Hiking this Echigo Hundred Famous mountain turned out to be a very unusual experience. Since I had used the Tokyo Wide Pass to hike on Yatsugatake, I wanted to use it once more within the 3-day limit. An approaching typhoon meant rain for the entire Kanto region, but fortunately the Echigo mountains worked to hold back the clouds, and gave the Yuzawa area one extra day of sunny weather. I hadn’t really thought about climbing this mountain before, but it seemed like a good hike for the early autumn. Since there were four trails to the top, I first needed to decide my route. A little research showed that one trail had recently been closed due to typhoon damage, and two others required caution. Since it was my first visit, I decided to go up and down the remaining trail. Although it was physically demanding with a 1000 meter ascent, it seemed fairly straightforward. I had planned everything in detail, but there was one element I couldn’t have foreseen, and which nearly forced me to abandon my hike!
Hiking in the Echigo Mountains 越後山脈
View of Mt Makihata from the summit
I left rainy Tokyo by shinkansen and arrived in sunny Niigata less than an hour later. I transferred to the local Hokuhoku line – “hokuhoku” is an expression meaning chuckling to oneself- and got off at Shiozawa station about ten minutes away (this section isn’t covered by the Tokyo Wide Pass). From there it was a short taxi ride to the start of the trail near Kikoji Temple. The driver was very chatty and had many questions about air travel. At 9am, I was ready to hike. It took me only ten minutes to reach the first viewpoint next to a shelter. There were a couple of bells that one can ring to scare away bears; I gave one of them a good “gong”. The Niigata countryside, a patchwork of fields, was spread out beneath my feet. Turning around, I could see the top of today’s mountain and the long ridge leading to it. My starting point was only 300 meters high, and it felt quite warm under the early autumn sunshine.
The Niigata countryside
The hiking trail follows the left ridgeline
No sooner had I set off again, that I walked into a spiderweb. After clearing my face of the sticky thin threads, I turned around to see that my head had just missed its occupant, a “jorogumo” or golden orb-weaving spider. It reminded me of my hike on Mt Ashitaka last year. A few minutes later, I spotted another web across the path with a big golden spider at face level. I used a branch to gently break the web just below the spider and slipped under. A few meters further, there was another web. I repeated the procedure, but I couldn’t do it so well this time, and ended up breaking most of it, the owner making a quick escape onto a nearby branch. I was impressed with the sturdiness of their weavings – true feats of engineering! I kept the branch in hand, constantly waving it in front of me, in case I failed to spot a web, which happened occasionally in the shady sections.
The entire trail was well-maintained
The tunnel through the shrubs
From that point on, there were webs every few meters. The easy-to-walk path formed a tunnel through the shrubs which the spiders exploited to spin their traps; I had never seen so many of them before. If they weren’t strung across the path, they were hanging from the branches on each side and in the trees above. Keeping an eye out for the webs, as well as partly breaking and slipping under them, was time-consuming and energy sapping. As I would need to return the same way, anything I dodged on the way up, would be waiting for me on the way down. I had fallen behind schedule and needed to pick up the pace if I wanted to catch the last bus back. I switched to a two-stick double-chopping movement; this technique was tiring on the arms, but at least I was moving at a good pace again. It was like hacking one’s way through the jungle with a machete. I felt sorry for the spiders and their hard work, but eventually other hikers would be passing through, and the webs would be cleared anyway. I found it hardest when the path suddenly climbed steeply; I had to raise my head and arms at a sharp angle in order to keep clearing the path. A couple of times I heard a rustling noise near my feet, and saw a snake slither away; not only did I have to watch out for spiders but for snakes as well!
A spectacular view of Niigata
The route up this ridge is no longer in use
It took me 2 hours to reach the stone marker for the 5th station (“gogoume” 五合目) around 700m high and halfway up. I took a short break and had some food; I was drenched in sweat and my arms were starting to feel sore. There seemed to be no end to the spiderwebs. I couldn’t imagine doing this all the way to the summit, and then repeating it on the way down, since in the space of a few hours new webs would surely be spun. As I munched on my onigiri, I considered giving up. The good weather was holding and the summit was visible in front of me, so I decided to continue just a little further. From this point, the path entered into a forest of beech trees, and the spiders webs magically disappeared. I soon reached the 7th station surrounded by tall birch trees, the rustle of their leaves in the wind sounded like soft rain (see video at the end). The path then rose sharply, with some sections lined with ropes or chains. Thirty minutes later I reached a flat section with great views; I could now see the craggy top of Mt Hakkai to the North. I was above 1000 meters high, and all that was left to climb was the pyramidal summit. It was a long, steep slog but seemed easy compared to what I had endured lower down. At 12h30, the path leveled again and I had my first views of Mt Makihata. After one last scramble up a rocky outcrop, I was finally standing at the top of Mt Kinjo (金城山 きんじょうさん kinjousan).
Summit of Mt Kinjo
Highest point of Mt Kinjo
The surrounding views were astounding, mainly because of the 1000 meter height difference between the flat valley and the top. There were no high mountains westwards, and I had a bird’s eye view of Niigata prefecture. Looking East, I could see the massive bulks of the “Echigosanzan“, the three Echigo mountains, with dark clouds sitting on each summit. Southwards, I could make out the Tanigawa mountain range, half-hidden by the clouds. High altitude cirrus clouds were streaking across the sky from the South, a sure sign of rainy weather. I sat down for lunch, keeping a safe distance from the top of the cliff on the South side of the flat top. The summit marker doesn’t really mark the highest point. It’s another thirty-minute scramble along the ridge to a slightly higher spot among the trees and without a view, a little beyond the emergency hut; I decided to skip it. A few meters away, I found a rocky slab where I could lie down, close my eyes, and enjoy the warm sun and soft silence created by the absence of wind. I was alone, except for a pigeon, sitting on a nearby boulder, apparently also enjoying the panoramic views.
A close-up of the Joro spider
Can you spot the spider?
At 1h30 I headed down and since I knew that the trail was spider free till the 5th station, I moved as quickly as I could. One hour later, I was walking with a stick in front of me again. As I had expected, some webs had been rebuild, although by smaller spiders. Going downhill, I was walking at a straighter angle and I was hitting the higher webs. Despite my best efforts, I occasionally got tangled in them; it was hard to determine whether the web I was caught up in was connected to the spiders dangling nearby; once I stopped just a couple of centimeters short of a big yellow and black spider hanging in mid-air. Since I was keeping an eye out for arachnids, I also spotted other small creatures such as a praying mantis and a big grasshopper. I reached the bottom of the mountain at 4pm under cloudy skies. It took me 7 hours to go up and down, including a hour break at the top; it would have taken six if it hadn’t been for the spider webs. In all my climbs in Japan and around the world, I had never experienced such an exhausting battle to the top. Since the “Joro spider” is mostly active in the autumn, I guess it’s easier to climb this mountain in other seasons. It was a 15-minute walk to the bus stop which I reached with twenty minutes to spare. Unfortunately, the hot spring inside Echigo-Yuzawa station was already closed so I wasn’t able to wash away the cobwebs till I got back to Tokyo !
Listen to the sound of leaves rustling in the wind
Traditional Niigata architecture with Mt Kinjo in the background