A Quick Guide to the Mountains Surrounding Matsumoto

Mon, Dec 23, 2019

Matsumoto Castle may be this town’s biggest draw, but the walls Mother Nature has built around these Fuchu Plains are not to be overlooked.

Of course, that would be hard to do. There are mountains in every direction. And while there’s no need to become an expert in the short time you are here visiting us, why not give yourself an introduction to the peaks looking down on you?

That long postcard-looking picture up there offers the names and heights of some of the most notable peaks along the northern Alps, just west of Matsumoto. But if you can’t get your hands on one, no problem. We’ve got your basics covered right here.

While views of the mountains can be had all over town, there are a few places offer particularly wide and sweeping vistas. This warped panorama shows the view from the top of Kobo-yama, a little southeast of the center of town. If the weather is cooperating you’re really in for a treat.

But picking out specific peaks requires zeroing in on them. For starters, look toward the valley cutting through the mountains a little southwest of town. That valley leads up to the entrance to the famed alpine valley of Kamikochi, which is the undisputed king of day-tripping hikers. Unfortunately the valley is completely hidden from view to those of us down here in town, winding westward toward the pass before turning north on the far side of Kotakasawa-yama, over there on the right edge of the picture.

Once in Kamikochi you get a look at the peaks of Hotaka-dake. But even Oku-hotaka, Japan’s third highest peak and the tallest point along the entire northern Alps range, remains hidden behind the summits and ridge lines fronting her.

The view of the peaks of Norikura-dake, however, offer fair compensation. Mt. Ken-ga-mine is the highest of them at 3,026 meters. Norikura offers great hiking in summer and skiing in winter, and lays claim to the biggest and baddest frozen waterfall around: Zen-goro-no-taki.

Following the mountain range north you’ll see, among others, Otaki-yama and Cho-ga-take, both standing over 2,600 meters tall. Their peaks are flat, however, and not nearly as apparent as two summits a little further along. 2,857-meter Jonen-dake is the distinct triangular peak in the left half of the photo above. Look closely and you’ll see an ever sharper peak sticking up over Jonen’s left shoulder.

This is Yari-ga-take, a proud 3,180 meter spike of rock and sketchy footing. If anyone ever asks me (so far no one has, not even my kids), I’ll say Yari looks like the lone tooth of a shark trying to take a bite out of the sky. Evidently those who came before me had different ideas, as yari means spear.

If you’ve picked out Yari then you might be able to spot the brown tower standing on the low ridge running off to the right beyond those houses. This is the observation deck above the nature center at Alps Park. There may not be a better place anywhere in Matsumoto for a view of the entire northern Alps range.

Though a bike ride through the Azumino countryside has got to be a close second.

It doesn’t take much to get out here. Hop on a train up the Oita Line, get off at Hotaka, and rent a bicycle from the guys in the rental shop fifty meters down the street leading directly away from the front of the station. You may not even have to go that far, as they are sometimes hanging out in the parking lot right outside the station doors, ready to put you on your own set of wheels.

While you won’t see as many peaks from your vantage point down here, the view is nevertheless worth taking in. As a bonus you get a closer look at Ariake-yama, that flat-topped peak over there on the right. Ariake is a modest 2,268 meters, but it boasts one of the most challenging hikes around, with plenty of ropes and rickety ladders to test your mettle not to mention your grip.

Ariake, by the way, has a long history of mountain worship – longer than the much higher peaks behind her. Most mountain climbers who head that way, though, pass right on by in favor of higher but much more forgiving Tsubakuro-dake, which is visible on a clear day but manages not to stand out.

Also on a clear day you get a sense of just how far these northern Alps stretch. North of Matsumoto the range runs up to the skiers paradise of Hakuba and, to the west of those sloped peaks, the massive Kurobe dam and the famed snow corridor of Tate-yama.

But this is only what’s west of town. Look the other way and you’ll see more.

Downtown Matsumoto actually sits at the mouth of a canyon carved by time and the Susuki-gawa River. Up in the hills on both sides of the valley are the ruins – stone walls and man-made contours in the earth – of a half-dozen castles that preceded Matsumoto’s crown jewel of Japan’s feudal era.

The low, elongated mountain on the right is Higashi-yama. The walk to the top is an easy thirty minutes, with a great view of Matsumoto and the mountains to the west along the way. And while there’s not much in the way of ruins or views at the top of Higashi, the trail continues – quite bashfully in many places – up over a few minor peaks before leading to the relative flat openness of Hachibuse-yama from where you can see in almost every direction.

The mountaintop explodes in June with a zillion orange azaleas. Ontake-san, which blew its top in a deadly eruption in 2014, stares you in the face from the southwest. Conical Tateshina-yama, rounded Kuruma-yama, and a hundred other peaks are part of the views – as is, on a clear day, Mt. Fuji.

Also visible is the gently rolling ridge line of the Utsukushi-ga-hara Highlands. Looming over the Susuki River valley just right of center up there is O-ga-hana – “the king’s nose” – at a shade over 2,000 meters. Just behind that is O-ga-to, the king’s head. And while the scenery may be more striking and dramatic up in Kamikochi, the expanses of Utsukushi-ga-hara offer plenty of beauty and, quite frankly, much broader and sweeping views of the many peaks that rise up for miles in all directions from the streets of downtown Matsumoto.