Known as the home of almost all Japan’s mountains going beyond 3000 meters, the Japanese Alps are a collection of uprising peaks, deep, beautiful valleys, and uneven yet exquisite terrains that make for one of the country’s most scenic views. Several beautiful trails delve into each and every crevice of the range. While all are strikingly beautiful, one stands out, often the go-to for the experienced hobbyist hiker. It is the Kamikochi-Yari-Hotaka Circuit. This hike is one of the most challenging hikes in the Alps – recommended for experienced hikers looking for a challenge.
The Hotaka Circuit brings you closer to Japan’s two most famous peaks, the Yarigatake Mountain and the Okuhotaka-dake Mountain, the fifth and third tallest mountains in all of Japan.
Beginning in the peaceful Kamikochi Valley, the route goes up to an astounding 1675 meters to the spear-resembling top of Yarigatake, later meandering through the outskirts of the Okuhotaka-dake through the infamous Daikiretto, which is inarguably Japan’s most traditional and exciting hiking site, going back down to Kamikochi.
For the rest of this blog, we will walk you through what the actual journey will be like when you go hiking the incredible landscape of the Japan Alps! While the route may be beautiful, it is a tough, strenuous hike and not for the faint-hearted. While preparing for your own hiking adventure through the Japan Alps, consider carefully what equipment and supplies you might need, and be sure to pack appropriate clothing, hiking gear, and other supplies for your trip.
Hikers often start at the Kamikochi Bus Terminal when going on a hiking escapade to the Japanese Northern Alps. You might see other groups of hikers here making their way to the trailhead, and this hike only gets better with other adventure-minded travelers.
Next comes the Myojinkan lodge, where the day-trippers are whisked away, and you can enjoy the view with fewer people around. Unfortunately, it often rains here, and you are advised to bring an umbrella. Just after this stop is where the real, lengthy hike will begin. So, enjoy the lodge for a little while and make sure your water bottles are filled because then you will have some serious climbing to do.
As trail goes past the Tokusawa and the Yokoo lodges, the incline becomes steadily steeper. The ascent continues as the path goes through the idyllic Valley of Yarisawa, the source of the Azusagawa River. You will find that you are out of the forest and among the rockier parts of the trail upon arriving at the Yarisawa Lodge. Some amazing views await you. You will then come across the Yarigatake Sanso lodge, where you can relax and grab a bit to eat.
You can make it to the peak of Yarigatake from the lodge pretty quickly if you don’t stop for any extra breaks (wandering around and whatnot) apart from resting. While the remaining ascent comprises only a half-hour of effort, pulling at the rocks, ladders, and chains on the almost vertical walls can make time feel as though it is going slower.
Once you have made it, though, the view will be worth the effort. You can next get some breakfast down at the hut and make sure to return any rental material back to the owners before you hit the trail. Once done, get ready for some serious hiking over the following peaks: Minamidake, Obamidake, and Nakadake. Take time to stop and enjoy the incredible views before continuing down into the Daikiretto.
It will likely take you a few hours of hiking all the way from Yarigatake Sanso to be able to see the legendary Daikiretto Gap. This is a sheer, rocky expanse in the Hotaka terrain, where there is a sharp drop of about 300 meters on both ends. In various places, the ridge contracts, reaching a width only centimeters wide, where the path forward is aided by chains or even bare rock. In these areas, daring hikers enjoy the thrilling view of a breathtaking drop miles below your feet, but pay close attention to where you put your hands and feet. Precarious as the Daikaretto path may be, the hike is a wonder of wonders, and with careful effort and time you will make it safely across.
You will, after having gone through some more beautiful mountainous regions, around the peaks of Kitahotaka-dake and Karasawa-dake, have made it to Okuhotaka-dake – which has huts where you can spend the night.
And we go back to Kamikochi through one of our favorite parts of the hike, which is the Karasawa Valley. You will begin by climbing up the side of the majestic Mount Okuhotaka-dake. Within about an hour, you will reach the summit. If you get the timing just right, you won’t miss the sun’s rays lighting up the third most-tallest peak of the country.
After enjoying all the breathtaking colors and the whole extravagant view, head back into the Karasawa Valley. Most people will want to pick a rather short route, like the Dakesawa Valley, leading them directly into Kamikochi. However, if timing is on your side, pick Karasawa because if you are out there around early October, you will undoubtedly appreciate the vibrant colors of autumn that surround pretty much the entire valley. Once you are at Karasawa, you should pick an alternate way known as the Panorama Course. You will not regret the views you will get to see this way. Also, you get to cover more ground this way.
You will soon find yourself at the Tokusawa Lodge. Treat yourself to something delicious here. They are best known for their ice cream, by the way. Some ice cream is definitely welcome after such a long and arduous hike! In addition, you can check out some gorgeous sights at the famous Kappabashi Bridge of Mount Hotaka. There is a classic view from Kappabashi that you are bound to fall in love with!
This incredible hike can be most conveniently done during the main hiking season. Again, we recommend this hike only for experienced hikers, as many of the trails can be treacherous. This is from the middle of July all the way till the middle of October.
If you are looking for some other hikes to try in Japan, here are a few other equally breathtaking hikes.
This is a hike through the Central Alps, in Nagano Prefecture. The Komagatake Ropeway provides straightforward, year-round access to the starting point of his incredible hike. The region is named for the broad expanse carved out by a glacier an Ice Age ago, a broad flat the length of 1000 tatami mats, or “senjo”.
The easiest route from Senjojiki Station (Japan’s highest ropeway station) takes hikers around portions of the cirque in a looping trail that takes about an hour. From this route, one may easily take in views of the surrounding landscape which, depending on the season, makes different impressions on the hiker’s imagination. Certain points of this Senjojiki Cirque trail feature a view as far as Mount Fuji, which can be seen on a clear day winking in the distance.
The Cirque also provides access to climbing the highest peak in the Central Alps, Kiso-Komagatake. Hiking to the summit and back again takes around four hours on average and involves a steep slope with handholds to aid in climbing the first portion, reaching the top of the Senjojiki Cirque, be sure to look back for an incredible view before moving onward on an easy upward hike toward Mount Nakadake, which marks the halfway point to the summit. You’ll pass a couple mountain huts along the way, as you get ever closer to the goal. At last, you’ll finally reach the summit of Kiso-Komagatake, home to a pair of shrines and a magnificent view of the Central Japan Alps.
This is probably the most popular hike through the Japan Alps, and one that children and adults can do together. The great appeal of the Nakasendo is its preserved “post towns” which hearken back to the more rustic Edo period.
For a tried-and-true trail with abundant free time to take in gorgeous scenery of idyllic mountain villages, the hike through the Kiso Valley from Magome to Tsumago is the perfect route. Departing Magome, with its old-fashioned houses and shops, is like walking out of a postcard scene into a rural countryside of mountains and forests. If you want a map to help you stay on the trail (or just want a cool souvenir), Magome has shops that sell them. The trail is well marked, so there the chance of getting lost on the way is really low.
Along the path you can see the majestic waterfalls of Odaki and Medaki, a preserved residence of the once-powerful Fujiwara clan, and even an old-fashioned teahouse, still in operation. Eventually, you’ll reach your goal 8 kilometers later in Tsumago, which has its own local charms to enjoy. The total path takes about 3-5 hours of walking depending on your speed, although we definitely recommend stopping and take in the sights along the way. The Nakasendo Route is open year-round and absolutely beautiful in any season.
There are other hiking trails through the gorgeous Japanese Alps, but no matter which one you choose, you are sure to be captivated by this fantastic location.