October 8-9, 2016.
This trip begins at Shinjuku, with a roughly two-hour Shinkansen ride northwest to the town of Sakudaira. From Sakudaira Station, it’s then a one hour bus ride up to the Takimine Kogen Hotel, and the start of the hike.
Day 1 – perfect hiking weather. Sunny and cool. The Takamine Hotel car park offered grandstand views all the way out to Mt Yatsugatake and beyond, to Mt Fuji.
The trail starts directly across the road from the hotel, heading off toward the east and into a pleasant forest. It splits into two routes a few hundred meters in. I took the shorter, left fork, that heads directly up to Mt Kurofuyama. Toward the top, the forest opens up and you get great views to the east and south.
From the junction of the two paths, it was only a few hundred meters up to the first peak – Mt Kurofuyama. There were quite a few other hikers heading up, nearly all of whom were Japanese. I stopped to chat with a few of them along the way. They were surprised to hear of my plans to sleep out there, but everyone was extremely friendly and well-wishing.
The views out across the valley and to Mt Asama were nothing short of grandiose. I may have drooled a little on the lookout atop Mt Kurofuyama, just thinking about getting up onto that volcano.
From Mt Kurofuyama, there are two ways to get down to the valley below. You can take the shorter path that plunges straight down the extremely (and I mean extremely) steep slope from beside the lookout, or follow the ridge to the north (the one on the left side of the photo above) and then make your way down to the saddle near the base of Mt Asama. I chose the latter, because it offered smashing views of the volcano all along the way.
There were dozens of hikers, spread out along the ridge-top trail. Just about every open spot along the first half of the ridge was occupied by people sitting and enjoying the view and sunshine. Farther along, the ridge line veered east toward Mt Asama, and the crowd thinned right out. By the time I’d reached the end of the ridge, there was only one other hiker. He turned back after trying in vain to locate the path leading down through the cliffs to the valley below. It’s here that things got a little tricky.
On the map, it looks as though the path meanders down the ridge and into the valley. But in reality, it’s a bit dicier. You have to lower yourself (or jump if you’re brave) about two meters, a couple of times, from ledge to ledge, to get off the top of the ridge. With a big overnight backpack on it wasn’t easy and I struggled to keep my balance when I dropped the last foot or so from each ledge. From there, you edge your way down and to the left, between two cliff lines – one above and one below. It’s a slow, delicate process. The slope is steep and one missed step could mean a long tumble down to the valley. Because of the cliff lines, you can’t simply scramble straight down.
It took about half an hour to get all the way down, and by then, I’d headed almost half a kilometre too far down the far edge of the saddle. The backtrack into the valley was a lovely walk though, with lots of small trees and colourful mosses. From down there you can look up toward the ridge, see just how complex the cliff lines are.
In the patchy, mid-afternoon sunlight, the walk through the valley was wonderful. There was nobody else down there, which gave it all a bit of a dreamlike feeling. To the left Mt Asama rises steeply, and off to the right, are clear views of the ridge leading all the way back to Mt Kurofuyama.
The track leading up the side of Mt Asama was clearly visible a couple of hundred meters above me and to the left. But because of the rocky terrain, it was easier to continue for about half an hour more along the base of the mountain. I decided to meet up with the track at a point further along and at my same altitude, rather than to try and scramble directly up the steep slope to reach it. The start of the climb itself is marked by a large rock cairn. By this time, clouds had drifted in and concealed most of the ridge opposite and the summit of Mt Kurofuyama.
Then the ascent. The gradient is pretty small and it’s easy going. It took just over an hour to get to the top of Mt Asama. It was gusty and immediately colder as soon as I stepped over the rim and onto the summit. The first landmark I reached was a sign warning of the danger of proceeding any further. So from here, I skirted around to the south and a few hundred meters up along the wall of the crater.
On the way, I passed two open-ended, concrete shelters. It was tempting to pitch the tent beside one, but that spot didn’t offer any views. Instead, I found a small, relatively flat spot on the outer edge of the crater rim, overlooking the valley.
The wind picked up not long after I summited, so I used big rocks to secure the tent. The last thing I wanted was to be sent flying in the middle of the night. And it was windy. The tent held up ok, but the sound of the wind tearing at it all night long meant hardly any sleep. But for views like that, it was well worth a rough night out.
Here’s a video of the tent in the early morning. I’d already untied a couple of guy lines and shifted a few rocks, so the tent’s flapping a lot more than it did during the night. But it gives an idea of how strong the wind was.
The next morning: cold, wet and still in the clouds. But happy. The walk back down Mt Asama was uneventful. At the rock cairn, I chose to take the direct route across the valley, rather than try to scramble back up to the ridge I’d come down. Most of the trees in that area were a lovely amber, and the entire valley was misty and ethereal as I made my way toward the start of the climb back up to Mt Kurofuyama.
On the way, I passed another warning to any hikers heading toward the volcano. Interstingly, there wasn’t one of these on the approach from the ridge.
The walk from here, to the beginning of the steep climb back up to Mt Kurofuama, was a delight. Mist-shrouded forests and grassy open spaces dominated. Despite the light drizzle, this was one of my favourite sections of the entire hike.
The next hour and a half was brutal. Up a very steep slope, in heavy rain. The track became slippery, turning into a small creek at some points. I couldn’t see more than a couple of hundred meters up the slope because of the clouds, so it was an arduous trudge with lots of false summits. On the positive side, the rain was cooling, which made it easy to plod on and on without stopping. Higher up, the cliffs took on a haunting appearance; dark shapes forming and then just as quickly, vanishing back into the passing clouds.
Finally, the track met up with the ridge-top trail, and within a couple more minutes I was back on Mt Kurofuama. By then it was cold and blowy on top, so I didn’t linger up near the lookout. I decided to take the longer path back down to the Takomine Kogen Hotel. And after a day and a half of walking, scrambling and climbing, it really did feel like the long way down. On a clear day this path would have had superb views, but in the clouds and at the end of a big hike, it was punishing. The sign says this track is only 300 meters longer than the path I followed up, but I think it must be almost a kilometre longer. On that day it felt like about 5.
I made it back to the hotel at around 1:30. With time to kill before catching the 4pm bus back to Shinjuku, I soaked in their onsen for a while and just lay back in the hot water, reflecting on what was one of the best hikes I’ve done in a long time.
Note: Mt Asama is an active volcano. It can erupt at any time and if you climb it, you do so with a certain amount of risk. This blog is just to show my routes and experiences, and by no means represents the official or recommended routes. How you decide to climb any of these mountains, comes down to your own levels of experience, determination and/or craziness.
The bus timetable from Sakudaira:
A map of the area: