Japan’s Northern Alps: Kamikochi weekend hike, with Yari-ga-take 槍ガ岳, Japan’s Matterhorn, Oku-hotaka-dake 奥穂高岳 and Mae-hotaka-dake 前穂高岳 and exposed ridge scramble: Daikiretto 大キレット

Last weekend was a long weekend with a holiday on Monday for ‘Respect for the Aged Day’. There is a three day walk in the hiking book that I’ve had my eye on for some time, especially as some people I shared a beer with at the very first mountain hut I stayed in had highly recommended it. I felt tired after our holiday but knew this wasn’t an opportunity to be missed!

I travelled to Matsumoto on Friday night. I had decided to pay the extra for a reserved seat on the train it being a holiday weekend but they had sold out. I got there early but got confused over the reserved and unreserved and the queuing system and ended up standing most of the way on a very full train. It was a shame as I was tired after a long week and had a packed tea ready to eat on the train!

Lessons I learnt:
1. Buy your ticket in advance on a holiday weekend
2. Get reserved seat when you can (in advance!)
3. Ask when you buy your ticket which carriages are unreserved if you have an unreserved seat.

However, at 2100 I finally got a seat and got to enjoy my packed tea!

I arrived in Matsumoto about 2230 and went straight to the hotel and bed! I had a good business hotel near the station so was soon asleep.

On Saturday morning I caught the early train and then bus to Kamikochi. The train was filled with hikers, many with tents and lots with helmets. I was travelling light and staying in mountain huts. I’d not booked – it said not necessary on the first hut – so I wondered how that would go. My impression is it’s going to be a busy weekend in the mountains!

 

Walk Day one – Kamikochi to Yari-dake Onsen, 17km, 1500m ascent.
The northern Alps are fantastic – really great views on Saturday. The walk was along the river Azusa-gawa, flat for most of the way and then a very big climb (1500m)!  I saw my first monkey in Japan near the visitor centre.  No one was paying any attention so I expected to see more but the photo below was the only one I got as I didn’t see another.

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I arrived at the Hut at around 14:30 so got established and then went off to climb “The Matterhorn of Japan”, Yari-ga-take 槍ガ岳, 3180 m. It also is Japan’s 5th highest mountain.

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It was great – very busy and quite exciting – plenty of ladders and chains and great views. There was quite a lot of queuing as there was a lot of people. I’d decided to climb this afternoon rather than tomorrow morning at sunrise as I expect it would be very very busy then! The Japanese being organised have an up and down system marked which did work well but there were still queues especially at the top for the photo opportunity!

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I walked back down to the hut and met two groups of people from earlier in the day still walking up that were amazed that I had done so much. This made me feel a bit more confident about Sunday’s adventure.

I was worried about walking the Daikiretto 大キレットwhich was in Sunday’s plan. This is a famous exposed ridge which was part of the defined walk with ladders, chains and big drops. I was especially concerned after I read lots of people’s reports on it on line. It’s difficult to tell how much they are dramatising it to make a good read and how scary it really will be! I left my options open in case of bad weather or feeling ill. I’ll try not to dramatise for this account!

From talking to some people at the hut I realised I had a get out, I could walk along the ridge part of the way and then cut down to the valley if I didn’t feel confident so decided to get up early and make my final decision then.

 

Walk Day Two – Yari-dake-Sanso to Htaka-dake-sanso, 8km, 600m ascent, 700m descent

I hadn’t set an alarm for Sunday knowing that I’d be woken by early starters getting up to see the sunrise and indeed I was! I got up about 0420, packed up and headed off. I was out in the dark with just the first colours of sunrise showing and the valleys filled with cloud, it was lovely. I quite like these early starts and as I was in bed at 1930 I’d had plenty of sleep!

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I got to the decision point – walk back down to the valley I’d walked up or carry on and do the Diakiretto. I knew I didn’t really have a choice- you have to do challenging things to feel fulfilment (or at least I do!) so I carried on.

It was fabulous! An amazing ridge with steep drops and scrambling most of the way. There were so many people it was strange. Quite a lot of time was just spent waiting but it didn’t seem so bad as it meant there was an opportunity to have a rest. Most of the day was around 3000m and I felt the altitude a little so the rests helped.

I didn’t see anyone all day who wasn’t Japanese and a couple of people took photos of me so I guess I was somewhat unusual!

I was glad of my helmet, with so many people there was the odd rock coming down, nothing threatening but enough to make me pleased I’d packed it!

The views were wonderful and I had a great day weather wise with clear views. Normally when I do scary things I don’t take any photos but because there was some waiting time I managed to take a few.

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Mark would have loved this walk and I was sorry he wasn’t here to share it – it’s exactly the kind of day out he enjoys and if I hadn’t had a good few days out with him in similar terrain there is no way I would have attempted this.

I arrived at Hotaka-dake-sanso (a mountain hut and my home for the night) at about 1330 after nearly 9 hours of difficult walking and felt exhausted! I was glad to get a place, the hut takes 300 but it was so full that they were doing 2 people to a place (tatami mat). There were very many tents as well taking up every free space.

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Walk Day Three- Hotaka-dake-sanso to Kamikochi, 9km, 200m ascent, 1600m descent

I didn’t sleep all that well, I’m not sure about this 2 to a bed thing! The woman sharing my tatami mat fortunately got up at 0315 so I could bask in the luxury of a reasonable amount of space until the lights went on about 0430.

It really was busy with big queues for the toilet and for breakfast. I had my breakfast watching the sunrise, it was quite spectacular and there were hundreds of people watching.

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Distant view of Mount Fuji just after sunrise:

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The first peak of the day, Oku-hotaka-dake 奥穂高岳 started with a technical bit so there was a queue – kind of funny for 0530 in the morning at 3000m! It soon got a but less technical and people spread out. I felt tired after yesterday’s effort and a bit breathless with the altitude and the steep climb.

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Oku-hotaka-dake (3190m) is Japan’s 3rd highest mountain at There was a queue at the summit for summit photos so I decided to give the photograph a miss and continue on.

View back down the valley to Kamikochi:

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Last peak of the walk, Mae-hotaka-dake (前穂高岳, 3090m) was still a bit of a technical climb.  Here’s the summit picture:

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On my way back to Tokyo I had to change trains in Matsumoto so decided despite my tiredness to take a quick walk through the town to see the ancient wooden castle in the town.  I only stopped for 5 minutes to take some pictures but well worth the detour!

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Hokkaido Holiday with Mark with a 5 Day Hike Through Daisetsu-zan (大雪山) National Park

Ever since I started reading up on Japan I fancied visiting Hokkaido. It seemed to be to Japan what Scotland is to Britain – fewer people, more space and countryside and great food, particularly seafood! Since being in Japan everyone I mentioned Hokkaido to was very enthusiastic too – cooler climate (important in the summer when Tokyo is very hot and humid) and great food. I’d planned a trip for us with a 5 day walk at its centre across the Daisetsu-zan (大雪山) National Park taking in many peaks including 3 of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. The walk was from the Lonely Planet Guide to Hiking in Japan.

This long post is a summary of our trip.

Ferry from Oarai to Tomokomai. (Near Tokyo to near Sapporo). (26-27.8.14)

On Tuesday 26th Mark and I headed for Hokkaido. To add to the adventure we took the ferry from Oarai (大洗) to Tomokomai (ともこまい.. We’ve taken many ferries from the UK, often overnight ones and I was curious to know what it would be like in Japan. Most people fly or take the train and the ferry is actually the cheap way to travel. To go the most economical you sleep in a shared tatami room with about 30 people. We decided to treat ourselves to a luxury Japanese style room (western rooms were on offer but that’s less fun!).

The ferry was basic but the room was huge – plenty of space and even a large window and bathroom. There was no bar or entertainments other than a small cinema and a buffet restaurant. There were sitting places and drinks dispensers including beer!

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We were tired so after dinner which was a Japanese style buffet we relaxed in the room and had a relatively early night.

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We woke at 0500 with the daylight streaming through our cabin window (too big to be a port hole). We stayed awake for a few minutes to watch the sunrise over the sea – it seemed appropriate in the land of the rising sun!

We woke again much later and had a Japanese style breakfast with rice, miso soup, pickled vegetables, eggs, trout and nato.

The sun was shining so we sat on deck and read and wrote. I also did my daily Japanese app work!

 

Sapporo Day 1 (27.8.14): Sushi, Beer and Parks

After landing we caught a bus right to Sapporo station. I’d booked a hotel near to the station so we were soon settled in and ready to explore.

We’d purposely not had lunch and headed out looking for something to eat. We got to a lovely looking sushi place that was just opening a and had some great food. They say the sushi is better in Hokkaido as the waters are cooler so the fish is fattier, has more favour and melts in the mouth more. It was certainly good! We mostly had sushi but also some tempura with some Sapporo beer to wash it down. I’d been looking forward for a long time to having a Sapporo beer in Sapporo and this was the night!

After eating we continued to explore walking into Odori Park and towards the TV tower, a smaller version of the Tokyo Tower with good lights at night. We had a huge Sapporo beer in the Sapporo beer garden under the tower.  A good tick for my game of eating or drinking of items in the place that they’re named after.

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Sapporo Day 2 (28.8.14): Shopping, Gardens and Yakatori

Day 2 in Sapporo was spent getting organised for our hike. After a short morning run and breakfast in the hotel we headed out.

We visited a great outdoor shop and stocked up in dried meals and bars for our trip plus fuel for the stove, a sitting mat for me and we both bought new small rucksacks – not for the trip just because the opportunity was there! This took most of the morning but Mark found time to get a hair cut! I’ve not yet done that in Japan so I was impressed that he’d managed it after only a few days!

We had onigiri (rice balls) snack lunch in the park and then visited Hokkaido University Botanic Gardens which were very nice. They gave us a taste of what we might see in the mountains and we joked we could just take some carefully planned pictures and pretend we’d been on our walk!

In the Botanic gardens there was an interesting small museum about the Ainu peoples, the native peoples of Hokkaido which we also visited.

One of Sapporo’s famous landmarks is the clock tower, a building donated to the city from Boston and it struck me with this and its wide streets and parks that there was some similarities between the 2 cities. Certainly a very different feel to Tokyo. Sapporo is a relatively new city so is built on a grid pattern giving it more of a North American feel.

For dinner we went to a yakatori restaurant and had a really nice evening ordering food and talking to the people around us in broken English and where I could manage it Japanese.

Asahikawa (29.8.14)

We took the train to Asahikawa after breakfast and leaving our spare things in a locker in Sapporo station. We only had an hour or so in Asahikawa but the back of the station was lovely, by a river with nice gardens so after a ramen lunch we passed the time there, also stocking up in snacks for the walk.

We caught the last of 3 daily buses to the trail head at Asahidake Onsen. The space here is incredible when compared to the rest of Japan. Everything seems so spaced out, one example was the bus station at Asahikawa – there was a dedicated stop for the bus to Asahidake Onsen only despite there only being 3 a day!

Asahidake Onsen (29.8.14)

It was a nice ride up into the hills through agricultural land and finally to the Onsen. The Onsen consisted of a few hotels, a closed visitor centre, a youth hostel, campsite where we stayed and the cable car to take us up further into the mountains.

We hadn’t packed food for this first night thinking that we could eat in one of the hotels but this didn’t seem possible and the restaurant at the cable car had closed with the last car having come down for the day. Fortunately one of the hotels sold some instant ramen, crisps and beer so dinner was sorted! We were starting to worry we’d have to start eating into our supplies for the walk.

The campsite was nice, very quiet with only our tent and one other and a small camping car. We boiled up water for our ramen and enjoyed our beers as it got dark. There were nice toilets and a place to leave food to keep it away from the bears and foxes. According to a notice the foxes in that area were known to tear through tents to get food even if occupied so great to have the place to store food but no option other than the tent for the coming days!

The beer we drank was Asahi beer – it hadn’t occurred to me before but was another tick – Asahi beer in Asahi-dake Onsen!

 

Walk Day One (30.8.14): Asahi-dake Onsen to Kuro-dake-ishimuro (15km, 1450m ascent (500m by cable car for us!), 650m descent)

We got up early, packed up and took the first cable car up at 0600. There were quite a few people with us, the Japanese being early starters when it comes to hiking. It was great to get a good start and a lovely clear morning. Our first hill was Asahi-dake, a dormant volcano, Hokkaido’s highest point and one of the 100 Famous Mountains.

It was quite spectacular with fumaroles, steam vents, coming out of its side and the barren landscape of a mountain that erupted relatively recently (in geological terms). It amazes me the energy within the Earth that can drive these and makes you realise hoe fragile some places are.

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The peak was busy, mainly with day trippers and there were great views of the ridge that we’d be walking on the days ahead.

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We walked on down a very steep and slippery path off the peak around a huge crater with a poisonous river running through the centre. There was no vegetation growing at all.

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After climbing Hokkaido’s second highest peak and a lovely walk we reached our destination for the night – Kuro-dake-ishimuro. A manned mountain hut and camp site. This would be the last manned hut and last chance to enjoy a beer with our evening meal! It was sunny and warm and we pitched our tent in the busy camp site and went to climb the 2 nearby peaks without our heavy sacks.  The campsite is seen from above in the picture below.

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There was a little rain that night so we retreated into our tent to cook and eat dinner before a very early night.

 

Walk Day Two: Kuro-dake-ishimuro to Chuubetsu-dake Hinan-goya (18km, 650m ascent, 1000m descent)

There was noise in the campsite from around 0400, before first light with people getting up early. We waited until 0500 and there were still plenty of people around. It seems most Japanese hikers rise early but don’t necessarily start walking early!

We had a good start not long after 0600 and the day was warm and sunny.

Early on this day I noticed that one of my walking boots had split, the leather away from the sole about 10cm long. This was a sobering thought – fine if they didn’t get any worse but with many days walking ahead and no means to repair them a little worrying. They didn’t appear to have got any worse by the end of the day and lasted the trip fine – see picture later.

Today’s walk was much greener than yesterday’s with plenty of vegetation and a bit of wildlife!  We didn’t see any bears, a bit of a disappointment but glad that we didn’t have any problems, particularly in our tent at night.  We’d thought about bear hangs for our food that we’d used in The States but there were no trees here so there was no option but to keep the food in the tent at night.  The fact we were wearing bear bells I’m sure limited our chances!

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Spot the snake on the path!

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and the fox – I smelt him before I saw him!

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Mark filtering/pumping water at the campsite.  This campsite had an unmanned hut, a bit similar to a bothy in Scotland.  There were quite a few people staying here so we pitched our tent and cooked by the river.  Water was available from snow melt – the snow is just visible in the top right of the photograph.  Once this has melted there will be nothing left and camping here would become difficult.

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Walk Day Three: Chuubetsu-dake Hinan-goya to Minami-numa (10km, 650m ascent, 400m descent)

This day was the shortest walk of our trip so we got up a little later.  Everyone had left the campsite by then (about 0700) and some deer had come down presumably wanted a drink and hung around for quite a while before they gave up with our presence.

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A lovely day again today with warm sun and our second 100 Famous Mountain – Tomarushi-yama (2141m).

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Walk Day Four: Minami-numa to Biei Fuji Hinan-goya (17km, 1000m ascent, 900m descent)

The book described this as the toughest day, especially as was less well travelled and had some difficult terrain to cross.  It did feel much more remote, we only saw one person walking today and when we arrived at our destination campsite and hut there was only one person there.  We decided to stay in the hut to avoid having a very wet tent in the morning – the dew here is incredible!

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Walk Day Five: Biei Fuji Hinan-goya to Tokachi-dake Onsen (14km, 650m ascent, 800m descent)

Today we climbed our 3rd of Japan’s Famous Mountains of our walk – Tokachi-dake (2077m).  It was a change in scenery again, the most desolate we’d seen, a kind of moon scape with no vegetation at all.  Under foot it was difficult, very difficult in parts with a steep climb where just as you put weight onto your foot it slipped back down a bit.

There were more fantastic extensive views and it was great to look back at where we had come from.

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We arrived in Tokachi-dake Onsen in time for a trip to a proper toilet (Japanese style) a beer and a short wait for the 2nd of only 3 buses per day to the nearest railway station.  Perfect timing – couldn’t have planned it better!

It had been a great trip and we felt exhilarated at the distance and time we’d walked.

Mountains Climbed During our 5 Day Walk:

1. Asahi-dake (2290m) – 30.8.14 (100 Famous Mountain)
2. Mamiya-dake (2185m) – 30.8.14
3. Naka-dake (2113m) – 30.8.14
4. Hokuchin-dake (2142m) – 30.8.14
5. Kuro-dake (1984m) – 30.8.14
6. Keigetsu-dake (1938m) – 30.8.14
7. Hokkai-dake (2149m) – 31.8.14
8. Koizumi-dake (2158m) – 31.8.14
9. Hakuun-dake (2229m) – 31.8.14
10. Chuubetsu-dake (1962m) – 31.8.14
11. Goshiki-dake (1868m) – 1.9.14
12. Kaun-dake (1954m) – 1.9.14
13. Tomuraushi-yama (2141m) – 1.9.14 (100 Famous Mountain)
14. Kosumanupuri (1626m) – 2.9.14
15. Oputateshike-yama (2012m) – 2.9.14
16. Bebetsu-dake (1860m) – 2.9.14
17. Ishigaki-yama (1822m) – 2.9.14
18. Biei-dake (2052m) (few metres from the summit) – 3.9.14
19. Tokachi-dake (2077m) (100 Famous Mountain) – 3.9.14
20. Kami Horokamettoku-yama (1920m) – 3.9.14

(dake means peak in Japanese and yama means mountain)

Furano

We arrived in Furano just after 1700 and checked into a nice hotel to get clean and well slept! The hotel had an (artificial) public bath which we thoroughly enjoyed. It was great to have a really good clean after 5 nights of sleeping out and mostly wearing the same clothes and no better way to do it than a Japanese bath!

Next it was time to explore Furano and get some dinner. We were hungry – 6 days of camp food and 5 days of walking! We went to a good little Japanese place and ate sashimi and tempura with pickles and rice. We also tried some of the local wine which was quite good!

After dinner we decided to have more so went to another bar with a relaxed atmosphere that brewed its own beer and made its own sausages and other meat products where we had a second dinner! It was a good night out!

The next morning, our last in Hokkaido was cooler and there was a slight drizzle. We’d been really fortunate in the weather, sunny and cool (compared to Tokyo), and no rain to speak of, really pleasant for walking. We had good views all the way which was great when you can see where you’re going and where you’ve been.

I woke very early, still on Japan hiking time (about 3 hours ahead of the rest of the country) so did some Japanese studying. We had a bath in the hotel baths and the after packing up, a wander around Furano. We picked up the required gifts for people back in our offices and some Furano wine and cheese to enjoy on the ferry.

I left my walking boots behind, they’d done well and survived the 5 day walk in spite of the split. I also now had the advantage of not having to carry wet smelly boots home! Although now need a fairly urgent shopping trip!

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Furano is also known for its fields of flowers, particularly lavender but we didn’t get a chance to fully appreciate this. We did see some glances from the bus and train journeys we took.

It was a great holiday the highlight definitely being our walk and it’s amazing space and varied views from volcanoes to bear forests and some nice autumn colours beginning to come through.