Emerging from the 1.3-km darkness of the Kama Tunnel, our footsteps echoing eerily, we step into the white silence of Kamikochi’s upland basin at the heart of the Chubusangaku National Park, which itself marks the center of the Hida Mountains, long ago dubbed the “Japan Alps.”
Hush. Hush. Hush. Fresh snow compresses underfoot with gentle sighs. The air is full of falling snow, and we’re alone in a world of white. Mountains and trees disappear around us, and apart from the sound of our footfalls, everything is silent.
But the alpine weather here in Nagano Prefecture moves quickly. Suddenly, high peaks again rise up above — then just as suddenly vanish behind a swirling snow squall. It is cold, but walking keeps us warm as our breath merges mistily into the pure air.
It’s not a hard walk up from the end of the rising tunnel we’d entered by a tiny shop perched, cliff-top, at Nakanoyu Spa to a broadening plateau where the Azusagawa River slows so much as to be called Taishoike Pond.
In summer, the road is thick with taxis and buses, but today there are only the quickly vanishing footprints of the few hikers to have arrived before us. The wind eddies through the valley, lifting and spiraling the snow along the edges of the water, white behind the blush-red branches of keshoyanagi willows (Salix arbutifolia) — unusually, a single species which also constitutes a genus.
At the pond, the remains of a forest that was flooded when Mount Yakedake erupted in 1915 and lava dammed the river and drowned the trees rears eerily from the water.
Around the steel-gray expanse, brightly clothed photographers, wrapped up against the cold, point impressive medium-format cameras at the mountains behind, where on a clear day you can see 2,455-meter Mount Yakedake smoking and also glimpse the high peaks of the Hotaka Mountains, including Japan’s third-highest summit, 3,190-meter Mount Oku-Hotakadake.
Today there are only the plumes of blowing snow from the peaks to be seen in the brief glimpses between clouds.
At first, we talk as we walk, catching up on the last couple of months. My friend showed me the Northern Alps years ago, and we’ve been hiking together on and off and in all seasons ever since. After a while we fall into a steady rhythm, our old pattern of walking: My friend walks ahead, while I lag behind taking pictures. When I round a corner she’ll be patiently and happily waiting, absorbed in the view. We point things out to each other: the iron-stained water that has coated the sasa bamboo grass rusty red, birds flitting away into the white woods, animal prints in the fresh snow.
Following the edge of the river, where the Azusagawa runs clear and fast between white snowy banks, we stop for lunch at the deserted picnic tables 1,500 meters above sea level, by Kappabashi Bridge. Around us, there are walls of mountains rising up into cloud, vanishing.
I pour hot tomato soup from a flask into our insulated mugs, and though it’s a cheap package mix, it tastes incredibly rich and warming. We chase the soup with sticky slices of cake, fingers quickly stiffening in the cold air. The snow, swirling above the river and hiding the peaks in clouds, parts enough to again briefly expose the summits, white and sharp as teeth.
Walking back through the forest, muffled under its white blanket, past the deserted Imperial Hotel, I wonder why people don’t come here in the winter, to pad soft-footed through the snows of officially “closed” Kamikochi. It is so beautiful. But it’s partly the silence that makes it magical: There is nobody here but us. It is almost as if we’ve somehow booked the whole valley for our sole pleasure — a retreat, in the truest sense of the word.
Snow thickens the air with fat white flakes as we walk onward through the woods. My friend stops suddenly and points at the low fir branches overhanging the trail just ahead. A young Japanese macaque peers out at us from among the needles, calling out a low hooting moan. We look around more carefully. A whole troop of perhaps a dozen monkeys is foraging in the bamboo grass on the forest floor. The lookout stops calling, seemingly satisfied we’re not a threat, as we linger to nature-watch.
I pull my down jacket closer around me against the cold. The macaques look warm enough in their thick fur coats as they move effortlessly through the wintry forest.
When we stop again by Taishoike Pond for hot tea and oranges, the photographers have gone, and we are entirely alone with the wind and the water and the snow and the mountains. Looking out across the pond’s dark surface, I think how this season is entirely unlike the others up on this high plateau.
I’ve been here in spring, after the road with its countless tunnels has opened again following the heavy snows of winter. At that time, tourists and hikers spread out across the valley, even as snow flurries still hide the hillsides and the monkeys feast on the butterbur buds below the bare trees. Then in summer I’ve seen the mountains all green and lush, their peaks invisible in cloud as rain flattened the surface of the pond like beaten metal and mist rose from the green-blue water.
In autumn the mountains turn russet and the air is as crisp and clear as water. That’s when brightly colored tents spring up around the mountain huts like mushrooms after rain. But it is the winter beneath the high peaks that most captivates me. It is only in winter that you are really alone in Kamikochi, and the place — so visited in other seasons — feels like a true wilderness under its cloak of white.
Winter here is silent, and it is the silence, more than anything, that I remember. There is the soft squeak of snow underfoot; there are gusts of wind blowing the snow up behind the trees against the mountains; and sometimes, too, there are the low moans and chirps of gregarious macaques. Otherwise, all is quiet. And it is the quiet that stays with me long after I return home to the city.
Kamikochi, so easily reached by public transport much of the year, is much harder to access between November and April. Taxis can be booked from Matsumoto City, or from the parking areas at Sawando, to take you to the mouth of the Kama Tunnel at Nakanoyu Spa. From there, it’s shank’s mare. Your driver will arrange a time to pick you up again toward the end of the day. A round trip from Sawando costs about ¥6,000. There are a number of guest houses and inns at Sawando. Heavy snows and mountain weather mean that, despite the easy gradient of the walk, it’s essential to come prepared with ample warm-weather gear, water, food, maps, a flashlight, a whistle and a compass. None of the facilities normally open at Kamikochi operate in winter.