How to get there?
Take the Tobu bus from Nikko to the last bus stop at Yumoto Onsen. A bus timetable can be found on the Japan National Tourism Organisation website. There are a number of train, train/bus, and bus-only multi-day tickets offered by the Tobu railway company. If you are interested in visiting the temples in Nikko then one of these passes will suit you well. Alternatively, like us, if you are only interested in hiking and you have a JR Railpass, then you will be better off just getting the 2-day bus pass from either the JR or Tobu railways stations in Nikko for Y3,000. This will give you unlimited bus usage to and from Yumoto Onsen over a two day period. Please note that when we were there (Sept. 2012) you COULD NOT buy this bus-only pass from Asakusa Station.
1. On arrival in Yumoto Onsen, leave the bus stop and walk back to the Visitor Centre.
2. Stop by the Visitor Centre where you can purchase bear bells, maps and souvenirs. There’s also plenty of information regarding the geography, flora and fauna of the surrounding mountains. Unfortunately for us it was all in Japanese! Toilets are also located at the visitor centre. As there aren’t any toilets for the remainder of the walk it’s probably a good idea to make use of them while you can!
3. Walk up the street past the Visitor Centre to the camping ground. We visited in September and the place was deserted. Perhaps it’s more popular during summer/winter? Lots of flat space to pitch a tent if needed.
4. Continue walking past the camping grounds and you will see the ski fields on your right hand side. Follow the gravel road up through the middle of the ski fields for about 20mins until the road peters out.
5. Be sure to keep an eye on your left hand side to make sure you don’t miss the point at which the walking trail commences. For the next hour the trail climbs extremely steeply all the way to the top of the ridgeline. This section of the hike was very difficult, with most of the climb consisting of scrambling up tree roots, rocks and soil. Given how difficult it was during dry conditions I can just imagine how difficult and dangerous it would be during or after rain! I would go so far as to say that you shouldn’t even consider attempting this walk under those conditions. A closer look at the map after we got home showed that this section of the hike climbs approximately 460m vertically, in only 600m horizontally ie. almost a 45 degree incline!!
6. At the top of the ridgeline you will be greeted by a sign pointing to the left towards a smaller peak (unfortunately my Japanese wasn’t good enough to work out the name of the peak!), while the trail to the right will take you to Mae-shirane-san. A small track to your left will take you over to the southern side of the ridgeline where a beautiful meadow opens up to give you great views of the mountains below. Walk back to the main trail and continue up the ridgeline to Mae-shirane-san. This section of the walk passes through numerous patches of rhododendrons which would look fantastic when flowering (May-July I believe).
7. Upon exiting the scrubby forest at the highest point of the ridgeline you will be greeted by some great views down a deep valley to the south-west. Continuing up the trail you will reach a barren, rock-strewn area with a signpost marking this as the summit of Mae-shirane-san (2373m). The vista from the top of this mountain is sensational and certainly worth the effort spent over the last 3 hours or more! To the west is the peak of Oku-shirane-san (2578m) which can also be climbed if you’re prepared to add another couple of hours to the hike, as well as Goshiki-numa crater lake down below. To the east is Yumoto Onsen, and to the north the path continues towards Goshiki-yama. The summit is the perfect place to stop for lunch and enjoy the scenery. Given the altitude the weather can be very changeable and you should make sure you take warm weather gear with you.
8. Another 25mins of walking will bring you to the peak of Goshiki-yama (2379m) where the track branches to the left and right. The track to the left will take you back to Mae-shirane-san via Oku-shirane-san, while the track to the right will take you back towards Yumoto Onsen.
9. The track begins its descent, gradually getting steeper. Initially skirting some green meadows you get fantastic views down the valley to Yumoto Onsen, while to the south you can see the ridgeline that you climbed earlier in the day. After another 30 mins you will reach another junction at which point you take the track to the right.
10. At this point the trail narrows and take you through large stands of Japanese stiltgrass. For the next 1.5-2hrs the track descends, getting steeper as you go. In places you will need to climb down into chest high ravines, carved into the mountainside by erosion. Despite this, the track is always quite clear and there is no worry about getting lost. In other locations you will also need to scramble down moss-strewn rocks, trying not to put your hands on the numerous ‘daddy long-legs’ (opilione) spiders! They seemed quite harmless thankfully! While not very exhausting, this section of the hike places a lot of stress on your knees and I actually found this more uncomfortable than the steep climb earlier in the day.
11. After emerging at the edge of one of the roads outside Yumoto Onsen, follow the road into the centre of town and either make your way to your accommodation, or to the bus stop to catch one of the infrequent buses back to Nikko.
In total this walk took us around 7hrs, including numerous photo stops, drinks breaks and lunch at the summit of Mae-shirane-san. We also struggled a little due to dodgy knees on the final descent, so I’m guessing a fairly fit person could probably do this hike comfortably in about 5-5.5hrs, adding another couple of hours if you decide to do the loop walk to Oku-shirane-san as well.
Again I have to stress that this is a tough hike and should only be attempted by those with a very good degree of fitness. It is also important to ensure that you time the walk so that you arrive back at Yumoto Onsen prior to the departure of the last bus, as a taxi to Nikko, or accommodation in Yumoto Onsen, will hit your bank account very hard!
Despite the difficulty of the hike, the reward was well worth the effort and i thoroughly recommend it to anyone staying in the Nikko area.
For some photos of the hike and a more casual description of our day, have read of our blog entry from that day.