A one-hour drive from Matsumoto brings you to the stunning Venus Line.
Starting north at Utsukushigahara the road winds up and down through beautiful mountain highlands, wetlands, plateaus, ponds, rivers, and several dazzling waterfalls.
As you come around a bend and witness the scenery you may think you are in another country. Some places reminded me of the Blue Ridge parkway in North Carolina, a pasture in the mountains north of Lucerne Switzerland, and another of southern Montana.
This area you will not want to miss. My good friend Hiro and I boarded the Super Azusa train in Shinjuku for a three-hour ride to Matsumoto. We headed to Kamikochi for a day of hiking. The next morning we rented a car from JR and drove to the Venus Line.
This is Japan’s rainy season, however for our two days in the area it was white puffy clouds amid a deep blue sky.
In planning the Venus Line drive we optimistically listed seven stops that were a must see to enjoy our full day. We achieved our goal and had enough time for a nice Soba meal before boarding our train at Chino back to Shinjuku.
The actual Venus line is about 86 kilometers long, but with all the out of the way stops we made the final mileage when we dropped off the car was 526 kilometers.
Utsukushigahara Highland is a 2000 meter (6562 feet) high plateau with many good hiking trails. Up on the 133,000 square meter ridge are many varieties of wildflowers that you would likely find in the European Alps. Part of the hike takes you across some cow pastures, so you need to watch where you're stepping, if you get my drift. Also up on the plateau is a very nice open-air art museum with over 400 outdoor sculptures.
Heading south, our next stop was the Yashimagahara Wetlands. On the trail to the pond were many wild iris and mountain azalea. There is also a great view of Mt Kuruma. This was the only area of our stops that needed some trail repairs. Almost all of the wooden planks were rotted making it difficult to walk. A simple 100 yen parking fee would probably solve this problem. The views were good and the scenery reminded me of the Kushiro Wetlands in Hokkaido.
From here, a twenty-minute drive brings you to the Kirigamine plateau with a great view of Lake Shirakaba and way down the valley the town of Chino. There are hiking trails throughout this area. After taking several pictures we opted to continue our drive to Kuyumayama-Kogen highlands. This is a ski area and you can take a lift up to the mountaintop for a 360 panoramic view. It is a perfect place to have lunch with several good restaurants at the base of the mountain. With stomachs full, our next stop was Yokoya-kyo Gorge, actually more like a ravine. From the parking area, walk about 200 meters to the Shibu River and feel the refreshing spray from the waterfalls. We hiked along the ravine for twenty minutes.
The next stop took us off the Venus Line onto Marchen Highway for a twenty five minute drive to Shirakoma Pond, the highest in Japan at 2,127 meters (6,978 feet). This was a pleasant surprise especially when you think of a pond as small. It was surrounded by tall trees, moss covered roots, and a plank trail meandering around the pond. The hike was invigorating and a highlight of the day.
It was late afternoon and we had one more stop on our list, Tateshina Otaki Falls. We had tried earlier to find it using Trip Advisor and Google Maps only to be led round and round mountain roads. For our second attempt we stopped at a hidden resort and asked an employee who told us it was just a few minutes back up the road. After finding a set of stairs on a narrow road we hiked along a rough trail until rounding a bend to a spectacular view of the falls. Some people told us that there was in fact a parking lot. We hiked back to the car found the lot, parked, and returned to the falls for a second look. What a great end to a perfect day in the mountains.
By renting the car from JR we were able to return it at the Chino station and there was no surcharge.
You can find information about this route at the Matsumoto station tourist information center, but it does not open until 9 a.m. By then, you should be well on your way. The JR car rental counter outside Matsumoto station has a detailed route map and it opens at 8 a.m.
The Venus Line is a great side trip, with beautiful scenery around ever curve. If you cannot rent a car there are tours and a regular bus service out of Matsumoto stopping at most of the venues.