An inside track on the Japan Alps

by Chris Cook

As the overnight buses roll into the car park at Kamikochi at six on a summer’s morning, disgorging disheveled and sleep-deprived long-distance travelers from as far afield as Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Kyoto, the whole area is already buzzing with people.

Tourists staying at the local hotels and lodges and campers are already out in force, taking advantage of the cool, early morning air. Meanwhile, hikers busy themselves making last minute preparations for their assault on the surrounding mountains.

They’re here because nestling below the craggy peaks of Nagano Prefecture Kamikochi is the starting point for several hikes, including the Hodaka ranges, Jonen, and my favorite, Yarigatake which, at 3,180 meters, is the fourth highest mountain in Japan.

For most visitors, picnicking under the soft green larch trees beside the rushing waters of the Azusa River or having their photograph taken at the famed Kappa Bridge is about as close as they will get to wilderness trekking.

But for most people who end up there, Kamikochi is not about relaxation or lazing around. Mountain hiking is what it’s all about, but first a word of warning: Hiking in the Japan Alps which rise to 3,000 meters or more or on any other high mountain for that matter, is not quite a casual Sunday afternoon stroll.

Think several hours of strenuous walking. Think sun stroke. Dehydration. Slipping over. Injured ankles. Lugging a heavy backpack up a steep incline. Sudden weather changes. And very, very basic facilities in huts where you can stay the night.

But despite all the fight, mountain hiking is a very popular pastime in Japan the mountain hut atop Mount Shirouma in Nagano Prefecture can comfortably accommodate over 2,000 people at night during the peak season and on the main trails you are usually never very far from help if needed.

Once you get away from the immediate vicinity of overnight huts and summits where fellow hikers swarm, the well-worn pathways that meander across the heights are never crowded. It is sometimes possible, on the less used routes, to go hours without meeting a soul.

Me, I’m a fair-weather hiker (but of course, I’ve had more than my share of days spent slogging along trails in dense mist, typhoon rains and even snow) and definitely prefer it when an anticyclone plonks itself over central Honshu and allows me to walk for hours under the scorching sun and see range after range stretching to the horizon.

The high mountains during the summer are carpeted with a vibrant palette of alpine flowers orange or white lilies, dainty white eyebrights and large purple thistles, to name a few and these, together with the scent of the creeping pine (haimatsu), the buzzing of hoverflies and the chance of sighting a Japanese serow (kamoshika a goatlike animal of the mountains) or an Asian black bear makes every step worthwhile.

Most of all, these hikes give me a chance to clear the space between my ears, leaving metaphysical garbage along the trails I travail.

Of all the hikes that I have made in Japan, there are two which I never tire of and attempt to repeat every year: One is the Kamikochi-Yarigatake-Jonen-Kamikochi route, and the other is the Happo-one (ridge)-Karamatsu-dake-Shirouma-Hakuba one.

The former is two 9- or 10-hour hikes, while the latter is just about doable with an early morning start, but it’s pushing things.

Hiking the peaks is not a one-day job, and walking the trails is a part of many Japanese hikers’ summer vacation plans.

Throughout Japan’s mountains, at varying elevations, are sturdy huts (sanso) in which hikers can spend the night.

This accommodation comes in the form of rather spartan but at the same time welcoming and cozy “villas,” which provide you with a warm futon, and dinner and breakfast, and of course you can buy a cold, well-deserved beer after your strenuous hike.

Definitely not five-star, but these places, averaging 8,000 or so a night, beat having to lug a tent, sleeping bag, gas stove and food all the way up to the top.

In the old days and some of these huts have been around for several decades everything used to be carted up on the backs of lithe Japanese porters, but now most places have daily deliveries by helicopter.

These deftly swoop in out of the mist with a net full of fresh supplies, drop them off, remove garbage or empty gas canisters and then disappear away into the valley returning silence to the peaks once again.

Food is basic Japanese fare (they provide you with rice, miso soup, a slice of ham, seaweed etc.), there’s lots of snoring bodies at night, very early wake-ups (most Japanese hikers have to see the sunrise, so be ready for micelike trekkers rustling plastic bags in the dark as they get ready to go out at 3 a.m.!) and toilets which are anything but fragrant!

If camping is what you enjoy, all huts have sites available nearby (no camping is allowed anywhere in the mountains except at these designated places).

Throughout the archipelago, hiking trails are open to anyone who is reasonably fit and to anyone who is not afraid of a little strenuous exertion and adventure.

With the summer hiking season just around the corner, start planning your route now.