Gassan (月山)

Gassan is highest peak in the Dewa Sanzan trio of religious mountains, nestled snugly between Mt. Chokai and Mt. Asahi in Yamagata Prefecture. Known for white clad pilgrims and summer skiing, the peak offers alpine vegetation and scenery without climbing to air thinning altitudes.

The hike: From the parking lot, follow the signs (and crowds) towards Gassan shrine (月山神社). The path is well trodden and easy to follow. You’ll reach a mountain hut in about 90 minutes or so, at the base of Mt. Omowashi. The trail starts to get a little steeper from this point, but overall it’s a relatively easy and enjoyable ascent. It should take another hour or so to reach the summit area, which is pretty overdeveloped. There’s a huge shrine on the summit, which you’ll have to pay to enter. The true high point, however, is on a group of unmarked rocks directly behind the summit, and it won’t cost you a thing to sidestep the shrine and enjoy your lunch away from the crowds. There’s a big hut a short descent from the shrine, appropriately named ‘Summit hut’ (山上小屋). The hut is only open from late June to late September, and doesn’t have any drinking water for non-staying guests. Continue past the hut, and turn right at the next two junctions, where you’ll drop to a huge saddle. This is where you’ll see summer skiers. At the saddle, you’ll find a two-way junction. You can either turn left to reach the top of the chairlift, or continue straight towards Mt. Yudono (湯殿山). I recommend heading straight, unless the weather has turned foul or it’s getting late. You’ll reach a junction in about 20 minutes, but ignore it and stay on the ridge line. Another half hour or so along the trail and you’ll be standing at the base of Mt. Yudono. There’s a water source and a free emergency hut here, as well as a 2-way junction. Turn right to drop to Yudono shrine, or take a right to descend to Shizu (志津) campground. Unfortunately, there’s no trail up to the summit of Mt. Yudono, so you’ll have to be content with staring at it from the hut. The drop to Yudono shrine is pretty big, but you’ll be rewarded with a foot bath on the shrine grounds. If you’re headed in the direction of Mt. Asahi, however, I recommend turning left and descending to Shizu. It should take about 90 minutes of enjoyable hiking to reach a nature museum and the campground. Be extremely careful crossing the numerous wooden bridges if it’s wet. I went sliding off one into a creek about a meter below the trail! The campground surrounds a scenic lake, and each site costs 500 yen (register at the hut). If you continue walking down route 112 for about 1/2 an hour, you’ll find Shizu hot spring. Another half hour or so beyond that, and you’ll be sitting in a huge auto campground. Whatever you do, don’t descend this far, because they’ll try to charge you 3500 yen for a place to pitch your tent! Luckily the staff gave me a ride all the way back up the road to the cheaper and more scenic Shizu campground. There are buses back to civilization from the campground, but unfortunately I couldn’t find any on-line information. Hitching is also a definite possibility.

When to go: The buses from the Mt. Haguro side only run from July 1st to August 24th, but you can definitely go earlier than this if you’ve got your own transport. The peak gets meters upon meters of snow in the winter, and stays around most of the summer. Click here to see the conditions during Golden Week.

Access: From Niigata (新潟) station, take the JR limited express ‘Inaho’ to Tsuruoka (鶴岡) station. From there, take a bus bound for Gassan-hachigome (月山八合目) and get off at the last stop. The bus makes a 15-minute ‘pit stop’ at the top of Mt. Haguro (羽黒山頂), allowing enough time to offer a quick prayer to the mountain deities. Click here for the bus schedule.

Level of difficulty: 2 out of 5 (elevation change 824m).

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