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Shinryoku season: Onward to the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route

Shinryoku season: Onward to the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route

The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (立山黒部アルペンルート) is a magnificently scenic route that traverses the Tateyama Mountain Range (立山連峰 Tateyama Renpо̄). Stretching between prefectures Nagano (長野県) and Toyama (富山県), the entire route includes many attractions, such as a larger-than-life dam, a ropeway featuring panoramic mountain views, gorgeous lakes and hiking routes, and the famous Snow Wall (雪の大谷 Yuki no Ōtani) at Murodo (室堂 Murodō).

 

The most popular times to visit the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route are from mid-April to May, when the Snow Wall is at its tallest, and in autumn, when the route is surrounded by brilliant red and orange foliage. But do you know that the shinryoku (新緑 fresh greenery) period is also a great time for a visit? Most people would look forward to the Snow Wall while exploring the route, but from late April to July, they can also expect to see vibrant green leaves, starting from the lower elevated areas. Even after the wall melts during the warmer months, visitors can enjoy amazing greenery at higher altitudes, which is a breathtaking sight.

 

Map of Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route from Nagano to Murodo. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

The different elevations at various points along the entire route. (Image credit: JR East)

 

For this article, I will share with you my experience of visiting the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route during the shinryoku period. I embarked on the route from the city of Nagano (長野市) where I was based at, and visiting the scenic route had been on my bucket list for the longest time.

 

I first heard about the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route around a decade ago, and I never thought I would have the opportunity to visit it someday. I made a round trip between Ogizawa (扇沢 Ōgizawa) and Murodo, and my goal was to reach the Snow Wall. Let’s check out what I discovered during my trip, and my overall experience at the route, which is also popularly known as the “Roof of Japan”!

 

Stage ①: Nagano → Ogizawa

Heading from Nagano to Ogizawa by express bus. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

My journey to the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route began from Nagano, where I took an express bus to Ogizawa. The ticket for the bus can be bought from the office nearby, and the bus departs from Hotel Metropolitan Nagano, where I was staying at. With my journey kicking off as early as 8am, the convenience of being able to get on the bus from the hotel lobby was a godsend!

 

Scenic views during the bus ride. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The bus ride was very comfortable, and it took approximately 100 minutes to reach Ogizawa. During the ride, I got a glimpse of Nagano’s scenic countryside as the bus passed by placid rivers and travelled through the rural areas. And thanks to the clear weather on that day, I also got to see snow-capped mountains in the far distance. The bus made brief stops at JR Shinano-Ōmachi Station and Ōmachi Onsenkyō before terminating at Ogizawa.

 

Stage ②: Ogizawa → Kurobe Dam

The Kurobe Dam. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Upon arriving at Ogizawa, I made my way to the next stop on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route: the Kurobe Dam (黒部ダム Kurobe-damu). To get to the dam, visitors can take a 16-minute ride on the Kanden Trolley Electric Bus through an underground tunnel.

 

Here’s a tip from me: during the bus ride, keep a lookout for two interesting points in the tunnel. One is a point where the bus crosses the border between prefectures Nagano and Toyama. The other is the “fracture zone”, a historical section in the tunnel which was the most difficult part to build during its construction. The tunnel was bored from both the Nagano side and Toyama side, and this section took a lot of time and effort to dig through due to the cold groundwater, and unstable earth and sand. Overcoming this section was a monumental feat, and it ultimately led to the completion of the dam.

 

Reaching the Kurobe Dam by Kanden Trolley Electric Bus. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Upon reaching the Kurobe Dam, visitors can choose to either go up to the Dam Observation Deck for a vantage view of the dam, or go down straight to cross it. Take note, however: the observation deck is 220-step climb up a staircase, although there is a rest stop along the way for visitors to take a break. To reach the dam, visitors must climb down an additional 60 steps. My recommendation? Head for the observation deck!

 

View of the Kurobe Dam from the Dam Observation Deck. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After conquering the steps, visitors will be rewarded with a majestic view of the Kurobe Dam. With a height of 186m, it is the tallest dam in Japan, and on one side of it is the picturesque Lake Kurobe (黒部湖 Kurobe-ko). Going up the steps was absolutely worth it in my view, and furthermore, I could see the Northern Alps in the background of the lake, and surrounding cliffs covered in vivid greenery, making the whole landscape look like something straight out of a painting.

 

Crossing the Kurobe Dam. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After visiting the observation deck, visitors can make their way down to the dam and explore it up-close as well as admire the beautiful Lake Kurobe before their very eyes. It takes at least 15 minutes to cross the dam, but I personally recommend everyone to take their time and leisurely enjoy the dam; you can easily spend an hour just exploring the entire area.

 

Take note that there are two ways to reach the dam from the Dam Observation Deck: the 220-step indoor staircase, and an outdoor staircase. I strongly recommend taking the latter route; the surrounding scenery during the descent is something you should not miss. Hope you are not afraid of heights!

 

Rainbow Terrace. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Another tip from me: while exploring the dam, don’t miss the Rainbow Terrace (レインボーテラス Reinbō-terasu), which visitors can access by climbing down a staircase along the dam. Open from the start of May to the end of October, the new observation square offers a bottom-up view of the dam on one side—which also serves as a wonderful vantage point for watching the iconic water discharge taking place from end-June to mid-October—and a panoramic view of the Kurobe River (黒部川) on the other.

 

There is also a historical hallway that depicts the history of the dam, and a replica of props and a tunnel set used for “The Sands of Kurobe” (黒部の太陽 Kurobe no Taiyō), a movie that tells the story of the lives of the people involved in the dam’s construction.

 

Stage ③: Kurobe Dam → Kurobedaira

Kurobedaira. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After the Kurobe Dam, visitors can next proceed to Kurobedaira (黒部平), and to do that, they can make their way to Kurobeko Station (黒部湖駅 Kurobeko-eki) on the other end of the dam and take the Kurobe Cable Car. This is not your typical cable car, however; it is a funicular and the only one that runs underground in Japan, making it possible to operate during snowfall and limiting its impact on the surrounding landscape.

 

Kurobeko Station (left) and Kurobe Cable Car (right). (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

When I reached Kurobedaira, I was pleasantly surprised by the view around it. It was flanked by snow-covered mountains on one side, and mountains covered in verdant greenery on the other. It was a particularly surreal view for me, and I felt like I was experiencing two different seasons at the same time, with winter and the Green Season on opposite sides.

 

Views around Kurobedaira. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Due to the high altitude, Kurobedaira is also known as a place for viewing alpine plants, especially during the summer. There are up to 100 types that visitors can see around the garden, making it a haven for floral enthusiasts.

 

Stage ④: Kurobedaira → Daikanbo

Daikanbo. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After Kurobedaira, it is another ascent up to Daikanbo (大観峰 Daikanbō), the next stage of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. To get to Daikanbo, visitors can take a 7-minute ride on the Tateyama Ropeway.

 

Surrounding views from the Tateyama Ropeway. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The ropeway ride from Kurobedaira to Daikanbo was the biggest ascent of my trip so far, with a climb of approximately 488m. As I went higher up into the mountains, I was beginning to see even more snow around me, and the surrounding views during the ropeway ride were nothing short of spectacular. The mountain slopes were covered with white snow and sprouting green leaves, and with the emerald-green Lake Kurobe down below, they made for an unforgettable view.

 

View from the observation deck at Daikanbo. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Didn’t get enough time to enjoy the scenery during the ropeway ride? Not to worry; at Daikanbo, there is an observation deck where visitors can get a full panoramic view of the mountains and Lake Kurobe below. When I got up to the observation deck, I felt like I was on top of the world, and the surreal view of Mount Akasawadake and Lake Kurobe was something that I couldn’t explain in words.

 

Stage ⑤: Daikanbo → Murodo

The iconic Snow Wall at Murodo. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After Daikanbo, the next stop is finally Murodo Terminal, home to the iconic Snow Wall. It is the highest point on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, with an altitude of 2,450m above sea level, and to get there, I hopped on the next mode of transportation: the Tateyama Trolley Bus.

 

Taking the Tateyama Trolley Bus to Murodo. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The Tateyama Trolley Bus passes through a tunnel that runs underneath the Tateyama Mountain Range to reach Murodo, and unlike the ordinary buses that we often see on the roads, it is operated by electricity connected to the overhead wires on the tunnel ceiling with trolley poles. It is also the last operating trolley bus line in Japan. Although the bus ride took barely 10 minutes, I thought it was a novel experience to ride something that was the last of its kind left in the country.

 

Murodo Terminal. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After a brief ride on the Tateyama Trolley Bus, I finally reached Murodo Terminal. It was crowded with both local and international group tours when I reached there, as the terminal served as the main converging point for visitors coming from Nagano and Toyama.

 

Here’s another tip from me: head up to the rooftop of the terminal to check out the display room for the former shrine building of Oyama Shrine Minehonsha. The actual shrine is situated at the peak of Mount Oyama (雄山), and the hiking trail from the terminal to the peak is popular among hiking enthusiasts, especially during the summer.

 

Murodo Plateau. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Before heading out to the Snow Wall, I made a detour to check out Mikurigaike Pond (みくりが池 Mikurigake), which is often regarded to be one of the most picturesque spots at Murodo. Unfortunately, it was snowing heavily at the time, and due to sudden bad weather, I could not get to it. Even though I didn’t get to see the pond, I still got to see a snow corridor that was carved out from all the snow, so my detour was not completely in vain.

 

A foggy walk to the Snow Wall. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

When the time came to finally make my way to the Snow Wall, the bad weather persisted, and visibility dropped drastically. Despite the setback, I was determined not to let it discourage my quest to see the iconic attraction, so I made my way through the fog and hoped for the best. Fortunately, my determination paid off and Lady Luck seemed to be on my side, as the fog gradually faded away and cleared up just in time for me to witness the Snow Wall upon my arrival.

 

The Snow Wall at Murodo, at last. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The Snow Wall is formed by heavy snowfall that takes place from mid-October to mid-April. To build it, Global Positioning System (GPS) is used to navigate the roads that are buried under heavy snow—which can go as high as 20m—and then bulldozers are used to plough the snow. This entire process would take 7–10 days, and it would be completed just before the route reopens from mid-April onwards.

 

The Snow Wall was a remarkable sight to behold, towering along the sides of the road leading towards Toyama. The height at the tallet section of the wall was only 13m when I visited, but even so, it was still magnificent to see in person, and I was pretty sure all the other visitors who were with me back then felt the same way. The tallest section was approximately 500m from the Murodo Terminal, and it took me around 15 minutes to get there on foot per one-way.

 

Bidding farewell to the Alpine Route. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After gazing at the Snow Wall to my heart’s content, it was finally time for me to bid farewell and make my way down the mountains and back to Nagano. When I reached the wall, I was pretty keen on exploring the route further, and the thought of continuing towards Toyama actually crossed my mind. However, I knew that that would be best reserved for another time. It would only be a matter of time before I set foot on the route again in the future.

 

Kuronyon, Kurobe Dam’s mascot. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

When I returned to Ogizawa, I was met with one last surprise: Kuronyon (くろにょん) waving goodbye to me and the other visitors at the station! Kuronyon is the Kurobe Dam’s mascot, and is a cat who wears a construction helmet and carries a shovel everywhere she goes to showcase how much she loves working there. She can usually be seen wandering around the dam, but due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, she is currently based at Ogizawa to send visitors off. Try to spot her and say hi the next time you visit the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route!

 

How to get there

Tickets from my trip between Nagano and Murodo. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

For my trip to the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, I made a return trip between Nagano and Murodo within a day. The express bus from Nagano to Ogizawa costs ¥3,100 per one-way, and after reaching Ogizawa, I bought return tickets between Ogizawa and Murodo for ¥9,470. After returning to Ogizawa, I took a bus to JR Shinano-Ōmachi Station for ¥1,390 followed by a train back to Nagano later that evening to wrap up my day.

 

Total fare for my return trip between Nagano and Murodo. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

From Ogizawa onwards, visitors can choose to either buy a ticket (one-way/return) for the next station each time, or a ticket (one-way/return) to their final destination e.g. Murodo. I personally recommend the latter option for the sake of convenience, especially if visitors have already planned on the exact stations that they want to visit along the entire route.

 

Closing

The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is one of Japan’s greatest sightseeing routes, and many people visit the route time and time again to explore its ever-changing natural beauty. Most people would visit during autumn when it is said to be at its most beautiful, but the shinryoku period is just as wondrous as they would get to see fresh greenery and white snow at the same time.

 

I got to see the contrasting scenery first-hand during my first visit to the route, and it was something I could never experience back home. I highly recommend everyone to go during the shinryoku period, and hope you get to see why this period is one of the best times to visit the route, as well as many other spots in Eastern Japan!

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

I approached the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route from Nagano, and if you plan to do the same, as well as explore Nagano and Niigata during your trip, you can also check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass that offers unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid areas for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥18,000, it costs less than a return trip between Tokyo and Shinano-Ōmachi (~¥20,000).

 

The pass can be used for automatic ticket gates, and you can also make seat reservations for bullet trains and some limited express trains and Joyful Trains for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.

 

Japan's Green & Great Shinryoku Show @#StayAtHome

Join us for Japan's Green & Great Shinryoku Show. (Image credit: JAPAN RAIL CAFE)

 

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 / Nazrul Buang, illustAC

 

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