Escaping Japan's Super-Cities for the 'So-Called Wilderness'

The Taisho Pond and Mount Hotaka in Japan's Koshinetsu region. JTB Photo/UIG/Getty

Every country should have its Shangri-la. Perhaps this is Japan's. Thrust upward 3,000 feet by Earth's tectonic mischief, the highland Eden of Kamikochi, tucked into the Nagano prefecture in the center of Honshu, Japan's main island, attracts millions every year. They come to sniff its sylvan air and escape the soupy humidity of a Japanese lowlands summer. Cool, green larch woods flank the slight but lively Azusa River that plunges through an erratic necklace of precipitous granite known in Japanese as "the mountains of the standing ears of corn."

So pristine are Kamikochi's habitats, so dreamy its peaks, that access has to be limited by banning private cars and coaches. That doesn't stop thousands of visitors arriving each day to tramp its gentle, narrow trails. Everywhere it scintillates with the bright colors of hikers in top-to-toe Lycra; there's little room to breathe.

Kamikochi 'just the ticket' for city dwellers

The crowds are inevitable. Japan's 127-million-strong population is crammed largely into super-cities: greater Tokyo holds a staggering 38 million souls. Much of its hinterlands have been ruthlessly cemented, blasted and laid to waste by a combination of apathy, bad planning and pork barrel laws passed in the name of regeneration. What's left is a deeply mountainous backyard—80 percent of Japan is valleys and hills—often either too steep to explore or filled with dam water. So, with near 90 percent humidity in August and little in the way of appealing country retreats close by, unspoiled Kamikochi is the go-to glen for Tokyoites.

I joined them in late August, my visit coinciding with Obon, an ancestor-worship festival that briefly unchains urban serfs from their city desks and gives them the chance to reboot extended-family ties, often out in the country. For others, it's simply a chance to escape the broiling city for upland freshness. Either way, the middle-aged Japanese couple sitting next to me on the shuttle bus—other than taxis, this is the only way into the park—feel that Kamikochi "is just the ticket." They live in Osaka, a city famous for its food and warm character but not, alas, its good looks.

"Kamikochi is so beautiful," they gush. But would they live here? "Well, maybe in the summer. Osaka is so hot! In winter, we'd have to hightail it back to the city." The husband, gives me a wink. He and I both know that this landlocked part of the world is, for the most part, deeply frozen in winter. But my question about living here full time is apt, because a survey earlier this year showed that the countryside of Nagano is where urban Japanese would most like to relocate.

Why? "It has a lot to do with this region's proximity to the big conurbations on the Kanto and Kansai plains," says a spokeswoman for the Furusato Kaiki Shien Center in Tokyo, a charity charged by the central government to encourage relocation from cities to the boonies. (Depopulation of the countryside and its so-called "shutter towns"—miserable places of shabby plastic houses and baleful power lines, places so abandoned that the shops have their shutters permanently down—is a persistent problem across Japan.)

Those in their 20s are keenest to leave Tokyo, says a 2014 NTT Advertising survey, but that's still a tough option—at least according to some who make the move. It's hard to find somewhere to live too; according to Ken Yamaguchi, the athletic, well-weathered owner of the Northstar, a ski lodge to the south of Kamikochi. "Locals only really rent to those they know and trust," he says. It took him three years to find a home after he decided to leave his job as a social worker in Tokyo for what he sees as the benefits of rural life. "Here is marvelous for kids. We have tiny schools; with 30 students per year." (In Tokyo, the average class size is about 50.)

'Where the gods descended'

His offspring may not thank him for bringing them to a wilderness filled with black bears: Frequent signs on the trails warn of their danger, and hikers are advised to wear bells, whose tinkling is supposed to scare bears off. But then wildness, or at least the appearance of it, is the region's strength. There are few of the conbinis, tawdry, all-purpose convenience stores that squat like succubi all over the Japanese landscape, and less of the concrete "rurban" blight that characterizes much of rural Japan. Kamikochi and the Nagano national park, unlike the rest of the country, have been appropriately zoned, and the buildings—few that there are—tend toward the sympathetic; referencing Japan's aesthetic past, they are built with cypress wood that scents the air.

The lack of buildings has another effect. Accommodations in the valley are expensive, though around its rim are plenty of onsen —hotels with spas that tap into the region's scalding volcanic waters. A few even have rotemburo, open-air baths hewn out of rock, surrounded by not much more than shrubs and sky. At others, such as Shirahone Onsen just to the south of Kamikochi, you're encouraged to drink the water. Silky with sediment, it tastes primal: mud and earth, with more than a touch of the chemistry set.

After the soaking and sipping comes the hiking. And the crowds, tramping the paved paths that run along the pebbly Azusa, their bear bells tinkling. Walk fast, though, and you can outpace the masses. In the forests beyond, light filters down through the leaves, Japanese bush warblers call from their hiding places in the dwarf bamboo, the air is green and sweet, and you can begin to believe the local translation of Kamikochi as "where the gods descended."

If they did, they'd have to stay on the path. Wandering off-piste is not tolerated at Kamikochi, though its biddable guests seem happy to comply. "This is perhaps how the Japanese have come to experience nature," says Shawn McGlynn, a rangy, friendly young biologist from Montana, whom I meet over breakfast at the Northstar. "But it feels weird walking on a paved road in a so-called wilderness." Without much access to the wild, the Japanese have come to prefer an ordered, safe version of it—sting removed, tidy, pleasant and unchallenging.

Wild or not, Kamikochi and Nagano retain a magnetism for the Japanese. Perhaps the lesson for the rest of rural Japan, suffering under its concrete cloak, is that its greatest assets are traditional houses and what could be an unforgettable landscape. If the rump of the countryside took some leaves out of Kamikochi's books, the madding crowd, given more choice, could give its overburdened byways a breather. And maybe get off the path.