Mt. Hira-ga-take (平ヶ岳）
Mt. Hira-ga-take translates as “flat peak”, but don’t let the name fool you. With a round-trip distance of 22km, it happens to be one of the toughest day hikes around. The majestic alpine lakes and abundant wildflowers make the long slog worth it, though.
The hike: There’s a toilet and small grassy area next to the road that looks good for camping (except for the fact that it’s right next to the road!). Hike up the gravel forest road for about 20 minutes, where you’ll find the trailhead on your right, at the dead end of the road. This would also make for a nice (and more peaceful) campsite. Just before reaching the end of the road you’ll cross over a mountain stream. There used to be a wooden bridge here, but it’s recently been washed away, so you’ll have to wade through the water to cross the road. It’s not very deep and you can just about jump across unless it’s been raining and the river is swollen. Anyhow, the trail enters a cedar forest and quickly starts its relentless vertical ascent. The path follows a rather steep, rocky, and exposed ridgeline for the first 3km or so. This is not a place you want to be in a lightning storm, as there’s no place to hide. The climb is tough, on loose sandstone-like rocks, with a lot of old pine trees holding the ridgeline in place. After 2 hours and 800 vertical meters, you’ll reach the top of the first peak, called Mt. Shimodaikura (下台倉山). Take a break here and congratulate yourself – the toughest part is done! From here all the way to the summit, it’s a never-ending series of ups and downs – long, but not too tough. The views will start to open up, and you’ll have your first views of the summit, a mere 7km away! Mt. Hiuchi will be on your left, with Oku-shirane rising up just to the right of Hiuchi. In about 45 minutes or so, you’ll reach the top of Mt. Daikura (台倉山), a small peak marked by a small rectangular concrete stone. Shortly after descending, you’ll find daikura-shimizu (台倉清水), the first water source. The water is a short hike from the rest area, and just looks like a small stream. If I were you I’d bring a water filter just in case. There are a few flat areas that look nice for camping, but make sure you pack out your poop as there are no toilets in the area. Continue trudging along the ridge, until reaching another water source called shirahama-shimizu (白浜清水). This water definitely looks suspicious – a stagnant pool of water that rises out of the ground. There are plenty of wooden planks in the area, reminiscent of the paths in Oze. These planks become slicker than ice when wet, so be prepared for a precarious sliding session if your shoes don’t have good traction. After passing the water source, the path will leave the forest for the last big climb of the hike, towards Ike-no-dake (池ノ岳). This is the first peak of Hira-ga-take, and there’s a ver scenic mid-sized pond on the summit. This is probably where you’ll run into your first hikers of the day, especially if the lazy ones have taken the alternative route up! I ran into over 150 people on a sunny Sunday in August, which was disheartening as only 6 other people took the long approach described here. From this lake to the summit, the trail drops to a saddle and then up a short climb to the high point. The trail is currently (August 2008) undergoing some huge maintenance, as all of the wooden planks are being replaced and wooden steps are being built in order to protect the peak from erosion. Judging by the rapidly increasing popularity of the alternative approach, it’s not a bad investment of resources. The summit plateau is stunning, with plenty of alpine lakes, wildflowers, and awe-inspiring views. After a quick break on the summit, return to the saddle and take a left at the junction, towards the water source. You’ll find a wooden plank next to the stream, which some people use to camp on. Officially, there’s no camping allowed as there are no toilets on the mountain, so please please don’t take a crap on the ground and contaminate the water supply if overnighting here. I seriously wonder about the future quality of this water source with such a huge boom in popularity. Anyway, continue climbing past the water source and you’ll reach another junction. Turn right to head back to the the lake at Ike-no-dake or turn left for the short hike to Tamago-ishi (玉子石), a large rock formation that’s ridiculously popular with Japanese hikers. It’s makes for a scenic photo, but don’t bother going if the cloud is in. Retrace your steps to the pond at Ike-no-dake and prepare yourself for the long descent back to where you started at Taka-no-su (鷹ノ巣).
Alternative route: This route is becoming much more popular, especially with elderly hikers who don’t have the stamina to do the long 22-km hike. Basically, if you stay at Oku-tadami Sanso (奥只見山荘) at Ginzan-daira hot spring (See Echigo-koma hike for Ginzan-daira info) then they’ll give you a ride both to and from the trailhead. The trailhead is at the end of a long forest road that’s closed to regular traffic. From here, it’s only a 2-1/2 hike to the summit! Click here for more information on availability and price information.
When to go: This hike can be done from June 1st to November 3rd, when route 352 is open to vehicular traffic. Expect a lot of snow if hiking before mid-July.
Access: There are approaches from both Fukushima and Niigata Prefectures. The fastest approach is probably from the Niigata side. From the east exit of Urasa (浦佐) station, take a bus bound for Oku-tadami (奥只見) dam and get off at the last stop. There are 2 buses a day from June 1st to November 3rd. The first bus leaves at 7:55am and arrives at the dam at 9:10am. The second bus leaves Urasa at 1:40pm and arrives at 3pm. Click here for the bus schedule. From the dam, take a boat bound for Ozeguchi (尾瀬口). The boat leaves at 9:25am and 3:20pm. From Ozeguchi, there’s a bus that’ll take you all the way to Numayama-toge (沼山峠), the main access point to Oze-numa. The bus will pass by the trailhead, so get off at Hira-ga-take Tozan-guchi (平ヶ岳登山口). The bus is by reservation only, so call 025-792-7300 to make a booking. If you don’t have a booking you may still be able to ride the bus, but sometimes it doesn’t run if no one has called ahead, so be careful. If you want to try hitching from Ginzan-daira (銀山平), then stand on Route 352 and ask the driver to let you off at Taka-no-su (鷹の巣).
Level of difficulty: 5 out of 5 (elevation change 1301m). (2 out of 5 if using the alternative route)