Mt. Tsurugi (剣岳)
Mt. Tsurugi fights a fierce battle with Mt. Yari as the most sought-after peak in the Kita Alps. The adrenalin-inducing, nearly vertical climb to the summit is not for the faint-of-heart or inexperienced, as each year people fall to their deaths.
The hike: Most people approach this hike from Murodo and Tsurugi-sawa, but I’m introducing this alternative route from the back side of the mountain. The hike is actually much easier (except for the huge elevation gain) and far less crowded. From the banbajima parking lot, head through the beautiful grass campground (fill up on water) to the start of the hike. There are a couple of shrines here, so pray for a safe journey. The trail instantly starts climbing up the steep Hayatsuki mountain ridge (早月尾根), but flattens out significantly after about 15 minutes. You’ll see a pair of benches on your right, and this is the last place to comfortably rest before the hut. The path is well-trodden but wonderfully maintained, with hundreds of sandbags used to help prevent erosion. Continue for about 1/2 km through a spectacular virgin forest with gargantuan trees. It really is a sensational section of hiking – straight out of a Hayao Miyazaki movie! You’ll soon reach a humongous tree with a circumference of at least 10 meters, and this is where the tough slog begins. All in all it’s not all that steep – it’s just that you’ve got a long, long way to go until the top. There are small metal signposts at every 200m vertical elevation gain, which make for good places for breaks. There’s no water on the trail at all, so make sure you’ve brought plenty from the campground below. Just after the 1800m mark you’ll find yourself on the top of an unnamed peak with a small concrete marker. Make sure to look behind you, back down to the small parking lot and hut at banbajima! The trail drops and flattens out a bit before reaching two small ponds. If you look up and a little to your left, then you can actually see the hut, but you’ve still got a few hundred vertical meters and about 1km of hiking in order to reach it. All in all, it should take you about 4 or 5 hours from the trailhead to reach the hut. There’re plenty of places to camp, or you can check into the hut. If it’s early and the weather is good, then you can consider making the 3-hour, 800 vertical meter sprint for the summit, but it’s better to save it for the following day. The hut costs 6000 yen for a futon only, or 8000 with one meal. There’s no free drinking water, and you’re only choice is to buty bottled water from the hut staff. A 2-liter bottle costs a whopping 800 yen, but hey – it’s the same price as a can of beer at the hut and about the average price of a cocktail in the city nowadays. The next day, try to wake up early and get some hiking under your belt before the sun rises. The trail is easy to follow if you’ve got a torch. Make sure you keep your fluid intake up to avoid dehydration and altitude sickness. Keep climbing up towards the summit, breaking out of the tree line in about an hour from the hut. From 2600m all the way to the top it’s a bit of a rock scramble, but you’ll do fine if the weather is good. The views are incredible. The summit towers directly in front of you, with the insanely jagged Hatsumine ridge line jutting off to the left. Mt. Shirouma is directly behind that. On the other side, Mt. Dainichi and Murodo will come into view, with Mt. Yakushi, Kurobegoro, and Mt. Kasa beyond. Hakusan is also visible to the right of the aforementioned peaks. Soon you’ll reach the 2800m marker, the final marker before the summit. This is where things get a little challenging. Directly in front of you is an area called the “Kani no hasami” (the crab’s scissors), a section of zigzagging chains built into the rocks. It’s actually not that bad to maneuver through, as the switchbacks make it relatively easy. There are plenty of footholds and the rocks are easy to grab onto. There are absolutely no ladders or any vertical climbing whatsoever. Soon enough you’ll reach the Tsurugi ridgeline, which connects with the main trail coming from Tsurugi-sawa. This is where the crowds will increase 10-fold, as this peak has quite a following. Turn left and follow the paint marks for about 10 minutes to the summit. If you’re lucky and the cloud isn’t in, you’ll be rewarded with hands-down the best panoramic view of the Kita Alps – I should know because I’ve climbed them all. Take your pick and you can see it – Mt. Yari, Shirouma, Goryu, Kashimayari, Kasa, Norikura, Oku-hotaka, Kuro. And that’s just the Kita Alps! Mt. Fuji, Yatsu-ga-take, the Chuo and Minami Alps all lie beyond, perfectly visible on a clear day. Anyway, you can either retrace your steps all the way back down to banbajima, or consider traversing down to Tsurugi-sawa and out to Murodo. Or do the opposite – ascend via Tsurugi-sawa and descend to banbajima. Hitching from banbajima is incredibly easy, as lots of daytrippers come to enjoy the scenery without climbing the peaks.
When to go: This hike can be done from early July to early October, when most of the snow is gone. It’s possible to go a little earlier or later in the season if you’ve got an ice axe, crampons, and ropes (plus the experience to use them). Do not attempt this hike in rainy weather, as the rocks are incredibly slippery and poor visibility could result in a wrong turn.
Access: From Toyama station (富山), take a train on the Dentetsu-Toyama railway bound for Unazuki Hot Spring (宇奈月温泉) and get off at Kami-ichi (上市) station. A limited express train takes only 15 minutes and costs only 100 yen more than the local train. From Kami-ichi station, take a taxi bound for Banbajima (馬場島). The taxi will set you back around 7000 yen, but there are plenty of taxis waiting for you at the station for the 40 minute journey.
Level of difficulty: 5 out of 5 (elevation change ~2200m).