The morning air is clear and brisk as a small group of people and load onto the minibus at Hirayu Onsen. Lunches are packed, each person is outfitted in winter wear, and a pile of equipment is loaded into the back. A short drive into the mountains, and everyone deboards at the entrance of the Kama tunnel, the starting point of the adventure. Today we are snowshoeing at Kamikochi, a highland valley in the northern Japan Alps, at the border of Gifu Prefecture.
Majestic Kamikochi: the original reading meant "where the gods descended," though modern readings translate simply to "upper highlands." It's easy to see, though, where the early name came from; to visit this beautiful locale is to feel a bit of grace.
Deboarding at the entrance of Kama Tunnel, the first task is to traverse the over 1 km. inclined stretch; snowshoes are not yet needed, but headlamps are. The tunnel is so dark that at times you can't see your hand in front of your face or your breath go frosty in the frigid air. It's notable that the roads are closed to cars past the tunnel; the only way in is on foot.
Emerging from the tunnel twenty or thirty minutes later, blinking in the bright day, the first glimpse of mountains can be spotted through the trees. Here, the group dons the snowshoes and practices navigating their newly big feet on top of as much as a meter of snow.
Setting off along the path, the walk is peaceful; aside from the group, nobody else is around. One of the walking guide says that's what is special about this place in the winter: "The silence. The absolute absence of sound." It's a far cry from the city, and the thick blanket of snow muffles any echoes that may come.
After the first kilometer is the first goalpost: Taisho Pond. Here, the reflection of Mount Yakedake can be seen in the parts of the pond that aren't frozen over. The icy surface further contributes to the quiet: the sound of gurgling water is also mostly absent.
Some hikers stop for lunch here, but a hardier group, on a day when the going's not too tough, may push on another kilometer and a half to Tashiro Bridge and Pond. Here, the water is not frozen, and reflects the surrounding mountains and bare branches of the forest prettily. It's also a nice place for a bento, and the onigiri (rice balls) lunch box provided by the trek organizer are wrapped in cute animal character foil and hit the spot, fortifying us for the return hike.
Thigh muscles are starting to ache a bit from the alien effort of having extra-large feet and navigating them over the half-pliant surface of the snow, but the group knows that crisp mountain air is sending beautiful clean oxygen to those tired legs, and that a rejuvenating soak in the hot springs back at Hirayu Onsen awaits (included in the tour price!).
Tour details: Winter Kamikochi Trekking is available from early January to late March, and reservations should be made at least a week in advance. The minimum number of participants (overall) for the tour to go forward is 4. The cost is ¥8000 per person, with snowshoe rental an extra ¥1000. The tour price includes transportation to and from Hirayu no Mori, the guide fee, an onigiri bento, and entrance to the hot springs at Hirayu no Mori. Participants should bring cold weather clothing (jacket and pants), snow boots, gloves, hat, earmuffs, backpack, first aid kit, and copy of insurance card.
Full disclosure: Tour and photos provided by Hirayu no Mori.