Climbing a less-crowded mountain in Japan

Climbing a less-crowded mountain in Japan

by Norio Muroi
Stripes Okinawa
At 7,336 feet high, Mount Chokai’s beautiful volcanic peak soars along the border of Akita and Yamagata prefectures. The second highest mountain in the Tohoku Region is located only 9.3 miles from the the Japan Sea and was named one of the top 100 mountains and sceneries in Japan.
 
All of this led to me plan a trip to head north and hike the mountain - a trip that ended up being rescheduled three times due to weather.
 
Undeterred, I finally made the climb in August, and I can say first hand that it is worth it.
 
Mount Chokai is located in a remote area with bad train and bus connections in Northern Japan. It takes about over five hours by trains (super express) or eight hours by a direct bus or a car from Tokyo; about 331 miles away.
 
Considering the transportation options, I decided to take the eight-hour bus ride (night bus) from Tokyo Station departing at 9:20 p.m. and got to Kisakata Station at 5:15 a.m. From there, I had to take a Chokai Blue Line bus to Hokodate, the starting point for climbing.
 
Technically a volcano, Chokai has erupted 13 times since 708 with the most recent occurring in 1974. Locals refer to it as “Mount Fuji of Tohoku” - “Dewa Fuji”(Akita Fuji) due to its resemblance to Mount Fuji. The mountain is also a mecca for people skiing until early May.
 
I decided to take the most popular route, a five-hour trek to the top from the Hokodate parking lot, and a four hours back down.
 
The trails from Hokodate to Ohama bound for Sai-no Kawara are relatively easy mountain paths with well-preserved log steps.
 
From Ohama, you can see a fabulous view of Chokaiko (lake) on the right if weather permits.
 
About 70 minutes past Ohama you will come up on a split in the trail at Shimekake. I took the outskirt ridge (counterclockwise), a gravel path bound for Gyojadake, and took a Senja-dani (Valley) route on the way down from Omuro.
 
Omuro, which houses Chokai Omonoi Shrine, sites at the base of the final ascent to the very top of the mountain. From here, it’s about 20 minutes on a rocky path and requires a lot of balancing on both hands and legs; minimum gear needed is recommended during this stretch.
 
Once you reach the top, you’ll be rewarded by spectacular views from a space that holds 10 people maximum. People wait for their turn to snap a photograph at the summit.
After the accomplishment, I took the same route back down to Omuro, and eventually to a hut at Ohama.
 
Rushing the climb up and down in a single day means you have to try to catch the final bus departing at 4 p.m. from Hokodate Parking Lot to Kisakata Station. I decided to stay overnight and booked a spot to sleep at the Ohama hut. I hoped for beautiful stars shining at night, but had no luck. After a brief night’s sleep, I awoke at 5 a.m. the following day, and began the smooth, 70-minute descent back down to Hokodate.
 
Mount Chokai
 
Transportation
- Bus from Tokyo Station to JR Kisakata Station for Ugo Honjo
Time: About 8 hours
Cost: 9,020 yen
-Train from JR Kisakata bound for Niigata to Tokyo
Time: About 5 hours
Cost: 13,820 yen
- Chokai Blue Line Bus
From JR Kisakata Station to Hokodate Parking Lot
Cost: 3,000 yen (reservation required) 
 
Mountain Hut (July - mid Sept.)
- Ohama Hut (50 people max)
- Omuro Hut (200 people max)
Cost: 4,000 yen per night, plus 1,500 yen per meal
Chokaisan Omonoi Jinja 0234-77-2301 (advance reservation required)
 
Don’t forget!
Bring enough water (2.5 liter for one-day overnight hike), rain gear and warm clothes for the top. You may come across a stream from melted snow, but it depends on the trails you choose. I did not see any streams on my trek.
 
Also, make sure you stop by the booth located at Hokodate Parking Lot and fill out a registration form.
 
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