Ascending Tateyama in the Northern Alps

Planning

September, 2002, two coworkers and I headed for Tateyama. Tateyama is a group of peaks in the Northern Japan Alps in Toyama Prefecture. Our plan was to ascend Tateyama one day, followed by Tsurugidake the next day. Tsurugidake is said to be one of the most technically challenging of Japan's 100 famous mountains. In addition, Tateyama is one of the three most sacred mountains in Japan. The other two are Fujisan in Yamanashi and Hakusan also in Toyama prefecture.

The Hike

The temperature was about 10-12 Deg C or 50-54 Dec F during the entire two days. There was still a few large patches of snow left from the previous winter. We arrived at Murodo at 10:30 a.m., two hours after first boarding the Alpine Route in Ogisawa. The Alpine Route is the name of the multi-transportation route from Ogisawa to Murodo where the trail begins. Read more about the Alpine Route on the Toyama page. Murodo station was crowded with tourists so we soon headed of into the mountains and away from the crowds.

map

This was our planned course. The map is oriented with North at the top. From Murodo (1) a estimated 5-6 hour hike to the Kenzanso mountain hut (4) passing through Oyama (2) and other peaks in Tateyama. The next day we planned to leave our packs at the mountain hut and ascend of Tsurugidake (5). Then retrieve our packs and the return to Murodo (1) via Jigoku-dani (7) for a grueling day of 8-9 hours of ascending according to the map and total of 18 km of hiking for the two days. It is good to be conservative when planning your hike, but your actual hiking time will of'course depend on the abilities of your party.

oyamaascent

At 11:35 we arrived at Ichonokoshi. There is a mountain hut here and some hikers were chowing down ramen. We took a few photos and 10 minutes later continued on our way. Our next goal was Oyama a peak in the Tateyama Mountains. Tateyama is a popular hiking spot and the crowds had not completely thinned out by this time. In fact, we had to stop on a few occasions due to traffic jams ascending this steep section which was packed with hikers doing day-hikes to Tateyama from Murodo.

rockpiles

A coworker and I paused here to each add a rock to the top in order to ask mountain gods for a safe journey.

oyamagoya

We arrived at the mountain hut at the peak of Oyama by 12:45 p.m. (2) on the map. In Japan it seems that there is often a mountain hut at the summit selling souvenirs, and food and drink. Japanese visitors climbing in the States are likely to be disappointed if they are counting on a cup of hot Ramen noodles when they arrive at the peak and find nothing but nature.

oyamatera

There is a Shinto Shrine atop of Oyama. Up until the end of September for a fee you can attend a short service. I seemed to be the only one interested within my group. So while the group was taking a break I paid my 500 yen and climbed the additional 12 meters to the Shrine. After the 10 min. service everyone drank a sip of Omiki which is blessed Japanese sake. The group took a total of a 45 minute break before moving on. The crowds thinned out at this point. Many hikers would return the way they came and some day hikers would continue on to Obashiru or Bessan and then loop back to Murodo. As planned we continued on and reached Onanjiyama. It was now 1:45. A coworker and I went off the main trail a few minutes to ascend the highest point of Tateyama at 3015 meters.

saddle

Continuing over the saddle is this photo we reached Bessan at 3:20 p.m. and felt pretty good. We spent 20 minutes chatting with some of the other hikers about the Tsurugidake ascent. One hiker told us he took one look at the ascent and decided not to continue. This was the same as some of the stories I had heard about Tsurugidake. From Bessan we began to descend the other side of Tateyama. From here we began a steady descent. It was not raining but there was thick fog and mist in the air. This is where we broke away from the day-hikers and did not see anyone else on the trail until we passed a mountain hut on our way to Kenzanso. This gave us a good chance to see some Raichou (grouse) which is the prefectural bird of Toyama. My coworker seemed to know all the local plants and birds pretty well.

tvroom

At 4:55 p.m. we arrived at Kenzanso, (4) on the map, 5 minutes ahead of our estimated time. On our way to the room I noticed that playing on the TV in the TV room was the 15th and final day of the Sumo tournament in Tokyo. This is the same tournament in Tokyo that I had gone to the previous week. We were just in time to catch about 4 matches before the final match between the two grand champions Musashimaru and the now retired Takanohana. I was rooting for Takanohana the underdog who really needed the win, but unfortunately did not get it. A call came over the hut's radio. A man in his 50's had slipped on the trail to Tsurugidake at a section about an hour from the hut. He fell 100 meters to his death. That night we watched the news and learned that Typhoon 19 would bring strong winds and rain. We soaked in the Ofuro for about 30 minutes then had Dinner. We discussed the next day's plan, and decided to get up 4:30 a.m. and if it was not raining head for Tsurugidake. However the rain started about 10 p.m. and when we woke at 4:30 a.m. the next day it was raining quite hard. We were told the final approach of Tsurugidake was too dangerous if wet and so we were force to abort the ascent.

jigoku

The view of Jokoku-dani from above. 7:00 a.m. We left Kenzanso geared up for the rain. By this time the rain had changed to a steady drizzle. I had packed enough for a small snow storm so a little rain was no problem. We headed south and this time took the west most trail. The weather now started to clear up a little by this time. The rain had almost stopped and the wind would carry the fog away for a few minutes now and then. The party continued to Jigoku-dani which means "hell valley". It gets its name from the natural hot springs that cause the strong smell of sulphur and water and steam bubbling from patches of mud.

onsenblg

We arrived at Mikurigaike Onsen mountain hut or hotel at (7) on the map.It was not quite as rustic as the other places and had a large cafeteria. This hotel is only a 15 minute walk from the station at Murodo so we found our self again surrounded by tourists.

onsen

Mikurigaike Onsen is the onsen at the highest elevation in all of Japan. After soaking in the famous onsen, we took a break for a beer. Although we had not made it to the top of Tsurugidake, and although both my partners with little hope that the weather would permit the ascent, already had a beer the night before, we still did a sort of victory konpai (cheers).

overview

Here during our final approach to Murodo, we took a last look at Tateyama the high peaks in the background.

Planning

There are several good hikes from Murodo. Tateyama and Tsurugidake being the two main peaks. These can be done on the same weekend if your party are all strong hikers. Otherwise these split up nicely into separate trips. If you are interested in a multi-night trip there seem to be plenty of trails to accommodate this including some fairly secluded-looking natural onsen.

When to Go

When to go will be an important decision. After giving this careful thought, I had decided on the 3rd weekend of September. This was pretty good for Tateyama and I am convinced, had the weather been better, this would have been pretty good timing for Tsurugidake too. I few things to keep in mind. The bath in Kenzanso closes for the season after September. The Shinto Shrine a top of Oyama also stops its services after September. I have been told that July is probably the worst time to hike with August not being much better. The problem is the hoards and hoards of people on summer vacation. On the Alpine route, I had to deal with little old ladies pushing their way onto the trolley first to get a seat, tour groups gathering at the bottom and blocking the only staircase out of the station waiting for there coordinator to finish paper work, and this was in October after the official end of the season! The middle of August is likely to be 10 times worst. I heard stories of people waiting 3 hours to ascend a chain at one section of Tsurugidake because some Obasan (old lady) was frozen on the ascent crying "kowai, kowai" which means "It's scary!".

Getting There

Getting there is another issue. If you are coming from the East, unless you are coming from Tokyo, the Alpine route is a necessary evil. The Alpine Route is the name of the multi-transportation route from Ogisawa to Murodo where the trail begins. This is the only means of transportation except for special buses out of Tokyo and Osaka. Driving your own car directly to Murodo is not permitted. This is convenient since the Alpine Route to Murodo costs a whopping 8500 yen round trip. If coming from Tokyo or Osaka I heard there is a night bus direct to Murodo which bypasses the expensive and time consuming Alpine route. Consider yourself lucky! If going by car, then you can park overnight in the town of Ogisawa. The drive is about 3 hours from Kofu. Between the gas, tolls, and the cost of the Alpine route, getting there from Kofu is certainly not cheap, but worth the cost.

Where to Stay

Kenzanso is the closest mountain hut to Tsurugidake which makes it the perfect base camp, if you will, for the ascent. The phone number is 0764-82-1564. The cost is 8400 yen per night with meals. However, there are other mountain huts as well as camp areas. I used two resources for planning. The first was the Lonely Planet Hiking in Japan listed on the main hiking page which is great value if you plan to do at least a few hikes in Japan. And the second, Tateyama and Tsurugidake topo map which can be found in many large book stores in Japan. In my opinion, the second is a must. The mountain huts are like youth hostels in which you share a room with other hikers. I believe men and women are separated unless you book an entire room. At Kenzanso we had the option of eating breakfast in the mountain hut or taking a boxed breakfast with us.

What to Pack

In regards to packing, no special gear is needed. I would suggest good broken in hiking boots, rain gear, map and compass, flashlight, and all the other standard hiking essencials. There is mountain spring water you can fill up with at Murodo. Although there are mountain huts along the way, you should always carry enough water in case you get off track or run into some emergency. I would suggest carrying enough water to get you to Kenzanso.