Back in the old days when there weren’t paved roads and droves of buses that could take you to Kamikochi, the best way to get there was via the Tokugo Pass trail.
A bit of history
The use of this trail dates way back to the 1600s when the locals living in the Shimashima area used the trail not for pleasure but rather for making a living: gathering lumber, making charcoal, bringing animals to graze in the mountains, gathering medicinal herbs, and so on.
Walter Weston, an English mountaineering pioneer who spent time in Japan, is also known to have walked this trail 11 times (for the first time in 1893). You can find references to the Japan Alps and Kamikochi in his book, «Mountaineering and exploration in the Japanese Alps,» which you can download/read for free here.
The good news is that anyone can still walk this trail today!
Walking the trail today
You can use it to get to Kamikochi or for access to some of the mountains in the area. At the top of Tokugo Pass is a lodge and a campground, so you could potentially set up your base camp here and spend a day or two exploring. It is also possible to do the Tokugo Pass trail as a one-day hike by walking to Kamikochi and then taking a bus back to Matsumoto (or another destination) from the Kamikochi Bus Terminal (which is what I did).
Note that this trail is not easy. To the Tokugo Pass where the lodge and campground is located, it is a 16 km/10 mi trek. If you are going all the way to Kamikochi, the total distance is 20 km/12 mi to the Myojin area of Kamikochi (23 km/14 mi total to the Kamikochi Bus Terminal). Most of the trail is not too strenuous, but the last 2 km before the top of Tokugo Pass requires climbing up a very steep mountain which has an elevation of about 2,000 meters (that is after walking several kilometers through the woods!).
Time-wise, it took me about 8 hours to reach the Tokugo Pass and then another 2 and half hours to the bus terminal. If you are generally physically fit, then going all the way to Kamikochi in one day is definitely possible, but your legs may be screaming by the time you reach the goal. Seasoned trekkers and backpackers may have an easier time.
Spending the night at the lodge or campground is recommended if you want to also take some time to walk around Kamikochi. If you do want to go all the way to Kamikochi in one day, I highly recommended starting early in the morning, around 5 or 6 am.
The trailhead starts in a little village at Shimashima, up the road from Shin-Shimashima Station. Take a taxi or bus from Shin-Shimashima station. If you take a bus, get off at the «Shimashima» bus stop. Or, if you have a car, you can park at the Azumi City Hall branch (map) in Shimashima village on the weekends (you may want to check with the hall if it’s a weekday). There is also another parking lot beyond the trail gate (photo below). Take the road back into the village toward the mountain valley and you’ll find a gate that marks the beginning of the trail.
On the trail
The trail up until the climb up to Tokugo Pass is a pleasant hike through the woods along a mountain stream. Even on a hot summer day, the stream and the shade from the trees makes it feel quite cool. Along the way, there are plenty of beautiful sights, such as small waterfall, huge boulders in the stream, exposed rock faces, curious-looking trees, wildflowers, you name it. Keep an eye out for the stone charcoal kiln that was used during the 1940s, too.
After a few hours of hiking, you’ll eventually reach the hardest part where you basically need to climb straight up to Tokugo Pass at an elevation of 2,000 meters. It’s tough, but just keep on trekking through and you’ll eventually make it! There is also a natural spring along the way where you can fill up on water. It’s marked with a wooden sign that says «Chikara Mizu» (力水, lit. «power water»).
Once you reach the top of the pass, your hard climb will be paid off with great views of the surrounding mountains including the Hotaka mountain range. You’ll also find the lodge and the campsite here, which is a good place to take a break and say hi to some of the other hikers. You can use the restroom here for 100 yen as well.
On to Kamikochi
If you choose to keep going toward Kamikochi, from here it’s all downhill with a nice view of the Hotaka mountains along the way. The trail will come out another trail that connects to Kamikochi at Myojin, which will be well-marked with proper signage. If you still have some power left over, walk around Kamikochi a bit before catching a bus back to Matsumoto (or heading to another place of lodging). Don’t forget to grab some soft-serve ice cream at the bus terminal!