I opened my eyes: clouds broke against the ridgeline, sending their tendrils skyward in the eastern updraft, high above the vertiginous vista that stretched away to distant, snow-touched mountains. I was taking a breather on a narrow ledge close to the pinnacle of Tsurugi-dake — Sword Peak — the most thrilling mountain in Japan’s North Alps. I was not so much tired as overwhelmed by beauty and the emptiness of space below me. Further up the cliff, the elderly couple who had adopted me that morning on the trail were waiting.
“You a man?” grandpa gestured graphically, questioning my manhood in the most encouraging way possible. Laughing, I found my courage and the next handhold. My honorary grandparents weren’t the only old timers on the trail: The North Alps, with their broad variety of routes, extensive system of mountain huts and easy bus access, drew over 250,000 hikers in 2007, young and old, beginner and expert alike.
Recreational hiking in Japan is relatively new in the nation’s long history: the mountains were considered foreboding and inhospitable, the realm of mountain priests and the gods, until a pair of Englishmen, William Gowland and Walter Weston, climbed them in the late 19th century.
Gowland dubbed the region “The Japan Alps” while Weston’s lectures and books introduced the region to Japanese and foreigners alike.
Murodo, Toyama Prefecture’s popular northern trailhead, sits at the bottom of a broad valley dotted with small snowfields, surrounded on three sides by a high ridgeline, and has trails for every difficulty level and time span. Easygoing day-trippers often opt to do a loop around the valley basin, admiring alpine flowers, looking for raicho (ptarmigans, literally “thunderbirds”) and relaxing at a hot-spring lodge, while the slightly more daring will descend into Jigoku-dani — Hell Valley. This hissing, sulfurous landscape spews noxious steam and gray, acrid water from its depths, so steer clear if you have breathing problems. The religious signification is even stronger on another day-trip route up Tateyama, one of Japan’s Three Holy Mountains. The crown-shaped summit with multiple peaks has been a center for shugendo, or Buddhist mountain-asceticism, since the eighth century.
“Tateyama is a mandala,” explained Norimichi Yamada, a priest working at the shrine at the top. “The peak at the center is heaven and the valleys represent hell.” The climb is not nearly so difficult, as busloads of schoolchildren and groups of pensioners routinely make it to the heavenly views of the steaming valleys below.
East of Murodo lurks Tsurugi-dake. This rocky, jagged mountain is best done on an overnight trip by souls with good insurance policies. Tsurugi doesn’t resemble a sword until you approach the sheer cliffs and three peaks that thrust skyward, the trail perched between the sky and oblivion. The final ascent is called the Kani-no-Tatebai, or “Place Where You Crawl Up Like A Crab.” In other words: rock-climbing minus safety gear plus a chain and a few footholds. If vertiginous adrenaline rush is your thing, Tsurugi lives up to its billing as the scariest mountain in Japan, another representation of hell opposite Tateyama.
At the southern end of the range, Kamikochi’s easy riverside walking, plush hotels and cooler temperatures lure thousands of summer guests, but it is even more famous for its fall colors. Starting in late September, a wave of red and golden leaves rolls down from Hotaka-dake and Yari-ga-take (or Spear Peak, 3,180m) into their respective valleys, the Kara-sawa and the Yari-sawa. The Kara-sawa loop, by far the more popular in the fall, takes you up a well-maintained trail through a wide valley set ablaze by the bright birch and Japanese larch leaves, and then over Oku-Hotaka-dake (3,190 meters), the third-highest mountain in Japan, on a two-day course. The vertical ascent and descent is 1,500 meters each day, so go easy on your knees. The loop route for Yari-ga-take (3,180 meters), the peak Weston dubbed “the Matterhorn in Japan,” is more exciting. The final ascent of the pinnacle is a chain-and-ladder scramble up to a 360-degree view of the range, often crowded but definitely rewarding. The second day links up with the Hotaka-dake route through the precipitous Daikiretto (Great Cleft), 300 vertical meters of clinging on for dear life. Check the weather and your gut before attempting it.
Hikers with a week free should try a full traverse of the North Alps, from Murodo to Kamikochi, because the day-tripping crowds dissipate, wildlife is more common, and some lesser-known peaks are nearly as stunning as the famous ones. Yakushi-dake sits alone in the center of the range, its gradual slopes culminating in a sharp peak silhouetted against the sky, while Goshiki-ga-hara is a broad plateau famous for wildflowers and fall colors. The extensive lodge system makes long treks easy, as food and shelter don’t need to be carried, but they can be crowded during the summer vacation period and the fall foliage season.
“We can’t turn anyone away,” said Yuuji Irino, a worker at Sugoroku Lodge, “so sometimes it’s two people to a futon.” The possibility of sharing a mattress with a snoring stranger makes the weight of a tent less arduous in high season; sharing the trail with the Japanese, however, is always a pleasure. On a long traverse the terse “good mornings” of the trailheads give way to genuine greetings, mid-climb commiserations, swapped lunch goodies and celebration over beer at the huts and tents each night. For the laughter shared in this impromptu mountain community, I’d brave any peak.
Murodo access: By train, take the first half of the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route from Dentetsu Toyama Station (¥3,530, 2 hours). Drivers must park at the Toyama cable-car station (¥2,360). Access from the opposite side, Shinano-omachi Station on the JR Oito line, costs ¥7,030, 2:45 hours; www.alpen-route.com Kamikochi access: Kamikochi (www.kamikochi.or.jp) has buses running day and night from large urban centers. Consult Alpico bus company for overnight buses (www.sawayaka.alpico.co.jp). Drivers must park and take a bus to Kamikochi. Train access is Takayama Station to the west and Matsumoto Station to the east. Lodges cost approximately ¥8,500/5,500 with/without meals. Camping is ¥500 and water is usually free. Beers go for ¥500 a can and lunch boxes are available at several huts. Lonely Planet’s “Hiking in Japan” (2001) and the Shobunsha No. 37 and No. 39 maps cover the trails mentioned here, although LP’s course times are too aggressive for most hikers.