Hiking in Japan – Mount Yake (2,455 m)

At the south-west end of the idyllic river valley is a hike up an active volcano known as the ‘Burning Mountain’.

Walking among steaming vents and with views of the giant peaks that are scattered all around this one, Mount Yake (or Yakedake) is an accessible and memorable hike in the splendour of the Japanese Alps.

On Tuesday 30 May, we hiked up Mount Yake. Here’s how you can too.

Essential information for hiking Mount Yake

A wooden sign points left to Mt. Yakedake
This way to the summit (just about the only sign in English on the mountain!)
  • Time of hike: 3/3.5 hours up, 2.5 hours down. Add half an hour to reach the trailhead from the campsite.
  • Terrain: Volcano. Varies between a forest path, a few ladders (though hardly a via ferrata), simple rocky terrain and some scree near the top.
  • Distance and Elevation: Around 18 km and 900 m elevation change.
  • Travel: Getting to Kamikochi is simple. From Matsumoto, take the train to Shin-Shimashima then transfer to a bus into the mountains. The Kamikochi valley is the last stop. You can buy single tickets from Matsumoto for 2,450 yen or returns (valid for 2 days) for 4,550 yen. Note that none of the trips is covered by the JR pass. Services run between 7 am and 6 pm each day, but they are a bit irregular so check the timetable in advance.

If you’re thinking of travelling around the region a bit more then head to Kamikochi via Takayama (to the west) or visit the Matsumoto bus terminal. You can buy a four-day passport from there that covers much of the region for 10,290 yen. There is a more limited two-day version for 6,000 yen. We didn’t need to take any other transport while we were there, unlike when we visited Lake Chuzenji, so it depends on what you’re doing as to whether it’s worth it.

A river
Campsite with a view anyone?
  • Accommodation: We stayed at the Konashidaira campsite which is the main hub in the area (our tent’s view displayed here). We pitched our own tent for 800 yen per person per night, though they also have pre-pitched tents with basic kit or cabins to rent too. These cost a fair amount more and are paid per person.

Further along the valley is another campsite called Tokusawa. Tent pitches are 700 yen per person per night and pre-pitched tents are also available. Up the mountains are a number of mountain huts and campsites, though you’ll need to research costs for those or enquire locally when you arrive.

  • No potable water on the mountain (or food when we visited). Carry up what you’ll need. There is a hut but it was boarded shut when we hiked, so best not to rely on it.

Description of the hike:

Half an hour’s walking south-west along the opposite bank of the turquoise river from our camp brought us to the trailhead for Mount Yake. It is simple enough to find your way with good signage. The route is paved or gravel and you’ll pass numerous hotels and local attractions.

From the trailhead, the first part of the hike is a shallow uphill along a forest path. There are a few moments where you’ll need to work a bit harder but generally this is a pleasant, steady uphill to begin.

After 45 minutes you’ll reach a solitary first ladder; the next doesn’t arrive until about 1.5 hours in. Slowly the forest thins out and the views begin to open up and you can pause and appreciate views back down to the valley floor below you and the summit that slowly comes into view.

A man approaches a ladder on a hillside
Not the most professional ladders you’ll ever find on a mountain, but they do their job well enough! Image by Rowan Heydon-White

When the ladders do come, there are only a few sections of them and none are challenging or death-defying. There is one short plank over a small drop, several linked ladders and a couple of rocks to scale using the chains. No prior experience or mountaineering gear is necessary to successful navigate them!

After 2 hours you’ll reach a small clearing with a mountain hut. This area was covered in snow when we arrived and the hut was boarded up. After some debate and no clear signage, we decided to take the most obvious looking path straight ahead. Do not follow our example.

This path quickly led to another split in the path: one that headed towards the peaks to the north-east and another that headed down a snow-covered slope vaguely in the right direction. We took the second option, though I suspect is was not really a path but rather a watercourse.

Thankfully, we quickly realised our mistake and went back up to the hut. We lost a half hour with this detour, though other hikers told us they made the same mistake (no doubt following our footsteps in the snow) and lost more than an hour.

So, when you arrive at the hut (on your right) turn left and follow the narrow path up into the foliage. This leads you quickly up to an open, natural platform with views of Mount Yake ahead and the surrounding peaks.

There is also a small steam vent in the far left corner of this little rise. I loved spending a few minutes standing in front of it, warming my legs for the scree that lay ahead and gazing up at Mount Yake above us.

Take the obvious path down to the saddle and then begin heading up towards the summit. From here, expect another 45-60 minutes of hiking before you reach the sulphur-infused, steaming summit of Mount Yake.

The terrain becomes steeper in this final section with more loose rock and scree here than at lower elevations. Like Mount Nantai (2,486 m), this terrain reflects how fragile mountains like this really are (see it below during our descent).

2 hikers walk down a rocky slope with mountains in the distance
Early in the descent. We’re headed towards that green ridgeline before descending the right-hand slope. Image by Billie Wilson-Coffey

This was also the section where we experienced a heart-in-the-mouth moment. Walking beneath a snow drift which had buried the path, we heard a crack and looked up to see a little snow cascading towards us. Hurrying away from the snow, we were fortunate that these few snowballs made up the extent of the ‘avalanche’. We took it as a clear warning about the potential dangers of such peaks and steered well clear from there on.

Cutting a path around this snow drift (on the left of the picture above) we reached the final stretch to the summit: a simple 30 m scramble to reach the top. With views around the whole area, and a stunning mountain meltwater lake to the north-east, this was an idyllic venue for our lunch.

A man stands on a mountain summit looking out
The view from up here: Japan’s Alps stretch out in all directions from the rocky summit. Image by Billie Wilson-Coffey

The descent felt longer than the ascent, beginning with a good hour or so crossing steep scree. Once passed this, the descent is pretty simple and just seems to go on a while longer than you’d expect, especially given the half hour back to camp afterwards (though the nearest onsen’s only ten minutes away!)

 

How to hike Mount Yake like a local.

  • Learn the Japanese symbols for Mount Yake, as after the trailhead almost every sign is in Japanese only. And as we found, this is one route where you can easily go wrong.

 

  • Look for steam vents. Some are very obvious and emit hot air that smells like rotten eggs, but some are just delightfully warm gusts of air and can soothe tired legs.

 

  • If there is snow on the mountain move quickly and cautiously passed it. The steam vents that are scattered across the mountain make any snow piles very unstable, so proceed with huge caution.

 

  • Get up the mountain early so you can soak off the effort in the afternoon. We visited a great onsen in a hotel near the trailhead (800 yen per person + 200 yen to rent a towel) but it closes at 3 pm.

 

  • Take a look at Japan’s poisonous and non-poisonous snakes. We saw several in the area the day we hiked the mountain and it gave us a fair dose of nerves.

 

  • If you’re camping, keep your food in the tent. If you’re walking through the valley, avoid carrying white plastic bags. Monkeys and crows know these bags contain food and will try to raid them. There are black bears in the area, though the park rangers are very vigilant so they shouldn’t pose a threat.

 

Other hikes nearby or route options.

Kamikochi advertises itself as the “an ideal starting point for many alpine adventures” and it’s a fair description as there’s plenty on offer here.

From the well-stocked campsites (Konashidaira and Tokusawa) there are a wide range of day-hikes, as well as the potential for longer thru-hikes in the area with several other campsites and mountain huts.

Wooden signpost in front of a mountain hut
The signpost at the Dakesawa Hut

We also did the Dakesawa snow gorge hike. With much of the route covered in snow and shrouded in heavy mist, we hiked up a well-maintained path alongside channels of rockslides and avalanches that had destroyed strips of the forest.

Where the path disappeared, bamboo sticks with pink ribbons marked the way. However, crossing snow with a running stream audible beneath it and traversing several steep slopes thick with snow left us more than a little nervous about staying safe. Early in the season, only head up if you’re confident with your footing, have decent kit and are willing to turn around and head back down.

It took us about 2 hours, though on a day with less snow and a clearer path you could reach the mountain hut at 2,170 m in around 1.5 hours. There is a route onwards up to Mount Mae-Hotakadake (3,090 m) from here, though the route was still closed in late May. The descent took around 1.5 hours.

Mount Yake itself also offers a thru-hike to Nakanoyu. On the day we hiked, this consisted of a descent that began across a big snowfield so, if you’re interested in this option, take crampons, an ice axe and a good map.

PICTURE OF SNOW SLOPE FROM Yake

Further along the valley (to the north-east) several other peaks can be summitted within a day. Mount Chogatake (2,664 m) is listed as a 7-hour return and Mount Yari (3,180 m) a 9.5-hour return. Note that all hikes begin at trailheads located various distances from the campsites, so you’ll need to add time to reach the trailhead into your estimates.

Finally, if you fancy a long thru-hike, the pass that crosses into Kamikochi is called the Toku-go-toge Pass and climbs from Shin Shimashima. Before the road around the mountains was built, this was the route used to get in and out of the valley.

We did this pass as a simple return from the valley and it was an enjoyable and not particularly challenging hike. Return from the pass is easily possible within 4 hours or less.

Across the river, you can continue heading north via Mount Mae-Hotakadake and open up adventures over the numerous mountains, ridgeline hikes and terrains that lie beyond. Should we ever return to the area, doing a long, multi-summit thru-hike is definitely top of my to-do list.

Here’s a simple map that’ll whet your appetite (Kamikochi is in the box at the bottom of the map and Mount Yake would be off the left side of it.)

A simple map of the Japanese Alps
Go north for more adventures (apologies for the quality of the image!)
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