I often wonder why I travel. Or why it captivates me so much. Or why I always long for it, just like a child trapped in a tower without a door and desires for the outer world as she is gazing outside the window. Although I am a self-proclaimed obsessive planner, there are times when my trip is slipping away from my control-freak hand, and falls off from what I expect it to be. It leaves me perplexed and to some extreme, disappointed, but oddly enough, it also rewards me with a content heart, despite of all the flaws, and most importantly, a new pair of eyes to see things, differently. Would that be the reason why?
I could tell you this because that’s how my recent trip went. Summer in Japan is celebrated with an invitation to visit the mountains that this country dedicates a national holiday for it and literally calls it the ‘Mountain Day’. Everybody is aiming for the highlands, and with the clear blue sky and cool weather on top, who could resist? So I decided to join the crowd and planned a trip. I should’ve understood better that when everyone thought of the same (just like how the Japanese society operates), a plan for a hike would be a struggle. And it really was. I had to change my destination twice because the ticket was sold out in a blink. But maybe I shouldn’t keep on ranting about it because it actually led me to discover this beauty I never knew it existed.
After a five hour bus ride, a forty-five minute roll through the mountain’s winding road, a cone of ice cream in between, and another ten minute ropeway ride above the misty alps, we were faced with a cirque lied under one of the Kiso mountains, the Hoken peak. People named it ‘Senjojiki’, which means ‘it spreads around the size of 1,000 tatami mats’. It often makes me smile in admiration how the Japanese still use the size of a tatami mat to measure a space, and here we are talking about a landscape. The Kiso mountains, or the Japanese Central Alps, are stretched gracefully from the north to south, right at the center of Japan’s main island, Honshu, carving a stunning landscape of the Nagano prefecture.
As we got off from the ropeway car, my eyes quickly searching for the whole scene of the view. It was cloudy and the thick fog were blocking our sights, we even couldn’t tell which way led to the entrance track. I spotted a small wooden shrine on our left, and thought maybe that would be the direction. Then off we went to that side.
It was a rocky track down the hill, and we could barely see anything but the green leading rope and tall bushes fencing our way. I started slowly, making sure I got a good grip with my boots and gradually adjusting with the path. I secretly prayed for the thick fog to go away, I didn’t survive the long bus ride for this, God. Then just after I finished murmuring, suddenly the skies went a little brighter. I looked up, and the fog cleared up, I saw the peaks! They lined up boldly, scratching the gray skies with their claws. I didn’t expect prayers are answered this fast, but I was just too excited to think more about it. I whispered ‘thank You’, and ecstatically looked behind to find Eka’s and Tia’s faces to share my joy. They nodded anxiously and I turned my head forward again. The fog passed me, blowing the breeze toward my face as if it welcomed me to another realm. I guess indeed it did.
I was stunned before what I saw. A vast green carpet scrolled down from those mighty peaks, wide and boundless, and the only edge my eyes could catch was the clouds. It was a surreal view, and for a moment, I forgot that I lived in Japan. A nature scenery I would recognize more if it were somewhere in the Scottish Highlands or Switzerland. But it was there. And I wasn’t hallucinating.
I continued my trek but I couldn’t stop looking around. On the left were the mountains, and on my right was the cirque. A cirque is actually a half-open plateau with a curve on one side, formed by a slow glacial erosion during the ice age. I had never seen a cirque before, or even heard about it. Actually, I didn’t really care how they called it. To me it was all ‘splendid’, ‘beautiful’, ‘otherworldly’, and other things that were made of a divine imagination. I arrived at the junction. One to the top to reach the mountains, and the other one down the valley where the lake was.
We didn’t have much time, thanks to the summer holiday traffic jam. The bus ride was supposed to be one hour faster, but because it was the last day of the Japanese official summer holiday (when even the mad workaholic Japanese took their day off), so the road was packed and we were behind our schedule. I had it all pictured perfectly in my mind to take the climb and stand on one of the mountains, but it slipped away. We got not time for that. So I glanced upon the path to the top bitterly and dragged my feet down. I took the path leading to the lake.
We were skipping down the track when suddenly we passed two old ladies carefully made their way downward. They noticed we were passing so they smiled and let us go first. I smiled back and I was in awe. This hiking track wasn’t difficult, but it must be pretty challenging for them at their age, and yet, there were they. It was a brief minute but seeing their zealous souls sparked a bright inspiration to me. I paused from my hike for a while and admired them from the back. I want to be like them. I want to grow old venturing the places I never saw, never heard of. I turned my head around to check how far I had gone. Suddenly it was hard to breathe. I am here. I am in the place I have never seen, I have never heard of. The cirque. This place.
The fog had cleared up. The skies were blue. Thin mists were lingering around the peaks. Tiny yellow flower spread over the green field. It was out of this world. I was dreaming. No, I wasn’t. Wait, actually, I wasn’t sure.
My friends were far ahead of me. I paced up to catch them. We sneaked through some bushes and arrived at the lake. There were some wooden benches in front of it, at the edge of the cliff overlooking the Nagano city. The mountains on our right side were glowing with the sun light stroking through the clouds. A beautiful komorebi. I walked around the lake when the thick fog came back. It made a dreamlike floating reflection on the lake. An art of the nature.
The mountains were hiding again, and there was nothing we could do with it practically. So we sat down to catch our breath, and wait. I sat and I thought about all I had seen along the way. They were like little pieces of a dreamy scene I always played in my head coming together. Then the fog decided to leave and it danced away like curtains opening, presenting us the most astonishing scene before our eyes. It was everything. The field, the mountains, the blue skies, the lake, the mist. All in one scene. It was everything I had come for.
Starring upon them from the lowest level was truly a belittling moment, a humbling one. The Universe had been too generous and kind to us, that it let us taste this glimpse of Its greatness. I was awestruck, I ran out of words.
We checked our time. We had to catch the last ropeway ride so we could make it to Komagane station, where our bus would be waiting to take us back to Tokyo. I underestimated the timing and suggested my friends to buy some hotdogs first. What a foolish advice from the girl who thought she was the expert of planning. It was a long queue for the ropeway ride and we got the last turn that it would be impossible to be at Komagane station on time. I was ready to cry imagining we couldn’t get home, but thankfully the cunning part of me stopped it from happening. I told Eka and Tia to beg to the ropeway staff using our limited Japanese, letting us cut the line and stuffing us into the packed car that soon leaving. He didn’t say much, but he told us to wait and come back again when it was almost five o’clock. So we did. Those three stranded girls approaching him, begging for his mercy. He caught our eyes and waved his hand, signaling us to follow him. I thought he would take us to the end of the line so we could queue for the next car, but he led us further through the staff’s room, and when he opened the door, it was a shortcut to the ropeway. He made a hand gesture showing us that we need to get into the car soon because it was leaving. We were surprised, confused by his extreme kindness and grateful. We bowed the 90 degree bow to him, and running inside. He was our angel that afternoon, and we cried our happy tears while the ropeway sliding us down, ready to get us home.
We caught the bus on time, hopped on just before it closed its door. I sat next to a middle-aged lady, she was leaning her head on the bus window. I gazed outside, observing the twisty mountain road, the cliffs, and the amazing skill of the bus driver. The road to home never felt this good. I closed my eyes, digesting everything that just happened in less than twelve hours that day.
The tiring long ride, the frustrating traffic, the messed up schedule, the thick fog, the fact that we almost couldn’t get home. But also those mighty peaks, the skies that cleared up, the flower that bloomed, the komorebi, the brave old ladies, the breathtaking scene, the kindness of a stranger we perhaps didn’t deserve, and a home we could get back to. All of these things, and not just one of them, are the reasons why I travel. Seeing not only such a beautiful view, but also meeting such beautiful souls. Aiming for the hike up, but also willing to take the path down.
I guess I am no longer that child longing to see the world she has always imagined of. I am this grown-up, longing for the world to teach her how to see things –far or near, beautiful or ugly, high or low, exciting or disappointing. All with the eyes of wonder, all with her heart on her sleeve. Only by then, wherever she goes, whatever she faces, travel, will always be the air she breathes, and the dream she never lacks of.
HOW TO GET THERE
The nearest city around Senjojiki Cirque is Komagane in the Nagano prefecture. There is a local bus that goes from Komagane station to Shirabidaira station, where the ropeway is, and it takes around 45 minutes. From there it’s only another ten minutes away by the ropeway ride. Visit this site for more information: https://www.chuo-alps.com/lang/en/
The easiest and cheapest way is by purchasing the all-in bus ticket that includes the bus ride from Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal to Komagane Station, the local bus ticket to Shirabidaira, and the ropeway fee, all for a round trip. However, this ticket can only be purchased at Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal, and it costs 10,000 yen per person. Ask for the ‘Komagatake Senjojiki Curl Ticket’, and determine what time you want to depart. The earliest bus leaves Shinjuku at 6.45 AM, and it returns from Komagane station at 7.00 PM the latest. For more information, visit: https://highway-buses.jp/ticket/senjojiki.php
From Nagoya and Osaka
It takes approximately 3 hours and a half from Nagoya station using a regular train (Chuo line, not shinkansen) to reach Komagane. You can also opt for a an express bus ride from Meitetsu Bus Center in Nagoya, and it’ll save an hour of the journey. From Osaka you can only take a bus ride, which will be longer than if you depart from Nagoya. Go to Hankyu Highway Bus Terminal in Umeda, and ask for Komagane destination. The total trip is 4 hours and a half to reach Komagane. For more information, visit: https://www.chuo-alps.com/lang/en/getting-here/getting-here-from-major-cities-in-japan/
A TWO CENTS’ WORTH
- It’s possible to make this trip a one-day trip, however, you must be very careful regarding your time management (don’t repeat the over confident mistake that I did), and include the possibility of getting stuck in a traffic jam if you’re traveling during the holiday season. Although they will tell you the last ropeway car will leave Senjojiki highland by 5 PM, you will still need to take a number and queue for your turn, which during a holiday season it will range up to 45 minutes waiting time. Don’t forget to calculate that waiting time and add it to your overall schedule, including the time you’ll need to get back from Shirabidaira station to Komagane station, which will be another 45 minutes ride, and depends on the bus time schedule. The local bus departs every 30 minutes, so make sure you can get on the one that fits your schedule. If you decide to stay overnight, there is a hotel up in the cirque area, which will allow you to hike early in the dawn to catch the beautiful sunrise. Some hikers also prefer to camp on one of the mountains, but you need to check on the season as well for that. Otherwise, there are plenty of lodging places just 30 minutes down the Shirabidaira station that you will pass by when you’re on the local bus ride.
- The cirque is gorgeous in every season, but I prefer when they are green and flowery. If you are like me, then the best months to visit will be around middle of July to early September, when summer is at its peak and the rainy season has passed. I think only during this season when the snow has melted away that you can see the whole cirque contrasting the blue sky in the background. Visit this site to see this beauty in other seasons: https://www.chuo-alps.com/lang/en/experience-the-central-alps-senjojiki-cirque/
- Hiking in Senjojiki doesn’t require you to be a professional hiker. The track is relatively easy, although it’s rocky. Wear a pair of light sport shoes and you’ll be fine. However, if you plan to hike the mountainous hills, then I suggest you dress more appropriately, or at least wear your hiking boots because some trails are quite tricky upwards. Also, don’t forget to check the weather and temperature at least one week before you’re going, just so you can be prepared for any worst case scenario up there.