Japan is a mountainous country covered in volcanic and non-volcanic mountains alike, many of which are perfect for hiking in the warmer monthsAside from the larger hills, gentler hikes exist for those looking for a more relaxing climb, or those practising to tackle the famous volcano and tallest mountain in Japan, Mt. Fuji..
During Golden Week in mid-August, we ascended Mt. Io in Yatsugatake, Nagano, as practice for a later climb of Mt. Fuji. Mt. Io (alternatively spelt “Iou”) is 2760 metres high and took about three hours to climb at a moderate pace, including the odd photograph break, and an hour or two to descend.
I got up at the ungodly hour of 4am, meeting my friend, who had probably got up even earlier than me, at 4:30am. We picked up two other people and drove an hour or so to the mountains, up an incredibly bumpy road and to the foot of Mt. Io. The ascent started with a walk by a river, before reaching a lodge, which is also a hot spring hotel. It felt a little strange to wander in at six o’clock in the morning looking for a bathroom, and seeing thirty or so people already up and eating breakfast.
The climb got quite steep at some points, moving through a forest, which was good for shade, and coming to some lovely scenic rest stops. As we got higher, we bypassed the clouds, leaving an incredible view of the sky and the surrounding land. It was the first time for me to be above clouds whilst hiking, an experience which was beautiful and exciting, and that I won’t soon forget. After finally getting to the top, we had a breath taking view of surrounding mountains, including Mt. Ontake, which erupted earlier this year.
Mt. Io used to be a volcano itself, although now it’s considered extinct. A few thousand years ago, it erupted, blasting away half of the mountainside, leaving behind an extremely steep cliff you have to walk around. It was a pretty amazing sight, and it was easy to imagine hot lava blasting from the side of the rock, leaving a permanent crevice. Mt. Io is perfectly safe now, however – it and the surrounding old volcanoes are responsible for many of the area’s natural hot springs.
You can walk around the mountainside for a nice view of Mt. Fuji, a treat at any time and even more beautiful surrounded by clouds. It was easy to imagine that other hikers were, at the same time, enjoying the view from Fuji’s peak. We were exhausted when we got to the top – as a beginner hiker, it was pretty hard work for me – but the view made it all worth it.
If you’re interested in checking out the mountain, here’s some advice for climbing Mt. Io in the summer:
- Go early, preferably by car. Not only does this mean you can avoid possible crowds during this peak time, but you can get up and down the mountain before the hottest time of the day at noon. We were at the top of the mountain by around 10:30am, leaving us plenty of time to get down before it got too hot.
- Take a charged camera! The ascent up Mt. Io is beautiful, and you’ll want to take lots of pictures.
- Take a bottle of water or two with you. An electrolyte-regenerating drink such as Aquarius or Pocari Sweat would be good, too.
- Take a light jacket. A thick one will be too hot (I took my winter coat and it ended up just being extra weight in my backpack) but a light waterproof jacket will be perfect for in case you get caught in the rain.
- Wear decent hiking boots. I only had light trainers, and slipped several times during the descent.
- Wear plenty of sunscreen and a sun hat. You’ll definitely need plenty of sunscreen if you go on a sunny day. The last hour or so of the climb is free of trees and shade, potentially making climbers vulnerable to sunburn. A sun hat will work too to help keep the heat from your face. You can get cheap sun hats in most convenience stores.
Most importantly, have fun! Seeing the natural side of Japan gives you a deep appreciation for the country, and hiking Mt. Io is neither expensive nor too dangerous or difficult. If Mt. Io is enjoyable for you, it might be an idea to start thinking about tackling Japan’s biggest and most famous landmark, Mt. Fuji.