Travel

Nagano's famed Jonen mountain hut celebrates 100 years of stunning vistas

by Chris Cook

Staff Writer

Nestled in the shadow of the 2,857-meter-high Mount Jonen — the pyramid-shaped granite peak visible from the concourse of Matsumoto Station and from the platform of nearby Hotaka Station in central Nagano Prefecture — the Jonen-goya (mountain hut) is today celebrating its centenary.

Although there were a few before him, it was not until the late 19th century that Walter Weston, a British missionary who came to Japan and who is sometimes referred to as the “father of Japanese mountaineering,” began to explore the peaks of Japan and, in doing so, piqued the interest of adventurous Japanese, too.

Yarisawa Lodge, the first mountain hut in the area, was built in 1917 in the Yarisawa Valley, located between Kamikochi and the 3,180-meter Mount Yari — the distinctive spear-shaped peak known as the “Matterhorn of Japan.”

Two years later Riichi Yamada, a young and enthusiastic mountain hiker and one of the partners who built the Yarisawa Lodge, together with a local guide, decided to build another hut: Jonen-goya. The place they chose was a plot of west-facing land at a height of 2,450 meters, just below the north flank of Mount Jonen.

In one of its earliest incarnations, Jonen-goya resembled a traditional Japanese farmhouse, with a central irori (sunken hearth), promising hikers basic accommodation. A later building burned down in a fire, and the present building was erected in 1970.

Kenichiro Yamada, president of Japan Alps Jonen Hut Co. Ltd., which owns and operates Jonen-goya, says that Jonen’s popularity is such that about 10,000 hikers trek to the area and stay overnight during the season, which begins in mid-April and finishes soon after the first of the winter snow begins to dust the landscape in early November.

The cozy, two-story log cabin-style building, which can accommodate up to 200 hikers each night, has a dining room from which — on cloud-free days — you have awesome eye-level views of the craggy peaks of Mount Hotaka and Mount Yari rising up on the other side of the valley.

Tasty Japanese cuisine is served for dinner and breakfast, but don’t expect showers at this elevation. The hut also boasts 21st-century accoutrements such as Wi-Fi, flat screen TVs and, during the summer, draft beer to revive weary hikers.

For those who enjoy being totally immersed in the natural environment, with stunning scenery, the area around Mount Jonen is as good a place as any to visit.

Yamada says the mountain and the hut can be utilized by people of all ages: “We hope that the lodge will provide a base for a wide range of people who visit to enjoy what Mount Jonen has to offer.”

A definite highlight, aside from the experience of getting there — a decent hike from nearby Nakabusa Onsen — is the chance to get up close and personal with nature. The area may not be crawling with furry critters or buzzing bugs but, if you look closely, there is much to be seen.

The early summer months are perfect for botanists, and even now there are still several species of alpine flowers in bloom along the trails. Among the many flowers, my favorite is the komakusa (Dicentra peregrina), a delicate pink, multispiked flower that grows from a small, compact mat right out of the scree.

Now is also a good time to see baby raichō (ptarmigan) as the chicks have just recently hatched. If you are lucky, you can sometimes find a mother leading her brood along the trail just in front of you.

Don’t take it for granted, though. Yamada says that global warming will impact on the fragile environment of Japan’s mountains: less snow in the winter, hotter summers and an increasing number of extreme weather events.

The alarm has already been raised by hikers who have made repeat visits to the mountain over the years. Compared to a few decades ago, there are fewer ptarmigan living on the ridges, and Yamada says that before, “(Sika) deer did not inhabit the Japan Alps but they are now being sighted at Kamikochi and at the foot of Mount Jonen. There are worries about the adverse impact these animals will have on the environment and also on the native (Japanese) serows that live there.”

Efforts should be made to preserve such environments. Tobias Hayashi, a doctoral student from Canberra studying orchids, joined me on one of my many visits to Jonen to look for and photograph ptarmigan and bears.

“One of the highlights was of that trip was staying in a warm, comfortable place like Jonen-goya, and walking out the front door to see mountains stretching off into the distance,” he says.

“It was a little slice of peace among the hustle and bustle of daily Japanese life.”

It is a 10- to 12-hour one-way hike from Nakabusa Onsen to Jonen-goya. A bus service (bit.ly/jonenbus) runs from Hotaka Station to Nakabusa Onsen during the hiking season from mid-April to November. Reservations at the hut can be made by calling 090-1430-3328, from ¥7,000 per person per night (no meals included). More information online at mt-jonen.com.