonderful. And the water is so clear as it runs over the pebbles, even on a wet day.
On the far side of the bridge is a small shelter with some interesting information displays about the park’s wildlife. Soon after this point the path divides and you have the choice of following a route near the river or one that runs among the trees. We chose the former, and followed the path as it crossed a couple of smaller streams that feed the Azusa near here, before arriving at the beautiful Tashiro-Ike.
This was easily my favourite spot in Kamikochi. We had been walking in the rain for some time, enjoying the soft light and changing colours. Then suddenly the path through the trees emerged into a more open area, filled with rust-tinted reeds and edged with larch and other trees. This was Tashiro Marsh, which is gradually being formed by the silting up of Tashiro Pond through many years of accumulated dead leaves. A raised path crosses the marsh and leads to the edge of the pond itself, Tashiro-Ike.
Its clear waters reflect, on a bright day, the surrounding mountains; but today, in the soft Kamikochi rain, they glowed deep and green, reflecting only the nearby trees. In this busy park, and only minutes from its most popular trail, we had this spot almost to ourselves; many visitors, it seems, don’t bother to make the 100 metre or so detour to see this pond. They are missing a treat!
Tashiro is from all accounts lovely whatever the season. In late spring and summer it is surrounded by flowers, including Japanese azalea; and later the autumn colours that we enjoyed appear. In winter Kamikochi is closed to visitors, but if you were able to visit Tashiro you would find the waters still flowing, as it is fed by an underground spring and never completely freezes over.
From here we retraced our steps to the main path and continued in the direction we had been walking.
This trail ends at the Taisho Pond, one of Kamikochi’s most popular and photographed spots. The pond is a relatively recent addition to the landscape here, having been formed in 1915 by the volcanic activity of nearby Yakedake. On June 6th that year an eruption caused an avalanche of mud. This blocked the Azusa River and led to the creation of Taisho-Ike. The trees drowned when the river was dammed still stand, withered but upright, and make for an eerie sight, especially in the grey misty light of a rainy day. By contrast, a clear day will reveal reflections of Yakedake and Mount Hotaka in the pond’s still waters (we were to get a glimpse of this from the bus the next morning as we left the park).
To reach the water’s edge we scrambled over the rocky foreshore to take some photos. We then climbed a short path up to a hotel that sits here, which in fine weather has great views of the reflections in the pond, and is consequently often crowded, I believe. But today it was quiet here and it was easy to get good photos from both foreshore and above.
Once we’d seen and photographed all we wanted to, we went to the hotel café to get a hot cup of coffee to warm us up after being out in the rain all morning. The café has lovely views of the pond; it was the perfect place to dry out before taking the bus back to our own hotel near Kappa-Bashi. A good end to a damp but satisfying rainy day walk in Kamikochi.
Postscript: the next day
In case you are wondering, here is that shot of Taisho-Ike taken the following morning as we were leaving!
And to see what Kamikochi looks like in the spring, have a look at my friend Mari’s post about Walking in the Japanese Alps
I visited Kamikochi in 2013