When people think of Alps, they think Switzerland and The Sound of Music. But Japan has them, too (remember the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano?), and they make it easy to visit them. The Kurobe Alpine Route is a combination of buses, a trolley buses, cable cars and ropeways that connects Shimano-Omachi train station on one side on Mt. Tateyama to Tateyama train staion on the other (and vice versa). The entire journey take about six to eight hours, which allows for plenty of time to walk around and take in the mountain air.
The largest city in the area is Matsumoto, which serves as a base for the many people who come to the Japanese Alps to hike, ski and camp. Getting to the starting point of Shinano-Omachi from Matsumoto is pretty easy. From the train station, take the JR Oito Line north towards Minami-Otari. If you are unsure how to do this, just ask the polite staff at the ticket office in the station and they will tell you when the next train leaves and from which platform. This train is very local and takes you through rural Japan. Only stations that have anything to do with foreigners are announced in English, so pay attention. (Hakone is one and Shinano-Omachi is the other.) After about an hour and about 20 stops, you will see Shinano-Omachi.
When you get off the train, walk into the station and you will see a table set up and posters featuring the Kurobe Alpine Route. Seated behind the table are the folks selling tickets. The Alps draw people from all over the world, so you will not be the first person they speak English to that today. The whole route costs 10,560 yen for a one-way journey. If you are continuing through, have your luggage forwarded to you on the other side of the mountain. This service is located at the tourist office next to the station. For 1500 yen, they will deliver your bag to any point on the route. With tickets in hand and luggage in the hands of others, you are ready to begin you trip up through, over and down Mt. Tateyama.
The whole route is marked in English and when you buy your tickets, you get a timetable showing departures and arrivals for all of the various modes of transportation you will be taking. The signs are also color-coded for each direction (green one way, blue the other) and this matches your timetable. The first leg of the journey is a bus ride from Shinano-Omachi to Ogizawa. It departs right outside of the train station, so you can’t miss it. The ride take about 40 minutes and meanders up the mountain following the Kurobe river. Monkeys are wild here, so keep a look out – you may catch a glimpse of one. Ogizawa serves as a station for the trolley bus, which will take you underground to the Kurobe Dam. There is some history of the tunnel provided in English over the bus’s PA system. The tunnel was originally built to bring supplies for the construction of the dam. Today, the 16 minute ride is easy for visitors to take for granted, considering that a fracture zone was encountered when the tunnel was being dug that held up construction for half of a year. The area is marked in the tunnel and the trolley bus pauses to let you get a look.
At the other side of the tunnel is the Kurobe Dam, which is the first real sight to see on the route. It is nothing short of spectacular. At more than 1600 feet long and 600 feet high, it is Japan’s largest. At the beginning of Japan’s post-war boom years, power was in short supply and the Kurobe Dam was one of many power plants built in that era to meet the demands of rebuilding. Construction began in 1956 and took seven years and the lives of 171 men to complete. Today, the dam has on observation deck for viewing the reservoir and, in the summer, the opening of the flood gates. There is a cafe indoors and at the top of a many steps, a viewing area above the dam. There is plenty to see here, but also more in store, so continue your journey by walking across the dam!