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Autumn Report 2022: Views from the bottom of Doai to the top of Tanigawa

Autumn Report 2022: Views from the bottom of Doai to the top of Tanigawa

Autumn is my favourite season to travel to Japan—the weather is pleasantly cold but not freezing, there aren’t that many crowds until the lead-up to Christmas, and the trees are populated with all the cosy hues of the colour wheel. On that last point, the activity of autumn-leaf viewing, also known as koyo (紅葉), is something that is best done in the countryside away from the city, and with the best bird’s eye view you can possibly get.

 

If you’re based in Tokyo and want to get way up high for the perfect autumn scenery, I highly recommend you check out Tanigawadake Ropeway (谷川岳ロープウェイ), the cable car travelling up Mount Tanigawa (谷川岳 Tanigawadake)! Located in Gunma Prefecture (群馬県 Gunma-ken), this mountain is usually used as an off-the-beaten-path ski resort for those who want to avoid the crowds in the nearby ski paradise of Yuzawa (湯沢), but it is also famous for having beautiful koyo foliage. In this report, I detail my own trip to the top of Tanigawadake Ropeway, with a couple of side adventures from the bottom (and I mean way at the bottom) to make things a bit more interesting.

 

Echigo-Yuzawa Station

Echigo-Yuzawa Station is a side adventure in its own right, but we’ll leave that for another day. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)

 

The simpler, more straightforward method to get to Tanigawa Ropeway would be to travel to Minakami Station (水上駅 Minakami-eki) in the south and then board a 20-minute bus bound for the lower station. However, in this itinerary, we will be approaching the area from the north instead, via Echigo-Yuzawa Station (越後湯沢駅 Echigo-Yuzawa-eki), as that route would take us through Doai Station (土合駅 Doai-eki), the deepest still-functioning train station in Japan.

 

Echigo-Yuzawa Station can be reached from Tokyo Station (東京駅 Tōkyō-eki) via the Joetsu Shinkansen (上越新幹線) in 75 minutes. The local train to Doai Station takes around half an hour and departs rather infrequently, but this gives us more time to explore the station. Echigo-Yuzawa Station is jam-packed with things to do, such as a large souvenir market, a sake vending machine store with hundreds of drinks to try, and even a small sake hot spring located within the station complex! The town of Yuzawa itself is an especially popular spot in winter, as it experiences massive amounts of snowfall and is filled to the brim with ski resorts and onsen.

 

Doai Station

Platform 2 of Doai Station looks perfectly ordinary, but it soon gives way to a sight that’s anything but. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)

 

Doai Station is a small station that services only one line, but with a rather unique layout. The platform which services trains inbound from Echigo-Yuzawa Station is perfectly innocuous and looks like any other rural countryside station, but its other platform is what has earned this station the title of Japan's Number One Mole Station (日本一のモグラ駅 Nihon'ichi no mogura-eki). 

 

It’s like no one has used this station in 30 years. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)

 

You’d be forgiven for thinking you were in the middle of some post-apocalyptic zombie movie as you venture through the Doai Station complex, desolate and overgrown with foliage. As an unmanned train station, there are no staff or machines onsite for one to tap their IC cards, and only a basket to drop off any tickets you may have purchased to get here.

 

This is where the monsters come from. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)

 

Walk past the exit of the station and the path will eventually lead you to a covered bridge, with an incredibly ominous black hole waiting on the other end. This tunnel is in fact the staircase leading to the other platform in Doai Stationand it’s 462 steps down with no other way back up.

 

Doai Underground

I’d like to say this looks like neverending descent into madness, but you can totally see the end from here. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)

 

Platform 1 receives trains on the Jōetsu Line (上越線 Jōetsu-sen) coming from the direction of Minakami Station (水上駅 Minakami-eki), which arrive at very irregular timingssome days may see no more than three trains make a stop here! If you're headed in the opposite direction, the other platform is located aboveground and easily accessible.

 

Don’t let its utterly terrifying appearance fool you, this waiting room is filled with messages and wishes from all the tourists who come down here! (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)

 

Situated in the centre of the platform is an eerie waiting room, walls clogged with scribbles and post-it notes left by the many adventurous tourists who’ve come here just to explore the Mole Station. As an unmanned train station, there are no train staff nor cameras in the area to facilitate operations of the platform, which led to this one waiting room becoming the way it is today.

 

Don’t skip leg day if you plan on coming down here. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)

 

There are no functioning escalators or lifts in Doai Station, so be prepared for the vertical mini-marathon that awaits you should you choose to visit platform 1. After I had my fill of the underground, I ascended to the exit of the station to board a bus bound for Tanigawadake Ropeway Station.



Tanigawadake Ropeway

The gateway to Mount Tanigawa (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)

 

Tanigawadake Ropeway Station is just a short 20-minute bus ride from Doai Station. It costs ¥3,000 for an adult to make a round trip up and down the mountain, and while the ski resort at the top may only be open during the winter season, the ropeway is operational all-year-round.

 

Hard to beat the view from up here. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)

 

Mount Tanigawa is counted amongst the 100 Famous Mountains of Japan, and is considered to be a difficult climb even in the best of weather conditions. Fortunately, the Tanigawadake Ropeway exists for us to safely get to a point near the summit of the mountain, where several ski slopes and a ski lodge can be found. This leisurely 2,400m-long ropeway also grants us a solid bird’s eye view of the forests and nature located across the slopes of the mountain, which are absolutely breathtaking in autumn.

 

Tenjindaira

In its defence, as a ski resort, it probably looks a lot snow white and lively in the winter. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)

 

The drop-off point of the ropeway, Tenjindaira (天神平), is fairly small and compact, with four pair lifts that service ten ski slopes ranging from beginner-friendly to advanced in difficulty. Tenjindaira is most well-known for backcountry hiking, as the surrounding area is full of spectacular scenery and the peak of Mount Tanigawa is about a 5-hour round trip hike from the station.

 

Don’t forget to ring the bell while you’re up here! (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)

 

As I had come to the area at the height of the autumn period, the vistas were dyed orange as far as the eye could see and there was barely any snow to be found, besides the peaks of the mountains which could be seen in the distance. As I was not properly equipped for a half-day hike to the summit of Mount Tanigawa and back, I spent roughly an hour admiring the views around Tenjindaira before taking the ropeway back down.

 

Tanigawadake Ropeway (谷川岳ロープウエー)
Address: Yubiso, Minakami, Tone-gun, Gunma 379-1728
Nearest station: Doai Station (土合駅)
Access: 20-minute bus ride from Doai Station / 25-minute bus ride from Minakami Station
Opening hours (April–November): 8am–5pm (Lifts: 8am–4pm, Last uphill ropeway: 4:30pm)
Opening hours (December–March): 8:30am–4pm (Lifts: 8:30am–3pm, Last uphill ropeway: 3:30pm)
Admission fee: ¥3,000 (Adults), ¥1,500 (Children)
Tel: +81-278-72-3575

 

Minakami Onsen

It would be a shame to come all the way here and not make the most of the autumn sights. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)

 

The standard path back to Tokyo would involve taking an hour-long bus from the bottom gondola station of Tanigawadake to Minakami Station before boarding a train, but since there was still plenty of daylight left I decided to continue to enjoy the crisp autumn air of the Gunma countryside by taking a stroll around Minakami Onsen (水上温泉) itself.

 

A stroll through an off-peak onsen town with no crowds and nothing but the sound of the river. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)

 

Minakami is a town situated within the borders of Jōshin'etsu-kōgen National Park, blessed with abundant hot springs and the Tone River running through it. With the numerous ski resorts in and around the town, as well as various river sports facilities like whitewater rafting and bungee-jumping, Minakami is a must-visit for anyone who is a fan of the outdoors. I ended up wishing my approximately 4-km walk up to the station took even longer, so I could enjoy more of the pleasant natural surroundings along the way.

 

 

Ashiyu are an absolute godsend after a long day of trekking. (Image credit: JR East / Afiq)

 

A trip to a place like this, of course, would not be complete without a dip in the onsen! For those fortunate enough to stay the night, there are several hotels and ryokan in the area which come with their own hot springs for you to peruse at your leisure. Alternatively, if you’re planning to head back to Tokyo like myself, you could take a quick dip in one of the many onsen or foot baths scattered around the town.

 

What passes can you use to get to Doai Station and Mount Tanigawa?

The JR TOKYO Wide Pass is the most cost-efficient way for a round-trip to Doai Station & Minakami Station by train. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If your interest in the Gunma mountainside has been piqued, then a purchase of JR TOKYO Wide Pass would be a no-brainer if you plan on getting there by train. At ¥10,180 it easily covers the cost of a roundtrip train ride from Tokyo Station to either Echigo-Yuzawa Station (¥13,580) or Minakami Station (¥12,240) via the Joetsu Shinkansen and Joetsu Lines. The same area is also covered by the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) as well as the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), so remember to mark this place down as a daytrip for the next time you get any of these passes! If you plan on checking out other sky-high rides to check out the scenery, take a gander at our comprehensive list of all the most popular ropeways in East Japan!

 

Header image credit: JR East / Afiq

 

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