Whether visiting during Spring, Summer or Autumn, trekking options in Japan’s vast mountain ranges are literally endless. One very special and spectacular destination however is the Hakuba Valley, located in the heart of Japan’s Northern Alps.
Famous as an international ski resort destination and for playing host to various events during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, Hakuba offers some of Japan’s best trekking during the green season.
WHERE IS THE HAKUBA VALLEY?
Japan’s Northern Alps mountain range, aptly known as the Japanese Alps, offer dramatic alpine scenery and rustic charm by the bucket load. Located just a few hours from Tokyo on Japan’s main island of Honshu and accessed via shinkansen (bullet train) and local bus, the Hakuba Valley is a superb hiking destination. A trekking adventure in Hakuba can easily be combined with a city break in Tokyo at either end of your trip.
A combination of both single-day and multi-day treks are easily possible, from classic hikes in the Japanese Alps to more off-the-beaten-track routes. The Hakuba Valley high alpine trekking trails are very well marked and popular with Japanese domestic outdoor enthusiasts.
The vast majority of trekking routes can be accessed from the gondolas and chairlifts of three of Hakuba’s famous ski resorts: Happo-One, Tsugaike and Goryu.
SINGLE DAY TREKKING ROUTES
Happo-One to Happo-Ike
If you are looking for an introduction to hiking in the Japan Alps, an easy non-technical half-day route can be found following the ridge from the top of Happo-One ski resort (take the gondola, then two chairlifts to reach the summit) to Happo-Ike (Happo pond).
Popular with day-trippers from Tokyo, this 2-3 hour round trip is an enjoyable hike featuring spectacular views of Hakuba’s three famous peaks – Mount Yari, Mount Shakushi and Mount Shirouma – all standing tall at just shy of 3000m. Happo-Ike is renowned for the beautiful mirror reflections of the mountains and is one of the most popular photo spots in Japan’s mountains.
Happo-One to Karamatsu Peak
For something a little longer and more challenging but still possible as a day trek, continue on past Happo-Ike up the ridge to reach Karamatsu peak. This isn’t a particularly challenging or technical route, but you’ll need a good level of fitness. Once you reach the mountain hut, you are nearly there – just another 20 minutes onwards to the summit at 2696m.
The panoramic views are nothing short of spectacular, including the Southern Alps mountain range, the Japan Sea and it’s possible to pick out Mount Fuji on a clear day. If you aren’t staying in the hut overnight, be sure to head back down the same route in good time to reach the Happo-One chairlifts, which usually close around 16:00.
MULTI-DAY TREKKING ROUTES
Mount Karamatsu to Mount Goryu
From Mount Karamatsu, mentioned previously, there are numerous excellent multi-day trekking routes to choose from. Stay overnight in the Karamatsu mountain hut and from here head in a southerly direction traversing across the ridge to one of Hakuba’s other famous peaks, Mount Goryu (2814m). This should take around 2 hours to complete. Take a rest at the Goryu Sanso hut and descend back down to the valley floor, via the ridge to the Goryu ski lifts.
Alternatively, for those seeking a longer and more technical adventure, stay on the ridge south and head for the next peak, the spectacular Mount Kashimayari (2889m). This section is undoubtedly one of the most dramatic segments of hiking in Japan!
The route between Goryu and Kashimayari is a challenging ridge, featuring rugged and steep sections, with scrambling skills required. More than half way along, you’ll reach Kiretto-goya, a small mountain hut located in a somewhat hair-raising position, perched on an extremely narrow saddle with vertical drops on either side.
The final day of this route, from Kiretto-goya hut to Ogisawa involves plenty of technical excitement with safety chains and ladders, taking in Kashimayari and Jiigatake peaks.
Perhaps the most famous mountain to conquer in the Hakuba Valley area is Mount Shirouma (2932m). Shirouma means ‘white horse’ and the mountain gained its name from a horse shaped area of snow in a saddle below the peak, which appears each Spring as the snow begins to melt. Confusingly for non-Japanese visitors, Shirouma and Hakuba have the same Japanese kanji characters, both meaning ‘white horse’ but with different pronunciations.
You shouldn’t miss the chance to hike up the famous Daisekki (meaning ‘large snow valley’) en-route to Hakuba’s highest peak, Shirouma. This unique and legendary section of the route is not an actual glacier, but this permanently frozen valley offers an exciting challenge to climb on snow during the summer months. Go prepared with basic crampons.
Just below Shirouma is Hakuba Sanso hut, one of the largest in the Japanese mountains, where you can stay overnight before embarking on the next day of trekking. From here there are several route options. You could traverse Hakuba’s three famous peaks, crossing from Mount Shirouma to Mount Shakushi and on to Mount Yari. Then descend to Sarukura via Yari Onsen, where you can enjoy a truly wild alpine hot-spring experience.
Alternatively, you could head north along the ridge from Mount Shirouma and descend via Mount Korenge and Mount Norikura, to the top of Tsugaike ski resort, where you can reach the valley floor via the Tsugaike Ropeway cable car and then the ski resort’s gondola.
There are plenty more exhilarating and spectacular trekking routes in and around the Hakuba Valley’s incredible mountain range, but these handpicked recommendations offer the chance to explore the area’s most famous peaks on classic trekking routes. Whether you are a beginner trekker or experienced mountaineer, the options are literally endless.
Without a doubt the Hakuba Valley is one of the best destinations to base yourself to experience trekking in Japan. With traditional onsen hot-springs, a variety of excellent accommodations available, superb local cuisine, welcoming locals and lots of other outdoor activity options (such as rafting, mountain biking, canyoning and stand-up paddle boarding), the Hakuba Valley is a true gem packed with adventure opportunities in the heart of the Japan Alps.