Effort and reward: Hiking the precipitous spine of central Honshu

by

Special To The Japan Times

Emerging from the gloom of the tunnel, it takes a few moments to adjust to the piercing sunlight as the bus chugs along the narrow road that snakes up the valley alongside the Azusa River.

All eyes inside are glued to the views unveiling themselves through the rattling windows. Foremost is the bald, sulfur-stained peak of Mount Yake, an active volcano that smoulders gently in the late afternoon sun. The surrounding mountains appear in the mirror of Taisho Pond (itself formed following the 1915 eruption of Mount Yake, when huge landslides spilled into the valley, damming the river).

The lush greenery of these alpine forests is home to black bear, Japanese macaques and a plethora of bird species. Perhaps because of the rugged surroundings, deep in the remote Hida Mountains of the North Japan Alps, it is always a mild surprise to alight from the bus at Kamikochi, Nagano Prefecture, and meet throngs of people, some outfitted for Himalayan expeditions, others in casual attire befitting the fancier neighborhoods of Tokyo.

A short walk from the bus terminal is the famous Kappabashi, a suspension bridge where tourists jostle for position to get the perfect shot of the startlingly clear and beautiful azure-blue river, a view dominated by the fortress-like walls and ridges of the looming massif. I stop to admire the scene briefly and acknowledge Mount Hotaka, the peak atop which, in two days’ time, I aim to be stood. But first thing is first: Mount Yari.

I push on, as there are only a few hours of daylight left. It’s late autumn, and I still have 11 km to go before I reach my goal for the day. The map says it will take three hours, but the path is good and flat, so I reckon I can do it in half that time.

Less than 100 yards on from the bridge all the day-trip crowds have disappeared, and after passing the Konashidaira campground (a good base for exploring the region), I pretty much have the trail to myself. For the next hour-and-a-half I settle into a steady rhythm on the gently undulating path, enjoying the sounds of the forest and the ebbs and flows of the river to my left. A group of 40 macaques, some carrying babies, lazily amble across the trail, barely acknowledging me as I pick my way through their ranks. As the sun disappears behind the mountains I notice for the first time how cool the air is, and I’m clearly the last to arrive at the Yokoo hut and campground. Other hikers are polishing off dinner in the comfort of their tents as I quickly set up mine. Later that night I’m woken by rustling from just outside my tent, inches from my head. I scramble for a light and unzip the door in time to see a small hairy hand reach under the vestibule to grab an empty plastic bag before disappearing into the dark.

The next morning is the real start of the hike, as the path climbs up an initially narrow valley over knotted tree roots and boulders. After an hour of pleasant progress, through forest and streams, the trees thin out abruptly and the true scale of the rocky valley becomes clear. This is a place that makes you feel insignificant. There is a campsite at a place called Baba-daira, built on the remains of an old mountain hut long since destroyed by avalanche. Given the views and remote location, it would make a fantastic place to camp. From here the hiking gets tougher, an unrelenting slog up over scree and rocks, the work made more tiring by the scorching mid-morning sun on my back. Although the unmistakable pyramidal spire of Mount Yari constantly remains in view up ahead, it never seems to get much closer.

I pass a small group of sweating men, huffing and puffing under their huge backpacks. The 50-liter pack I’m carrying feels like an anchor weighing me down, but it is positively streamlined and lightweight compared to their loads. We all laugh and agree that it’s too hot for this kind of activity.

After what seems like an age, I reach a large boulder with a cave-like opening beneath it called Bozu-iwagoya. This has long been used as a shelter by a succession of mountaineers going back to Banryu, a chanting Buddhist priest who once spent over 50 days in the mountains and was the first person to climb Mount Yari in 1828. The path is steeper than ever now, white paint marks showing the best route over the boulders and scree. In the dark recess of a cliff nearby a patch of snow desperately holds out for the return of winter.

A final lung-busting push up to the lip of the ridge following a dizzying set of switchbacks, and suddenly I’m standing on the flat veranda outside the sansō hut, an outpost of civilization in this wild landscape where climbers sip cold beers and soak in the incredible views. Mountain huts provide meals (ramen, curry rice), and warm futons to sleep on, but there are rarely bathing facilities, so be prepared to rough it a bit. I drop my pack and scramble up to the 3,180-meter summit, aided by fixed chains and ladders on the steepest sections. The views from the top are nothing short of spectacular, with the Japan Alps and most of central Honshu stretching out in every direction. There’s no time to linger, however, as tomorrow’s mountain looms large in the distance. I follow the ridge south in the golden late afternoon sun. The air is cool and thin at this altitude, and I don’t see another soul. My home for the night is Minami-dake hut, the last refuge before the infamous Daikiretto — a jagged gap where the ridge path between Mount Yari and Mount Hotaka falls away and travelers must make their way along a chaotic spine of rock. The view from the hut is intimidating to say the least: This section of the hike claims a few lives every year.

The next morning I’m awake at sunrise, ready to tackle this notorious obstacle. From the hut the path drops almost vertically, with a few rusty ladders bolted in place to aid passage. It then narrows to a series of knife-edge protrusions requiring a clear head and steady footing to scramble over, a task further compounded by my large pack. In the sunny conditions I make good progress and soon reach the start of the long and vertigo-inducing climb toward Mount Kita-Hotaka. The occasional chains and metal handholds along some of the most brutally exposed sections add a semblance of security, but this is closer to rock climbing than hiking and a slip would be unthinkable.

Less than three hours after setting off I emerge at Kita-Hotaka hut, which is perched on a small ledge among massive lithic splinters. A path descends to the safety of the huts and campground at Karasawa, an ever-popular “tent city” situated in a picturesque cirque where snow often nestles until late summer. I opt for the high-altitude route that traverses the ridge to Hotaka-dake hut, and if anything it’s even more exposed and dangerous than anything previously encountered, the path climbing and falling over crumbling ledges that hang above endless drops into oblivion. But the way is always exhilarating, and when I finally stumble down to Hotaka-dake sansō (which so perilously straddles the narrow ridge it makes one wonder how anyone had the audacity to build it), I head inside for a quick bowl of noodles before the final push.
A couple of ladders rise directly above the hut, and then it’s just a short scramble to the summit of Mount Oku-Hotaka, the third-highest mountain in Japan at 3,190 meters. A long ridge of serrated peaks, buttresses and terrifying drops tapers away to the southwest, but that will have to wait for another day. My eyes are set on the tiny buildings of Kamikochi, glistening in the sunshine off in the distance at the bottom of the valley. The crowds down at Kappa Bridge may see these mountains, but they don’t know them. With tired limbs and a sense of quiet satisfaction, I start the slow and final descent.

There are regular buses from Shinshimashima Station and Matsumoto to Kamikochi, and also from Takayama (via Hirayu Onsen) from Golden Week until the beginning of November. Hotels and ryokan at Kamikochi (need booking in advance), with camping (¥600) and huts (¥6,000-¥9,000, no reservations necessary) are along the trails. Map no. 37 in Shobunsha’s excellent “Yama-to-kogen” series covers the entire route. Hikers should be well-equipped, have good fitness, a head for heights and some basic climbing ability. Allow three to four days to complete the loop hike.