Mt. Hijiri (聖岳）
Mt. Hijiri, situated on the border of Nagano and Shizuoka Prefectures, is the southernmost 3000m peak in Japan and home to one of the best panoramic vistas around.
The hike: Although there are several approaches to the peak, I will describe one of the more popular routes via Tayori-ga-shima (便ヶ島). Fill up your water bottles at the picnic area across the road from the mountain hut near the toilets. There’s no water from here until reaching the hut at Hijiri-daira, so take plenty with you. The trail passes over a short hill before reaching a tunnel, where the trail flattens out for a 4km hike on an old boxcar route (the tracks have been pulled up). This area is absolutely stunning when the autumn leaves have changed color. After about an hour of hiking, you’ll reach the end of the road and find a metal box suspended on a pulley system over the river. This interesting contraption has been built to assist hikers in crossing the river, as it’s nearly impossible to cross without wading through frigid water. Use the ropes to pull the carriage towards you, and hop in. It works much better if you’ve got someone else with you to help with all of the pulling. After crossing the river, the trail makes its way through a series of steep switchbacks until reaching an abandoned mountain hut. This would make a really good place to film a horror movie, so I don’t recommend staying in this place unless you’d like to have some nightmares. Continue climbing past the hut, through a small cedar forest and a never-ending series of switchbacks. There are some steep places, but plenty of ropes tied into the hillside to keep you from falling. After about an hour you’ll see a small clearing to your left, which has fantastic views down to the valley below. The path keeps climbing up and up, through a wonder virgin forest filled with beautiful flora. One thing you’ll notice, however, is that a large percentage of the older trees have fallen, which leads me to believe that a massive typhoon must’ve come through here a few decades ago. Because of the dense foliage, you won’t have much of a view of the peaks until just below the main trail junction, so keep a nice steady pace and your fluid intake up. It should take anywhere from 5 to 7 hours to reach aforementioned junction, which sits on the main Minami Alps traverse route. Take your pack off and enjoy the outstanding scenery. From here, you can either turn left for the 3 hour slog to the summit, or save it for the following morning. I would base your decision on the weather and on your physical condition. If you’re going to the hut, then turn right and head downhill past the fences built to keep the deer from trampling the wildflowers. You’ll reach a junction in about 20 minutes, so turn left and follow the wooden planks to the hut. Check into the hut or pitch your tent in anywhere out front. During the ‘off season’, you can stay in the adjacent emergency hut for free. Just bring a warm sleeping bag and plenty of food. The next day, retrace your steps back up to the junction you came from the previous day. From here, the trail climbs up through a wonderful forest towards the summit of Ko-hijiri (小聖岳). You’ll pop out of the tree line just below the summit of this 2600m peak, and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of Mt Hijiri, Mt. Kamikouchi, Mt. Usagi, and Mt. Fuji. From here, you’ve got a fairly straightforward, switchback laden climb to the summit of Hijiri. It looks close but it’ll take around an hour to reach the top. Take a break and congratulate yourself for climbing the southernmost 3000m peak in Japan! On a clear day you’ll have views of the Chuo and Kita Alps, as well as most of the Minami Alps, Mt. Ena, the peaks of Chichibu-Kai-Tama National Park, Mt. Fuji and Mt. Tanzawa. After a well-deserved break, you can either retrace your steps all the way back to Tayori-ga-shima, or continue on the main trekking route towards Mt. Akaishi.
When to go: This hike can be done from early June to early November, when most of the snow is gone. If you’ve got the right equipment and experience, then you can also do this in the winter, since the hut at Hijiri-daira is converted into an emergency hut from September to June.
Access: This is one hike where you’ll need your own car, unless you come from Sawara-jima or Kita-dake. Alternatively, you could take a taxi from Hiraoka (平岡) station on the JR Iida Line, but it’ll cost you close to 20,000 yen! If you’re rich and want to shell out the money, then tell the taxi driver you want to go to Tayori-ga-shima (便ヶ島) and Hijiri-tozanguchi (聖登山口).
Level of difficulty: 5 out of 5 (elevation change ~2100m).