Mt. Chokai (鳥海山）
Mt. Chokai is a phenomenally beautiful volcanic peak nestled snugly on the border of Akita and Yamagata prefectures. The wildflowers blossom out of control, alpine lakes pop up all around, and the snow sticks around through all seasons, making this one of the best hikes in Japan.
Special note: Hokodate Sanso is currently undergoing renovations and will be closed until September 2014. There are plenty of grassy areas to pitch your tent around the massive parking complex at Hokodate. Otherwise, aim to stay at Shinonome hut or further up the mountain.
The hike: From the parking lot at Hokodate, drop your pack off at the Hokodate Sanso (鉾立山荘). The owner is really friendly, and it only costs about 1200 yen to stay here. It’s much better than staying in the cramped, expensive hut near the summit. The mountain doesn’t have any water sources, so make sure you bring plenty with you before approaching the hike (there’s a Max Value supermarket about a 10-minute walk north of the station) there aren’t any reliable sources on the mountain. The huts will gladly sell you water for ridiculous prices (500 yen for 500ml). The trail starts off rather gently, with a great view of an amazing gorge adjacent to Hokodate. Just after starting, you’ll see a mountain hut on your left. This is called Shinonome hut (東雲荘) and it’s owned by the TDK corporation. It’s possible to stay here but you’ll want to double check that the hut is actually open before starting your hike. Anyway, ignore this hut and keep climbing the concrete steps and you’ll reach a lookout platform that has two picnic benches at the top of a series of concrete steps, where you’ll get a view straight down into the gorge. From here, the concrete turns into a broad rock path that resembles an ancient Roman byway. After about 45 minutes of steady climbing, the angle will ease a bit and you should see your first traces of snow. You’ll also find some running streams to fill up your water, but I’d definitely filter it before drinking because of the popularity of the area. Your first big landmark is the flatlands of Sai no kawara (賽の河原). Here you’ll find a signpost indicating that Ohama (御浜) is only 1.5km away. If you look up you can pretty much trace the outline of the trail to Ohama hut sitting on the edge of the plateau. There’s a small shrine just before the hut and just behind the hut there’s a scenic crater lake. There’s a toilet here and you can also stay overnight in the hut (advance reservations recommended, as it gets full pretty quickly during the busy season). The summit of Mt. Chokai will come into view just left of the lake, and it still looks so far away. Continue past the hut to the left for another half hour, and you’ll come to a junction. Ignore the spur on the right and continue straight, towards the peak. After another 30 minutes or so you’ll come to another junction, where a choice has to be made. You can either go left or right. The right spur is the ridge trail, with amazing views over to the summit. The left spur is the more direct route. I’ll describe a loop hike, climbing the left and descending via the ridge. Take the left trail, which cuts through a rather long snow field before climbing up the other side. The path becomes quite rocky, so just follow the paint marks and the crowds if you came on the weekend. You should reach the hut just below the summit in around 90 minutes or so. You could stay here, but the lack of water doesn’t make it very inviting. The hut does offer meals though (not sure if water is included in the price though) Continue behind the hut to the top of Mt. Chokai, called Shin-san (新山). There are lots of huge rock formations to traverse through, and chains make the trickier sections more manageable. The true summit only has room for only 3 people at a time, so be prepared to queue up, especially on weekends and during Obon. Traverse up and over the summit and head down the other side, where you’ll find yet another snow field. Cross this and head up the other ridge over to Mt. Shichikou (七高山). This is the twin peak of Shin-san, which explains Chokai’s double hump appearance from a distance. After taking a quick rest, turn around and follow the signs to Mt. Gyouja (行者岳). Keep following the ridge, and ignore the trail coming in from the left. You should reach the summit of Mt. Monju (文珠岳) in about 20 minutes after the junction. After 20 more minutes, you’ll be back at the trail junction you first encountered, completing the loop hike of the summit. From here, you can retrace your steps all the way back to Hokodate.
When to go: This hike can be done from late April to early November, when the road to the trailhead (Chokai Blue Line) is open. If you go in late April, be prepared for meters upon meters of fresh snow. Click here to get an idea of the climbing conditions during Golden Week. Please note that bus service is extremely limited as of 2014.
Access: Starting in 2014, the bus to Hokodate runs by reservation only. You must make a reservation one day in advance by calling 0184-43-6608. There are only 3 buses a day from Kisakata station (6:20am, 11:20am, 3:30pm). The bus costs 3000 yen one-way and is nothing more than a small, blue shuttle van when only a few people reserve. 99% of hikers now drive to the trailhead, so there’s a real danger that the bus will be discontinued altogether.
From Kisakata station (象潟駅), take a bus bound for Hokodate (鉾立) and get off there. The bus runs every day fin July and August, and then on weekends only throughout September until the end of October. There’s also a direct night bus from Tokyo station to Kisakata. Click here for the bus schedule to Hokodate in Japanese.
Live web cam: Click here
Level of difficulty: 4 out of 5 (elevation change 1146m)