Most people should know that Japan is a mountainous country. But did you know that the country boasts of its own Alps? It stretches like a backbone on the northern half of Honshu. Our objective is to walk along the ice walls at the top of Mount Tateyama in the northern alps. An immensely popular site, it especially busy at this time of an emerging spring.
Each year when the snowmelt begins, the thick ice that had fallen over the roads over the mountain pass will be cleared. The clearance is done such that it only follows the road. Thus on both sides of the road, an ice wall remains. From the air, it looks like a canal carved out of snow and ice. Access however is controlled, and private vehicles are not permitted to drive beyond the Kurobe dam from the direction of Nagano.
It was very early in the morning that we left lake Suwa. Fortunately we had a really nice buffet breakfast before setting off.
We have been driving about in Nagano (read more here) and are on the approach to Ogisawa, at the base of the Kurobe dam. You need to park your car here and free parking is available if you do not wish to park closer to the station. It costs us ¥8,900pp (return) to reach Murodo station at the peak to do the ice walk. We had bought return tickets, for we need to get back to our car. Most tourists do one-direction and get off at Toyama.
We had taken electric buses from Ogisawa through the Kanden tunnel, one of the most difficult and first tunnel to be built to reach the top of the dam. The tunnel runs through the mountains to reach the dam itself (1470m) and took us about 15 minutes. Renowned as the deepest and largest gorge in Japan, Kurobe dam was completed in 1963 over 7 years.
From here, it is a cable car ride up to Kurobedaira, where a ropeway connects to Daikanbo. Once at Daikanbo we took the first bus to Murodo, the zenith to see the ice wall.
We had not stopped at any of the connecting sites, as we intended to make a reverse journey back to Ogisawa. We realize that we will miss one of the scheduled cable car run and took the opportunity to take a slow stroll. It is a fortunate day, for the skies are clear.
From the Murodo exit at 2450m, we were greeted with snow and ice. At this altitude, all we could see below the mountain were the clouds. We’re on cloud 9! Rather, we are above it. The road at Murodo leads to Bijodaira, where cable cars link to the trains (leading to Toyama). Our final destination for today is here!
The walk itself is not particularly difficult as there is a lane reserved for foot traffic. Except that the cold sets in as temperatures hover around 3°C. These snow walls are “carved” out with machines in March or April. Only after is it possible for the Highland buses to ply the Murodo-Bijodaira route and for us to walk amongst these walls that could span up to 18m high.
The ‘high’light of our walk is to get to a point where no one else is in the background and take stunning pictures. In some way we succeeded, as we stood idly by waiting for the tourist hordes to be “herded” back to their groups and driven away on the coaches towards Toyama. Bye! As independent travelers, we had lots of time to enjoy the walk along the ice wall, carving our names onto the wall etc…
In the summer and autumn, visitors will see flowers or the change of the season. Especially during autumn, the colors must be rapturous. But in winter, about the only sight to behold would be the walls of ice. Feeling of euphoria gradually turned into a shivering realization that it’s time to look for the rest rooms…
Tateyama hotel sits majestically at the top of the mountain next to the station. This is where you can enjoy a hot cup of coffee while soaking in the sight of different shades of white. In the winter this turns into a ski ground we suppose, but for now it was just nice to sit in the warmth and enjoy the view.
The descent back to Daikanbo was via the tunnel bus before getting onto a ropeway to head down to Kurobedaira. As we descend, the view of Tateyama’s sides are revealed. While ascending earlier, we had noticed many ice blocks rolling down slope and wondered if there were risks of avalanches. Once we reached the top we realized that workers were busy clearing the walkways and they discarded the shoveled blocks of ice over the edge down the mountain. Phew!
At Kurobedaira, we explored the vantage points overlooking the lake formed by the dam. From this location, you can see the entire vicinity of the dam and the lake that was formed. In the summer, it is said that a boat cruise operates on the waters of the lake.
We were famished! Its 3pm and we had been walking for the last 5½ hours in the cold. Although we had an apple, the lure of the affordable curry rice and tempura set was overpowering.
It was to be a long and hard drive back to Karuizawa for our final night’s stay in Nagano.
We are making our way back using the smaller rural roads rather than highway, which would have been a really big detour. Route 55 was closed for road works and we were diverted to Route 143, which too was closed! The GPS was not smart enough (no latest update on traffic link) and we had to revert to the trusty map! Harrowing, but exciting drive back.
Finally reaching home base, we topped up petrol and headed back to the local Ryokan to have our dinner.
Affordable yet delicious, we gobbled down our meal as we relaxed after a really long day… Click here to get back to the conclusion of our Nagano road trip.