Destinations Magazine

Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (Japan)

By Allanmwilson @BoutiqueBangkok

The Alpine Route, and its snow corridor, is very much a seasonal attraction beginning in mid-April and ending in late June. Any earlier and the route will be hidden beneath heavy snowfall, and any later and the snows will have melted. We arrive for the better part of it, in late April, traveling from Kanazawa by Shinkansen (JR Pass) to the convenient starting point of Toyama (nearby hotels). At Toyama station there are easy-to-find tourist ticket booths which then connect to the beginning of the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. From here we follow a well-connected itinerary of weird and wonderful transport carriages, as we navigate the peaks of the Alpine Route. All transport is included in the Alpine Route ticket (9,490 Yen per person one-way) which is neatly connected through to the opposite end. The only additional cost comes at the opposite end, where we pay for the bus back to meet the JR lines at Shinano-Omachi (12,360 pp). On our journey we begin at Toyama where it takes an hour’s train travel through picturesque forest parks as we begin the ascent into Japan’s northern mountain peaks.

Alpine Route Train, 2 Week JR Pass, Japan Train Travel Toyama Ticket Office, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail Ticket Price for Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail

The Cablecar

The train then arrives to the base of the cablecar, and to a packed hall chock full of tourists. Given the popularity of this attraction, and the limited window of opening, expect it to always be busy. After roughly 30 minutes of queuing we board the cablecar to be pulled to the mountain tops. I actually find the term cablecar a little misleading here. It’s more like a funicular tram, similar to the Hong Kong peak, Penang Hill or the Grand Budapest Hotel. Either way, it wasn’t overly exciting, and while the better views are found on the far right side of the carriages, I wouldn’t bother pushing to find them. There’s a lot better to come.

Cablecar to Peak, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail
Queue to Cablecar, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail
Cablecar Views, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail

The Bus Journey

The next bus journey was definitely a highlight of the Alpine Route, albeit on a bus, as we navigate winding roads between corridors of snow walls and mountain pine trees. We were out of luck on this journey, and fail to capture any worthwhile shots as we find ourselves squashed into the fold-out middle seats in the center of the bus. You’ll probably want to avoid these. After 30 minutes through snowy wonderland we open out to unobstructed white vistas and some of the best views of the journey.

Alpine Route Bus, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail
Bus in Pine Forests, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail
Mountain Vistas, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail

The Great Snow Wall

The bus route ends as we arrive to the 20 meter (or thereabouts) tall snow wall, better known as the Gorge of Snow (Yukino-ōtani), which is the postcard picture of the alpine route. They are easy to navigate by foot through walkways, between and around, and on the opposite side of the wall there are fantastic views of surrounding mountain ranges and plenties of snow to frolic in. The bus stops at a building just past the wall which will have further viewpoints and optional routes to explore other nearby peaks. There’s also restaurants, shops and the usual tourist tack.

Tall Snow Wall , Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail
Snow View Walks, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail
Japanese Snow, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail

Keep Going

This would be the turn back point for many tourists, but we push ahead to the opposite end of the Alpine Route. Along the way we find a handful of viewpoints, and travel on all sorts of transport, including cable cars (funicular trains) and trolley buses (a bit like trams which bury through tunnels in the center of the mountain range). We then arrive to the mountain rope way.

Fanfan at Viewpoint , Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail
Boarding Trolley Bus, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail
Trolley Buses, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail

The Rope Way

I find the ropeway would be my own interpretation of the cablecar. It is a cable which transports a car. So the rope way (cablecar) lowers down from the highest peaks of the range towards the valleys below, passing a vast lake near the bottom. It was definitely one of the highlights of the Alpine Route with fantastic views en route. There are windows on all sides of the ‘cablecar’ but you may find yourself stuck in the middle if near the back of the queue. Maybe wait for the next run. Topping our entertainment for the day was the Chinese tour group rushing the doors as the car arrives as they push for the best window views at the front. When they do the cablecar sways lopsided and they start screaming in terror (as the Japanese car manager chuckles).

Cablecar / Ropeway, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail
Boarding Cablecar, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail
Cable Cars, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail

Kunobe Dam

The last stop on the Alpine Route is Kunobe Dam which we arrive to by one final cable car (funicular railway) from the ropeway (cablecar). It’s interesting enough, with an observation deck and viewpoint above, but, at the time, we skip past as we were just too dam tired (haha). Instead we make loads of ‘dam’ puns as we continue on to the final tunnel trolley bus. The queues for the trolley bus were in the longest I’ve seen at a tourist attraction, ever. I was somewhat expecting an hour, or two, wait but 30 minutes did it. The trolley bus takes us to the Alpine Route exit arriving at roughly 4:30pm. It then takes a further 4 hours for us to make our way to Kanazawa.

Kunobe Dam, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail
Reservoir Views, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail
Long Queues, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail

Back to the JR Lines

From the cablecar exit we follow a bus route back to Shinano-Omachi station (12,360 pp) before boarding three consecutive trains back to Kanazawa. The first two trains follow the local JR lines with an easy transfer at Minari-Otari. The stop after is Itoigawa and this is where the JR Shinkansen lines begin for travel to far-flung destinations, which for us is the final stretch to Kanazawa. The first of these train journeys was immensely beautiful as we pass scenery of snowy hills, cherry blossoms, and über cute villages, all made perfect by the setting sun. The 2nd rail journey was in darkness traveling in a one carriage train with front and back windows visible, in front and behind us. Only 3 people were on the train, and 2 of them were us. It felt lonely and surreal.

Ogizawa Bus, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail
Bus Ticket Price, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail
One Carriage Train, Alpine Route by JR Pass Japan Rail

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