Mount Shibutsusan Photo Hike

“Reaching Buddha:” Oze National Park, Golden Week 2016

Mount Shibutsusan, from Ayamedaira

Cold wind rain cold snow ice crampons more wind Blueberry Crunch Clif Bar in the rain strong wind heavy rain cold did I mention rain?

Even by the first weekend of May, the start of the Golden Week holiday here in Japan, the weather on main-island Honshu remains unstable: winter’s last breath mixed with summer’s first hot and humid blush results in the occasional mild and sunny spring day — perfect! — but just as often a temperamental kind of weather that scatters cherry blossoms and pins crows to their rookeries. It can be tough to get out of doors. This time last year, for example, snow-choked trails forced R. and I to stay off the mountains of the north Alps and instead stroll along the banks of the — admittedly still quite scenic — Azusagawa River in Kamikochi

We learned our lesson from that Kamikochi trip. This Golden Week when the weather gods seem even more fickle than usual — especially in the mountains — R., my wife and travel companion, and I strapped on crampons and joined a group (from the travel company Club Tourism, if you wanna know) of more experienced mountain trekkers on an overnight trip to Oze National Park, and a one-day climb of Mount Shibutsusan.

Not that Shibutsusan is that high, at 2228 metres (7,310 feet), or much of a technical challenge. The wise gnomes at Club Tourism market the one-night course, with a stay at the Hatomachi mountain hut, to beginner mountaineers. Shibutsusan does, however, rate a place on the Hyakumeizan, or “100 Famous Mountains” list of Japan. From Hatomachitoge Pass the gain to the summit is about 700 metres. In winter Shibutsusan is apparently considered an expert-level climb; by the first weekend in May I’d say it’s moderate, and the snow and ice still demand crampons (“aizen,” in Japanese) and trekking poles. Zac over at Hiking in Japan gives the route from Hatomachitoge a 3 out of 5. Lonely Planet’s Hiking in Japan guidebook points out the trails are usually climbed only from late May, after the snow has gone.

I’m not a fan of group tours, for the usual reasons. Nothing breaks the spirit faster than having to a pass up a good photo op — snow on a cedar branch, say, or a cloud suspended in a shrouded valley — to keep pace with, oh, let’s say a guy in bright yellow La Sportiva alpine boots, knee-high red gaiters (“spats,” they’re called in Japanese) and 10-point crampons, who lets those cedar branches fly back in the face of whoever happens to be behind. For me in Japan, there’s added cultural and linguistic challenges, of course, as even now — after eighteen years in-country — I still have to have things repeated to me in simple terms, and I usually miss the kind of unspoken nuance which, say, means everyone has assembled at the trailhead ten minutes ahead of schedule and would be game for an early start – if they didn’t have to wait for me. It’s not cheap, either.

Then again, R. and I are still newbies to mountain climbing. Despite years now spent in the mountains – the Japan Alps, the Canadian Rockies – we have spent less time on the mountains, if you know what I mean. This was our first winter ascent of a mountain crossing snowfield traverses using crampons (we’d been introduced to crampons for glacier travel last spring, in Iceland). I felt a lot more confident pushing on to the summit through white-out conditions with guides — and fellow group members — who kept us on-trail and moving briskly. 

‘Sides which, there was the added advantage that all the food and transportation and accommodation was arranged for us, so we could just focus on the experience of being in the mountains in winter. As R. put it, “I don’t have to be your personal tour guide this trip,” which is fair enough since it’s true that when we travel in Japan she does most of the planning. Being in a tour also allowed us to meet some interesting people, such as the cool single woman about our age who spends practically every weekend in the mountain and is training for an ascent of Tsurugidake, the most dangerous mountain to climb in Japan. R. and her hit it off, and spent much of the weekend chatting and generally getting along while I litewrally and metaphorically dodged those snow-covered cedar branches snapped back in my face by La Sportiva…

In any case, as you can no doubt tell, we had mixed weather trending towards… worse? On the Saturday we arrived, another group of climbers had to turn back from the summit after stump holing through fresh powder to the point of exhaustion.

Our summit day wasn’t until Sunday. On Saturday, while the other group struggled through the snow higher up, we limited ourselves to a walk through a dusted pine forest, meltwater falling like rain and a short jaunt to Ayamedaira highland, with a view – in better weather – of the Ozegahara Marsh and distant mountains. In fact, we had hiked this same section of Oze National Park back in October of 2012, when the marshland grasses had turned to gold.

Ayamedaira in Autumn
Ayamedaira in Autumn
Ayamedaira in Winter

By the time we returned to the small yamagoya mountain hut at Hatomachitoge Pass the snow had melted and we splashed downtrail in running water.

Same again on Sunday: we started the climb on wooden stairs slick with running water, and returned several hours later with meltwater literally streaming down the narrow, deepworn trail back to the yamagoya. One big difference: where Saturday had some clear sky, on Sunday it rained on and off all day, and strong winds along the summit ridge traverse – at times near whiteout conditions. Still we made it to the summit, 2228 metres, 7310 feet, and back again to the start of the trail at Hatomachi Toge Pass in six hours – five for the faster, stronger and more experienced members of our group. By the time we came back down, snowshoers and telemark skiers had all but taken over the backcountry trail, and snowboarders were teraing up a natural halfpipe in the trees.

Fun fact: many climbers make Shibutsusan the last stop on their Hyakumeizan pilgrimage, as the kanji Chinese characters in its name translate literally to “Reaching Buddha.”

Check out my gallery of Mount Shibutsusan in winter (basically the same pictures you see in this post), plus those from an autumn trip to Oze National Park and area in 2012.


Japan Photo Hike: Kiso-Komagatake, Chuo Middle Alps

An easy 40-minute climb from the ropeway station at Senjojiki Cirque,  the approach to KomagatakeKiso-Komagatake, “Horse Head Mountain,” and surrounding peaks make an easy day-trip adventure into the alpine zone and thin air of high-mountain adventure. I’d write it up, but wes at Hiking in Japan has already nailed it. The only thing I’d add, and this is true any time you’re high up, is to remember the hat and sunblock. The air is thinner up here, and the sun’s rays stronger. Both R. and I were a little negligent, and we both ended up with sun- and windburn, and blistered lips. Continue reading “Japan Photo Hike: Kiso-Komagatake, Chuo Middle Alps”

Japan Photo Hikes: Senjojiki Cirque

Senjojiki, @Aaron Paulson 2014

Hiking Senjojiki Cirque

It still feels like late summer/early autumn here in The Big Sushi, but in the mountains to the west of Tokyo koyo autumn foliage season is already burning up the forests, all Halloween reds and yellows. Last weekend R. and I took a (longish) four-and-a-half-hour bus ride to Senjojiki Cirque, on the slope of Komagatake, in Nagano prefecture’s Chuo Middle Alps for a long weekend of hiking and photography. We stayed at Hotel Senjojiki, a fancypants mountain hut/rustic hotel attached to the ropeway station at 2,662 meters: the highest ropeway station in Japan (and Japan has ropeway stations!). Continue reading “Japan Photo Hikes: Senjojiki Cirque”

Japan’s Active Volcanoes: Fujisan

Fujisan, from Yamanashi Highlands
Fujisan, from Yamanashi Highlands

At 3,776 meters (12,389 feet), Fujisan’s peak is the highest in Japan.

Is it an active volcano? The best answer to that question may be “Yes, but…”. Apparently, an active volcano is one which has erupted within the last 10,000 years, and is expected to erupt again. Fujisan last erupted in 1707, making it a prime candidate for active status. However, there are two kinds of active volcanoes: erupting and dormant. Ontakesan, the volcano which tragically erupted last weekend, is an example of the former; Fujisan would be an example of the latter.

“Wait a minute,” sez you. “Does that mean Fujisan is expected to erupt again?”

“The short answer is, ‘Yes,'” sez I. No-one knows exactly when, of course, but the Japan Meteorological Agency keeps Fujisan on its list of 47 volcanoes to be monitored 24/7. at least one volcanologist, a retired professot at Ryukyu University, predicts that Fujisan will erupt by 2015.


Mount FujisanFujisan TrailView from FujisanFujisan SummitFujisan SummitFujisan Summit CraterView from FujisanView from FujisanView of Fujisan

Ontakesan Eruption: (Almost) One Week Later — News Reports Summary

Almost one week after the initial eruption, according to media reports the death toll on Ontakesan has reached 47 with 20 climbers still missing in what Asahi Shinbun and others have called “the deadliest eruption in Japan in the postwar period.” Others are still missing, but rain and volcano activity prevent rescuers and helicopters from searching the area.

The New York Times carries a first-hand report of the eruption from mountain guide Gaku Harada. “I thought it was the end of the world,” he’s reported as saying.

Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi used the Ontakesan eruption to strengthen his argument against nuclear energy. The Asahi Shinbun reports him as saying “Even experts say they never expected Mount Ontakesan to erupt. Unexpected incidents can occur at any time… Earthquakes, tsunami and eruptions occur all over Japan so it must not have nuclear power plants.”

Japan’s Active Volcanoes: Owakudani, Mount Hakone


Hakone’s “Great Boiling Valley”

Apparently, before getting the name Owakudani, “Great Boiling Valley,” this area of Mount Hakone was known as Ojiguko, “Great Hell.” Both work, though the latter fits better with the pictures I took on the day R. and I visited: hooded figures moving slowly through sulphurous steam and boiling milky mudpots.

Mount Hakone last erupted in 950 BC. “However, solfataric activity can still be found at four places on the northern and northeastern sides of Kami-yam and the northeastern side of Komaga-take, just southeast of Kami-yama.”

BTW, if you’re interested in a guidebook that combines detailed  — if dated, it was last updated in 1988  — explanations of Japan’s volcanic geography, check out Paul Hunt’s Hiking in Japan: An Adventurer’s Guide to the Mountain Trails. The book is out of print, but you may be able to check it out of your library. Or, if you’re stuck, you can borrow mine 🙂

Japan’s Active Volcanoes: Asahidake


The highest volcano on Hokkaido

At 2,291 meters, Asahidake in Daisetsuzan National Park is the highest mountain on Hokkaido – Japan’s northernmost island. It is actually an active volcano.

I climbed on and around Asahidake several times in the four years I spent on Hokkaido. But that was a while ago now: as in, before I got my first digital camera (for the record, a Sony DSC-R1, bought in 2007).

Continue reading “Japan’s Active Volcanoes: Asahidake”