Mt. Iide (飯豊山）
Mt. Iide is without a doubt the best multi-day hike in the Tohoku region. The stunning scenery and abundance of mountain huts attract a large number of hikers in the summer months.
The hike: From the bus stop, hike through the small town and onto a gravel forest road. If you’ve hired a taxi then it’ll take you directly to the trailhead, saving this 30-minute walk. At the end of the road there’s a campground and small hut with hiking information. The trail is clearly marked and starts off as an extension of the road you’ve been hiking on. Soon enough it’ll branch off to the right, and this is where the real hike starts. It’s one heck of a climb, with a 1200 vertical meter elevation gain before reaching the ridge line! The maps say it’ll take 5 hours to reach the first hut of the day (at Mikuni-dake), but if you’re in shape you can do it in about 2 hours or so. The trail is very well-trodden, with lots of tree roots to climb up and over. The forest is all virgin beech, and the greenery is stunning. You’ll reach a water source at a place called Nakajugori (中十五里), but it’s not a reliable source of water (it’s a 5 minute hike down a spur trail to the right, and the water was just barely trickling out in mid-July). It’s better to fill up your bottles at the trailhead. A bit further on, after passing Sasa-daira (笹平), you’ll see an unmarked trail branching off to the right. Ignore this trail, as it’s an alternative way up the mountain and continue climbing toward the left. In another 10 minutes or so, you’ll reach another trail junction. You can either head right to climb to the summit of Mt. Jizo (地蔵山), or take the easier spur trail to the left. I’d recommend taking the left trail, because it passes right by a nice water source gushing with refreshing water. You can also see the ridge line of Mt. Iide rising up on your left. Soon after passing by the spring, you’ll meet up with the trail coming from Mt. Jizo. Turn left and follow the rocky ridge line towards Mt. Mikuni (三国岳). This trail is easy to find in clear weather, but could be a bit tricky if the fog is in, as there are no paint marks on the rocks. My advice is to follow the rocks that have scuff marks on them. This is not a place that you want to fall, but if you keep climbing then you’ll eventually pop out on the summit ridge, and they’ll be a hut awaiting you! If you’re set on a 3-night, 4-day hike, then check into the hut and enjoy the scenery. None of the huts on Mt. Iide have food or blankets, so you’ve got to bring a sleeping bag, stove, and food. The only downside with staying at Mikuni is that there’s no reliable water source, so if you’ve got extra time or energy, it’s better to push on for another 90 minutes to Kiriai hut (切合小屋), which has plenty of water. The ridge line between Mikuni and Kiriai is tricky, with a few chains in places, but the closer you get to Kiriai the easier it gets. You should also see your first set of snow fields. Just before the hut you’ll see a trail coming in on the right. This is another alternative way up the mountain, and very popular with people because it’s the shortest route up. If you’re a sucker for punishment, then you can continue another 90 minutes or so to Honzan hut (本山小屋). The trail will climb through a long snow field, and then drop steeply on the other side to a saddle, where you’ll find a Jizo statue. Then it’s a long, endless slog up to the hut. Most people take 2 days to reach this hut, but I made it in only 5-1/2 hours from Kiriai to this point. The hut manager is very friendly, and a place on the floor costs 2000 yen. All of the huts on Mt. Iide charge similar prices, but all have places to pitch your tent as well. From Honzan hut, it’s a 20-minute hike to the top of Mt. Iide, which is far as most hikers go. However, part of the beauty of this mountain is to traverse the entire length. It’s only 34.5km from end to end, and can be done in 3 days without a problem. Anyway, continue past the top of Mt. Iide, towards Mt. Dainichi (大日岳), the highest peak in the entire range. If the weather has been good then you’ve probably been staring at it ever since arriving at Mikuni! It should take about an hour or so to reach the trail junction at Onishi hut (御西小屋). You can leave your pack outside of the hut for the up-and-back assault of Mt. Dainichi. The maps say to allow 2 hours to reach the summit, but you can easily make it up and back in that time if you’re fit. You’ll have to cross a small snow field along the way, so take extra care if the snow is icy. The scenery is outstanding, as the Fuji-esque silhouette of Mt. Bandai stretches out in front of you. You can also see the peaks of Nikko National Park on a clear day, as well as Mt. Asahi, Gassan, and Mt. Chokai. Mt. Sado and the Sea of Japan will also greet you to the west. Head back down to the hut, where it’s time to make a decision. The next hut is 3 hours away, on a relatively flat ridge line. Keep pushing on if it’s early or you aren’t too worn out. There are a lot of snow fields to cross in this next section, so if you’re not confident then consider bringing a pair of light crampons to help boost your confidence. Climbing is no problem. but descending can be a bit slippery depending on snow conditions. Also, the track is a little difficult to follow in foggy weather, but luckily it’s well worn, so when in doubt always look for the footprints in the snow. You’ll pass by a few magnificent alpine lakes before reaching the summit of Mt. Eboshi (烏帽子岳). From here it’s a big descent to Kairagi hut (海花皮小屋). There’s plenty of delicious fresh water here, so take a break and check into the clean, beautiful hut if you’ve chosen this as your place to spend the second (or third) night. There’s a trail leading straight down the valley directly in front of the hut, but this is for climbing only (it’s one of the famous cirque climbs in Japan, up a very long and steep snow field). The next big climb is to the summit of Mt. Kitamata (北股岳), where you’ll find a small shrine. This is the highest peak in the northern section of the Mt. Iide mountain range. From here, it’s a relatively easy traverse over to Mt. Monnai (門内岳). Here you’ll find the final hut on the traverse. Check-in here, or push along for the 4-hour knee knocking descent down to Iide hut (飯豊山荘), with it’s lovely hot spring bath! To get there, continue on the ridge for about 20 minutes and you’ll find a trail junction. Turn right and follow the trail, down 1400 vertical meters. It’s quite steep, but there are plenty of tree roots to grab onto. There’s a water source about halfway down the descent. Take the short spur trail on the left in order to reach it. Remember the bus schedule before you set off for Iide hut. If catching the afternoon bus, then head down early enough too enjoy a 500 yen bath. It’s also possible to stay at the hut for 1700 yen (including use of the hot spring) if you tell them you’ve got your own sleeping bag and food. It’s also possible to continue along the ridge line all the way to Mt. Eburisashi (朳差岳) one of the 200 famous mountains of Japan. As it’s a 10km traverse from Monnai, you’ll need an extra day to reach it. Also, there’s no bus service from Oku-tainai (奥胎内) at the end of the hike, so you’ll have to fork over 9000 yen for a taxi.
When to go: This hike can be done during July and August only, when the buses are running. If you’ve got your own transport then you can do it in June or September. This mountain gets a ton of snow in the winter, so it’s better to avoid unless you’re training for Mt. Everest or something.
Access: From Niitsu (新津) station, take a train on the Banetsu-sai (磐越西) line bound for Aizu-wakamatsu (会津若松) and get off at Yamato (山都) station. From there, take a bus bound for Kawairi (川入) and get off at the last stop. There are only 2 buses a day, so it might be better to shell out 6000 yen for a taxi if you miss the 8:40am bus. Click here for the schedule. At the end of the hike, take a bus from outside of Iide-sanso (飯豊山荘) bound for the hospital (病院前) and get off at Oguni (小国) station. Again, there are only 2 buses a day, so make sure you’re off the mountain by 9am to catch the morning bus, or you’ve got to wait around (at the hot spring) all day. Click here for the schedule. The morning bus is timed perfectly for you to catch the 10:14am train to Yonezawa, which is again perfectly timed to transfer to the 11:40am Shinkansen to Tokyo.
Level of difficulty: 4 out of 5 (elevation change ~1722m).