At 8:15 a.m. sharp, the bus doors close. Seven passengers (including myself) are aboard the first bus of the season from Matsumoto Station to the Utsukushigahara Highlands, an open plateau in Nagano Prefecture’s Yatsugatake-Chushin Kogen Quasi-National Park. Situated to the east of the city of Matsumoto, the highlands are home to an incredible grassland landscape, rolling hills and an open-air sculpture museum.
The 1¼-hour drive to our highland destination takes us through steep, winding roads barely wide enough to accommodate two vehicles. As the bus chugs on to higher elevations, we are granted awe-inspiring views: Far in the distance, partially shrouded in clouds, the snow capped peaks of the Japan Alps cut across the intensely blue summer morning sky. To the south, I spy Mount Fuji.
My plan for the day is a nature-meets-art expedition. First, to take a 90-minute hike across the highlands to the Utsukushigahara Open-Air Museum, then stop for a short lunch, take in some art for an hour or so and finally hike back to the bus stop to catch the last bus of the day at 4:30 p.m.
We arrive at 9:30 a.m. at the Utsukushigahara Nature Conservation Center, where I pick up a map of the hiking courses for easy reference. The air is several degrees cooler than it had been when I boarded the bus; it is crisp, clean and energizing. My fellow bus passengers disperse in different directions and I set off alone, following a small, clearly defined trail to the left of a signpost I find behind the conservation center.
The initial 15 minutes is a fairly steep and rocky warm-up on a route marked by green rope. My map shows this part of the mountains is called Tengu no Roji (Tengu’s path). I head for the broadcast towers on the ridge above the trail and, when I arrive, spot people coming out of the Ougatou Hotel. Shuttle buses bring guests directly to the hotel via a gravel road that will be my primary course for the day. At the edge of the hotel grounds, I feel a wave of excitement as I see a huge sign confirming that I’ve officially arrived at the entrance to the highlands.
Utsukushigahara is mainly used as a grazing area for dairy cows and as I walk along the path I see cows roam freely, chewing lazily at the grass. Heading east of the hotel, my journey becomes less of a hike and more a comfortable stroll. The green of the grass stretches into the distance to meet the blue sky. Due to the elevation and lack of cloud cover, the direct sunlight is intense, but a near-constant breeze blows chilly mountain air across the entire plateau. Despite the gorgeous morning, I am grateful for my jacket.
I pass another landmark — the highlands bell tower — and continue down the road, where I find a second hotel at the end of the path. A familiar convenience store jingle blares from sliding automatic doors at a side entrance and a banner advertising ice cream flutters in the breeze. It’s a bit jarring after my idyllic stroll.
At the end of the gravel road opposite the hotel, a small statue of a cow marks the last section of my hike, a rocky incline covered in parched grass. At the top, a weathered signpost points me to a narrow walkway of wooden planks. There, I catch my first glimpse of my afternoon entertainment: the Utsukushigahara Open-Air Museum, a sister institution to the Hakone Open-Air Museum.
Opened in June 1981, the museum features a collection of sculptures that dot the hillside at the top of the highlands. Beyond a row of trees I see a small Western-style castle and an enormous sculpture composed of bright-red steel cylinders. But first, the walkway leads me unceremoniously to the side of a major highway and the Utsukushigahara Road Station, the highest road station in Japan.
Outside, a large parking lot accommodates motorcycles and cars, sparkling beneath the sun. On the second floor, the road station’s two restaurants are busy with visitors, and I enjoy lunch there with a stunning view of Mount Asama. Sated, I head to the ticket gate, also on the second floor of the road station, and step through a pair of sliding glass doors onto a bridge that leads to the museum.
A giant sculpture of a thumb by Cesar Baldaccini greets visitors at the entrance. The red pipes I had seen on my approach form a sculpture by Alexander Liberman titled “Iliad Japan” and the castle sits at the top of the grounds, serving as a viewing platform for the surrounding area. Inside, the exhibits feature classical Greek imagery and marble statues of Venus, David, and Apollo produced in Carrara, Italy.
Works by Japanese artists are placed alongside pieces by artists from countries including France, Israel, Switzerland and Mexico. There are some 350 sculptures positioned around the museum grounds and, despite my best efforts to visit all of them within the 90 minutes I’d planned, the undulating terrain between each exhibit makes this impossible. I exit the museum and head back toward the trail wishing I’d planned for more time to enjoy it in its entirety.
The incredible, almost otherworldly beauty of the highlands on a clear summer morning is unforgettable. In my initial state of awe upon arrival at the summit, I stopped to take far too many pictures, losing time I could have spent enjoying the museum. But with more hiking trails to adventure along, lots of art still to see and gorgeous natural scenery, it’s a location that warrants more than one visit. I’m sure I’ll be back.
Entry to the museum is ¥1,000 and it is open daily from late April to mid-November. Save for the first 10-15 minutes, the hike is an easy one. With a car (or a room at a hotel at the top), there’s no need to worry about bus schedules. Snow dependent, the roads are open from April to November. Two buses run per day on weekends from June to the end of September (a weekday service runs mid-July to late August) from Matsumoto Station to the Utsukushigahara Nature Conservation Center. A direct bus to the museum runs for part of August from the Matsumoto Bus Terminal.