Hiking in Nagano: Togakushiyama-Door Hiding Mountain
Added In: Places to Go › Outdoors › Mountains
Address: Northern Nagano
Text by Richard Harris, Photos by Richard Harris and Carl Lechman
'If you don’t let go, you can’t fall off.' Jerry Moffat.
Shiga Kogen (志賀高原) and Myoko Kogen (妙高高原) are two of the finest ski areas of central Japan, but until the recent expansion of the expressway system they represented a formidable journey for Nagoya residents. Now, however, these magnificent ranges can be reached in under four hours, making them superb year-round destinations for hikers as well as skiers, and the ascent of Togakushiyama is a great introduction to the area.
A popular mountain, under 2000 meters in altitude, with well-defined trails and only 700 meters vertically between trailhead and summit; should be fairly straightforward, right? Wrong. Climbing Togakushiyama is without doubt one of the finest day hikes in central Japan, but it is a serious undertaking requiring good judgment, balance, and a head for heights. The mountain is located in northern Nagano, right on the Niigata border and has been a pilgrimage and spiritual training destination since at least Heian times, off limits to women until recently and believed by some to be the site of the cave in which the sun goddess hid herself in a famous episode from Japan’s creation myth. The climb starts at the Togakushi campground, where a signboard indicates the route to Togakushi Shrine, a clear path through the woods flanking the gentle slope of Maruyama (丸山).
This path emerges from the woods at the imposing shrine gate, which opens onto a magnificent avenue of huge Cryptomeria leading to the shrine itself, reached by a flight of ancient stone steps. The route to the mountain swings away to the left of the shrine, climbing through the colourful mixed woodland in a series of steep but well-graded zigzags. As the path emerges from the forest, the true nature of the mountain is revealed, at least in part. The long east face of Togakushiyama, seen from below but not really appreciated, looms above in a series of vertical flutings like the folds of an immense grey fan, culminating in a jagged ridge of sky-piercing serrations. The path, as if awed by this spectacle, turns away to creep under a long, overhanging wave of rock known as Gojukenchoya (五十間長屋), followed by an even longer one, Hyakkenchoya (百間長屋), as the green slopes of the mountain below drop precipitously away into the valley. A small shrine in a rock recess contributes to the numinous atmosphere of this section of the climb.
The next few hundred meters are all vertical. The first of many chains assists the scramble up to Tengu no Roji (天狗の露地), the goblin’s rock garden, and a long chain facilitates the ascent of Munetsuki-Iwa (胸突岩), the aptly-named chest-pounding rock. I am not usually a fan of overly-accessorised mountains, but I was very grateful for these chains. The rock is a pebbly agglomerate with excellent holds, but the consequences of a fall would be extremely serious. (It was about this point that our companions, Miko and Carl, new to hiking the Japanese mountains and expecting a casual stroll, began to wonder just what they had let themselves be talked into.) From the top of Munetsuki-Iwa the first peak of Togakushiyama summit ridge can be seen, as can the access route to it: Ari no To-Watari (蟻の戸渡り), the ants’ door-crossing. This is a true knife-edge ridge, about twenty meters in length and fifty centimeters in width, unprotected by chain and with a long, sheer drop on either side. In perfect conditions it is thrillingly scary; in poor weather it would be terrifying. And this is followed by yet another exhilarating knife-edge ridge, almost as intimidatingly exposed: Tsurugi no Ha-Watari (剣の刃渡り), the sword’s blade-crossing. After such adventures, the final scramble to the ridge, while steep, seems almost calming. 1900-meter Happonirami (八方睨), the ‘eight-direction stare’, is the southernmost peak on the mountain’s face. It is supplied with a large orientation disk, which helps to identify the stunning array of individual peaks and ranges that can be seen from this well-earned vantage point. A route leads west from here to Nishiyama (西山), but a much clearer path leads northeast clinging to the edge of the ridge, the east wall of the mountain dropping vertiginously down to the valley below.
The true summit of Togakushiyama (1904 meters) is a short distance along this trail, marked with a small shrine, but does not have the views of Happonirami. Undulating across the several named summits constituting the ridge, the path continues to flirt airily with the edge of the cliffs, obliging hikers to pay close attention to where they place their feet. Again, bad weather would render this hike a much more dangerous proposition, and huge metal structures have been erected in the small passes that punctuate the ridge, presumably as wind baffles, to prevent hikers from being blown over the edge. Given their twisted and dilapidated state, however, they do not inspire confidence as much as trepidation, and we edged rather nervously over these exposed saddles. Potential hazards notwithstanding, the two-hour hike along this ridge is a fabulous experience, with interest, exhilaration and beauty in every direction. When the path reaches the trail junction at the shelter of Ichifudo (一不動), most hikers will experience a strong temptation to continue north to the beckoning heights of Takatsumayama (高妻山) and Gojizoyama (五地蔵山). For us, however, the abundant hot springs in the area beckoned even more strongly — and there was still the descent of Togakushiyama to be negotiated.
Turning right at the Ichifudo junction leads past a small spring to a rocky gully with a watercourse, which is followed to the point where it rather disconcertingly plunges over the Fudotaki (不動滝) (Immovable Fall) waterfall. On the right bank, however, a fixed rope enables hikers to lower themselves to a narrow shelf which, protected by short chains, leads horizontally across the massive slab of Obi-Iwa (帯岩), Belt Rock. A little further along, another waterfall, Suberitaki (滑滝), Slippery Fall, has to be circumnavigated with the assistance of a chain, before the mountain finally relents and the path heads gently into the beautiful, wooded valley of Ohorazawa (大洞沢), Big Cave Gully. Suddenly, it seems as though you are on a different mountain, the sounds of birds, insects, frogs, and running water replacing the thumping of your heart, and the protective presence of the trees a welcome companion after the excitements of the rocks above. The woods end at the Togakushi Bokujo (戸隠牧場), a kind of model farm, and you can return to the trailhead through green fields alive with sheep, goats and cows. Above and to the west, though, the mountain looms, austere and magnificent: a superb destination, but not to be taken lightly. Sincere thanks to Carl, and (of course) Dorianne for their great company on this walk, and especially to Miko, who discovered that she does not mind heights after all!