Gargantuan April snow walls on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Crossing

Location MapThe Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Crossing is a unique way to traverse a mountain range. Definitely the strangest crossing I’ve done and easily the most accessible. You can rely on several different public transport links to take you over 2,500m and through the mountains. In the warmer months it would be possible to walk and camp some sections. For me though I was curious to see the giant snow walls in spring which often tower over the buses – multiple stories high.

We arrived in Nagano very late from Sapporo, exhausted, and we still weren’t really sure how we were going to do the Alpine Crossing. So needless to say I was both very relieved and impressed when Rachel decisively (and strangely willingly) chose to take the 6.40am train (even though it was well past midnight) to Toyama and take the west to east route.

So we woke up god awfully early for the shinkansen and headed to Toyama station around the other side of the mountains. From there it was an easy walk to Dentetsu-Toyama to buy tickets for all sections except the final leg from Ogizawa to Shinano-Omachi station. Unfortunately, we were unable to pre-book tickets in Nagano because the ticket office wasn’t open until 10am. This meant we had to pay ¥9,400 plus the final bus to Shinano-Omachi which was another ¥1,400. With a JR Rail Pass you can purchase the whole lot for ¥9,000, but you need to buy it from the major cities or major airports the day before.

In any case, we were just happy to have gotten an early start because the crossing only opened on the 16th April and we made the crossing on Monday the 18th April during the peak period for the snow walls.

We got on a train that got us to the Tateyama cable car at 9.20am. Hundreds of school kids turned out at the stations along the way to greet us. They all waved, vivaciously, swinging their little flags and banners. It must have been because it was the first school day that the crossing was open. Station staff also lined up to bow to the train – it was pretty special!

We arrived in good time for our reserved 9.40am cable car up the mountain and then jumped straight into a highland bus bound for the snow wall and the Murodo plateau. I had hoped to camp somewhere along the crossing, but during the bus ride I realised there was no way that was happening. If you do need to camp though, there’s one about an hour from the Murodo bus terminal. There’s a map on Japan Guide – just leave it for summer.

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Riding the cable car. It wasn't Swiss made, but it was made in Japan and not China.

The snow walls were gargantuan! At the top, you would have to be on the roof of the bus and stand three people upon each other’s shoulders like a circus act to come close to seeing over the top. The snow walls are so thick and so compact that they are still present in summer.

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Markers on the snow wall indicating when snow fell to create layers of the wall

It’s hard to appreciate the size of the wall at ground level. Fortunately, as I have done so well this Japan trip, I dressed appropriately. At least I had the forethought to wear the jeans and hoodie I purchased at Uni Qlo in Kyoto. I really wasn’t expecting so much snow and cold weather in Japanese spring and had come prepared for South East Asian weather.

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Really quite cold outside the bus in the snow wall wind tunnel

The snow everywhere was just frozen solid. It’s no wonder the snow here takes so long to melt, but it sure makes for difficult walking. The mountains and the lake were all encased in ice. Cross country skiers were everywhere, but I can tell you it certainly would not have been fun skiing given the deep scraping sound the ice made against their skis. The rain fell as sharp ice and gave your face a good battering. Perisher is at least better than this!

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Frozen us and the frozen lake in a frozen landscape

We took the trolley bus through the mountain and down the cable car on the other side. Descending did wonderful things for the snow which Rachel had never seen before. The snow on the ground was certainly not fresh, but then fresh snow started to fall from the sky.

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We even made a snow maiden

Down, down, down the mountains we headed to the Kurobe Dam. The weather was wet again down here. It was no longer cold enough to fall as hail or snow but it certainly was chilly. In the warmer months you can walk from the dam to a campsite called Kuroyon, but it was about 4pm at this point so we hopped on the next trolley bus through the mountains to Ogizawa.

Unfortunately we missed the last express bus to Nagano so we could only take a bus to Shinano-Omachi (¥1,400). But then we saved some money using our JR Rail Passes to go back via Matsumoto – you win some, you lose some.

While waiting for the train here I learned that every Japanese town has a mascot. I never paid attention to it I guess, but it’s true, they are everywhere! We shared some seaweed Pringles with a kid on the train and he taught us that this was Omapyon, the mountain goat with a mountain hat who represented the region.

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Omapyon! Plus Pringles and the boy we talked to.

Another loooooong day by the time we got home, but yet for some reason we decided to watch Brooklyn 99 and some live Chelsea Peretti until our eyeballs basically fell out. Consequently, this made for a very sluggish day around Nagano the day after, but after so many days on trains and public transport I think it’s what we needed anyway.

Read more about this trip here

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