Article updated on May 25, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
“Okay, don’t panic! There is a stone about 20 centimetres (8 inches) below your left foot, and a cavity for your left hand behind that rock. Yes, slightly lower. That’s it! You can put your weight on it.”
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I don’t see anything but the mountain ridge on the horizon above that rock I need to descend from and a lethal ravine below my feet, while hanging on my arms trying to divide my weight at best. My legs start shaking when I feel the stone underneath my right hand moving! My 12-plus-kilogram (27 pounds) backpack drags me down and bruises my hips and shoulders, limiting my degrees of freedom. I really wish I had a parachute or a zip line… For a few seconds, I don’t see how I can help myself down safely and I fear for my life.
I am hanging about halfway in the Daikiretto, the notorious ridge line hike in the Northern Japanese Alps. The “hike”, or scramble may be a better description of the exercise, takes us from the Yari-dake side down then up a dramatic mountain crack in the direction of the Okuhodaka peak.
Yesterday was a tough day already! After setting off the evening before from Kamikochi for a 10-kilometre-2-hour hike to the 横尾キャンプ場 camp (yes, just heading to the right spot can be a challenge!) or Yokoo-sanso, and an early start, we had to battle up a 1,750-metre (5,740 feet) elevation gain over only 11 kilometres (6.8 miles) to reach the Yari-dake camp. Following the crystal-clear waters of a stream, then walking on snow fields before going straight up on rocky paths where water became scarce, we reached the base of the spear-like peak in the early afternoon. The camp was dotted with a few lights and small colourful mountaineering tents at more than 3,000 metres (9,840 feet) looking like a high-altitude base. We quickly pitched our over-sized 4-season tent to conquer the fifth highest peak of Japan using a set of metal ladders and chains taking us to 3,180 metres (10,433 feet).
The Matterhorn of Japan is among the 100 famous Japanese mountains, and we were not the only ones on that rock!
The night was good despite a little rain and the cold temperatures. The fantastic sunrise gives motivation to brave the 10°C (50°F), seeing Mt. Fuji (3,776 metres or 12,388 feet) on the horizon above the clouds and picturing the thousands of people who must be up there looking in our direction at that same moment!
Today, after following the mountain ridge for two hours, we dove into the Daikiretto. About three hours are needed to cross its only 2 kilometres (1.2 miles), and we are lucky as an early departure allowed us to not see too many hikers on it (most hikers avoid that dangerous section killing about 12 every year). Indeed, beyond the technicality of the trail, overtaking Japanese male hikers is regularly a challenge for us, two white females, as they tend to not give way… The way down is very scary at times. The way up seems easier, even though a bit more demanding on our bodies given the load we are carrying. We pull ourselves up or climb down using rusty ladders, chains, ledges, rocks, anything! A sharp focus is key to conquer this scary and exhilarating scramble!
We are very happy to eventually reach the cheerful Kita-hotaka-goya mountain hut serving hearty meals and beers! We indulge ourselves to a well-deserved lunch, pretty proud of our accomplishment while enjoying the spectacular view on the impressive 300 metre (984 feet) cut we have just conquered among the many guided groups of Japanese hikers. In shorts and technical T-shirts, we almost feel underdressed looking at the local hikers, almost all with brand new boots and back packs, wearing the latest long-sleeved technical clothing.
Clouds start coming in, and at the sound of thunder that is still far away, we decide to move fast to reach Okuhodaka-sanso. We underestimated the path, as it is very similar if not tougher than the Daikiretto. Going at a fast pace with our tired muscles, while staying extremely focused as one misstep would be deadly and turning around is just not an option, makes this section even more challenging. It is another two hours, juggling with the clouds on the West side of the ridge and the sun on its eastern slope to end up in the hut after covering only 11 kilometres (6.8 miles) for a rather “flat” day: only 53 metres (174 feet) lost, i.e. 1,144 metres (3,753 feet) of elevation gain and 1,197 metres (3,927 feet) of loss!
After our second night camping at 3,000 metres (9,840 feet), we ascend Okuhodaka-dake, the third highest peak of Japan culminating at 3,180 metres (10,433 feet). Then, a long and tricky trail which seems to never-end takes us down, back to Kamikochi in 11 kilometres (6.8 miles) and 1,975 metres (6,480 feet) of negative elevation.
We are quite happy to have made it back just on time before the rain and not too far from physical exhaustion!
Just like the mythical Mont Blanc in France, Mount Fuji is the must-hike peak of Japan. However, any mountain guide in Chamonix will tell you the same: the Mont Blanc in my bread and butter, but it is by far not the most beautiful hike around here!
Yari-dake feels the same to us. While Mount Fuji is a sacred mountain and highest peak of Japan, it gets very, very busy any day of the hiking season. Spending three days and a half in the Japanese Alps around Kamikochi, with magnificent vistas, adventurous, challenging and exhilarating trails, and seeing the sunrise on the perfect cone of Fuji in the distance is a phenomenal experience that we can only warmly recommend to experienced hikers.
Past the obvious weather checks and packing as light as possible advice, here are a few more tips for this specific hike:
- Climbing skills could come in handy for the demanding Daikiretto as it is more scrambling than hiking;
- Make sure you can attach your hiking poles (very useful) tightly to your back pack and that they don’t stick out too much (this can be very dangerous on the Daikiretto);
- Mittens for the chains and ladders can be useful;
- Past the first 12 kilometres (7.5 miles), water can be found only at the lodges where you can buy it (or snow patches);
- If you want to do it the light way, booking ahead, it is possible to sleep at the mountain huts, and to have dinner and breakfast there: up to a 1-year prior booking is advised;
- Yarigatake hut is extremely popular and campsites are first come, first served;
- We recommend you to do that loop in that same direction (Kamikochi > Yari-dake > Daikiretto > Okuhodaka-dake > Kamikochi) to balance the elevation better;
- The trail is well marked. Maps can be bought at the visitor’s centre in Kamikochi: we used maps.me;
- Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles (zoom out) about the area!
Helicopter view of the GPS track:
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This article was published in Beyond Boundaries, the e-magazine by Xtreme Adventure: