We waken before seven. The promise of the starry night sky has been fulfilled, the long black veil of the shivering night has floated away and we emerge from our cabin, blinking in the soft morning light. The temperatures are already starting to rise and the tall shadows cast by the trees are shortening as the sun climbs higher and higher in the sky.
With the cabin door open, we sit on the porch and have breakfast. Rice balls are the staple and we use the simple gas cooker to heat up some gyoza, miso soup and instant coffee. As we’re enjoying our breakfast in the clear fresh air, our neighbours in cabin number two come out and we chat to them briefly. They’re also up early and were planning to hike the high-altitude Karasawa route in the mountains, but they’ve just learned that there have been avalanches in the early morning, and their plans are now on hold. One of them tells us that some people have been injured and that some helicopters will be coming to airlift them to hospital. We’re safe on the valley floor however, no avalanches will reach that far.
Before leaving, we clean out our cabin (with the sweeping brush provided) and then we bring our packed bags, pots and sheets to the reception cabin. We were the first to check-in and we’re the first to check-out. Because we’re not leaving for a few hours, we leave our bags at reception; our bus leaves at 10:15 so we’ve enough time to walk the Kamikōchi valley and savour the beautiful morning. On the ground we see a puddle than tells the full story of the last 12 hours: the water which froze in the sub-zero night temperatures is already starting to thaw with the early morning warmth. We then hightail it to the nearest opening in the trees so we can get a proper view, untainted by low clouds, of all those majestic mountain peaks, which we could only glimpse yesterday. Today, the mountains are epic.
As I work my camera, taking pictures and trying to capture the view, it strikes me that the scene of dense forest in the foreground, snow covered jagged peaks in the centre and deep blue sky overhead is so iconically perfect, that the picture I take feels very little like “my picture”. It has none of the imperfections of personality. The photograph looks too much like a postcard and that’s not enough to prove that we were here! So after much undignified crouching and crawling around on the ground with my camera and tripod…
We finally get the money shot, the one to send home to the relatives… yes, we were here!
After getting an invigorating dose of grand mountain views, we walk to the Kappabashi Bridge. The koinobori are out in full flight. These tubular kites of a family of carp fish are traditional decorations hung up for Children’s Day, a national holiday on May 5th. Usually, a carp for each member of the family is hung up: Daddy, Mammy and each of the children, as this song explains. The koinobori we pass have four children, an unheard of large family by Japanese standards.
At the Kappabashi Bridge, we encounter a small crowd of other visitors, which is more than all the people we saw yesterday. Today (April 29th) is Showa Day, a national holiday to commemorate the former emperor, Hirohito. It’s also the first day of Golden Week, so called because four national holidays fall in the same week. In general, the Japanese work hard and don’t take many holidays, but during Golden Week, millions of workers leave the cities and escape to the countryside. Among the holiday makers in Kamikōchi are lots of serious hikers and mountain climbers kitted out in immaculately clean North Face and Lowe Alpine gear and sporting a plethora of special equipment: hiking sticks, crampons, helmets, ice axes and more.
We join this bunch of climbers and hikers on the Kappabashi Bridge. Like them, we’re captivated by its brilliance in the morning. Once again, we marvel at the soaring snow peaked mountains framed by the clear blue sky. It’s a far cry from the conditions on the bridge yesterday when we were shivering with the cold and saturated in drizzle and sideways rain. But while it may be a breathtaking scene to look at, the impact of the hot sun on the snow covered mountains at this time of year isn’t all pleasant. It’s spring and the temperatures have been rising for some weeks; no fresh snow has fallen for some time and the heat from the sun is now starting to melt the snow, which leads to avalanches and danger for anyone in the line of fire.
As we leave the Kappabashi Bridge we hear the rescue helicopters overhead. We don’t know if they’re still searching for the missing climbers or if they have found them and are air lifting them to safety. Either way, it’s a sure sign that the climbing season in Kamikōchi is in full swing. After we’ve walked a short distance, I spot a lone monkey down by the river, just underneath the bridge. As someone with a European childhood, I’m reminded of the infamous troll who lived under a bridge and terrorized the three billy goats. But here in Japan, the monkey looks more like a kappa, ready to prey on some unsuspecting humans. Perhaps it was just such a scene that led to the bridge being named after the kappa in the first place? I go over to the side of the river to take a picture. For Sachiko however, this monkey-troll-kappa hybrid is of little importance: for her the main event is the sunny morning and she sits on the river bank basking with the warm sun on her face.
We leave the Kappabashi Bridge behind, and continue on our walk. Each time I stop to take more pictures of some mountain view, Sachiko renews her love affair with the sun…
She’s not the only one relishing the weather, the snow monkeys are out as well.
Looking a bit sunburnt there buddy…
Out on the trail, we see lots of monkey activity with the males striding up and down the terrain and paths. They strut with great presence, but they pay little attention to us human visitors.
We also see a family of monkeys with their mother. They’re on the move, with mother leading the way, but they also take some time to dip and wash in the cold waters of the Azusa river.
We also dip our toes in some local water, but it’s the warm waters of the foot spa where we pit-stopped yesterday. Once again, we get a super dose of exhilaration – each of us with a pair of happy feet, we carry on towards the Hotaka bridge.
As we walk towards the bridge and are about to cross, we freeze when we see a very aggressive alpha-male snow monkey bounding across from the opposite side. He’s baring his teeth and snarling and barking with incredible volume – following close behind him are a troop of less aggressive monkeys all running to keep up with the leader. There’s a lot of people on the bridge at the time and they scatter with fright and rapidity as the monkeys come charging through. There’s no chance of photographing this melee, these monkey are dangerous and to be kept well away from. We scramble out of their way.
While the lead monkey is clearly picking for a fight, it’s also apparent that he has no bone to pick with the humans in the area. It’s hard to figure out exactly what’s going on, but amongst the flurry of monkeys running all over the place, there appears to be some upstart monkey who has challenged the alpha male for the top spot. Alpha is having none of it. As the rowdies move on, a few more straggler monkeys follow behind in their wake. These monkeys are far more placid and tame like the ones we’ve seen already… and as soon as this dawns on all the tourists on the bridge, the cameras are out.
After this dramatic monkey encounter, we walk back to the reception area from where we retrieve our bags. There are lots of tourists hanging around the Kappabashi Bridge, these are all the day trippers that have just arrived.
There’s a painter with his easel, painting the bridge and there’s a local dressed up in a fancy costume offering to be in pictures with the day trippers. By 10 o’clock we’re waiting for the bus at the Kamikōchi bus depot. It’s been a short but amazing trip to the mountains. In less than 24 hours we saw a lot and fortunately we got to see Kamikōchi at its best. There’s a lot we didn’t get to see: the scenic ponds Taisho, Tashiro & Myōjin and lots of other landmarks, Takezawa Marsh and Tokusawa. But there’s little left for us to do, except pledge to come back again and see it all. Onboard the bus, it pulls away from Kamikōchi, bang on time at 10:15.
There’s a remarkably simple but effective fare technology on the bus that gets me very excited: when we entered the bus near the back, we collected an automatically dispensed ticket, which has the number of the station we got on at – in our case, no 1. No payment is made at this stage, you just get a ticket. From our seats we can see a panel at the front of the bus, numbered 1 to 40, which is the number of stops the bus is going to make. The panel is updated each time the bus makes a stop and when one wants to get off the bus, to know the fare you owe, just check the figure underneath the number of the stop you got on at: in the photograph below, we owe ¥5 (an incorrect number: something was wrong this panel). You can’t get off the bus until you’ve handed over your numbered ticket and the appropriate fare as stated on the panel. There’s no room for argument!
Our journey takes us back down the hair-raising road we travelled up yesterday. At Shinshimashima we get off the bus and board the train which will take us to Matsumoto. Here we witness a charming Golden Week scene. Across from us sits a family from Tokyo (mother, father, three children) who are holidaying in Nagano for Golden Week. They are chatting to an obahchan, an old local woman, who is sitting on the same side of the train as us. She is regaling them with ridiculous details about her life and they are laughing uproariously at everything she says. She’s clearly delighting in the captive audience because she just keeps on talking and they keep on laughing. Unlike Irish people, Japanese rarely talk to strangers on buses and train, but this obahchan is refreshingly relaxed and unburdened by such cultural conventions. It creates a very convivial atmosphere on the train.
We change trains in Matsumoto, and head south towards our next destination in the Kiso valley, the beautifully preserved, Edo-period, wooden town of Tsumago.