Mt Sakado (634m), Minami-Uonuma City, Niigata Prefecture, Thursday, May 5, 2022

For my third trip using the Tokyo Wide Pass, I decided to head north to Niigata: reachable via shinkansen and covered by the pass; the beautiful May weather was supposed to last for one more day in the Yuzawa area. Looking at my hiking map, I found a suitable mountain that promised some good views, also the site of an ancient castle, and close to a train station. The hike was under three hours, which was fine, since it would be my third one in as many days. From Echigo-Yuzawa station, I would ride a local line for a few stops, and then walk to the start of the trail; since it was a loop hike, I could travel the same way back. The forecast announced blue skies again, but also summer-like temperatures. I was a little concerned as this hike was 1000 meters lower than the two previous ones, but I was excited about visiting Niigata again after nearly two years and seeing the Echigo mountains in spring.

The Echigo mountains in spring

Mt Kinjo, climbed two years ago

It was another beautiful May day as I rode the nearly empty shinkansen to Echigo-Yuzwa, where I transferred to the JR line for the short ride to Muikamachi. Standing outside the station, I had a view of today’s mountain, looking more impressive than it had on paper. I walked through the town and over the Uono river, reaching the trailhead at Torisaka Shrine (鳥坂神社) just before 11am. I was surprised to see some snow in the shade, even though I was only 200 meters above sea level. I didn’t make me feel any cooler as I started up the Yakushi Ridge Route (薬師尾根コース) on what was so far the hottest day of the year.

First view to the south of the Joshin-Etsu mountains

Climbing the log steps under the midday sun

I made my way up a grassy slope, lined with a handful of Buddhist statuettes. I soon reached the first viewpoint of the day: looking south, I could make out Mt Tanigawa and Mt Naeba in the midday haze, still white with snow. Contrary to my expectations, from this point forward the path was out of the tree cover, and it felt very hot under the midday sun. On the other hand, thanks to the clear weather, I enjoyed amazing views back of the flat Yuzawa valley, as the path followed a narrow ridge, that eventually merged with the summit ridgeline. Looking south again, I could now see Mt Kinjo, patches of snow still covering its top half.

Looking back at Muikamachi Town

One of the flat sections of the Yaukushi Ridge Route

The steeper sections of the trail were fitted with log steps, making it easy to climb; higher up, there was even a metal staircase. Just before 1pm, I arrived at the small wooden shrine marking the summit of Mt Sakado 坂戸山(さかどやま sakado-yama). Although the summit of yesterday’s mountain seemed artificial, today’s summit was man-made, all that was left of the highest point of Sakado castle. On the north and east sides, I had a spectacular view of the 3 great mountains of Echigo covered in snow: Mt Hakkai, Mt Echigo-Koma and Mt Naka. I found a spot in the shade and sat down for lunch. Once done, I made a short round-trip to a couple more grassy mounds along the eastern ridge, also part of the castle ruins.

The steeper bits were fitted with log steps (left) and metal ones (right)

Looking down at Minami-Uonuma City

I was rewarded with amazing views in all directions; it almost felt like I was hiking in Switzerland. I also saw many Mangolia flowers (tamushiba) along the path. At 2pm, I started to head down the Shirosaka Route (城坂コース). Very quickly the path dived into the forest, the cool shade a welcome relief; however, I was soon out of the trees again at the top of a steep valley. I followed a switchback path while enjoying the bird’s eye views of the flat valley below, framed on both sides by bright green ridges. It was the hottest time of the day and amazingly many people were still going up. Half an hour later, I reached a famous cherry blossom spot near the flatter base of the mountain.

A side view of Mt Hakkai

Making the roundtrip along the east-west ridge

I was shocked to see many trees broken in half: apparently an avalanche had swept down the steep mountain side during the winter. However, I was amazed to see some flowers still in full bloom on one of the damaged trees (see video), a sign of hope among the destruction; this also meant that I had seen cherry blossoms on all 3 hikes. I followed the now level path, and after passing under some cedar trees, I was back at my starting point by 3pm. It took about an hour for the return to Echigo-Yuzawa station, where I enjoyed a hot spring bath and some local sake, before boarding the shinkansen for the eighty minute ride to Tokyo.

A switchback path down the Shirosaka Route

See the views of Mt Sakado in the spring

A slideshow of some more photos of the Mt Sakado hike

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