Snow trekking on the spine of the Chuo Alps
Eighteen thousand years ago the Japan Alps were not only rocky mountain peaks but also tongues of glacial ice. There are no true glaciers in Japan today (although there are a few permanent snow fields), but evidence of colder days from years gone by can be seen in dozens of glacier-carved cirques gouged out of all three mountain ranges of the Japan Alps.
The most accessible of these ice age remnants is the Senjojiki Cirque (Senjojiki Kaaru in Japanese, from the German word kaar) in the Chuo Alps. A cable car operates year round, whisking alpine lovers of all ages and fitness levels to 2,600 meters where they can enjoy a grand view of the monolithic granite face of Houkendake (2,931 meters) looming majestically over the cirque.
From here, gaze out across the Tenryu River Valley with a view of the Minami Alps and the cone of Mt. Fuji rising beyond. The Senjojiki Hotel can also be found here. Luckily it’s open year round, so you can stay warm and comfortable while exploring the frigid alpine environment in the heart of winter.
I visited the cirque in December eager for some winter hiking and photography. After checking into the hotel, I strapped on my snowshoes and set out tramping in the snow. I had my heart set on climbing out of the north end of the cirque and getting up to Kiso Komagatake, the highest peak in the Chuo Alps at 2,956 meters. However, I was advised not to attempt it that day due to high avalanche risk.
Watching the sun disappear over the ridge of the mountains, though, I wasn’t content wandering in the shadow of the cirque all day. I found a set of footprints leading up to the ridge on the southern end of the cirque and decided to try to follow as them far as I could go.
My ascension snowshoes worked well, but the slope gradually started to get steeper up the bowl-like contours of the cirque. Wearing wool gloves, I started digging into the snow for extra grip. After finally reaching the top, I stood with a vertical wall of snow coming above my eyes.
I had to take off my snowshoes in order to kick my boots into the snow and climb over the edge but, as I tried to undo my snowshoe straps, I realized my fingers were nearly frozen numb. It seems the heat from my hands had melted the snow on my gloves but the cold air had refrozen the tips.
It was a struggle to get the snowshoes off, but eventually I tossed them over the snow wall and then clambered over the top, rolling into a blasting icy wind just as the sun was going down. This would have been a prime spot to take some photos, but I had to save my fingers.
With my back to the wind, I unzipped my jacket and stuffed my bare hands into my armpits. There was a terrible biting pain as the feeling returned to my fingers but it was to be expected and it took a few days to regain sensation in three fingers. Yet I had proven to myself I could climb up to the ridge, so I planned to return with proper gloves the next day.
After taking some shots of the morning alpine glow on the snow, I returned to the ridge via the same route. The scenery was well worth the effort. To the south, the rugged peaks of Utsugidake and Minami Komagatake jutted into the winter sky. To the east, the Minami Alps stretched out before my eyes. To the north, the granite head of Houkendake raised itself, and to the northwest were the volcanic peaks of Ontakesan and Norikuradake.
The freezing wind had carried up moisture from below and frozen it to the granite boulders on the ridge, creating fantastic feather rime formations, which in Japanese are called ebi shippo – shrimp tails.
I spent the short December day walking along the high ridge and exploring the creations of wind, snow and ice until the onset of the early sunset told me it was time to go and catch the last cable car down.
Yet, anyone can enjoy the fabulous winter alpine scenery here without hiking up to the ridge. Simply take a walk around the cirque below Houkendake or just stand outside the hotel and soak in the tranquil setting. If you get cold, head back in the hotel and get warmed with a hot bath or a drink. Winter trekking in the Japan Alps has never been easier.
Train: From Tokyo, take the Chuo Tokyu train bound for Matsumoto and transfer at Okaya. From Nagoya take the JR Tokyu train to Shiojiri, transfer to the Chuo Line to Okaya. From Okaya take the JR Iida Line to Komagane Station. Go out of the station and get on the bus heading to the cable car station at Shirabi Daira.
Car: Take the Chuo Expressway or Highway 153 through the Tenryu Valley to Komagane City and drive up to the Komagane Kogen Ski Ground. Keep going to the parking lot and bus stop at Suginodai. Then take the bus from there to the cable car.
Room rates at the Senjojiki Hotel start at ¥11,550 per night per person for a standard room with two meals included. Rates vary by season and the number of people in your group. For details visit www.chuo_alps.com/hotel_senjojiki.