Second to none: Climbing Mt. Kitadake in the Japan South Alps

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.

View of Mt. Fuji from Kitadake

View of Mt. Fuji from Kitadake

Getting there

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).

The ascent

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.

Information Center of the South Alps National Park

Information Center of the South Alps National Park

The trail was well-marked and well-maintained, as is common in all Japanese mountains.

Where to? To the summit!

Where to? To the summit!

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.

'Rocky" trail

‘Rocky” trail

Stairs everywhere!

Stairs everywhere!

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).

Lunch outside the Shiraneoike mountain hut

Lunch outside the Shiraneoike mountain hut

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.DSCN0993DSCN1057 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).

Some of the flowers along the trail

Some of the flowers along the trail

Spotted Nutcracker; ホシガラス- hoshigarasu (Nucifraga caryocatactes)

Spotted Nutcracker; ホシガラス- hoshigarasu (Nucifraga caryocatactes)

Rock ptarmigans ライチョウ - raicho (Lagopus mutus)

Rock ptarmigans; ライチョウ – raicho (Lagopus mutus)

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.

My two companions, strong as ever

My two companions enjoying the hike

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.DSCN1062

Enjoying the view

Enjoying the view

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The trail was full of color

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Finding our way through the mist

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.

mountain hut at 3,000 masl

Kitadake kata-no-koya mountain hut at 3,000 masl

The shopkeeper at the mountain hut store

The shopkeeper at the mountain hut store

price list

Price list (ramen, udon, curry rice – 900 JPY; oden – 600 JPY; coffee, cocoa – 300 JPY)

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.

Our tent neighbors

Our tent neighbors

Mt. Fuji from our tent

Mt. Fuji from our tent

The temperature before dark

The temperature before dark

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.

Kanpai!

Kanpai!

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.

Obligatory group photo at the summit

Obligatory group photo at the summit

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.DSCN1202

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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.

The few people we shared the sunrise with

The few people we shared the sunrise with

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.DSCN1257

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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.

One of the few photos I was able to take during the traverse

One of the few photos I was able to take during the traverse

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 back

Heading back

Hurrying back to the campsite

Hurrying to the campsite

There was never a sight more welcome: the view of our campsite (and our tent!)

There was never a sight more welcome: the view of our campsite (and our tent!)

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.

Going down

Going down

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.DSCN1328

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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.

Photo credit: Ed Lucio

Photo credit: Ed Lucio

*This post was modified from a feature article written for Trails, the official newsletter of the University of the Philippines Mountaineers.

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11 responses to “Second to none: Climbing Mt. Kitadake in the Japan South Alps

  1. sarahhernandez45084529

    Thanks a lot for this write up, I am planning a trip there this summer and this helps tremendously.
    Cheers

  2. Thanks for the write up. lots of information. We are also planning to visit on Aug 28th. Can you provide few details below if you know. Thanks.
    1. Any map you followed?
    2. Climbing & Decending route is same?
    3. About Kitadake kata-no-koya mountain hut, what does Camping & tent fees refer too? It means we have to get our own tent and use their space or they provide tent also for this price?
    4. Does the bus took normal 2 hrs for travel? Did it keep time? Because we also plan to take 3:10 PM bus, if not I will miss my last train to my home.

    Appreciate any help regard above.

    Regards,

    • Hello! Sorry I only saw this now.
      1. We did not buy maps but there was a brochure with a map at the jumpoff point as well as a big map on the wall that we took a photo of. But the trails were very well-labeled so you would not get lost even without a map

      2. Yes we took the same route back and forth
      3. You need to bring your own tent, you are only paying for the space. They also offer a stay at the mountain hut if you don’t have tents but I think it costs around 8,000 yen per night
      4. The buses are usually on time unless there is some accident… We took the taxi going back to the station because the taxi driver was offering the same rate as the bus, and of course the taxi was much faster than the bus. The taxi was very random though, I think he just had to bring somebody there.

      I hope this is not too late!

      • Thanks a lot for the reply! Maybe not too late. I think think weekend weather is not good and raining, so may postpone to next week. Hoping next week at least will have good weather!

  3. Hello …. Nice BLOG!!! balik kami dito next year (Oct. 2017) to complete shiranezansan

  4. Jec ’06 pala ito hehe

  5. Great post, leaving for Kitadake tonight! Inspired and excited even more 🙂

  6. Thanks for this post! Very helpful indeed. Can you please tell me which month you trekked? How many miles is the ascent? What is the name of the town where the trailhead is located? Thank you!

  7. How can we reserve the tents?

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