The most dangerous thing you will encounter on most hikes in Japan is probably dehydration or perhaps one of the giant Japanese hornets if you’re unlucky enough to catch one on bad day.
However, the number one killer of hikers and people in the outdoors is not bears, snakes, ax-murderers, or even the chupacabra – it’s falling.
And falling is exactly what you have the opportunity to do at many times during this most magnificent (and dangerous) of hikes: the Okuhotakadake – Nishihotakadake Traverse.
When I first heard about this hike, I got excited since it:
- had a dotted line and lots of red writing on the map at the trailhead,
- apparently takes upwards up eight hours to complete a 1.9 mi / 3.05 km section, and
- everyone I mentioned the trail to told me how awful and dangerous it is (which is expected whenever you talk about anything remotely challenging in Japan).
After having completed this traverse I can say that I was not disappointed with the hype.
The centerpiece of this hike, a 1.9 mi / 3.05 km traverse spanning the gap between Japan’s 3rd and 29th highest mountains, took me five hours to cross. It’s no joke.
Most hikers wear helmets to fend off falling rocks (I made it through without one), and some even carry (and use) ropes to aid the many ascents and descents (bringing rope is a bit overkill). In addition to the over-prepared hikers, there was (as usual) plenty of chains affixed to slopes throughout the traverse to detract from the beauty and isolation of the mountains.
Also, you will be using your hands a lot during this “hike”. If you’re a fan of gloves (aka you have sensitive baby hands) I suggest packing some.
- Location: Kita Alps (北アルプス)
- Max elevation: 10,470 ft / 3,190 m
- Distance of traverse: 1.9 mi / 3.05 km
- Distance from Hotakadake-sansō to ropeway: 4.53 mi / 7.29 km
- Distance from Shinhotaka Onsen to ropeway: 10.61 mi / 17.07 km
- Difficulty: Very Strenuous
- Water on trail: Yes (at lodges – if open)
- Trailhead facilities: Parking, bathroom, lodge, drinks, food
People are always quick to advise you how dangerous things are or how careful you should be in certain situations, even if said people have never before engaged in or experienced whatever it is you’re thinking of getting up to (hitchhiking is a great example of something people love to do this with).
Most of the time these people are best left respectfully ignored.
However, having now successfully completed this traverse, I am here to tell you that it is actually dangerous (like there are plenty of opportunities to fall to your death). I would definitely not attempt this in wet or windy weather, and if you are not comfortable with heights or climbing (like with your hands), then I suggest sitting this one out.
Seriously, be careful.
GETTING TO THE TRAVERSE
You can reach the traverse a number of ways, but the most direct access is from Shinhotaka Onsen (新穂高温泉) or Kamikōchi (上高地). The directions described here are from Shinhotaka Onsen because private cars are not allowed through to Kamikōchi (you need to take a bus). For more information on Kamikōchi, you can check out their (English language) website here.
- Accessible via public transportation: Yes
- Trailhead parking: Yes
- Trailhead coordinates: 36.286281, 137.575869
- Northern terminus coordinates: 36.289169, 137.648057
- Southern terminus coordinates: 36.279005, 137.629023
BY CAR: Via car, the trailhead can be reached fairly easily. There is a free parking lot for hikers at the Ryokan Shinhotaka Okuhida (map). From here you will need to walk up the road a bit to the base of the ropeway (where you can then decide which way to take on the trail).
BY TRAIN: Sorry, no train station near the trailhead.
BY BUS: From Takayama Station (高山駅) in Gifu (it’s a train station) take the bus bound for Shinhotaka Onsen (新穂高温泉) to the last stop. It takes about an hour and a half, and the first bus departs Takayama Station at 7:00.
If you’re farther north, you can also take a bus from Matsumoto Station (松本駅) in Nagano.
As I said before, this traverse can be approached a number of different ways. I decided to head clockwise and took the Shinhotaka Onsen route up to Okuhotakadake; my post on this hike can be found here.
I camped next to Hotakadake-sansō (穂高岳山荘), the Hotakadake Lodge (website, Japanese only), and woke up to catch the sunrise from the summit of Okuhotakadake (and to give myself plenty of time to complete the hike).
Hiking up to the summit only takes about thirty minutes, and I was not alone in my endeavor – plenty of others had my brilliant sunrise hike idea.
However, once you continue south past the summit of Okuhotakadake, you will find yourself relatively alone (I think that counterclockwise may be the more popular direction for attempting this hike).
You begin by climbing across and down a razorback ridge with steep dropoffs on either side. The trail is marked with X’s meaning “this way is not a good idea” and O’s meaning “this way is a slightly less worse idea” – so keep an eye out if you’re feeling lost (although these markers are far too abundant and really detract from the beauty of the mountains).
After fifty minutes of hiking I made it to the base of what might be the hike’s most well-known landmark, the Gendarme (ジャンダルム). This 10,377 ft / 3,163 m summit is a must-climb along this route and it will only take you an extra ten minutes or so to reach the top.
You get a nice look back at where you’ve come from (and hopefully further north as well), and an even better look at where you’ve got to go (spoiler alert: lots of up and down).
South of the Gendarme, the trail has as it heads towards Tengudake (天狗岳), then Ainodake (間ノ岳), and then finally Nishihotakadake.
The obnoxiously placed chains affixed to the mountainsides do a great job of getting in you way, so do your best to avoid them (or use them, if that’s something you’re into).
More importantly look out for people climbing (and kicking rocks down from) above you; many times the trail can only accommodate one hiker at a time.
MAP OF THE OKUHOTAKADAKE – NISHIHOTAKADAKE TRAVERSE
The following was the route my GPS recorded on my hike of the the Okuhotakadake – Nishihotakadake Traverse.
I have no guarantee that this route is correct, nor that it can be accurately relied upon for backcountry navigation. It should serve only as a general guideline for what the trail is expected to look like.
And here’s the elevation profile for the traverse (starting at Hotakadake-sansō and ending at Nishihotakadake):
This traverse is my favorite hike in Japan, and I would love to get out and do it again.
In addition to being a serious challenge, it can be done as part of a multiday trip (if you started with a climb up Yarigatake and then traversed all the way to Yakedake, that would be an epic trip).
Have any questions? Want another post about another one of Japan’s mountains? Have a suggestion to improve this information?
Leave a comment and let me know!