The roof of Japan: Traversing the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route

By Vicki L Beyer

If you're a snow lover who's sorry to see the demise of winter, or simply an aficionado of dramatic mountain scenery, then now is the time to get yourself to the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, home to the famous "snow corridor." This is where the snow is cleared from the road in in mid-April, by cutting through the snow, leaving sheer walls of it on either side, often around 20 meters deep when the road is first opened, and slowly melting away over the following months. This year the route was opened on April 16.

But this area, which is always closed to private vehicles and is completely closed from Dec 1 to mid-April, offers much more than just the snow corridor.

The Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route is 90 kilometers stretching from Tateyama Station in Toyama Prefecture to Shinano Omachi Station in Nagano Prefecture, crossing the "backbone" of Japan, with incredibly beautiful alpine scenery and a total altitude change from one end to the other (up and down) of 2,400 meters.

To make the one-way journey in either direction, the traveler must use nine forms of transportation (not to mention a bit of walking between them in some cases). Many travelers start from one end or the other, travel as far as Murodo, home of the snow corridor, and then return the way they came.

The route can be completed as a long day trip from either the Toyama or Nagano side (there is a baggage delivery service between the two just for people traveling the Alpine Route), but consider a more relaxing pace by spending the night at Murodo's Hotel Tateyama, on the flanks of Mt Tateyama. At 2,405 meters above sea level, it is the highest altitude hotel in Japan and is a perfect staging point for a bit of mountain trekking, or, in this early part of the mountain's "season", for a last chance to enjoy snow.

Mt Tateyama, one of Japan's top 20 highest peaks, has long been regarded as sacred, making it a popular destination for religious pilgrims. Beginning in the late 18th century, the mountain also became popular with mountaineers and serious climbers as well. Just a short hike from Murodo, one can enjoy hot springs, thermal pools, a volcanic crater lake and otherworldly volcanic landscape.

Additionally, as already mentioned, the main attraction of Murodo from mid-April to early June is the famed snow corridor. This western side of Mt Tateyama gets among the heaviest snowfall in the world. The coach buses that travel between Murodo and Bijodaira are dwarfed by the sheer walls of snow. But you must stroll down the road for yourself and experience the sense of refrigeration caused by the snow walls. Many visitors carve their names or other messages into the snow walls, too. A snowball fight in the open area nearby is de rigueur.

Because of the abundance of snow, Murodo will be significantly cooler than wherever you started from. Be sure you have good walking shoes, hat and gloves, and an extra layer of clothing, as well as sun glasses.

The other dramatic attraction of the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route is the Kurobe Dam, on the Nagano side of the mountains. This arch dam was constructed between 1956 and 1963 as a hydro-electric project to meet Japan's burgeoning energy needs. At 186 meters in height, it is the tallest dam in Japan. The Kurobe River gorge where the dam is located was so remote that before construction of the dam could begin, a tunnel had to be dug through Mt Akazawadake connecting the gorge with the valley to its east. This tunnel was then used to carry in the workers and the building materials for the dam.

Nowadays, clean-energy electric trolley buses whisk visitors between the dam site and Ogizawa (a short bus ride from Shinano Omachi station or a much longer bus ride to Nagano or Matsumoto) in 16 minutes. Once at the dam, visitors can admire the dramatic scenery and the spectacular structure of the dam itself. In the summer months, the dam's floodgates are opened releasing a torrent of water into the gorge below the dame. There are also boat rides on Lake Kurobe (the lake formed by the dam).

Walk across the top of the dam to catch the next mode of transport, the Kurobe Cable Car. The most notable feature of this funicular railway is that it makes its five minute trip inside the mountain.

The top of the Kurobe Cable Car route is Kurobedaira, where travelers change transport modes to the dramatic Tateyama Ropeway. This need to change transport, and the difference in capacity between the cable car and the ropeway may result in delays. But don't worry, there's plenty to keep you occupied during your wait: restaurants and souvenir shops, as well as the mountain scenery and the snow -- and the people playing in it.

Once on the ropeway, you will be treated to some of the most dramatic mountain scenery the Alpine Route has to offer. At Daikanbo (elevation 2,316 meters), travelers again change transport, this time between the Tateyama Ropeway and the Tateyama Tunnel Trolley Bus, another clean-energy electric bus that run through Mt Tateyama itself to connect Daikanbo with Murodo (elevation 2,450 meters).

The Tateyama Highland bus runs between Murodo and Bijodaira, an ascent/descent of about 1,500 meters in about 30 kilometers. It takes just under an hour. At Bijodaira, catch the Tateyama Cable Car to Tateyama Station, where you can catch the Toyama Chiho Railway to Toyama and civilization again.

To travel the entire distance from Nagano to Toyama costs 13,450 yen. Traveling from one end or the other as far as Murodo and then going back the way you came will cost between 6,710 and 9,050 yen. Just remind yourself, the journey IS the destination. And then, relax and enjoy this truly unique experience in Japan.

© Japan Today

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Is it possible to bicycle this route?

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A great spot worth seeing.

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