Sunday, 7 September 2014

The Norikura Skyline road

Mountain:  Norikura-dake (乗鞍岳 3026m)
Area:  North Alps, Nagano/Gifu prefectures
Map sheet:  38 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Mt Norikura is a stratovolcano situated at the southernmost end of the North Alps. Although the chances of it erupting are slim, it is regarded as an active volcano, and there are onsen resorts all over its lower slopes, around the Norikura Highlands (Norikura kōgen 乗鞍高原).

The 3026m high-point of the mountain is Mt Kengamine (剣ケ峰), and it was apparently first climbed in the 1680s by a Buddhist monk named Enkū. It is Japan's third highest volcano (after Mt Fuji and Mt Ontake), and nowadays with its hyakumeizan status, it is a deservedly popular mountain.  Norikura has something for everyone, from skiing and snow-shoeing in winter, to hiking, cycling and running in summer.  There is even some quality ice-climbing to be had at Zengoro waterfall (善五郎の滝).

The Norikura Skyline road was opened in 1973, traversing the mountain from east to west. It's Japan's highest road and is a popular draw, and although closed to private cars, a bus service will take hikers all the way up to Tatamidaira (畳平) just down from the pass, with its car parks, restaurants and souvenir shops. From there it's a short hike of just over an hour to the top of Mt Kengamine, to bag the hyakumeizan summit, and that's exactly what most people do.

It's always struck me as a rather sad way to reach the top of a 3000m mountain though, so I was looking for an alternative that would do justice to Norikura's full stature. One way to do it would be to cycle the zigzags and hairpin bends of the Skyline road, Tour de France style, and then leave the bike at Tatamidaira for the final few hundred metres to the summit. That's how my friend Hanameizan did it during his well-known hyakumeizan quest in 2008, and he tells me there is a cycle race up the Skyline every year.

I don't have a road bike though, so that idea was out... but I can run... and so it was that we decided to run all the way up the Skyline road together from a car park near Zengoro-no-taki, hit the summit and then head down to Tatamidaira for a refuel, before running a more direct line down the hiking trail back to the car.

Some stats for those who care about numbers:

* Total distance:  approx 37km
* Moving time:  5h17m
* Avg moving pace:  8m43s/km
* Elevation gain and loss:  approx 1700m respectively

Long way to go from the car park:

Getting hot out there:


The snowfield on Mt Kengamine is popular with summer skiers:

Crater lakes:

The final slopes to the top:

On the 3026m summit of Kengamine:

Summit ridgeline:

Heading over to Tatamidaira:

Hanameizan enjoying an ice bath down at Zengoro-no-taki:

Friday, 5 September 2014

Running the Mt Akagi caldera loop

Mountain:  Mt Akagi (赤城山,1828m)
Area:  Maebashi (前橋), Gunma prefecture

Map sheet:  20 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Most iconic trail runs fall into one of three categories: the piston (out&back) up and down a mountain; the traverse (from A to B) along a mountain ridge; or the circular run around a stand-alone natural feature. All three can be found in abundance here in Japan, but for circular routes there’s nothing quite as satisfying as running the loop around a volcanic caldera. Throw in a crater lake, and you’re really ticking all the boxes.

Closer to Tokyo, the wonderful Hakone caldera provides the textbook example for this type of outing, but if you’re looking to venture a little further afield, consider Gunma’s Mt Akagi… The ‘Red Castle’ mountain is one of the “three mountains of Jōmō” (the other two being Mt Myōugi and Mt Haruna), and its name provides several clues to its topography.

In the 31000 years since it was first formed, much of its exposed rock has oxidised to give it the characteristic red colouring that speaks of old volcanic activity. The two highest peaks of Kurobi-san (黒檜山) and Komagadake (駒ヶ岳) sit on the eastern side of the caldera, and the western and southern flanks of the castle are guarded by the lava dome turrets of Suzugatake (鈴ヶ岳, the ‘bell’ peak) and Jizodake (地蔵岳). At centre stage, and at an altitude of approximately 1200m, lies Lake Ō-numa (大沼).

Mt Akagi also happens to feature on the hyakumeizan list, and on a good weather weekend you can probably expect to meet a lot of hikers around the eastern side of the lake, bagging the highpoint of Kurobi-san.

Getting there:
If travelling from Tokyo by train, you need to get to Ueno station (上野駅) for either a local train or a limited express to Maebashi station (前橋駅). You may need to change trains at Takasaki, depending on the schedule. From Maebashi, take a bus (weekdays / weekends) to the Akagi Visitors Centre (赤城山ビジターセンター) near the shores of Lake Ō-numa.

If travelling by car from Tokyo, you need to follow the Kanetsu Expressway through Saitama to Maebashi, and then drive up (literally) route 4 to Lake Ō-numa and park at the Akagi Visitors Centre.
There are plenty of restaurants near the lake for when you’re finished your run, and if you’re looking for a decent onsen, try the Fujimi Onsen, which is along the road between the lake and Maebashi.

From the Visitors Centre car park head left down the road in the direction of the lake, and you’ll pass an open area on your left with ski lifts (the Akagiyama Daisan ski area). Keep going and you’ll quickly reach the trailhead, with a wooden sign pointing up in the direction of Jizodake. For the first few hundred metres the trail is rocky and shaded, a bit slick when wet.

You’ll soon come to an opening where the trail flattens out a little. Several minor rises and false summits ensue before you eventually reach the open summit of Jizodake. It’s not a very pretty place, and is covered with communication antennae, but there are good views back to the lake and the higher eastern flank of the caldera.

From the summit post continue straight on for about 50-100m and you’ll come to a trail junction to the right. Take this trail, down some steep rocky terrain at first, but soon opening out into some fast runnable single-track all the way to a car park.

Follow the road from the car park for about 100m to join route 4 near a pedestrian crossing. On the other side of the road you’ll find the entrance to the trail for Suzugatake. Head up the zigzags of this forested hillside until you get onto a narrow ridgeline that snakes up and down for about 3km.

Looking back to Jizodake:

Eventually a short descent will bring you down to a pass, with wooden signposts pointing in all directions. From here it is a 20-30min round-trip up to the summit of Suzugatake and back.

Once back at the pass, head down the trail that drops off to the east, for a long dog leg that will eventually bring you alongside a river. You’ll be running in the direction of the lake, contrary to the flow of the river. Cross a bridge and continue on for several hundred metres before the trail swings to the right and begins to climb up to the ridgeline above the lake. It’s deceptively far compared to how it looks on the map.

From an eventual trail junction you can either stay on the ridgeline over a couple of minor bumps before descending to the lakeside below Kurobi-san, or you can drop down to the lake from there and jog along the road to the trail head for Kurobi-san, thus saving yourself an hour or so if time is short.
The trailhead for Kurobi-san is right on the junction between the lakeside road and route 251 (the Jōmō-Sanzan Panorama Highway).

Head up this steep rocky trail for about 40 minutes, with excellent views down to the lake and the Akagi Shrine (赤城神社).

You will soon reach a turn-off to the left, signposted for the 1828m summit of Kurobi-san, the highpoint of Mt Akagi, just 5 minutes away. There is a good viewpoint another 5 minutes beyond the summit, so if the weather is clear I recommend taking this extra little detour.

From the summit of Kurobi-san, retrace your steps to the junction, and this time head left in the direction of Komagadake. A few minutes along the trail you’ll come to a shrine.

Carry on and the trail begins to descend in earnest down flights of wooden steps. Some way below you’ll come to a flattening, with striking views back of what you’ve just come down. From here the trail climbs again to the tree-covered summit of Komagadake.

Continue on down a mix of steps and trail, zigzagging all the way to the road and the Komagadaketozanguchi trailhead (駒ヶ岳登山口). From here, all that remains is a short jog back to the Visitors Centre to complete the circuit.

A very satisfying run around an ancient natural feature and hyakumeizan, with a total distance of about 17km and an overall elevation gain and loss of about 1500m respectively, on a good mix of smooth and technical trails.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Futagoyama Chuo-ryo (二子山中央稜) - UPDATE

I was back at Futagoyama near Chichibu last weekend with a friend, and we managed to find a window between the thunderstorms and the rain to climb the Chuo-ryo.  8 years have passed since I first climbed this stunning 7-pitch rock rib on the south face of the west summit, and I'm happy to report that the experience of this route is even better now than it was back then.

You can read my description of the route here, but be aware that there have been several changes in the years since I wrote it:

1. Crux 3rd pitch
(i) There used to be an in-situ thread near the top of the flake.  This is no longer there, which means you now have to thread your own sling through the hole.

(ii) The crux of this pitch, and the whole route, is a short section of A0 aid climbing above the top of the flake, to get past a blank section of wall and access good holds to the terrace above.  In the past there was a length of rope hanging down that blank section, attached to a solid piton in the crack above.  That made this section substantially safer and easier, as you could just clip into the bottom of it and then pull yourself up it.  That rope is no longer there, which means you've got to get yourself all the way up to the piton and then make the aid moves on your own gear.

Both of these changes have increased the sense of commitment on this pitch, and I feel it is a huge improvement to the experience.

2. Hiking trail descent
In the past there were in-situ chains down the hiking trail from the west summit down to the pass between the west and east summits.  In response to extensive feedback from local climbers, these chains have all been removed.  There are now expansion bolts at regular intervals for those who wish to protect the descent.  This is an unprecedented development in my experience of the Japanese mountains, and I feel it is wholly positive.  Futagoyama is one of the most famous limestone climbing venues near Tokyo, and amongst other routes, is home to Yuji Hirayama's 5.15a route "Flat Mountain".  The removal of these chains has returned its status as a climbers' mountain.

I have also updated the article to give a full description of the access to the mountain and the route by car.

Here are a few photos from Saturday's ascent...

Looking up the 3rd pitch:

View down from the top of the 3rd pitch:

At the top of the mountain:

Can you spot me?:

[Thanks to my good friend i-cjw for sharing his photos from our climb.]

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Running and scrambling on Mt Kentoku

Mountain:     Mt Kentoku (乾徳山 2031m)

Map sheet:     26 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

Time:     approx. 4 hours round trip

Getting there:

If travelling by train from Tokyo (東京) or Shinjuku (新宿), take a Chuō Line (中央線) train out to Enzan (塩山) station.   It takes around 90 minutes by limited express.  Next you’ll need to take a bus from just outside the south exit of Enzan station.

If travelling by car, head to Enzan, get onto Route 140 and then turn off onto Route 209 up to a car park near the Kentokuzan-tozanguchi (乾徳山登山口) bus stop and trailhead.


Mt Kentoku (乾徳山) is a rocky summit of 2031m in the Oku-Chichibu (奥秩父) mountains of Yamanashi prefecture (山梨県).  Although popular at weekends, it is rarely very busy.  The vast majority of Japanese hikers will take the bus further up the road to the Nishizawa-keikoku river gorge, leaving the trails on Mt Kentoku relatively free.

The ascent route I usually take begins with a short jog up the road from the car park at about 900m, then a right turn and a further 5-10 minutes up another road. You soon reach a metal gate across the road, used to prevent deer from passing through, and a few metres beyond this on the left lies the start of the trail up a ramp onto the forested hillside.

It’s a fairly steep power hike for a while, but the higher you get the more interesting the terrain becomes and the more runnable it is.

Eventually it opens out completely at the Ougi-daira (扇平) plateau.  Stop briefly to admire the views at the Tsuki-mi rock (月見岩), and then head into the final 30-minute run up through the forest and onto the rocky summit ridgeline above.

There are chains in-situ on some of the rock steps, but if you’re confident on rock then you won’t need any of them. In many places you can experiment with the line you take up the rock.

Eventually you’ll reach a final rock pitch with a large chain hanging down a crack and slab leading up to the summit itself.  This can be climbed easily without touching the chain by starting up the rock on the left, then crossing the slab at the thin ledge at half height, then continuing to the top up a well-featured groove.  The same route can be down-climbed as well if you’re okay with exposure on steep but well-featured rock.

If you’re really not into rock scrambling, you can bypass this entire section on a trail to the right, which many hikers use for descent.

On a cloudless day the views from the summit will extend over to Mt Fuji (富士山) and the Minami Alps (南アルプス), as well as Mt Kobushi (甲武信ヶ岳) and Mt Kinpu (金峰山) in the other direction.

The descent is where the real fun starts, as you get to experience the pure joy of scrambling down good rock to begin with, and then you can open the throttle all the way to the bottom of the mountain mostly on beautiful single-track trail.


If you’re looking for a run with decent height-gain, joyous rock scrambling, runnable single-track and not too many people, you really can’t go wrong with Mt Kentoku!  Don’t forget to cool off with a dip in the river near the bus stop at the bottom.