OFF INTO THE WILD WET YONDER How does this...
Kaimondake: Hiking Western Japan’s Smallest Hyakumeizan
Looking for a break from Japan’s city living? Why not tackle a local hike? Better yet, find one of the storied Hyakumeizan (百名山/100 Famous Mountains) of Japan and give it a climb.
Beautiful and historic peaks are prevalent throughout Japan, but the “famous 100” are arguably some of the country’s most impressive.
But why these 100? Where did this list come from? Who decided what?
While avid Japanese hikers and outdoorsy types probably know, surprisingly many others don’t. Was it voted on by committee at NHK—Japan’s public television channel—which runs a series about the mountains? Or is it centuries old, and passed down by word of mouth from one generation to the next?
No to both of those. Come to find out, it is actually a somewhat arbitrary list, authored by a guy named Kyuya Fukada, who wrote a book of essays back in 1964 detailing his favorite 100 mountains of Japan. There were actually similar lists floating around long before Fukada put pen to paper, some dating back to the Edo period (1603–1868) if not long before then. But it was Fukada’s interest in the history of the mountains, especially how they got their names, that drew the attention of Crown Prince Haruhito, which in turn got the list its initial recognition.
Fukada’s focus was noticeably more on the mountaineering side, which led him to taller peaks. Out of his 100 mountains, 95 are over 1,500 m (5,000 ft), with the average height being 2,200 m (7,200 ft). Unfortunately, that excludes quite a few sacred, majestic, and historic peaks under 1,500 m and tends to concentrate heavily on the north of Japan down to the Japanese Alps, especially the Chubu region, with basically just the “tallest” 14 mountains, west of Nagoya. They are numbers 87–100 on the original list, with the one exception to this tallest rule of thumb being Kaimondake, which is so stunning that Fukada couldn’t overlook it.
It is more than easy to find fault with any “best of” list there is, whether due to unnecessary inclusions or unacceptable exclusions. This is even more so with the benefit of hindsight. At the end of the day, though, this was never meant to be the de facto “best 100” that it has evolved into today. It was Fukada’s list, and subjective as it may be, it is still a good one that has really only grown with popularity. His reasoning was sound and while some might disagree with several of his choices, it is pretty hard to strongly all out reject them, especially in looking back more than half a century ago, before modern transportation and any recent changes—for better or worse—to the mountains that took place after the fact.
Furthermore, hiking as a hobby was not even all that common until the 1980s—the decade after Fukada’s passing—when middle-aged Japanese began to take a strong interest in trekking as a leisure activity. The sheer magnificence of so many of Japan’s peaks quickly became a source of national pride. Even non-regular hikers now often look to climb some famous peak, and while Mt. Fuji is perhaps the most popular for the masses, many also look to the other Hyakumeizan.
As such, mountains that had basically been only previously attempted by professionals and experienced climbers were made more accessible with the construction and operation of mountain lodges and huts for overnight stays, better trail maintenance as well as new routes, and most importantly increased safety measures—including ropes, chains, ladders, and rungs—where scrambling was necessary to get up, down, over, or around some obstacle.
That so many Japanese are familiar with the Hyakumezan by name is thanks largely to the NHK series on them, rather than the book itself. Each 30-minute episode highlights one of the 100 mountains, unless there are two or more peaks close enough together for a 2–3 day trek, in which case they will be featured together.
Reruns of the program can still be seen fairly regularly on NHK’s cable channels, unfortunately named BS, as well as other cable networks. The shows definitely merit a watch, if not for the occasional bits of useful info (in Japanese) about the mountain features or the fauna and flora, then for the breathtaking visuals and outstanding camera work. Honestly speaking, most of the guides are extremely wooden and attempt to explain everything from how to step on a rock to using a headlamp as a lantern in your tent. Yes, definitely aimed at as wide a swath of the population as possible. However, the truly annoying part is the female, anime-character-like, voiced over, semi-narrator, who can’t stop saying “sugoi!” (凄い/great or wonderful) every two minutes. Her first-person view, is supposedly that of the cameraman. She actually has staged dialogues with the guides, with her questions and reactions dubbed after the shooting instead of the real cameraman who is doing all the trekking, along with shooting the aforementioned beautiful footage. Personally, this actually adds to the irksomeness of her voice—knowing she did not even climb the mountain, and that she apparently has just been added for “cuteness” after the fact. As a result, many of the more serious hikers aren’t the biggest fans and find the series panders a bit too much to the lowest common denominator. And while they are usually happy to share and discuss the wonderfulness of Japan’s countryside, they either know of mountains excluded from the list that are at least just as amazing, or simply, that it attracts too many neophytes decked out in brand new gear to high-level technical trails which can lead to overcrowding or overuse of the area and facilities.
Mt. Fuji has been in the news for years for just that, where beginners climb, using oxygen tanks unnecessarily and discarding them like they are climbing Everest or K2; smoking and littering trails with cigarette butts; or possibly the largest problem was that of human waste, which was often left to literally run downhill. While the latter was not the climbers fault per se, something like 300,000 people climb Fuji in the basically two month summer period. That’s like 5,000 hikers per day, and that is considering an even distribution which is highly unlikely. In actuality, it is going to be cruddy weather and rainy on some days with fewer climbers and the forecast clear days probably 2–3 times as many. Either way, queuing up with hundreds or thousands of people to watch the sunrise is hardly an idea that sounds even remotely fun. Granted, there have been huge strides in the last few years to beautify Mt. Fuji, especially since it was denied UNESCO World Natural Heritage status in 2013, instead receiving World Cultural Heritage ranking, which has more to do with the beauty of the mountain from afar, inspiring art and poetry. Not ones for giving up easily, the Japanese seem quite serious about cleaning up the mountain and have even started requesting hikers to donate—¥1,000 is recommended—towards efforts.
That brings us to Kaimondake (開聞岳) or Mt. Kaimon, often called “The Fuji of Satsuma.” Similarly picturesquely shaped and seemingly symmetrical from afar, the conical Mt. Kaimon is only about a quarter of the size of Mt. Fuji’s 3,776 m (12,400 ft), but what it lacks in height it makes up for in location and pristine beauty. Situated on the southern tip of the Hanto Peninsula, in the Isubuki area of Kagoshima on Kyushu Island, it is actually only 924 m (3,000 ft). However, don’t let its seemingly small size deter any serious hikers, as the 815 m (2,700 ft) elevation gain from the 1st Station is definitely no walk in the park, though you do actually start by walking through a park. Moving on then.
When compared to Mt. Tsukuba’s 877 m (2,900 ft)—the actual smallest Haykumezan and the only other under 1,300 m (4,250 ft)—it might not seem very different, but that assumption could not be further from the truth, as relative size is basically the only thing the two mountains have in common. According to the fantastically informative site Hiking in Japan, Mt. Tsukuba has an elevation gain of 636 m (2,100 ft) and “… is extremely over-developed, so consider giving it a miss unless you’re really intent on climbing all of the 100 famous peaks.” The over-development being referred to might be the rotating restaurant on the top (yes, seriously!). In complete agreement with them, this is the 1% that is easily most passable on the list.
Mt. Kaimon, the 99th Hyakumeizan, on the other hand truly stands alone with its switchback-less trail that spirals around the cone-shaped, dormant volcano offering stunning views of the coastlines and area around. While its number coincidentally would also be its rank in height compared to the others, it is actually just based on its geographic location. So don’t let the numbers fool you, Fukada was not ranking anything. #1 is furthest north in Hokkaido and #100 is furthest south in Yakushima (an Island of Kagoshima worthy of its own write up another day). The uniqueness of the trail alone, is reason enough to climb as switchbacks are obviously the most common way to navigate steep slopes. But Kaimondake just doesn’t need them as the shape and size of the mountain allows for a wraparound trail that is both moderately easy for fit hikers and slightly technical.
That being said it is a surprisingly close 25–30 minute walk from Kaimon Station making it quite easy to access for those relying on public transportation. Though getting to Kaimon would most likely require following an exact train schedule to avoid long transfer waits. There is also a fairly developed campground at the base of the mountain, which has drinkable water, and bathroom facilities free to use, along with hot showers for ¥200. A few other climbable mountains in the area, especially neighboring Yahazudake (矢筈岳), which offers spectacular views of Mt. Kaimon on a clear day, makes it a good basecamp to explore around the area for a few days. The problem is getting there in the first place, but more on that in just a little bit.
In town, “close-ish” to the station, you can find several conbinis, noodle shops, and a supermarket (open until 21:00). The Italian restaurant, Piena, is recommended in quite a few of the pamphlets in the area and online, but the dinner selection is only from a “course menu” and everyone actually needs to order the same basic course (selections within can thankfully vary for most courses). So if stylish, expensive Italian restaurants with annoyingly strict menus is your thing, the food is fantastic, but plan on spending easily ¥2,000-3,000 per person. The seared bonito and local Kagoshima chicken with black truffles were, I confess, both kinda amazing. Takeout pizzas are also an option if you just want to grab and go. While in town, definitely check out Hirakiki Shrine (枚聞神社). The beautiful reddish-orange of the gates and buildings mesmerizes visitors while the calming atmosphere is both eerie and peaceful at the same time. It is basically just around the corner from the supermarket and is easy to find.
Most guide books list the mountain as “easy” or “easy to moderate,” but as previously mentioned the elevation gain is quite strenuous as you basically start out at sea level, so think moderate especially on a hot day. Even mountains twice the size often have similar or even smaller elevation gains. The trail is rugged without being too difficult and there are quite a few bench/rest areas along the way. Again some guide books say a round trip of 3hrs 50min, but expect closer to 5 hours or more if you actually like enjoying the lookouts, taking any pictures and scrambling with care. Starting in late spring through early fall, from the 1st station (or 2nd if you camped) to the 5th or so, watch out for abu (アブ/Japanese horseflies). However, this is by far the easiest section of trail, so as long as you keep walking they will usually just buzz around you. They can bite you, which doesn’t feel great, but they are often mistaken for wasps which are usually much more painful and have higher risk for danger if you factor in possible allergic reactions. While horseflies bites are not what anyone would consider pleasant, they shouldn’t be “dangerous” either. If you do need a breather, try to find an area that opens up as the sea breeze tends to blow most flying bugs away. Also, if it is not common sense, don’t where perfumed products on the trail as it will surely attract mosquitoes and other pests. The 5th to the 7th station is really refreshing as you wrap around to the southern side of the mountain so the winds are a bit more regular and the trail starts to get a bit more technical as well. Saving the best for last though, the section from the 7th to 9th station requires quite a bit of scrambling. But seeing how the trail is narrow, even though it usually isn’t overcrowded, sometimes even two is a crowd. Please remember, as in most countries, it is common practice to let the ascending persons have the right away, that being said if you are going up and need a break, wave the descending group on and use the Japanese phrase kyukeisuru (休憩する/to rest) or kyukeishitai (休憩したい/I want to rest). The mountain is also understandably popular even during rainy season (May–July), so this section of trail probably is where the majority of time discrepancy takes place. Even being a little damp, will necessitate slowing down and watching one’s step. Choosing a best season to climb? Probably early-mid spring or mid-late fall would be ideal as with most smaller mountains. Being the middle of the summer, it’s probably best to head for higher peaks as the air is cooler, there are usually less bugs and most Hyakumeizan are covered in snow for at least part of the winter.
If getting your hands on a car is a possibility, that would allow you to avoid the headache of local trains and buses being rather infrequent for large portions of the day. Hitchhiking is always an option, but it would definitely require some time as you are basically trying to get to the farthest point south of western Kyushu. This means a fair amount of local road hitchhiking, which isn’t as easy as using the rest areas on a highway because even if you catch a ride, people are not usually going very far.
So this leaves the train. The shinkansen (bullet train) go all the way to Kagoshima-Chuo (Central) Station. Be careful, Kagoshima Station is one stop past there and actually is not needed. From Kagoshima-Chuo, you want to catch an Ibusuki-Makurazaki Line train headed south (there are usually just a few every morning, and your choice might be something like 5am or 10am) and get off at Kaimon Station (about 2 hours). Some trains would require a transfer at Ibusuki or Yamakawa Station, but there are some direct ones all the way to Kaimon. Google Maps would be handy to get from the station to the campground, and even though there is actually a bus, it is incredibly infrequent as well. That being said, you should be able to see the mountain, so after crossing the tracks you can find a few roads that head in the general direction. After the 25-minute (or so) walk, the campground is incredibly easy to find as it’s part of a large park including a baseball ground with light stands that is pretty easy to spot from distance.
While the mountain’s difficulty discourages many from even attempting, the campground is more of a family place. They have a handful of log house cabins (advanced booking strongly recommended), an auto-camp area that has running water and electrical outlets, and an open tent area (the cheapest option, with no reservation needed). On top of that, they have for extra fees: go carts (too slow to be any fun for adults), a pool with water slide, 9-hole golf putter/ground/mini-golf course, a soba restaurant, tennis courts, BBQ rentals, and more. Ibusuki Golf Club, Kaimon Course is also nearby.
The tent only area (フリーテント/free tent) is a fairly large gradual slope with quite a few flat “sites” big enough for 1–2 tents each, and the putter golf course holes running diagonally through it. Luckily, that was not used, so bouncing balls off the rainfly weren’t a problem. It was a bit lively into the night though, with kids running around with sparklers and small fireworks and some drinker/BBQers in the log cabins that were “making noise” until about 22:00 or so. After that it was very quiet and peaceful. It also has restrooms and two large outdoor (open air) kitchen areas with 8 or so sinks each to wash pots and pans. You could certainly cook in the kitchens or down at the plastic picnic tables outside the camp store.
The camp store/office is open until 21:00 and they have ice, drinks (along with outside vending machines), snacks, sunscreen, charcoal, etc. Plenty of brochures as well and even a few souvenirs like postcards and badges for climbing the mountain. The staff were all friendly and they didn’t seem to mind someone plugging their phone into the outlet near the door. In front of the store was a small picnic/smoking area that had 4–5 plastic patio tables and chairs along with a few ashtrays (suppose it’s better here than on the trail). There was also a small coin laundry which didn’t seem to get any traffic.
The auto-camp area was a footbridge walk over the go-cart course from the tent area and where the shower facilities were. The showers have hot (read as: warm) water, but if multiple people are using them, the pressure can be low along with warm being a more relative term. While the area usually is a bit more crowded than the free tent area, there probably still isn’t a need to reserve. A numbered site, a water spigot and an electrical outlet are the only real difference to the open tent area.
All in, it’s a pretty ideal spot for a few days of adventure without really having to rough it. Obviously, unless you go the log cabin route or try you luck renting, some camp gear is needed (tent, sleeping bag, mat, and stove). But if you have a car, you could easily get in and out in one day without needing to camp. And if camping sounds like as much fun as getting groin-kicked, you could always stay at a nearby hotel or onsen (温泉/hot spring). Ibusuki Onsen is probably the most famous, and specializes in “sand baths” where they bury you in hot sand. Ummm, what?
So, what’s your favorite mountain in Japan? How many of the Hyakumeizan have you conquered? Any stories, recommendations, or questions please use the comments section below.