Mountain range: Houousanzan (鳳凰三山)
In summer the Houousanzan ridge is a deservedly popular hike, sporting fine views of Fuji-san, the South Alps and the Yamanashi mountains. 'Houou' (鳳凰) means 'Phoenix', and the ridge is home to three main summits that represent important characters from Bhuddist legend...
Jizogatake (地蔵岳 - 2764m): named after Jizo, the bhodisattva of travellers and children
Kannongatake (観音岳 - 2840m): named after Kannon, the bhodisattva of mercy
Yakushidake (薬師岳 - 2780m): named after Yakushi, the Buddha of healing
[Note - for an excellent account of a late autumn traverse of this range by Chris at i-cjw, click here]
As with most Japanese mountains, the sharp simplicity of the summit ridge that connects these three peaks is at odds with the complexity of the topography below, an endless fractal mass of ridges and sawas. At the heart of all this lies Dondoko-sawa (ドンドコ沢), a steep river valley that tumbles from below the summit of Jizogatake, over a series of striking waterfalls that weigh in at up to 200m in height. In winter these freeze into spectacular icefalls, a true ice climber's paradise.
The nearest train station is Nirasaki (韮崎) on the Chuo Line. Local trains from Shinjuku in Tokyo take around 2.5-3 hours, but the Super Azusa limited express will chop an hour off that.
The trail starts at Aoki-kousen (青木鉱泉), an onsen lodge and campground at the entrance to Dondoko-sawa. In summer this can be reached by bus from Nirasaki station (1500¥), although buses are infrequent.
Once winter arrives the hikers stop coming, the huts and onsens shut down and the roads are closed and barricaded, making access quite challenging. Unfortunately for winter climbers, the bus service stops running as early as 4th October, when Aoki kousen shuts down, so from then on the only way to get there is by car or taxi (approx. 7000¥ and about 50mins). The road actually leads up to Mizaseki-onsen, an onsen lodge at the foot of a trail that takes the ridge up to Jizogatake, with a left turn signposted for Aoki-kousen (taxi fare from Nirasaki to this left turn is about 6000¥). Even more unfortunate, this left turn is barricaded from around the beginning of December, so this is as far as the taxi will be able to take you, and you'll need to walk for about 40mins up the road to reach Aoki-kousen.
Beware also that there is no phone signal, so you won't be able to call a taxi until several hours down the road on your return. Such difficult access probably filters our the vast majority of ice climbers, who prefer the convenience of nearby Yatsugatake, but the flipside of this is that you will almost certainly have the entire mountain to yourselves.
The trail heads up from the Aoki-kousen lodge, initially along a large river fortified by several huge concrete dams. Soon enough it zigzags steeply up the slope though, and continues to traverse high up on the hillside. There are countless minor sawas entering along the way, and most of them contain ice in winter.
After a couple of hours the first waterfall is reached (Minami-shoujin-ga-taki, 南精進滝). If you are here to climb ice (we were not on this occasion), and if conditions are in, this is the point at which you will enter the main sawa and begin your climb. If the lower fall is not frozen and the river is still running down here, you can continue on up the hiking trail and drop in to the foot of each of the waterfalls as you wish. From here the trail steepens dramatically, and in winter you can expect increasing amounts of snow as you go higher up the trail.
For the next few hours you will be ascending a series of minor ridges to the side of the main sawa, until the trail eventually levels off and opens up at around 2300m at the top of Dondoko-sawa. The Houou mountain hut (鳳凰小屋) sits at the end of the valley, at a junction with the previously mentioned ridge trail that comes in from the right, but it will be shut in winter. Frankly speaking, in a big snow year, progress up this final section of Dondoko-sawa will require snow shoes, otherwise you will be swimming through waist-deep snow like we were.
Bivvying in the snow at the top of Dondoko-sawa at -17C at 2300m:
The famous obelisk at the summit of Jizogatake is clearly visible just a short hop and several hundred metres above, but would almost certainly require snowshoes to get to.
Goshiki-taki ("5 colours waterfall" 五色滝, approx 100m):
Lower section of Goshiki-taki:
Upper section of Goshiki-taki:
Top-out of Goshiki-taki, still not totally formed in this picture:
Shiraito-taki ("White thread waterfall" 白糸滝, approx 200m):
Upper section of Shiraito-taki:
Houou-no-taki ("Phoenix waterfall" 鳳凰の滝, approx 200m):