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Tuesday, July 17, 2001

KAMIKOCHI TRAILS

Peak experiences hiking the Japan Alps


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Special to The Japan Times

KAMIKOCHI, Nagano Prefecture -- In his novel "The House of Nire," Morio Kita writes, "In the already fading light the linked peaks of the Alps were solid and harsh, all ranged there in the early dusk like a huge folding screen."

Carp streamers wave against the background of Nagano Prefecture's spectacular mountains.

One of the most ravishing panels of that folding screen described in Kita's novel, snow-dusted or gilded with sunlight according to the season, is Mount Hotaka and the high valley of Kamikochi at its foot. The valley is a part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park in the region of Nagano Prefecture known as Azumi.

Writers have often observed while on the road in Japan that the pleasures of the journey far exceed the realities of a destination. In the case of Kamikochi and the approach to the valley through a landscape of exceptional beauty, you get the pleasure of both. The road enters the park past shallow, pebble-strewn streams, orchards and green meadows, and is then funneled down the dizzy Azusagawa Gorge.

You know you have reached the area of Kamikochi when you begin to see cameo images of mountain peaks reflected in the ponds of the Azusa River basin.

Raised walkways elevate walkers above the more marshy streches of Kamikochi's trails, where old farmhouses may suddenly appear among the flowers.

It was not so long ago that Kamikochi was accessible only on foot. This created the network of mountain trails which are now enjoyed by an astounding half million or more trekkers annually.

The unsettling paradox of a natural area crowded with nature lovers can be avoided by visiting Kamikochi on a summer weekday, in early October, or in the spring shortly after the opening of the mountain road, which is unusable from Nov. 5 to April 30. At these times the crowds thin out considerably.

Whether for strictly environmental reasons, or due to the refining influence of members of the Imperial family who are frequent, if discreet, visitors to the valley and its aptly named and exclusive Kamikochi Teikoku (Imperial) Hotel, tourist development in the form of unsightly souvenir outlets and the proliferation of hotels has been tightly controlled. It is not completely squashed, though.

Most visitors who cannot find accommodation in the few lodgings available in the village, or are unable to squeeze themselves into one of the several huts along the hiking trails, have to put up at one of the park's nearby hot springs. Among them are Sakamaki and Nakanoyu Onsen, located along the Kamikochi-Norikura road, an area that gives the impression of extreme remoteness but is, in fact, well served by buses.

Shirahone Onsen, though a little further out, can be recommended for its outstanding views and open-air baths. The name Shirahone ("white bone") refers to its milky, mineral-rich waters. Such places are often better value in the long run than the cheaper mountain huts. The dismal, cramped quarters and insipid meals at the huts are ameliorated only by the good cheer and camaraderie of the hikers. Having a common goal puts strangers and foreigners alike at their ease.

It is also possible to rent tents, trekking gear and overnight provisions, a good option for those who prefer their own company under the stars.

Most walkers set off from the bus terminal in the village, crossing the fast currents of the Azusa River by way of Kappa Bridge. The origin of this strange name (in Japanese folklore, kappa are malignant water sprites, known in their worst tantrums of violence to tear a victim's bowels out through the anus) can only be guessed at. Perhaps it refers to Akutagawa Ryunosuke's satirical novel "Kappa," in which the main character relates how "With a rucksack on my back, I set out from a hot-spring inn at Kamikochi to climb Mount Hotaka."

After crossing the bridge, trekkers usually pay brief homage at the Weston Memorial, dedicated to the Englishman who pioneered mountain climbing here at the turn of the century.

Trekkers then strike out on the main trails for anything between a half day and a full two-three night circuit, depending on time and stamina, the twin requisites for those entering mountain domains like these.

One guidebook, commenting on the area, warns darkly of moody and fickle weather and recommends wearing a bandanna around the neck, which "not only soaks up perspiration, but also doubles as an ankle bandage or sling in an emergency."

Sound advice, no doubt, but it should not put you off tackling what many seasoned walkers regard as some of the finest hiking trails in Japan.



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