Kamikochi is, without a doubt, my favourite place in Japan. It is an area of astoundning natural beauty in the highlands of Gifu easily reachable from Takayama and Matsumoto. Jagged snow-covered alpine peaks encircle a network of small lakes, melt-water rivers, winding forest trails and mountain routes. In the mists of history, this area was considered divine, and mountain climbing was an act of worship rather than an improving hobby.
All this was changed in the 19th century when an English missionary, the Reverend Walter Weston devoted his evangelical energies to praising the heights in his book “Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps”. A plaque dedicated to him still stands although the gift shop doesn’t stock a single copy of his book. Today it is a very popular destination with native and foreign travellers alike, although it has been spared the worst excesses of the Japanese tourism industry due to a ban on cars entering the valley. Access is only by approved buses, but these still transport thousands of people every year. There are plans to link Kamikochi to Sawando by rail, an insane and unnecessary idea, but surely an inevitable one.
The ‘centre’ of Kamikochi is the Kappa Bridge, a few minutes walk from the bus terminal. Probably the worst spot in the area, this is where the ubiquitous gift shops, vending machines, coin lockers and restaurants are sited. For the day-tripper, I would recommend catching the bus home from here, and little else. If you arere visiting for the day, the best plan is to leave the bus at Taisho Pond, at the south-western end of the valley, and begin your hike from there. It should take about an hour to reach Kappa Bridge. From the bridge, most people follow the Eastern trail anti-clockwise, so I would advise the opposite. The northern shore is more peaceful and there are more opportunities to see the monkeys that live here. If, like me, avoiding crowds and communing with nature are more important than collecting Kitty-chan pens and “I bought this tat at Kamikochi” mugs, then camping allows you to enjoy the tranquillity once the last bus leaves around 6pm.
There is a main campsite near Kappa Bridge but the slopes are dotted with campgrounds and overnight cabins for those with loftier ambitions. If you’re planning to spend the night amongst the peaks, go to the information centre at the bus terminal first – they have excellent maps, guidance, the latest weather forecasts and – a must – will inform the cabin or campground staff to expect you.
Summer in Japan is hot and humid, but not at 3000 metres: there is snow all year round, and weather changes with a scary speed. It is important to let the staff know you are going to be there overnight in case something happens. If no one knows you are there, no one will know to look for you. Access to Kamikochi is suspended from mid-November to the end of April each year, due to serious snowfalls and sub-zero temperatures.
The open season is book-ended by the spring cherry blossom and the deep red autumn leaves, both of which are visually arresting, but summer is the best time to visit, as you can escape the sweltering low-lying areas but don’t have to wrap up like Scott of the Antarctic once you leave the tree line. For the traveller, regular buses run from Takayama if you’re coming from the west and Matsumoto if you begin your journey in the east. If you have access to a car, there is private parking in both Hirayu and Sawando and shuttle buses run from the car parks.