JAPAN’S BEST MOUNTAINS FROM FIRST TO WORST…er well 301st
Meizan-otaku and -ologist alike, I hereby present to you an ever evolving ranking of Japan’s 300 Famous Mountains. Yes sirees, 1 to 301, best to worst, based solely on terms of hiking worthiness gleaned from years of ongoing experience in the field, a bit of internet scouring, what side of the futon I rolled out of in the morning and any feedback you’re willing to offer up to sway a rash, ill-advised opinion.
As of January 2019 I have 113 of the 300 (and one) mountains consigned to the books. With every subsequent peak bagged I’ll stick up a new entry on the list – highlighted for your convenience. As I said, this list will evolve, nothing’s set in stone. A Rausu might oust a Chausu one day only to be reinstated with an Aino in between the next. Any changes of heart will be highlighted accordingly.
But first, let’s do a slow reveal of the Hyakumeizan(100).
And suddenly we’re halfway home!
#51 – HIUCHI-GA-TAKE
Hemmed in by river…wait – what am I saying? Hiuchi-ga-take isn’t a mountain one refers to as hemmed in. Let’s try that again:
The majestic Hiuchi-ga-take soars heavenward at the northern end of Oze-ga-hara. At his foot, lake, marsh and river congregate as if in an effort to cool the mountain’s lusty character. Ambling around its charming nether regions could easily provide enough to satisfy any hiker’s desires but add in the climb to the summit and Hiuchi offers up a truly wonderful experience. Carefully time your Oze arrival to avoid the crowds.
#52 – WASHIBA-DAKE
What do they say? It’s more about the journey than getting there…something like that. Whatever the exact phrasing, this pretty much sums up Washiba-dake. I traversed a sometimes crumbling ridge from Yari-ga-take and out to my left, through the clouds, spied the splendid looking route leading up from Shin-Hotaka via Kagami-daira. Down to my right some lesser used trails snake up from Yumata Onsen. You could even come at the mountain from the north-west via the alluring Kumo-no-daira and Arimine beyond. Once below the summit of Washiba, no matter how you arrived there, it’s nothing more than a walk up to the top.
#53 – HACHIMANTAI
The marsh crowned highland of Hachimantai has its charms, but they are away from the daytripper clogged summit area. Lengthy trails to and from foothill onsen are the best way to traverse this mountain. The crux of the mission is to time your arrival at the summit very early or late, otherwise the throngs may upset the ambience gained on your walk so far.
#54 – ZAO-SAN
I didn’t do it (just bussed to the top and fled in the rain) but I wish I’d waited an extra day or two for the weather to improve and traversed the Zao Mountains from Yamadera in the north at least as far as the high point and magical crater lake. I will one day, and dutifully report back here…or rather twenty or thirty spots higher up on this list I imagine.
#55 – SHIBUTSU-SAN
A more gently profiled peak than its counterpart Hiuchi at the far end of Oze, Shibutsu-san is a pleasure to hike. No need for the huffing and puffing required on Hiuchi, one can stroll the board walks from the bus stop and breathe in the mountain air at one’s own leisure. Summer flowers bloom amongst the softly hued summit rocks and the views down into Oze and across to Hiuchi-ga-take are breathtaking. As mentioned above, judge your arrival in Oze to avoid the crowds.
#56 – TANIGAWA-DAKE
Don’t take the ropeway if you desire a more wholesome experience than this ranking reflects. There are better ways to climb the mountain than confined to a plastic bubble. This most popular of peaks is also one of the most deadly – for that very same reason. It attracts rock climbers to its crag ridden facade and, due to its ease of access, numerous winter visitors who really shouldn’t be on that mountain in such conditions. Wait for high summer or deep autumn and climb from the underground station of Doai to earn your crust on Tanigawa.
#57 – TSURUGI-SAN
A mountain of legend and spectacular scenery. Not that I experienced any on the sodden day of my summiting one of Shikoku’s most splendid peaks. But I’ve seen the classic image of the long approach up the bamboo grassed flanks of the mountain. It’s not too far away from Kyoto and is marked down in my books for a formal fair-weathered reassessment.
#58 – ASO-SAN
Get away from the touristy detritus around the active crater (if any still exists after the recent volcanic activity) and head for the high point across the moonscaped lava fields and rust coloured crags. Peer out at the distant caldera rim and the fantastically rugged Neko-dake a little closer at hand. If you’ve bussed up, at least find your way down on foot via one of the many trails on offer.
#59 – MYOKO-SAN
Edges out it’s partner in crime (Hiuchi-san) on account of its ruggedness, large boulder strewn summit, marshy crater base, and resplendent woodlands. I clambered down off Myoko and found myself strolling a closed, rock bombed road half cut out of mountainside, half propped up on beams out of cliff face and can’t for the life of me work out where exactly I was, but it was a thrilling end to the day.
#60 – HIUCHI-SAN
In its autumn coat, this mountain is a splendour to behold. That being said, some locals may try to convince you winter is the time to be out on the mountain. The thing is the hike in from Sasagamine to the hut below the summit didn’t really stand out as anything spectacular. Maybe there are better approaches. I’m sure a traverse of Yake-yama, Hiuchi and Myoko is a better way to experience this area.
#61 – TANZAWA-SAN
Extremely popular hiking destination between Tokyo and Mount Fuji. The Tanzawa Mountains are a little over loved and from reports I’ve heard it’s starting to show. On the positive side of the ledger the mountains offer up charming vistas, have plenty of accommodation and are easy to access. Go mid-week when everyone else is hard at work.
#62 – HIJIRI-DAKE
It’s a biggun, but there are better peaks in the Southern Alps to get your attention. If you’re on the traverse of the range Hijiri certainly stops you in your tracks as you traverse the flats outside of Hyakkenbora and then even more so as you stand peering up at it from Usagi-dake (Rabbit Mountain). All in all though, it’s a slog and if you’re only in country for a limited time look somewhere else for your alpine jollies.
#63 – WARUSAWA-DAKE
Like Hijiri, Warusawa’s another slog to get to. Most peaks in the Southern Alps are. If you’ve hit up Warusawa’s fantastic neighbour Akaiishi-dake, then maybe it’s worth the climb for the views back to said peak. And well, you’re there right, if you’ve come this far to conquer Akaiishi you may as well head up Warusawa. With both Hijiri and Warusawa, maybe coming at them as individual peaks from their respective trailheads, rather than on a full Southern Alps traverse would be more rewarding when wishing to appreciate their charms individually.
#64 – ONTAKE-SAN
Slowly reopening after the 2014 eruption, Ontake-san, like Fuji-san is better experienced when climbing from as lower point as possible. The surrounding forests are glorious and like on Fuji, dotted with religious relics. In fact Ontake is still, for many, a pilgrimage destination which distinguishes it from the tourist circus found on Japan’s highest peak. If you’ve had enough of the Central Alps across the Kiso Valley pop on over to Ontake and tell them to clean up the summit a bit when you make it up there.
#69 – NASU-DAKE
Worthy of another foray from yours truly. The highpoint of Sanbonyari, in this cluster of volcanic peaks north of Utsunomiya, is an uninspiring hike but the craggy Asahi-dake and sulphur spewing Chausu-dake are highlights. A north-south traverse is probably a good way to go about tackling Nasu. Knock off the highpoint of Sanbonyari, then make for Asahi and Chausu, a more suitable climax.
#65 – KUJU-SAN (NAKA-DAKE)
The highpoint of a volcanic conglomeration of peaks in Northern Kyushu. Active in parts. Overcrowded in late spring when the dwarf azalea flower and turn the mountainside a deep shade of pink. Good for a day trip out of Beppu, or for an overnighter to explore deeper into these mountains. There are some huts and an onsen at hand.
#66 – RAUSU-DAKE
I want to hike with peace of mind. Rausu-dake, on the Shiretoko Peninsula in Hokkaido however, serves up the highest concentration of brown bear per square inch than any other mountain on this list. Now it’s a spectacular peak and all and there’s probably less of a chance of you meeting your end at the hands of a higuma than there is of getting hit by a tourist bus down on the main road but I for one just can’t get disembowelment by bear off my mind.
#67 – KITA-DAKE
Japan’s second highest peak, in my opinion, is overshadowed as a hiking destination by its immediate neighbours: the charming Senjo-dake, the magnificent Kaikoma and sensational triple peaked Houou-san. It’s a long slog to the top from the Hirogawara trailhead, but I have seen pics of a route sporting a rickety staircase that wends its way up part of the mountain. Those stairs may well break up the monotony and provide a bit of a thrill on your climb.
#68 – TAKAZUMA-YAMA
In heavy mists I didn’t see much at all of the proud pyramid of Takazuma rising at the end of a spine of ridge. Photographs on-line reveal it to be a beauty to look at but the hike puts it a distant third when compared to nearby peaks Myoko and Hiuchi-san. There are a few chains embedded into rock and some splendid autumn colours if you hike at that time, but I’d head back to Myoko or Hiuchi first – all being equal, had I climbed Takazuma in fairer conditions.
#70 – TEKARI-DAKE
Southernmost of the Southern Alps to make the Hyakumeizan cut, Tekari comes across as a gentle, welcoming peak after the cold stony experiences of its more striking counterparts to the north. Focusing on Tekari alone, there are big, mostly viewless climbs to get to it. Up top there’s a nice hut, a brief traverse of some marshy ground, Fuji views and the outcrop of Tekari-iwa to keep you interested.
#71 – AMAKAZARI-YAMA
I need to get back to this mountain. I climbed amidst the height of its autumnal splendour but was racing the winter into the Alps so ended up not pausing to take much of the mountain’s character in. The summit views to the Northern Alps are wonderful, as is the final approach to Amakazari’s crown across a shoulder of bamboo grass. For the moment it can reside here in the 70s behind its counterparts Myoko, Hiuchi-san and Takazuma.
#72 – RYOGAMI-SAN
I took a simple route up through a typhoon ravaged wood to the summit but I hear there’s a more thrilling chain laced, crag strewn course leading up Ryogami from the north that makes things more interesting. Should go back for a look I suppose.
#73 – YAKUSHI-DAKE
A big mountain on the famous North Alps trek from Murodo-Tateyama to Kamikochi though it can be accessed alone from the Arimine Dam area. A splendid peak for sure, but I wouldn’t go to the trouble of getting to Yakushi unless I was on that above mentioned trek or some other multi-day variation in the area.
#74 – SUISHO-DAKE
The Crystal Peak, or Kuro-dake, the Black Peak…which is it? I suppose it depends what mood you find her in. Close neighbour of Washiba it’s another peak where it’s all about the journey there rather than the final clamber to the top. Yeah, nah, there are better peaks in the North Alps to head to.
#75 – KINPU-SAN
Sporting a prominent rocky outcrop, Kinpu-san is also the most alpine and highest of the Chichibu Mountains but otherwise an underwhelming peak when compared to others higher on this list. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a good climb and worth the effort. Well, that is if you’ve already summited the spectacular Mizugaki nearby. Otherwise what the hell are you doing here eyeing off Kinpu? Get to Mizugaki!
#76 – KOBUSHI-GA-DAKE
Likewise why bother with Kobushi if an unclimbed Kinpu or Mizugaki is close at hand? Sure there is some splendid forest to climb through and a lovely, welcoming hut just below the summit but don’t put all your effort into just getting to Kobushi, wait until you have a clutch of days to spare and make the peak, and the hut, a kind of central weighing point on a longer traverse through the undoubtedly lovely Chichibu Mountains.
#77 – TSUKUBA-SAN
Revolving restaurant, dilapidated stalls selling ice-cold beer and toad oil cure alls, a ropeway, a cable car and a rock garden! What hiker worth his salt would rank tiny, blighted Tsukuba-san, the baby of the Hyakumeizan above such glorious peaks as Tateyama and Fuji-san? Well, here’s what I reckon: it’s accessible out of Tokyo, it’s small enough to warrant repeat visits throughout the seasons, there are at least half a dozen routes up to the tops and if the day’s a scorcher, like it was when I went, the beer’s waiting, it’s cold and it’s on tap! Tsukuba doesn’t pretend to be more than it is. It’s hospitable and has that unique Japanese festive charm. Go in summer and work up a thirst.
#78 – TATAEYAMA
The development of Murodo is a turn off, as is the pillaging of the spring waters at Jigoku-dani for the onsen in its midst, the piping snaking here and abouts proves to make the otherwise dramatic scene quite ugly. It’s a pretty straightforward climb from Murodo to the summit. Maybe the secret is to climb from the Kurobe Dam and up its eastern flank (maybe even via the Shimo-no-rokka route up the Kurobe Gorge!). Most will take the easy route, however, to the summit of one of the holiest mountains in the land, and this is what this rating is based upon.
#79 – IWAKI-SAN
Dominating the Tsugaru Plain in the deepest of northern Tohoku, Iwaki lures in its hiker prey. The old volcano’s looming presence outstripping its mere 1625 metres and in so doing over inflating its own hiking worthiness as well. I didn’t have a great time on the mountain, stuck on an ice sheet, summit views lost in cloud, but I imagine an autumn climb on a crystal clear day must be a memorable affair.
#80 – KUMOTORI-SAN
Maybe the above mentioned traverse through the Chichibus could start here. Kumotori is another ho-hum peak. Sure it’s Tokyo’s highest, cracking 2000 metres and all that, and there are Fuji views to be had, but only the fact that it connects to distant Kobushi and Kinpu beyond, by a famed ridge walk really make it worthwhile seeking out. Next time I’d start my climb via Sanjo Onsen.
#81 – AZUMA-YAMA (100)
I’ve seen pictures of an Azuma turning on the beauty that would probably send this mountain shooting up these tables. Give it time, I’m pretty sure the mountain doesn’t belong down here in a lowly 81st, but conversely I’m just not sure how high she can fly. If I was basing this list primarily on my hiking experiences, rest assured, the sweat and rain filled half-dozen hours I spent on Azuma would send her to the bottom, so I’m being generous already.
#82 – FUJI-SAN (100)
A travesty you may say to place Fuji-san amongst these bottom feeders of the Hyakumeizan but remember, this is a ranking all about hiking worthiness and sadly half of Japan’s most beloved peak is a little used and abused. I climbed Fuji-san from its foot, up through its glorious skirting of forests, where lost shrines and monuments poke out of the woods. This is where Fuji-san remains genuine – and genuinely splendid. From the fifth station, where buses disgorge the masses during high summer, it’s a scoria switchbacked affair to the top, the wide trail wending between numerous anti-erosion measures and a host of huts. Up on the crater rim, once the high of being there wears off, you notice the weather station, other assembled buildings and their accompanying detritus. Rivalling the forest walk far below, running down the Sunabashiri (a black sand field on the Gotemba Route) is probably some of the best fun you can have on a mountain with your pants on and your skis off. Do definitely climb Fuji-san, but don’t forget to marvel at it from the surrounding mountains either.
#83 – KUSATSU-SHIRANE-SAN (100)
An onsen and ski field dominated highland, a closed highpoint (at left in image) due to the prevalence of volcanic gases all coagulate into a fairly unmemorable experience when compared with other peaks on this list. Apart from taking in the famous pale blue Yu-gama crater lake, probably the best thing to do on Kusatsu is to bus up there and take to one of the numerous trails leading away from the mountain into the surrounding hill country, which I hear, is rather gorgeous.
#84 – NORIKURA-DAKE (100)
Having taken a bus most of the way up, and traversed bare ground in heavy cloud to an ice encrusted summit, I didn’t get to know Norikura very well. All I can fathom of its glorious reputation is based upon second-hand accounts: a sprawling mountain encompassing a multitude of peaks, lakes and forests. With further exploration, I dare suggest old Norikura will jump up these rankings.
#85 – AINO-DAKE (100)
Aino-dake may be the 4th highest peak in the land but it’s basically nothing more than a hanger-onner. Most hikers combine it with a traverse either to or from Kita-dake, the summit merely the hump in the ridge on the trail to other glories. Sure there are top views, but nothing overly unique. Aino needs help to climb higher up the rankings but it looks as though it’ll take an effort to solely appreciate this peak. Looking up from Mibu-dake on its western side one does get a hint of the mountain’s imposing stature and as such, its ability to impress in its own right.
#86 – ARASHIMA-DAKE (100)
You get beech forests and summit views of Haku-san: Fair point, but there are plenty of mountains that offer that in the Hokuriku. It’s a fun climb with access straight out of a station: Better point, some of the other big peaks in the area look to be a chore to get to. The lack of any real ridge to take in the views as one ambles doesn’t help. True indeed, but then, that probably served in aiding its good looks and allowed it to cut the Hyakumeizan mustard.
#87 – SOBO-SAN (100)
There are better mountains in Kyushu by far. A rambunctious volcanic peak Sobo is not but in its forests one can escape the crowds hunting such gratuitous highland titillation and immerse oneself in the more subtle aspects of a mountain journey. That being said, you aren’t really required to travel all the way into Kyushu’s boonies for such satisfaction. You can probably find a mountain to serve a similar purpose in your own neck of the woods.
#88 – AZUMAYA-YAMA (100)
It didn’t help that I was forced to pay to walk through a cow pasture and got slightly disoriented in the woods on the approach. Sugadaira-kogen has an attractive country club atmosphere, and Azumaya, standing behind provides a pretty mountain backdrop, but what can I say, I could have satisfied myself sipping on a soda in a tennis club lounge and chatting up a sweaty lass just in off the courts.
#89 – UTSUKUSHI-GA-HARA (100)
An escarpment lined plateau that is simultaneously abused by the trappings of tourism and primary industry but remains vast enough to harbour wilder nooks. Indeed, if you climb via the cliffs on the Matsumoto side of the highland, you won’t stumble across civilisation until you hit the summit hotel perched beneath a bevy of antennae on the edge of the plunging cliffs. Once you’re up there, take a stroll across the highland, through the summertime pastures and hunt yourself down a well deserved soft serve ice cream.
#90 – KIRI-GA-MINE (100)
Overrun by civilisation though it may be, I dare suggest this much maligned member of the Hyakumeizan has more to offer than just its ho-hum summit stroll. I departed the weather station crowned highpoint of Kuruma-yama northward bound, and skirted the golden grassed Yashima Marsh. It’s no Oze for sure but adds weight to the argument that Fukada-san hints at: that Kiri-ga-mine is a highland worth repeat explorations.
#91: KAIMON-DAKE (100)
I don’t have a harsh word for Kaimon. It’s a gorgeous little peak poking out of the black sands of Ibusuki and standing guard over the entrance to Kagoshima Bay. There are splendid views from the summit. But it’s an up and down affair, albeit one that interestingly entwines itself around the little cone. If you’re already in the area let it lure you up but otherwise it’s a long row of daikon to hoe for the sole sake of doing that hike.
#92: ENA-SAN (100)
A big mountain, impressive to look at, which was part of Fukada-san’s Hundred Mountain criterium but up close, on the ground, whilst the woodlands are pleasant enough on the approach (from Misaka Pass), they turn dense and scrappy and ultimately smother the summit. Maybe there’s a more scenic or adventurous route up the mountain. I haven’t overly burdened myself with finding out. Apparently there’s a long 20 stage path somewhere but I think I’ll just recommend the fabulous, if a little more difficult to get to, Kohide-yama to hikers heading to that area until further notice.
#93: DAISEN (100)
Daisen is cool, scary cool, but only beyond the roped off section and I’m not encouraging anyone to tread that path. Apparently winter traverses to the real summit are much more feasible when snow widens the slither of crumbling ridgeline, but I’d rather be sucking down beers in Oz at that time of the year than freezing my balls off and thinking about dying on Daisen. So, as a hike, up to the safe highpoint, it’s a rather uninspiring slog. There are nice views out to the Japan Sea but you can get them sitting on your arse in a helicopter.
#94: NANTAI-SAN (100)
You have to pay to climb Nantai and lots of people do considering the state of the trail up from the shrine on the shoreline of Lake Chuzenji. Basically it’s a grind and doing it in the summer heat won’t help any. The views down to the lake are gorgeous though, once you’re on top…apparently; I was above the clouds. A bloke in Oze later told me I should have climbed from the other side of the peak as it’s much more beautiful that way. So Nantai holds on by its fingernails at #94 on account of his word with the potential to plummet if his promise doesn’t ultimately ring true.
#95: TATESHINA (100)
Tateshina’s unique boulder field of a summit notwithstanding, I’d say it’s probably a one and done for me. Yeah, I wouldn’t go back and hike this mountain unless I was doing the whole Hundred again. It is worth climbing once though, to check out one of the Hyakumeizan’s most unusual summits.
#96: AMAGI-YAMA (100)
Izu is charming, no doubt about it. The views across the bay to Fuji-san, the tiny fishing villages shoehorned into nooks in the rugged coastline and its hidden onsen in the hills make this a place to hold in one’s heart. And I suspect Fukada-san was so swayed by Izu’s tranquility he stuck Amagi-yama on his list despite it being a rather ho-hum kind of mountain. You wouldn’t think it going by the highpoint’s fantastic name though: Banzaburo-dake: coolest mountain name of the 100.
#97: DAIBOSATSU-DAKE (100)
I didn’t get the Fuji views, I didn’t even get the views across the famed Daibosatsu Pass such was the gloom I hiked through. Those two points might bump old Daibo up a notch or two. On one hand I’m developing a soft spot for Yamanashi’s mountains and Daibo beats out Gunma’s Hotaka to #97 only because, of the two, I’d rather go back there and check out what I missed in the mist. On the other hand the Chichibu Mountains (Daibosatsu’s home range) harbour better hikes.
#98: HOTAKA-YAMA (100)
If I’m ever back in the area with nothing better to do I might reassess Hotaka’s lowly ranking here. I suspect I climbed from the least dynamic side of the peak and was mired in forest virtually all the way to the top. Summit views were mostly lost in summer haze and anyway, you can nab better vistas off Shibutsu a hop skip and a jump away.
#99: IBUKI-YAMA (100)
A limestone quarry and ski-fields mar this mountain lording over Kansai’s north-eastern gateway. Some might think the conglomeration of (temporary?) souvenir stands and food vendors on the summit do too – especially when you drop off the back of Ibuki and discover a perfectly adequate visitor centre. Its fields of flowers and grasses do warrant repeat visits but then ultimately you’re heading out to a dullard of a mountain. You know what I’d do? Climb the relatively unheralded Ryozen-zan a touch to the south instead.
#100: AKAGI-YAMA (100)
Maybe there’s a better trail up the mountain, maybe there are better views than on the day I went. A climb through the forest from an uninspiring lakeside rimmed with pedal swans, an undulating ridge of no astounding consequence gets you to the top before a steep trail off deposits you unglamourously back at the lake. Yeah, nah, Gunma has better mountains.