Mt. Naeba (苗場山）
Mt. Naeba is well known as a stellar ski resort and home of the annual Fuji Rock festival (but nowhere close to Mt. Fuji!). The summit features beautiful wildflowers and glorious views of Mt. Tanigawa, the Northern Alps, & the endless flow of peaks of Gunma prefecture to the east.
The hike: From the parking lot at Wada hut, take the trail that cuts across the ski resort in front of you. Fill up your water bottles in front of the hut before setting off. The path parallels the ski slopes for the first hour or so, on a well-marked path that becomes a river during a heavy rain storm! As you climb up towards the ridge, you’ll pass through 3 different “grassy areas”, labeled ‘lower’, ‘middle’, and ‘upper’. These will be signposted at 下ノ芝, 中ノ芝, and 上ノ芝 respectively. There are an awful lot of wooden planks built into the path to keep hikers from trampling wildflowers. These become treacherously slippery when wet, so take extra care during rainy weather. Once you hit the ridge, a trail will come in from the right. This is an alternate approach, but the way to the summit is left, so keep trudging along for about 10 minutes until coming to another junction. This path on the left leads to the top of the Dragon Gondola, but ignore it and head to the top of Mt. Kagura (神楽ケ峰). Tons of skiers traverse up this far to find clean powder runs in winter. From here, there’s a rocky traverse over to the true peak of Mt. Naeba. You’ll find a water source just before the trail drops to a saddle. Fill up your bottles here and take a break. It should take about an hour to reach the summit of Mt. Naeba. The initial part is quite steep, but once your on top it’s an easy stroll through beautiful marshlands to the high point. There are 2 huts on top, so take your pick if staying the night. Please note that camping is NOT allowed on the summit! Head back down the way you came, or consider descending down to Akayu (赤湯) for a nice soak in a hot spring bath.
When to go: Mt. Naeba gets the greatest amount of snowfall in Japan, as the ski resort usually stays open until late May! That being said, if it’s a crystal clear day with good weather and low avalanche danger, then you can try this one in the winter by starting from the highest lift at Kagura Mitsumata ski resort. Just remember that you’ll be hiking on top of 3+ meters of snow! Otherwise, aim to go between May and early November.
Access: There are 7 different approaches to Mt. Naeba, neither of which are very convenient without a car. If you’re coming by bus, then the handiest approach is to take the trail leading from Akayu (赤湯). Take a bus from Echigo-yuzawa station (越後湯沢駅) toward Mt. Naeba Prince Hotel and get off at Motohashi (本橋). If you choose this approach it’ll take over 8 hours of tough hiking to reach the summit. Click here for the bus schedule. Another approach would be to take the Dragon Gondola from the Prince Hotel and start your hike from the top of the gondola. If you do this, then it can be done as a day trip (but you have to pay for the gondola!) Alternatively, you could do as I did and take a very expensive taxi from Echigo-yuzawa station to the top of the Kagura gondola at Wada hut (和田小屋). The taxi will fleece you out of 9000 yen or so. I’ll describe the hike from here, since it’s the shortest and most popular way up the mountain.
Level of difficulty: 3 out of 5 (elevation change ~1000m)