There’s more to Japan than sushi, shopping and shinkansen. Every
summer after the ice melts away, the Japanese Alps come alive with throngs of hikers and climbers. Coupled with its well-run mountain lodges (so trekkers need not worry about lugging up tents and food), as well as extensive train and bus networks, Japan’s mountain ranges become a climber’s paradise in the summer.
A hike up Japan’s 3 tallest mountains not only offers convenient, spectacular views (with the access points all not far from Tokyo), but also takes you through 3 distinctly different destinations in Nagano, Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures.
MT. FUJI (Fujisan)
Affectionately known to the Japanese as Fuji-san, it is Japan’s tallest mountain (3,766m) and a UNESCO-listed heritage site, and open for climbing only during the months of July and August. An enduring symbol of
Japan, Mt. Fuji has four ascents, with the most popular being the Fuji 5th station, which itself serves as a tourist attraction as it is dotted with shrines, restaurants, souvenir shops and even pony ride stations.
To trek Mt. Fuji, it is best to start the hike in the early morning as a midday hike can get quite crowded with numerous hiking groups that are usually made up of school students. For trekkers, the most popular trail is the Yoshida Trail, which is easily accessible because of the numerous buses connecting Shinjuku (Tokyo) to the highland. It is also a favourite among beginner hikers as it isn’t as steep as the other trails.
On the climb to the top, hikers will pass several huts speckled across the mighty mountain. Some of these huts provide basic facilities – like a futon and toilet – while others are decked out with eateries. A hike along Mt. Fuji is also never a lonely experience, as you’ll be surrounded by Japanese trekkers of all ages. Upon reaching the summit, the vista is incredibly breathtaking with views of the Fuji Five Lakes to the north of the mountain. It is worth noting that Mt. Fuji is not a dormant volcano – seismologists say it is 300 years overdue for an eruption – but the possibility of a current eruption is low.
MT. KITA (Kitadake)
Japan’s second highest mountain, Mt. Kita (3,193m) is located in the Minami-Alps. Known for its postcard views and with less of a crowd compared to Mt Fuji, the climb up Mt. Kita can be accessed from Yamanashi
prefecture’s capital, Kofu, which is a 2-hour bus ride from Shinjuku.
Suitable for beginners to advanced trekkers, no technical skills are needed for the climb, but as the hike is rather steep, it can be arduous and energy-sapping. For the climb up Mt. Kita, trekkers will pass towering trees that form a dense canopy (which assist in shielding trekkers from the heat), plenty of summer flowers and giant rock formations.
Trails on Japanese mountains are also clearly marked, which helps greatly with getting around on your own. Painted signs on the rocks indicate where to and more importantly, where not to go. “O” marks the correct path and “X” means “Do Not Follow”, with arrows generally used to show which directions to follow. A common practice among hikers in Japan is that everyone greets each other with “konnichiwa” as they make their way to the top.
During the climbing season, there are plenty of regular buses that take trekkers from the highlands to Mt. Kita’s base camp at Hirogawa. As it takes 5 to 6 hours to complete the climb, it is best to start the trek early in the morning. A multi-day hike from Mt. Kita to other peaks like Mt. Hotaka is an option for trekkers with more time to explore the region.
Mt. OKU-HOTAKA (Hotakadake)
Situated in Kamikochi, a popular highland resort and also the starting point for the trek, Mt. Oku-Hotaka is Japan’s third highest mountain (3,190m), and the highest peak in the Hotaka Mountain Range. A peak best suited for intermediate trekkers due to its steepness, it takes about 9 – 10 hours to
reach the summit. Often seen cloaked in clouds, Mt. Oku-Hotaka is extremely striking for its summer as it is covered with eye-catching flora, including the Ikagawami flower. To prevent trekkers from trampling on the beautiful flora, circuits on Mt. Oku-Hotaka are well-marked with wooden planks, chains and ladders.
The hike up the mountain starts from Kappa-bashi (a suspended bridge) crossing over Japan’s longest river – Shinano river – which leads to the Dakesawa Valley, after which there are several ridges to hike over, and
several mountain huts that serve up a good feast, before reaching the summit. With plenty of overnight buses from Shinjuku, there are several ways to get to Mt. Oku-Hotaka. One option is to overnight at Matsumoto town in Nagano prefecture, which is 3 hours from Tokyo by train, after which you can travel to Kamikochi on the first train. Matsumoto Tourism’s office (welcome.city.matsumoto.nagano.jp) has English-speaking staff and good information on the Kita Alps.