Thursday, 3 March 2011

A winter hike of Mt Oku-Shirane (奥白根山)

Mountain: Oku-Shirane (奥白根山), also known as Nikko-Shirane

Map sheet: 13 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]

If you’re looking for picturesque scenery within striking distance of Tokyo, you can hardly do better than the Nikko National Park.  It’s accessible by either the JR Line or the private Tobu Line, with Asakusa being a popular starting point in Tokyo.  The Tobu company also run the buses around the Nikko area, and you can buy special discounted passes which will cover all your travel on Tobu Line buses and trains, as well as discounted entry into some of the temples, within set periods of time… well worth doing if you’re going for a few days.

The list of things to do around Nikko is huge.  Cyclists can test themselves against the famous hairpin bends of the road up to Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖), runners could try the 25km circuit of Lake Chuzenji (it has a hiking trail all round it), and hikers have several big possibilities.

The hike described in this post will take you to the top of Mt Oku-Shirane, the highest mountain in the Nikko National Park at 2578m.  It’s a beautiful hike all year round, but in winter Oku-Shirane sees FAR less traffic, and commands impressive views of big snowy peaks in all directions.

Getting there:
As described above, you need to get to either the JR Nikko station or the Tobu-Nikko station.  Tobu-Nikko is just a 2-3 minute walk up the road from JR Nikko.

Outside Tobu-Nikko there is a bus stand, and you need to take a bus that goes all the way to Yumoto onsen (湯元温泉).  The journey takes about 1.5 hours there, and about 1 hour on the way back, and costs just over 1500 yen each way.

On the way the bus winds its way up the hairpin bends to Chuzenji onsen, on the shores of Lake Chuzenji.  It then continues along the north shore of the lake, past the Futara-san jinja temple, which is the start of one of the hiking routes up Mt Nantai (男体山 2484m).  At the far end of the lake, the bus turns north and drives along the edge of the Senjogahara plateau (戦場ヶ原) as far as the pretty little resort of Yumoto onsen.

From the bus station in Yumoto onsen, walk back along the main road about 100m in the direction of Yu-no-ko lake (湯ノ湖) and then turn right.  Walk up this side road for about 150m past a big hotel on your right, and you will come to the Yumoto ski resort.  

The initial part of the hike does actually involve walking up the ski pistes, keeping to the left edge, until you get to the top lift station.  It will take about 25-30 minutes to get there from the bus stop.

From the last lift station you need to strike out left up the steep and forested hillside.  At the beginning there is a brief series of zig-zags, but very soon you are just heading straight up the hillside.  

Keep going until after about an hour you reach the ridgeline at the top, where you will see a wooden sign giving directions to Mt Mae-Shirane (前白根山).  

Follow the sign, and walk along the ridge for another 30-40 minutes, and you will reach the summit of Mt Mae-Shirane.

Looking back at Mt Nantai, Senjogahara and lake Chuzenji:

From here you will catch your first views of Oku-Shirane itself. The hiking trail to the top of Oku-Shirane takes the steep snow slope on the left-hand side.  The gully that splits the centre of the face would make an excellent descent for ski tourers.

Looking down from Mae-Shirane, you will see the small and pretty lake of Goshiki-numa (五色沼), where people often camp if they are doing this as a 2-day trip.

Follow the ridge over Mae-Shirane, and down to your left.  Walk along for about half a kilometer, and you will come to a signed path that traverses off down the hillside to your right, in the direction of Oku-Shirane.  Follow it down and you will shortly come to an emergency hut.

Continue past the hut and the trail eventually strikes out up the steepening snow slope towards the top of Oku-Shirane.  Several hundred metres above, you will emerge over a lip onto a flat area, and you will see first a false summit with a small shrine on it, and then the actual summit just after it, with wooden signs on top.

False summit:

Actual summit:

Enjoy the stunning views from here, particularly over to Mt Nantai and Lake Chuzenji.

For the descent you have two choices.

1. You could continue over the top and do a loop which passes over Goshiki-yama and follows a parallel ridgeline down the other side of the ski slopes back to Yumoto onsen. However, the turn-off at Kokkyoutaira (国境平), where the descent ridge branches off to hiker's right, can be very difficult to find, and will be far less travelled in winter. There is a very real risk of missing it and continuing on in the direction of Kinseitouge (金精峠), which is taking you away from Yumoto. Do not take this way in anything less than perfect weather.

2. The recommended descent is to simply reverse the way you came up.  It is slightly shorter, and given that there is a lot of travel still to get back to Tokyo, and daylight hours are shorter in winter, this is far preferable. You should also have the advantage of being able to follow your own trace if visibility is less than perfect.

Oku-Shirane is, for my money, one of the most beautiful mountains outside of any of Japan’s alpine ranges, and gives some of the best value in terms of views and panoramas.  In winter there will be very few people up there on the ridgeline.  

It is a long day trip from Tokyo, because of the travel involved and the length of the hike, but is well worth the effort, and if you have more time available then there can be fewer more beautiful places to spend a weekend.  The mountain fully deserves its hyakumeizan status…

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  1. Tony - many thanks for posting this. I wish these Nikko mountains had been on my radar screen when I had the chance to do them. So relatively accessible and withal magnificent. Your text and photos prompted me to check Nihon Hyakumeizan - hadn't realised that this mountain has such a recent volcanic past:-

    "Five or so craters, if we just count the larger ones, testify to the mountain's tumultous past. According to historical records, the first eruption took place in the second year of Kan'ei (1625), with frequent outbreaks thereafter. As many as six eruptions took place in the Meiji period alone. The most recent occurred in 1889 (Meiji 22), heralded on December 4 of that year by a distant roll of thunder. Fearing a repetition of the Bandai disaster, villagers fled from the foot of the mountain but, in the event, the eruption did little harm ..."

    As for the gully you highlight, though, I think I'll stay out of that if I'm ever up there on skis. Looks like a world of avalanche potential hurt ...

    Take care and keep posting!

  2. Hi Project H.

    Thanks for the info... "heralded... by a distant roll of thunder" sounds almost biblical!! Shirane certainly is a beautiful peak, and well-suited to a ski alpinist like yourself.

    Climb safe :-)


    1. Hello,

      Thank you for sharing this info.

      Do you think that Nantai san and Oku shirane are feasable with backcountry ski at the end of December?

      I wonder whether they get enought snow.

  3. Hi,

    A group of friends and I are thinking of climbing Mt Oku Shiranae next month, probably around 10th Dec. We have little experience with snow, however. I understand that your climb described here was attempted around March; do you think we'd be able to climb her in December without snow gear?

    Thank you,

  4. Hi Yuxuan. The climb in this post was done on 27th February, but I think you should be prepared for a fair amount of snow at that altitude in that area in December. You'll probably only need crampons and an ice axe each, but I'd recommend practising with them first, as the final slope from the emergency hut to the summit is quite steep if the path is buried in snow, and you should be confident in crampons in case you slip. Of course, the amount of snow in December will vary from year to year... Don't let me put you off though, it's a wonderful hike and if you get good weather, the views are fantastic up there! Enjoy! Tony

  5. Thanks for this post, Tony! I'm very interested in doing a winter climb on this mountain. I was wondering if you could answer a few questions...

    1. I have a pair of 6-point crampons. Will this suffice for this mountain?
    2. Would an ice axe be necessary?
    3. Aside from warm clothing, crampons, possibly an ice axe, what else would be necessary?
    4. Do you remember how long the hike took you?

    1. My pleasure... It's a great mountain, beautiful area, and I'm sure you'll enjoy it! Answers below:

      1. 6-point crampons ought to be fine. The area gets a lot of snow though, so depending on when you go in winter, you might find that snowshoes would be a useful addition to your kit list. I was there in late February, and the trace was well packed, so I didn't need snowshoes... But if I ventured a foot or so off the trace either side, I was floundering in waist-deep snow.
      2. It certainly wouldn't hurt to have an ice-axe with you, particularly for the final snow slope up to the summit area. You'd probably get away without it, if you've got hiking poles and crampons, but I would take one if I were you.
      3. As already mentioned, you could consider snowshoes, if you've got them, but that's your choice. Other than that, you'll be glad of taking a thermos of hot liquids along as it's a long cold day out, and don't forget your camera :)
      4. To be honest, I can't remember exactly how long it took, but I think you'd probably want to budget for somewhere around 6-8 hours for the round-trip from Yumoto onsen bus stop. If you're planning to do it as a day trip from Tokyo, you'll need to be on the first train our of Tokyo and move reasonably quickly to make the last bus down to Nikko, and be prepared for the fact that there are no express trains back to Tokyo in the evenings from Nikko, so it's a long dull train ride. If you're staying overnight in Yumoto, no problem... You've got all day...

      Enjoy yourself, and let me know how it goes!


  6. Hey Tony, Kim here. Would you recommend first time climbers to try Oku Shirane? If yes, what kind of training regimen should I follow to best prepare myself? If not, which mountains around Tokyo area should I attempt as a first step?
    It's my second trip to Japan and I'm itching to try out more adventurous stuff :) Thanks Tony!

    1. Hi Kim

      You didn't say what time of year you're going to be here, so it's hard to give a definitive answer... But if you're coming in summer or autumn then Oku-Shirane is a fine hike and should be no problem, even if you're just starting out. There's a marked hiking trail all the way to the top.

      If you're coming out here in winter, make sure you're in good physical condition, able to handle a solid 8-hour day on the mountain, confident walking in crampons and using an ice-axe for self-arrest (just in case). If you haven't used crampons before, maybe think about doing a shorter/easier hike first, like Tanzawa or Kumotori near Tokyo, just to get a feel for things.

      If you have a car, Oku-Shirane can also be done from the ski resort on the other side in winter, and with ski lifts to take you up to not far below 2000m, it's a much shorter day and almost certainly with more people on the trail. That might be an idea if you're a little unsure about trying the longer route described in this post in winter. I was up there by that shorter route in early March this year, and the views are every bit as spectacular on that side of the mountain!

      As for training, get used to medium to long walks up and down hills with a heavier pack, do some running if you're able to, and make sure you're comfortable with all your gear and clothing as it can be bitterly cold out there in winter in Japan.

      Have fun and enjoy the process! Tony

  7. Hi Tony, I would like to go on this hike on Jan, 21. I now need to decide which out of crampons, ice axe, snow shoes, hiking poles to bring along. All four might go above my luggage allowance. Do you have a recommendation? Many thanks in advance,

    1. Hi Martin. I would take crampons, ice axe and hiking poles for sure, and ideally snow shoes too... but if your luggage allowance won't stretch to the snow shoes then go for it without them... but be prepared for the possibility of very deep snow in places. Snowshoes could make things easier, but they shouldn't necessarily be a deal-breaker on this mountain as long as there's already a trace up the trail.

      Enjoy yourself, it's a great hike! Tony

    2. Dear Tony.

      Have you heard from Mr. Martin Hofmann since then? A professor of the same name has been missing in Japan[1].

      If you know his location, route or plan, could you please report it to Tochigi Police, German Embassy, or NII (



    3. Dear Y. Sorry to say, but I have had no other contact from Mr Hofmann beyond his question above (20th December) about equipment for this hike. This is a very sad outcome to what should have been an enjoyable hike, and I sincerely hope that some light can be shed on his disappearance soon. As you may be already aware, 21st January was a day of particularly bad weather in the Kanto area, the Tokyo area received a large snowfall, and temperatures were very low.

      I'm not sure if I could be of further assistance, given this very limited contact with Mr Hoffman, but get in touch if there is anything else I could do to help.

      Wishing everyone involved all the very best.


  8. Hi Tony,
    If one were to choose to go back down the mountain a different way - passing over Goshiki-yama - are there any shelters on that side?
    I would greatly appreciate any information you may have on that side of the mountain.
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Laura. I wouldn't recommend going down that way in winter. If climbing from the Yumoto side, I would only recommend going back down the way you came up. Not many people go over Goshiki-yama in winter, and there would be a lot of deep unconsolidated snow, and the trail is not obvious. Tony

  9. Dear Tony,

    Thanks for your comment!
    I hope he will be found soon.


  10. Hi Tony,
    Thanks for all the great info. Got your book recently too as I am trying to progress from bouldering and winter hiking to alpine climbing. Anyway, a question about this hike. What would your assessment be of the avalanche due to terrain risk on the final slope from the emergency hut up to the top?

    All the best,

    1. Hi Matthew. Thanks for the comment, and apologies for the lengthy wait for this reply, I only just saw it.
      Regarding avalanche risk it really depends which line you take up the slope. If I remember correctly, the further left you are, the more uniform the slope is and the more chance of a slide, but it's unlikely, and I'm not aware of anyone having been caught in a slide up there. Keep your eyes open though, particularly if hiking later in the season, and be prepared to try a safer line further on the right where there are more rocks if things feel uncomfortable.
      The most important bit of advice for this hike would be to return the way you went up, rather than trying to complete the loop down the other side of the summit to bring you back to the small lake, as continuing past the summit would take you into more confusing terrain, much less well-travelled in winter, and with a higher possibility of choosing the wrong descent and getting lost.
      Enjoy the hike, it's really good, and pay close attention to your return route. All the best! Tony