After our Mt. Fuji climb, our feet were itching to climb the rest of Japan’s major peaks. And so it was that we decided to climb Mt. Kitadake in the South Alps. It’s the second highest peak in Japan at 3,193 meters. Although not so famous outside its home country, Kitadake is a favorite with Japanese seasoned hikers for the fewer crowds (compared to the marketplace that is Mt. Fuji), stunning views, and extra challenge (it’s a much harder climb than Fuji because of the steeper ascent and greater elevation change). As an added bonus, Mt. Ainodake (Japan’s 4th highest peak) can also be reached on the same trip.
Some hikers prefer to do the Kitadake climb in three days, but we only had the weekend because of school work, so we squeezed the climb into two full days. We flew in from Fukuoka to Tokyo on a Friday afternoon and on Saturday morning, we took the first train at a little past 5 am to reach Kofu station (check train schedules in English here) in time to catch the 9 am bus (Fare: 1,950 JPY) going to the Hirogawara trailhead (bus schedule here, use Google Chrome to auto-translate the page to English. Be aware that bus schedules change annually).
After two hours in the bus, we arrived at the information center of the South Alps National Park located at the Hirogawara trailhead, where we started the trek.
The trail was well-marked and well-maintained, as is common in all Japanese mountains.
The scenery was set in summer green, while the trail consisted of boulders and loose rock fragments. There were also wooden stairs or stone steps set up in several areas to avoid soil erosion, and wooden bridges were placed in steeper portions that were prone to landslides. There were not many climbers that we met or passed on the trail, probably because it was already September and nearing the end of the climb season.
After climbing for 2.5 hours, the first (and easier) part of the climb ended when we reached the Shiraneoike mountain hut. The mountain hut sold coffee and cup noodles, but we only availed of the free drinking water since we brought our own food. We sat on a bench in front of the hut and quickly prepared our very crude lunch of instant noodles, canned tuna and onigiri (rice balls).
Outside the mountain hut, several tents were already set up, and more hikers would arrive later that day to stay overnight before continuing the climb the next morning. As for the three of us, after our lunch we hurried off to the more challenging part: the steep ascent. The trail changed into a path with thicker vegetation, but the path was still very obvious because of the large rocks that they set up to prevent encroachment. I enjoyed looking at the pretty flowers and alpine plants along the trail and observed several bird species, which I recognized from the national park brochure (complete with maps estimating the climb duration for each trail segment and a bonus wildlife guide).
The flora and fauna served as a good distraction from my heaving breath. We were in a hurry to reach the campsite before dark, so we tried to keep a brisk pace.
After two hours of continuous climbing, we reached the ridgeline. Here the flora changed from tall trees to short shrubs and grass, indicating our arrival in the low-alpine elevation level. We put on our jackets and walked along the ridge while enjoying the beautiful view just when the sun was starting to set and the mist was creeping in.
Camping at 3,000 masl
We reached the Kitadake kata-no-koya mountain hut/campsite (elevation: 3,000 masl) just before dark. We quickly paid the camping fee (300 JPY) and tent fee (500 JPY), then set up camp before the last of the sunlight disappeared.
We were very happy with the fantastic view of Mt. Fuji and its neighboring mountains from our tent. The temperature quickly dropped to near-freezing when it got dark, so we changed into warmer clothes before dinner.
With only our headlamps on, we enjoyed our beef steak and rice meal, which we happily washed down with Asahi beers that we brought from Tokyo. Finally, it was 9 pm and time to sleep.
Summit assault and traversing to Japan’s 4th highest peak
We got up really early (3:15 am!), put our belongings inside the tent and left the campsite for the summit. We arrived at the summit at about 4 am, just in time to see the first rays of light emerge.
The view was really stunning: the sea of clouds enveloped the horizon but for the perfect cone of Mt. Fuji sticking out; this beautiful scene set in a backdrop of quickly changing, fierce orange hues.
As an added bonus, there were only about 20 people with us at the summit, so we had a quiet and unobstructed view of the sunrise. We appreciated the early morning even more with coffee and breakfast that we prepared with the cook set and stove that we brought to the summit.
By 6:00 am, it was already bright and sunny and we were ready for the 7-km traverse to Mt. Ainodake (the fourth highest Japanese mountain at 3,189 m) and back to the campsite. We followed the rocky ridgeline, which offered a fantastic view of the ridge peaks that we were about to climb.
The trek to Ainodake was really a challenge for me: we were traversing above 3,000 m elevation, but we were also in a hurry to catch the 2:30 pm bus at the trailhead. I couldn’t even appreciate the splendid views anymore; I was just concentrating on reaching the next crag or going down the next steep ladder.
On our way back to the Kitadake kata-no-koya, my breath was already in short gasps and my heart was pounding very fast. We stopped twice to eat the bread and snacks we packed since I was feeling really weak and hungry. We pushed on and got back to our tent at 11 am. That was five hours after leaving the Kitadake summit, traversing to Ainodake, and returning to the campsite. It seemed to be the longest five hours of my life, and most of it was spent with my heart racing and my legs complaining. One good consolation was that the sky was really clear that day, so I didn’t have to worry about the cold on top of everything else.
Heading down and back
I was able to catch my breath at the campsite; eating a proper meal for lunch did wonders to my motivation and psyche. By noontime, we were packed and ready for the descent. The average time going down from the campsite to the trailhead was 3.5 hours, but the only bus from the trailhead going back to the city would leave at 2:30 pm. Needless to say, it was an exciting afternoon. We were in a rush to go down, almost running with our heavy packs.
But I was feeling much better descending (I think a heavy stomach really made the difference; that or the high elevation did not suite me very well) so we made good time with some moments to spare near the end of our trek to take photos, and appreciate the last of the snow and the rushing stream running along the trail.
We arrived at the trailhead at 2:20 pm, with a few minutes to spare before the ride back. But as it turned out, there was no real need to hurry because there were several taxi drivers waiting for passengers to bring back to Kofu Station. Anyway, we wouldn’t have known about it so we were still glad to have hurried back. We shared the taxi with one other climber, and in the end paid the same price as the bus fare but for faster travel time (the taxi drivers fixed this price, I guess they just didn’t want to go back down empty-handed after bringing their passengers up). With that, we said goodbye to Kitadake with weary feet and tired legs, but full of unforgettable moments and good memories. Kitadake might only be Japan’s second highest mountain, but it remains one of my best climb experiences.
*This post was modified from a feature article written for Trails, the official newsletter of the University of the Philippines Mountaineers.