"Exploring the Future of National Parks
in the Heart of Japan's Nature"
"Exploring the Future of National Parks
in the Heart of Japan's Nature"
Chubusangaku National Park, home to the Northern Alps, is one of Japan's most renowned mountainous regions. Spanning across four prefectures – Niigata, Toyama, Nagano, and Gifu – the park captivates visitors with its majestic natural beauty, culinary culture, hot springs, and rich historical heritage.
Recently, Chubusangaku National Park has been starting exciting new initiatives.
Through collaborative efforts among different regions, it seeks to offer even more comprehensive ways to enjoy the area while striking the perfect harmony between preservation and utilization.
Join us on an inspiring journey to Chubusangaku National Park with Masato Morikawa from the Ministry of Environment, who is at the forefront of these future-conscious initiatives.
- Masato Morikawa
- Chubusangaku National Park
For some time now, all we could muster were gasps of astonishment. That is just how overwhelming this place was.
Goshikigahara Forest – a vast forest area spanning about 3,000 hectares located at the southern end of Chubusangaku National Park. As we traverse a secret trail, meticulously maintained by the locals, we are met with a breathtaking view of the huge Nunobiki Falls, roaring down and creating a magnificent wall that surrounds us. Just beside it, the Yokote Falls also grace us with their presence. These cascading waters are so close that refreshing mists gently caress our faces.
Five hours ago, we walked along a misty stream, surrounded by a serene forest with layers of moss-covered trees. The woods were a blend of broadleaf trees like beech and oak, along with conifers such as Japanese hemlock and spruce, dotted with rare mountain flowers. It felt like we had momentarily stepped into a tranquil corner of New Zealand. Even the birds seemed to be hiding, leaving only the gentle sound of the flowing river to soothe our ears.
Within the foothills of Mount Norikura, Goshikigahara Forest features several trails, including three long courses that take approximately eight hours each. Additionally, there are two shorter courses, about two hours long, which offer a modified version of the longer routes. The one we embarked on this time is known as the "Shirabiso Course," a nearly 7-kilometer almost flat journey that leads to ponds, streams, and, as the climax, the waterfalls we saw at the beginning, all culminating in a landscape unlike any other in Japan.
The reason I referred to this trail as "secret" is not because it's hidden away, but because the entire area requires guided tours, and each course only allows up to 150 people per day. In countries like the United States, such permit systems are common in regions where precious nature is preserved, but in Japan, they are still relatively rare. The primary reason for this restriction is, of course, to protect the rich natural environment. All the park's toilets are eco-friendly composting toilets, and the electricity needed for sewage decomposition comes from an on-site hydroelectric power generator. The trail maintenance prioritizes materials that return to nature, avoiding the use of plastic or concrete as much as possible. By offering guided tours for all the trails, visitors not only gain a deeper understanding of the area but also develop a sense of conservation.
"Not only that, but experts from research institutions regularly conduct assessments to ensure minimal impact on the natural environment. Such initiatives are rare in Japan, but they represent an ideal model for national parks, striking a balance between protection and utilization. On the other hand, maintaining this level of management is costly. It doesn't have to follow the exact same method, but we want to use the idea of 'balance' as the foundation for Chubusangaku National Park,"
says Masato Morikawa, the director of the Chubusangaku National Park Office of the Ministry of the Environment, with passion in his voice.
Here, humans play a minor role, while nature takes the center stage. In this deep and quiet forest, we instinctively lower our voices. You can't help but feel like you're "visiting" nature in this serene wilderness.
After exploring the Goshikigahara Forest, we drove for about 30 minutes before hopping on a bus to reach "Kamikochi," where private vehicles are prohibited due to car restrictions. While Goshikigahara Forest is like a hidden gem, Kamikochi is a well-known destination for everyone. On this day, numerous tourists were in awe of the majestic nature, exclaiming in delight.
The scenery around the Kappa Bridge, which seems ordinary, is actually a "miraculous place," according to Mr. Morikawa. Around 12,000 years ago, the eruption of Mount Yakedake created a lake, which was later filled by sediment flowing from the mountains, resulting in the birth of a flat landscape despite its location in the highlands.
Mr. Morikawa explained, "The Azusa River flowing through this area freely changes its course every time heavy rain falls." As a result, the landscape is always evolving. Though there is a risk of landslides, they refrain from excessive river control and instead maintain the natural stirring of this landscape, which helps preserve rare plants like Keshouyanagi, which only grow in this vicinity on Honshu.
"We want to make this place where people can strongly feel the story of how the natural landscape was created. By doing so, visitors will feel more inclined to respect nature. We also plan to create trails that focus on other areas, such as Gakusawa Marshland, not just around Kappa Bridge. Additionally, we aim to promote the cultural aspect of mountaineering by featuring more about W. Weston, who pioneered modern mountaineering in Japan and has strong ties to the Northern Alps."
In addition, Mr. Morikawa is leading numerous new initiatives, including measures to minimize deer damage and the installation of food containers to protect against bears. He appears to be a person filled with endless ideas.
"By allowing the distinct personalities of Goshikigahara Forest and Kamikochi to coexist and continue their respective journeys, we can strive for a balance between conservation and utilization, further enriching these places."
Mr. Morikawa enthusiastically states that he would like to leverage the knowledge he has gained from this process and adapt it to suit the needs of each region. He firmly believes that the ideal symbiosis between nature and people can only be achieved through this process.
Early in the morning, at 4:30 am, we boarded the Sunrise Viewing Bus, heading for Mount Norikura. Looking up, the sky was filled with a breathtaking canopy of stars. As the spectacular sight above confirmed, it is always worth waking up early. While private cars are prohibited from entering Mount Norikura, buses, including the Sunrise Viewing Bus, come and go frequently, making it easy for anyone to reach the 2,716-meter point. The bus stop's name is quite fitting: ""Elevation 2,716m."" Right in front of Japan's highest bus stop is Mount Daikoku, a perfect spot to watch the sunrise. In the darkness, we relied on our headlamps to make our way up.
In no time, the clouds engulfed the mountains. The morning stars faded, and the eastern sky started to shine brightly. It was a stunning collaboration between the sunrise and the sea of clouds. Normally, such scenery would be a privilege reserved for those who spend hours climbing the mountain, staying overnight in mountain huts or tents. And even then, it's a matter of luck. But here, with just a mere 20-minute walk from the bus stop, we were rewarded with this view. Mount Norikura is the only place in Japan where you can enjoy such a view of the 3,000-meter-high mountains.
After descending from the mountain and taking a quick nap at the ""B&B Tengallonhat"" pension, where we've been staying since yesterday, we stopped by a cafe called ""GiFT NORIKURA"" at the Mount Norikura bus terminal to enjoy a refreshing cup of coffee. The cafe's interior is entirely covered in chalkboards, displaying the words ""Welcome to Mt. Norikura"" and highlighting the sustainable activities led by ""GiFT NORIKURA"" that contribute to the preservation of Mount Norikura. They promote the use of reusable bottles, employ reusable tableware, compost organic waste, and emphasize local production and consumption, aiming to revitalize the region.
"In order to preserve my beloved Mount Norikura in its beautiful state for the future, I contemplated what actions I could take. That's why I decided to start this cafe, with the hope of raising awareness about sustainability, not only among the locals but also among the tourists who visit the area," said Yuma Fujie, the owner of GiFT NORIKURA.
Yuma Fujie is not only the owner of GiFT NORIKURA, but he has taken on other projects, such as transforming a closing-down inn into a popular guest house called "Raidori." His efforts exemplify the dedication of the younger generation in carrying forward the legacy of Mount Norikura.
As we strolled around the cafe, we noticed a remarkable trailhead.
It was the entrance to the trail that Ryoichi Miyashita, the owner of the "B&B Tengallonhat" and the chairman of the Norikura Tourism Association shared with at breakfast, that "it is an authentic scenery of Norikura for the residents here."
There are three trails - the Norikura Trail, the Ichinose Meadow Trail, and the Sanbon Falls Trail - all of which are quite challenging trails and would require a full day of walking even for a fit person. The young generation, including Mr. Fujie, plays a significant role in maintaining these trails, skillfully utilizing natural materials. Yet, the area still remains as a place where locals come to gather edible wild plants.
"I believe that the ideal future of Norikura lies in the collaboration between the new generation and those who have lived here for generations,"
shared Mr. Miyashita, who has witnessed the evolution in Norikura's tourism for over 30 years. His words echo the sentiments of two young staff members at "GiFT NORIKURA," who expressed, "We came here to work at this sustainable cafe, but we were so captivated Norikura that we decided to settle down here." Their beaming smiles are a testament to the sprouting seeds of the future. NORIKURA」の若いスタッフ2人の言葉が重なる。彼女たちの輝く笑顔を見てもわかるように、未来への種はすでに芽吹きはじめている。
After a late lunch, we decided to take a walk on the Ichinose Meadow Trail. We passed through a forest of white birches and several beautiful ponds.
In spring, many areas are filled with the vibrant blooms of Asian skunk-cabbages. As we walked along the soft trail, we were reminded of the countryside we used to visit during our childhood. There were several beautiful ponds along the way, and we took our time, resting at each one as we continued our journey.
After about three hours, we found ourselves by one of these ponds, "Maime Pond."
It was incredibly tranquil, with Mount Norikura's silhouette in the distance, faintly visible in the evening haze.
Despite not having any personal connection to this area, we could understand why Mr.Miyashita referred to this place as the "authentic scenery of Norikura."
"It would defeat the purpose if too many tourists came and overcrowded this area. Therefore, it is essential to prevent overtourism by showcasing a wide and diverse range of attractions in Chubusangaku National Park. To achieve this, we need to ensure that visitors perceive the park as a whole, rather than just focusing on individual aspects."
said Mr. Morikawa. He is leading the initiative known as the "Matsumoto-Takayama Big Bridge Project." This project aims to establish a cross-regional tourist route connecting the cities of Matsumoto and Takayama. The goal is to avoid concentrating tourism in just one area by highlighting various attractions in different locations and linking them together, allowing visitors to leisurely enjoy the entire region over an extended period.
"Eventually, we are considering the establishment of a new trail route that connects the mountainous areas to the urban cities. We are currently exploring various routes that visitors can freely choose from," adds Mr. Morikawa.
The next day, we took our time exploring a part of Mr. Morikawa's Big Bridge project.
We were captivated by the breathtaking high mountains visible from the soon-to-be-renovated Shinhotaka Ropeway. In Takayama's old streets, we could feel the weight of history, and soothed our tired bodies at Hirayu Onsen after a long day of walking and exploring.
This area offers a wide range of attractions, including outdoor activities like mountain climbing, as well as historical sites, local culture, and delicious food. Thus, it allows each traveler to weave their own unique journey based on personal preferences.
Whether one chooses to challenge the towering peaks of the Northern Alps or embark on a relaxing onsen-hopping adventure, or simply wander through the numerous trails near Norikura, every option is enticing.
The trip offered so much variety that it was hard to believe we had been there for only three days, but even so, we felt that we did not have enough time. It was because aside from the places we explored on this trip, in this area, there are so many other, countless things to see and do as well.
Trying to see them all in one day would be nearly impossible, and we have long believed that staying overnight enhances the depth of a journey, making the Chubusangaku National Park the perfect place for such extended stays.
There are still so many undiscovered attractions that we have yet to see. To be honest, this trip only provided a glimpse of the park's attractions. However, it gave us a strong conviction in the bright future of Chubusangaku National Park. Despite living in an era of climate crisis and harsh conditions for the natural environment, we are optimistic that this area will have changed for the better in 10 or 30 years. This trip gave us such a glimmer of hope.