26-28 November, 2017
There are two main ways to climb Mt Ryokami: the most popular path, which starts and ends at Ryokami-sansou, and the northern approach, via hachotoge. Then there’s the much lesser-known, “Mission of Madness” route. That fine journey is the one we’ll be retracing here.
The 6:50am Sunday morning Limited Express (Red Arrow) train from Ikebukero, got me to Seibu-Chichibu at 9. It costs around 1500¥, and makes just a few stops along the way. The cheaper but much slower option is to take a local train (with one interchange along the way).
From Seibu-Chichibu Station, it’s a couple of hundred metres’ walk north along the well-signed path, to Ohanabatake Station. I was lucky and the local train pulled up within a minute of my arriving at the station. From here, for about 400 hundred yen, I headed west to Mitsumineguchi: a small town surrounded by mountains. This is where the fun begins.
I began walking from Mitsumineguchi Station at around 9am. About a dozen Japanese hikers were gathering outside the small station, presumably waiting for a bus. Within a few minutes, I’d crossed a bridge over the river that bisects the town. This leads to a really interesting little area in which some of the houses have life-sized, cloth mannequins propped up outside. They’re sitting on porches, leaning against walls and even popping up from behind a fence.
A few years ago, I read an article about locals who created these dolls to represent their fellow residents who had either passed away, or moved away. Not sure if it’s the same town, a different one, or if this is common in small Japanese villages. It’s quite charming and gives the place a friendly atmosphere.
I met an elderly man in the street and we chatted (I use the term loosely, and communicated as best I could in my very rough Japanese) for a couple of minutes, then I continued on northward along the main road. A bus passed by, carrying the hikers I’d seen at the station, but I’m not sure where it was headed. Mitsumine Shrine is off to the west, but I’m not familiar enough with the area to know all the popular hiking destinations around there.
From Mitsumineguchi Station, I had a 4 kilometre walk north along the road, to where a trail of sorts crosses from east to west. Apart from a jog through a narrow tunnel to avoid being caught inside with any passing cars, the walk was easy and uneventful.
The trail westward starts as an unassuming logging track, with no signage. If you were driving by, you wouldn’t know that there was a path crossing the road.
The first 15 minutes was an easy walk up to the top of a ridge – the same ridge that runs all the way to Mt Ryokami. The track continued on down the other side, back in the direction of Mitsumineguchi, so from that point, it was goodbye civilisation and into the forest.
The heavy autumnal leaf fall meant there was very little of a trail to be seen. There were occasional ribbons in trees here and there, so I used those, my compass, and from time to time, looked at the rough route I’d programmed into my watch, to make sure I was going the right way. The path lead around a small farm, climbing steadily but easily. I saw a small, grey Japanese Antelope (serow) here. It took one look at me and went crashing away noisily through the leaves.
After about half an hour from the road, the steep climb up to Mitakesan began. It’s the first prominent peak along the ridge and was also the first indication of the difficulty of things to come. The path grew steeper and steeper, and then disappeared altogether halfway up a 60-70 degree slope. It was a hands-and-knees slog to the top, pulling myself up from tree to tree while trying not to dislodge boulders that were just barely clinging to the mountain side. My backpack weighed around 21kg, with the snow boots (just in case), tent, sleeping bag, food, water and everything else, which made the going all the slower.
At one point, about halfway up, I saw the ribbons leading off under tree cover to the left. I followed them for a bit, but horrendous scree made traversing the slope just as difficult as climbing up it. I’d never come across pure scree that was entirely under a forest canopy before. Normally you come across it on open volcanic slopes, but in the middle of the forest, it gave the place a very surreal quality. I couldn’t tell whether the ribbons were leading to an easier way up, farther across, or somewhere else. I decided to backtrack, ankle-deep in loose stones, and continue dragging myself up on the ridge I’d been climbing.
The way grew even steeper and more difficult, and in a few places, one slip would have meant a long, unstoppable tumble back down. A rock I accidentally dislodged trying to heave myself upward with, tumbled off the side of the ridge, crashing and slamming its way down for more than 30 seconds. Thankfully, I was deep enough into the forest and in a remote enough area for there not to be any other hikers around. After that, I made sure to use only the trees and avoided touching any more rocks. The loose boulders everywhere gave the whole slope a feeling of being ready to slide off the side of the mountain.
It was noon by the time I finally reached the top. As I dragged myself out of the trees and into the open, I saw the rough path rising up over the edge to my left. Following it up would have made the climb a whole lot easier, but at that point I was just glad to be on the summit. There are two small shrines in an open area here, and it was also the first point on the hike that gave some great views across the mountains out to the north.
From there I plodded on toward the south and west, following the ridge from knoll to knoll. There were virtually no flat stretches. It was either trudging up or clambering down, and without a trail for much of the way, the going was slow.
I passed a red ribbon across the track, in the early afternoon. The path had been barely visible as it was, so I was a bit concerned with how difficult the going might get if the rest of the ridge had no trail at all. Mortal danger is no obstacle for a lunatic though, and besides, I had the ridge to follow, the route programmed into my watch, a compass and decades of experience in getting lost, to see me safely through.
Occasionally, the trees thinned a little and revealed Mt Ryokami off in the distance. It was blue and featureless and looked impossibly far away. I could see the ridge leading away to the horizon with its dozen or more humps and saddles, and tried not to think about the distance I had to go, just focusing instead on getting up the next knoll, around the next cliff break, picking a peak to get to by the end of the day and aiming to reach it before nightfall.
With the time lost on the mad scramble earlier, I only managed to get about 5k’s along the ridge on the first day. At 4pm I reached a knoll with a nice large flat spot under some pine trees, and pitched the tent. By the time I had set up camp, it was almost dark and with the fading light, the temperature began dropping noticeably. It was a peaceful place and I enjoyed a toasty night in the sleeping bag.
I was on my way by 7. The morning was overcast and colder than the previous day, which made for a chilly pack-up, but easy hiking. The day kicked off with more plodding up and down along the ridge. After less than an hour, the pink ribbons reappeared, skirting around to the side of a high knoll, avoiding a steep ascent. I decided to follow them, just because laziness, hoping that they’d lead all the way around the peak and back onto the ridge on the far side.
The side of the ridge was steep, and the deep leaf litter made for a slippery traverse. Each step had to be carefully considered, because it was impossible to tell whether the ground beneath the leaves was level, or dropping sharply away. The ribbons lead farther and farther off the edge of the ridge, and eventually, down into some awful scrubby trees and fallen trunks. The effort it would have taken to scramble through them, looked to barely outweigh that of climbing back up and continuing along the ridge. I wasn’t sure if the ribbons even lead back up at all. I reluctantly began mad scramble number two. For the second time, I heaved myself up from tree to tree, sliding back down on scree and leaves, trying not to topple the loose rocks, and cursing my naive belief in the navigational integrity of ribbons. It was a big energy expenditure, and I had to get the backpack off and rest after making it back onto the ridge top. I decided to follow the ridge, my instinct, compass bearing and watch from that point on.
At times, logging trails rose up to meander alongside the ridge top. For a little while, a proper road even snaked around, off to the right and below. It wasn’t on any map and I’m not sure where it lead. Mid morning, I came across the first cliff. It dropped about 20 meters to a hairpin turn in the road below me. There was no way down. I backtracked a little, then saw where a very rough path zigzagged its way down a very steep slope, to the road below. There were only a few trees to hold onto near the top, and nothing but dirt and leaves after that. The steepness of the descent meant that one slip would end with a tumble down to the road and, at best, a bunch of broken bones. It was one of those little stretches that became a much more serious obstacle than it should have been, as though whomever decided that the path should go that way, thought that a fall of only 20 metres wasn’t too much to worry about. It turned out to be the diciest part of the entire hike.
The path continued on the opposite side of the road, back up toward the next hump. Throughout the rest of the day, I passed through lots of sections of the ridge with particularly deep leaf litter. I enjoyed pushing my way through it, and the crunchiness underfoot.
I also passed a long, mint-green body of water, far below and on the left. Takizawa Dam. It roughly marked the halfway point between the start of the ridge and Mt Ryokami, although even at that point, the mountain barely looked any closer than it had at the end of day 1.
The rest of the day was just more ups and downs all the way along the ridge. Occasionally I had to backtrack a little to skirt around cliffs and huge rocks blocking the way, and scramble back up to the ridge on the far sides. Once or twice this included holding onto trees jutting out from near-vertical slopes and hauling myself over gaps in the rocky ledges. Even though some of these slopes dropped away hundreds of metres and a fall would have meant death by a thousand cartwheels, it felt safer than the short scramble down to the bulldozer. The smattering of scrubby trees on the slopes created the illusion of safety, and I imagined myself in a fall, bouncing down from tree to tree, hundreds of meters, like a character in a cartoon. For no sensible reason whatsoever, this took the fear out of those steep detours.
I had one more mad scramble back up to the top on hands and knees, where a detour started to leave the ridge and I found myself heading too far down into the valley below. It was another huge energy spend, involving clawing my way up over scree and leaves, and it chewed up about about an hour. Apart from that, it was just a steady plod, up and down. From time to time I checked my progress along the route on my watch, but the cursor crawled so painstakingly slowly along the path that I just focused on just getting up and over each hump.
The overall distance from the start of the path, to the summit of Mt Ryokami, is just over 20 kilometres. Having done only 5k’s on day 1, I had to make sure that on this day I pushed hard and ground out at least another 10. If not, day 3 would be another big approach hike, followed by a big climb and then the descent. Normally, 10k’s would be easy, but lugging 21kgs and on a route with only ups, downs, backtracks and detours, it was slow, tough work.
Again, I picked one of the higher peaks along the ridge and aimed to get to it by day’s end. If I could get farther, even better. To make sure I didn’t leave too much distance to cover on day 3, I decided to walk until at least 5pm then set up camp at whatever spot I managed to get to when it was too dark to go on. Even with the torch, there were too many ways to get lost or caught up in dead ends at night, so it was lots of chocolate and energy chewies for a big afternoon.
With the big day, Mt Ryokami was still only a little bit bigger and closer. I’d hoped to complete the hike in three days, but started to wonder if it was going to take one more.
Toward the late afternoon, I found the following delight sitting in the middle of my path. I’ve seen plenty of deer droppings and I presumed that the serow don’t create something this big. I could only presume it was from a bear. I generally don’t take photos of poo, but I figured if someone sees this and knows what it came out of, please leave a comment. I didn’t think there were bears in these mountains, so it was a bit of a surprise.
Just before 5, I came to an intersection. An adjoining path linked up to the ridge, from the valley down to my left. There was a picnic table, and a couple of signs. It was back to civilisation, of sorts. This meant my bush-bashing route was at its end and I was once again on an official path. 4.9kms on day 3 was easily doable. Then it was just 6 more back down the other side of Mt Ryokami to Ryokami-sansou and the nearby Hinata Ooya car park, from where I would catch the bus back to Seibu Chichibu.
It was almost too dark to walk without the torch by then, so a hundred meters or so beyond the intersection I found a small flat spot and pitched the tent. That night was much colder than the first, and dew dripped onto the tent like light rain. I put my food bag outside the tent for the night, just in case whatever had done its business on the track, was hungry and still in the area. Much as I’d hate to lose my chocolate, I’d prefer a bear chose that over me.
I was on the move at 6am, to give myself the best possible chance of finishing the hike in three days. It was still dark and I had to use the torch for the first 20 minutes.
Very early on, the track swung around to the north – the last major bend and onto the home straight, leading all the way to Mt Ryokami. The mountain was much closer now, and not a whole lot higher than the ridge. I hoped that the ridge line joined it without first dropping down into a valley, so the final big climb wouldn’t be too brutal.
A few more ups and downs and one dead end with a minor detour later, and I was staring straight across and up at Mt Ryokami. It was still only mid morning. Perfect. Apart from one downside – the downside. The ridge dropped way down into a deep saddle, between the last knoll and the mountain. It was a far greater drop than anywhere else on the hike. At that point, after two days of ups and downs and aching muscles, had I the choice of an easy way out, I might have taken it. But there were no other ways to go. The only way was forward, down and up.
Every step downward meant another step back up the other side, and it was just a tad disheartening to have pushed so far over the mountains, only to have a huge drop and climb on the final leg. The random fun of hiking.
Down in the saddle, a table made a good place to rest, then a strip down to t-shirt and shorts for the final ascent.
A sign near the table shows the path leading off to the left of the red dot, to the summit. To the right, the ridge I’d just come down. It also shows a third path, leading straight down the saddle, but I couldn’t find any trace of this. I knocked back a bunch of jelly jubes and prepared for the final slog.
It was 10:30am and growing warm. With tired legs, the climb was tough and I quickly settled into a slow upward trudge. Thankfully there was just enough of a cool breeze to make the going a little easier. For the next hour and a half, I switched to autopilot and my body plodded slowly on, while, like it always, my mind took to playing the most random songs over and over and over.
“And we danced like a wave on the ocean, romanced
We were liars in love and we danced
Swept away for a moment by chance…”
Argh. Where had that come from?!
Then, suddenly…dogs barking. Loudly. But, couldn’t be. Not that high up. I stopped to listen, and sure enough, barking coming from the direction of the summit. I wondered if if was a hunter’s dogs, or even wild animals running loose up there.
I finally pulled myself up over the last of the steep sections and onto a small plateau. A sign pointed the way toward the barking. “0.8km” it pronounced. The rest of the hike was easy – gentle ups and downs, across one or two lower peaks, and finally some rocks. The barking had stopped. I clambered over one last rock in the middle of the track, to find myself looking up at two faces looking down. Two guys were standing next to the small shrine on the summit – every bit as surprised to see me as I was to see them. We said hellos, and I clambered up.
On the other side of the summit, a few metres away, an elderly man sat eating a boiled egg, while his two brown dogs sat eyeing him hopefully. Another group chatted away nearby. For two and a half days I hadn’t seen a soul, and suddenly, from out of nowhere, there were a dozen or more hikers. My huge backpack and sudden appearance from the forest caused a few whispers and curious stares. I’d planned on spending half an hour to rest up on top before heading down the other side, but the small, rocky area didn’t allow a lot of room. I took some photos of the spectacular views out to Mt Fuji and north to the Alps, then began the descent.
The first hour was steep and slow. Some parts had chains, but I found it easier to use my walking poles for balance and stay upright. Back on top, the dogs had started howling and I wondered how they had managed to even get up the chained sections.
I passed a few other day hikers going either up or down and all were friendly and enjoying the good weather. The steep section lasted most of the way down to a large hut – Kiyotaki-goya, but it was closed for the winter. I had a short rest at one of the tables, and found an interesting little grotto which had icicles hanging from a tree. The ice was melting, creating a freezing shower. It was the only ice I’d come across on the entire hike, and I collected a bit and dropped it into my near-empty water bottle.
The path then becomes easier, following a mountain creek most of the way back to Ryokami-sansou. Small waterfalls, leaves across the track and autumn colours made for a beautiful final two hours of hiking.
Each time the path crossed the creek, I stopped to scoop up and drink handfuls of the fresh mountain water.
Around 3:30pm I reached Ryokami-sansou and the end of the hike. There, I met an elderly gent walking his dog and he told me the next bus was due to arrive at 5. I thanked him and walked the short distance down to the Hinata Ooya bus stop to wait. It wasn’t long before darkness settled over the valley and the temperature began to drop, so I used the time to rug back up and pack up my gear for the trip home.
The bus arrived on time, and took me (200¥) to a bus stop (I think this interchange is called Ogano machi Yakuba mae), where I caught a connecting bus (300¥) to Seibu Chichibu station after a short wait.
I arrived back at Seibu Chichibu station around 7pm, bought a ticket for the 8:25 train back to Ikebukero, then went to the station food centre where I slowly lowered myself onto a seat like a broken old man, to enjoy my first proper meal in three days and contemplate the odyssey.
This was a long, difficult hike. All up, around 30 kilometres. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a lot of hiking and bush navigation experience, and are a sucker for punishment. And then I still wouldn’t recommend it. Take the easier way, from Ryokami-sansou. I enjoyed the peace and remoteness of this journey, but it was an extremely tedious slog along that ridge. The main path up Mt Ryokami (the one that normal people take) has plenty of nice scenery and is a good workout in itself. No need to kill yourself getting to the top the hard way. If, for whatever mad reason you do though, it’s a hell of a feeling of accomplishment at the end.
Riyokami-yama map and weather:
A good review of the sensible way to climb Mt Ryokami: