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Living the high life
IF your idea of Japanese mountain life is a stroll around the foot of Mount Fuji while eating hard-boiled eggs cooked in sulphuric hot spring water, it's time to learn more about the country's "high life".
In early May, we were introduced to Kamikochi by the folks at the Imperial Hotel Tokyo, which runs a mountain resort up in the Japan's Northern Alps in Nagano prefecture.
Translated as "the descending of gods", Kamikochi is a quirk of nature created by the heavens as part of a major renovation project that took a few thousand years to complete and required shifting some tectonic plates and two volcanic eruptions. By the time they got their TOP, they had a beautiful plateau in the Azusa River Valley, 1,500 metres above sea level, with a jaw-dropping view of mountains which humble you with their quiet majesty and sheer ancientness. Known collectively as the Hotaka mountain range, they have tongue-tripping names such as Nishihotakadake (2,909 m) and Okuhotakadake (3,190 m) - third highest mountain in Japan. It's also home to the temperamental Yakedake (2,455 m), which last erupted in 1915, creating a natural dam in the Azusa River and hence, the now famous Taisho Pond.
Kamikochi is part of the Chubu Sangaku National Park, which is so protected that only authorised cars, buses, taxis and bicycles are allowed in. Most visitors from around the world are trucked in by the bus loads, stopping close to the famous Kappa Bridge to patronise shops and eateries before setting off to their lodgings for the night.
None of them hold a candle to the Kamikochi Imperial Hotel, which first opened in 1933 to combine old world European grandeur and omotenashi or Japanese hospitality. Imagine the rustic charm of a Swiss alpine lodge, complete with rich red brick and timber facade and roaring fireplace within, combined with the kind of personalised service that's synonymous with the Imperial name.
As it's quite fiddly to figure out the train route to Kamikochi from Tokyo, take advantage of the Imperial Hotel Tokyo's limousine service, where your personal driver takes you on a cosy drive through the picturesque Yamanashi-ken on your way to Matsumoto. Stop for a quick photo of Mount Fuji in the distance before lunch at Motoki soba restaurant, which specialises in pale-hued chewy soba made from polished buckwheat.
Once you pass Sawando Park Gate, where most visitors (except you) get out to change to authorised transportation, you drive through a long tunnel and enter a new world. It's like someone flicked a weather switch - the temperature drops, and the scenery changes into a snowy landscape even though it's already May. But once you enter the driveway of Kamikochi Imperial, a wave of familiarity hits you as you recognise the staff's uniform and the welcome experience you're about to have.
Having 74 rooms that are open only from April to November means it's often booked out. This is mountain area after all, which gets snowed in for almost six months of the year, hence the park's closure.
Which makes a visit here all the more precious for its strong repeat clientele who love the idea of just chilling out and getting in touch with nature at its rawest. Kamikochi Imperial is so secluded that you wake up to a blinding clear view of the mountains from your balcony, and the hiking trail starts right at your doorstep.
It's a long but easy walk, past snowy patches and vegetation just starting to show signs of Spring. As we trek, we clutch the little bells given to us like talismans to ward off big boogey black bears. Apparently the beast which can turn you into human tartare is afraid of tinkly noises.
Instead, we spy a fat macaque sitting on a skinny tree branch that miraculously holds his weight. For a big guy he lets out a bird-like squeak, a plaintive "are you coming home soon, honey?" to his mate that we see further down the trail, clearly ignoring him.
After four hours, it's a relief to return to the lodge in time for the daily fireplace-lighting ritual at the Grindelwald lounge - named for a Swiss mountain, not a wizard in Harry Potter. A pile of slow burning oak logs is set alight in the massive fireplace below a giant metal funnel-like chimney.
A good few puffs from an old-fashioned bellows and a warm fire crackles. Dinner follows, at one of three restaurants serving casual to fine dining European or Japanese cuisine.
If you're feeling literary, there's a cosy library filled with mountain-related books, with a special one by Walter Weston, a pastor and avid mountaineer who, in the early 1900s, introduced the Japanese to the Western sport of mountain climbing.
Mountains had been the realm of Shinto priests because of their god-like inferences. But today, while there's less of a religious link, a visit to Kamikochi and the Imperial still feels like a slice of heaven.
The writer was a guest of Kamikochi Imperial Hotel. For more information, go to www.imperialhotel.co.jp/e/kamikochi/