Golden Week is a week long holiday in Japan which starts at the end of April and ends in the middle of the first week of May. Aimee and I decided to go to Takayama (a city in the Japan Alps) and Kamikochi (a resort area and the beginning of many Japan Alp hikes – we went for the hiking, not the resort).
We took a 2.5 hour train ride from Nagoya to Takayama. The scenery we saw from this ride was second only to the scenery I saw riding on trains in Switzerland. We followed the Hida river almost the entire way up to Takayama. The Hida river is often called the Japan Rhine because it looks so much like the Rhine River in Germany. The vegetation is incredibly lush and green and the river has been running for so long that it has carved its way 10 meters down – sometimes more – through solid rock.
When we arrived in Takayama we promptly got on a bus for Kamikochi. We planned to spend 4 days hiking in Kamikochi and then return to Takayama to spend two days there before heading home. The bus ride to Kamikochi was much like driving through the Rockies in Canada. The snow-covered peaks brought back many memories of my numerous drives across Canada. They were also an ominous sign of what was waiting for us in Kamikochi.
Kamikochi is in the Shirakawa World Heritage Site area, so there are no private vehicles allowed past a certain point on the highway. Most people do what we did and take a bus from Takayama. It takes about 20 minutes from the blockade on the highway to the resort area in Kamikochi because the road is one way and there are a ridiculous number of buses making the trip in and out daily. When we arrived at the resort parking lot there were probably 50 buses.
All those buses must have meant the area was pretty popular. This is why:
Our Hiking in Japan book said that 95% of the people you see milling about near the bus terminal don't make it past the kappabashi bridge. They come for photo opportunities like this and then stay in the resort or turn around and go home. Five percent of the people continue past here to hike. Unfortunately for us, this was the only accurate information we had concerning our trip.
After we got off the bus we went to the tourist information centre to get maps and information about hiking in the area. We had planned on camping in Kamikochi for the night and then starting up Yari-ga-take (at 3190 meters it's the second highest peak in Japan. Fuji-san is the highest) in the morning. The lady looked at our bags and asked if we had crampons and ice axes. We looked at each other and then back at her: “No, we don't.” The book we have said we wouldn't need crampons nor ice axes at this time of the year for the hike we wanted to do. “Oh, well you need them to hike up Yari-ga-take.” We looked at each other again and then I asked her, “Well, where can we hike without crampons or ice axes?” She said, “We recommend here and here.” She pointed at the map on the table in front of her. “And how long does it take to get to here?” I asked, indicating the longer trail. “Oh, it takes about 6 hours – 3 hours each way.” We looked at each other with great disappointment. It had taken more than 6 hours to get to Kamikochi. We didn't come here for a 6 hour round trip hike. We thanked her and left the building.
After venting our disappointment with the hiking book we decided to camp for the night in Kamikochi and reevaluate in the morning. We went and registered for a camp site and set up our tent. Since it was only 3 o'clock we decided to walk for a while on the longer trail the lady had told us about. We weren't entirely disappointed since there were animals along the way - monkeys and a Japanese sero. A sero looks like a cross between an antelope and a goat. I've got a picture of one on Facebook here that you can have a look at. I'd post it here but it would have to be small so you wouldn't see much detail.
The monkeys were significantly more interesting than the sero. There were about two dozen monkeys – half of them were on the ground foraging and the other half, mostly younger monkeys, were in the trees. Not surprisingly they didn't mind our presence. They continued foraging for roots as if we weren't there. When we got back to camp we saw a man chasing them with a wooden rake. They're seen as pests by the people who work at Kamikochi. Interestingly they don't seem to steal food from campers. We thought we might have to take precautions similar to those you take to keep bears from stealing your food in Canada. I guess the rake man has that problem solved.
The walk the tourist information centre lady said takes 6 hours we did in 4. We passed pretty much every person in front of us so maybe the 6 hours only applies if you're Japanese. The walk wasn't too bad though. It's railroad grade the entire way so it wasn't difficult. And we were walking through the valley so the mountain scenery was very beautiful.
On the way back we ran into more monkeys. We took a few more photos and then continued heading back. Our timing was perfect because we saw this little guy:
Watching him play and eat was almost worth not being able to do any hiking. Almost. The coolest part was when something spooked his mother. She ran over and grabbed him at full stride, swung him under her chest and scampered over to a tree. The whole motion took maybe 3 seconds. We took a lot more pictures but this post is already huge... You can check out the rest on Facebook.
We wanted to experience our first onsen (hot spring) when we returned but we missed the time period it was open. The two hot springs in Kamikochi are at two (of about 8) hotels and they are only open to non-guests during certain hours. So we spent the rest of the day/evening writing and reading in the tent.
I'll make a post about days 3 and 4 later.