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Which alpine delight first? Grab a quick cold one from the variety-rich beer vending machine, or start with a soak in a subtly sulfurous mountaintop hot spring? These are the energizing thoughts keeping my steps light as I hike up through mist-shrouded trees and past moss-mounted boulders into the Kuju Mountains.
Part of Aso-Kuju National Park — straddling southwest Oita and northeast Kumamoto prefectures — Mount Kuju comprises a number of lofty peaks. But at 1,791 meters, Nakadake is the highest, and a worthwhile spot for any hiking enthusiast. It is also a must for those seeking the unusual and the unique.
A journey to this mountain is a quintessential Japanese adventure: a hybrid in which the rugged nature of this volcanic archipelago combines with its convenient luxuries for a seamless blend of the natural and the modern.
The route to the top of Nakadake is a rewarding affair: It passes mountain springs, through forests, grassy fields and Ramsar-recognized wetlands, skirts a caldera lake and climbs to a peak with unobstructed views of both Oita and Kumamoto prefectures. The mountainside offers up a variety of ever-changing scenery. In spring, hikers turn out in large numbers to see the slopes painted vibrant pink by rhododendrons. Summer brings lush greens and wildflowers; in fall autumn colors tint the woods. Then there is the majestic white of winter, where hoarfrost and ice create a glittering landscape, and the caldera lake freezes over — if you’re lucky, you might even catch an ice skater out on its frozen surface.
With varying landscapes and seasonal scenery, Nakadake has year-round appeal. However, taking 4½ hours to reach the top — a roughly eight-hour round trip — the climb is enough to leave one sufficiently taxed. But worry not: This is where those modern-day amenities come into play, and part of what makes this hike a particularly special one.
Two hours in, at an elevation of 1,303 meters, the trail passes Hokkein Onsen Sanso, a lodge perched on the edge of a meandering mountaintop meadow. The inn has a nicely rustic, almost Swiss Alps feel from the outside. But on the inside one can find two most unexpected luxuries so deep in the mountains: beer and a hot spring.
The lower floor of the lodge is home to an onsen (hot-spring bath) filled with uncirculated, pure hot-spring water, faintly sulfurous. And at the entrance to the onsen stand two spectacularly stocked alcohol vending machines with a selection sure to bring a smile to any beer-lover’s face. There are even a few chūhai (canned cocktail drinks) in the machines and, for those that like some suds in their beer, the dining hall on the main floor boasts beer on tap. Surrounded by mountains, not a power line in sight, in a lodge that hikers can only reach by foot, it seems unbelievable that you can get a cold draft beer.
At 135 years old, the mountain lodge is not only special for its beverages, but its Buddhist past, long-ago established as Kyushu’s highest altitude onsen. By the 15th century the mountain was also home to a temple aligned with Shugendo (a mountain-based blend of esoteric Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto). By 1882, as Buddhism in the area fell into decline, the mystique of Nakadake began to draw Meiji Era (1868-1912) mountaineers instead.
Today, the best way to enjoy this adventure and all it has to offer is to break it up into two days, staying at Hokkein overnight. On day one, make the two hour hike to the lodge, arriving mid to late afternoon. Treat yourself to a cold one from the vending machine and then kick back with a view of the valley. Unwind in the onsen while enjoying the panorama that stretches out from the onsen’s outdoor deck. In the evening, dinner is served in the warmth of the wood-clad dining room; days can be wrapped up with a stroll under starry skies — weather permitting, of course.
On day two, since you are already halfway up the mountain, you can enjoy the luxury of a leisurely morning. After breakfast, it is a two and a half hour hike to the summit of Nakadake: The highest point in Kyushu, it is a breathtaking vantage point. From there, it’s a 3½-hour hike, almost all downhill, back to the trailhead and to civilization, though you can’t really say you ever left it, not with those mountaintop goodies.
The Nakadake trailhead is located by Chojabaru Visitor Center, Oita Prefecture. If traveling from Kumamoto Station, ride the Kyushu Sanko Bus around three hours 40 minutes, alighting at Kuju Tozanguchi (¥3,200); from Beppu Station, the journey by bus takes around one hour 50 minutes (¥2,300). Take the path to Hokkein Sanso Onsen by way of Amigake Pass and Bogatsuru wetlands; trail maps are available in the visitor center. Private rooms at Hokkein Sanso Onsen cost upwards of ¥9,500 (breakfast and evening meal included); there are also cabins and a dormitory. Reservations can be made by phone (090-4980-2810). For more information, visit bit.ly/hokkein.