Shinhotaka Ropeway Japan’s most spectacular cable car

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Shinhotaka Ropeway in Gifu Prefecture is hands-down the most spectacular cable car ride in Japan, and the only double-decker model we have ever ridden, anywhere. Soaring into an ampitheatre of some of this mountainous nation’s highest peaks, including the third highest, 3190m Okohutaka, it boasts alpine views to rival pretty much anywhere.

Shinhotaka Ropeway in Gifu is Japan's only double decker cable car
Looking like a double decker bus, Shinhotaka Ropeway is one for the books – check that shadow! © Carmen Price

Despite this being the mildest, most low snow winter for a century according to some local reports, the surrounding ranges were thick with snow. At the top station, at 2156m, the walking trails around the observation deck were dug out well over a metre deep. And the lines back down under the ropeway from the top station to the top of the first stage looked just about perfect for diving into.

View to Japan's 3rd highest mountain, 3190m Okuhotakadake, from Shinhotaka Ropeway
3190m Okuhotakadake dominates the view north east from the top deck of Shinhotaka Ropeway © Owain Price

On this sunny late February day several well equipped mountaineers were coming and going on the trail towards Okuhotakadake. There are no shortage of climbing lines for them.

As for ski lines, well it looks like there’s no shortage of those either – a lifetime’s worth of backcountry options splay out along the high ranges that divide Gifu from Nagano. But surprisingly there is no organised skiing here.

They obviously do well enough from the year round sightseeing and soak market – there is a big onsen station at the top of the first stage of Shinhotaka, and an onsen hotel at the bottom – that skiing doesn’t seem to be on the agenda.

Snow activities certainly are however. Snowshoeing is popular, with some extensive trekking options. Just walking the tracks around the top station with snow showers blowing off the pines is a nice experience.

Shrine in the snow at the top of Shinhotaka Ropeway
In this “mildest winter for a century” the shrine at the top of Shinhotaka was still buried © William Polensky

The ropeway has a smaller, shorter, lower stage up to a mini plateau area featuring a nice restaurant and a separate public onsen building, and several walking trails. In summer you can drive up this far.

Close up view of the double decker Shinhotaka ropeway car
It reminds me of the old 1970s Sydney Double Decker buses; in July 2020 they get replaced by sleeker new versions © Owain Price

Shinhotaka Ropeway facts and fares

The base station sits at 1,117m next to the Hotel Hotaka near the head of the Gamada River Valley. As you go up the steps to the ticket office don’t miss the boiled egg store – fish your own out of the onsen water for a bargain ¥100 protein hit.

The No. 1 Ropeway (a regular small ropeway car) goes up 200m to the Shirakabadaira mid-station at 1305m on a forested mountain bench. There’s a restaurant and bakery inside the second cable car station, plus a big public onsen complex with outdoor baths beside it.

It’s a short 30m walk between the stations to the base of the No 2 Ropeway, the real double decker deal. I just love the old cars on this, which look like shorter versions of the 1970s Atlantean Sydney buses I used to ride to work back in the day. They get replaced by sleek modern double decker cars in July 2020 so go soon if you want to ride the originals which have been going for 50 years.

Mid-station onsen at Shinhotaka Ropeway
Have an outdoor onsen at the mid station © Carmen Price

The double decker scoots up 800 vertical metres to the 4 level Nishihotakaguchi top station. There’s another restaurant iside here and a little coffee bar at the top of the steps to the observation deck which is like something out of Switzerland – panoramic high alpine views of incredible mountains. Several of the highest 15 peaks in Japan are in the vista.

A return ticket to the top is ¥2,900 adults, ¥1,450 children 6-12, under 6 free.

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Posted by SnowAction on Sunday, February 23, 2020
Nohi Bus at Shinhotaka offers services from Matsumoto and Takayama
Catch the Nohi Bus from Takayama or Matsumoto to Shinhotaka Ropeway © Carmen Price

Where is Shinhotaka Ropeway?

Tucked below the Gifu side of the Hotaka Range dividing, Shinhotaka can be reached by bus (120 minutes) from Matsumoto in Neighbouring Nagano Prefecture. Fare is ¥2,930 adults.

So coming in from Hakuba or Shiga Kogen for example is easy enough. Then you can continue on to Takayama City (90 minutes) in Gifu for ¥2,200. Staying in Takayama City in Gifu it’s an easy day trip to Shinhotaka, or get the 2 or 3 day pass plan that lets you hop on and off the bus to check out different onsen and attractions.

Buses can be booked in the office at Takayama Station, more info online at Nohi Bus.

Where to stay and what to do in Gifu

Don’t let the lack of organised skiing at Shinhotaka Ropeway deter you from visiting! Gifu has plenty to offer regardless, from the views and experience at Shinhotaka to wilderness trekking to historic towns, great onsen, and the amazing Shirakawago ‘Gassho’ World Heritage listed thatch roof village. There are also several smaller but worthy ski areas in Gifu too which midweek are usually empty.

Most of the best sights and ski areas can be found in the Hida Takayama area of northern Gifu. This is along the main JR line from Nagoya to Toyama, and connects well by road too.

Takayama City is a good base for day trips – Shintakaoka Ropeway is 100 minutes bus ride away, Shirakawa-go (see below) is only an hour’s bus ride, or stay in historic Hida Furukawa a short 16 minute train ride away. Hida Furukawa is the more peaceful option.

Takayama features historic streets lined with shops and sake breweries/bars, lots of restaurants featuring the hugely popular local Hida beef (it’s tasty, but not quite as fatty as wagyu), a riverside market, temples and a ruined castle beside the Hida River.

Dekonaru-Za is a fantastic taiko drumming and folk dance show in the centre of town that all ages will enjoy. Get your beat on with the incredibly energetic lady drummers!

Dekonaur=Yokoch taiko drumming folklore show Takayama City, Gifu
The Dekonaru-Za dance and drum crew put on an amazing show in Takayama City © Carmen Price

We visited Takayama to check these out, but stayed in quieter Hida Furukawa just up the railway line. Our home stay option there illustrates both the problem and a partial solution to the demographic problem that is happening across Japan. As the population ages and young people move to the cities, many houses in small towns and villages, and many small farms, are simply being left deserted. If there are children or relatives of the owners they often can’t afford the taxes to keep the properties, and there is no demand for them locally, so they are just left to deteriorate.

But the enterprising owners of a company called Iori Stay in Hida have accumulated and very tastefully renovated 10 formerly empty town houses in Hida and Toyama. Ours was right opposite the temple in the heart of this old crafts town. It featured both an indoor and outdoor onsen tub, plus nespresso machine and fully equipped kitchenette. Breakfast (western or Japanese) is delivered from a cafe just down the road as part of the deal. Very relaxing, and very nice – we would have loved to stay longer. We even got woken at 7am by the monks banging the big temple gong!

Iori Stay also run local excursions including bike tours and fun activities including sake tastings and a Hida cuisine class.

Temple gong at Hida Furukawa, Gifu
We didn’t mind getting woken by the temple gong at Hida Furukawa © Carmen Price

Gifu’s World Heritage Shirakawa-go Village

A must see/must do in any season, the World Heritage Shirakawa-go village area offers a great view of a unique mountain village lifestyle in an area that normally receives massive winter snowfalls. They are known as the Gasshodukuri (or Gasshozukuri or Gasso) villages, which refers to their steep thatch roofed architectural style since the roofs resemble the shape of hands cupped in buddhist prayer position.

Come in winter and you see why they made them like that. The snowfalls are usually large here, since it’s close to the Sea of Japan beneath the very high (over 3000m) ranges that separates Gifu from Toyama and Ishikawa. The Gasshodukuri construction style was developed and refined over several centuries to cater for it.

The owner of Bunsuki restaurant showed us where the postcard view at top was taken .. a normal winter it looks more like that, we got what you see here © Toru Sato (card); Carmen Price

The villagers certainly knew their winter survival techniques, also planting and protecting forests that shield them from avalanche dangers.

You need at least half a day here to appreciate Shirakawago properly, from the lookout view above the village to the many open houses and associated buildings to check out. Don’t miss the delicious local cuisine either. At Bunsuki where we ate the owner goes out to the fish ponds that surround it and says “Ok fishy, it’s your turn now!” before scooping out how many he needs for the next guest’s meal.

Mini-museums are scattered around, offering insights into the lifestyle and construction methods – which were a bit like Amish barn building, requiring a big communal effort to raise the timber frames then more to thatch them. Re-thatching is required every 30 years or so, and has become an expensive process.

The villagers practised three main traditional crafts, living on the lower floor and using the upper floors for cultivating silk worms, traditional paper making (washi) and gunpowder making carried with fascinating displays showing how these were done.

Several of the old gassho buildings operate as minshuku – traditional guest houses – where you can stay to appreciate the village in more depth.

Several souvenir stalls, restaurants, snack bars and coffee shops are dotted around. the best way to experience them. Eating skewered river fish cooked over the traditional irori open hearth it’s easy to imagine yourself hiding out for winter as a refugee samurai. Or at least as a refugee skier, escaping the bustling hordes in Hakuba! It’s easy to add a few days in Gifu after or between ski resort visits.

Access is super easy, with the village just below the Tokai Hokuriku freeway offering easy bus connnections to Takayama and neighbouring Toyama and Ishikawa Prefectures.

Local river fish lunch at Shirakawago
Fresh river fish lunch Shirakawago © Owain Price

Useful links for more Gifu info/ideas

Hida Takayama tourism site

Official Hida City tourism site Visit Hida

Official Gifu Prefecture tourism site