Mt. Asama (浅間山)
Mt. Asama is an active volcano that last erupted in the fall of 2004. Although the summit is officially closed to hikers, the poisonous gases have subsided enough to allow access to Mt. Maekake (前掛山), a short distance from the crater rim.
The hike: From the bus stop, head up the hill a little toward Asama-sansou (浅間山荘), a spacious hut with a nice hot spring bath (good for after the hike). Walk past the hut on the forest road, and you’ll come to a giant signpost with a map of Asama. This map will tell you the current volcanic activity of Asama, and how far you can officially go. Initially the trail follows the forest road and you’ll come to your first shrine torii called (一ノ鳥居) after about an hour or so. The trail splits here, and you have 2 options. You can go right and check out a waterfall called Fudoutaki (不動滝), or continue going straight. Both paths meet up a little later in the hike, so take one on the ascent and the other on the way down. I took the waterfall course on the decent, so I’ll describe the other trail here. The trail winds its way through a forest with low lying bamboo grass. The beautiful volcanic rock formations of the surrounding peaks will soon come into view. Continue climbing up and you’ll soon reach another torii (二ノ鳥居). The waterfall trail pops out just before this point. Keep heading up toward the valley between the rocky peaks and you’ll come to a rather interesting place called Kamoshika-daira (カモシカ平), home to numerous kamoshika (Japanese mountain goats). This is probably your best chance in Japan to spot these elusive creatures, but unfortunately I couldn’t find any. Eventually you’ll come to a beautiful mountain hut called Kazankan (火山館). There’s a water source here and the owner lives here all year round. There are some picnic tables out front, so relax here and enjoy the serenity. It should take about 2 hours or so from the bus stop to this hut. After regaining your energy, head up the trail to the right of the hut and you’ll soon enter a vast plateau. The hiking here is really easy, but the big climb is what awaits you. A trail will branch to the left toward Mt. Korofu (黒斑山) and another one toward J-Band, but ignore them both and continue straight. The huge conical edifice of Asama will soon come into view. It looks deceptively close and short, but in fact the tough slog is seemingly never-ending. The trail is easy to follow if the snow isn’t too deep. After about 90 minutes of uphill climbing, you’ll come to two emergency huts that were badly damaged in the 2004 eruption. They look a bit like bombed out shacks, with twisted metal framework and partially collapsed roofs. The true summit lies directly in front of you, marked with “Do Not Enter” signs. If you’d like to reach the top of the active crater, then good luck. Breathing poisonous gases wasn’t on my ‘to do’ list, so I opted for the much safer peak of Mt. Maekake (前掛山). Walk toward the emergency hut remains, and start climbing the ridge on the right. It’s slow going in the snow, and try not to get blown off the mountain if it’s windy. The summit of Maekake should be reached in about 20 minutes or so. The views are incredible and you can watch the steam rising from Asama from here. Congratulate yourself and pray that Asama doesn’t belch while you’re standing here. Fly down off the mountain the same way you came, or take a detour through J-Band and Kurofu if you’ve got the energy. Remember that a nice bath is awaiting you at the parking lot!
When to go: This hike can be done year round if you’ve got an ice axe and crampons. Asama usually doesn’t get as much snow as the surrounding peaks, melting around the middle of March or so. I did this hike on Christmas day in stunning weather.
Access: From Tokyo station, take the Nagano shinkansen to Karuizawa station, and change to the private Shinano line. Take a train toward Ueda (上田) and get off at Komoro station (小諸駅). From there, take a bus to Asama-sansou (浅間山荘). If you stay at Asama-sansou then they’ll pick you up at Komoro station (with a reservation in advance).
Live web cam: Click here
Level of difficulty: 3 out of 5 (elevation change 1114m)