In the summer of 2009 I was sitting in a hotel room in Hirosaki, a small city in the far north of Japan’s main island of Honshu, eagerly anticipating my upcoming hike. It was to be the second big hike I’d ever gone on in Japan, and I was determined that unlike my first journey into this country’s wilderness, this one would be perfect. Unfortunately for me, though, neither of the two friends I was traveling with seemed particularly enthusiastic about hitting the trails, and we had yet to make the final decision as to whether or not we’d even be going out to the mountain.
The reason we had yet to decide was because, as I had recently discovered, I’m not always the best at planning a trip. This is also where my two as-yet-unconvinced hiking partners come in, because this hike was in fact only one small part of a larger trip I was on with my friends Dan and Brian. Dan was visiting Japan for a few weeks on vacation, and Brian and I were showing him around. Since I lived in the north of Japan and Brian lived in Tokyo, we’d agreed to split the planning of this trip between us into northern and southern portions.
For the southern leg of our trip, Brian had created a detailed spreadsheet of activities, including concerts, restaurants, shops, attractions, events to see, plans about reservations and tickets, and even scheduled down time. Along with that, he demonstrated a willingness to be flexible with regards to Dan’s interests and abilities. I, on the other hand, had little more than a bulleted checklist scribbled on a piece of paper.
Despite that, though, and in the face of numerous other difficulties involving transportation during one of Japan’s biggest and most travel-intensive holidays, we had arrived here in Hirosaki, near the base of Mt. Iwaki, and it seemed like the perfect place to go hiking if you needed to keep a flexible schedule. There’s a toll road that goes most of the way up the mountain, with buses that run along it every so often, and also a cable car from the parking lot at the end of the road that takes customers to within half an hour of reaching the peak.
In other words, if the object of the trip was to quickly get to the summit, enjoy the view, and get back to town, that could easily be accomplished. On the other hand, for someone more interested in an authentic hiking experience, there is also an old path starting at a Japanese shrine where you can trek up the mountain from its base. According to the internet, the estimated time from the start of this trail to the summit was about four hours.
Armed with these facts, I made my case for climbing the mountain to my two friends who were, it seemed to me, leaning towards just getting out of this place already. I argued that we could spend the full four hours climbing up from the base, then take the cable car down the other side and catch a bus back into Hirosaki. This would both save us some time and give us the chance to see all that the mountain had to offer. I would have liked to take the trail both ways myself, seasoned hiker with one whole mountain’s worth of experience that I was, but I knew my friends probably wouldn’t go for it.
Somehow I managed to convince them that this would be a good idea, and then it was merely a matter of coordinating how we would get to and from the mountain, which was about an hour outside the city. I found out when the last cable car ride would be, and we based the time we would need to arrive by off of that. Remembering the rain and mud from my last hike, I was also quite sure to check the weather repeatedly, but the forecast was for a nice, sunny day. It looked like everything was good to go.
Looks, however, can be deceiving, and by the time this hike was over I’d be wondering whether I should ever be allowed to plan anything ever again. To begin with, we were not well prepared. Nobody had hiking gear of any kind except for Brian, who’d thought to bring along a backpack that we used to store a few bottles of water. Also, there was the issue of finding the trail that we hadn’t considered. Since there’s a perfectly accessible parking lot and cable car on the other side of the mountain, not many people walk the path from the shrine anymore, leaving it a thin, overgrown thing that was a real challenge to locate at times, especially at the beginning.
Fortunately, we could ask for directions at the shrine, and as we started on our way we discovered an old signpost that told us how far we had to go in both distance and time. Once again the time estimate was about four hours, and we wasted no time beginning our ascent. Or at least, we soon began fighting our way through the woods. The first part of the trail was so thick with vegetation that it was difficult to go forward. Also, a lot of the greenery had grown up over the top of the path, making it nearly impossible to stand up straight. So we all hunched forward, stumbling along a thin path through the woods with what we all hoped was the trail turning to mud at our feet.
At first I wasn’t sure why there was any mud involved at all, since the forecast had been so promising, but we soon found that the path involved crossing over a small stream before starting up the mountain in earnest. We also discovered another error in planning on my part, because though I had checked the weather, I hadn’t paid attention to the temperature. Yes, it was the middle of summer, and I knew it would be fairly hot, but Aomori is located pretty far up north and the weather had been mild for the past few days. How bad could it be?
As it turns out, it could be very bad indeed. It got so bad, in fact, that within half an hour of starting up the trail I was already drenched in sweat. I felt miserably hot, my clothes had been reduced to a soggy, clinging mess, and I was stumbling along through the mud unable to even stand up straight. Besides all that, I had only the most vague assurance that the path we were following was actually the correct way up the mountain. All I could count on was that the plants were so thick everywhere else that this seemed like the only viable option. When we got to an area where things finally cleared up a bit and everyone could stretch out and rehydrate, thanks to Brian and his carrying that water, we were nearly on the point of turning around and putting an end to this once and for all.
Two things stopped us. First was the thought of having to walk all the way back through the area we’d just gotten out of. Second was the signpost that we discovered collapsed nearby. Like the first post, this one included an estimate of how much further we would have to go in order to reach the summit, and despite our having only been on the trail for half an hour, it clearly said we were now only three hours from the top. This was extremely encouraging, since it meant we were moving about twice as fast as the estimates had indicated that we would.
Still feeling pretty miserable, but emboldened and not wanting to retread the terrible section of trail we’d just staggered through, we continued on our way. Every now and then we’d pass another fallen signpost, and joke about the strength of our long foreign legs. After all, we were practically flying up the mountain, and the path itself seemed to reflect our newfound sense of confidence. Vegetation became sparse and less intrusive. Once or twice, we could actually look back out over the trail we’d covered and get a sense of how far we’d come. This was turning into quite a pleasant hike.
After we’d been on the trail for about two hours, though, we began to get tired. A nonstop uphill climb does take its toll after a while, and some parts of the trail were very steep. Still, we reasoned that by now we must be closing in on the summit, and since we’d caught sight of a couple of hikers coming down the trail in the opposite direction, we decided to wait and ask if we were anywhere close to the summit.
One of the two hikers looked at us like we were crazy and said we were a good two hours or so from the top, while the other jokingly answered that yes, we could just go straight for another five minutes and take a left. Confused by this advice, we decided to simply continue on, hoping for the best but aware that we may in fact still have a long way to go. What we were close to, it turned out, was the mountain hut, which in this case was just a small, unmanned rest house. There we looked over the maps and signposts on display and, much to our chagrin, found that we had only traveled a little more than half the distance to the summit. So much for those long foreigner legs of ours. Apparently we were in for a four-hour climb after all.
This was of course dispiriting, but I didn’t let myself feel too down about it. If it hadn’t been for that earlier mistake, we might never have made it this far. And now that we were this far, things only seemed to be improving. The increase in elevation had tempered the heat, the trail was now clearly marked and well-traveled, and we’d reached a natural water source where we could rest and replenish our supplies before moving on. It was as if the higher up the mountain we got, the better everything else was getting too.
This even seemed to include the scenery. Up until now, we’d mostly been looking at small shrubs and tree roots while watching out for overhead branches and focusing on the trail. Now we’d reached the point where the trees had mostly stopped growing, so when we looked around we could see lots of deep green grasses, rich mineral hues in the rock faces, and an expanse of forested areas and farms below.
There were also long, thin clearings with houses and shops clustered around the barely-visible lines of roads beneath us, faint signs of modern life in an otherwise green landscape. Before long, clouds began blowing past us on the mountain as well, many of them below us now, obscuring the path we’d been climbing and covering our surroundings with a bright sheen. It made it feel as if we were walking along at the top of a world untouched, still wet and fresh and new.
Then, as we got to within half an hour of the summit, just before our path merged with the one leading up from the cable car, there was a brief flattening of the mountainside, revealing a peaceful pool of water surrounded by green grass and wreathed in mist. There was a kind of serenity to the place, emphasized by the feel of the now-cool mountain air on my skin, the fresh alpine scent, and the pervading sense of natural isolation. It was a stirring sight, one that would almost have made all the trouble we’d had at the beginning of the climb worth it in and of itself.
All three of us took our time admiring this sudden transformation of the landscape, until finally we had to move on. Then the path led us to a change just as abrupt as when that pool had come into view as soon as we’d gotten over the next rise. We’d reached the final section of the hike, where the path grew crowded with people who’d taken the easy option and the entire area grew rocky. Despite the sudden presence of these crowds, though, by the time we reached the summit, it felt magical. There was something almost visceral to the feeling that I was now standing on a giant piece of rock thrust up above the clouds, surrounded by both friends and strangers alike.
After four hours of almost constant climbing I was thoroughly exhausted, but also immensely satisfied. The scenery had been amazing, and the act of actually climbing the whole way made me feel both accomplished and like I’d had a much deeper experience with the mountain. The hike itself had almost perfectly mirrored my feelings about it, starting out difficult and conflicted, and constantly improving as we went along until finally culminating in triumph. Still, I was glad that we planned on taking the bus back into town.
My friends seemed to have had a similar reaction to my own. There had been a number of moments when we had seriously questioned hiking the mountain at all, not to mention tackling it the way we had, but everyone was happy we’d decided to do this in the end. So, feeling both tired and proud, we all climbed into one of the last cable cars and descended to the parking lot nearby where we planned to catch a bus. And that’s when we discovered that the last bus had, in fact, left hours ago.
This is not the kind of problem one expects to encounter at the end of a hike, nor is it an entirely welcome one to deal with when you’re exhausted. Since we’d gotten off the lift so late, we were now pretty much the only people left on the mountain. The sun would be setting soon, and even if we did manage to get a ride down to the edge of the toll road, we were still at least 45 minutes outside Hirosaki, where our hotel was. To top it all off, after all our efforts to cool down when we were at the base of the mountain, here at the summit it was quite chilly. Once again, I’d failed to plan appropriately, and we were all essentially stranded.
Fortunately, I had made sure to get the number of the local taxi company the previous day, and I had a working cell phone signal, so I was able to call and have them send a car. It was to be the most expensive cab ride of my life. But even with everything that went wrong, still more had ended up going right. Somehow, we’d all managed to have a great time out on this crazy hike, and that made me feel like maybe it would be worth planning more trips like it in the future.
Information: Mt Iwaki (岩木山) stands as the highest peak in Aomori prefecture with an elevation of 1,625 meters (5,331 feet). It is also sometimes referred to as “Tsugaru Fuji” because of its conical shape and its location in the Tsugaru region of Aomori. An inactive volcano, its last eruption was on March 23, 1863. No permits are required to hike it, and the toll road leading to a chair lift on one side of the mountain makes it a relatively accessible climb if you’re in the area. (in Japanese) The website can be browsed for the timetable of the bus that runs to the Mt. Iwaki Shrine and Dake Onsen. It also includes the relevant times for the Skyline Shuttle bus in blue. The table on the left with pink headers includes times going to the mountain while the table on the right with blue headers has the times heading back to Hirosaki station. Times listed in red do not run on weekends or holidays.
Best Time to Go: Mt. Iwaki is most safely ascended between early June and late October. During the winter there is an avalanche risk near the summit, and there can be quite a lot of snow on the mountain until after the rainy season. My recommendation would be to climb it in late June or early July as that will also be your best chance at seeing a unique variety of primrose (known as the Michinoku- or Iwaki-Kozakura) near the 9th station (located at the top of the chairlift).
Getting There: For the shuttle to the chairlift, catch a bus going to Karekidai (枯木平) from stop number 6 outside Hirosaki station. Get off at Dake Onsen (岳温泉) and transfer to the Skyline Shuttle Bus (スカイラインシャトルバス) heading for the 8th station (八合目). The chairlift will then take you to the 9th station where you can easily hike to the summit. Note that the Skyline Shuttle Bus is not in operation from mid-November to mid-May. For the full hike, take the same bus from Hirosaki station but get off at the stop for the Mt. Iwaki Shrine (Iwakisanjinjamae [岩木山神社前]) instead.
Maps: A map from the official website can be found here.
Books: While there aren’t any books specifically about Mt. Iwaki, it is one of the 100 famous mountains of Japan, which were originally chosen by the author Kyuya Fukada in his book of the same name, a translation of which is now finally available in English here on Amazon.