Japan Guides: Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, Murodo Plateau 室堂
Murodo Plateau in the Northern Japan Alps is among the best mountain scenery in Japan. If Japan had a list of its most magnificent seven natural wonders, this plateau could well top that list.
Murodo's natural attractions shift in color and shape with the seasons, time of day, and weather conditions, always revealing landscapes so mindboggling beautiful that you cannot stop taking photographs.
The day beforehand had been a typical late-May summer morning across most of Japan. Pedestrians in Tokyo were sweating while I was strolling between the cold ten-meter-high walls of snow that form Morodo's famous Snow Wall (Yuki-no-Otani), the only route between Murodo and Tateyama in Toyama Prefecture.
In mid-April when the road is plowed and accessible, the average height of the snow walls is 16.5 meters, higher than a five-story building. The snow wall is an easy five-minute walk from Murodo Station, so on holidays the valley is thronged with day trippers. Judging by the number of visitors taking photographs next to a sign pointing out the highest part of the wall, it could be the most photographed snow in Japan, other than that on Mt. Fuji's Peak.
A snow maze carved from snow banks next to the station also keeps visitors with cameras busy, but it was the numerous snowy and rocky peaks nearly encircling the plateau that hooked my eyes. After I had moved away from the swarms of excited Chinese, Thai, and Japanese tourists entering and exiting the station, I heard the faint swish of snow boarders and skiers cutting ice.
Scattered amidst milky-white snow and dark rock outcroppings, tiny silhouettes of snow boarders, skiers, snowshoers, and hikers moved in slow motion.
Although psyched to reach the top, I found myself short of breath and enervated just after just walking about the plateau for less than thirty minutes. Murodo Plateau is over two and a half thousand meters above sea level.
Mt. Tateyama, at 3,015 meters, is higher than the altitude that small planes usually fly. At such high altitudes the air becomes much thinner. Experienced climbers usually arrive at Murodo, let their bodies acclimate to the altitude, and climb the next day. I sat down within the station and watched many hundreds of Chinese and Thai tourists following beckoning tour guides or swarming through souvenir shops.
After catching my breath, I walked for twenty minutes on the slippery snowy path toward Mikurigaike Onsen, a picturesque Japanese hotel that caters to overnighting nature lovers. The path from Murodo Station to my accommodation also provided amazing views. Wonders of nature surround the hotel.
The only way to reach Mikurigaike Onsen is by foot. The walking path brought me close to the edge of the stunningly beautiful pond (an ancient volcanic crater) that is the hotel's namesake. Where the sunlight had melted the iced surface of Mikurigaike pond, azure blue water contrasted with the scintillating whiteness.
The path descended slightly to the left and below me lay an inhospitable area of smoking fumaroles, called Jidokutani, whose gases drift into the sky, carrying the odor of boiled egg yolks. This "hell" is the source of the hot water for the onsen, which at 2,410 meters above sea level is the highest in Japan. Jidokutani has a walking path, but it is now closed because of the danger of volcanic gas eruptions.
Day visitors can also use the hot spring at Mikurigaike Onsen and stroll around the pond, but after the last bus departs through the snow valley for Tateyama and the last trolley departs through the underground tunnels toward Nagano, the mood of Murodo completely changes.
Only the hotel staff, nature-loving guests, and resident ptarmigan are left in a vast open space. Except for the clicking of cameras and the occasional clucking of ptarmigan, silence reigns as majestically as the nearby peaks.
Japanese Rock Ptarmigan
Approximately two hundred endangered Japanese rock ptarmigan strut, scratch, peck, and nest on Murodo Plateau. The Japanese government designated these rare birds as natural monuments. Hunting is forbidden. These vivacious birds fear eagles and hawks, but not humans.
The males are especially bold, often standing their ground in the middle of foot paths. By late May, their winter white coloring has become spotted with black and brown feathers. As I was clicking photographs, a Japanese hiker came along the path and exclaimed, "Thunder Bird!" which is the direct translation of their Japanese name, raicho, which they are called because they live in the mountain tops which villagers reportedly believed were the origins of thunder.
Present-day guests at Migurigaike Onsen share Japanese-style meals together at long rows of tables, which facilitates the sharing of photographs and hiking reports. An eclectic collection of nature lovers, photographers, mountaineers, and other adventurers, wholeheartedly share hiking tips and tales gleaned from hiking around Japan. Many take yearly trips to Murodo Plateau.
One of my dinner mates explained that early morning is the best time for seeing ptarmigan and native ferrets. He also showed me professional-quality photographs he had taken of a pair of ferrets playing on the ice outside the hotel he had taken that morning. Migurigaike Onsen is not for partiers. Most guests are in bed by nine and outside by four or five. Excited by the prospect of spotting ferrets and experiencing more natural beauty, I decided to do the same.
Murodo Plateau Accommodation
Kurobe Kanko Hotel is a few kilometers east, but is a reasonably priced accommodation 15 minutes by bus from JR Shinano-Omachi train station, and beside a hikeable forest. This clean, quiet, beautiful, wood-themed restaurant has free parking and Wi-Fi, a hot pool for guests, good food, and English-speaking staff.
Hotel Tateyama is a very comfortable accommodation option on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route near Murodo Plateau. There are onsen in the hotel and a deluxe restaurant. Skiing and hiking opportunties abound around in this alpine resort.
The Midagahara Hotel is a highly rated hotel in an idyllic mountain setting, under starry mountain skies, with a 24-hour reception, a public hot pool, lounge and luggage service. Japanese and French cuisine available.
Murodo Plateau Access
The Murodo Plateau is the highest point on the famous Kurobe Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. You can reach Murodo via JR Toyama Station, or you can start at JR Shinano Omachi Station in Nagano, which is other end of the route. Either route will involve traveling up, over, under, and along gorgeous mountain peaks and valley in an astonishing array of unusual vehicles: trains, electric trolleys, cable cars, hybrid buses, and gondolas, as well as walking across the rim of Kurobe Dam, Japan’s tallest and most popular dam.