My thumb does the talking to the few cars that pass my way. I walk for almost an hour when a middle-aged man with a sleepy stubby face gives me a lift. The sun makes her way out, and it’s the beginning of a fine day.
My driver tells me about the Ou-san-byaku, the range of mountains that run north to south, splitting Aomori Prefecture in half. There aren’t exactly 300 mountains, he tells me; the number is only symbolic, so don’t try to count them.
Mt. Iwaki is often called “Tsugaru Fuji.” In the past, people from villages would make pilgrimages in groups to the shrine at the top and worship the holy sunrise. Iwaki-san stands out clearly on her own as we drive; the view of the dark gray mountain against the light blue sky and ripe yellow rice fields stops our conversation. We are quiet until we get to a fork in the road.
“To your left is Hirosaki Castle, to the right is the way to Iwaki-san. Please make your choice.”
At Iwaki Shrine, the point where the trail to Iwaki-san begins, I adjust my daypack as I munch on a plum onigiri and leave my heavy load in a nearby ryokan.
The trees lining the trail to the mountains still have their leaves, green and vibrant. There was little trail traffic, and I'm told a driving path to the ropeway takes you almost to the top of Iwaki-san and is a popular alternative to hiking the full route.
About an hour into the woods, I am breaking a sweat as I move quickly with my light pack, happy about the fine weather. I am belting out the chorus of my favorite Jewel song and am speechless when I turn a corner and am face to face with an older Japanese man.
“Ha, ha, ha!” He roars out laughing. Embarrassed, I smile and manage to squeak out a “Konnichiwa.”
“Ha ha ha!” he continues. His laughter is contagious, and I can’t help but join him. I continue on my way and come to a steep rocky area where fresh water is flowing.
The water is gorgeous, and I drink my fill using my hands, too lazy to open my pack and refill my Nalgene bottle. My hands are tingling from the cold, but I feel refreshed, ready for the views from Iwaki-san.
When the path forks, I’m suddenly in the midst of a parade. Where did all these people come from? It’s a senior citizen’s tour coming from the gondola. I am greeted with friendly “hellos” and “Yoku gambatta ne.”
Hurriedly, I make my way up to the top, eager to get away from the crowd. In a few minutes, I am sitting on a rock at the top of Iwaki-san, quiet, entranced with the shades of blue, gray and green of the surrounding ranges.
Difficulty Level: 2 out of 5
Location: Aomori Prefecture
Peak: 1,625 meters
Duration: 1-day hike
When to go: July to October
How to get there: From Tokyo, take a Shinkansen to Morioka. From there, transfer to JR Tokyu to Aomori and then transfer to Hirosaki. A short bus ride will take you to Iwaki Shrine trailhead.
Getting There: Tokyo Hachinohe Hirosaki Iwaki Shrine Trailhead
(3 hrs. ¥15,350) (1 hr. 30 mins. ¥4,020) (35 mins. ¥620)
Things to bring: Map, camera, sunscreen, water, camera, gloves, sunglasses, warm hat, food supplies, rain gear, water bottle.
Things to do: Make sure you get there a day early to check out Hirosaki Castle and the surrounding park area. You can stay cheaply at the Hirosaki Grand Hotel, only a 15-minute walk from Hirosaki Station. After the hike, Hyakuzawa Onsen is a good place for a soak. And don’t forget to eat some Aomori apples; some say they are the best in the world.
Hirosaki Transportation Center: (0172) 29-2222
Hirosaki Bus Service: (0172) 32-2241
Iwaki Tourism Bureau: (0172) 82-3111
Hirosaki Town Information: http://hometown.infocreate.co.jp/en/tohoku/hirosaki/hirosa-e.html
Lodging: Hirosaki Grand Hotel (0172) 32-1515
Recommended Hiking Schedule
Day One: 6 hrs, 20 mins.