The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (立山黒部アルペンルート) is a spectacular route through the Northern Japan Alps. It became viral after the internet got flooded with pictures of immense 20-meter tall snow wall creating a Snow Corridor, which you can visit from April to June. But that is not the only sight you can be mesmerized with. The Japanese Alps offer bewitching views of mountain peaks, lush forests, pristine lakes, and sulfur-covered valleys all year round.
Completed in 1971, this route is commonly referred to as the “Roof of Japan”, traversing through Japan’s highest mountain range – the Hida Mountains. To cross the mountains, you would need to use various means of transportation, including cable cars, trolley-buses, coaches, and a ropeway. From mid-April to November 30, the route connects Toyama City in Toyama Prefecture with Omachi Town in Nagano Prefecture. Thanks to heavy snowfall, the passage is not accessible during the winter months. The Alpine Route is only accessible by public transport to preserve the surrounding nature and keep tourism attendance under control.
The Alpine Route is about 37 kilometers long, and at its highest point, the route reaches Murodo Station, which at 2450 meters above sea level. From there, you can hike to Mt. Oyama (3,003 m), which is one of the summits of Mt. Tateyama (3015m) – one of Japan’s three sacred mountains – along with Mt Fuji and Mt Haku.
We visited Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route during the beginning of November, being slightly too late to catch autumn leaves in the upper parts of the route. Nonetheless, we loved each part of it, being entirely hypnotized by stunning views.
How much time does it take?
I would reserve the whole day to traverse the route and enjoy the sights along the way – the entire route of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine trip requires at least 6 hours. We left Omachi early in the morning to get ahead of the crowds and reached Tateyama Station when the sun was setting. While crossing, we took a boat trip on Lake Kurobe and did a little hike when we arrived at Murodo. Throughout the journey, we slowly enjoyed the scenery and took a lot of breaks for pictures.
However, if I were to plan it again, I would probably split the route into two days to enjoy more hikes up in the mountains. We fell in love with the scenery and felt like there was so much more to see and do there than what the time allowed us 🙂
What to see
Kurobe Dam being Japan’s tallest dam (186 m high), is definitely a sight to behold. This challenging engineering project was finished in 1963 and claimed the lives of 171 people! It was also our first stop on our Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route.
It is especially worth visiting between late June and mid-October when the water is released from its spillway for spectators. The water is discharged at a rate of over 10 -15 tons per second! Even during the off-season, the grand dam is a sight to behold.
The views were incredible, with sparkling emerald green waters of Lake Kurobe on one side and the valley covered with autumn foliage on the other. When visiting the dam, make sure to walk down the stairs to Rainbow Terrace, from which you might chance upon seeing a rainbow created by droplets of water falling from the dam.
If you have enough time, I can recommend a cruise on Kurobe Lake, which is located at an altitude of 1,448m. It takes 30 minutes to sail around the lake, with the only pleasure boat in Japan that operates at such a high elevation. The ticket is not included in the pass, but we thought it was worth paying ~1100¥ for the astonishing views of Kurobe Gorge. Plus, the boat was practically empty, with only one extra person joining us on board.
After we were done with the cruise, we took the Kurobe cablecar from Kurobeko station to Kurobedaira. Fun fact, Kurobe cablecar is Japan’s only underground cable car.
Kurobedaira is the transfer station between the Tateyama Ropeway and Kurobe Cablecar.
Interestingly, 1.7 kilometers long Tateyama ropeway operates without any support towers between the lower and upper stations, making it Japan’s longest one-span ropeway.
Daikanbo is a transfer station between the Tateyama Ropeway and Tateyama Trolley Bus. We took there a very short break, snapped a couple of pictures from the terrace, and continued towards Murodo.
Murodo is a volcanic plateau culminating at 2,450m above sea level and the highest place of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Road. It’s the place where you can find the awe-inspiring “Yuki-no-otani” snow wall that can reach a height of up to 20m.
Murodo is the entry point for many hikes, both for experienced hikers and just occasional walkers. We visited in early November, and we were lucky enough that there was no snow yet covering the trails. As we didn’t have much time, we only managed to take a 2.4 km hike in the area while enjoying the vibrant autumn colors and breathtaking mountains. The most impressive was the view towards Murodo’s Jigokudani (Hell’s Valley), with sulfur clouds covering the sky. There used to be a pathway through the valley itself; however, it was closed down due to too large quantity of volcanic gases.
Midagahara is one of Japan’s most extensive alpine wetlands, lying on a highland plateau 1930 meters above sea level. Many hiking trails spread through the marshland, with many pathways following along elevated, wooden boardwalks.
It was one of the places I regretted I didn’t have time to enjoy. I saw a lot of pictures from it, and I was mesmerized by flower-covered marshland in summer and yellow, red flora during the autumn season.
Tateyama Togen Highland Bus runs between Murodo and Bijodaira Station. Pay attention though, not all of them stop at Midagahara Wetlands.
Shomyo Falls is one of the tallest waterfalls in Japan. Depending on the season, one to three waterfalls can be seen that fall from more than 350 meters high. A dedicated bus line from Tateyama station takes tourists closer to the fall; however, it is not included in the Alpine Route ticket.
We ran out of time and only saw the falls from the bus window when the bus driver stopped for a moment to allow us to enjoy it.
Bijodaira Primeval Forest
Bijodaira is the best place for Tateyama cedar viewing or bird watching. Take a stroll through the lush primeval forest and be amazed by the 1000-year-old cedar and large beech trees. There are a couple of hiking trails that look pretty interesting.
As we were approaching the end of the day, we skipped this part and continued on to Tateyama station.
When to visit
Regardless of when you decide to visit this mountain range, you will fall in love with incredible views. Each season offers different experiences, and I would definitely visit again when I am back in Japan.
During spring, Murodo and Midagahara are still covered in snow, allowing you to experience the snow corridor with a 20-meter tall wall along which you can walk. A section of the snow corridor around Murodo is open to pedestrians, usually from mid-April to late June.
If you are lucky, you might see Raicho (Ptarmigan), birds that were once revered as messengers from God, now designated as a Special National Treasure, roaming around.
Around June through August, mountains are covered with lush vegetation and alpine flowers, making it the perfect scenery for a fantastic hike. Kurobe Dam fills with meltwater, and tourists can see the impressive sight of water released from the dam.
One of the most mesmerizing times to see the Japanese Alps is the fall when the trees turn red and yellow. The fall colors typically reach their best around Murodo and Daikanbo from late September to early October, gradually descending the mountain slopes and arriving at the lower elevations from late October to early November.
Follow this link for a detailed guide, how to pick the perfect time for autumn foliage.
Snow starts falling in November, and depending on the weather conditions and the amount of snow, it might not be possible to go through the whole route. You can always reach Murodo from Omachi’s direction as only Bijodaira – Murodo bus line might be suspended. However, be prepared that you might not be able to cross over mountains to Toyama.
After November 30, the route closes down for the winter, reopening again in April.
An excellent guide about what ticket to choose is available here.
There are a couple of options available:
- Tateyama Kurobe Option Ticket – is a discount ticket available for 9800 yen exclusively to foreign tourists. The ticket allows for a one-way trip along the Alpine Route between Nagano and Toyama and can be bought at selected JR ticket offices. The ticket has to be purchased at least one day in advance. We chose this one as we already had JR Pass to travel around and we just wanted to cross the Alpine road once.
- Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Area Tourist Pass is valid for five days, allowing you to check both the Alpine route and the area.
- Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Ticket – valid for eight days, allowing you to check both the Alpine route and the area
Baggage Forwarding Service
Delivery services are required as no big baggage is permitted along Alpine Route. Most of the hotels in the area offer baggage forwarding service, meaning you can just drop off your bag either in the hotel or train station and pick it back when you reach the destination. You need to request staff for the special tag, fill in your details and pay.
We were glad we didn’t have to drag our backpacks up the mountains, and we could just enjoy hiking without carrying 20 kg of extra weight.
Read about the details here.