Fifteen years after a friend told me about how beautiful and wonderful Japan was, I finally made my way to Japan. We spend five days in the Japanese Alps, here’s the second half of our trip.
Summiting a Volcano
Nestled in a cool basin surrounded by the Alps, Matsumoto was the perfect base from which to continue exploring the region. We stayed at the Matsumoto Backpackers hostel, a clean and simple place with an incredibly friendly and knowledgeable staff. From Pierre, the manager, we got some expert advice about planning our next hike in the nearby Kamikochi, the region’s biggest destination for hiking. Based on his recommendations we decided to tackle Mt. Dake, an active volcano that could be summited in one day.
Arriving at Kamikochi in the early morning, we caught the mist rising slowly off the clear, shallow river at the foot of the mountain. At the outside of our hike we encountered ominous warnings that volcanic smoke and black bears had both been spotted there within the previous week and advising us to ring our “bear bells” as we walked.
Despite lacking the aforementioned survival gear, we proceeded with caution, enjoying a challenging ascent that involved a series of flimsy, makeshift ladders held together in some places by electrical tape. The going got tough during the final hour of the ascent, as the path dissolved into slippery gravel and the way forward could only be discerned from arrows spray-painted onto the boulders scattered about.
We seemed to have hiked straight into a cloud, as rain began to fall and our visibility progressively diminished. When we finally reached the peak, it was hard to see anything through the weather, though occasional breaks in the clouds revealed a lush, verdant, world below us.
Back in town a few hours later, we took advantage of one of one of Matsumoto’s other finer qualities, an abundance of excellent izakayas and other restaurants. We opted for Hu La La, a Hawaiian restaurant with shockingly good burgers and strong cocktails. If you’re in town, by the way, don’t miss Mensho Sakura, serving up the richest ramen I’ve ever tasted, as well as Matsumoto-jo, Japan’s oldest wooden castle and a stunning example of the country’s traditional architecture.
On our last day in the Japanese Alps, we headed to the historic town of Magome in order to spend a day walking along the Nakasendo post road, constructed hundreds of years ago to connect Tokyo with Kyoto. With its cobblestone streets and traditional construction, Magome seemed to be perfectly frozen in time. The 7.8 km trail to the equally well-preserved town of Tsumago made for a perfect day, slowly rising and falling through shady forests, picturesque rice fields, and a pair of waterfalls.
After downing some hand-made noodles and ice cream in Tsumago, we took a short taxi ride to Hostel and Café Yui-an on the outskirts of nearby Nagiso. The recently-opened guesthouse was the perfect place to unwind after a day in the hot sun, situated in a lovingly restored old home on a quiet country road. The owners, a friendly young couple from Tokyo, look after their guests like old friends, impressing us with the deliciously home-cooked Japanese curry and expertly prepared pour-over coffees.
On the back porch, we enjoyed one last magical moment in the Alps, taking in a brilliant sun shower against the backdrop of lush fields, jagged mountains and silver clouds while the family cat purred beside us.
So many years after my friend first told me about this idyllic corner of the world, I only wish it hadn’t taken me so long to discover it for myself. If you do find yourself in Japan any time soon, be sure to make a point of spending some time in this region.
Eric Carlson is currently the Dean of Students at Beijing National Day School and hopes that his photo journals will inspire more people to #DieLiving