Mt. Hotaka (武尊山）
Not to be confused with Hotaka-dake in the Japan Alps, Mt. Hotaka is a scenic peak with stunning views of all the mountains in Gunma Prefecture, even out to Mt. Fuji.
The hike: The trailhead starts at Hotakajinja (武尊神社), which is at the end of the paved forest road, about 2km from the Houdaigi campground (宝台樹キャンプ場). At first, the trail is just a continuation of the forest road, with “Beware of Bear” signs everywhere. Although I didn’t see any of those nocturnal creatures, I did spot a Japanese mountain goat (Kamoshika). After about 40 minutes of hiking, you’ll come to the end of the forest road, and are faced with 2 options. It’s a loop trail, so take your pick, but I must warn you that the trail to the left has a section with chains and ladders, which are a lot easier to climb than descend. Take the trail to the left, and you’ll come to an emergency “hut” and water source after about an hour of steep climbing. The hut is is nothing more than a huge corrogated metal pipe cut in half with a door attached. It’s not a very attractive place to stay, unless you’re dodging a typhoon! There’s a small stream near the hut where you can fill up your water bottle (you should filter the water just in case). The hut is hidden and off to the left of the main trail. After passing the hut, you’ve got a tough, steep climb with a section of chains and ladders. Be careful if it’s wet, and take it slow. It’s not as bad as some of the stuff I’ve encountered in the Japan Alps, but careless and a broken bone on any mountain is no fun. After you pass this short section, it’s easygoing to the top. Once on the summit, take a lunch break and enjoy the views. The trail splits in 3. You’ve got some options, but the most enticing is to head to the spear-like peak of Kengamine (剣ケ峰山). It’s an hour of up and down traversing before reaching a junction. Take the trail on the right to head down the mountain, but before you do that, climb the rocks in front of you to the top of Kengamine. The views of Mt. Fuji on a clear day are wonderful, and you’ll also have a panoramic view back to Hotaka, Mt. Tanigawa, Mt. Makihata, Mt. Shibutsu, Mt. Sukai, the peaks of Nikko and beyond. After taking some photos, retrace your steps back to the junction and head down off the mountain. You’ll be back at the forest road in about 90 minutes, passing a water source along the way. If you’ve got time, then head to Takaragawa-onsen (宝川温泉) before heading back into town.
When to go: This mountain gets meters and meters of snow in the winter, but the road to the bus stop is open all year round, so if you’ve got the right equipment (and experience), then go for it. Otherwise, aim to go between April and November.
Access: From Minakami station (水上駅), take a bus bound for Takaragawa-onsen (宝川温泉) and get off at Hotakakyou (武尊橋). From there, it’s a 2-hour walk on a paved road to the trailhead, although you should try to hitch. I got a ride with a guy on his way to work at the campground noodle shop. According to the campground web site, there’s a direct shuttle bus from Minakami station in the summer. Check the site here in Japanese for more information.
Level of difficulty: 4 out of 5 (elevation change 1118m)