April 20-22, 2018
6:30am. The Shinkansen from Shinjuku got me to Sakudaira Station at around 7:45. It was a perfect, warm, Spring morning and from the station, I could see Mt Asama rising snowy and wild-looking to the north.
At 8:30, a twin-carriage train pulled in and I jumped into the back of the second car. It was a pleasant ride that wound through valleys between the ranges.
After an hour, the train reached Umijiri – my stop. Here, I had a minor hiccup. There were two door buttons – a green and a red. Despite pressing the green button, nothing happened. I pressed it again, and again, nothing. I pressed the red button. Nothing. I started frantically hitting both buttons. There was no door handle, only a small slot. I pushed my fingers into it to try and pry the door open, but it was hard to get a grip. The train was about to pull away. I looked down the carriage. There was only one other passenger, and he was sleeping. The driver was too far away to shout out to. I pressed the buttons again. I considered head-butting the glass and leaping out. As I gave one last yank on the door grip, the train began moving. Argh!! I whipped out my phone and opened the map app. Next station is…scrolling…scrolling…scrolling…aaaaaargh! About two kilometres farther up the valley. Ok. Not so bad. Half an hour’s walk. I made my way to the front carriage, where I could harass the driver in the event of another door failure. Thankfully, this time, an elderly woman pressed the door button on the outside and I jumped off as she entered.
I wasted no time in heading north, back to Umijiri. The road followed a river, the sun was bright and warm, and it would have been a pleasant walk had it not been for all the trucks racing past. Off to my left and in the distance, the snow-covered Yatsugatake mountains looked a long way away. Although frustrated at the detour, I tried to see the walk as a warm up, before the long upward plod.
Shortly after 10, I arrived in Umijiri. Here I took out my walking poles, had a quick bite to eat and rested by a small mountain stream for about fifteen minutes. The town was quiet and the sound of flowing water made for a relaxing break.
Then it was plod time. For the next 45 minutes, I followed a quiet road as it wound its way slowly westward and upward through farmland. There was very little traffic and nobody around. At the small village of Inako, just after a small cemetery, an unassuming paved track leads off and up to the left. The track isn’t signposted and I got a little confused here. Fortuitously, a local gent just happened to walk past right then and he pointed out the way. He told me that it was about two hours up to Honzawa Onsen—the first major landmark on the way up to the mountains. I thanked him and headed off. The track soon turned into a rough dirt road, and after offering up a nice view of the village, headed up the ridge and into the trees. It was around 11am.
The next couple of hours were a steady plod up a forest trail. The track narrowed not long after leaving the village, but it was clear and the walking, easy. At 12:30, I reached a road crossing the path, and a sign. It looked like an official trail head, and I guessed that this was the start of the walk that most people took when heading up to the onsen. There were two cars parked in a small parking area here. From what I could glean, the sign said that it was one and a half hours to the onsen. This didn’t quite add up, as I’d already walked one and a half from the trail head. I do walk slowly with the heavy overnight backpack, but not three times slower than your average day hiker. It would have taken a jog to bring that first hour and a half down to 30 minutes. I wondered if I’d misread the sign, or that perhaps I wasn’t where I thought I was. I had a quick rest and headed on.
An hour later, the first snow appeared on the trail, and a short time after that, I passed two ladies on their way back from the onsen. Within another half hour, the snow became deeper and I enjoyed walking to the sound of the crunchiness.
At just after 2pm, the first mountain came into sight; up and to the left—Iodake. I was surprised at how rocky and imposing it looked. It was the first time I’ve seen huge cliffs like it in Japan, and it reminded me of the desolate, rocky crags in The Andes. With the snow clinging to the cliff face, the mountain looked thoroughly cinematic.
After another 20 minutes, I crossed a very picturesque stream and shortly after that, arrived at Honzawa Onsen. It was 3pm. Even without all the photo stops and with just a light day pack, reaching the onsen in two hours seemed like it would have been a stretch.
I rested here for half an hour, strapping up a heel blister and enjoying hot coffee made by one of the two friendly young guys who worked at the onsen. They were just slightly surprised at my plan to continue on and sleep higher up in the snow, but weren’t concerned or dissuasive. That’s always a good sign that there are no bears or forest monsters about.
The next hour and a half was a slog, through snow that sometimes reached up to my thighs. At first, the path followed the stream and offered top views of Iodake. The smell of sulphur was strong here and not long after leaving the onsen, I passed a sign that pointed the way to an “open bath” down at the stream. I wondered if that meant warm water, and briefly considered taking a dip. Had it not been for my strapped-up heel, I would have investigated, but I didn’t want to have to sort that all over again. The path left the stream and the going became slower as the snow deepened beneath trees. The mountain ahead looked extremely steep, and I couldn’t see any way that the path could go up it. At around 5, on a last small patch of level ground before the path looked like it shot straight up the cliff face, I decided to stop for the day. There was still an hour and a half of light, but I thought it best not to risk getting caught out on some steep section of mountainside in the dark, with nowhere to sleep. I’ve done that plenty of times in the past and it usually resulted in long, uncomfortable nights.
Through a few gaps in the trees, I could see Mt Asama and some rolling hills, way off in the distance. The snow was still deep, and I fell through with every second step. There was one tiny area in which it was packed a little harder than everywhere else. I spent about half an hour using my boots to scrape snow, and fill in holes and soft spots and widen the space, then pitched the tent. Nearby trees made nice anchors for the guy lines and it ended up being a decent little campsite.
The gas stove made quick work of the snow and I took a few photos while waiting for the water to boil. With all the trees, it was difficult to tell which way the path headed. I eventually gave up trying to spot it, and just enjoyed the ambience. Shortly after dark I turned in, and enjoyed a toasty and comfortable night.
I was up at 5am and on the plod again by 6. The path was steep, as I’d suspected, but zigzagged its way up and to the left, around the steepest sections. Within an hour, I came to a saddle along the ridge, in between Iodake and Mt Neishi. There’s a lodge (ヒュッテ夏沢) here, as well as great views to the north. It would have been a beautiful spot to wake up in had I pushed on the previous day, but possibly not worth risking getting stuck on the side of the mountain in darkness for.
After taking lots of photos of the mountain layers receding into the distance, I continued on and up toward Iodake. At around 8:30, I reached the summit. The views of Yokodake, Akada and Amida here are spectacular. Covered in snow, the range looked imposing and rugged.
Shortly after I’d reached the plateau at the top, two other hikers came up from the onsen side and we spent half an hour chatting and taking photos. I walked over to stand at the top of the cliff face I’d been looking up at the day before. It was an impressive vertical drop, and a long way down to the valley and stream below.
Then it was off south, along the ridge, to Yokodake. The snow on top was only ankle-deep, and the going easy. As the path approached Yokodake, the ridge became steeper and narrower. In some places, the path skirted around the side, and a few stretches required careful steps, as one misplaced foot could have resulted in a long slide down. A chain made the going a little easier, but for most of its length it was buried under snow. I only had my hiking crampons, and without the confidence of the heavy snow-boot crampons, I had to tread extra slowly.
There was a little rock scrambling toward the summit of Yokodake. That, and the narrow, snow-covered ridge, made for an exciting and picturesque hike. Along this section of the ridge, there were also large swarms of the most aggressive mosquitoes I’ve ever encountered. They particularly loved the rocky areas, and attacked in furious squadrons wherever the path went near them. Fending them off while trying to keep my footing was trying, and they seemed to know to attack in the areas that required the most careful steps. Having the heavy backpack meant I had to take a few stings, while prioritising staying balanced, over swatting.
A dozen nasty red bites and a couple of steep ladders later, I reached the summit of Yokodake. I think this was around 11ish. There were two other hikers on the summit, and as I stepped up onto the top from the north, another two came up from the south. It was high fives and celebrations all round. The view was magnificent: Fuji to the east, Akadake to the south, Mt Kita beyond that, then Amida and the Southern Alps. To the west and north—Iodake and layer upon layer of mountains disappearing into the horizon.
I took a few photos, but didn’t stay long on Yokodake. There was still Akadake to get to, and without knowing whether or not I’d be able to camp up on the summit, I wanted plenty of time to allow for a backup option.
The way down the southern side of Iodake was rocky and slow, and with the chain still mostly buried beneath the snow, some spots meant having to step extremely slowly and carefully. Near the top of one particularly steep slope, my left crampon decided to come unstuck. I heard a click as I planted my left foot below me and the pin holding the two sections of the crampon together popped out of place. The two halves instantly separated, my foot shot out from under me and I began sliding down the slope on my back. I had to roll over and reach out to grab a short section of chain that was breaching the snow, as I slid past. If I’d missed that, the next stop might have been the tree line, a couple of hundred metres below. Who says hiking is boring?
Using my free hand, I reattached the two crampon halves as best I could, then began the slow crawl back up. I’d thrown my walking poles aside the second I lost balance to avoid getting impaled. They weren’t far above, but I moved super slowly to avoid another slide. When I was about halfway, another descending hiker picked them up for me and I met him about halfway on the slope. We walked slowly to the edge and onto rocks, where I thanked him and set about fixing the crampon.
The things were brand new, so the break was pretty disappointing. And while they’re meant for hiking and not serious climbing, this wasn’t really a serious climb. Snow accumulating between the pin and the metal plate, had forced the two sections apart and eventually caused the pin to pop out of place. This happened twice more that day, both on reasonably easy sections. Even hiking crampons should be sturdy enough not to break when you’re only walking, even if some parts of the trail get a bit steep.
From Point Break, it was only another 15 minutes down and across the ridge to the Akadake Tenbo Inn. Here, I stopped for a proper rest and a late lunch. I took a bit of extra time to reinforce the crampons with plastic zip ties. Not perfect, but enough to last a couple of days. By then it was nearly 3pm.
I sat and watched the few other hikers still on the mountain making their ways down, mostly in pairs. I took the entire climb in, section by section. It was steep, but generally followed the ridge, staying fairly close to rocks. One or two stretches were open and exposed, and one very exposed stretch near the summit meant that a slip would probably have resulted in a tumble down the north-east face. Even without an ice axe, with reliable crampons and just walking poles it wouldn’t have been too difficult nor dangerous a climb, but that open top section had me thinking twice about heading up.
Two thoughts later, I put my backpack back on, and began the ascent. Nobody else was heading up, and the last of the day climbers were heading back down. I made my way up slowly, planting each foot securely before taking each next step. There was no chain visible, so on every stage, I had to scan the terrain below, and make sure I stayed above any features that would arrest a slide. A crampon check before every exposed stretch made the going particularly sluggish. About two thirds of the way up, the path levelled for a few metres before the last push for the summit.
The last stretch was by far the most exposed, with a few spots that offered no second chances in the event of a slide. I continued slowly upward for another hundred metres. The path was steep, but a cluster of rocks and plants on the left provided a catchment against any fall. After that, the going became much more steep, open and exposed, with nothing to stop me if I fell. There was no sign of the chain, and without confidence in the crampons, I decided against going all the way to the top. I would loved to have seen the view of Mt Fuji from the summit, but it wasn’t worth risking life and limb over. Going up would have been ok, but it was the coming down I was concerned about. If the crampons decided to have issues on the uppermost section, it could have been disastrous. I rested for a few minutes by a small outcrop of rocks, took some photos and then carefully made my way back down.
There wasn’t anywhere to (covertly) pitch the tent back near the Inn, so I paid for one of the small rooms (about 6,000¥) and spent the last couple of hours of daylight chatting to other hikers and taking photos of the mountains.
The sunset was rather lovely, setting out beyond Mt Amida, but on the other side, Mt Fuji was only just visible through haze. Shortly before sunset, two elderly climbers appeared on upper section of the ridge that headed down to the west from the ridge-top, just north of the inn. They were inching their way upward, above a steep drop. It looked like a movie scene—like something right out of Last of the Mohicans. Even though it was just an illusion caused by the side-on angle, the ridge appeared to be razor-thin, dropping away almost vertically down a black cliff face. My palms became a tad sweaty from just watching them climb. They finally made their way up to the top, where they connected with the main north-south ridge connecting Iodake and Akadake. Several minutes later, they came shuffling up to the inn.
My plan had been to summit Akadake from the north, sleep on top, then take the eastern path all the way down to Nobeyama Station the following morning. I asked the friendly young guys at the Akadake mountain lodge about alternate ways down. They reckoned that even if I was to summit, the path down the eastern side of Akadake would steep, icy and dangerous. They didn’t know for sure, as apparently nobody had taken that route for weeks. Not the most encouraging sign. Over a large map, we looked at other options. There was another path heading east from Iodake. It looked less steep, but also little-frequented. It was also difficult to see where it ended up. Even using google maps, there was no clear route down to a train station that didn’t involve guess work and possible bush bashing. That left two ways down—head all the way back along the range and return to Umijiri, or head down the western ridge and make my way to the Minotoguchi bus stop. One of the lodge guys reckoned it was less steep than the Akadake climb. I wasn’t entirely convinced. I also didn’t fancy on going all the way back to Umijiri. I decided to turn in and see how it all looked first thing in the morning.
By about 8pm, I was ready to fall asleep. There were only a few other climbers staying in the lodge, mostly elderly Japanese blokes, so it was pretty quiet. I fell asleep fast, and had a solid rest.
I woke at around 5:30, just as an announcement came over the loud speakers. I couldn’t understand it all, but grabbed just enough to know it was going to be a glorious day for climbing. Or falling. I didn’t catch the last bit. Either way, it was going to be a fine day to…something. I packed up, knocked back an energy bar, some nuts, chocolate and coffee, and by 6:30, was on my way toward the top of the path leading down to the west. There was only a slight breeze, the ridge was still in shadow and the snow, firm and crunchy. I decided that with slow, careful steps, I’d have a good chance of making it down and living to fall another day.
The first part of the descent was straightforward – not overly steep; narrow but with plenty of rocks to aim for in the event of a slide. After that, there were a few open areas which required some very careful foot placement. Descending most of the top half was a slow, delicate process. Then the chain appeared, and regular rocky outcrops made the going easier. There were only one or two more spots down near the tree line that had very steep drop-offs into gullies.
The last twenty minutes or so was a very nice hike through soft snow and between trees, down to the Gyoja Hut. This is a picturesque spot, and a few tents scattered around the snowy field with the mountains in the background, made for a colourful view.
I rested for about 15 minutes near the lodge, then at around 8am, began the long trudge down in the direction of the Minotoguchi bus stop. A sign at one corner of the lodge pointed toward the north, and I followed it for a couple of hundred meters. After that, it started to snake back toward the north-east, and into the mountains. Without a route to follow in my watch, I couldn’t tell if it was the right way. It felt like it was heading deeper into the mountains, and I wasn’t prepared to keep following it to find out if it was going to eventually turn westward. I made my way back to the lodge, and tried again. On the far side of the building, several deep footprints in the snow created a trail of sorts, heading down and pretty much west. I headed off once more.
The first hour was a nice, albeit slow, walk through the trees. Even stepping in the prints, I ended up knee-deep in snow quite a few times. There were plenty of hikers making their way up toward the lodge, most dressed in bright colours. Then the path became steeper and the snow eventually gave way to rock, but lots of ice patches on the track meant having to keep the crampons on. The trail followed a pleasant mountain stream, and despite my tired knees copping a punishing, it was a very nice descent. The sun was shining and the temperature was warm. Toward the end of this stretch, the path flattened out a little and the way become faster and easier.
At around 10:30, I arrived at an old house and the start of a gravel road. I think this is Minoto Lodge. The place was quiet and looked closed. The gravel road looped around the building. One direction lead to the north a short way, before turning east toward the mountain range. I wondered if this might be the route I’d have taken if I’d continued along the trail heading north from Gyoja Hut. The road followed the river downhill in the other direction, and after one last 15 minute break, I headed off along it toward Minotoguchi and the bus stop.
Within a couple of hundred meters, I passed a parking area and a few shops and exchanged greetings with some friendly folks who were outside enjoying the sunshine. Then it was the final push to Minotoguchi. This was a pleasant walk along an easy graded road, all the way to my destination—a junction with a petrol station and several shops, most closed. The walk took around 45 minutes from Minoto Lodge. Google maps shows this area as a meshwork of streets, and I was expecting to end the hike in a village. In reality, it’s quite heavily wooded, with only a couple of roads, and only a few structures are visible through the trees.
By 11:30, I’d unloaded my stuff on the porch of one closed shop across the road from the bus stop. I’d missed the bus by about 10 minutes, and the next wasn’t due until 1:20pm. This was fine by me. My body was done. Like an arthritic old man, I slowly set about changing into fresh clothes, and repacking all my stuff for the trip back to Tokyo. The longer I sat, the more painful every movement became, so once I was all packed up (this took nearly an hour, in sloth-like slow motion), I sat back in the shade and enjoyed the peace and quiet. Once, I turned around to see a couple of deer walking between the trees a short distance away. By noon it had become scorching hot out in the sun.
The bus to Chino City pulled up shortly after 1pm, and at 1:20 was on its way, with myself and one other hiker. The trip to the Chino City station offered great views back to Yatsugatake and off to some of the other mountains surrounding the city.
By 2pm, we pulled into the station. I bought a ticket for the 3-something pm (I can’t remember the exact time) Shinkansen back to Shinjuku, then crossed the road and found a mall with a cafe. I slid into a booth and tried not to move, while sipping coffee and staring into space, telling myself, as I always do at the end of these big hikes, that I’ll never punish my body like that again.
This was a long, three-day hike and climb, with gob-smacking views. All up, it was around 27km of walking, scrambling and sliding.
Regular weather updates for Akadake
A special thanks goes to David from Ridgeline Images, for helping me with plotting the route from Umijiri up to the start of the trail. Here’s a thorough review of his Yatsugatake climb: