A Futon at 3000 Meters: Staying at a Japanese Mountain Hut
If Japan can be labeled as two things, it is a land of convenience and a land of mountains. You can't go anywhere without there being a convenience store within 5 minutes or seeing a line of peaks on the horizon.
But can you get the two together? Surely there’s no 7-Eleven at 3000 meters! Well, no, but there are mountain huts, and these little pockets of civilization high above the cloud line provide an oasis of comfort and convenience that is uniquely Japanese.
Whenever you are planning a hiking trip through the Japanese wilderness, maps are scattered with tiny house icons. These are “Koya” (小屋 in kanji, which literally means “little room”), and these are mountain huts. With a quick phone call, you can be booked into one of these and have a futon bed for the night, complete with dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch for the next day, making them perfect for people with no experience or confidence in camping or simply don't want to carry the extra weight.
Often fastened like wooden lodges, upon entering you'll be immediately greeted with a very Japanese sight: a genkan entryway. Yep, as with everywhere else in Japan, you must remove those boots from your sore feet before you can enter.
After checking in, you'll be given the grand tour by a member of staff: the dining room, the drying room, toilets, common room and, of course your sleeping quarters.
The first thing you'll notice about this room is just how tightly packed the futons are. Yep, you will be sharing the room with at least a dozen other people, in very close proximity! This isn't as bad as it sounds: hikers by nature are friendly and accommodating, and you'll be chatting away to your new neighbours in no time, making the experience a little less awkward. No, the difficult bit is putting up with the snoring! No word of a lie, I have shared rooms where other’s snores have made the floorboards shake. Bring a pair of earplugs!
The schedule of a typical koya runs earlier than your average hotel: dinner and breakfast are usually served at 5pm and 5am respectively, and lights go out at 8pm or 9pm, by which time the whole place falls asleep under darkness. It's standard practice for hikers to wear their hiking kit in bed so they can make a quick getaway the next morning.
Meals are typically simple fare, though after a long day in the lofty peaks the hot food and tea are very welcome. You'll have a time that you're assigned to have your meals, during which you'll take a chair and eat communally with everyone else. Rice and miso soup are served up in a help-yourself style, in huge tubs, and it provides a great bonding exercise where everyone trips over themselves to help out others, passing around the servings and not eating until everyone at the table is ready to do so. Just don't get too comfortable: the next round of hungry hikers are waiting outside for the next chair to open up!
Water is a scarcity in mountain huts, especially those perched in Japan’s highest areas, so count yourself lucky if your koya has even a single tap that dribbles water. Check with the staff if that water is safe to drink before you refill your water container though: it might be just rainwater. Most mountain huts can refill your water bottle, though there is a small charge, usually 100-200 yen per liter.
Likewise, don't expect there to be flush toilets! Toilets in the mountain huts are waterless, meaning you can't put used toilet paper in there. That has to go into a box nearby. Hey, in places this remote be grateful that there's even toilets and toilet paper at all!
The common room is the social area of the mountain hut. Inside you can find a mini-library of mountain-climbing books and even manga related to hiking. There might even be a TV! Either way, it's a great place to meet and mingle with others: chatting away in the sleeping room is a no-no as there may be someone in there trying to catch 40 winks well before lights out: some crazy people wake and leave in the middle of night in order to reach a nearby summit in time for sunrise.
Even if you're not planning to stay at a mountain hut, it's still worth stopping by one on your trails. Most mountain huts stay open throughout the day to serve lunch to stamina-starved hikers. The menu is typically calorie-heavy as a result: ramen, curry and the like. And why not stop off by the mini-shop at the reception desk to buy a pin-badge or bandana of that mountain you've just scaled?
If you are planning a multi-day hike in Japan you have two options for sleeping: camp, or stay at a mountain hut. Even if you're a seasoned climber and have the full camping kit, you really should try one night there. You get many of the rustic delights that being out in the wilderness, while still providing a modicum of Japanese convenience. Remind yourself of that as you doze off on your futon at 3000 meters high!