Route name: Nukubi-zawa (ヌクビ沢)
Mountain: Mt Makihata (巻機山, 1967m)
Map sheet: 15 [Yama-to-kougen-chizu (山と高原地図) series]
Sitting close to the Gunma/Niigata prefectural border, approximately midway between Mt Tanigawa (谷川岳) and Mt Echigo-Komagatake (越後駒ヶ岳), it’s no surprise that Mt Makihata gets buried under metres of snow every winter. By the end of the annual rainy season in early July, most of that snow is gone and the mountain’s verdant natural beauty and carpets of alpine flowers become a popular draw for hikers looking to tag another hyakumeizan (百名山) summit.
But not all the snow melts. With steep walls on either side shading it for much of the day, and the impressive Tengu (天狗岩) rock formation guarding its upper reaches, the Nukubi-zawa (ヌクビ沢) river course holds its snow almost year-round.
Whilst not an alpine variation route, the Nukubi-zawa is a step-up from an ordinary hiking trail. It may require some basic rope skills and equipment depending on conditions, which could vary wildly from month to month and year to year. It would be prudent not to try it during the rainy season, but from mid-July onwards it’s game on. The later you leave it, the less snow and the more dry rock you’re going to find. But for my money early summer is where it’s at, when you can enjoy a cool breeze wafting down the snow fields while all around the earth is baking.
If travelling from Tokyo by public transport, you need to take a shinkansen to Echigo-Yuzawa. From there, take a local train to Muikamachi (六日町). From there take a bus to the village of Shimizu (清水), and get off at the final destination. From the end of the bus route you’ll need to walk up the zig zags of the road for about half an hour until you reach the trailhead car park of Sakurazaka (桜坂).
If travelling from Tokyo by car, take the Kanetsu Expressway all the way to Niigata prefecture, through the tunnel that bisects Mt Tanigawa, and get off at the Shiozawa (塩沢) exit. Drive through scenic country roads to Shimizu, up to Sakurazaka, and park as close to the trailhead as you can.
The trail starts next to the large map board at the end of the top car park.
Take the hiking trail from the car park, and very soon you’ll come to a junction with a signpost. The trail on the right is the normal hiking trail, which you’ll be descending from the summit. Take the left fork and walk along an overgrown trail for 5-10 minutes until you find yourself walking up a stream.
Keep going and you’ll soon reach another signed junction.
This time you’d be better to take the trail on the right, which traverses the hillside up above the river. The trail crosses quite a few slopes that have collapsed, but as of 2015 it poses no problems.
After about 45 minutes you’ll come out of the trees and drop into the Nukubi-zawa itself, almost directly under the massive Tengu rock.
There is another trail a few minutes further down the Nukubi-zawa, which heads up the sawa on the left and then climbs onto the ridgeline above the Tengu rock. It’s rarely taken though, and I can’t vouch for the condition it is in.
From here onwards the trail alternates between rocky riverbed and snow fields. The rock is beautiful, and the snow is a total joy to walk up. Pay attention to those places where things transition from snow back onto rock, as the snow is invariably thin and overhanging on its upper edge. In one or two places you might need to scramble around the sides and drop back down into the riverbed above, depending on what the conditions dictate.
Eventually the snow fields peter out, and a scramble up a stretch of loose rock (red paint marks in places) brings you onto the final trail to the main ridgeline, just below the 1931m summit of Mt Waremeki (割引岳). Mt Makihata lies another 20-30 minutes up the trail on the right.
Mt Waremeki summit marker:
For some reason the summit marker of Makihata has been placed at a non-descript trail junction, while the true high point is visible about 5-10 minutes further on. The high point is surrounded by fields of delicate alpine flowers though, so perhaps this was a conscious decision to protect the ecosystem from so many pairs of hiking boots.
Mt Makihata summit marker:
The panorama from the summit on a clear day is second to none, taking in all the surrounding Niigata and Gunma hyakumeizan (Tanigawa, Hotaka, Shibutsu, Echigo-Komagatake, Hiuchi) and even some of the Nikkō giants (Oku-Shirane, Sukai).
From the summit, head back to the main junction and take the trail down to the hut on the shoulder, and then jog back down to the car park.
A superb natural line up this beautiful mountain, and without doubt the way to go if conditions are favourable. I advise giving it a full day after heavy rains for the slopes to drain, to ensure that the river is not too high, and be prepared to turn back if it’s not in condition.