KAMIKOCHI, NAGANO PREFECTURE – Once the huts close for winter, Kamikochi empties.
During the summer, hikers form long, snaking queues along the valley trails, destined for their mountain of choice. Now, the area is more populated by less-evolved hominids: Japanese macaques crowd the forests casting their childlike calls across the valley, resolutely ignoring any humans they do encounter. In November, the upper slopes of the mountains are blanketed in snow, but lower down, things aren’t quite so severe; skeletal silver birches still cling to their last leaves and the grasses are green with the autumn rain.
Through this stark landscape, a pair of hikers walk stooped beneath heavy packs, carrying their tent, food, crampons and clothes warm enough to nurse them through the cold evenings. A protein bar swaps hands, its frozen surface hard enough to crack teeth; “espresso-flavored” reads the label. Whatever relationship this might once have had to a coffee bean is long-lost to the dense, calorie-heavy mix.
Why put themselves through this? Why leave the warmth of the city, of climate-controlled buildings, for this lonely part of Japan in the loneliest of seasons? One answer lies in the significance of the mountains in this portion of the Northern Alps.
Kamikochi, Nagano Prefecture, is the starting point of many hikes, including to Mount Hotaka which, at 3,190 meters, is the country’s third tallest mountain. But the jewel in the region’s crown is the slightly lower but utterly breathtaking Mount Yari (3,180 meters, fifth tallest).
A two-day trek from the Kamikochi bus terminus, Mount Yari juts into the sky like a great blade of granite at the head of the Yarisawa River. “Yari” translates to “spear” and among the other nicknames that it’s collected, it is also known as the “Matterhorn of Japan.” It does not disappoint on either count: Tucked behind a formidable ridgeline, the peak only comes into view for the very final portion of the hike but, once visible, it dominates the skyline.
Yari was first climbed in 1828 by the monk Banryu (1786-1840), who made a habit of meditating (“incessantly” according to the sign at its entrance) in a cave in view of the summit. Following a few late 19th-century climbs, Yari is now one of the nation’s most climbed mountains and, during the summer, climbers queue to clamber up the series of ladders that lead to the summit. Yarigatake Sanso Hut, at the gnarled foot of the summit, can house up to 400 climbers at a time — a reality at the height of the season.
The winter climber knows this. Once the huts close, the queues disappear and those who pause atop Yari’s narrow peak stand only in the company of Japan’s other great peaks: Mount Hotaka sits proud at the far end of the infamous Daikiretto traverse; further still is Mount Kita (3,193 meters, second tallest); and finally, far off in the distance, the perfect cone of Mount Fuji (3,776 meters), rising above Japan.
A small shrine stands at the top of Yari, and here the clever hiker pays tribute to this royal mountain, depositing their heaviest coins at the top of the mountain to lighten the load for the way home. Back to Kamikochi, and civilization, and warmth. A protein bar-free existence, with one of Japan’s finest mountains under the belt.
Kamikochi is now officially closed for the winter season but hikers can still access the park from the Nakanoyu bus stop by walking or snowshoeing through the Kama and Kamikochi tunnels. From November to April all facilities and shops within Kamikochi are shuttered, so bring all necessary provisions with you. Kamikochi opens again in late April. More information at kamikochi.org. Detailed guides to the region’s trails can be found in “Hiking and Trekking the Japan Alps and Mount Fuji” (Cicerone Press, 2019).