Black Princess Mountain
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The northern ranges of central Japan are now, thanks to the expansion of the expressway system, much more accessible to Nagoya residents, and the opportunity to explore these beautiful mountains is well worth the long drive and exorbitant tolls. With its variety of hiking trails and plethora of natural hot springs, the cluster of ancient volcanoes straddling the Nagano-Niigata border makes for an enticing destination, and Kurohimeyama 黒姫山 is a fine introduction to the area.
The original Kurohime was, apparently, the beautiful daughter of a local lord who became entangled in an improbable liaison with a young Samurai who turns out to be a giant snake. What Freud would have made of all this I can only guess, but in one version of the story the princess accepts her herpetic husband with equanimity, and the two ascend the mountain to live happily together. In another version she drowns herself in a pond.
The trailhead for the mountain is at Ohashi (大橋), where there is space for half a dozen cars to park in front of a gated forestry road. Follow the road for twenty minutes, ignoring side turnings, and just after a series of sharp curves a sign on the left signals the start of the ascent trail, a wide path through broadleaf forest. Climbing gently, the route enters a beechwood, the trunks of some of these elegant trees soaring thirty meters to the canopy. Particularly stunning in their autumn colours, Japanese beeches are a pleasure to walk among at any season.
An hour or so from the start of the hike, a four-way trail junction is reached where the wide path splits into two, the left-hand (north) fork signposted 0darumi (大ダルミ), the eastern option marked for Furuike (古池) lower down the mountain. Between these two, a narrower path leads up northeast onto a wooded ridge; this is the Shindo (新道), the direct route to the summit. The trees on this trail are too thick to permit much in the way of expansive views, but the song of birds and insects and the scent of flowers and foliage provide plenty of stimulus for the senses.
After a while the trees begin to thin out and the path dips, then levels off at a point marked with an elevation sign for 1988 meters. This is the rim of the massive volcanic crater of which Kurohimeyama forms part. A slight descent leads to a trail junction in a saddle, and the right-hand (north) path climbs steeply up through huge rocks to the summit. The views are opening rapidly from this point, and most hikers will happily ignore aching legs to stride up this last section of the ascent with eager anticipation.
Nor does the 2053-meter summit disappoint. While not completely a 360 degree panorama, the northeastern vista being partly obscured by trees, the views are still gorgeous. Immediately to the west the green cone of Osutakayama (御巣鷹山) rises from the crater floor, dwarfed by the massive bulk of Takatsumayama (高妻山) rising behind. Even the huge cliffs of Togakushiyama (戸隠山), further south along the ridge, look small against this giant. In the east the eye is drawn down to the graceful blue shape of Nojiriko (野尻湖), nestling beneath the slopes of Madaraoyama (斑尾山). Across the Niigata border to the north Hiuchiyama (火打山) stands in splendid isolation while, slightly further around, the craggy southern face of Myokoyama (妙高山) dominates the foreground, its volcanic origins very obvious from this point. And as if all this proximate magnificence were not breathtaking enough, on a good day it is possible to make out the towering peaks of the Hida ranges, far to the southwest. This is a very special mountaintop.
There is a small shrine on the summit, and a highly detailed orientation plate for the cartographically challenged. A good path continues north, and connects with various other routes including an eastern access to the mountain, but returning to the trail junction in the saddle opens up a wonderful loop for the return to the trailhead.
From the junction, the path heads steeply down to the west, reaching another fork in the trail. The northern route leads to Nanatsuike (七つ池), one of the many lakes and marshes held by this huge crater, but the left-hand path continues down to the shore of Minenooike (峰の大池), perhaps the loveliest of Kurohimeyama’s water features. Fringed with reeds, surrounded by forest, and alive with birds, the lake is a quiet, relaxing contrast to the drama of the summit, and the walk along its southern edge a true delight.
From the lake, the trail winds up through a forest of handsome silver fir (シラビソ) before negotiating a rather messy section of rocks and fallen trees. Although this is possibly the least pleasant hiking on the route, it does not last too long, and culminates in the scramble up Tenguiwa (天狗岩), an impressive rock pile that once formed part of the crater wall. From this point, the trail heads south and gets a lot easier, winding gently down to the junction with the route west to Sasagamine (笹が峰) and then through stands of Japanese birch (ダケカンバ) to the huge wetland of Odarumi. Mostly obscured by trees, not much of this marsh-filled depression is visible from the trail, but any hikers prepared to thread their way east through the woods can look down on this important natural feature and its resident colonies of waterbirds. As Odarumi is a destination in its own right for naturalists and birdwatchers rather than hikers, the trail is even wider and easier now, a pleasant stroll between groves of twisted-root bamboo (ネマガリダケ) and its abundant crop of fungus.
Soon, the four-way junction met on the ascent comes into view, and the right-hand path leads directly back to the trailhead. A more interesting and only slightly longer option, though, is to continue on the trail in the direction of Furuike, yet another attractive lake on the flanks of this surprisingly aqueous mountain. I have no idea whether this is the original Furuike of Basho’s famous haiku, but it certainly has the requisite frogs and water sounds. One more smaller lake, Taneike (種池), is passed on the way back to the main road, but by this stage most hikers will be more interested in the nearest hot spring bath. Within a few minutes the path emerges just a short walk east of the Ohashi trailhead.
Altogether about six hours on the hill, plus any time devoted to such essentials as gazing, resting, pondering, and tea-drinking. Only four hours from Nagoya, so Kurohimeyama could even be a day trip, but try to stay at least a couple more days and enjoy some of the other hikes (and hot springs) this terrific region has to offer.