If you’re traveling through Japan, trains are the name of the game. Tolls and high gas prices make driving expensive, and driving on the left hand side is dangerous if you’re not used to it. It’s also very convenient – the transit network here is so vast you’d have to work hard to find somewhere it couldn’t take you that a car could. In fact, you cannot drive a private car into Kamikochi National Park, it’s transit or bust.
To get to Kamikochi, your first stop is the town of Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. Matsumoto is something of a regional hub, so how you get there depends on where you start – Google Maps is your friend. From Tokyo, I took the Chuo Limited Express train, which leaves on the hour from Shinjuku station. The fare was 7200¥ (about $70) each direction, and the trip took about 2.5 hours. I booked in advance through the JR East website, but there were plenty of seats on my Friday morning train if you’re into winging it.
If you’ve already got a JR pass then this ticket should be covered. But if this is your only major train trip in Japan, it’s way cheaper to get individual tickets than the full pass. The JR pass really only saves you money if you plan on taking the bullet train.
Once in Matsumoto, transfer to the Matsumoto Dentetsu Kamikochi line headed for Shin-Shimashima, right at the foot of the mountains. The train is 700¥ each way, and takes about half an hour. I also had a 45 minute layover in Matsumoto, but I’m not sure if this is always true.
The train line ends at Shin-Shimashima, so you’ll have to transfer to a coach bus. You can buy a ticket right at the station, and they have a bus waiting when the train arrives. The round-trip bus fare was about 4500¥, and the trip took about an hour. This is far and away the most impressive part of an already beautiful journey, as the bus winds its way along a twisty road up a steep mountain valley full of lush forests and imposing hydroelectric dams.
There you go, now you’re in Kamikochi. The whole trip from Tokyo takes about 5.5 hours, and costs just over 10000¥ ($100) each way.