Mt. Echigo-komagatake (越後駒ヶ岳)
Mt. Echigo-koma is part of the famed ‘Echigo Sanzan’ trio of peaks lying southeast of Minami-Uonuma city in Niigata prefecture. The mountain features wonderful alpine plants, lingering snow fields, and one of the best panoramic views in the Echigo region.
Note: The Urasa approach described in the first part of this hike has fallen into disuse. The path is overgrown and is hard to pick up. Future hikers may want to consider doing the hike as a up-and-back from Shiori-toge, where the trail is easy to follow.
The hike: There’s a small campground at the start of the trailhead called Echigosanzan-shinrin Koen (越後三山森林公園キャンプ場). This is where you should tell the taxi driver to drop you off. The campground is free and unmanned, with a toilet and drinking water with a sign saying it should be boiled before using. There’s a gravel forest road running alongside the tiny campground, and the trailhead is at the end of this road, 3km upstream. The road is in terrible condition, but is relatively flat. About 2km into the hike, you’ll see a small concrete sidewalk on your right with a yellow arrow pointing down. There’s a tunnel here which has been built to bypass the massive snowfield blocking the road. Most of the snow will be gone by September, but use the tunnel if hiking in June or July. The tunnel is short and will meet up with the forest road again, so take your pick if the snow’s gone. About 10 minutes after leaving the tunnel, you’ll find the trailhead on your left. This is where the real hike begins. It’s 5.1km from here to the summit, and the path follows the spine straight up for an agonizing 1500m vertical ascent. It’s not technical or dangerous – just really long and steep. There are no signposts, but the trail is in relatively good shape, as it’s the main traverse route for Echigo-sanzan, as hikers can climb Echigo-koma, Naka-dake, and then Hakkai san before descending to a point not far from here. The first hour or so is pretty straight-forward until reaching Yukimi-no-matsu (雪見ノ松), a huge pine tree with outstanding views of Mt. Hakkai across the valley. Your next landmark is in another 2 hours or so, where you’ll find a small sign reading Rikimizu (力水), but there’s no water source here. Keep climbing for another 10 minutes or so and you’ll finally reach a ridgeline, where you’ll find your first views of Naka-dake. The summit of Echigo-koma is to your left, hidden by a large, pointy peak between you and the summit. This peak is labeled as Gushigahana (グシガハナ) on the map, but there’s no signpost on the summit. It’s a sweaty, steep one-hour climb. Just before the top of Gushigahana, the trail becomes overgrown with bamboo grass and very steep, with lots of large pine trees holding the ridgeline in place. Once you reach the top you’ll have your first view of the summit of Echigo-koma, and it’s an easy 40-minute hike away. The trail flattens out signficantly, so relax and enjoy the awesome views. In about 20 minutes or so, you’ll reach the true ridgeline for the Echigo-sanzan traverse, so turn left and head towards the summit of Echigo-koma. Just before the top you’ll find a trail branching off to the right. This goes down to Koma hut (駒ノ小屋), your accomodation for the night. Take in the scenery from the summit and ring the small temple bell on the summit, saying a prayer to the mountain gods for good weather. Retrace your steps back to the junction and turn left for the short 10 minute descent to the hut. A place to sleep on the floor will cost you 2000 yen, and there’s a caretaker there on weekends to collect money. Otherwise, there’s an honesty box to drop your money in. There’s no food here, so you’ll have to bring a stove and a sleeping bag. They do, however, have lots of silver sleeping mats and some blankets, so there’s no need to pack a sleeping mat. There’s also a clean toilet (bring your own toilet paper) and plenty of fresh water. The water is safe to drink but may run out in the autumn once all of the snow fields have melted. Enjoy a good night’s rest, and the next morning take the trail that descends just below the water tap. It’s pretty steep at first, but then flattens out nicely for a much easier (and popular) trail then the previous day’s climb. The maps say to allow 4 hours for the descent to Shiori-toge (枝折峠) but you can do it in half the time if fit. Your first landmark will be the top of Mae-koma (前駒), where the trail continues dropping off before flattening out. There’s a small lake in this saddle, followed by another descent to a trail junction on the summit of Mt. Kokura (小倉山). Turn left for an alternative finish at Koma-no-yu hot spring. Otherwise, continue on the same trail towards Shiori. About 30 minutes further on, you’ll see a junction on your right. It’s a short spur trail to the summit of Mt. Michiyuki (道行山), which has a nice view back to Echigo-koma. If the cloud is in you can just ignore this spur and continue descending. The next landmark will be a shrine, which looks remarkably like an emergency hut. Shortly after passing by the shrine, you’ll find a trail junction on your left marked as Kin-no-michi (金の道). This trail will take you to Kuma-no-yu hot spring in about 2 hours or so. Ignore this junction and continue on, where you’ll find a junction with another Kin-no-michi signpost. This trail to the right leads down to Ginzan-daira (銀山平), which has its own hot spring and plenty of accomodation. This is the trail I took, and it’s really well maintained and divided into 10-stages. It pretty much parallels route 352, but is much more beautiful than hiking down to the pass. At the 3rd stagepoint (三号目), you’ll reach a gravel forest road. Turn left and walk about 20 meters and the trail will drop off on the right side of the road. Take this trail and you’ll reach another forest road at the 2nd stagepoint (二号目). Turn right and cross the concrete bridge over the river. The road will become completely overgrown but don’t worry – keep going because it’s a short-cut to the hot spring. After a few minutes you’ll reach a paved road. Turn right for the 10-minute stroll to the hot spring. There are a lot of cabins and mountain huts, but the hot spring is on the left, in a large 2-story building. A soak will cost 650 yen and there’s a fresh water spring out front with drinkable spring water. You can either stay at one of the huts in this ‘village’ or walk back to route 352 and try your luck hitching. If you’d like to hitch, then I’d recommend turning right on route 352 and walking about 2km to the lake. Just past the trailhead to Mt. Arasawa (荒沢岳), you’ll reach an intersection. Turn left and wait just before the tunnel. Most vehicular traffic uses this long tunnel nowadays, and not so many cars pass by Shiori-toge.
When to go: This hike can be done from June 1st to October 19th, when the bus to Shiori pass is running and route 352 is open to traffic. It’s nearly impossible to do this hike before June, as the road is still covered with meters of snow and avalanche danger still high on the Urasa approach. However, Ginzan-daira (銀山平) is accessible by car from Golden Week onwards, but be prepared for lots of snow if attempting a May ascent.
Access: If you’re doing the traverse, then there’s no bus transport to the trailhead, and you’ll have to shell out around 3500 yen from a taxi at Urasa (浦佐) station. Otherwise, if you’re doing the up-and-back approach from Shiori-toge (枝折峠), then there’s one bus a day leaving from Koide (小出) station. Unfortunately, this bus leaves at 6:30am, meaning you’ll have to either stay overnight at Koide station, or take the overnight bus from Ikebukuro station in Tokyo, which arrives at Koide at 3:15am! Click here for the bus schedule. The bus from Shiori back to Koide leaves at 4:35pm.
Live web cam: Click here
Level of difficulty: 4 out of 5 (elevation change ~1700m).