In a few weeks athletes from all over the world will compete across more than thirty events at the Tokyo Olympics. With focus currently on the Land of the Rising Sun, we have taken it upon ourselves to introduce readers to some little-known adventures that can be found outside of Japan’s capital. We started with a winter excursion among the mountain temples and snow monsters of northerly Yamagata prefecture before moving onto a mythical spring road trip to the southern island of Kyushu. In the final article of this three-part series we head west of Tokyo to the majestic mountains of the Japan Alps.
When one thinks of Japanese mountains, only one image is likely to come to mind—that of Mount Fuji, which is the country’s tallest and most famous. At 3,776 metres (12,388 ft) it dominates the surrounding landscape and when seen from afar, it is easy to understand how it has gained its iconic status. However, some people who have scaled its slopes will tell you that it isn’t a very pretty mountain up close, nor is it a particularly enjoyable hike, with its uninteresting terrain and long noisy queues of climbers. The truth is that Japan’s most beautiful, dramatic, and rewarding mountain adventures are waiting elsewhere, amongst its other 3,000-metre peaks.
One may be forgiven for thinking that alps only exist in Europe. Although some people know they can be found in New Zealand too, what very few realise is that there are also alps in Japan. Surprisingly, the name ‘Japan Alps’ was actually invented and popularised by Englishmen in the late nineteenth century. William Gowland, an archaeologist and advisor to the Japanese government, came up with the term and missionary climber Walter Weston is largely attributed with making it stick. Until then mountain climbing as a hobby did not really exist in the island nation, with religious ascetics being the only members of society prepared to head up into the clouds.
These days hiking is massively popular domestically and the country has some of the most easily accessible big-mountain trails in the world, not to mention great facilities and mountain rescue capabilities. Best of all is the fact that trail entrance is free. The alps in Japan consist of three separate ranges known as the Northern, Central and, Southern Alps. There is a huge number of paths spread over them and hundreds of peaks to take on. Here we just aim to preview a few and there is no better place to start than the country’s second highest, Mount Kita, which sits in Yamanashi prefecture within the Southern Japan Alps.
Reaching its 3,193-metre (10,475 ft) summit usually involves a two-day hike but a popular option is to combine it with an amazing ridgeline traverse to Mount Aino, which at 3,189 metres (10,462 ft) is Japan’s fourth highest. Most people begin the hike at the trailhead of Hirogawara but it is the scenery from above the treeline that provides the big payoff for the adventurer’s aching legs and fatigue. Words alone can’t do justice to the 360-degree panoramic views available from either summit, but it is perhaps Mount Aino’s early morning vista of distant Mount Fuji rising above a sea of clouds that is the most inspiring. It serves as a phenomenal way to start the day, filling one with energy for the journey ahead.
Japan’s third and fifth highest mountains are located in the Northern Japan Alps straddling Nagano and Gifu prefectures. Several of the trails that lead to their summits begin in Kamikochi, a pristine gateway to adventure that seems like a small piece of heaven in the early morning light when the overnight buses drop off their cargo of sleep-deprived climbers. Kamikochi is also popular with day-trippers, as families and couples try to get a taste of nature’s perfection. However, at five a.m. it belongs solely to those who intend to ascend.
One of the most challenging hikes in the area leads up Dakesawa, an extremely steep and unrelenting valley trail. From several hundred metres up, the spectacular views back towards Kamikochi are magical. The Azusa River that runs through the valley seems reduced in size to a long thin ribbon as it becomes dwarfed by the imposing ridges and rocky outcrops. Despite their loftiest peaks being roughly the same height, the Northern Japan Alps are more rugged than their counterparts in the Southern Alps. They are mainly composed of dark granite and feature a lot of jagged spurs, which give the area a more foreboding atmosphere.
As the climb continues upwards the immensity and scale of the range becomes even more apparent. Partway up the trail to Mount Mae Hotaka one emerges from a rocky chute to be met by the skyward reaching spine of a giant creature. Looking like the torso of a dinosaur, it has come to be known colloquially as Godzilla’s back. This seemingly Jurassic-themed geological formation points the way forward towards the narrow Tsuri Ridge that links Mae Hotaka with Japan’s third highest mountain.
At 3,190 metres (10,465 ft) Mount Oku Hotaka stands like some ancient citadel stronghold commanding an army of lesser peaks that stretch to the horizon. Helping complete this image is the red roof of a mountain lodge that desperately clings to the top of the slopes between two its two 3,000-metre protectors. It is common to find such structures near the summits of Japanese mountains; they are usually only open during the summer and autumn hiking season but provide shelter and sustenance to those who prefer not to carry their own tents. Climbers should be wary that the cost of staying the night can be expensive and reservations should be made in advance.
The journey between Mount Oku Hotaka and Mount Yari is probably the most famous ridgeline traverse in Japan and one of the most difficult that can be completed without specialized climbing equipment. From Mount Oku Hotaka’s mountain lodge a long undulating trail leads over some challenging terrain that includes a huge amount of exposure and sections that punish those who slip with certain death. It certainly isn’t compulsory to undertake such an endeavour and an earlier descent via the Karasawa Col rewards the adventurer with equally magnificent views that can be appreciated without all the anxiety.
For those who are set on completing the Yari-Hotaka traverse the stakes get ramped up from this point. From the top of Mount Karasawa (3,110 metres / 10,203 feet) one can look out over the entire route before proceeding. On its way to the sharp summit of Mount Yari, it passes over several of the highest peaks in the country, many of which top out at over 3,000 metres, but it is most well known for an infamous down and up section called the Daikiretto (big cut in English). The knife-blade ridge claims lives every year and it should not be attempted without experience, confidence, or the ability to concentrate intensely for several consecutive hours.
If you are fortunate enough to make it safely to the other side you will be relieved to discover that the rest of the traverse is much easier in comparison. Upon exiting the Daikiretto the first significant landmark one will arrive at is Mount Minami (3,032 metres / 9,947 feet). From its summit you can peer back to see the treacherous gauntlet you have just cleared and from a different angle can even make out the gradually inclining spikes of Godzilla’s back. The traverse does not end here, but if it is late in the day there is another lodge on Mount Minami in which to seek refuge from the sub-zero night-time temperatures.
On the next stage of the journey those navigating the route can enjoy a pleasant high-altitude hike away from the Daikretto and Mount Minami towards Mount Obami (3,101 metres / 10,173 feet ), another peak that makes the list of Japan’s ten tallest. Upon arrival the full splendour of the trek’s goal becomes apparent. At 3,180 metres (10,433 ft) Mount Yari is Japan’s fifth highest. The word Yari means spear in English, and its easily recognizable profile has led to it being the second most iconic mountain in the country, trailing only Mount Fuji. Often labelled as the Matterhorn of Japan, it makes a fitting endpoint to the traverse.
Mount Yari’s climbing lodge is one of the biggest and best in the Alps. Perched at the top of a winding, almost vertical path, it offers a chance to recharge and prepare for the final summit push up the edges of the spear. The ascent to the top is not for the fainthearted or anyone who suffers from vertigo. There are several long ladders that have been fixed to the rock in places to assist climbers but there is still a considerable amount of scrambling required. Good balance and maintaining enough awareness to avoid the occasional falling rocks caused by climbers above should see you safely to the top.
When you do get there, and if the elements are on your side, the otherworldly scenery and sense of achievement will work in combination to create a perfect moment of serenity and wonder, in addition to helping craft memories that will last a lifetime. In those short magical instances we are reminded that the might and majesty of mountains are unbeatable, but also that their summits can be conquered. Traversing them cultivates determination and focuses the mind on the simplicity of moving forward to greater heights. Once attained we gain perspective and a satisfying feeling of accomplishment.
However, climbing is only half of the job and even more important is ensuring a safe descent. Luckily it isn’t necessary to take on the traverse in reverse to get back to civilization. Other trails lead back down beneath the clouds from Mount Yari’s sky-scraping heights, including one via the Yarisawa Valley that circles all the way back to Kamikochi. With several more of the country’s highest peaks bagged we can say goodbye to Japan’s Nothern Alps and make a return to their southern siblings to trek to a slightly shorter but no less special mountain.
It is known as Mount Houou but actually consists of three peaks, each one dedicated to a particular Buddhist divinity. Like many of the Japanese Alps, there are a few trails to choose from but most of them lead up through beautiful forested areas that look especially good in autumn as the foliage changes colour. Starting at the trailhead at Aoki Kosen the ascent up the Dondokosawa Valley is our preferred route. On this course the hiker has the opportunity to view three dramatic waterfalls and one of them can be walked right up to. The turbulent flow’s power is impressive at this short distance as the freezing spray bounces off the huge slabs of rock that rest beneath to shower anything and anyone within reach.
The three peaks of Houou are Mount Kannon, Mount Yakushi, and Mount Jizo. With its summit of 2,840 metres (9,317 ft) Mount Kannon is the highest. Kannon is the Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion—two things one certainly hopes for when walking at such an altitude. Mount Yakushi is dedicated to the Buddha of healing and medicine and Mount Jizo to the protector of travellers and children. If ascending via the Dondokosawa route, Mount Jizo is the first of the three you should reach. Arriving there is a special experience, as the mountain top is populated by a collection of small guardian-deity Jizo statues, which lend it a sacred atmosphere.
The higher elevations of Mount Houou consist of a very light-coloured white granite not found on most of the other mountains of the Southern Japan Alps. This makes the peaks stand out when viewed from a distance. The unusual shapes of the geological features one passes during the hike are also unique; the highest point of Mount Jizo actually belongs to a huge standing obelisk. From there, heading along the ridge to Mount Kannon and Mount Yakushi, the adventurer will come across many more surreal examples of nature’s craftmanship, and as a bonus, all three of the peaks’ summits offer excellent views over the surrounding countryside.
Towards the end of the traverse, in the environs of Mount Yakushi, you might decide to take a few well-earned minutes to sit down and catch your breath, although you are just as likely to have it taken away again by the stupendous scenery. Gazing out over the deep valley trough that separates Mt Houou’s ridgeline from its cousin to the west, we can see our old friends Mount Kita and Mount Aino, which were introduced at the start of this article. In early November they stand proud, crowned with the first snows of the approaching winter. It is at this time of year that the Japanese alpine hiking season comes to an abrupt end as the mountain lodges close and their staff head down to lower climes.
In winter these mountains become savage places with extreme weather conditions that put them out of the reach of hikers and trekkers. Only highly-skilled climbers with mountaineering experience come here during the months of snow and ice. The high points and ridges turn into treacherous and demanding trials where Andean and Himalayan levels of technical climbing can be found—if that is what one is looking for. For those not interested in that, there are plenty of other wonderful lower-elevation adventures to be had elsewhere in the country until the Japanese Alps thoroughly thaw out. Climbing is dangerous and the level of challenge you wish to undertake and risk you are happy to expose yourself to is up to you; it is your own personal adventure to plan and carry out to your own satisfaction. Please be careful and make your decisions wisely.
Although mountain hiking can not be found on the list of upcoming Tokyo Olympic events, many people climb for sport or to exercise. Some people head up the ranges to escape routine and experience something special, while others have profound religious motivations to ascend to the abodes of gods and protector deities. Whatever your reasons may be, the mountains can offer all of us individual and shared moments of beauty and tranquillity. When we are stood on top of the world charting the mesmerizing gradations of colour that lead to twilight after a hard day of trekking, the only thing that really seems to matter is that we are there to experience it.
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