The rainy season has come and gone, leaving Japan in the midst of another summer swelter. Even here in Matsumoto, at 600 meters above sea level, the heat can be impressive.
One way to beat the heat is to go dunk your hat in the river. Another is to head for higher ground. And while there are plenty of high-altitude places to choose from around here, there aren’t any trains that go to them.
But no sweat! Just hop on a bus and head for the hills. Here are a few ways how.
Utsukushigahara Highlands Direct Bus Service
Okay, it’s not exactly direct. Twenty minutes after departing Matsumoto Station there is a stop at Utsukushigahara Onsen Village. Five minutes later the bus stops again, this time in the Asama Onsen District. (Either there are people who like to spend their steamy summer days soaking in hot water or there are people jumping on the bus to escape.)
But then the bus heads along the river and up into the mountains, and in less than an hour you’ll be arriving at the Utsukushigahara Nature Conservation Center. Grab a map and maybe a bit of refreshment and then go for a hike around this 2,000-meter-high plateau of rolling footpaths, grazing cows and some spectacular views of the mountains that dominate the horizon in every direction. If the skies are clear you might even see Mount Fuji.
Through the end of August the bus runs twice a day each way, then only on weekends and holidays through September. The ride will run you 1,000 yen each way, starting from and bringing you back to the WEST SIDE of Matsumoto Station. I’d suggest taking the early 8:15 bus. If you decide an hour and a half up there is enough you can jump on the 11:15 bus back to town. Or take the time to wander and take in the views of the Northern Alps to the west, volcanic Asama-yama to the northeast, conical Tateshina and the rough peaks of Yatsugadake to the southeast, and, if you’re lucky, Mt. Fuji to the south beyond Mitsumine-yama. Just remember to leave yourself enough time to retrace your steps and get back for the 4:30 bus back to the relative lowlands of Matsumoto.
Alpico Bus Service to Kamikochi and Norikura
If you don’t mind the crowds you can elect to jump on a bus and head west, up to the famed alpine scenery of Kamikochi. Alpico runs a whole host of bus routes into and over the Northern Alps, with special multi-day passes to cover the best of what this mountain range has to offer. If you’re good with just a single day trip, you’ve got plenty of options there, including the possibility to ride up into the mountains in the morning, spend the day soaking up the altitude, then go down the other side of the mountain into Takayama and further on along your way.
You can get the run-down on bus times and fares at Alpico’s English-version website (scroll down to the Route Bus section for Kamikochi, Norikura and Shirahone) or go get all your questions answered in person at the Alpico Bus Terminal, across the street from Matsumoto Station (the EAST SIDE this time).
A Greater Challenge with Greater Rewards
Compared to Kamikochi, Tsubakuro-dake to the north is a much less frequented and much less talked-about destination. But if you want to hike up to your high ground, this is a great opportunity.
Catch an early morning train from Matsumoto north to Hotaka on the Oita Line. From Hotaka catch a bus to Nakabusa Onsen and the Tsubakuro trailhead; at just under 1,500 meters above sea level it’s almost as high as Kamikochi. From there you’ve got a climb of over a thousand meters ahead of you – and, if the weather cooperates, wide vistas of some of the best mountain scenery in all of Japan.
As a nice extra, there’s also a river right there, storybook-perfect for cooling off.
Check this online PDF for bus times – and do note that the last bus back to Hotaka Station leaves the trailhead at 4:15, so you’ll either want to get down off the mountain by then or take your chances and hitch a ride back to town – which may not be impossible but if it doesn’t work out you’re left with a long walk or an expensive taxi ride.
Or just get out of town
On the other side of Utsukushigahara to the east is the town of Ueda. Getting here you do have the option of taking the train, but if you don’t have a JR Pass this bus is your cheaper option. As a bonus, the bus also goes to Kakeyu, an onsen village with over 1,200 years of history. Going to Ueda, the bus takes you all the way to Ue
da Station, just a few minutes’ walk from Ueda Castle.
As with the Utsukushigahara bus, this service to Ueda runs every day through August. And while it is possible to make a quick day trip to Ueda and back using this bus line, you’d only have about an hour to go see the castle and get back for the return to Matsumoto. If Kakeyu Onsen is your goal, you’d have two and a half hours to enjoy. Get all the details – and your ticket – at the Alpico Bus Terminal.
And if all this still isn’t enough to beat the heat, go dunk yourself in the river. It’s always open, and always free.