Mt. Sukai (皇海山)
Mt. Sukai, along with Mt. Poroshiri in Hokkaido, garners the dubious distinction of the most difficult Hyakumeizan to access without a car. Those putting in the effort will be rewarded with some wonderful flora and great views.
The hike: There’s a toilet and bridge at the start of the hike, so that’s your clue to park the bike or car. Cross the concrete bridge and take a left up a gated forest road. After a couple of switchbacks, the path will enter the forest on your left. The forest is absolutely beautiful, with a wonderful mountain stream and not a single cedar tree in sight. You’ll have to cross the river 4 times, so use caution if the water level is up. There are plenty of rocks to help you across, so you won’t need to get your feet wet. The trail is well marked with bright blue tape hanging from the trees. These were put up quite recently to replace the worn out red ones, and sometimes you’ll see 2 different paths (the older red one and newer blue one). You can follow either as they lead to the same place. There’s lots of bamboo grass for the first 1.5 km or so, and it can get quite overgrown, so your legs will get soaked if there’s any morning dew on the leaves. The trail basically follows the gully up to the ridge line. When I say follow, I mean just that, as there are very few switchbacks. Someone must’ve had a wicked sense of humor to build such an insane track. The water from the stream seems safe to drink, but you might want to bring a water filter just in case. Continue climbing straight up the mountain. The water will trickle out before disappearing all together, and you’re faced with one of the steepest climbs I’ve ever seen! I’m not sure how you’d make it up in muddy weather, so pray that the ground is solid when you go. There are plenty of ropes to help you, and lots of tree roots to grab/stand on. Luckily, the steep climb is pretty short and you’ll meet up with the main ridge after about 10 minutes. Turn left once you do so, and you’ll start the summit ascent. It should take about an hour to reach the top, and the path isn’t too bad considering what you’ve been through. If the weather is good then you’ll have amazing views of the surrounding peaks (including Mt. Fuji). It was completely covered in cloud when I went, but you can click here to get an idea of what fair weather will bring. According to the map, it should take 3 hours to reach the summit, but considering it’s only 3km from the trailhead to the top, it’s a very conservative estimate. Retrace your steps back to the junction, and consider following the ridge to the top of Mt. Nokogiri (鋸山) for nice views of the mountain you just climbed. You can actually descend via this route (the traditional approach to Mt. Sukai), but you’ve got to scale 12 different peaks using chains and ladders just to get over to Mt. Koushin (庚申山). This could be an alternative route for those relying on public transport (access is via the Watarase keikou railway – わたらせ渓谷鉄道). Bear in mind that it’s a 23km round-trip hike if you choose this approach.
When to go: This hike can be done from mid April to late November, when most of the snow is gone. If coming by car, double check to make sure the forest road is open by calling 0278-56-2111 in Japanese. The name of the forest road is Kurikawa Rindo (栗川林道) and you’ll want to ask if the road is accessible to Sukaibashi (皇海橋).
Access: The start of the track is at the end of a very long and bumpy forest road that is frequently closed because of rock fall. A 4-wheel drive vehicle is recommended for the 1 hour drive. Alternately, you can access the trailhead with a mountain bike. Take a bus from bus stop #1 of Numata (沼田) station and get off at Fukuwari no taki (吹割の滝). The bus takes about 50 minutes and costs around 1300 yen. From there, it’s a 20km bike ride on a very rough road. Click here for the bus schedule. On the web site, click on the 路線バス tab and then select 老神温泉,片品, 尾瀬. All buses on the route stop at Fukuwari waterfall. Most taxis will not take you to the trailhead because of the roughness of the road.
Level of difficulty: 3 out of 5 (elevation change 794m).