We woke up early, bought our breakfast at the nearest convenience store (konbini), and took a morning exercise walk to Zenkoji Temple since it was within walking distance from our hotel, Sotetsu Fresa Inn Nagano – about 2km away or 30mins walk one-way. The streets were quite empty with only a few cars on the road and senior citizens tending to roadside planting making it a very enjoyable stroll.

Our breakfast is 70% konbini. Japan’s convenient store food selections are the best
Quiet old Chuo Dori (street) leading to Zenkoji and uphill
They sure don’t look like horticultural workers
Apa ni? Cute Daihatsu car… with a radar dish?

Zenkoji Temple is mainly composed of two gates (Niomon and Sammon) with the Hondo Main Hall as the main temple. The first gate is a beautiful structure, resembling an entrance to a sacred world. From the opening of the first gate, we could see the second Sammon Gate, flanked by shops along Nakamise shopping street. That view from the second gate looking directly at Zenkoji is really a sight to behold with majestic mountains as the backdrop.

Here we are at the Niomon Gate at 630am
Peering through Niomon Gate, we could see Nakamise Street with Sammon Gate surrounded by hills
Nakamise Shopping Street – abit too early for shopping

As we approached the main temple, we were fortunate to witness a rosary blessing called O-Juzu Chodai at exactly 7 am. As the Abbot and Abbess were walking out from the Hondo Main temple, they blessed kneeling devotees along the street by touching their heads. Interesting

An arch with lanterns before entering Sammon Gate
The O-Juzu Chodai ceremony in session just after 7am
The Hondo Main Hall – spectacular

The Hondo Main Hall is the grand temple surrounded by mountains, and to me, this temple exudes a certain “air.” Everything blends perfectly with the architecture, surrounding buildings, and natural elements. (Personally, it is one of the most aesthetically pleasing temples I’ve the honour to visit in Japan)

Zenkoji Hondo Main Temple – pet friendly and so beautiful
Even the toilet design is in respect of the surroundings

On the way out from the temple we stopped by at Starbucks Zenkoji @ Nakamise shopping street for a quick coffee break. As with all japanese Starbucks in heritage enclave, the building’s color blends with the surroundings in muted tones. We also bought some bread and melon pan from Arteria Bakery and some apples from a pop-up stall for our forthcoming road trip, renting a car and driving to Hakuba.

Starbucks Zenkoji – Not overwhelming and respectfully obeyed the surrounding texture
Simple zen interior
Arteria Bakery – cushy design and great bread too!

We used the convenient self-checkout with a machine at Sotetsu Fresa Inn Nagano-Zenkojiguchi making the checking out process even faster. The Sotetsu Fresa Inn group is one of our preferred business hotel chains to stay in Japan although it is a bit pricier than other business hotels. Best part is always clean, free of smoke smell and provides unlimited amenities. Our favorite is the array of instant tea and coffee choices just beside the lifts.

Self check in and self check out – We love Sotetsu Fresa!!!
Only in Japan this is considered normal

We arrived at Toyota-Rent-A-Car Nagano too early from the booked time and they were still preparing our car for usage. So we walked to a nearby river for some R&R and purchased some grapes from a local fruit store. Sitting by a river with swimming ducks, we enjoyed our bread and melon pan bought earlier. Before we knew it, it was time to collect our Toyota Roomy kei-car and GPS our way to Hakuba.

The little oba-chan fruit and vegetable shop 新小松
Taking it slow – we explored Japan and found interesting neighbourhood
Waiting pose
The melon pan that saved my life in the mountains
Let’s walking !

Using only free public roads, we drove at a leisurely speed with the only stop at a rest station overlooking the mighty Northern Alps of Japan. It had been nine years since we laid eyes on the northern alps and what a welcoming view it was. Since it was only mid-day, we decided to climb to Hakuba Happo Pond on Karamatsu-san in a hasty decision. However, we had to do it quickly because the Happo Alpen Line chair-lift or quad-lift services terminate at 4:30 pm during the green season.

Our comfy but underpowered Toyota Roomy at some roadside station

The Happo Alpen Line (Mapcode: 535 100 804) consists of one gondola (Adam Gondola) and two quad-lifts (Alpen and Grad), and it opens from 8 am to 4:40 pm. The return trip from the foot of the mountain to the starting point of the hike costs 3,300 yen each. I have a fear of heights, so the ride was quite harrowing for me, but enjoyable for most. Fifteen scary minutes later, we reached the end of the gondola at Usagidaira (1,400m) before proceeding to the two quad lifts. I liked the the quad lifts as the height is not that high from the ground below. Be aware because it is open air, it can get quite chilly – do wear something appropriate. Before we knew it, we’ve reached the hiking starting point at Happo Sanso Lodge (1,830m).

Oh no… i’m coming in on a wing and a prayer
Scary sh!t
Usagidaira – Right building is the Alpen Quad Lift
Directions are very clear
Quad Lift #2 Grat Lift – open air goodness

There are two paths to take from the start of the hike: the left is a boardwalk type (easier), and the right is the natural way with lots of rock skipping (harder). Our plan was to take the harder path up and the easier path down. So, off we went on the rocky path. It was challenging but fun, as the views were simply breathtaking, even though it was overcast. We started at quite a fast pace but forgot that we were in a higher altitude, so breathing was a bit harder. LOL. First timers. We slowed down to a good pace to counter the effects but I forgot that the only food I had was one melon pan many hours ago. I dug into my backpack to find anything edible and luckily found some Fisherman Friend sweets. This “fisherman” became my “friend,” giving me a glucose boost for the rest of the climb.

Hakuba Sanso Lodge – the starting point for the hike
Up the stone path we go!
The stone path converging to the boardwalk eventually

Soon the paths converged and the rest of the hike was on boardwalks, making it easier. In fact, this hike can be classified as beginner level and anyone can make it to Happo Pond just start earlier (and eat first). We made many photo stops during the climb as the views of the Japanese Northern Alps were breathtakingly fantastic.

Boardwalk course – easy on the knees
Cairn #2. There are a few cairns along the way as a guide for hikers
Japanese Northern Alps – so beautiful even with overcast sky

After an hour of hiking, we finally reached Happo Pond. It is a pond with a reflection of the mountains when viewed from a photography spot. How to find that spot? Don’t worry; there will be a lot of photographers at any time of the day. After taking photographs, we just sat and enjoyed the magnificent views that is front of us with our own eyes. No camera can ever replaced it.

A small shrine
The hero shot that everyone takes
Hungry Malaysians at Happo Pond

With limited time left, we had to make our way down. Saying goodbye to the mountains, we made a hasty hike down the boardwalk, but alas, we took the wrong fork and ended up going down the rocky path again! Haha. Nevertheless, it took 50 minutes to reach the quad lift that would ferry us down to road level. Karamatsu-san will be a target to hike in the future.

Good idea to have a picnic here
Amazing lines
Not exactly recommended footwear .. please wear proper sneakers / hiking shoes
Zig zaggy
Finally reach the Hakuba Sanso Lodge and the quad lift down
Japan trademark
I was scared but happy to see the beautiful autumn shades
Life saver on the mountains!!

Thank goodness our hotel was not far, and we freshened up after checking in at Hotel Hakuba for a two-night stay. We decided for take-away dinner and instead of the usual konbini, we found JA A-Coop Hakuba supermarket to buy our dinner. With that, we had an in-room sumptuous dinner with grapes and apples to cap the day off.

A-Coop – recommended to have a look around
Price was very reasonable

Oh, we bought a small knife and fruit peeler so that we could purchase fresh fruits and cut them up in our hotel. Throughout our trip, we always had fresh fruits. Clever move by my wife.

50yen (RM1.60) apple we bought at a pop-up apple stall. Big juicy bugger.
Our dinner (and a breakfast for tomorrow)

    • Useful links:
    • From our experiences :
      • Arrive early to Zenkoji Temple (7am-ish) and enjoy the serene atmosphere
      • Mapcodes are codes you can enter to your car’s GPS unit sort of Google maps but needn’t key in the words. I prefer using mapcodes.
      • Get the earliest tickets to the Happo Alpen Line to fully make use of the 3,300yen lift charges. They open at 8am. The hike was well worth it though.
      • Wear hiking or jogging shoes for the hike and eat sufficiently
      • Bring some sweets for the hike for glucose boost
      • We got a small knife and peeler for cheaps at Donki so can have fresh and affordable regional fruits. Nagano is mainly apples and it shows with some as cheap as 50yen an apple.

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