Shinryoku season: The best time to visit to Kamikochi
In Japan, after the flowers have bloomed and before the heat of summer arrives there is a period known as shinryoku (新緑 fresh greens), when new leaves sprout after the flowers haven fallen. You might be wondering, “What's so special about green leaves? Trees in Singapore are green all year round.” However, when these new leaves first start to sprout, they are a bright and beautiful green—fresh and vibrant, very different from the darker, duller greens of our streets.
If you ask me what my favourite place in Japan is, without hesitation my answer will always be Kamikochi (上高地 Kamikōchi), a pristine highland region in Nagano Prefecture (長野県 Nagano-ken). Nestled among soaring peaks and deep valleys, the Northern Alps (北アルプス Kita-Arupusu) region is a mecca for climbers, with Kamikochi being the gateway for various hikes into these mountains.
Map of Kamikochi.(Image credit: Google Maps)
Although I have visited Kamikochi seven times since 2011, I have never visited during the shinryoku period (mid-May to early June), which is said to be one of the best times to visit this scenic area. Finally, eighth time’s the charm and I recently got to check Kamikochi out in all its shinryoku glory.
Azusa River flowing with the Hotaka Mountains behind. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
What’s so special about Kamikochi during the shinryoku period? Well, the fresh and bright greenery of course! With the beautiful blue Azusa River (梓川 Azusa-gawa) flowing against the backdrop of the striking Hotaka Mountains, with fresh air and verdant greenery all around, a trip to Kamikochi during the shinryoku period is definitely a must at least once in your life.
Kamikochi is located at an altitude of around 1,500m, and the Northern Alps consist of many mountains which are over 3,000m tall. During the shinryoku period, while Kamikochi is filled with lush greenery, the peaks of the higher mountains are still covered in snow, creating a picturesque contrast between the sparkling white of the snow and the fresh green of the trees.
During my visit in early June, much of the snow had already melted off, so I’d recommend visiting in late May if you want to see more of the snowy peaks.
Enjoying greenery while walking along the Azusa River. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
There’s just something about the freshness of the new greenery that makes you feel that Nature is alive and growing around you, and it feels so, so wonderful to be walking amongst this vibrant and verdant greenery!
I am always amazed at how beautiful and clear the waters of the Azusa River are, and I love walking alongside the river and just listening to soothing sound of the flowing water. It’s the perfect background music for my walks, calming my spirit and drowning away stressful thoughts. No matter how many times I visit, Kamikochi is always a place I look forward to going to again.
Without further ado, let me introduce some of my recommended spots to soak up the stunning shinryoku views around Kamikochi:
① Kappa Bridge area
Kamikochi’s iconic view of Kappa Bridge. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
When arriving at Kamikochi by bus, most people get off at Kamikochi Bus Terminal, the terminal station. From there, a short 5-minute walk brings you to one of the most iconic views of Kamikochi: Kappa Bridge (河童橋 Kappabashi). Around Kappa Bridge, you can get a fantastic view of the Hotaka Mountain range, and the beautiful Azusa River flows in front of you. In fact, you can even walk down to the riverbank and play in the water.
Kappa Bridge is one of the most picturesque areas in Kamikochi, so it’s no surprise that it is the most photographed area in Kamikochi. Around the bridge are multiple hotels and shops, as well as restrooms and a post office. With such a fantastic view, I can spend hours here just staring at the mountains and listening to the flowing river.
Larch trees along the Azusa River. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Another scenic spot near the Kamikochi Bus Terminal is the larch trees (カラマツ karamatsu) lining the banks of the Azusa River. It is located around a 10-minute walk from the bus terminal towards Taisho Pond (the direction opposite of Kappa Bridge). You’ll know you’re at this scenic spot when you reach a large, open space with tall larch trees lined up along the river bank. The waters of the Azusa River here are shallow, and you can even walk across to the patch of gravel on the other side.
Larch trees along the Azusa River. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
During the shinryoku period, these looming larch trees turn a lush shade of green that simply exudes freshness, creating a stunning sight. Together with the mountains in the background and a bright blue sky, it’s an amazing view that visitors often miss as they only head towards Kappa Bridge, so don’t forget about it!
② Taisho Pond area
Taisho Pond. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Most visitors get off at the Kamikochi Bus Terminal, near Kappa Bridge, but here’s a tip for you to fully enjoy the place and make the best use of your time: get off at Taisho Pond (大正池 Taishō-ike) instead. Taisho Pond is one of the bus stops before Kamikochi Bus Terminal, and it takes about 40 minutes to walk from Taisho Pond to Kamikochi Bus Terminal, but along the way you will get to experience fantastic sights that are definitely worth the walk.
View of Mount Yake. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The trail from Taisho Pond is flat and easy to walk, and after 5 minutes you will reach this place with a view of Mount Yake (焼岳 Yakedake), a 2,455m-high active volcano. Fun fact: Taisho Pond was created after the 1915 eruption of Mount Yake dammed up a section of the Azusa River! Here you can see the remaining trunks of dead trees sticking out of the water.
Tashiro Marsh. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Another 5 minutes will bring you to Tashiro Marsh (田代湿原 Tashiro Shitsugen), where an open field with tall grass forms the foreground for a striking view of the Hotaka Mountains behind. Here there is an elevated wooden boardwalk path, and plenty of benches for hikers to take a rest and admire the scenery.
③ Myojin Bridge area
If you have the time, I recommend taking another walk through the forest and heading towards Hotaka Shrine. Kamikochi’s name literally means “the grounds where gods descended”, and comes from the arrival of the Shinto god "Hotaka no mikoto" (穂高見命), who was believed to have descended on Mount Oku-hotakadake (奥穂高岳).
Ceremonial boats at Myojin First Pond. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Located about an hour’s walk from Kappa Bridge, Hotaka Shrine is dedicated to Hotaka-no-mikoto, and within the shrine grounds are two small but scenic ponds known collectively as Myojin Pond (明神池 Myōjin-ike).
Parked by the larger Myojin First Pond (明神一之池 Myōjin-ichi-no-ike), you’ll see two ceremonial boats. These boats are used for the annual Boat Festival (お船祭り Ofune Matsuri) that is held in October, which gives thanks to the Gods of Kamikochi for the water of life. When snow from the Hotaka Mountains melts, it turns into water that flows through the Azusa River, which provides life-giving irrigation to cities in the Matsumoto Basin.
Myojin Second Pond. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The smaller pond, Myojin Second Pond (明神二之池 Myōjin-ni-no-ike) has a really lovely view that resembles a Japanese landscape garden. An admission fee of ¥500 is required to access the two ponds.
Myojin Bridge. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Outside the shrine is Myojin Bridge (明神橋 Myōjinbashi), a wooden suspension bridge that goes across the Azusa River. There’s also a large and flat gravelly riverbank, which is great for taking a break and enjoying the scenery.
The path to Myojin Bridge (left) and crossing the bridge (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
There are two trails between Kappa Bridge and Myojin Bridge, one of either side of the river. Both trails offer slightly different walking paths and sceneries, so I recommend taking one side when walking towards Myojin Bridge, and the other side when coming back.
During the shinryoku season, the leaves on the trees are unbelievably green, and even without the mountain backdrop or flowing river, the freshness of the leaves and the cool, crisp mountain air are so refreshing!
Wildlife sightings at Kamikochi. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Kamikochi is part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park (中部山岳国立公園 Chūbu Sangaku Kokuritsu Kōen), and is home to various wildlife, especially the area between Kappa Bridge and Myojin Bridge. Spring is the season of new life, and other than new leaves, it’s also when baby animals are born. On my recent trip I saw a mama duck with her two ducklings, as well as a group of 15–20 Japanese macaques, and luckily no bears. However, I did see two different signs reporting bear sightings in the area during the week before I visited, so don’t forget to wear your bear bells when hiking!
Rest area at Kamikochi Bus Terminal. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Kamikochi banned the entry of private cars to preserve its pristine beauty, so you can only get there by authorised buses or taxis. It takes around 90 minutes by train and bus from Matsumoto City to Kamikochi.
From Matsumoto Station (松本駅)
Train at Shin-shimashima Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Take a 30-minute train ride on the Matsumoto Dentetsu Kamikochi Line (松本電鉄上高地線) from Matsumoto Station (松本駅) to Shin-Shimashima Station (新島々駅), followed by a 60-minute Alpico Bus ride to Kamikochi. A one-way ticket from Matsumoto to Kamikochi costs ¥2,710/adult.
From Nagano Station (長野駅)
Take a 1-hour ride on the Limited Express Shinano (特急しなの) from Nagano Station to Matsumoto Station, then follow the directions from Matsumoto Station. The Limited Express Shinano between Nagano and Matsumoto is covered by the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area).
Alternatively, there is also a direct 2.5-hour bus ride from Nagano Station to Kamikochi, for which a one-way ticket costs ¥3,700/adult.
From Shinjuku Station (新宿駅)
The Limited Express Azusa uses E353 series trains. (Image credit: JR East)
Take a 2.5-hour ride on the Limited Express Azusa (特急あずさ) from Shinjuku Station to Matsumoto Station, then follow the directions from Matsumoto Station. The Limited Express Azusa between Shinjukju and Matsumoto is covered by the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area). Fun fact: the Limited Express Azusa got its name from the Azusa River, which runs through Kamikochi.
Alternatively, there are also direct 5-hour or overnight buses from Shinjuku Station to Kamikochi, for which a one-way ticket costs ¥ 6,600–10,400/adult depending on the date of travel.
JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)
The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are thinking of visiting Matsumoto and the rest of Nagano Prefecture, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥18,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Narita Airport and Matsumoto (~¥19,500). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.
The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.
Japan's Green & Great Shinryoku Show @#StayAtHome
If you want to find out more about our trip to the various shinryoku spots in Eastern Japan, join my colleagues and I for a virtual tour at Japan’s Green and Great Shinryoku Show @#StayAtホーム. You can watch the recorded event in the video above, or on Facebook as well as YouTube. See you at the Shinryoku Show!
Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh