Japan has no shortage of mountain destinations for international visitors to discover, but one of the most iconic mountain experiences in Japan is the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. This remarkable journey through the Japanese Alps takes visitors through valleys, up mountains and past all manner of breathtaking scenery.
But what makes the Kurobe Alpine Route so memorable is all the different modes of transport that link together to make this journey possible. Read on to see how you too can experience the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route when you next visit Japan using the Japan Rail Pass.
Background to the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route is a specially-designed sightseeing route that connects through the Japanese Alps from Tateyama near Toyama to Omachi near Nagano. This remarkable seasonal route stretches for around 90 kilometres through the mountains and first opened back in 1971.
What makes travelling the Kurobe Alpine Route possible is a jumble of different modes of transport, from buses and trains to cable cars, that connect Tateyama with Omachi. All told it includes eight different transport services, all managed by Tateyama Kurobe Kankō (TKK). With a single ticket, it’s possible to travel across the route in a single day, while some choose to take their time exploring the so-called “Roof of Japan.”
Travelling across the route, tourists will have the chance to see a variety of different landscapes and alpine attractions, including the iconic Tateyama snow corridor. That said, several sections of the route are entirely underground,meaning it’s often the stops where the majority of the sightseeing takes place.
Transport Along the Kurobe Alpine Route
So that you can fully appreciate how interesting and varied travel on the Kurobe Alpine Route is, let’s look at each form of transport you’ll take across the full route, travelling west to east.
- Toyama Chiho Railway (65 minutes): This train takes you from Dentetsu Toyama Station, just by Toyama Station, out to Tateyama Station near the start of the mountains.
- Tateyama Cablecar (7 minutes): Rise higher and higher out of Tateyama Station on this cable car that climbs 500 metres at a 24 degree gradient to Bijodaira Station.
- Tateyama Highland Bus (50 minutes): Travel further up into the alps aboard this bus from Bijodaira Station, past the Midagahara Wetlands to Murodo. It’s here in spring that you can pass through the famous Tateyama Snow Corridor.
- Tateyama Tunnel Trolley Bus (10 minutes): Passing through a tunnel that connects Murodo with Daikanbo, this electric trolley bus is the highest operating one in Japan.
- Tateyama Ropeway (7 minutes): Enjoy panoramic views from this 1.7 kilometer long ropeway between Daikanbo and Kurobedaira, that’s the longest in Japan with just one span.
- Kurobe Cablecar (5 minutes): This short cable car surprisingly operates completely underground between Kurobedaira and Kurobe Dam.
- Kanden Tunnel Electric Bus (16 minutes): Another electric tunnel bus, this service takes you from Kurobe Dam to Ogizawa.
- Ogizawa Buses (40 minutes / 100 minutes): Choice of two bus connections out of Ogizawa to JR stations. The Ogizawa-Omachi Local Bus runs to Shinano-Omachi Station and takes 40 minutes. Alternatively, the Nagano Express bus runs from Ogizawa to Nagano Station and takes 100 minutes.
Thing to Do on the Kurobe Alpine Route
With the transport side of things out of the way, let’s look at all the great sights and places to visit that sit along the Kurobe Alpine Route.
Tateyama Snow Corridor
By the far the most famous place to visit on the Kurobe Alpine Route is the iconic snow corridor that forms each spring. Each April and May, the road between Bijodaira and Murodo is cleared and opened up, leaving stunning walls of snow on either side like a corridor. These walls can reach heights of 20 metres and stretch for one kilometre depending on the snowfall earlier in the year.
Besides passing through the corridor on the bus, there is also a section open to pedestrians up near the Murodo Bus Terminal. Seeing the incredible snow corridor helps explain why the route only opens up each year in April. Often the snow walls will survive into mid-to-late June before melting away.
The top of Murodo Mountain is the main hub for visitors to the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, offering facilities like a hotel, conservation centre and onsen. But one of the most popular activities related to this 2450-metre-high mountain is that it’s the start point for a variety of local hiking trails. Popular hikes here include trips up to the summits of Mt. Tateyama, as well as other nearby mountains like Mt. Murodo and Mt. Jodo, all of which offer great views of the Tateyama Mountain Range.
One of the more interesting landscapes to explore here among the Japanese Alps is the Midagahara wetlands. Spanning across a plateau at 1930 metres above sea level, this marsh is a great spot in the warmer months of the year for nature walks along its many boardwalks. Then there’s Midagahara in autumn, when everything changes colour and completely transforms the landscape yet again.
Being in the mountains with plenty of melting snow, it’s only natural that you find some waterfalls in the Japanese Alps. However, you may be surprised to learn that the Alpine Route is home to the tallest waterfall in Japan, Shomyo Falls. This monumental waterfall measures 350 metres in height, with four different tiers that you can see from its viewpoints. Reaching the falls is possible via a special bus out of Tateyama Station.
Transfer Station Viewpoints
One of the benefits of switching modes of transport along the Alpine Route is the chance to stop at each of the transfer stations. While they may not sound too glamorous, many of the transfer stations boast incredible views from their observation decks.
Take the Daikanbo stop between the Tateyama Trolley Bus and Tateyama Ropeway for example. Sitting at 2316 metres elevation, the station has an observation deck on its roof that provides a sweeping panorama of the Japanese Alps and Lake Kurobo below. Same goes for the Kurobedaira transfer station further along and its stellar mountain views.
Another transfer stop that deserves special mention is Kurobe Dam because it offers some special sightseeing opportunities. The tallest dam in Japan at 186 metres in height, Kurobe Dam powers a local hydro plant and makes for a particularly imposing sight along the Alpine Route. Visitors will want to tackle the 200 plus steps up its long staircase to enjoy superb views of the dam from its dedicated observation deck.
Tickets for the Kurobe Alpine Route
As you are not able to travel on the Kurobe Alpine Route using your JR Pass, it’s worth understanding a few things about the tickets you need:
- General tickets for the Kurobe Alpine Route provide a one-way trip across the route, although there are some shorter round trip tickets also available.
- Tickets can be bought in advance online or on the day at Tateyama and Ogizawa Stations, but not Shinano-Omachi Station. Tickets bought in person are valid for five days after the purchase date.
- A general one way ticket from Toyama to Ogizawa is 10,530 yen, while a ticket from Toyama to Shinano-Omachi costs 11,920 yen.
- There are also special tourist passes that include the Alpine Route among other places, such as the Alpine-Takayama-Matsumoto Area Tourist Pass and the JR Central “Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Ticket”.
- Some forms of transport, such as the Tateyama Cable Car and the Kanden Tunnel Electric Bus, come with an allocated departure time. Reserving a specific time for the Tateyama Cable Car is also possible on the official site.
Information for Travelling the Kurobe Alpine Route
- The full route from Dentetsu Toyama to Shinano Omachi is open from the 15th of April to the 30th of November, while a partial section between Dentetsu Toyama and Midagahara is often open earlier from the 10th of April. Outside of this window, the route is closed.
- While it’s possible to briefly cover the entire Alpine Route in a day trip with the full route taking around 6-7 hours, you’ll get more from the experience and see more if you allow several days here. Accommodation is available along the route, mostly in Murodo.
- Timetables for all the different modes of transport can be found here.
- So that you don’t have to worry about your luggage as you explore the Alpine Route, there are baggage forwarding services available in the area, not to mention luggage lockers back in cities like Tokyo.
Getting to the Kurobe Alpine Route with the JR Pass
While we’ve covered what it’s like to travel along the Kurobe Alpine Route, there’s still the matter of getting to it in the first place. The good news is that it’s possible to reach either end of the route using your Japan Rail Pass.
Starting at Toyama
To start the route at Toyama you can take the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station all the way to Toyama station. From there it’s a very short walk to Dentetsu Toyama Station where you can begin your trip. The journey takes between 2 - 2 ½ hours and is fully covered by your JR Pass.
Starting around Nagano
For the start at the other end of the route, you have a choice of either travelling to Shinano-Omachi or Ogizawa.
To reach Shinano-Omachi Station you can take the Azusa limited express from Shinjuku to Matsumoto, followed by the Oito Line to Shinano-Omachi. This trip is fully covered by the JR Pass, but does mean you will arrive at Shinano-Omachi where you cannot purchase Kurobe Alpine Route tickets.
The alternative is to travel on the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Nagano, then take the express bus from Nagano to Ogizawa. Only the Shinkansen journey will be covered by your JR Pass here. Both of these options take around 3 ½ hours to reach from Tokyo.