Mt Amagoi (2037m), Hokuto City, Yamanashi Prefecture

Hiking in the Minami Alps 南アルプス

As the weather becomes hotter and humid, I need to find higher and higher places to go hiking. This also means traveling further from Tokyo, since I have already climbed the highest peaks close to the capital. I had never heard of this Yamanashi 100-famous mountain 140 km West of Tokyo in the Minami Alps, till I saw it listed on a website about Yamanashi prefecture (I was researching river walks). My previous visit to the area was in November 2018 when I climbed Mt Nyukasa, about 10 km to the North.

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As usual, access was a bit of a headache; in the end I decided to take a train to Nagasaka station on the Chuo line, then take a taxi from there to the trail entrance, next to the Hakushu Village campsite; other options would have been too long for a daytrip. According to my map, the hike was about 6 hours; since I hadn’t recovered my hiking legs yet, I was curious whether it would be as easy as it seemed. Also, since it was the middle of the rainy season, I wasn’t sure whether I would get any good views.

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View of the Minami Alps on the way to the trailhead

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The forest is beautiful this time of the year

The taxi dropped me off right at the trail entrance at 10am, after a long winding drive up a narrow mountain road. I was surprised to see how lush and green the surrounding vegetation was; definitely worth risking a little rain, although today the sun was shining. The start of the trail gently wound up the side of the mountain, packed earth beneath my boots, the rare steep sections offset by low wooden steps. It was very peaceful. The temperature was on the warm side, but since there was no hard climbing, I didn’t break a sweat.

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An easy to hike trail going up

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First views of Mt Kaikoma (right) and Mt Hou (left)

Around noon, I got my first views to the South of Mt Kaikoma and Mt Hou, two “hyakumeizan” in the Minami Alps. Slightly to the left, I could make out the triangular outline of Mt Fuji, nearly 70 km away.  Much closer, and lower, was the white sandy top of Mt Hinata which I have yet to climb (it had the river valley I was researching). I took a short break and had the first half of my lunch, before setting off again. The trail now alternated climbing and level parts. I had some more views, this time to the East of the Oku-Chichibu mountains. I passed several groups walking down; it seems many people drive to the campsite and just walk up and down the same way.

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Some level hiking – are we getting close to the summit?

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Mt Kaikoma through the trees

During the climb, I couldn’t see the summit at all, and apart from a stream halfway up, there were no landmarks to tell me how far along I was. Suddenly, at 1pm, I reached the top of Mt Amagoi (雨乞岳 あまごいだけ). There was one other hiker, who left soon after I arrived. I had good views East and South, the Yamanashi side, but the Nagano side was hidden by the trees. Descending a little bit on the other side, I was able to make out Yatsugatake on the left side. While having some lunch sitting on a fallen tree, it was so peaceful that a deer wandered closeby, but ran off immediately after spotting me (I still got a photo).

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Hello my dear! 

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Opposite, the Oku-Chichibu mountains

The weather had now turned cloudy, and it felt cool above 2000m. I started to head down after 1h30, along a very steep slope –  I was glad I hadn’t climbed this way! At 2pm, the path flattened and led me to a T junction. To the right, it was a short roundtrip to a place called Suisho Nagi 水晶ナギ, a place where crystal used to be mined. In less than 15 minutes I emerged onto an impressive narrow sandy and rocky ridge with surrounded by green forested mountains. I couldn’t see any sign of civilisation, and I felt like I was exploring a new world.

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On the right Mt Nokogiri, a 200-famous mountain next to Mt Kaikoma

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Going down was also easy (except the bit near the top)

It was getting late so I quickly made my way back to the main trail. From here the path was easy to walk, although there were no more views. It took me an hour and a half to reach the road at the end of the trail, where there is a shrine called Sekison 石尊神社 accessed via a long steep staircase. It was a 20 minute walk to the bus stop opposite a 7/11/ from where I caught a bus around 17h30 for Nirasaki station. Closeby was the Hakushu whisky brewery, normally open to visitors but now closed due to the pandemic.  I ended walking nearly 6 hours, and I definitely felt it the next day, although I was glad that I had clear weather and great views!

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Mt Minobu (1153m), Minobu Town, Yamanashi Prefecture, Saturday, November 16, 2019

Hiking in the Minobu Mountains 身延山地

This is another mountain that was on my must-climb list for ages, in an area relatively close to Tokyo that I had never been to before, between Mt Fuji and the Southern Alps. There is also a ropeway to the summit – I didn’t use it, but it’s nice to have the option. Finally, the temple area at the base of the mountain is the last resting place of the founder of Nichiren Buddhism – less interesting to me, but worth noting.

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Above: Summit framed between cedar trees and temple buildings

Below: Significantly less snow on the Western side of Mt Fuji

I rode the Chuo line to Kofu, then changed to the Fujikawa Limited Express to Minobu station, arriving just past 9h30. I hopped onto the bus for the short ride to Minobusan at the base of the mountain. A short walk up the main street brought me to San-Mon 三門, one of the three famous gates of Kanto, according to the information board. It was certainly one of the most impressive gates I’d ever seen. Beyond, was also one of the longest stone staircases I’d ever climbed – a good warm-up for the hike ahead. At the top, I took time to check out the temple area before heading up the narrow paved road to the right of the ropeway, a little after 11am.

(Top Left) San-Mon Gate (Top Right) Kuonji Temple (Bottom Left) Bell Tower (Bottom Right) Random temple building inside the forest

I followed the paved road as it zigzagged up through the forest. There were few views through the cedar trees, almost no signs for the hiking trail, and no people. Occasionally, I could hear buddhist chants drifting up from below. Half an hour later, I emerged onto a shoulder, clear of trees – there was a small temple complex and a view of the summit. The paved road continued into the cool shade of the forest; its condition started to deteriorate, before completely giving up turning into a dirt road. Here, I passed a few hikers (and a dog), but it seemed that the majority of visitors preferred the ropeway. Just before 1pm, I had my first glimpses of Mt Fuji through the trees. A few minutes later, I reached the top of the ropeway, and a fantastic view of Mt Fuji and the Fuji river valley heading Southwards.

(Above) Summit of Mt Fuji behind the Tenshi Mountains (Below) Fuji River flowing into Shizuoka Prefecture

After snapping some pictures, I walked past the summit temple to the other side, where there was the summit marker for Mt Minobu 身延山. I was able to enjoy a great close-up view of the Southern Alps, with the Arakawa-zansan on the left, and the Shirane-zansan on the right, with fresh layers of snow each. Further right was Yatsugatake, in the clouds, and the Oku-Chichibu Mountains, free of clouds. I also had a good view of Mt Shichimen and Mt Fujimi, two mountains I hope to climb next year. Just past the latter was Mt Kushigata which I climbed in June this year.

(Above) Mt Shichimen (Below) Mt Fujimi, two other peaks of the Minobu Mountains

After a short standing lunch – there were no benches – I started walking down. I was supposed to head down the other side of the ridge I had come up, but instead, I seemed to be going down the backside of the mountain. I was the only person hiking down, so there was no one to ask. After triple-checking my map, I decided I was on the right path after all. I was on a paved road again, but I didn’t mind since there were now some good views through a mix of trees. Facing the massive peaks of the South Alps, I felt like I was in the middle of nowhere.

Soon I arrived at a temple manned by a solitary monk. There was an information board with a good map which I studied for a while. The monk hovered nearby. It seemed like he was eager for some conversation but didn’t dare, or wasn’t allowed to initiate it. I noticed Minobu Hot Spring written in English on the map so I asked: “are there any hot springs for day-trippers in Minobu?” “I don’t think so,” he replied. “Do you have to stay here all day?” I asked. “I Yes, but I go back down at nightfall.” He then pointed out the tip of Mt Fuji, above the ridgeline of the mountain behind me. Having run out of questions, I thanked him, snapped a few pictures, and continued along my way.

Beautiful autumn colours in the afternoon light on the way down

The path had now turned nearly 180 degrees, and was finally heading the correct way. I soon reached a magical spot, called “senbon-sugi” 千本杉, meaning one thousand cedar trees (in reality just 260 according to the sign). I’ve seen many cedar trees in Japan – I’ve even seen the Yakusugi on Yakushima – but I thought these were really impressive. They went straight up to amazing heights – I estimated over 40 meters, but according to the signboard, some of them topped 60 meters. I spent some time gazing and photographing these awesome trees.

The Japanese Cedar (scientific name: Cryptomeria), also known as the Japanese Redwood, is related to the American Redwood or Sequoia

I finally managed to pull myself away, and continued to head down along the road, still paved. It was now 3pm and I had to speed up if I wanted to get down before dark. There were some good views of Mt Shichimen to the right, with the sun slowly dipping below the ridgeline. I soon reached a viewpoint of the valley below and the turnoff for a hiking trail – finally! The path took me straight down the side of the mountain, cutting across the forest road several times. At one point, I had an excellent view of Minobusan town, and the temple complex perched above. I could again hear the buddhist chants drifting up below, creating a special atmosphere unique to Japan. I hurried on, finally reaching the base of the mountain and Minobu town around 4pm, in the time to catch the bus back to the station. As I was told by the lone monk on the mountain, there were no hot springs for day-trippers anywhere in Minobu. However the town does have a very beautiful five o’clock chime (see Video below) which played while I was waiting for my train back to Tokyo.

Minobusan town and the temple where I started my hike five hours earlier

See the views and listen to the sounds of Minobu

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NEXT UP: Mt Sanpobun (Fuji Five Lakes) in Yamanashi

 

Mt Kushigata (2052m), Minami Alps, Yamanashi Prefecture, Saturday, June 22, 2019

After my foray into the very southern part of the Southern Alps the previous weekend, I decided to go back and do one of the few higher mountains in the Minami Alps that can be done as a day trip from Tokyo. I had been wanting to climb this one for a while but since it requires a car, I kept putting it off (it can be done via public transport but you’d have to stay the night before in the area). The weather wasn’t perfect but I decided to risk it anyway, and I was glad I had!

It was my first time experiencing the new “all seats reserved” Chuo line, and overall, I felt that it was an improvement over the previous system. At least I was guaranteed a seat, which is essential when traveling all the way out to Kofu, where I had reserved a shared car. The trip up to the parking lot at Ikenochaya 池の茶屋 (1860m) was mostly uneventful – the road was pretty bad in some parts, but I had seen worse. I snagged the second to last parking spot. Under a thick cover of clouds, and the odd drop of rain, I was ready to set out at 11h15.

Super easy hiking for the first thirty minutes

The first part of the hike was incredibly easy to hike – a gently sloped series of switchbacks leading to a viewpoint of Mt Kitadake which was unfortunately entirely in the clouds. Rain was falling intermittently, but I didn’t mind since the surrounding vegetation, mostly ferns, was a very beautiful shade of light green. Soon the path started to descend via a series of log staircases. The amount of descent started to alarm me – I should be going up a mountain not down – but my guidebook and the numerous signposts reassured me that I was on the right trail.

Looking back up this long log staircase

The path soon bottomed out and I was rising again, gently, through beautiful typical Southern Alps forest scenery. At this point I got a bit confused. I pride myself on my sense of direction, but here I will admit I lost track a bit. The path did what I thought was a loop, yet I never crossed my previous path. Eventually I arrived at a flattish area with a wooden walkway, and white flowers that ressembed sakura, but which were in fact oxalis.

An unexpected flower observation section on the hike

Apparently the area is famous for its irises, but they weren’t in bloom yet. In no time, I reached the top of Mt Hadaka (meaning Mt Naked). I was supposed to see the main peaks of the Southern Alps and Mt Fuji but in reality I saw nothing. However the temperature was pleasant, even a little cool, and there was no wind, so I settled down for some lunch.

At first sight I thought these were some really late blooming mountain sakura

The next section was through amazingly beautiful forest, full of massive camphor trees and moss-covered undergrowth. At one point I spotted a solitary juvenile Kamoshika (Japanese serow), passively munching some grass (see video). I arrived at the top of Mt Kushigata 櫛形, a two-hundred famous mountain, a little after 2h30, where there was a relatively new summit marker, a few meters from the old weather-worn one. The clouds were still in, so no view, but it was very peaceful and quiet. I had not seen anybody in the past hour and a half.

Most of the hike scenery and trail was like this

I set off for the final part of the hike back to the parking area. The mist had rolled in, providing some very nice photo opportunities. At the car park, my car was the only one left – time to head back! Heading down the mountain, the sun broke few in a few places, I was able to get some nice views of the valley below. Instead of taking the train directly back to Tokyo, I got off at Isawa Onsen, less than ten minutes away. It’s a great place to have a hot spring bath, and I got to taste some Yamanashi wines at the wine server in the tourist office below the train station – a great way to finish a Yamanashi hike!

Tree in the mist number 1

Tree in the mist number 2

Have you ever seen a Kamoshika while hiking?

Helping out at the Yokokubo hut and climbing Mt Tekari, Minami Alps

 

About a couple of months ago just after Golden Week, my friend Kageyama-san, an avid hiker and aspiring mountain guide, asked me if I’d like to join him in climbing Mt Tekari (2591m) in the Japanese South Alps or Minami Alps. As I had yet to climb this Hyakumeizan, I enthusiastically accepted. I had been wanting to climb Mt Tekari for a while but my plans had repeatedly been foiled by the bad weather, relatively short climbing season and difficulty of access.

He suggested going in early July, one week before the official opening of most of the mountain huts in the area. The plan was to stay at Yokokubosawagoya hut (called “Yokokubo” for short) and help the sole hut manager, Kimura-san, clean the hut up and get it ready ahead of the main hiking season, starting July 14th. He had met Kimura-san the previous year and they had hit it off.  In return for our help, lodging and board would be free of charge. I was a little nervous about the cleaning up part since it’s is one area I’m not very knowledgeable about!

Getting to Yokokubo hut

We departed Tokyo by car at the crack of dawn on July 7th, and finally arrived at Hatanagi dam just after 10am. I say finally because the road after Shizuoka city consists of  2 hours 1/2 of winding mountain road – quite exhausting for the driver! we parked our car by the lake created by the dam, laced up our mountain shoes and shouldered our heavy packs – we were off! After 40 minutes of leisurely strolling along a dirt road, we reached our first challenge – the “Tsuribashi” or suspended bridge. Spanning about a 100 meters, this was the only way of crossing the lake that lay between us and the rest of the route. An idea that had been floated previously by Kageyama-san, would have been to ford the river higher up. However we had to abandon this unofficial crossing since it had rained quite a lot the previous days and the water level was unusually high.

 

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The suspended bridge

 

Gripping the metallic wire on both sides I proceeded across the bridge at an even pace, keeping my cool as it wobbled more and more as I approached the center. Suddenly I was on the other side, and a few seconds later, so was Kageyama-san. Next challenge was the Yareyare pass. Yareyare in Japanese, is an exclamation of relief, and at first I thought my friend was joking when he called the pass thus. However when I reached the top, I was surprised to see that that was indeed the name of the pass!

After a short bit of downhill, we reached a river swollen by the recent rains. The path went quite close to the edge and if the water level had been any higher, we would have been stuck. Soon we reached bridge one of five. The bridges were a little scary since they were quite basic and in urgent need of repair. On top of that, the raging river made it feel that if you fell in, you were a goner. Finally we reached Usokkosawagoya, an unmanned hut from which the pass climbed unrelentlessly, but away from the river.

 

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Where’s the path?

 

Kimura-san’s “Welcome Beer”

Four hours after leaving the car, we arrived at the Yokokubo hut. We were greeted by Kimura-san and two beers – “Welcome drink” he said. That was going to be theme for our stay, as our host Kimura-san always made sure we had a beer in hand after hard work.  After a second “welcome beer”, our first task awaited us: we had to sweep the sleeping area on the second floor, and lay out the thermal mats, as well as a larger tatami rug on top. Since I was the tallest (by far) I was charged with getting the mats down from the rafters – “how on earth did you manage without me” I asked (they have a stepladder).

After this relatively straightforward task, we were done for the day since it was nearly 5 o’clock. Some rest, more beers were followed by a delicious rice curry dinner courtesy of Kageyama-san. We were 4 people in total since another person had come with Kimura-san to help out – Ozawa-san. We found out that during the rest of the year, Ozawa-san runs a small farm where he mainly grows wasabi and tea. He invited us to visit him one day and we agreed we would. In the mountains it’s early to bed, early to rise, although as no hiking was on the program for the next day we allowed ourselves the small luxury of going to bed a little later (9pm) and getting up a little later (6am) than the norm.

 

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Last year’s beers at Chausu hut

The mouse problem

The next day I was awoken by a rustling sound coming from a plastic bag containing my food supplies, lying near my sleeping spot. I opened my eyes and spotted a small shape moving inside. I shut them again thinking I must be dreaming. However I recalled that the previous day Kimura-san had complained that a mouse had somehow gotten inside the lodge – when he had first entered, earlier the same day, he found a bunch of ramen cups that had been opened in the kitchen. So I reopened my eyes, hopped out of my sleeping bag and tied the plastic bag into a knot “This must be the mouse and I have caught it!” I thought. I took the bag outside and dumped its contents on the ground nearby – no mouse. Either I had dreamed, or either the mouse slipped out in those few seconds I had my eyes closed.  A little crestfallen, I returned to my sleeping bag for some more sleep.

During the day we found more traces of the mouse, or mice as we were now starting to think. More destroyed ramen cups, some chewed up pillows, and more annoyingly, the mouse had made a hole in a meat pasta sauce that was in another of my plastic bags (Kageyama-san has told me to get proper sealable cloth bags – I will definitely do so for my next trip). Luckily I had another intact pack of meat sauce, but since I was going to make pasta for the two of us, I had to add another course of dried food to the menu to make up for it.

For Kimura-san something had to be done – the hut would be housing dozens of paying guests a day starting from the following weekend, and he couldn’t have a bunch of mice wrecking havoc. So, since we were unable to locate the mice within the hut, nor their manner of entry and exit, he laid out a number of mouse traps on the first and second floors. The traps were very effective – by the time we went to bed, 3 mice had been caught on the 2nd floor, and overnight 5 more were trapped on the first floor. The mouse problem had been solved (sorry mouse lovers…).

The main cleaning

After breakfast, we cleaned and prepared the sleeping area on the first floor. It involved a lot of chucking mats, tatami rugs, cushions and rolled sleeping bags down the wooden flight of steps connecting the first and second floors. Since we were 4 people in total, we were soon done. Any excess mats were carried back up and placed into the rafters again to serve as spares, by your truly. Then we moved outside to reconnect the drinking water than came from a source of freshwater, located just across from the mountain torrent that ran down the mountain next to the hut.

The water came through a pipe, the end of which had been sealed off with some plastic. We connected it to a kind of bathtub we had carried up from next to the hut. The bathtub served as a reservoir – the water would accumulate there and then flow down another tube into a big tank standing right next to the hut. We then uncovered some corrugated metal sheets which we placed on a wooden frame right next to the river. It was fixed in placed with a plastic tarp, some rope and stones. The shady area underneath, opposite the flowing river, would create a cool space where vegetables could be kept. These, and the rest of the fresh food would be delivered by helicopter in a couple of days. Kimura-san constantly worried about the weather for that day. If the visibility was bad, the helicopter wouldn’t come, and he would have to make do without any fresh provisions for the start of the hiking season.

After that we uncovered and cleaned the washing basin where campers would have access to running water, which was connected via another hose. A third and last hose ran to a smaller washbasin outside the toilet area about 50 meters away. We cleaned that one too and made sure the water was flowing properly. Next we had to open the window flaps behind at the read of the small toilet outhouse. Again my height was of great use. Once that task complete, we retreated back to the hut and had some lunch – leftover curry rice from yesterday’s dinner.

After lunch, our final task awaited us – a thorough cleanup of the dining and kitchen area. Floors were scrubbed and wiped. Dishes were washed and dried. Every flat surface was dusted, unused or expired items were thrown out. This was perhaps the most exhausting and time-consuming task of them all. Even with the four or us, we were at it for over an hour. Finally it was done – the place was spick-and-span, and we could rest a while before an early dinner and early bedtime, since the next day we would rise at 5am for an early departure up the mountain.

 

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Opening and fastening the rear windows

 

To Mt Tekari and Back

Our hike the next day, up to the Chausu hut on the ridgeline and then on to the Tekari hut went without hitches. We spent an hour hanging out at Chausu hut chatting with the various people who had come up early to help the hut open, drinking tea and eating snacks. There was Kataoka-san, a mountain guide who I had met on a trip to the South Alps 7 years earlier. There was also a sake brewer who works in the hut in the summer, which is the off-season for sake-making. He showed me the charts he used to keep track of the his latest sake brewing session, with temperature, sake meter value, acidity, alcohol content for each day. I studied them with great interest.

 

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The sake brewer’s hard work

 

Although the skies were clear in the mornings, the clouds had rolled in once we had left Chausu hut, and the rest of the hike was done with mostly no views. This didn’t matter too much as the surrounding forest was breathtakingly beautiful. Tekari hut wasn’t open yet either, but as with the other huts, the hut manager and staff had already arrived, and were busy getting the place ready. People can stay inside for free but they need to bring their own sleeping bags. The hut manager gave us some basic instructions about eating, lights out and the outdoor toilets but that was it. Snacks and alcohol could be bought if supplies remained from the previous year. Actually, most huts in the South Alps are kept open year round meaning that even if the staff aren’t there, which is usually the case from Early September to end June, the door is open and you can use the space for free as long as you are self-sufficient.

 

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The path to Tekari hut

 

We didn’t summit Mt Tekari that day since it was totally white outside. The next day, the weather was again quite good and the views were amazing, especially of Mt Fuji, which is actually quite close. We made our way back to the Chausu hut, where we got to see the helicopter deliver supplies. Then we made our way back down to the Yokokubo hut, where we picked up some of our extra stuff that we had left during our 2 day-hike. The helicopter had successfully delivered the supplies, and Kimura-san looked quite happy and relieved. I refused a final offer of a beer since we still had a couple of hours of steep downhill hiking. We made it back to the car a little past 4pm. After a refreshing stop at a nearby hot spring, we set off along the very long twisting road back to civilisation. Hitting the highway was a relief, and we finally got back to Tokyo around 10pm.

 

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Sunrise and Mt Fuji near the top of Mt Tekari

 

It was quite enjoyable to hike the South Alps before the throngs of summer hikers. For most of the way, there and back, we saw almost no one. At one point, we crossed the Tekari hut manager with a chainsaw, but he was just doing trail maintenance. It was also an interesting experience to see how mountain huts in the Japanese huts get ready for the busy summer season. Finally, I was happy to contribute, even just a little bit, to the massive effort it takes to run the network of mountain huts, which enables the rest of us to enjoy the mountains throughout the year.

 

Helicopter delivering fresh vegetables to Chausu hut