On a hike, blisters and sore leg muscles often come with the territory. But a stiff neck? That's what I ended up with after hiking in Kamikochi, one of Japan's most beloved mountain...

Share story

On a hike, blisters and sore leg muscles often come with the territory.

But a stiff neck?

That’s what I ended up with after hiking in Kamikochi, one of Japan’s most beloved mountain areas. There were so many people striding along a riverside trail that it was almost as busy as Seattle’s Green Lake path on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

On some stretches, I’d pass other hikers almost every minute. “Konnichi-wa,” good afternoon, they’d say and bow their heads. I’d murmur and bow.

By the end of my five-hour hike on a summer weekend, my neck was aching from the unaccustomed nodding.

But it was a very slight price to pay for the conviviality and scenery along the national-park trail in the Japan Alps.

Few and far between

As a foreign woman walking alone in Kamikochi, I was a rarity — perhaps that’s why virtually every hiker so kindly greeted me with a bow. Hardly any Westerners seem to head to the hills in Japan, not even to the wildly popular Kamikochi resort village and trails, which lie in a narrow river basin at 5,000 feet within Chubu Sangaku National Park in central Japan. But on summer days, thousands of Japanese hikers and sightseers throng to Kamikochi, where the rippling Azusa-gawa River is edged by rugged peaks, some topping 10,000 feet.

You’re never alone on the riverside hiking trails of Kamikochi, in Japan’s Chubu-Sangaku National Park

Visitors snap the obligatory I-was-there photo on the Kappa footbridge spanning the river, lining up to take turns posing on the wood suspension bridge. They snap up souvenirs in gift shops in the Kamikochi resort village, a little cluster of cafes, shops and hotels by the footbridge.

And they hit the trails, some on days-long alpine treks although most stick to shorter hikes on some of the gentler forest trails that wind through birch, larch and hemlock for some 20 miles along the river. (Others barely stray from the Kappa bridge and the gift shops).

Although I saw hardly any other foreigners during my two-night stay in Kamikochi, it was a late 19th-century British missionary and mountaineer, Walter Weston, who explored the area and popularized modern mountaineering in Japan when he published a climbing guide to the area. He’s still remembered: There’s a memorial statue to Weston in Kamikochi and a celebration in his honor each spring when the area reopens.

Kamikochi is accessible only from about April through October. Heavy snows close the steep road into the park, which twists along cliffs and through long, narrow tunnels (with some one-way alternating sections) in winter. Even when the road is open, no private vehicles are allowed on the last five miles; it would be polluting gridlock given Kamikochi’s popularity. Instead, fleets of buses and taxis shuttle visitors from parking lots far below.

Most Kamikochi visitors are day-trippers. But you can stay overnight, in a 75-room outpost of Tokyo’s uber-luxury Imperial Hotel or in simpler lodges scattered along the river. Or pitch a tent at a walk-in campground by the river, where families and groups of university students gather around campfires at night.

Even for an easygoing walk along the mostly level riverside trails, many hikers donned high-tech gear. Legions of men strode past me, some in heavy-duty hiking boots and carrying collapsible walking sticks and fancy, well-padded packs.

I was underdressed in my well-worn sneakers and flimsy nylon daypack. But there was little need to be ready to rough it.

Every few miles along the trail was an outpost of civilization — rest stops with a cafe, fresh-fruit stalls or vending machines, ubiquitous in Japan. Thirsty hikers fed coins into them for pop, green-tea drinks and even ice-cold beer, a rare treat on a hot summer hike.

To cater to the spiritual side, there was a small, altar-like Shinto shrine at the placid Myojin-ike pond. Mallards dabbled in the still water of the little pond by the shrine, but the rocky shore was so thick with visitors that it was hard to get in a contemplative mood.

In the late afternoon, the hiking crowd dwindled as day-trippers scurried off to catch buses. I hiked along a boardwalk through a marshy area at dusk, all alone for the first time that day. Or so I thought.

A half-dozen wild monkeys darted out of the undergrowth and pranced along the boardwalk in front of me. “Konnichi-wa,” I called to the monkeys, pleased to have company on the trail before they scampered back into the woods.

Kristin Jackson: 206-464-2271 or kjackson@seattletimes.com