With the advent of spring, the Japan Alps will soon be officially “open” again following the long, snowy winter. These mountains offer everything from breathtaking alpine vistas to relaxing hot springs and numerous hiking options for people of all levels.
Also known as the Japanese Alps, this north-to-south spine lies in the center of Honshu and is divided into three ranges: the Northern (Kita), Central (Chuo) and Southern (Minami) Alps. These three ranges are home to some of the highest peaks in the country, 20 of which reach over 3,000 meters in height, with only Mount Fuji, at 3,776 meters, standing taller.
There is a network of fully staffed mountain huts throughout the Japan Alps that provide food and lodging (reservations usually required for huts in the Southern Alps, and on busy national holidays everywhere else), often with campgrounds nearby for those with their own tents and gear.
When to hike in the Japan Alps
Early summer (late June) to mid-autumn (late October) is the main season for hiking and trekking in the Japan Alps. While most of Japan swelters in the heat and humidity of summer, temperatures tend to be cooler in the mountains, with nights even being chilly near the summits.
Snow usually starts falling from late October and remains until late May or early June. Even though parts of the Japan Alps are accessible from Golden Week, before the main summer season, most of the hiking routes should only be attempted by experienced and well-equipped winter mountaineers.
June to mid-July is rainy season and not a popular time for hiking, although if the weather is fine it can be a good time to go as the trails are quiet. It is best to avoid national holidays such as the week-long o-Bon in mid-August when huts and transport will be extremely crowded. Late September/early October can also be busy as people go to see the autumn colors in the mountains. Be careful of typhoons from late summer through to the end of October.
The Northern Alps
The Northern Alps (also sometimes known as the Hida Mountains) are a Y-shaped range of fantastically rugged mountains, stretching south from the Sea of Japan coast across Toyama, Niigata, Gifu and Nagano prefectures. As evidenced from the numerous calderas and steaming hot springs throughout the range, these mountains have volcanic origins, and nowhere is this more obvious than at Jigokudani (Hell Valley), a sulphur-stained landscape below the rocky buttresses of Tateyama, one of Japan’s three holy mountains.
The Tateyama area is one of the most popular spots in the Northern Alps, as the busy alpine hub of Murodo is one of the main stops on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route and the starting point for many hikes. The Alpine Route was originally created to provide access for the construction of the Kurobe Dam in the mid-20th century, and it crosses the North Alps via a series of trains, buses, ropeways and cable cars, linking the city of Tateyama in the west with Omachi in the east. It is open from mid-April (when people come to see the famous 20-meter-high snow walls) to late November.
Hakuba is a small town at the far northeastern end of the range and, thanks to the huge dumps of snow the area receives in the winter, it is also one of Japan’s premier ski resorts. During the summer months, the nearby mountains offer fantastic hiking, including Mount Shirouma and the exciting approach up to its summit via the Daisekkei (Great Snow Valley), a year-round snow field for which simple crampons are recommended.
Hakuba is served by trains on the Oito Line, and there are also highway buses from Tokyo, Osaka and Nagano.
At the far southern end of the range is the small resort village of Kamikochi, another popular alpine hub on the shores of the startlingly clear Azusa River. It offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains and a smattering of hotels, hot springs, restaurants and a campground.
Starting at the famous Kappa Bridge, there are a couple of short walks suitable for beginners along flat paths, with a good chance of spotting wild macaques. Those looking for a challenge can try the five- to six-hour return hike to the summit of Mount Yake, a smoldering volcano with a small crater lake.
Kamikochi is also the starting point for some of the best multiday treks in the region, such as the steep ascent of Mount Hotaka, Japan’s third highest mountain, or the two-day trek to the summit of the spire-like Mount Yari. The bowl-shaped Karasawa Cirque sits below Mount Hotaka and is one of the most spectacular and popular places to camp in the Alps, becoming a bustling tent city on busy weekends.
Kamikochi can be reached by bus from Takayama (changing at Hirayu Onsen Bus Terminal) and Matsumoto (take the train to nearby Shin-Shimashima Station first). There are also year-round buses to the small hot spring resort of Shin-Hotaka Onsen, another good starting point for a number of hikes and treks.
The Central Alps
The Central Alps is a smaller range situated between the historical Kiso and Iida valleys in Nagano Prefecture. None of the peaks quite reach 3,000 meters, but the year-round Komagatake Ropeway carries people up to the scenic Senjojiki Cirque at 2,600 meters.
Here there is a hotel (actually part of the ropeway station) and a few short trails for people to walk on to admire the views and alpine flowers. More dedicated hikers can try the straightforward three-hour return hike to the stony summit of Mount Kiso-Komagatake (2,956 meters). It is also possible to trek down the spine of the range in two or three days.
The Central Alps are easily reached from Komagane Station on the Iida Line, from where there are frequent buses to the ropeway.
The Southern Alps
Compared to the rest of the Japan Alps, the Southern Alps (or Akaishi Mountains) feel more remote and have limited access, and so tend to only be visited by dedicated hikers. The Southern Alps were formed by tectonic uplift and the range is home to big mountains with fantastic views of Mount Fuji, including the second highest peak in the country, Mount Kita (3,193 meters).
Unlike in the Northern and Central Alps, there are few one day hikes in the Southern Alps, so you should be prepared to spend at least a night or two in a hut or a tent. Kita is possible to do as a long and tough day hike, but most people choose to do it in two or three days, starting from the small alpine hub of Hirogawara. Kita is also one of a trio of peaks that make up the Shirane Sanzan, an enjoyable three-day trek that climbs over the summits of Mount Aino and Mount Notori, two other 3,000-meter peaks. Nearby Mount Houou is also recommended.
Buses to Hirogawara run from Kofu Station between late June and early November. From Hirogawara there are connecting buses to Kitazawa-toge, an even smaller base for climbing the other nearby peaks of Mount Senjo and Mount Kaikoma.
The southern end of the Southern Alps is even wilder and much less visited, but the remote alpine base of Sawarajima is the starting point for a number of tough multiday treks.
Mount Warusawa and Mount Akaishi are two bulky peaks often climbed in succession, and nearby Mount Hijiri is the most southerly 3,000-meter mountain in Japan. Sawarajima is so remote that it usually takes a full day of travel just to reach it. A full traverse of the entire Southern Alps takes about eight days, but is only suitable for extremely fit and capable hikers.
There is one bus a day from mid-July to late August between Shizuoka Station and Hatanagi Daiichi Dam. From there a shuttle bus runs along the 18-kilometer forest road to Sawarajima, but this bus can only be used by hikers staying at the huts.
For detailed information on routes, access, huts and more, see the new guidebook “Hiking and Trekking in the Japan Alps and Mount Fuji” by Tom Fay and Wes Lang. The book is now available from Cicerone and other online retailers.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5