Hiking the Hakuba Range (白馬連峰)

At the end of August, looking to escape the Tokyo summer heat, I took a highway bus from Shinjuku to Hakuba, the famous ski town in Nagano, for a three-day solo hike in the Hakuba Range.

Hakuba hike map

My 3-day hiking route and planned alternate course, in case of adverse weather.

Day 1: Wednesday, August 30

Happo Ike Hut (八方池山荘) –> Karamatsudake Hut (唐松岳頂上山荘) (4.56km)

The 6:35 AM highway bus from Shinjuku Bus Terminal direct to Hakuba Happo Bus Terminal arrived on time at around 11:45 AM. First things first, I went to the Montbell store on the second floor of the bus terminal building to purchase a fuel canister. Then, I got directions and a bus schedule for post-hike logistics from the information counter.

To reach the beginning of my hike, I took the Adam Gondola and two ski lifts up Happo One (pronounced “oh-nay”, meaning ridge) Ski Resort. At the top of Adam Gondola, I purchased a Nozawana oyaki for lunch and ate it on the next lift up. (“Oyaki” is a Nagano specialty buckwheat steamed bun.) The lifts were set really low, and I swung my feet in the long grass. Dairy cows relaxed on the verdant green ski slopes.


The lifts got me up to Happo Ike Hut by 1 PM. Upon asking where to get water, I was informed it was 100 yen for up to two liters. I had 500 ml on me and should’ve filled up at the bottom of the mountain for free. Rookie mistake!

The weather forecast for the week was rainy, and when the bus had driven into Hakuba Valley the clouds were hanging low, covering to tops of the mountains on both sides of the valley. But by the time I reached Happo Ike pond at about 1:40 PM, the fog had begun to lift. I took a coffee break and enjoyed the reflection of the Hakuba range in the pond.


There’s a little shrine at Happo Ike to the dragon god who lives in the pond.

Beyond Happo Ike, you leave the tourists behind. Since I started hiking in the afternoon, I ran into only one other hiker on the way up to Karamatsudake Hut, where I camped for the night. He was an older gentleman who had driven up from Chiba in the morning, so we were on more or less the same schedule. Seeing the sleeping pad strapped to the outside of my pack, he asked if I was tent camping. He was curious how heavy my pack was. I said that the scale at the bottom of Happo One said 11 kilograms. He said his was 12 kg, and he was planning to stay at the hut, which meant he hadn’t packed food, tent, or sleeping bag… how come my pack was so light? Then, he realized he was carrying 2 kilograms worth of camera kit. I said, that totally explains it, because my tent is only 750 grams and my sleeping bag even less than that. That’s one benefit of having not gotten crazy about photography while hiking… yet.

I completed the anticipated 4-hour hike from Happo Ike Hut to Karamatsudake Hut in just about 3 hours. It’s a short hiking day, but I’d been up and traveling since 5 AM and was satisfied to call it a day. Welcomed by a sign offering draft beer, I checked-in and paid 1000 yen for a tent site. After a brief chat with the girl at reception about mountains in Taiwan, I set up camp. The campground consisted of scattered sites down the other side of the ridge from where I had climbed up, and offered amazing views of the Tateyama peaks dominated by Mt. Tsurugi.


Karamatsudake Hut


What my campsite looked like


View of Karamatsudake Hut and tent sites

I’m relaxing and unpacking and somehow 1.5 hours disappeared. I climbed back up the ridge to go to the hut to use the restrooms, then returned to my tent to cook dinner as sunset fell on the archipelago of the Kita Alps in a cotton candy sea.


Sunset on cloud-capped Mt. Tsurugi


Scoping out the next day’s hike: looking north across Kaerazunoken

Day 2: Thursday, August 31

Karamatsudake Hut –> Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha (白馬岳頂上宿舎) (8.64km)

I am awakened in the middle of the night by rain inside my tent. It’s condensation being shaken off the inside of my tent by the wind blowing outside. I wiped down the inside of my tent with a small camp towel, changed the orientation of my head (since I had been sliding down toward one end of my tent) and slept much better for the rest of the night.

I had ambitious plans to wake up for sunrise but couldn’t actually motivate myself to get up. Anyway, when I finally got out of my tent there was pretty much zero visibility due to the mist. I packed up my tent and went to the hut to brush my teeth, pee, and make some coffee. Reception at the hut tried to sell me 1L of PET bottled water for 600 yen, but I purchased 1L of unfiltered river water for 150 yen and ran it through my Sawyer filter.

It was imperceptibly drizzling as I started the day’s hike and after about 20 minutes, I stopped for breakfast of a piece of Family Mart chocolate pound cake at the peak of Karamatsudake. It’s wrapper had conveniently puffed up into a balloon at high elevation to keep it from getting smushed in my pack.


400 calories of chocolatey goodness

The next section of the hike was a rocky traverse called Kaerazu no Ken (不帰の険), which translates to “Cliffs of No Return”. It looked pretty sketchy based on the trip reports I’d read on Yamareco and my map had a dotted line labeled “danger”. So, in case of heavy rain and low visibility, I had a plan B of going south from Mt. Karamatsu and taking an easier traverse to Mt. Goryu. I was walking among wisps of cloud, but it wasn’t raining so I decided to follow plan A and go for it. Just past the first sign marking the beginning of Kaerazu no Ken, the trail wasn’t too bad. A family of ptarmigan waddled down the trail in front of me, unperturbed by my presence. But soon I had put away my trekking poles and found myself traversing cliffs on chains and swinging around rocky corners trying to stay balanced with a bulky pack on my back. Finishing the traverse without falling to my death, I was rewarded with a huge slogging uphill climb on switchbacks and then some more chains to the top of Tengu no Kashira (天狗ノ頭). From the top of Tengu no Kashira, you could see that the peaks to the south were super rocky and steep compared to the rolling ridge to the north, which looked much less extreme.


Sign warning hikers of the start of Kaerazu no Ken




These chains will later make the cables at Half Dome a piece of cake


“I think the trail goes that way?”


“Snow river” in the valley that will not melt through to the next snow season


View south of Tengu no Kashira


View north of Tengu no Kashira

I was pretty spent by the time I got to Tengu Hut. The clouds thinned and parted a bit and I quite successfully dried out my tent and aired out my feet over lunch at a picnic table in front of Tengu Hut.


Lunch, tent drying, and water-getting at Tengu Hut

However, by the time I started back on the trail again, the mist had dropped again and there was no visibility as I crossed the small snowfield after Tengu Hut, making it a bit scary as I couldn’t see where I was going. Then, there was a climb up brilliant white marble (?) scree to the top of Hakuba-Yarigatake. Since there was still no visibility, I took the easy route around Sakushidake (杓子岳) instead of summiting another peak. Past the Hakuba saddle there were supposed to be alpine flower meadows, but I couldn’t really see anything. I finally spotted a sign for the municipal run Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha hut (白馬岳頂上宿舎), paid my 1000 yen to camp out back and warmed up in the restaurant.

Day 3: Friday, September 1

Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha –> Tsugaike Shisenen Ropeway Station (6km)

Sometime during the night, I pulled my Buff down over my eyes and ended up sleeping past sunrise again. It was the coldest night I’d spent so far in my tent and sleeping bag, and when I awoke I stuffed my hiking clothes inside my sleeping bag to warm them up and unzipped the mesh door of my tent to my heat up some breakfast in the vestibule of my tent while still sitting in my sleeping bag. It’s a brilliant blue sunny sky out. Darn it! I missed a beautiful sunrise. After eating, I zipped my tent back up and put on my now toasty warm hiking clothes. The sun was just beginning to warm my tent as well, as I pushed my pack out through the tent door, collapsed the tent and collected my tent stakes. The tent was pretty dry from the sunny morning, so I didn’t have to worry about drying it during the day.



I made my way up to the top of Mt. Shirouma. There is a another huge hut right there! Yesterday, I couldn’t see anything. This is why I like overnight hiking: you get two chances to see stuff. At Mt. Karamatsu, the night before, I had a beautiful sunset, but no view in the morning in the morning. Last night, there I couldn’t see anything when I arrived at the campsite, but this morning there is not a cloud in the sky.

Behind the privately run Hakuba Sanso hut near the peak, there was a spot on the ground that marked each of the landmarks in the distance. Looking southwest, I could see Yatsugatake. Unfortunately, there was no Fuji view that morning. Toward the south, I saw Shakushi and Hakuba-Yari peaks which I crossed yesterday. In the distance, I could see Yarigatake and Mt. Hotaka, and closer Mt. Tsurugi; toward the west, Toyama city and Noto penninsula surrounding Toyama Bay, further west, the Sea of Japan.


Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha Hut


View from Hakuba Sanso Hut


There was more of this view in full 360 degrees from the top of Mt. Shirouma. Toward the northeast was the mellow ridge leading to Mt. Korenge that I would walk that day. The ridge rising above the clouds looked like the backbone of a sleeping dragon. And then it sank beneath the rising clouds.


Dragon’s backbone of Mt. Korenge (View from summit of Mt. Shirouma)

After an initial steep decent, it was an easy and flat walk on crushed rock the size of large gravel. I passed by large cairns lurking mysteriously in the fog. The white rock changed to red, indicating iron content. My map showed a side trail leading on to the site of an old refinery and mine office.

The rocks on the slope up Mt. Korenge tinkled like glass when I walked over them. I picked one up and it felt lighter than it looked. An almost pumice. Atop Mt. Korenge, I took a break for a second breakfast of coffee, nuts and salami. I packed out an abandoned tupperware that obviously had held someone’s lunch in it. (It was a nice tupperware, but I was afraid to open it to wash it out and ended up just throwing it away when I got down to the gondola station at Tsugaike.)


Mt. Shirouma behind me

At Hakuba Oike Hut, I picked up some water (free!) and admired the flat campground looking onto an alpine meadow. Should be pretty on a clear day. Where is the pond? I followed the sign for Tsugaike to the other side of the hut and see the edge of the water in the mist and the trail going around the pond. After following the trail for the while, I think, this is a huge pond! More like a lake? I could only see the edge of the clear green water but it feels like the trail has been going around it for quite a while. The trail becomes some pretty fun rock hopping with occasional X and O symbols directing the way. It was like this all the way to the top of Mt. Norikura, which is not much of a peak but the high point on a flat mountain top. (No use hiking here to snowboard down, you’d just be stuck!) Finally, the sky opens just briefly enough for me to see the whole Hakuba Oike pond and take a photo.


Hakuba Oike pond

There was more rock hopping until I reached a small snowfield, and after the snowfield the rock hopping got quite a bit more challenging. Climbing down big boulders with a heavy pack on is much more difficult than with only a day pack, because you don’t want to destroy your knees and ankles from impact. Finally, finally, I reached the raised wooden platforms set over a marsh I’d been spying from up above.


The wooden walkway was being replaced, and there were pallets of new wood to be installed off to the sides of the pathway. I hopped over onto one of the pallets and made myself comfortable. Since I didn’t really pack lunch for this last day, I end up cooking half a pack of quick cook pasta and a cube of kimchi jigae soup, since that’s what I have left. Yes, I have become one of those Japanese hikers that cooks hot lunch!


Lunch break!

As I was packing up after my lunch break, one of the workmen made his way over and asked me when I was heading down. He was looking for someone to walk down with. I’m a little weirded out initially, but he started telling me about his job. He and his team have been up at Tsugaike since July living in two trailers by the top of the Tsugaike ropeway. His company also did the wooden walkways at Happo-Ike, which I passed the first day of my hike, as well as at Mt. Naeba and Mt. Hotaka. I commented that it was a nice job to be able to work in all those beautiful places. He replied that he only comes to the mountains to work, his hobby is golf. He pointed out some bear scat on the trail. I haven’t seen a bear while in Japan yet!

We ran into a hiker testing the water at a spring. This water is safe, he called out to us, so we stopped for a drink and a chat. This typical retiree hiker explained he thought it would be boring to just set a goal of climbing the Hyakumeisan, so his personal goal is to test all the water sources on the Hyakumeisan. He says that so far, all the water sources he’s tested have been potable. Good to know right?


Guided by someone who’s walked up and down the trail everyday for months, I made it down to Tsugaike ropeway safely, with no injuries and finished my hike in good time. After getting to the bottom of Tsugaike Ski Resort, I consulted the bus schedule. I could’ve either hopped a bus direct from Tsugaike back to Tokyo, but I ended up busing back to Happo Bus Terminal where busses are more frequent so I could catch an onsen before returning to Tokyo.


The ski resorts of Hakuba Valley come into view


Tsugaike Gondola, the end of my hike

Logistics and Costs

I picked Hakuba for this last minute hike because the logistics were easy. I took a highway bus to and from Shinjuku, ski resort gondolas and lifts to and from the trail heads, and one of the Hakuba town buses from Tsugaike back to Happo Bus Terminal.

Shinjuku <–> Happo Bus Terminal Highway Bus: 8700 yen round trip

Happo-One Ski Resort: one-way up Adam Gondola – 1550 yen (1400 yen if you have a jRO search and rescue insurance card)

Tsugaike Ski Resort: one-way down the ropeway – 1360 yen

Tsugaike –> Hakuba bus: 560 yen

Tent site at Mt. Karamatsu: 1000 yen

Tent site at municipal Shirouma Hut: 1000 yen

Trip Tips

I wouldn’t have done Kaerazu no Ken by myself if it was raining. If it had been raining that morning at Mt. Karamatsu, my Plan B was to go south to Mt. Goryu, instead of north to Mt. Shirouma, because that ridge is less dangerous. Kaerazu no Ken was pretty sketchy and since I was alone, I was very careful and it took me 1.5 times the estimated course time on the map to complete it, because I didn’t want to lose my grip or footing anywhere and fall into an abyss…

There are two huts at the top of Mt. Shirouma, Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha (白馬岳頂上宿舎) and Hakuba Sanso (白馬山荘). Hakuba Sanso does not have tent sites.

There is free water at Tengu Hut, Hakubadake Chojo Shukusha and Hakuba Oike Hut, but not at Happo Ike Hut or Karamatsudake Hut.

Yakushima Hike Day 2: So Stoke!

Shin-Takazuka Hut (新高塚小屋) is warm, comfy and quiet until 3:45 AM with the first rustlings of someone getting up to go to the toilet. The wind picked up overnight so I’m grateful for the hut. Since I fell asleep around 8 PM, I’ve just been lying awake in my comfy down cocoon since 3:30 AM after eight and a half hours of solid sleep. I’m enjoying my sleep-in but by 4:45 it’s full-blown crinkling of food wrappers and deflating sleeping pads and the jet sounds of canister stoves. I was going to wait for light to get up and make breakfast outside but at 5 AM I give up and fire up my stove in the light of my headlamp, contributing to not putting enough hot water in my thermos for coffee, which I will only find out later in the day (and top up with cold water).

Today’s big decision is whether to aim for Yodogo Hut (淀川小屋) or Ishizuka Hut (石塚小屋) depending on the weather forecast for Thursday. I’m thinking of staying at Ishizuka Hut and exiting out of Yakusugi Land via Hananoego Trail if the weather for Thursday looks like it will permit a full day hike. Alternately, from Yodogo Hut, it’s only an hour to Yodogo trailhead and then 30 minutes further to a bus stop out of the mountains if Thursday’s weather looks unpleasant. I hope to pick up cell signal to check on the weather from the top of Miyanouradake (宮之浦岳).

As for today, it’s bright blue skies! Departing Shin-Takazuka Hut around 6:15 AM, the hike is up and up and the trees get shorter and more twisted until you pop out around a corner to an amazing view and almost get whipped off the trail by the wind. I try to hold steady to snap a few photos and then am grateful to duck back into the safety of a grove of trees.


Yakushima’s Half Dome?



Trees eventually give way to short bamboo grass (which my mom says is like the high mountains in Taiwan – I will have to go see!) and bare granite boulders piled in interesting formations. Yakushima is basically a giant granite plug formed by magma pushing up above sea level. As you hike you can see how the granite is eroding; there are lots of little square pieces of white rock along the trail and you can see them in the granite boulders you walk past. A lot of the trail is raised on wooden boardwalk and stairs because where you put your feet the thin delicate soil will wear off and become a granite path water flows down. You walk through a lot of water, but it’s clear and not muddy because there isn’t enough dirt.


Looking back at the trail from where I came


apparently these are potassium feldspar crystals

Three, maybe four, people left the hut in the same direction as me and I pass one and then wave to another a bit of a ways ahead of me, but otherwise I see no one else on the trail. The view is exhilarating and the rock formations fascinating and before I know it I’ve reached the top of Miyanouradake.


Miyanouradake: Kyushu’s highest peak at 1936 meters (6352 feet)

It’s 9 AM, so I’ve been hiking for almost 3 hours but it totally doesn’t feel that long even though it was uphill because it was so fun and my stoke level is super high. I have the peak all to myself. Not only do I have a 360 degree view to the sea on all sides, I can see the hazy line that is Tanegashima (種子島) on one side and a small more triangular shape of Kuchinoerabujima (口永良部島) on the other. I have a snack, some coffee, text Kiwi sig other that I am still alive and check the weather as cell reception comes in and out. Apparently, it’s supposed to start raining Thursday around noon, but the rain doesn’t look too bad, it’s not thunderstorms like on Monday. If it’s the last day of hiking, even if I get wet and cold I can warm up and clean up at an onsen at the end of the day. Hrm, still not sure where I’ll sleep tonight.

Then another hiker reaches the summit so I decide to head down to give him his own exhilarating top of the world moment. Going down from the summit the trail starts to get more and more wet and marshy, and I begin to see more people. Basic trail etiquette is that people climbing up have the right of way. As I step aside, I feel irrationally resentful of the people carrying daypacks to summit Mt. Miyanoura from Yodogo Trailhead since I somehow feel like I earned it more than them. I start to run into some mountain guides labeled by the ID tags hanging from plastic sleeves around their necks carrying very large packs and their group members carrying much smaller ones. I run into one such guide, smile, say “konnichiwa” and pull aside. He says, there are 30 people in our group, please go ahead where you can. I dodge through the crowd on the trail as if it’s Shinjuku Station. I think I whack a couple with my sleeping pad. WTF. Who hikes in a 30-person group? That would be my absolute nightmare.


View coming down off Miyaouradake. Note the famous Tofu-iwa (Tofu rock) on the right midground. I think it looks like a sliced mantou (饅頭 – Chinese plain white steamed bun).

Around noon, I drop my pack for the side trail to Kuromidake (黒味岳), where I again find solitude and enjoy having the summit all to myself. Coming down from Kuromidake, I run into 3 other folks. One is a gentleman from Morioka who stayed at Shin-Takazuka Hut the night before and we have a short chat about our plans for the day. (We had chatted about Morioka and Iwatesan yesterday because I’m also familiar with the area because I pass through quite a bit going back to my JET Program hometown in Akita.) I tell him about my dilemma about Ishizuka Hut versus Yodogo Hut and how checking the weather on Miyanouradake didn’t help me reach a conclusion.


Panorama from the top of Kuromidake

I’m taking a break on a wooden platform at Hananoego (花之江河) junction when I see the guy from Morioka again. This is the junction where I can go to either Ishizuka Hut or Yodogo Hut. “I haven’t decided yet,” I say. He says after he saw me he had a chat with a nice young man who is a grad student in Kagoshima and that guy said he climbed Tachudake yesterday and it should not be missed. So his new plan is to stay at Yodogo Hut, hike the forest road to Yakusugi Land and climb Tachudake (太忠岳) tomorrow. Interesting, I say, that is a full day hiking option out of Yodogo Hut I hadn’t thought of. If he doesn’t mind me possibly glomming onto his plan, I guess I will stay at Yodogo Hut.

A third hiker we know from Shin-Takazuka Hut emerges from the bush. “Where did you come from,” says my new dad from Morioka (turns out he has three daughters in their 30s), “I thought you left earlier than we did.” The third hiker says he’d been hanging out by some rock formations all day. He asks, “Did you see that group of 30 go by?” I say, “Yes. Ugh. Hiking in a group of 30 would be my absolute nightmare!” He tells us, “I overheard they will be staying at Shin-Takazuka Hut tonight. Weren’t we lucky!”

It’s about 1:30 PM when the other hiker and I push on as dad from Morioka lays down for a nap. Photos don’t do Hananoego justice, it looks like a landscaped Japanese garden with ponds enclosed by moss carpeted marsh, framed by wind scarred and shaped white yakusugi, surrounded by mountains dotted with ornamental granite boulders.


Hananoego, Japan’s southernmost alpine marsh

At 3:10 PM, I arrive at Yodogo Hut. Yodogo (I was corrected by another hiker who said in Yakushima dialect the word for river is pronounced “go”) is really pretty in the afternoon light. It’s shallow, clear as glass and tinted green from the foilage above it. I again claim a spot on the second floor of the hut, then steal a pair of slippers from the hut shoe cubby to use as camp shoes while I stick my socks and shoes in a patch of sun to dry. They are soaked from walking in water half the day. I’m snacking on Yodogo bridge, studying my map with my feet dangling over the water when another hiker points out two yakushima monkeys (smaller than normal Japanese macaques) grooming each other on a tree branch overhanging the river.


Over dinner, I listen in on the conversation between dad from Morioka and the other hiker from Shin-Takazuka Hut while sipping umeshu no oyuwari (hot plum wine), courtesy of my new dad from Morioka. Turns out they are both serious Hyakumeisan peak baggers pretty close to finishing. Dad from Morioka drove to Kagoshima all the way from Morioka. Yakushima is part of his trip to bag all the Hyakumeisan peaks in Kyushu, with the exception of Mt. Aso, the peak of which is still off-limits due to recent volcanic activity. The other hiker is now pretty much only missing Hokkaido. He tells a story of one time he went on a three day hike and got back to his car at the trailhead only to find he was trapped for three additional days because the forest road back to civilization had washed out. They exchange tips on how to modify your car for better shachuhaku (車中泊 — sleeping in your car) at the trailhead.

At 7 PM it’s hiker lights out. I haven’t seen any manmade structures all day except for trail, and even if there are the huts, there is no electricity. I wonder if I can see any stars. The thought seizes me. I crawl out of my sleeping bag and down the ladder, tiptoe past the other sleeping hikers and run out to Yodogo bridge. But with tomorrow’s cloud cover already coming in, I only see about the same number of stars I usually see in Tokyo.

Date: April 19 • Start: Shin-Takazuka Hut • End: Yodogo Hut • Distance hiked: 9.6 km Achievements Unlocked: first time multi-day hiking • bagged a Hyakumeisan