The Japanese Alps scare me a little. Well, maybe more than a little. Despite being an avid hiker, the sheer size and – I have to admit – the intimidating beauty of the region, which is home to some of the highest peaks in Japan – has made me keep my distance from one of the most rewarding hiking destinations in Japan.
Sure, I did some of the easier and untechnical hikes – like Yake Dake in the Northern Alps (active volcanoes do not scare me as much as the exposed ridge hikes) and I visited Kamikochi before. But it was not until this last weekend that I decided to finally venture a little further into the mountainous territory and take a peek at the highly praised scenery up there.
Karasawa Cirque, probably one of the most popular hikes in Japan especially in the autumn season, looked like an ideal starter hike. A hike that is not technical, not particularly challenging (if you are already used to the hiking trails in Japan where the steepest option is often what the people who set the trails choose to go with) but more importantly, a trail that does not involve any chain climbs or terrifyingly exposed ridges (looking at you Daikiretto).
Karasawa Cirque trail itinerary
Karasawa Cirque trail, located in Kamikochi region in Nagano, is a 32-kilometer long hike (with a start and end at Kamikochi bus terminal) with a total of 800 meters elevation gain. The hike takes around 10 to 12 hours – some people cover the whole trail in a day (slightly ambitious endeavour), some take their time and finish the hike in three days.
The most common way to do the Karasawa Cirque hike is the one night/two days option with overnight stay at one of the two huts located in Karasawa Cirque, Karasawa Hutte and Karasawa Hut (Karasawa Goya) (yes these are two separate huts) or at the campsite sandwiched between the two huts.
Due to my schedule, I chose the cover the trail in one night/two days but with an overnight stay at one of the lodges/huts located down in the valley instead of staying in one of the Karasawa huts.
On the first day, I arrived at Kamikochi bus station in the afternoon and did the 1.5 – 2 hour hike to Tokusawa Lodge where I spent the night. The next morning, with a 6 am start at Tokusawa, I had plenty of time to enjoy the hike, take (too many) photos, spend an hour at Karasawa Hutte, get lunch at Yokoo Sanso on the way back (followed by another long coffee break at Tokusawa Lodge), and still make it back to Kamikochi Bus Terminal on time to catch one of the afternoon buses departing from Kamikochi.
The trail is – theoretically – also doable in a day without overnight stay. However, there are many exceptionally beautiful sections along the route where one would likely want to spend time enjoying the scenery and taking photos. At the end of the hike, I was glad that I could find the time (and bed) to spend the night in Kamikochi and was not pressed for time. If I attempted the trail as a day hike (crossed my mind while planning the trip), I would not enjoy it as much and feel constantly anxious about the time. The trail itself is as beautiful as the destination, if not more.
From Kamikochi bus stop to Tokusawa Lodge
The trail between Kamikochi bus stop and Tokusawa Lodge (actually all the way up to Hondani Bridge) is almost entirely flat. Since I started my hike in the afternoon with a 2:40 pm arrival time at Kamikochi bus terminal, the section after Myojin Pond (one of the popular sights in Kamikochi featuring a shrine and picturesque pond) was almost empty, allowing me to run part of the trail so I could make it to Tokusawa on time (before the recommended latest check-in time of 4 pm). The idea of walking alone in a bear country with no other humans in sight might have also been a motivating factor behind my occasional sprints.
Tokusawa Lodge, one of the finest mountain lodges in Japan (1.5 to 2 hour hike)
I made it to Tokusawa Lodge right around 4 pm. While, in line with the overall standards in the country, you can often rely on most mountain huts in Japan for decent and clean accommodation, Tokusawa has far exceeded my expectations. I booked a bed in the dorm room for 13,000 Yen/night (web booking possible) that also includes dinner/breakfast and free access to the common bath.
In addition to a mid-size dining room, the facility features a stylishly decorated lounge area where you can get a variety of alcoholic drinks and coffee/tea. The dinner time is set as 5:20 pm whereas the breakfast is served at 7 am. Since I was going to start my hike earlier, they packed my breakfast for me and delivered it to me during the dinner.
What made Tokusawa Lodge stand out for me was the attention to detail. Unlike most mountain huts, the dining room felt like a cozy restaurant rather than a large refectory. The lounge area – featuring a fireplace – was seductive enough to make one skip a hike, even more likely on a rainy day. I could easily spend few days in Tokusawa (and I might in the future) just to relax, read, and take short hikes. In addition to the hut, there is also a large and often busy camp site located right next to the hut. The campers can use the bathing facilities of Tokusawa Lodge (for a 1000 Yen fee) between 3 and 8 pm.
Tokusawa Lodge to Hondani Bridge (1.5 to 2 hour hike)
I hiked the Karasawa Cirque trail in the beginning of September during a period with relatively early sunrises. While the sun was already up at around 5.30 am, I still waited until 6 am (hoping there would be few more people on the trail but there were not) to avoid hiking all alone in the bear country.
The trail between Tokusawa and Hondani Bridge goes through Yokoo Sanso, another popular overnight stay spot for Kamikochi hikers. Similar to Tokusawa, you have two options – the hut and the camping ground. There are also vending machines and toilets in this area offering one last chance to get ready for the hike up to Karasawa. The flat section between Tokusawa and Yokoo Sanso will take you anywhere from 30 minutes to 1 hour.
The trail gets a little steeper after Yokoo Sanso, but nothing comparable to what awaits you right after Hondani Bridge. Most of the route up to Hondani Bridge goes through a forest but you occasionally get a peek of the beautiful peaks, putting you in mood for the even more commanding mountain scenery that lies ahead on the trail.
Hondani Bridge to Karasawa Cirque (1 to 2 hour hike)
There is no easy way to say it. Yes, the section that starts after the picturesque Hondani Bridge is steep enough to make you question not only why you for some reason decided to spend your Saturday attempting to climb almost vertical set of stairs made of rock but also your general purpose in life. But give it a 15-20 minutes and that feeling will likely go away. The later part of the trail is much more tolerable and comes with magnificent views that make up for the steepness of the trail. Also, the trail is relatively wide. While you need to constantly watch your step due to rocky terrain, there are not any sketchy sections.
You can cover the distance between Hondani to Karasawa in about 1 to 2 hours depending on your strength level and speed. As I did the hike in early September – a month before peak autumn colors season – there were only a handful of other hikers on the trail in the morning (but that all changed during the return trip).
The end point of the hike (or the object of desire for many outdoor lovers in Japan, or the promised autumn land), the glorious Karasawa Cirque is one of the glacier cirques in Japan, possibly the most beautiful one.
The relatively small cirque area, overlooked by multiple peaks of Northern Japanese Alps, is home to two mountain huts that also serve day hikers. The area offers one of the most picture-perfect nature sceneries in Japan that, not only physically but also mentally, feels deceivingly approachable. But of course, it is a disguise. The area, once you leave the comforting environment provided by the existence of two huts, is home to some of the most challenging trails in Japan (possibly also in the world). Daikiretto, literally meaning big cut in Japanese, lies just a little outside of Karasawa Cirque and leads, through its knife-edge ridge, the brave hikers to Hotaka-dake.
Karasawa is also one of the most hiked trails in Japan during the autumn colors season. While I have never been up there for the fall foliage, I have countless times heard the stories of three strangers sharing the same futon in the Karasawa huts in late September, the peak fall colors season for the area. Autumn is also when the camping area between the two huts gets the degrading nickname of “tent city” with hundreds of colorful tents hosting likely thousands of people, similar to how people refer to Everest base camp during the May climbing season.
Karasawa Cirque to Kamikochi bus stop
After spending almost an hour at Karasawa Hutte watching the surrounding peaks and jumping out of joy with fellow hikers when the clouds cleared away blessing us with uninterrupted views of the surrounding peaks, I started my descent down to Kamikochi bus stop.
On the way up, it took me around 3 hours to cover the distance between Tokusawa and Karasawa Cirque. As a result, I had many hours to kill before catching one of the afternoon buses out of Kamikochi.
While the descent was much easier on the legs than the ascent, the trail – with the flood of hikers who started their hike at Kamikochi – was much busier. The section between Karasawa and Hondani Bridge involves multiple relatively narrow sections requiring frequent stops to open the way to the hikers coming from the opposite direction. On a sunny Saturday in early September, the trail was already fairly crowded. So I cannot imagine how it must feel during the busy peak autumn colors season.
On the way back to the bus stop, I took a long lunch break at Yokoo Sanso (where you can get curry and noodle set menus), which was followed by another long coffee break at my beloved Tokasawa Lodge. I made it back to the Kamikochi bus terminal shortly after 3 pm and took the 4 pm bus to take me – via Shin-Shimashima train station – to my next destination, Matsumoto.
Karasawa Cirque trail is a hike worth the 20-30 minutes effort that it requires during the steep section that starts after the Hondani Bridge. Sure, question yourself, your reasons to get on the trail, your purpose in life but if you push forward for 20-30 minutes, the scenery that awaits at the top will reward you for it. I promise.