On the 6th and 7th of August 2007 I climbed Yarigatake (referred to as "Yari" from here on in) in the Japanese Alps. I'd been in the area a few times previously but hadn't had time to go up Yari.
Yari is a 3180 metre high peak in the Kita (Northern) Alps of Japan. "Yari" means "spear" in Japanese and Yari looks like the head of a spear, being a rock horn sitting on a high ridge. In Japanese "dake" (pronounced "take" when it's combined with some preceding syllables) means "peak" so were this the Alps it would be the "Yarihorn". Although the Japanese tourist authorities like to compare Yari to the Matterhorn, and the two mountains are roughly the same shape, leading to it being called "Japan's Matterhorn", Yari itself (meaning the spear head)is in fact only 150 m high, so in regards to prominence it's about 9 times shorter than the Matterhorn which has a prominence of 1029 metres.
There are several standard routes to Yari, which is an extremely popular peak. As an example of its popularity, on the Monday night I stayed at Yarigatakesanso (which is the hut on the ridge imediately below Yari ("-sanso" means big mountain hut and "-goya" means small mountain hut)) there were 350 people staying there,* and there were expected to be 20,000 over the relatively short hiking season.
*The maximum capacity of this hut is stated to be 650 people, and this is the figure quoted by the Lonely Planet hiking guide to Japan. But this figure has a significant caveat to it: by law the mountain huts cannot turn away anyone UNLESS they are at their maximum capacity. Max capacity is derived by dividing sleeping space by about 30 cm - in other words, everyone will be sleeping on their sides and spooning. I've lived in Japan for 8 of the last 15 years and have only seen that done twice.
The two most popular routes to Yari are along the Yarisawa valley from Kamikochi (an EXTREMELY popular tourist site) and from Tsubakaro-dake, a ridge walk from a parallel mountain range.
I started from Kamikochi and passed through Tokusawa and Yokoo very quickly as the track along the valley floor is a wide, mostly flat dirt road and if you are only carrying a small day-pack you can fly through this section (see note about map times below). For all of this section you are walking through forest near or beside the Azusa river, so it's extremely pleasant and there are beautiful views of the Myojin peaks on the other side of the river. Kamikochi and the Yarisawa valley were traditionally remote areas that remain relatively undeveloped - there are no farms for example, and no sealed roads past the bus terminal. On previous walks I have seen large troops of monkeys here (Japanese macaques) and there are also black bears.
Just after Yokoo the track narrows significantly and becomes a narrow footpath which is mostly in very bad condition - rough, rocky and prone to landslides (and at the top of the valley just below Yari there are scree fields and snow fields to cross). The track continues like this to Yarisawa lodge where I had curry rice and a CC Lemon (a lemon-flavoured soft drink) for lunch. After Yarisawa lodge the tree cover disappears and you are exposed to the strong mountain sun. I was carrying a lot of water but needn't've because fortunately there are two places between Yarisawa lodge and Yari where you can get water, channeled from snow melt feeding into the river.
The Yari valley is concave so the higher you get the steeper it gets and just before the summit ridge there is head wall which is near vertical. This and the heat meant that while I got to Yarisawa lodge in 3 hours, from there to the hut took me another 5 hours, tired and sun-burnt despite wearing sunshirt, broad-brimmed hat, sunblock and sunglasses.
There are 5 snow fields to cross and although these are quite short (the biggest would be about 20 metres wide) I was very cautious about crossing these because a slip would mean a slide down very hard, steep ice onto rocks. I noticed that on several of these snow fields I could only push the tips of my walking poles a few cms into the snow before hitting very hard ice I couldn't penetrate. The Japanese hikers seemed unconcerned, however risk assessment is not a strength of Japanese hikers, most of whom come to hiking very late in life and this combined with the often very exposed routes results in a surprisingly high death rate in the Japanese alps.
After I got to the summit ridge at around 5.00 pm I checked in at the hut. It was incredibly busy as 4 major trails converge here - it looked like Shinjuku station (which, with 3 million passengers a day, is the world's busiest railway station). The hut owner was there and like his multitude of staff was extrememely friendly - my Japanese is a little rusty after some time out of Japan so when they noticed that I was struggling with the registration card they gave me an English one they had prepared.
The hut charged Yen 5500 to stay without meals, 8500 for bed (well, futon) dinner and breakfast and 9500 for bed, dinner, breakfast and a bento to carry for lunch the next day. Usually the bento means a pretty awful onigiri (a rice ball) and a small tetrapak of tea, but in this case I got bamboo wrapped sticky rice (rice, soy sauce, gingko nuts, shitake mushrooms) which was really good. You can also get a private "room" which cost Y4000 more, and can be shared by two people. Given how crowded the hut was, and that I was nominally on holiday, I chose the room option. The "room" was san-jo (three tatami mats, each about 180 cm x 51 cm and was about 150 cm high at the entrance, sloping down from there because of the roof, being the mezzanine section of a room divided in half. I climbed into it up a ladder I could have sworn was leaning backwards. But I had two walls, albeit plywood, a futon, three kaki-buton (thin futons used as blankets), my own window and a curtain door so it was comparative luxury and not so different to what I lived in when I first moved to Japan.
There were two sittings for dinner, at half-hour intervals. The food was standard Japanese mountain hut fare - a communal tub of rice for each table of 10, a communal pot of miso soup for the table, and a main plate with a little fish, pickles, sui mai etc. Basically you fill up on the rice and miso. The rice sits at one end of the table and the miso at the other and the etiquette is that the person sitting closest to each fills everyone else's bowl. My status as a foreigner threw everything into confusion as the elderly gentleman who took my rice bowl and filled it was then unsure whether to pass it back to me, and it disappeared into the centre of the table. I then asked for it to be passed back to me and the realisation that I spoke Japanese resolved everything. As always people were curious about where I was from, how long I'd been in Japan and which route I was taking. Interestingly nearly everyone I spoke to at the hut was from rural Japan rather than Tokyo or Osaka - I wonder if the urbanites are abandoning hiking as recreation? A lot of the people I met at the hut and on the track spoke a little English and were happy to speak it - but in practice you need to speak at least basic Japanese or carry an English/Japanese dictionary (which I alway have in my pack for when my vocabulary runs out).
Japanese mountain huts operate on alpine time and so it's lights out at 8.30 pm and people get up at 4.00 am with lights on at 5.00 am. There is good sense in this: Japan does not operate daylight saving and so even in high summer it will be pitch black at 7.00 pm in the Japan Alps (Hokkaido is much further north so has longer days). Also, it's common for thunder storms to develop in the late afternoon so it makes sense to be off the ridges and at a hut or campsite before they hit. The first walk I did in Japan I started very late in the day, climbed the wrong mountain and then went up a notorious section of chains and ladders in the dark to get to the right one, so I do recommend an early start.
I went to bed but being jetlagged couldn't sleep, so watched Mars rise from my window instead.
In the morning everyone got up at 4.00 am with many intending to be on the summit for sunrise. Given that the summit is only about 20 m2 I decided that I wouldn't be one of them and elected to sleep in until 5.00 am. I then had breakfast (rice, miso, salted salmon, pickles)and packed up. I shook out and stacked and folded my futon and kakibuton, left my pack in the hut and went up Yari.
You climb Yari by scrambling up the rock, assisted by rickety, rusted steel ladders and pegs in the steep and vertical places. You wouldn't want to slip as it's very exposed. The summit was shrouded in clouds so I waited for half an hour and was rewarded with staggering views when the cloud lifted. Some of the Japanese at the summit asked if they could take photos of me - I wasn't sure whether it was me or my sexy new Paramo Velez they wanted photos of.
I then went back to the hut, picked up my pack and went on to Obami-dake. I had intended to go on to Minami-dake and check out the Daikiretto for future reference (the Daikiretto, literally "the big cut", is a slash in the main ridge that is terribly exposed and requires you to climb down ladders and chains then up again with massive unprotected drops on both sides - people do die there) then go down Tengu-daira and rejoin the main Yarisawa trail, but I was tired and the Tengu-daira crossed a hanging snow field so I elected to simply go down the Yarisawa.
I got back to my lodge at Kamikochi at 4.00 pm after stopping for lunch at Yarisawa lodge (curry rice and CC Lemon again). I took off my shoes and put my aching feet in the icy water of the Azusa river, then went to my lodge's ofuro (communal bath) for a shower and soak.
Note re maps & walking times
It's common when reading foreigners' accounts of walking in Japan - even in the Lonely Planet guide, whose authors really should know better - to see something like this "the map said this section would take 3 hours but we did it in only 1". The implication is that the author is incredibly quick and the Japanese map compilers and the Japanese generally are slow/unfit/noddy. However if these foreigners cared to turn their attention to the map legend they'd see a note explaining that the suggested times on the map presume that the walker is carrying a pack of between 10 and 15 kgs: if, like me, you're only carrying a small daypack then pretty obviously you're going to be quicker than that.
Given the heat in the upper valley, rather than walking from Kamikochi and being above the tree line in the early afternoon heat, it would make sense to walk on to Tokusawa, Yokoo or Yarisawa lodge from Kamikochi the day you arrive (presuming you arrive early enough to do so), stay the night at one of those huts and then do the upper valley before the real heat hits. Many of the Japanese walkers do the trip up to Yari over two days, not one, staying at Toku, Yokoo or Yarisawa overnight because they tend to carry a lot of gear and they're generally not in a hurry in any case, mostly being retirees.
There is a really interesting alternative route back from Yari to Kamikochi which I intend to explore a little further. Basically you drop off the back of Yari, walk along either the next ridge or the valley and end up at Shinhotaka onsen. From here you can take a cablecar up to Shinhotaka, cross the ridge and walk back down into Kamikochi. Several people were planning to do this and a number of elderly people we spoke to in Kamikochi were planning on doing the reverse but with the intention of going to the onsen, not Yari.