Mt. Aoba (青葉山)
Mt. Aoba, also known by the nickname of Wakasa-fuji, is a twin-peaked volcanic cone rising proudly from Wakasa bay in northern Kyoto Prefecture. The hike is along an exhilarating ridge with outstanding views of the Sea of Japan, as well as the Japan Alps if you’re especially lucky with the weather.
The hike: Climb the stone stairs leading to Matsuno temple. When you reach the main temple building (distinguished by the double-pitched roof), turn right, looking for the covered bridge that connects the main building with an adjacent structure. Cross under the bridge and you’ll find a signpost and trailhead behind. Climb the stairs and enter the bamboo forest, following the signs that say 青葉山・山頂まで 1.8km. The path is a gentle, steady climb for a few minutes until flattening out and crossing through a broken shrine gate. Here you’ll pass through a small clearing of bamboo grass before re-entering the forest, where the real climb begins. The path wastes no time in gaining altitude, with generous amounts of switchbacks in place to ensure the climbing is not too steep. Ropes and ladders can be found in the steepest places, and it should take a hour or so of steady climbing to reach the ridge just below the summit of the west peak (西峰). When you reach the ridge, you’ll see the remnants of an old stone temple building directly in front of you. Turn right and follow the windy ridge (watching out for the steep drops to your left towards the sea). After about 5 minutes you’ll reach a small emergency hut that marks the summit. If you look behind the small shrine, you’ll see an enormous rock formation with a handrail attached about 3/4 of the way up. Head behind the shrine and towards the right, where you’ll find a ladder and ropes that will assist in the near vertical climb to the top. The true summit has amazing views of Uchiura bay directly below. On the right hand side of the peninsula you can see Takahama Nuclear Power plant. It’s unbelievable that such a structure was built in this beautiful bay, but that’s the reality of Japan. After admiring the views, retrace your steps back to the emergency hut and continue along the ridge (in the opposite way in which you climbed). The ridge between the west and east peaks is exciting: after descending steeply to the saddle, you’ll work your way through an area of metal ladders with amazing views of the valley below. It should take about 40 minutes to reach the summit of the east peak (東峰), which is marked by a shrine building. Just to the left of the shrine is a set of steps that descends to a flat area with a lot of benches. Be careful going down the stairs, as they are incredibly slippery (my butt is still sore from taking a tumble). The rest area makes a great place to relax for lunch, and at the far end there’s a rock formation that is chained off to keep people from entering. The views from this rock are nice if you climb over the chain (just don’t get too close to the edge). From here, the path heads towards the left (just before the rock formation). The trail is marked as 展望台まで 1.1km. It’s a very straightforward trail, winding its way through a beautiful forest on a series of wooden steps. Be sure to encourage those hikers you pass : the ascent from here really is tougher than the other approach (in terms of distance and vertical elevation gain, that is). In about 10 minutes you’ll come to a large rock formation. You can either skirt around it to the left or head up and over it. It’s worth climbing the rock for the views. After that, the path flattens out a little before climbing a small rise and descending steeply down the other side. Your next landmark will be another wooden shrine with a small clearing. There are a couple of benches here, but no real views to speak of. The real lookout tower is another couple of minutes down the trail, and there you’ll have outstanding views of Wakasa Bay and Tsuruga city. If you’re really lucky with the weather and visibility then you can also see Hakusan and the Japan Alps from here. After this, a bit of the beauty of the peak is lost, as you’ll pass by a couple of television antenna before entering a cedar forest and a junction, where a decision will have to be made. If you’ve driven to the mountain, then take the right fork marked for 高野 (Takano). If not, then stay on the ridge and follow the signs to Nakayamadera (中山寺), where you can grab a taxi or hitchhike to the nearest train station. I took the trail to Takano, and it’s easy to follow until reaching the village. From there, it’s a long walk on concrete roads back to Matsuno temple. There are no signposts, so it’s best to ask the locals about the best place to go. You could also try your luck hitching. The entire hike should take about 3 or 4 hours, depending on your speed and how many breaks you take.
When to go: This hike can be done year round, but you’ll want to be prepared for snow and ice during the colder months of January and February. The route is exposed in places, with ladders and ropes, so try to avoid wet conditons if you can.
Access: Although very tricky to access, it can be done as a day hike from Osaka if you get an early start. The best (and cheapest) way is to take a highway bus from Hankyu bus terminal in Umeda to Higashi-Maizuru (東舞鶴) station. From there, change to a train on the JR Obama line and get off at Matsuno-odera (松尾寺) station. The train only takes 7 minutes, but the trains are few and far between. The bus takes about 2 hours, depending on traffic. There are also buses from Sannomiya in Kobe and from Kyoto station. Click here for the bus schedule) You can also access Higashi-Maizuru by train from Kyoto (90 minutes by limited express train). From Matsuno-odera station it’s a short taxi ride (or a 1 hour walk) to the trailhead.
Level of difficulty: 4 out of 5 (elevation change ~400 meters)
Distance: 5km (3-1/2 to 5 hours)