Standing above the north-east of Lake Chuzenji in Nikko National Park is the dominating presence of a stratovolcano called Mount Nantai.
A previous eruption from this symmetrical volcanic cone created this lake and the famous Kegon Falls by damming the old river. Mount Nantai means ‘man’s body mountain’, the meaning of which you can debate amongst yourselves.
This was a gruelling hike, but one we are glad to have taken on. Passing through hugely varying terrain, we hiked on a day of heavy mist and light rain early in the hiking season. With muddy, uneven paths and slippery rock to navigate up very steep slopes, this was easily the most physically demanding hike we did in Japan.
Early on Friday 26 May, we headed to the trailhead and on towards this mist-clad summit.
- Time of hike: 3.5 hours up, 3 hours down.
- Terrain: Varied and challenging. From steep (and muddy) woodland to a winding road to an even more treacherous mudslide, rock scrambling and finally very loose volcanic rocks. This hike goes straight up the side of the mountain and expect a switchback to be a very rare thing indeed.
- Distance and Elevation: A short summit return distance of around 10 km disguises the gruelling nature of climbing and descending 1,230 m. The road is literally the only rest bite.
- Entrance fee: Climbing Mount Nantai costs 1,000 yen, payable to the monks in the shrine at the trailhead. There’s no way to avoid this without a very long approach route along the road to the east.
- Travel: If you are heading up for a few days, opt for the Nikko All Area Pass. Available from Asakusa station in Tokyo, it costs 4,520 yen, which is cheaper than a basic train and bus return. Given the cost of local buses (very expensive), it’s well worth getting one.
From Asakusa (we actually went from Kita-Senju) board the section express to Tobu-Nikko, then transfer to a bus towards Yumoto Onsen or Chuzenji Onsen. The train takes 2-2.5 hours and includes at least one change. The bus takes around an hour to reach Chuzenji. There is a faster Kegon train, but it’s about double the cost.
- Accommodation: We stayed at the Shobu-ga-hama campsite, which is a 15-minute bus ride west from the trailhead (stay on the bus to Yumoto onsen). It is possible to walk this route, though allow a little under an hour to do so. The campsite is next to the lake, has a small shop and a great host called Yoshi. Expect to pay 800 yen per person per night plus tax (8%)
- There is no water on the mountain so carry what you’ll need with you.
Description of the Mount Nantai hike
The hike begins in the Nikki Futarasan Shrine, where you pay the entrance fee. Entering through the main gates, head to the right and you’ll find monks dressed all in white. While it was the only mountain we paid to climb, they do give you a little card on a lanyard asking to keep you safe, which is nice.
Heading through the red gate at the back of the shrine (and ringing the bell for luck as we left), we began climbing the grey steps that deceived us into believing that the path ahead would be well-maintained or consistent. It would be neither of these things.
The route is divided into eight stations or stages. Many of these are marked by a square gate that you pass through.
After the steps, we passed through a grey gate just after a small, new-looking statue and shrine to our right. The steps disappeared and were replaced by a network of tree root lined muddy navigations heading straight up the slope ahead.
This was not confusing in the sense of losing our way (all paths pointed straight at the summit) but more a reflection on the roughness and disorder of terrain. This is an unkept trail, worn down by hikers and water. It was a pattern we would see repeated up the whole mountain and on other volcanic peaks, where soil and rock were eroding at a frightening rate.
40 minutes from the trailhead, we emerged out onto a switchbacking, paved road which we followed for around 20 minutes to reach the next gate (see below). Instructions at the start of the route were very definite about following the road and I’m not sure why anyone would want to dismiss the opportunity for the leisurely climb the road affords.
The next stage began with a few concrete steps (above) but soon became a muddy channel that snaked up the slopes and was dug a metre down from its banked edges. Along this section were (thankfully) some metal posts and guiding string that enabled us to avoid slipping over. There were even a few short sections of steps, leading us to a small mountain hut (more like a shed) that marked stage five.
Where there weren’t gates, there were standing stones with a beautiful inscription written vertically. Seeing each of these was becoming a great motivator as we counted down the stages before the summit.
A little more of the mud channels, including a brief section of more reasonably-sloped switchbacks, led to a rocky terrain that would cover our next few stages. This was a definite scramble, with the two of us debating the relative advantages and disadvantages of using sticks (or not) over such terrain.
As the trees thinned, we came upon the final marked shrine before the summit. A beautiful wooden construction with small deity to its right, it stands above the widest expanse of rock we passed and made us reflect on the extraordinary work of those who had first laboured to build it here.
Unknown to us, the summit was still a way off yet. Soon the rock turned from rocky hillside to crumbling rock lined with patches of snow. This rock was almost like polystyrene and was coloured various shades of black and red. Crumbling at the touch, these are the fragile remains of eruptions. They create a landscape that, once passed the bent and twisted trees, becomes almost moon-like.
With the mist unshakeable, we walked on up this seemingly unending gradient, with more than one occasion where we spoke about the potential risks of losing the path if the mist got any worse. It was very hard to know where the summit was with visibility down to perhaps 20 m and a number of false promises made this feel like a real trudge to the top.
Then, out of the mist came the shape of the last gate and the shrine behind. Guarded on one side by a solitary statue, it was quite a beautiful, if a little eery sight.
En route we had seen only one other hiker on his way down and were alone on the summit. We settled to eat our lunch on the far side of a boarded-up hut. I can only imagine the views that must reward those who reach this summit on a clear day.
Turning to descend, we began passing other hikers on their way up. They were a mixture of bounding energy and sullen reluctance. Soon many would pass us on the way down.
It appears many of the Japanese hikers we met during this trip had none of the concerns (or pains) we experienced in our joints and ran heavy-footed down the steep slopes.
Taking our time, we took three hours to reach the shrine at the bottom. As we went, further tests of the merits of sticks over no sticks on such a slippery descent took place. On the whole, I think the sticks probably came out on top (though neither of us fell into a muddy puddle, much to our surprise!)
A rewarding though tough day-hike.
How to hike Mount Nantai like a local
- Pace yourself. If you have never hiked a trail of 5km and 1,200 m elevation with very few switchbacks or easier sections, arrive expecting a challenge. As the terrain changes regularly, it’s also very hard to establish a momentum or rhythm that is usually what helps grind through steep ascents.
- Head to the onsen in a hotel on the western edge of Chuzenji at the end of the day (a few minutes towards town, one road back, from the trailhead). While this is not the most famous onsen in the area, it is still great. At only 500 yen per person it is also much cheaper than any others we found in Japan. It has two baths filled with hot spring water that’ll get your legs ready to climb Mount Nantai all over again.
Other hikes nearby / alternative route options
Lake Chuzenji and the Yumoto area of Nikko are filled with a variety of options for hikers of all levels and interests.
To the north-west is a massif containing four summits over 2,000 m. It is crisscrossed by hiking routes and includes the area’s highest peak (Mount Shirane (2,578 m)). There is camping nearby, but these routes are only open in the peak season (from mid-June) and weren’t accessible when we visited.
To the south-east of the lake is a much gentler five-hour circuit that takes in two smaller peaks. The larger of these (Mount Hangetsu (1,753 m) is where the ubiquitous image of Lake Chuzenji and Mount Nantai is taken from.
A circuit of the whole lake is around 21 km and would include a few hundred metres of elevation change. On a warm sunny day, this could be a delightful hike, perhaps ending with an onsen in Chuzenji.
To the north of our campsite, we took a stroll from Ryuzu Falls through the marshland and took in the higher lake from which the Yutaki falls cascade down towards Lake Chuzenji. Covered in raised wooden boardwalks, this is an easy route that is (almost) accessible to any visitor (there are still some steps early and late on).