Mt. Houou (鳳凰山）
Mt. Houou is one of the most beautiful yet most overlooked of the Minami Alps peaks. The rock formations are stunning, and the views out to Mt. Fuji are breathtaking to say the least.
The hike: First of all, this is almost impossible to do as a day hike unless you get a really, really early start, so plan on camping/staying at a hut along the way. From the trailhead, follow the signs to Yashajintouge (夜叉神峠). It should take around 45 minutes to hike up there. The views are great if the weather is good. There’s a hut and campground here, but don’t quit hiking quite so early. There’s a 3-way junction here, so hang a right toward Yakushi-dake (薬師岳). Most Japanese maps list the peak as 6.5 hours away, but if you’re in good shape and carrying light, you can do it in a little as 4 hours. Luckily, there are 2 huts along the way in case you got a late start or are a slow hiker. The first hut you’ll come to is MinamiOmuro-goya (南御室小屋). There’s a campground and water source here. If you continue another 90 minutes or so you’ll reach Yakushidake-goya (薬師岳小屋), just below the peak. This is a fantastic place to stay if you’d like to catch the sunrise. If you’ve made really good time and aren’t too tired, then why not continue another hour or so to Houou-goya (鳳凰小屋). This is where I stayed, but I approached from Hirogawara instead of Yashajintouge. No matter where you end up staying, you’re in for a treat of a sunrise in the morning. Mt. Houou has 3 main peaks – Yakushi, Kannon, and Jizou, all named after Shinto Gods. The highest peak is Kannon (観音岳), while the obelisk shaped Jizou (地蔵岳) is the symbol of the mountain, appearing in most photographs. If you stayed at Yakushi hut, then climb up to the top of Yakushi, ignoring the trail coming in from the right side. The ridge is pretty easy to walk on, and the limestone rock formations look a lot like snow. Mt. Kannon is the highest point. Admire the incredible view of Mt. Fuji directly in front of you, and the panorama of the Minami Alps directly behind. Continue for another hour or so (again, ignore the trail coming off the right) until reaching Jizou, where a choice has to be made. You could go right and exit the mountain in about 4-1/2 to 5 hours, or you could take a left and follow the ridge toward Mt. Kai Koma-ga-dake, which makes for a good traverse. If you head this way, then there’s an escape route off to the left in about an hour or so. This place is called Hakuhoutouge (白鳳峠). Going left here will take you to Hirogawara in about 3 hours or so. There are plenty of buses from Hirogawara back to Kofu.
When to go: If you’re relying on public transport, then do this hike between late April and November. If you’ve got your own car, then you can attempt this hike in the winter (with the proper equipment of course). Mt. Houou doesn’t get as much snow as neighboring Kita-dake, so it should be approachable in March depending on the amount of snowfall. Double check to make sure the road Yashajintouge is open before you drive all the way there.
Access: From Kofu station, take a bus bound for Hirogawara (the trailhead for the Kita-dake hike), but instead of going all the way there, get off at Yashajintouge (夜叉神峠). I think the first bus from Kofu is 9:30am but don’t quote me on that. If you’ve taken a night bus from Osaka or Tokyo, then double check the bus schedule when arriving at Kofu. Click here for bus information in Japanese. If you descend to Hirogawara, then double check the bus schedule, because the buses are limited in number outside of the peak July/August hiking season (the road is closed to regular cars, so it’s impossible to hitchhike).
Level of difficulty: 4 out of 5 (elevation change 1450m)