With an early start, the scenic spots of the Azusa valley can all be covered in a day’s hike. Pick up the English Kamikōchi Pocket Guide from the information office at the bus stop for a good map of all the main trails. At the entrance to the valley, the Taishō-ike (大正池) is a glass-like pond that reflects the snowcapped peaks: head here first. From here an hour-long amble starts along the pebbly riverbank and splits after the Tashiro bridge, one leg continuing beside the Azusa-gawa, the other following a nature-observation trail along wooden walkways, over chocolatey marshes. The Taishō-ike was formed when the Azusa-gawa was naturally dammed up after the eruption of the nearby volcano Yake-dake in 1915, and dead tree trunks still poke out of the water. Rowing boats can be rented from the Taishō-ike Hotel for ¥800 for thirty minutes.
Returning the way you came, cross over the Tashiro bridge to the opposite bank of the river, where the path leads past some of Kamikōchi’s hotels and the rock-embedded relief statue of Walter Weston. In the centre of the village the river is spanned by the much-photographed wooden suspension bridge Kappa-bashi (河童橋). Cross this and continue north for a couple of minutes to the good visitor centre, where there are nature displays and some stunning photographs of the mountains.
The crowds fall away on the hike north from the visitors’ centre to the picturesque pond, Myōjin-ike (明神池), with its tiny shrine and mallard ducks; the 7km return trip will take you around two hours at a leisurely pace. Myōjin-ike is the location of a festival on October 8 when two boats, their prows decorated with the head of a dragon and a legendary bird, float on the sacred pond. From here the really keen can follow the six-hour course up the valley to the Tokusawa campsite (徳沢) and the Shinmura suspension bridge, named after a famous climber, Shinmura Shōichi.