Kamikochi, Gateway to the Japanese Alps

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Kamikochi sits 1500 metres above sea level along the banks of the deep gray-blue Azusa river, nestled between some of Japan’s tallest mountains. Kamikochi was first introduced to the world at large in the book Mountaineering and Exploring in the Japanese Alps, written by Walter Weston. Weston came to Japan as a missionary in 1888 and quickly began to explore Japan’s rich wilderness areas. He had a particular keenness for mountaineering and it was this that led him to the unspoiled snow peaked mountains of the Japanese Alps. Weston is still remembered fondly in this region by a bronze plaque recalling his legacy and every June when a mountain climbing festival is celebrated in his honor.

In the Japanese Shinto religion mountains are considered sacred and, as such, have been revered and respected long before mountain climbing came to be thought of as “sport”. In fact, Japan still has many religious ceremonies which include climbing to the tops of sacred peaks for spiritual benefit. However, nowadays mountaineering in Japan is hugely popular and Kamikochi is considered hallowed ground to Japan’s serious mountain climbers. Anybody who has had the pleasure of climbing Mount Fuji in mid-summer surely understands just how fond the Japanese are to don a shiny new North Face jacket and head up a mountain with a few hundred of their closest friends. Mountain climbing has even recently made it’s manga debut in the massively popular 岳 (Gaku), which just happens to be set to the backdrop of Kamikochi.

This popular destination has seen many changes over the years. Even the kanji used to write Kamikochi have evolved over the years; 神河内、神合地、神降地、and finally 上高地. Tourists used to flock here by the thousands, driving their own cars in to the national park and parking just about anywhere they could, but now all car travel in to Kamikochi is restricted and travellers these days make their way by taxi or bus. This leaves nature free from the burden of hundreds of Toyotas coming through every day and also keeps the number of tourists down, especially overnighters.

Standing on Kamikochi’s famous Kappa Bridge and seeing a range of 3000 metre tall mountains is nothing short of awe inspiring, but mountains aren’t the only thing that Kamikochi has to offer. In the eerily calm of nearby Taisho Lake stands the withered remains of trees that survive from the 1915 volcanic blast that plugged up part of the Azusa River and formed this very pond. Equally exciting is walking through the dense forests on one of Kamikochi’s many footpaths, which will almost guarantee a visit from some of the region’s wildlife, including the popular Japanese macaque. And for anyone who does manage a bit of walking during their visit here, there are few things better than a dip in an onsen (Japanese hot spring) after a long hike!

Along the Azusa River

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