When talking to most locals in Tokyo there was little surprise (but by no means a lack of delighted enthusiasm) in their expressions when we would mention our travel plans around Japan. Kyoto received recccomendations for tea houses, Osaka for street food, and Naoshima for must-see art installations. The one bit of confoundment we picked up on was when we mentioned Kamikochi. By no means is it an unknown gem of Japanese tourism, but most locals had never ventured out to the area, but we can assure you, it's worth the effort.
Kamikochi is a stunning national park at the base of the Japanese Alps in the Nagano prefecture. The park is flanked on all sides by Japan's largest peaks (only excluding Mt. Fuji) which are within trekking distance, and where hikers flock to begin their journeys. It has become a popular spot to see Japan's fall foliage, so we decided to see if we could catch some of those colors before making our way to central Japan. Of course the day we planned to explore Kamikochi we somehow hit the single day of rain between completely sunny days, but at least it made those fall colors pop against that moody sky.
We spent the day walking along the banks of the river between forested ponds, a few shrines, and endless varieties of trees and moss. The gray clouds and rain kept the trails pretty empty so we had a chance to enjoy the solace and solitude. We covered a majority of the park in just one day, with a much needed stop for piping hot steamed buns. If we had just a little more time you would have found us defrosting at one of the onsen in a local Ryokan. We only did a day trip, but if the weather was a bit warmer we would have done a multi day hike and stayed in a mountain hut on the way to one of the peaks.
The area is beautifully preserved as there is no access by cars (other than the buses to enter the park and a couple cabs) and its still seems to be glossed over in guide books, meaning a lot less tourists. We decided to shack up in nearby Matsumoto, where the tourism office connected the dots for us and led us to the right buses to reach the park. It was a little tricky making our way out to the forests of Kamikochi, but worth ever wet and soggy step we took.