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A Simple Guide to the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route

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The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is a famously scenic route through the Hida Mountains in the Northern Japan Alps, and a place we quite enjoyed, as it turns out. Completed way back in 1971, it consists of a series of different transportation options connecting the 37 mountainous kilometres between Kurobe Lake and Bijodaira Primeval Forest.

Featuring various buses, cable cars, trolleys, trams and ropeways that run roughly every 20 minutes all the way along, it is a fascinating way to spend a day (or 2) in some of the most gorgeous scenery in Japan. Since the journey involves a wide range of altitudes from 1,000 metres above sea level all the way up to 2,450 metres (or higher if you hike to any peaks), you’ll experience many different types of landscapes, terrain, vegetation and even weather.

Couple on a snowy day in Murodo Japan

This amazing area is fairly famous for the spectacular 20-metre-high snow corridor that exists each spring, but it offers much more than that single attraction (including some outstanding fall foliage). Luckily, since we weren’t there in spring.

With stunning mountains, picturesque lakes, fantastic hikes, fascinating wetlands, the highest dam in Japan and even a rather demonic, sulfurous valley, it has a little scenic something for everyone.

Of course, that 37 km only covers the specific mountain areas – you’ll need to come from (and travel to) destinations that are a little farther yet. In total, you will travel around 90 km between Omachi (3.5 hrs from Tokyo) and Toyama (5.5 hr from Tokyo), and potentially further yet, as some people choose to start or end in the main centres of Nagano or Matsumoto.

Woman walking through colourful fall foliage

There are no private vehicles allowed on the route, but the public transportation options are incredibly organized and punctual (not exactly a shocking development in Japan, but still). The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route can quite comfortably be done in a single day or, if you have time to spare and want to do some extra hiking or exploring, some people choose to stay at the top (Murodo) or simply go out and back one day, then push through the whole distance the following day (with no stops in the first section).

Overview

We traversed the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route in a single day in late October, starting with the 8:30 am bus from Omachi and arriving in Toyama at 4:30 pm. So it took us a total of 8 hours but only about 3 hours of that was spent on actual transportation, and we never waited more than a few minutes for our next ride (although the ropeway nearly filled up before we got on which would have pushed us 20 minutes back to the next one).

People waiting for a bus in Omachi Japan

The other 5 hours were spent exploring, hiking, eating, posing for selfies and trying to track down the owner of a dropped cell phone.

More specifically, we spent 1.5 hours hiking along Kurobe Lake, 1.5 hours hiking and having lunch at Murodo and finished with a 1-hour hike in Bijodaira Primeval Forest. We had hoped to do a short hike in the Midagahara Wetlands but the trails there were closed because of snow. There was also plenty of snow at Murodo and that certainly didn’t stop anyone but, presumably, Midigahara was a bit wetter and messier due to its lower altitude. 

Alpine Route Map

Map of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
https://www.alpen-route.com/en/transport/modes.html

Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route Highlights

The uniqueness of the whole route, with all the different modes of transportation, is fascinating in itself, but for us the scenery was still the main draw. These highlights are listed in order from east to west, since that’s the direction we travelled. If you travel in the other direction, well, you’ll just have to figure out how to read them backwards.

Kurobe Dam

At 186 metres it is the tallest dam in Japan and quite a sight. It was built in 1963, apparently with considerable loss of labourer lives, but they don’t really focus on that when they are directing you to all those cool viewpoints. It is quite impressive even if all you do is walk across to reach the cable car on the far side (although we recommend doing some wandering).

Kurobe Dam in the fall

There is the lake on one side, a significant drop on the other, all surrounded by mountains and forest. Pretty cool, right? Yeah, well, if you get there between June and mid-October it gets better yet.

With rain and snowmelt filling the lake, they allow some water to escape through the dam, shooting out the far side with a violent beauty on par with an open fire hydrant in the sun, or maybe a really heavy sneeze at twilight. And on a sunny day this creates a dazzling rainbow effect, hence the “Rainbow Terrace” located a little bit below the main viewpoints.

Of course, we arrived just outside of rainbow season so didn’t get to enjoy this semi-natural phenomenon. What we were treated to, however, were some exceptional fall colours. At 1,450 metres above sea level, late October was apparently the ideal time to witness the changing of the leaves.

Fall foliage around a mountain lake on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route

Suitably impressed, we immediately altered our plans (at the very first stop, no less) to add in a hike along the lake. Easy, flat and colourful – surely somebody’s idea of the perfect hike. Despite the ever-present threat of Japanese bears (never seen but always mythologized).

Sign warning of quite ferocious bears in Japan

Also, if you’re not the hiking type, or just want to get a closer look at Kurobe Gorge, you can join a Kurobe Lake cruise. We didn’t partake, but the boats looked comfortable, the trips leave hourly, take about 30 minutes and cost just 1,100 yen.

Tateyama Ropeway

From the dam, you take a cable car up to Kurobedaira transfer station, which also has some good views, although partially obscured by trees. In our case, rather colourful trees, which made them seem far more acceptable, all things considered.

Red leaves in front of a snowy mountain

The 1.7 km Tateyama ropeway is, apparently, Japan’s longest one-span ropeway. Which, I assume, means there are MORE one-span ropeways elsewhere in Japan although, technically, I guess that doesn’t have to be true.

Either way, the ropeway is pretty neat, mainly glass to allow maximum views as you climb into the mountains as you watch the lake shrinking below. There was even a Japanese woman who was the spitting image of our friend’s Caucasian mom, which was rather surprising, I thought. Hard to say if she’ll still be there when you are but it might be worth keeping an eye out.

People on a glass cable car overlooking a mountain lake

Daikanbo

Another transfer station, but with even better views than Kurobedaira. More expansive mountain/lake landscapes and fewer trees. It is worth checking out all the different angles for 20 minutes until the next Tateyama trolley bus heads up to Murodo.

Kurobe Lake from above, surrounded by mountains

Murodo

For most, this is the big climax of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (unless being accosted by large monkeys is your main goal, then the best part is yet to come). The highest point on the route at 2,450m, Murodo features a luxury hotel, several restaurants, a tourist centre and lots of trails heading out to a variety of viewpoints.

You can saunter along some short, easy trails to nearby lake overlooks and the viewpoint down into Hell’s Valley (Jigokudani), a steaming gorge filled with volcanic gas erupting from geysers all over the place. There have been times when it was possible (i.e. safe) to hike through the valley itself, although THIS day was not THAT day (Silo – 2023).

Sulfurous geysers in the Japanese Alps

There are some low peaks and ridges that can be reached in an hour or two, or you can tackle mighty Mount Oyama. 3,000 metres high, it is one of Japan’s “three sacred mountains” along with Mount Fuji and Mount Haku.

For another milestone, Hotel Tateyama is the highest hotel in Japan and with prices to match, but what a cool place to be for sunset and sunrise. I assume.

Reflective blue lake surrounded by snow-covered mountains

Earlier in the season, Murodo is known for its outstanding fall colours but we arrived to a dense blanket of just the one colour – snow white. Which was actually pretty cool, especially considering it was still a bright, sunny and (relatively) warm day.

Not warm enough to warrant walking around in a t-shirt, though, according to the elderly Japanese man who pointed at Laynni in surprise, exclaiming “strong!”, making here strangely, and mostly unnecessarily, proud. Meanwhile, just the snow itself was clearly an unusual sight for some of the Japanese tourists, many of whom were taking many, many photos of each other simply holding up a handful. “Look! Snow! Ooh, it’s cold, too!”

Woman posing in front of a frozen lake in snowy hills

Tateyama Snow Corridor

Heading down (or up) the west side of Murodo, you’ll ride the Tateyama Togen Highland Bus, known for its scenery, punctuality and providing all sorts of information about things to see and do (with the notable exception of any mention of the marauding Bijodaira monkeys).

And this is also where you can be treated to the very famous, very photogenic Tateyama Snow Corridor. Assuming you arrive between April and June, of course. At its bizarre best, the sheer snow walls hemming in the highway can reach as high as 20 metres. Which is, objectively, a lot of snow. Even by Canadian standards.

Midigahara Wetlands

We were disappointed not to be able to visit the network of picturesque boardwalks scattered throughout the intriguing marshes and swamps. But weather is weather, and rules are rules, especially in Japan.

Assuming it is open for your visit, though, there are a few short hikes you can do and a couple expansive viewpoints available to the energetic sorts.

Bijodaira Primeval Forest

Back down at around 1,000 metres above sea level, this lovely, protected forest is chock-full of interesting birds (if you’re the sort that finds birds interesting, of course) and awesome, huge cedar trees.

Woman walking through a lush cedar forest

You’ll first be greeted by a squad of smirking monkeys excited about all the delicious things that could, theoretically, be hiding in all those pockets of yours. They are easily ignored, however – unless you opt to try for some rather risky selfies with them, a choice more than a few were making – as you head for the cluster of short hiking trails starting near the visitor centre.

Map of hikes in Bijodaira Primeval Forest

Pleasant forest strolls, birds chirping, occasional valley views and even a pair of giant cedars illustrating the human condition, as they see it. One with two “legs” and a somewhat gnarly penis, another with an impractically large vagina. Enjoy.

Cedar tree with a branch that looks like a penis
Male?
Cedar tree with a hole that looks like a vagina
Female?

Shomyo Falls

If you spend less time hiking than us, or are tackling the Tateyama Alpine Route over two days instead of one, you can take a separate bus from either Bijodaira or Tateyama Station to the stunning Shomyo Falls. These extraordinary waterfalls are 350 metres (!) high and feature anywhere from 1 to 3 different falls, depending on the season.

Distant waterfalls seen through the trees

When to Go

The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is open from April 15 to Nov 30 most years, although the exact opening and closing dates might be adjusted depending on the weather.

The snow corridor exists from April to mid-June.

Wildflowers are in bloom between June and August.

Water is released from the dam between June and mid-October (exact date varies each year), so keep that in mind if you are on the hunt for rainbows.

Late September to mid-November is the time for fall colours, with the best areas starting up high and moving down later in the fall.

Multi-coloured forest in fall in Japan

Visiting in early October should let you see the best of the autumn colours AND the Rainbow Terrace.

By late November the Highland bus could stop running at any point so keep a close eye on the forecast. If you do get caught out, it is still possible to traverse the far side of the route right until the bitter end.

Resources

For the latest news and most detailed information on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, check out their official site:

https://www.alpen-route.com/en/

How to Buy Tickets

You can buy 1, 5 or 8-day tickets. Strategically, not 2-day tickets, it seems. However, even the one-day prices aren’t that bad (around $US85 per person when we booked). Unfortunately, advance tickets are usually only made available two weeks ahead, so it is worth figuring out the first day you can book your dates and mark it on your calendar.

Even if you can’t – or won’t – plan ahead, it is usually possible to get tickets on arrival, as long as you avoid public or school holidays and particularly amazing weekends.

https://tateyama-kurobe-webservice.jp/AlpenTour/html/VW001W0010.html

Luggage Forwarding

Large luggage is not allowed on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, and even if it was, lugging big suitcases around all day would be a huge pain. You’re much better off taking advantage of the very organized and efficient luggage transfer service that will transport your bags from one end of the route to the other for somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 yen, depending on your starting and ending points.

Many hotels at either end are included in this, so it could be as easy as leaving your stuff in the lobby on your way out, or as hard as taking it to the bus station or leaving it in a nearby lobby instead. You can see the full list of drop locations here:

https://www.alpen-route.com/en/transport/baggage.html

If you are visiting late in the season it is worth checking ahead since sometimes this service ends before the route actually closes.

Summary

Cable car on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route

The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route was one of the big highlights of our 5 weeks in Japan. Sure, it is kind of out of the way, takes a bit of planning and you spend most of the day on one mode of transport or another. But the scenery is amazing, the history is pretty fascinating and how often can you visit the highest dam, highest hotel, longest ropeway AND enjoy a pretty decent rice bowl, all in one day?

Exactly. I recommend you check it out.

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