by Melanie Kamdar
Kamikochi means ‘highland’ in Japanese but was sometimes also written with characters meaning ‘Land of the Gods’. Now I’m no god but I thought I’d give this region of Nagano prefecture a go. So off I went for 48 hours in Kamikochi…
HOW TO GET THERE
The journey can be a little arduous, but believe me it’s worth it. Take the Super Asuza from Shinjuku to Matsumoto (2.5 hours ¥6,200) and then take the Denbitet-sudo Kamikochi line, to Shin Shimashima, a 30-minute ride. Purchase your ticket when you alight for ¥2,200, which includes the spectacular bus journey to Kamikochi. Beware: buses are not numbered, so make sure you board the ‘Kamikochi’ bus which meets every incoming train. Traveling by train is highly recommended, as private cars must be left a half an hour’s bus journey away at Sawando car park.
WHERE TO STAY
In my opinion, there is only one place to stay and that is the Kamikochi Imperial Hotel — the sister hotel to the Tokyo and Osaka Imperial Hotels. This spectacular alpine lodge is a beautiful ten-minute walk from Kamikochi Center, which houses a cluster of small hotels, two tourist shops, an information center and a handful of small restaurants.
The information center is worth a visit, if only to see its Alpine style architecture and to pick up a good, free English walking map. Suggested walks range from one hour to all day courses. The flat land along the Asuza River is a suitable walking area for most ablebodied people. The longer walks include a hike to the peak of Mount Yakedake, a dormant volcano where you can witness a spectacular sunrise.
WHAT TO DO
Certainly attempt some of the easier walks. The scenery here epitomizes the tranquility and beauty captured in so many of Japan’s postcards and guide books. Another must is a dip in the natural Bokuden-no-yu onsen. You can take a bus or the hotel can arrange a taxi which costs around ¥2,000 and takes you directly to the onsen. After changing in a small shed, a short descent leads bathers into a 55°c natural bath. The steam pouring out may appear a little unnerving, but trust me, the bath is quite shallow and has a concrete floor. After soaking, take a few photos of the onsen’s great scenic views and enjoy a complimentary pot of green tea to re-hydrate yourself. A 30-minute private usage of the onsen costs ¥700.
WHAT TO EAT
Enjoy traditional Japanese dishes for lunch on the second floor of the information center. Ask for their handwritten English menu and make sure to order a pint of the mild, local ale on tap, brewed by Eiwa Hotake Brewery. Lunch with one drink costs around ¥1,500.
Evening meal options are limited to the hotels and consequently are quite expensive. The Kamikochi Imperial has four restaurants, including a French restaurant and a Japanese restaurant which serves Shabu Shabu, Yaki Niku and Teppan-yaki. We opted for the basic Teppan-yaki set which costs ¥13,000. Our spectacular dinner featured red mullet with garlic and spinach, seasonal vegetables, a choice of Kobe beef fillet or sirloin, and a selection of salads and soups. For dessert we enjoyed a traditional one hundred-year-old jelly dish invented by Kicho-san, the famous chef who lends his name to the restaurants in the Osaka Imperial and in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Make sure to savor the local Kiju sake, which means ‘lifelong happiness’, or the excellent Masamune sake, named after the northeastern Samurai of Japan.
If you have time, visit the historic Matsumoto Castle, one of only three nationally protected buildings in Japan. The castle is only a 15 minute walk from the station in Matsumoto.