Mt. Ashitaka (愛鷹山)
The Ashitaka mountain range sits on the edge of Fuji city just a short distance south of Mt. Fuji itself. The route described here offers the best unobstructed southernly views of Mt. Fuji from any mountain in Japan, as well as allows hikers to experience a taste of the deciduous hardwood forests that once covered the entire land.
The hike: The bus stop is just off route 469, so after exiting the bus, walk out to the main road and turn right (in the opposite direction from which you just came). You’ll soon see a soba noodle shop on your left (on the opposite side of the road). Walk down the paved, 2-lane road for about 10 minutes and you’ll reach the trailhead on the left side of the road. It’s marked by a large parking lot and wooden shelter housing the toilets. There’s a large grassy area here as well, which is a good landmark that you’ve reached the right place. Just to the right of the toilets you’ll see the trailhead marked by a wide trail with wooden log steps built into the hillside. The trail pretty much goes straight up, with very few switchbacks in sight. You’ll see a large TV antenna at the top of the hill in front of you. The trail will go right past that, so you can use that as a visual indicator (though it’s nearly impossible to get lost, as there’s only one way to go, and that’s up!) If the weather is good you’ll have an amazing view of Mt. Fuji directly behind you. At the top of the hill just below the antenna you’ll find a small observation deck which makes a great place for a short break. The grassy area just below this lookout point makes for a great picnic area. In fact, if you’re nursing a hangover or just don’t feel up for a big hike, it’d be a great place to kick back and relax for the afternoon before descending back the way you came in time for the last bus. Anyway, if you’re still keen on hiking then continue up the trail past the antenna and helipad and you’ll pass through an area of bamboo grass with excellent views of the Minami Alps if the weather is good. A few minutes on, you’ll pass by another antenna (this one sits on top of a green building) before entering the forest and commencing the steep climb towards the ridgline. It should take about 10 minutes to reach Umanose Miharashidai (馬ノ背見晴台), which is the halfway point in terms of horizontal distance. You’ve still got quite a lot of vertical elevation change ahead of you though. There are a couple of picnic benches here if you feel inclined to take a break. Just don’t rest too long, as the last bus back to Gotemba is at 6:09pm. From here, you’ll enter a root-infested trail that is suffering from a nasty bout of overuse. There are several different paths to follow, each in varying states of erosion. Take your pick and enjoy the moss-covered volcanic scenery of the hardwood forest. If the winds are blowing from the north, then don’t be alarmed if you hear the sound of elephants and lions. No, your mind isn’t playing tricks on you: there is a safari park located at the base of the mountain. Likewise, if you hear artillery fire, then rest assured that you’re not under attack, as there’s a military firing range also at the foot of the mountain. Anyway, the trail really starts to steepen here, and it should take about 40 minutes of continuous climbing before reaching another small viewpoint called Heitanchi (平坦地). This is your last chance for unobstructed views of Mt. Fuji, so be sure to take plenty of photos (or use your imagination if the cloud is in). The final part of the climb is ahead, so brace yourself for the relentless 200-vertical meter push to the summit. The path steepens once again, as the forest grows thicker and more beautiful with each advancing step. In the winter you can get nice views of Mt. Fuji between the bare tree branches, which can make for some really artistic shots. Once again there are two or three different heavily-eroded paths to choose from, so take your pick and keep up the vertical elevation gains. After a heavy rain the trail will likely be one giant mud pit, so bring gaiters if you want to keep your hiking pants from getting muddy. It should take around a half an hour to reach a trail junction for Sekotsuji (勢子辻). Ignore this trail and push on to the summit of Mt. Echizen (越前岳), the highest point of the Ashitaka range. Although the views of Mt. Fuji are obscured by tree cover, you’ll have mouth-watering vistas of Tsuruga bay and Fuji city directly below you. Take a break here on one of the picnic benches dotted on the summit plateau. You’ve got a couple of choices from here. If you’re running short of time, then consider retracing your steps back to the bus stop, as it’s the fastest and shortest way off the mountain. If you’ve still got the time and energy, however, you can traverse over to Kuro-dake and down to Yama Jinja Shrine, which will take about 2 hours to reach. Keep in mind that the last bus is 6:09pm from Ashitaka tozanguchi bus stop, which is a 10-minute walk from Yama Jinja. To reach this trail, find the small red-bibbed Jizo statue on the far side of the summit (just behind the picnic tables) and follow the path that leads away from the top (with Mt. Fuji on your left). Don’t take the trail marked for Yobiko Dake, as it’s in the wrong direction. The path to Kurodake a lovely ridge walk with a relatively gentle descent through a tranquil forest. The route is signposted in a couple of places with the kanji for 黒岳・大沢, so just stick to the ridge with Mt. Fuji on your left. Your first landmark will be Fujimidai (富士見台), which has a nice view of Mt. Fuji. There’s a strange 2-meter tall aluminum tripod here that is incredibly unstable. Apparently it has been set up so that photographers can climb up and set their cameras there to capture the view above the trees. This spot was is known as the location for the photo that once graced the back of the 5000 yen bill in the pre-war years of the Taisho era. The trail continues to the left of this tripod and will traverse along the ridge past a couple of precarious drops on your right that are marked with Caution signs. Stay away from the edge of the crumbly ridge on your right, as at least one person has tumbled from there. Push on for another half hour or so until reaching Nokogiri Dake Tenboudai Viewpoint (鋸岳展望台) on your right just off the main trail. There’s a wonderful vista of a jagged, insanely-precarious sabertooth ridge that is currently off-limits to hikers, and for good reason, as parts of the ridge have completely eroded away. From here, the trail will drop through some bamboo grass and reach a deep trench that also doubles as the hiking trail. A detour route has recently been created that parallels the gully, so take your pick as they both meet up further down the ridge. There’s one tricky point at the end of the gully where the path appears to verge to the right on a wide path that appears to be a road. Stay left here and keep following whichever trail has the most erosion and you’ll be ok. You’ll really start to lose altitude now, and the native hardwoods will give way to a farmed cedar plantation that will block out most of the natural light. It’ll take another 15 to 20 minutes to reach a junction called Fujimi Touge Path (富士見峠), where a decision will have to be made. There’s a bus leaving at 4:49pm and the last bus is a 6:09pm. You can make it to the bus stop in about 45 minutes from here if you really push it (and ignore the side trip to Kurodake). If you have the time and energy, however, and want to get one final look at Mt. Fuji, drop your pack here and head up to the summit of Mt. Kuro, which reputedly has a pleasant vista of everyone’s favorite stratovolcano. Allow yourself about one hour for the return trip. I did not have time for this side trip, so if anyone does venture up there please let me know about the trail conditions and if the vistas make it worth it. From Fujimi Touge , the trail finally leaves the ridge for the steep descent to the bus stop. The path drops steeply for a couple of minutes before reaching a free, unstaffed mountain hut that looks more like an abandoned shack than a place to stay. There’s a small water source in the gully just below the shelter that was little more than a trickle in the winter. The hut has room for about 3 people comfortably, but it would make for a nice place to stay if you wanted to climb up for the sunrise from Mt. Kuro. Cross over the gully to the toilet shack on the other side, where the path continues its traverse. After a gentle climb you’ll reach the base of two short ladders that can be slippery in wet weather, so use caution. From here, the trail traverses through an area of rockfall (marked with a sign in Japanese reading 落石) before descending into a moss-covered cedar forest that wouldn’t look too out of place on Yakushima. Continue climbing down until reaching a moss-covered concrete dam. Cross the gully below the dam and the trail will continue on the other side and after a few more minutes you’ll reach a small shrine and a paved forest road with a small parking lot. Turn left here and it’s a 10-minute, 1km walk along the road to the bus stop. When you reach the main road, you’ll see the bus stop on your right but be careful – this is the bus stop in the opposite direction. Cross the road and walk down a little towards your right and you’ll see a sign with a cute little “Q” in white letters on top of a red illustration of Mt. Fuji. You can either take a bus back to Gotemba or Mishima station (though there’s only one bus to Mishima in the afternoons, leaving at 4:59pm). You could also try your luck hitching, as the road gets steady traffic on weekends. The entire hike should take between 4 to 6 hours, depending on your speed. If Mt. Fuji is visible then it’ll probably take closer to 6 hours for the hike, as you’ll be stopping every 50 meters or so to snap another photo of the iconic cone.
When to go: This hike can be done year-round, but you’ll need crampons anytime there is snow on the mountain, as it can get quite icy. Winter provides your best chance of seeing snow-capped Mt. Fuji. The autumn colors are also splendid on the mountain, so aim to go in late October if you can. Summer can be incredibly humid and downright miserable, so it’s better to do it before June when the humidity really starts to settle.
Access: From Tokyo, take a train on the Tokaido line to Kozu (国府津) and change to the Gotemba line. Get off at Gotemba (御殿場) station. Go out the ticket gates and turn left, going down the stairs on the “Mt. Fuji side” of the station. The stairway splits at the landing halfway down, so turn left and go to the bus rotary in front of you. The bus for the trailhead leaves from bus stop #4 (it’s the bus stop on the island in the middle of the rotary). Take a bus bound for Jūrigi (十里木) and get off at the final stop. It takes several hours to reach Gotemba station by train, so make sure you’re in time for the 10:50am bus or you won’t have time to do the hike before nightfall. You could also get to Gotemba by bus from Tokyo or by the Odakyu line from Shinjuku (get off at Shin-matsuda station and then walk to Matsuda station on the Gotemba line and continue by train to Gotemba). Alternatively, you could take the Shinkansen to Odawara station and then a local train to Kozu and then to Gotemba. Click here for the bus schedule.
Level of difficulty: 3 out of 5 (elevation change ~700 meters)
Total round-trip distance: 7.6km (4 to 6 hours)