Monday, 12 May 2014

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

The big budget busting day is looming, the day I have been waiting and planning for weeks…The Alpine Route, from Toyama to Ogizawa 55.6kms on 7 different modes of transport. I am so excited!

We get up early (some of us had trouble sleeping, a bit too excited) and leave the hotel at Dawn’s Crack to try and beat the rush for one of the first trains to Tateyama. But you can’t beat the rush in Japan. It doesn’t matter how early, there is always a crowd. Anyway, we queue to check our rucksacks on to the end of the journey and buy our tickets. The first tense moment and its only 6.50am….we can only buy a ticket for the first leg of the journey because its snowing on the mountains. So we get our ticket, send our luggage on but not certain we will reach the same destination and get on the local train for a 60 min ride. Gradually the scenery and atmosphere change. More hills and the peaks of the snow topped mountains come into view and we travel over streams and rivers of the clearest aquamarine water gushing over rocks. We can only imagine how cold and fresh the water must feel. Chris had a close shave when he got out of the train at one stop to take a picture and had to dive in through the doors as it left the station.

We arrive at Tateyama to good news, the route is open and the day is turning out to be perfect. The sun is shining and burning off the clouds, though the temperature is still a chilly -6.5 degrees at the top! Tickets are bought for the rest of the journey on cable car, bus through snow corridor, tunnel trolley bus, ropeway, another cable car and finally another trolley bus through a tunnel.

The first cable car starts our ascent into the mountain range to 977m and we all ‘oh’ and ‘ah’ at the scene. Then the bit I have been waiting for, the bus. It’s the first time I’ve ever been on a bus with snow chains on. This part takes you up to 2,450m, the highest point without trekking, and it takes you through primeval forests of cedar and pine trees with some of the oldest recorded. Including one that has a diameter of over 10m. The views are absolutely spectacular. The 

higher we get the higher the sides of the snow corridor get. We can see where they have literally cut the road through the snow. The snow walls are about 8m high on either side as we drive through and glimpses of the mountain peaks keep flashing up. We get out and the air is so clean and crisp at -3.2 degrees, the sun is shining and it feels so exhilarating, especially after all the months spent in hot, humid climates.

With all our layers on, hats, gloves, scarfs (hats courtesy of Jean, thanks, they were perfect!) we take a 1.7km tramp through the snow to see the sights. The snow corridor is impressive but is out done by the panorama of the mountain range all around us above the clouds. We smell ‘Jigokudani’, Hell Valley, before we get there. I thought Chris had a bad tummy but apparently it’s a volcanic area that is constantly erupting volcanic gas into the air and it stinks of eggy farts! Stomaches rumbling we decide its time for food so stop at a restaurant where you pick your lunch from a vending machine, buy the ticket and hand it in at a counter. All sounds simple….but the menu is in Japanese with no pictures. A friendly Japanese man translates enough that we

 have Miso and Soyu Ramen noodles with a glass of Sake. Bloody fantastic. As my dad noted, this is like the Japanese version of Laksa, delicious too. All warmed through we decide to continue or snow walk around a lake. The wind is getting up and the snow is getting deeper as less people have been along this path. Chris and I both lose our feet and sink up to 40cms into the snow as we make our way round. The lake itself is actually just a snow covered bowl where it should be, it does thaw out later in the year, and we are still clicking hundreds of photos of the views.

View from Kurobe Dam
The trolley bus is through a tunnel in Mt Tateyama, which is one the three most sacred mountains in Japan, and this is followed by a ropeway and cable car that bring you back down to 1455m and the Kurobe Dam. Again the views are breathtaking with the clearest, cleanest water in the dam with the backdrop of the mountains. Unfortunately they only open the dam twice a year so we didn’t get to see or hear the dramatic thunder of the water, but we did get a tasty strawberry ice cream. The final part is another trolley bus through the mountain again where the alpine route ends and we catch a regular bus and train to our next destination. The Alpine Route had a lot to live up to. I had researched and looked at so many pictures that I was worried about it being a disappointment. But I can honestly say it exceeded my expectations and was up there as one of my most amazing travel experiences.

Next stop Hakuba, a small ski resort at the foot of the Japanese Alps that hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998. It’s a beautiful little town with cute little bungalows and villas dotted around and a walking trail through pine scented forest. We arrive on the last day of the ski season. ‘Hoorah’, says Chris. ‘Shit’, says Rachel. And before I know it I’m wedging my feet into ski boots, the most uncomfortable form of footwear known to man, and pulling rather unattractive wet weather trousers on so we can drag ourselves up the mountain and launch ourselves down again with planks of wood strapped to our feet. Erm, as a first experience goes I don’t think I can say I actually skied. But I went down the slope, screaming, swearing and on my arse. Chris was very patient as small humans of about 3 & 4 whizzed past in their multi coloured outfits with their cool looking parents and I was so tense chris had to pull and push me down the slope. Anyway, getting on and off a chair lift once was enough for me so we stopped for lunch. A gorgeous beef stew and a much needed glass of red wine. I stayed there while Chris had a few more turns and I took photos.

The next day left me with, stiff legs, creaking knees and a sunburnt nose. Thankfully it had been the last day of the ski season! I guess its still quite cool to say my first ski experience was in Japan. I have a feeling the second will be in New Zealand and hopefully a little more successful.

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