Konze Alps (金勝アルプス)
Located near the shores of Lake Biwa in southern Shiga Prefecture, the Konze Alps offers a refreshing escape from the urban sprawl of Kansai. The hike features not only gigantic sandstone formations and ancient Buddhist carvings, but also a chance to experience a forest relatively untouched by human encroachment.
The hike: From the bus stop, walk up the narrow paved road that runs upstream parallel to the river. The road will soon branch, so turn left and follow the sign to Mt. Tosaka (鶏冠山) and Tengu-iwa (天狗岩). Walk through the parking lot, past the toilets, and up the paved forest road that may or may not have a chain over it. You’ll soon pass by a small pond on your left, followed by another pond a little further along. The trailhead starts just after the second pond and is marked with a white sign reading 落ヶ滝線 1900m 50分. Turn right here and follow the gravel road. You’ll pass by a small lake and log cabin shack before entering the woods. You’ll soon see a small trail branching off to the right, marked by a corroding signpost. Ignore this trail and stay on the main path which will veer towards the left. The route runs next to a small stream that you will follow most of the way up. There are numerous crossings marked by colored tape on the trees. After about 10 minutes or so you’ll cross over a paved forest road, with a trail crossing a bridge on your left. Instead of crossing the bridge, continue straight on, following the sign to 落ヶ滝. After crossing the creek you’ll come to another junction with an trail branching off to your left for Mt. Tosaka (鶏冠山) and 北谷林道. Ignore this trail and follow the trail to 落ヶ滝 which crosses the creek straight ahead. The entire route is marked systematically with yellow metal signs bolted to the trees that read コールポイント. These signs are coded with a numerical system that is used to help with helicopter rescues. Every year, some hikers take a tumble and need to be airlifted out of the mountains, and these signs indicate places where rescuers can safely abseil from the helicopter. Anyway, the route continues weaving back and forth along both banks of the creek for about 15 more minutes until reaching another junction with a trail branching off to the right for 落ヶ滝. Drop your gear here and cross the creek for the short climb up to the waterfall. While the waterfall itself isn’t particularly big, the rock formations and peace of the narrow valley make it a good place to contemplate life. After enjoying the scenery, retrace your steps back to the junction and continue heading up the mountain. After passing by a couple of more rescue points, the views will start to open up towards lake Biwa and Hieizan as you climb towards the ridge. The route starts to flatten out, traversing through a large plateau flanked by massive undergrowth all around. It can be a bit tricky to find the trail in places, so make sure you follow the tape marks on the trees and any signage pointing towards 落ヶ谷 and for 天狗岩. There are several places with ropes to help you up the steeper sections of rock. Eventually you’ll pop out on the main ridge (rescue point #K-7), where a decision will have to be made. If you’re fit and energetic, then I recommend stashing your gear in the woods and turning left for the 20 minute climb to the summit of Mt. Tosaka. The trail is steep and will pass over three false summits before reaching the peak. While the summit is covered with trees, there are a couple of places along the way where you can get views down into the valley below. If that’s not your cup of tea, then you can skip the climb because the best part of the hike lies ahead. Turn right here and follow the signs towards Tengu-iwa (天狗岩), which will take anywhere between 45 minutes and 1 hour to reach. En route you’ll pass by several fascinating rock formations that offer splendid views into the valley below. Watch your footing in dry weather, as the sandstone offers little traction. Just before reaching Tengu, the path will drop down into the forest before climbing steeply up to the base of the rocks. Drop your pack here and follow the red arrows painted on the rocks to climb to the top. It’s an adrenaline-inducing climb with incredible panoramic views and most likely the highlight of the entire hike. When you’ve had enough fun, retrace your steps to the ridge and continue straight along, following the sign for Mimi-iwa 耳岩. You’ll soon find a junction on your left for 十九道ダム, but ignore this and continue straight on. You’ll start to get views back towards Tengu and you’ll also see a rock formation that looks like a giant ear (hence the name, Mimi-iwa). When you reach this rock formation you’ll find yet another junction (there are no shortage of trails in this area). Here another decision will have to be made. If you’re tired, then take the trail to the right marked for Kami-Kiryuu (上桐生). Otherwise, continue on the ridge towards 白石峰 for the climb to Mt. Ryuuou (竜王山), which will take about another half an hour to reach. The path will climb up a series of steps before reaching a junction marked by a giant brown signboard. There is also a box here for hikers to register their hiking plans. Usually these are found at the trailheads, so I have no idea why there is a box sitting here on the top of a mountain. Anyway, turn left here and follow the rolling ridge through an area of pine trees. Soon you’ll reach an ancient Kannon statue carved into a rock called 茶沸観音. After this the route strolls along a relatively flat ridge with nice views out to your right. After 10 minutes or so you’ll reach a clearing with a large flat rock and small shrine, as well as a spur trail to the right for the summit of Mt. Ryuuou (竜王山頂). The top itself has no views to speak of, so it’s better to take a break at this clearing. After this retrace your steps back to the big junction with the brown signboard. Here another decision will have to be made. If you turn left here you’ll follow a route on the spiny ridge that will take you past an ancient Buddhist rock carving. The route is marked as 狛坂線 and it should take you about 90 minutes to loop back to the bus stop. I haven’t done this route to be honest (I was torn between this one and the earlier escape route from Mimi-iwa), so I can’t give you a trail description at this time. What I did was to retrace my steps back to Mimi-iwa and turn left, following the signs to 上桐生. The trail drops steeply off the ridge, with ropes in place to help you down the slippery sandstone scree. After scurrying through the limestone maze, you’ll reach another junction marked 水晶谷 on your left. Ignore this and drop steeply to the right, following the tape marks and signs through yet more boulders. At rescue point T-3 the trail will drop off the ridge to the right and pass through an area of ferns before eventually dropping down to a creek bed. Follow the route as it crisscrosses the creek about a dozen times. Keep your eyes peeled for the tape marks when you’re not sure where the path goes. At rescue point T-6 you’ll reach a campground and then a gravel road. Turn left and cross the wooden bridge that will take you to a paved road. Follow this road for a few minutes until reaching a fork in the road marked by a bust of Johannis de Rijke, the guy who designed the aqueduct from Lake Biwa to Kyoto. The stone dam behind his statue was also designed by him in the Meiji era. Anyway, to get to the bus stop turn right, but if you’ve still got time and energy there’s still one little detour to make. Turn left, following the signs to さかさ観音. After walking about 5-minutes, you’ll see a paved trail on your left that crosses a bridge to a gazebo. Take this and you’ll find the rock carving next to the resthouse. This is unique because the statues were carved upside down. From here, retrace your steps back to the statue and turn left, where you’ll reach the bus stop in about 10 minutes. As you can see, the hike offers a number of different option and there are enough trails in the area to keep you occupied for a while.
When to go: This hike can be done year round, but you need to be wary of ice in the winter months, as the rock formations are slippery enough without the added challenge of frozen water. Summer is hot and humid with a lot of hornets, but the small river makes a good place to cool off the body. Parts of the trail are closed in early autumn (Sept. 19 to Nov. 10 to be exact) to prevent people from stealing matsutake mushrooms, a highly-prized delicacy. The locals are strict with trespassers, so please pay attention to the Do Not Enter signs reading 入山禁止. This is a very popular weekend destination, so try to go on a weekday if you want to photograph the wonderful rock formations without people in the way.
Access: From Osaka or Kyoto stations, take the JR Shinkaisoku (新快速) either bound for Maibara (米原) or Nagahama (長浜) and get off at Kusatsu (草津) station. Go out the ticket gates and turn left towards the East Exit (東口). Go down the stairs on your left and you’ll find bus stop #4 directly in front of you. Take bus #153 bound for Kami-Kiryuu (上桐生) and get off at the final stop. Click here for the schedule.
Map: Click here
Level of difficulty: 4 out of 5 (elevation change ~500 meters)
Total round-trip distance: 12km (5 to 7 hours)