Mt. Ryōzen (霊仙山)
Last updated: Feb. 20, 2017
Mt. Ryōzen (pronounced in Japanese as ‘ryouzen zan’), is a spectacular peak located on the eastern shores of Lake Biwa, across the valley from Mt. Ibuki. Despite being only 1000m in height, the mountain is known throughout Japan for its stunning collection of alpine flowers, excellent panoramic views, and broad grasslands reminiscent of the hills of Scotland.
Warning: The leeches on Ryouzen are brutal, so you should definitely avoid hiking during the rainy season and most of the summer. Perhaps this one is best left for an autumn or spring hike. Also, the waterfall route is currently closed, so use the alternative approach described below.
The hike (waterfall route): (currently closed to hikers)From Samegai station, head out the front door and walk straight for about 20 meters, where a street will branch off diagonally towards the right. You’ll pass a small grocery store on your left side, which is a good place to pick up supplies. Continue walking on the paved road for about 3km or so, following the signs towards the trout farm (養鱒場). It’s an easy, flat walk that should take about 30 minutes or so. Just after passing the bus stop at Kaminyuu (上丹生), the road will curve towards the right, crossing a bridge over the river. Instead of crossing the bridge, turn left and follow a small paved road next to the river, following the sign that says 霊仙登山道. The water is really clean and you’ll find lots of bridges crossing over to houses on your right. Continue walking straight another 1/2 km or so until reaching what appears to be a water treatment plant. Turn right on the forest road just in front of the facility and follow the road to its terminus, where you’ll find the trailhead. The trail starts off gentle, and soon follows a huge dry riverbed. There may be water flowing during the rainy season, but it was bone-dry during my hike in late March. Follow the paint marks on the rocks and the red tape on the trees. After about 20 minutes or so, you’ll see a huge gully coming in from the right, as well as your first signs of running water. This place is called Ichi-no-tani (一の谷). There’s an alternate trail that climbs the gully to the right, but you’ll want to continue hiking straight, along the river. The path will meander through the river, but there’ll be plenty of places to cross if it hasn’t rained lately. Continue past the area marked ni-no-tani (二の谷) and after a short time, the path will start climbing on your right, away from the river. Don’t worry – you haven’t made a wrong turn, as the steep path will rejoin the river a little further along. Soon you’ll reach a trail junction. If the river is swollen, then take the path to the right. Otherwise, take the signpost marked うるしが滝. You’ll immediately pass under a huge boulder, and then follow the river for another 10 minutes or so until arriving at the base of the falls. Drop your pack at the junction, and cross the river towards the left and you can actually go to the base of the falls. This is one of the more impressive waterfalls in the Kansai area, and in old times mountain priests used to pray under its waters. Retrace your steps back to the junction, and take the trail marked 頂上. The path will climb up and over the falls, following the river for a few hundred meters before branching off towards a gully on your right. The trail will become much steeper now, but there are plenty of ropes tied into the mountain to assist you on the ascent. If it’s been raining then the trail will become one ugly, muddy mess, so consider bringing gaiters. There are lots of red tape marks tied to the trees, so it’s easy to find your way. After about 20 minutes, you’ll reach yet another trail junction. Don’t turn right, as it’ll take you back down the mountain. The signpost has 頂上 pointed towards the left, but the actual trail is straight ahead, so don’t get confused. The trail will branch off to the right, following another small gully before popping out on the ridgeline. Turn right once you reach the junction, and you’ll start climbing through bamboo grass. The views will start to open up significantly, as you’ll rise above the tree line. Mt. Ibuki will be on your right, with Hakusan rising just to the right of it. Behind you, you’ll see Ondake, Mt. Norikura, the Chuo Alps, Yatsugatake, and the Minami Alps (if it’s a clear day). Keep climbing straight ahead, where you’ll reach an emergency hut in about 10 minutes. The hut is unstaffed and free to stay in, but there’s no water source or toilets. Continue climbing on the well worn path towards the first rocky peak directly in front of you. At the summit, there’s a trail branching off to your right, but ignore it and continue straight, towards the top. You’ll descent to a huge col and climb up the other side. Once on top, ignore a trail on the left that heads to the high point (最高点) and head to the summit, where the views towards lake Biwa are superb. Retrace your steps back to the junction and turn right to head to the high point. From here, you’ve got a few options, but the best would be to continue on the same trail towards Sasa-tōge (笹峠), which will take about an hour to reach. Another 30 minutes beyond that, you’ll descend to a river and junction. Turn right and make your way along the river to Asefuki-tōge (汗拭峠) and down to the parking lot at Kura-ga-hata (榑ヶ畑). You can try hitchhiking from here, or you can walk down the road for about an hour before reaching the bus stop at the trout farm. All in all, the entire loop should take anywhere from 6 to 8 hours, so be sure to get an early start.
The hike (trout farm route): From Samegai station, take the bus bound for yōsonjō (養鱒場) and get off at the final stop. Follow the paved road that hugs the left bank of the stream, with a large trout farm across the water on your right. It’s a long walk on the paved road for 3.8km to reach the start of the hike. There are a couple of smaller forest roads that branch off the main one, but stay on the main road as it follows the river upstream. After passing by a small parking lot the road turns to gravel and you’ll see a small hand-painted signpost that reads 登山口 just before a bend in the road. Take this route as it leaves the main road and continues following the narrow stream past an area dotted with moss-covered platforms. There used to be a small village here that was abandoned during World War II but now all you’ll find is a small, creepy-looking mountain hut. Pass by the hut and cross the small stream, where you’ll find some cold drinks for sale. There’s an honesty box where you can deposit your money if you’d like to purchase a refreshing (but not necessarily fresh) beverage. The trail climbs steeply from this point, switchbacking a couple of times until reaching Asefuki-tōge (汗拭峠). Turn left here at the signpost marked for summit (山頂). The path continues its steep climb towards the summit ridge, through a magnificent forest that really comes to life in the autumn. The route is very clearly marked and is divided into 7 stagepoints. The views really start to open up when you reach the 5th stagepoint (五合目), and the rock formations here make a great place for a break. If you look above you, you can see the summit ridgeline peeking out above the treeline. Continue straight on and you will soon leave the treeline and switchback through the grasslands to the summit of the first peak on the vast plateau. This is the 7th stagepoint (七合目). The path gradient eases up nicely here, and it’s a wonderful but long stroll through the grasslands to the summit. Keep an eye on time, as the final bus from the trout farm back to Samegai station leaves at 5pm. If you miss this bus, then you need to walk an extra 4km back to the station. Anyway, continue straight on and you will soon pass by a small pond marked by a large wooden shrine gate. From here it’s a steady climb up and towards the right to the crest of the ridge, where the views towards Mt. Ibuki and the Japan Alps really start to open up. Turn right here at this junction for a long drop to a saddle, followed by an even longer climb to the high point (最高点). If you want to save a bit of time on the return, then there’s an unmarked deer trail at the bottom of the saddle. Retrace your steps to the saddle and turn left, continuing left at every unmarked junction. You will eventually reach a small pond, so veer right here and climb back up to the 7th stagepoint (七合目). Retrace your steps back to the trout farm. All in all, it’s a strenuous hike that should take about 6 or 7 hours, depending on your speed.
When to go: This hike can be done year round, but you’ll want to be prepared for winter climbing conditions between December and April. The busiest times are during the summer months when the alpine flowers are in bloom, but you’ll have to fight with the leeches. Autumn and spring offer the most favorable hiking conditions. Be sure to bring a headlamp or flashlight if you happen to get caught out after dark, as the hike is quite long.
Access: From Kyoto (京都) station, take the JR Shin-kaisoku (新快速) on the Tokaido line bound for either Maibara (米原) or Nagahama (長浜) and get off at Maibara. Change to either a local or kaisoku train bound for either Ogaki or Toyohashi and get off at Samegai (醒ケ井) station, which is only one stop from Maibara. It’s a 4km walk to the trailhead, or you can take one of the infrequent buses. Click here for the bus schedule, and choose 平日 for the weekday schedule, 土曜 for the Saturday schedule, and 日祝 for the Saturday and public holiday schedule.
Map: Click here.
Level of difficulty: 4 out of 5 (elevation change ~900m)
Total round-trip distance: 15km (6 to 8 hours)