A trip up into the mountains of central Japan is a worthwhile and unforgettable endeavor. Those who decide to add a high-altitude day to their Japan itinerary often choose Matsumoto as their launching pad. And most often, they launch themselves up to Kamikochi.
And for good reason. Kamikochi is a special place. Fortunately, Kamikochi is easily accessible; just jump on a bus or a train and go. Unfortunately, Kamikochi is easily accessible, so a sea of visitors floods the beautiful alpine valley from April to November.
I’ve been to Kamikochi a number of times, and always enjoy it immensely. But if you’d rather not jostle with the hordes on your trip up into the mountains, head for the unique and picturesque granite peak of Tsubakuro-dake.
The allure of Mt. Tsubakuro comes from a combination of eye-popping scenery, relatively few people, and an onsen right there waiting for you when you get back down the mountain. You also have the option of spending the night up there among the clouds, with both a lodge and a campground just below the summit.
Note, however, that the trail up Tsubakuro sees “relatively” few people – that is, relative to the swarms pouring off the buses at Kamikochi. On weekends during the summer it can seem like half of Matsumoto is up there on Tsubakuro. This is course is not the case. People come here from all over Japan. Things are much quieter during the week, but chances are pretty slim you’ll have the mountain all to yourself.
When it comes down to it though, a hike up Tsubakuro wouldn’t be complete or as interesting without a few local hikers to share it with.
From the trail head at Nakabusa Onsen to the ridge where that eye-popping scenery suddenly comes into view, the trail is a mere 5.7 kilometers. The elevation gain, however, is over 1,300 meters. The last stretch along the ridge up to the actual summit of Tsubakuro will cost you an additional final bit of effort and another thirty minutes of your day – and is eminently worth it.
The trail from Nakabusa all the way up to the ridge is well-marked and, albeit somewhat steep in places, is not at all technical. At an easy pace the climb takes five or six hours, with plenty of time figured in for taking breaks and snapping pictures. Around halfway up is the Gassen-goya, a hut that serves food and drinks and a place to rest your feet. Sometimes they also have watermelon. Ask for some if you’re in the mood.
For the visitor, the icing on this cake called Tsubakuro is the fact that you can get there without a car. A thirty-minute train ride from Matsumoto gets you to Hotaka Station. Exit and look to your left for the bus – or a small group of locals outfitted with boots and packs and poles. The bus ride lasts about an hour, and drops you off right there at Nakabusa Onsen and the start of the trail up the mountain.
Check train times at the visitor information center in Matsumoto Station. Click here for bus information. Note that you’ll want to get as early a start as possible, to give yourself plenty of time to get up and down the mountain – with plenty of time to enjoy yourself along the way.
If you want to spend the night up in the mountain air, check the Enzanso website. Enzanso is the name of the lodge near the summit of Tsubakuro, but is also the name of the company that operates several other lodges as well. The online reservation page is all in Japanese, which means if you need help navigating your way through the process you’ll have a chance to start mixing and mingling with the locals long before you ever get near the mountain.