underrated destinations: japanese alps and deathly ridgelines
Underrated is not the term most would reach to when referencing Japan. That’s because it's not. Japan is insanely popular for westerners and easterners alike coming together and eat sushi, see bizarre tech and anime culture all wrapped up with insanely kind and respectful people.
The underrated part specifically here is the Japanese Alps. A range of mountains that stretch across the central part of Japan, surprisingly just a few hours from the lights of the highest populated city in the world, Tokyo (a chill 37 million people). In the time it would take me to drive from my house in Fort Collins, Colorado to Aspen, you could go from downtown Tokyo out to an unreal mountain escape. Closer than you'd think. (Side note: You could also go from sitting in a Tokyo subway to climbing Mt Fuji in just about 2 hours.)
The route and sample itinerary upcoming was one of the most wondrous and intense days of mountain climbing/ trekking I've ever done and not necessarily because it was overly difficult. Instead, it seemed you were always rewarded on the hard uphill days with staggering and endless mountain views. The steep, sketchy pitches always paid off with pink and orange sunrises which turn me into a snap-happy dope.
Pursue this three-day adventure, please, you won't regret it:
The trail takes you from the base-camp of the valley up the 5th highest mountain in Japan on the first day.
Then across a perilous traverse and up Japan’s 3rd highest mountain on day two.
Finally completing the loop through a valley covered in fall colors back to the start on day three.
The Road to Kamikochi
The United States isn't the only country that goes crazy about national parks. Japan is about the size of California but has an insane 34 national parks compared to the nine in California.
In keeping with the California comparisons, inside the Chūbu-Sangaku National Park there is a highland valley named Kamikochi, sometimes referred to as the "Japanese Yosemite Valley". One exception with the Yosemite comparisons is Kamikochi is only open April to November, so start planning now for next year.
Kamikochi is the base for a spectrum of nature lovers looking for all different categories of outdoor fun. Since there are no private cars allowed inside the park, you'll see aged photogs and serious mountain climbers all sharing the same bus to arrive there. There are a few options of how to get there depending on where you are coming from, if you have a car, or if you prefer bus or train travel. Either way, all routes converge in Matsumoto where a final bus ride is mandatory to Kamikochi (unless you bike in, have fun with that).
First laying eyes on Kamikochi, I was worried because it has a touristy quality to it. Probably because of the suvy shops, restaurants, mini-marts, along with this a variety of accommodations for different budgets. We stayed one night here at the Nishi-Itoya Mountain Lodge before an early morning start the next day. This lodge and most mountain huts charge a flat rate for a Ryokan-style room and meals included. The Ryokan stay is a good culture submersion. The tatami-matted rooms where you sleep on floor mats and share a bathroom are a part of Japanese culture. Even better for the culture submersion is the food: always tons of rice, some fish, miso soup and not a fork or spoon in sight. You'll need to submit a Reservation Request Form and anxiously await an email back (I was getting a little nervous but got a reply about a month after submitting)
NOTE: A great advantage of this area is the options. The route laid out is just one of many varieties of trekking trips. There are huts on the trail every few miles providing meals and beds so depending on how much you want to hike in a day or how long you want to prolong the trek, you can extend or shorten very easily.
This particular route referenced below would follow the pink route out to the east of Kamikochi then connects south on the orange route before going slightly off route back to the start.
Day 1: The Mt. Yarigatake Approach
The Kamikochi bus stop all the way up to the Yaridake Sanso Hut (pink line), makes for a demanding, 7 hour day. The route tracks the Azusa River on a fairly flat, wide road. Many older Japanese trekkers in groups will be coming and going on this first part, so getting your best "Konnichi wa" greeting perfected is a must. I probably greeted hundreds of trekkers going the opposite way in the few days up there. Before the trail gets steep and painful, there are a few lodges you'll pass in the flat area that serves hot curry, ice cream, beer and have nice bathrooms (The Tokusawa and the Yoko-o lodges are the names) Pro tip: pop on into the Tokusawa lodge and grab some "Iced Coffee with Ice Cream", get your legs a little wakeup call, you’ll need it.
The trail grade increases after the Yoko-o Sanso hut and what comes next is what I would call "physically demanding". Basically, it's 5 hours of pure uphill, fairly steep graded stuff as you ascend up through the valley. During this uphill, however, A key distraction presents itself in the form of the pyramid-shaped mountain: Mt. Yarigatake. Staring at this peak as it becomes closer and closer and knowing you'll be on top of it soon enough provide a nice motivation. Just below Mt. Yari is the Yasiragake Sanso Mountain Hut, a massive mountain hut which can comfortably sleep and fed over 400 people. From here if you still have any legs left, you could summit the peak in just another 30 minutes, or wait until morning sunrise to get up there (or both).
These mountain huts are so intriguing. They are perched up on a saddle in the middle of nowhere and cool hot meals for hundreds. At some point you'll see the helicopter transporting supplies to various lodging huts, the only practical way to carry supplies up that far.
A stay at a hut includes a bed in a hostel-type shared room as well as dinner, breakfast with optional bagged lunch. Cost will be around $100 dollars per person.
Day 2: Crossing the Daikiretto
This day will blow your mind. Looking back at all my hundreds of hiking experiences, this day is in my top 3. Breakfast is served at 6 am at the hut so our plan would be to earn our morning meal. A wakeup call at 4 am, a brief scramble up a few rocks as well as ladders and we were waiting on the top of Mt. Yarigatake for an epic sunrise. No disappointment here. Just look at the photos. The Japan Alps brought it: reds, oranges, pinks, yellows.
We ran down, snarfed down our breakfast rice and fish and headed south. The beginning of a fairly intense day. Essentially the goal of the entire day is following the top of the ridgeline across a few other peaks until reaching the next hut: Hotakadake Sanso Hut at the base of tomorrow's sunrise.
To me the most compelling part of this day was the amount of constant scrambling that's involved. Taking off from the base of Mt Yari, the trail is mild and wide at first, but after a few miles in, and to my sick delight, it gets wild. You cover about 3 hours worth of ground having to use all four extremities with exposure peeking around each side of the trail. Incredibly enjoyable but not what I would call relaxing.
One nice thing the Japanese have done for those on all trails is this simplistic but effective system to keep you on the right path. What you see is a large "X" or "O" painted in white on various rocks. Following the "O's" gets you there safe and following the "X's" gets you tumbling off a cliff, so simple!
So after a hair-raising day of ridge traversing and peak bagging. The Hotakadake Sanso Hut is a sight for sore legs. This hut was a little smaller and more personal. At the time only 20 or so people were checked in and we enjoyed what I believe to be a better meal than the previous hut. Of course, this was rice, miso, fish, pickles. The usual. After dinner and we all sat by the fire, chatted up some Europeans from Portugal and reflected on our ballsiness.
Day 3: Mt. Hotaka and Fall Color For Days.
4 am wake up call again. Of course, it's easy to get up early when you anticipate that is about to be witnessed. A quick scramble, slightly longer than Mt Yari, brought us to a shrine at the peak of Hotaka. We had the dang place to ourselves for sunrise and I wondered if the hikers sleeping below knew what they were missing. After a similar routine of running down, cramming breakfast down our throats, we started our descent back to Kamikochi.
Getting back to Kamikochi and eventually a hotel bed and sushi, you can either head south back across Hotaka or to the west down the Karasawa Valley. We opted for Karasawa for good reason. Try googling this valley, click the photos and let your jaw drop. The fall colors are absolutely blown out during September and October. Descending into the clouds and through the valley, we once again passed groups of Japanese climbing up towards Hotaka. Most of them in their 60's and 70's I would guess. Amazing how many elderly people here are active, healthy and fit. Guess it's all the rice.
The colors distracted my quad burn on the constant downhill pounding. We ran into the hut where I got Ice cream and Cold Brew Coffee previously and this time opted for some chicken curry. We were in for a couple hours of bus and train rides before cozying into our Tokyo hotel. Gotta put the food in when you can.
Back at Kamikochi, we grabbed the bus at 2 pm back to the train station despite it being their busiest time of day. A lucky break for us. I’ve always said that the international hiking game is so epic because of the hut systems. Not having to carry tents and tons of food around is nice. Sleeping indoors and having meals cooked for you may sound slightly bouji, but I prefer the glamping style. More energy enjoying nature, less energy on food and sleeping arrangements.
That's the Japan alps, guys. Hiking is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think about heading across the Pacific to this country, but it should be. I always think a good mix of city and outdoors makes for the perfect trip. The four days we spent in the mountains make the city time feel more special and vice versa. Plus all that hiking makes you feel better about all the sushi and desserts you'll consume back in Tokyo.
To see more of Brock's adventures, follow him on Instagram: @buffandabroad