Exploring Japan's Frozen Alps

With people’s busy schedules nowadays, it is less often that someone would take time to look at the natural formations and resources, and see them as gifts from nature that human beings should both enjoy and respect. Everyone is so fixated on their phones or computer screens, that they forget there is a world outside, full of healthy fresh air, opportunities to exercise both the mind and body and get to know nature.

Japan is the perfect example of having two contrasts; extreme development in technology (especially in Tokyo and other busy cities), and scenic views of enormous landforms. Because Japan is in an earthquake-prone area, that means that many islands, volcanoes, and mountains that were formed millions of years ago can be found here.

Because Japan can get cold during the winters, alps aren’t rare. In the countryside, it is a common site to see mountains in the backdrop, capped with pure, white snow. A more well-known example of this is Mt Fuji, which has quite a large snowcap on top of it.

Mountains Vs. Alps

The difference between a normal mountain and an alp is that alps are exceptionally high, and are most often topped with an ice cap. The definition came from mountains that are famously topped with snow, strewn across parts of Asia, the Atlantic, and Europe, called the Alpide belt. A mountain is simply an elevation of land that is abruptly angled compared to the rest of the land surrounding it. 

An Introduction to the Japanese Alps

You may think that the term “Japanese Alps” refers to mountains around Japan that have ice caps. Although that should be technically correct, Japanese Alps refers to mountain ranges that are grouped together, yet divide Honshu island. It is a proper name; and is called “Nihon Arupsu” in Japanese, written as “日本アルプス”. 

The man who initially bestowed the name upon these mountain ranges was an Englishman named William Gowland, who worked as a foreign adviser to Japan, metallurgist, and amateur archaeologist. Another Englishman who was extremely fond of climbing mountains popularized the name “Japanese Alps” by writing about it in his book; “Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps”, which was written in 1896, was Reverend Walter Weston.

When William Gowland called this elevation of land “Japanese Alps”, he was looking at only one area of it; the Hida Mountains. What is known as the Japanese Alps today has much more than just the Hida Mountains. It is a parent ranged, comprised of and subdivided into three ranges in total; the Kiso Mountains (known as the Central Alps), The Hida Mountains (Northern Alps), and the Akaishi Mountains (Southern Alps). 

Central Alps; Kiso Mountains

Found on the prefectures of Nagano and Gifu, the Kiso mountain (“木曽山脈” in Japanese, pronounced a Kiso Sanmakyu) range is lodged in between two other mountain ranges; namely the Hida Mountains up north, and the Akaishi Mountains down south. Because it is in the center, it is named “Chuo Arupusu”, written as “中央アルプ”; for “central alps”.

Its peak is named Mount Kisokoma, which is in the Kiso District of the Nagano Prefecture. Its elevation is measured to be at 2,956 meters. Its coordinates are 35°47′22″N 137°48′16″E. The length of Kiso Mountains is 65 km, while its width is 15 km. Granite is what mostly comprises what the mountain is made of.

To go up the Kiso Mountains, you’d have to use the Komagatake Ropeway, written as “駒ヶ岳ロープウェイ”, pronounced as “Komagatake Rouwei”. This aerial lift began operating in 1967, bringing passengers all the way up to the Senjojiki Cirque. The area of Senjojiki Cirque has a summit station that is famous for existing at the highest altitudes ever (2,611 meters) in all of Japan.

Names of Major Peaks, Foothills, Rivers

There are 15 major peaks that are found in this range. They are Mount Kyo, Mount Shogikashira, Mount Kisokoma, Mount Hoken, Mount Sannosawa, Mount Hinokio, Mount Kumasawa, Mount Utsugi, Mount Minamoka, Mount Kosumo, Mount Okunenjo, Mount Ampeji Mount Surikogi, Mount Ena, and Mount Okawairi. 

The foothills of the Central Alps are Mount Nenjo, Mount Nagiso, Mount Kazakoshi (Kiso) and Mount Kazakoshi (Ena). Lastly, there are two rivers in this mountain range that lead towards Ise Bay; they are the Kiso River and the Tenryu River. 

Northern Alps; Hida Mountains

The Hida mountains have areas that fit between the Niigata, Nagano, Toyama, and Gifu Prefectures. This range is written as “飛騨山脈” in Japanese and is pronounced as Hida Sanmyaku. As they are situated in the northern Alps, they are also called “Kita Arupusu”, written as “北アルプス”. 

Its peak is called Mount Okuhotaka, located in the Kiso District of the Nagano Prefecture. Its elevation is 3,190 meters high. As for its dimensions, it is 105 kilometers long, while its width is 25 kilometers. This mountain range looks like that of a letter Y; in between the two outstretched peaks is a valley, which is known to be one of the steepest in all the country. 

The largest dam in all of Japan is also found around the Hida mountains; the Kurobe Dam. The mountains’ western arm is made up of Mount Tsurugi and Mount Tate, making up Tateyama Peaks, while the Ushiro Tateyama Peaks (Mount Kashiyamari plus Mount Shirouma) forming the eastern arm. Mount Tate and Mount Tsurugi are famous for their last three surviving glaciers. There is also the Hida River, from the Gifu Prefecture. 

Names of Major Peaks

The major peaks in this area include Mount Shirouma, Mount Kashimayari, Mount Tate, Mount Tsubakuro, Mount Tsurugi, Mount Noguchigoro, Mount Yari, Mount Hotaka, and Mount Norikura.

Southern Alps: Akaishi Mountains

Known to the Japanese as Akaishi Sanmyaku; “赤石山脈”, or “Minami Arupusu”, written as “南アルプス”, this mountain range has a notable amount and variety of animals and plants that use this area as their habitat. The peak of this range is Mount Kita, with an elevation of 3,193 meters – the highest compared to the other parts of the Japanese Alps. The prefectures that it encompasses include Nagano, Shizuoka, and Yamanashi. The length of this mountain range is 120 kilometers, with a width of 40 kilometers. 

The Japanese label for red stones is pronounced “Aka-ishi”, written as “赤石”, and many of those stones are found in a river that runs through the southern area of the Akaishi Mountains. Because they are so abundantly found in that lake, it was used to denote the entire mountain range.

Names of Major Peaks, Rivers, Plants, and Animals Around the Range

There are 12 major peaks that belong to the Southern Alps. There’s Mt. Hoo, Mt. Nokogiri, Mt. Kaikoma, Mt. Senjo, Mt. Kita, Mt. Aino, Mt. Notori, Mt. Warusawa, Mt. Akaishi, Mt. Hijiri, and Mt. Tekari. On the 1st of June 1964, a national park called Minami Alps National Park was founded, and most of the peaks are a part of that national park.

There are two rivers that flow through this range named the Oi River and the Tenryu River. The water that these rivers carry eventually lead to the Pacific Ocean.

Mount Kita has been around for so long that there are plants that are endemic to it. One of these plants is the Callianthemum hondoense; a white-petaled flower with a green and yellow center. Other animals that can be found here include the Spotted Nutcracker, Japanese serow. And Rock Ptarmigan.

Pick Out an Itinerary for When You Plan to Visit Japanese Alps

Because the Japanese Alps take up an enormous amount of space, it would be nearly impossible (or at least, it would take a whole lot of time) to visit every single part of, and around, these mountain ranges. Some say that Kanazawa is a great place to visit, as well as Takayama and Shirakawa-go.

For those who want to experience the most from the Japanese Alps in a bundle, there are tour packages that help you maximize your money and time by giving you a taste of the cities around the alps. One of these is the Japan Alps 7 Cities, which brings you to cities that are found on the base of the mountains among the Japanese Alps.

Japan Alps 7 Cities offers three different itineraries that you can pick from, depending on your interests. No matter which you pick, you will be taken into and around the cities by the Japanese Alps which make for the most educational and fun trip.

The cities you will visit include Toyama City at the Toyama Prefecture, Omachi City, Azumino City, Matsumoto City, and Shiojiri City at the Nagano Prefecture, and Takayama City and Hida City at the Gifu Prefecture.

See the Japanese Alps in November

Some say that the best time of the year to go hiking is around November (autumn season), as it’s not too cold yet, but the leaves start to turn brown, red, yellow, and orange thanks to the Koyo front. This sought-after phenomenon deals hikers beautiful arrays of colors of leaves that fall to the ground. It ends up making for a more picturesque view, and the temperature and weather are perfect for a morning walk, or afternoon stroll up the mountains. 

Go Hiking Up Scenic Mountains With Snow

Don’t be daunted by the choices of mountains you have to trek – try the hikes that begin at the Kamikochi valley first. They are easier for beginner hikers and are perfect for those who just want to experience the tranquility that the nature of the Japanese Alps brings. Hikes here last at most four hours, and lead to Myokin-ike. For more experienced hikers, they can try making their way all the way up to Hotaka-dake and Yariga-take.

Be Aware of Your Location 

It doesn’t matter where or which mountain you plan to hike; make sure that you come prepared. Whether that’s by following a familiar trail, keeping a map, leaving marks on the trail to help you get back, by taking an expert on the area with you, it pays to be careful, watchful, and aware of exactly where you are and where you plan to go. It’s easy to get lost even just one mile into the trip.

There’s an App For That – Download the Japan Alps Hiking Map for iOS

The digital age makes it easier for people to bring around information via the use of applications. If you have an iPhone and plan to scale any Japanese mountain (not just the Japanese Alps, but they’re included too), you can download an app called “Japan Alps Hiking Map” by the company Yamareco Inc. for free, so you can get tips, use the map without internet connection, create a route, and use its GPS system.

Experience Skiing Along Japanese Alps

All around Nagano and Niigata are many ski resorts that allow you to see what it’s like to try out the slopes of the Japanese Alps. A very well-known place to do this (so good, in fact, that it was used as a location for the Winter Olympic Games in 1998) is in Hakuba, which has many ski resort options. 

There’s also the Shiga Kogen Ski Resort, which is known to have a soothing onsen for those who want to relax after a day of sports.

Cool Off in the Japanese Alps During Summer Vacation

It’s hard to escape the summer heat, even what was once snowy terrain up in the Japanese alps turns into lush greenery. Nevertheless, high-altitude spots still bring a with them relatively cool weather, which is suitable for hikes. You may not get to see the snow caps as thick as they usually are, (or if they’re there at all), but at least the chillier mountainside offers an accessible break from work and the city.

Great Ryokan and Hotels That Give a View of Japanese Alps

Where you end up staying when you travel somewhere relies heavily on what your budget is, and what info you learn. Around the Japanese Alps, there are accommodations that range from luxurious, hidden getaways, to affordable inns. 

The Hakuba Highland Hotel is great for penny pinchers who want a decent yet simple and cozy stay. Then there’s the elegant Laforet Club Hotel, which has the vibe of an expensive manor – without the price of staying in one. For those who don’t mind spending, high-class hotels peppered around the range include Nojirko Hotel El Bosco out in the forests of Nagano, and Kyu Karuizawa Hotel, also in Nagano.

It doesn’t matter if you’re an avid trekker, a nature lover, or just someone who needs a break – the Japanese Alps are a wonderful, relaxing, and scenic option for your next vacation, or just to spend the day. For locals around the Honshu island, it’s just a train or bus ticket away.