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Big Summer Runs Near Tokyo

Tokyo’s local mountains are lovely in spring, but summer is the time to go alpine. Yamanashi Prefecture is the place for day runs with big views, cloud-piercing peaks and a dose of adventure in all of its connotations.

Here are four courses in and around Yamanashi and southern Nagano that can, theoretically, be done in a day-trip from Tokyo. Two of the courses, Daibosatsu and Kentokuzan, are intermediate courses, good for getting some running experience in a challenging low-alpine environment. They are lovely destinations in their own right. Yatsugatake and the Houzan Ridge are true alpine runs.

A word on safety. “Can be done in a day” does not mean “should be done in a day.” Don’t lock into the principle of knocking off Yatsugatake or Houzan in one day. Weather can deteriorate in a hurry at this altitude, and course errors and fatigue can turn your focus on a day run into a potentially risky endeavor. Be prepared to adapt as conditions dictate; stay at one of the high huts or to abort your run entirely if necessary, and bring taxi money just in case.

The Daibosatsu Ridge (大菩薩峠 )

Very few hikers actually experience much of Daibosatsu, since they lock into the simple loop hike starting from the lower bus stop at Daibosatsu Touzan Guchi (大菩薩登山口). There are buses from Enzan Station (塩山駅) on the Chuo Line. 

More frequently these day hikers take a small alpine shuttle bus from the bus stop to the 1,580-meter Kaminikawa Pass(上日川峠)from where the beautiful summit ridge is just a one-hour hike away. For more hardy trail runners, the popular summit ridge is where the fun begins.

After visiting the not-terribly-interesting summit itself, head directly south toward Ishimaru Pass, Kuroyama and, finally, Yunozawa Pass. Enjoy several hours of dramatic views, open grassland and likely not a soul in sight.

Fuji looms just in front through large parts of the run which alternates between grassland and forest. Hikers seem to magically disappear from Ishimaru Pass. There are numerous descent courses toward the bus line to the west from Yunozawa and beyond.

Kentokusan (乾徳山)

Kentokusan deserves more attention. It delivers a high degree of alpine thrill with little investment of time and money. From Enzan Station, take a bus or taxi to Kentokuzan Touzan Guchi (乾徳山登山口). From there, the figure-eight shaped course goes steeply upward.

Alpine flowers make this an interesting place to be in July and August. Near the 2,000-meter summit there is a thrilling series of nearly vertical chains for clambering up the final highly exposed peak. Super fit runners can knock this off in four or five hours, but do take time to enjoy the summit which stretches into the low-alpine Aether.

Yatsugatake (八ヶ岳)

Most of this run is actually in Nagano Prefecture. From Chino Station (茅野駅) in southern Nagano, take the earliest bus possible to Minotoguchi. By far the best running course is the ascent up the Kitazawa (北沢) route, which climbs and traverses the major peaks of Iodake, Yokodake and Akadake, and is just possible in a day.

All of the summit ridge is in the alpine zone at 2,700 to 2,900 meters, and things can get wild in a hurry. The author has experienced up-close lightning hitting the summit peak, hail storms the size of golf balls, flooding that made the mountain flow like melted chocolate, and bright sunshine… all in a two-hour stretch.

At this elevation some runners will begin to feel the lack of oxygen. One friend with whom I ran the course two years ago claims to have no particular memory of the course due to oxygen deprivation. Akadake Hut is near the summit for food and safety, and I recommend using it as a matter of course, if not just to get one’s bearings.

The best descent route is the Minami Sawa (南沢) course after Akadake peak, but honestly it is not the world’s best descent run. Do not plan on much speed here due to shattered rock, gullies and roots. Most runners will not make the final bus back to Chino, so bring taxi money or plan on spending the night at Minoto.

Housanzan (鳳凰三山)

Perhaps no other route near Tokyo is as beloved among advanced runners as the Housanzan Ridge with its amazing rock formations that remind Japanese of statues of Yakushi, Kannon and Jizo. It is tremendously runnable along its ridge, with crushed coral rock that would remind you of a tropical beach if it were not in an alpine zone at near 3,000 meters of elevation.

Most runners completing this course will start at Yashajin Pass (bus from Kofu Station) and finish at Aoki Kousen, far to the west, requiring six to seven hours of running and climbing. The chances of making it there and back from Tokyo in a day using public transportation is near nil, so plan to sleep at either end if you would like to do this as a day run.

In the summertime you are sure to pass and be passed by some of Japan’s top runners. But why rush on such a marvelous alpine course? The views to Kita-dake, Japan’s second highest peak, and Mt. Kaikoma’s white pyramid are breathtaking. Your shutter finger may become as tired as your legs before the long descent through Dondoko-sawa which has some of Japan’s largest waterfalls and is a destination in its own right. 

Be safe, touch the sky, and be back with some incredible alpine memories.

Robert Self came to Japan from northern California’s redwood country. He has been running in Japan’s mountains for 20 years and has coached runners from beginners to international champions. He is the director of Hanno Trail School which specializes in running tours and trail running lessons.


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