It was ten years ago that I first ventured onto a Japanese mountain. The goal back then was to enjoy Japan’s finest hike/scramble, the Yari – Hodaka traverse. This year I was back in Japan without a climbing partner so decided to retrace my steps of ten years ago.
I decided to travel to Kamikochi on the last day of a period of bad weather. A journey of four trains and a bus deposited me at my destination bang on time and just like the last time I left, it was pouring with rain. Kamikochi is the home of Japanese mountaineering, a small collection of hotels, guesthouses and souvenir shops located in the North Alps. My plan was to start my hike that afternoon and bivvy somewhere on the trail, but the wet and windy conditions made me seek some expensive hut/hostel style accommodation instead. After dumping my gear at a hostel I headed off in search of the Walter Weston memorial. Weston was an AC member and is titled as being the father of Japanese mountaineering and wrote several fascinating books on climbing in the Japan Alps in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Each year the Japanese hold a ceremony in his honour, which also marks the start of the summer climbing season.
My trip started for real the next morning, the weather was perfect, with blue skies and a crystal clear view of the Hodaka massif, for which Kamikochi is famous. I left just before 8am and followed the trail up a wide valley. The scenery was spectacular, the trees were covered in autumnal leaves, the sky blue and the high mountains on my left were coated in fresh snow. There were also very few people about and I wondered if I might get to my hut without seeing anyone else. Over 10kms I passed several closed huts in the valley and then slowly started ascending, through the trees next to a fast flowing river, before stopping for a brief lunch at a very quiet hut. At the hut I was warned that there was a lot of new snow up ahead and I may have problems without snowshoes.
After leaving the hut the trail quickly climbed up and above the tree line. The deep snow never materialised and after a couple more hours grand mountain panoramic views started opening out. Ahead of me lay my goal for the day, Yari ga Take (3,180m) sometimes referred to as the Matterhorn of Japan. The peak itself is a 100m pointy pyramid of rock sitting on top of what is claimed to be Japan’s finest mountain ridge. Behind me was a far more impressive view of most of Japan’s high mountains and the mighty Fuji way off in the distance. For the next hour I plodded up into a large cirque before switchbacking up the snow covered back wall to a hut. As I arrived at the hut, a lone climber was coming off of Yari. The hut sitting almost at the foot of Yari, is I presume, one of the world’s largest and can easily accommodate 350+. As it was very nearly the end of the season there was just myself and five others booked in for the night. My room was recently refurbished and had new tatami mats and a large pile of futons. The hut dinner was a true Japanese meal, well worthy of being served in a London restaurant, let alone at 3000m in a remote part of the Japanese North Alps. Breakfast the next morning was also of a high standard but I’ve never found eating rice and miso soup first thing in the morning easy.
The next day I set off for the summit after breakfast. The other five folks were all heading back down. Due to it’s popularity in the summer months Yari is, unfortunately, covered in chains and ladders and even has a marked route for ascending and descending. 10 years previously I had scrambled up the rock and ironware in the rain and had found the whole experience to be rather unmemorable. This time it wasn’t quite the same. All the new snow made it rather more hairy and interesting, particularly the sections between the ironware. After 25mins or so I climbed the last ladder onto the smallish table top summit and took in the views. As expected there was noone else up there and only evidence in the snow of one previous visitor. The views were perhaps the best in Japan, with all of Japan’s big mountains on display and in the words of Weston, Fuji could be seen in the distance floating between heaven and earth. The ascent had been way more serious than I’d been expecting and thoughts of descending marred my enjoyment of the views. After a quick prayer to whichever gods were listening I mounted a ladder and carefully retraced my steps. As expected the descent required a lot of concentration, step kicking and hand hold testing, but I got back onto safe ground without incident and marched back into the hut for a coffee before descending off the ridge itself.
My original plan had been to climb Yari, spend the next day traversing south along the ridge to its high point Hodaka (3,190m) and then on the third day descend back to Kamikochi. The ridge between Yari and Hodaka is the ridge to do in Japan and is extremely popular in the summer. It’s classed as a hike but has a good deal of scrambling, again with chains and ladders on the interesting bits. With all the fresh snow I decided against it, especially on my own. One day I’d love to return in full winter to do it with a partner and rope.
My plan B was to descend the other side of the ridge to the village of Shin Hodaka, where I could bathe in a communal hot spring next to a river, and then take a cable car back up onto the ridge. The descent was long with a 2000m-height loss, but the hot spring at the end was as good as ever, definitely one of the best features of climbing in Japan. The cable car and a one hour hike got me to the door of my next hut as the sun was setting. I spent another pleasant night with very friendly folk in the hut before descending back into Kamikochi the next morning. Even though I never managed to traverse the ridge, the Yari ascent had been a good experience and I shall no doubt be back in the area sometime next year, hopefully with a partner and rope.