Mt. Azuma (吾妻山）
Mt. Azuma is a magnificent volcano , with its own baby version of Mt. Fuji and plenty of wildflowers. Although Nishi-Azuma is the official high point for Hyakumeizan climbers, a full traverse from east to west is the best way to appreciate the beauty of the place.
The hike: From the huge parking lot, you’ve got 2 options. You can either climb Mt. Fuji’s baby brother Azuma-kofuji (吾妻小富士) or head for Mt. Issaikyo (一切経山). The ascent and circling of the crater rim of baby Fuji should take about an hour or so. The trail up to Mt. Issaikyo is well tracked and easy to follow. Just find the trail between the visitor’s center and the rest house (or follow the crowds). Oh, and pick up a free map at the visitor’s center before venturing out. There are a vast network of trails, so if you’re just doing a day hike in this area and not a full traverse, you’ve got tons of great options. It should take about an hour of moderate climbing to reach the high point of Issaikyo. Along the way, the views toward baby Fuji are splendid, but make sure you frame your photos to cover up the huge parking lot. Upon reaching the top, you’ll notice a beautifully colored emerald volcanic lake on the other side. This lake is called Goshikinuma (五色沼) and it should take about 20 minutes of steep descending to reach the shoreline. If the top of Issaikyo is crowded, then consider traversing down here for a quieter respite. Continue past the lake and climb up towards the other side. The trail will split, but go left for a short climb to the top of Mt. Iegata (家形山). From there you’ll basically follow the ridgeline all the way to Nishi-Azuma (西吾妻山). The first hour or so to Mt. Eboshi (烏帽子山) is fairly easy-going, but then you’ll have a steep drop and a short climb to the top of Mt. Shougen (昭元山). After this peak, it’s a series of never-ending rolling hills. You can go for miles and miles, and that’s just what you’ll need to do to reach the western part of Azuma. There’s an escape route, however, a short distance from Shougen. A trail will join the main trail on the left. This is your last chance to get back to Jododaira, and it would make for an interesting 2-day loop. Higashidaiten (東大巓), a rock formation, is the next landmark you’ll come to . A short distance later, a trail will branch off to the right, taking you to a nice emergency hut called Meigetsusou (明月荘). This hut is free and has plenty of water, but you need your own food and sleeping bag. Consider staying here if you’re tired, the weather is bad, or it’s getting late. Before making the decision, bear in mind that you’ve got 3-1/2 to 4 hours of gentle hiking until reaching Nishi-Azuma. I did the entire traverse in one day, but I got an early start and the weather was stunning. Anyway, as I said before, the trail is really easy and it passes some beautiful marshland with wonderful views out to neighboring Mt. Bandai. You’ll reach Nakadaiten (中大巓), where the crowds will become noticeably larger. This is due to the nearby ski lift, operating all year round and bringing lazy tourists to this mountain. After leaving Nakadaiten, the trail drops via wooden stairs to a flat point and water source. This is your last chance to get water, so if you’re staying at the emergency hut at Nishi-Azuma then fill up generously. It’ll take about an hour of climbing before reaching the true high point of the Azuma range. You’ll be quite disappointed, because there’s absolutely no view from the top! Never fear, because after a short descent you’ll come to a wonderful unmanned mountain hut where you can stay all year round. If you’ve got time, then hike out to Nishidaiten (西大巓) because this is where the true views are. Mt. Bandai will be directly in front of you, and on a clear day you’ll also see Mt. Iide and Mt. Asahi. Retrace your steps back to the hut, and take the trail leading away toward Wakamedaira (若女平). You should reach this flat spot after an hour of steep descending. This trail is one of the main trails used in winter climbing of the mountain, so look for the trail markers high in the trees. If the trail is wet, you’ll be slipping and sliding all over the rocky course. The trail keeps going down, down, down, until popping out on a paved road near the ski lift. Follow the road downhill to Shirabu Hot Spring (白布温泉). Enjoy a well-deserved soak in town and check the schedule for the bus to Yonezawa station (米沢駅).
When to go: This hike can be done from late April to early November, when the road to Jododaira is open. If you’re going to climb Nishi-Azuma only, then you can climb in the winter by using the ski lifts at Tendengai Kogen Ski Resort (天元台高原スキー場).
Access: From Fukushima station (福島駅), take a bus from the western side of the station to Jododaira (浄土平). The bus takes 90 minutes, costs 1560 yen, and runs on weekends only from late April to early November. Click here to see the bus schedule.
Level of difficulty: 2 out of 5 (elevation change ~400m)