Mt. Kurikoma (栗駒山)
Mt. Kurikoma is an active volcano straddling the border of Iwate and Akita Prefectures in northeastern Honshu. The views of Mt. Chokai, the spectacular volcanic scenery, and the soothing hot springs make it a great place for a weekend getaway.
The hike: When you get off the bus, walk a few meters to the hot spring river that runs between the red-roofed hotel and the outdoor bath (露天風呂). Believe it or not, the path actually runs right by this steaming water source. As you walk up the path, you’ll see a small shrine on your right, across the small steam. Since this is an active volcano, it might be a good idea to pay your respects to the mountain gods before commencing the hike. Follow the concrete path past the stream and into the forest. You’ll soon find a path on your right. Ignore this and continue on the concrete trail, climbing to a small series of rock formations. If the weather is good then you can climb these rocks for a good view of the hot spring hotel. Soon after, you’ll reach another junction with a trail heading off to the left. Ignore this spur trail and continue on, past a small hut and the ruins of an old bathhouse. After a short climb, you’ll drop down to a meadow and reach yet another junction. Turn left here and follow the wooden boardwalk across a scenic, grassy area of the volcano. At the next junction, you’ll see a huge wooden signboard with a giant map of the mountain. Turn right here and climb a short distance to Taikadai (苔花台), where you’ll find a trail heading off to the left. Ignore this path, as you’ll use this route on the descent, creating a really nice loop hike. Continue straight on, being careful not to stray into the hot spring river running along the left side of the trail. Although tempting, the area is full of poisonous gases, so stay on the path. The route runs parallel to the river, climbing higher and higher towards the summit plateau before flattening out and reaching a beautiful lime-colored caldera lake named Showako (昭和湖). Just before the lake, the trail will split to the left. You can take either trail, since they meet up a short distance later at the shores of the lake. Here you’ll find a toilet hut on your right, which is well worth checking out for the foot pump flushing mechanism. Take a break on the benches in front of the lake, as the steepest part of the climb awaits. On the left side of the lake, the stair-infested trail once again darts back into the forest, increasing in steepness the higher you climb. Hang in there because the views awaiting you are well worth the sweat-inducing effort. It should take about 45 minutes of steady hoofing to reach the ridgeline at Tengu Daira (天狗平), where the panoramic views will start to emerge. You should see all of the mountains of southern Tohoku rising out in front of you. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Chokai as well. Turn left once you reach this lookout point, and you will reach the high point in about 15 minutes or so. Besides the giantic signpost, you’ll find a small shrine which makes a great backdrop for photos. There is a flat area just before the summit which would make an incredible place for a bivy (you just need to bring enough water and pack out your fecal waste). Sunrise from the summit on a clear day may very well be one of your highlights in Japan if you can time it correctly. Anyway, to complete the loop, take the trail from the top marked for Ubunuma (産沼). The path is easy to follow and lined with a plethora of wildflowers in bloom. When you reach the small pond, you’ll find a path on your right leading to 笊森. This route was only recently reopened after being damaged in the 2008 Iwate earthquake. Ignore this path and follow the signs towards Sukawa Onsen (須川温泉). The trail meanders through the forest before crossing a small stream, followed by a bigger river. This river can be tricky to ford when the river is swollen due to heavy rain or snowmelt, so take care. There’s a signpost here marking the way back to Taikadai (苔花台). Just before you reach that point, you’ll drop down to yet another river that needs to be crossed. Just after crossing, you’l reach the junction. Turn right here and retrace your steps back to the next junction. Instead of turning left here, keep heading straight through a scenic marshland comparable to what you would find at Oze National Park. At your next junction, you can take your pick of trails, as both lead back to the starting point. I headed left, following the easy-to-follow path until it reached the back of the hot spring hotel. From there, navigate your way through the hot spring river maze to the bus stop. Be sure to allow enough time to have a bath at the hot spring there. The outdoor bath (露天風呂) costs 650 yen and is worth every penny.
When to go: This hike can be done from early May to early November, when the road to the trailhead is open. The mountain is famous for fall colors, so expect crowds if you go in October. Bring light crampons if you’re hiking anytime before July.
Access: From Tokyo, take a Shinkansen train bound for Hachinohe or Morioka and get off at Ichinoseki (一ノ関). Not all trains stop at this station, so double-check before boarding. From there, take a bus from bus stop #9 bound for Sukawa Onsen (須川温泉) and get off at the final stop. Please note that there are only two buses per day, making it tricky to do as a day hike. You can either stay at a hotel near Ishinoseki station, or stay at Kurikoma Sansou (highly recommended) at the trailhead. This hotel has an incredible outdoor bath with views of Mt. Chokai. Click here for the bus schedule.
Map: You can pick up a free full-color map from the tourist information center at Ishinoseki station. The office is directly in front of Bus stop #9 (the bus stop you’ll use to get to the trailhead)
Level of difficulty: 2 out of 5 (elevation change ~500m)
Distance: 〜9km (3-1/2 to 5 hours)