Queen of the Northern Alps: Mount Tsubakuro!
Did you know? With so many beautiful mountains dotted around, Nagano is the prefecture with the highest average elevation (1,132m) in Japan, and is definitely the place to go if you are looking for some hiking spots with great alpine views! In this article, I will introduce Mount Tsubakuro (燕岳 Tsubakuro-dake), a great place to start your hiking journey into the Northern Alps.
Affectionately known as the "Queen of the Northern Alps", Mount Tsubakuro in Nagano Prefecture is a must-hike for any climbing enthusiast. Reaching the top of the 2,763m summit and overlooking some of the highest peaks in Japan is a sublime experience. You can feel that the world is infinitely vast, and the dramatic views of the Northern Alps (and the sunrise) from the top are breathtakingly spectacular and unrivalled. Although Mount Tsubakuro may be a steep and tiring climb, there are ample rest benches, and it is a healthy weekend getaway for all ages. Looking forward to this, I made Mount Tsubakuro my second solo overnight climbing experience after Mount Fuji in 2016.
Nakabusa Onsen’s entrance and dinner (top), and Ariake Sanso’s exterior and dinner (bottom). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh (top) and Akio Kobori (bottom))
As the ascent takes roughly 6 hours, I recommend staying a night at an onsen lodging near the trailhead – Nakabusa Onsen (中房温泉) or Ariake Sanso (有明山荘). Public buses take you all the way to the trailhead, making Mount Tsubakuro easy to access. Nakabusa Onsen is nearer to the entrance of the trailhead, but is also older and a bit more worn down. On the other hand, Ariake Sanso is newer, but a 15-minute slope away. Relaxing in the onsen waters and feasting on the generous kaiseki (懐石 traditional Japanese multi-spread cuisine) dinner spread was a great way to replenish energy before undertaking the following day’s arduous climb.
An interesting bit of information I learnt is that many middle schools in Nagano bring their students to climb Mount Tsubakuro in the hopes of nurturing the students’ love for the mountains. Of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains (百名山 hyakumeizan), a whopping 29 are in Nagano Prefecture! This is part of the reason why Nagano Prefecture is my favourite in Japan: its awe-inspiring mountains, and the feeling of being on these awe-inspiring mountains.
Rest stops and views on the way up Mount Tsubakuro
The four bench stops on the way up Mount Tsubakuro. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
There are many rest stops along the hiking route up Mount Tsubakuro, and at the top, the mountain hut Enzanso (燕山荘 Enzansō) awaits you. Four benches act as checkpoints, each around 50 minutes apart. The last bench is known as the Fujimi Bench (富士見ベンチ), and on clear days, you can even see Mount Fuji.
Gassengoya, the final stop before Enzanso. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori (left) and Carissa Loh (right))
From the Fujimi Bench, another 50 minutes of ascending will bring you to Gassengoya (合戦小屋), which is famous for serving watermelons in summer. Unfortunately, I visited in late September 2018 when the watermelon season had already ended. My boss, a fellow hiking enthusiast, visited in mid-September 2019 and was able to snag some juicy watermelon. Late September is considered autumn in the mountains, and the trees were starting to get their colours on. At Gassengoya, this manifested in bright yellow trees. Most people stop here for a final long break before pushing onto the final 90-minute stretch up to Enzanso.
Autumn scenery on the way up Mount Tsubakuro. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Mount Tsubakuro is a very steep but pleasant climb, and unlike Mount Fuji, there is a lot of vibrant vegetation and panoramic scenery around. Especially during autumn, the warm and radiant colours really make you forget how tiring the steep climb is. Mount Tsubakuro is considered one of the “Top three steepest accents of the Northern Alps”. On the climb up, you will be gaining ~1,400m in elevation over 5.5km. As you get closer to the top, you can even see Mount Yari, the iconic spearhead mountain, in the distance. Someday, I will climb it!
Once you reach Enzanso, you can stop for a break and grab something to eat before checking out the summit of Mount Tsubakuro, which is only 30 minutes away. Or, if you are staying the night, you can check in and drop your large baggage before visiting the summit.
Staying overnight and exploring Mount Tsubakuro's peak
Dolphin Rock (left) and summit of Mount Tsubakuro (right). (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Along the way to the summit, you will pass by interesting rock formations, including this iconic dolphin rock. Do you see the resemblance? Right behind it is Mount Yari, Japan’s fifth highest peak at 3,180m. Just a bit more of walking along the ridges and you will finally reach the summit of Mount Tsubakuro! Mount Tsubakuro’s summit stands at 2,763m, and is marked by a small engraved rock.
Dramatic ridges at the top of Mount Tsubakuro. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
The views around Mount Tsubakuro are extremely gorgeous, especially in autumn when patches of orange and yellow give a pop of extra colour to the landscape. You can see the nearby peaks in the distance, and the lush green valleys below. The rocky mountain also offers textured vistas, with patches of white sand and craggy grey rock peaking between the vegetative cover over the ridges.
With vast, expansive views and refreshing mountain air, for a moment, all my worries went away. I know I say it all the time, but the feeling of being of top of a mountain is truly otherworldly. The feeling that the Earth is amazing; the world is vast; and how blessed I am to be alive.
Spending a night at Enzanso. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)
Aside from the majestic views, the other reason I wanted to climb Mount Tsubakuro was its mountain hut, Enzanso. Enzanso is a popular mountain hut that has on numerous occasions been voted “The mountain hut I want to stay at most”, so I had to check it out. Sure enough, it really is a beautiful and well-maintained mountain hut. Mountain huts have a reputation for being squeezy, but perhaps because I came on a weekday late in the season, with rain forecasted for the next day, occupancy was not high and I got a five-person space all to myself. After a tiring day of climbing, tucking into the delicious dinner served at Enzanso was a wonderful feeling.
Continuing on longer climbs from Mount Tsubakuro
Sunrise from Mount Tsubakuro. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)
Sunrise from the top of any mountain is an amazing experience. Seeing the sun slowly making its way up and breaking through the sea of clouds (雲海 unkai), bathing the clouds in red and orange is very humbling, and one of the most beautiful things you can experience. After this amazing morning experience, most travellers will have breakfast and start to head back down to the Nakabusa Onsen Trailhead.
Mount Tsubakuro is the starting point for many trails into the Northern Alps. Intermediate climbers might be continuing onto the second day of a 3D2N hike which traverses three peaks: Mount Tsubakuro, Mount Otensho and Mount Jonen.
Spectacular views await at Mount Otensho (top) and on the way up (bottom). (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)
If you are continuing on a longer trip, a 3.5-hour hike from Enzanso across the mountain ridges will take you to Mount Otensho (大天井岳, Otenshōdake), which has a summit standing at 2,922m. Sweeping panoramic views of the Northern Alps await you, and the spearhead-shaped Mount Yari appears even closer! Advanced hikers can even undertake what is called the Omote Ginza Route (Mount Tsubakuro~Mount Otensho~Mount Yari), a 4D3N hike where you will traverse these ridges in front of you, bringing you to the peak of Mount Yari on day three.
The summit of Mount Jonen. (Image credit: JR East / Akio Kobori)
For intermediate climbers on the 3D2N Tsubakuro~Otensho~Jonen route, follow the signs and continue on another 3.5 hours, and you will reach Mount Jonen (常念岳, Jōnendake), one of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains with a peak of 2,857m. Spend the night at Jonengoya (常念小屋 Jōnengoya) mountain hut, and head down the mountain via the Ichinosawa Trailhead the next morning. The descent from Jonengoya takes around 3.5 hours.
2D1N Mount Tsubakuro (Beginner)
Nakabusa Onsen Trailhead/中房温泉登山口 → (50 minutes) → Bench 1/第一ベンチ → (50 minutes) → Bench 2/第二ベンチ → (50 minutes) → Bench 3/第三ベンチ → (50 minutes) → Fujimi Bench/富士見ベンチ → (50 minutes) → Gassengoya/合戦小屋→ (90 minutes) → Enzanso Mountain Hut/燕山荘 → (30 minutes) → Summit of Mount Tsubakuro/燕岳山頂
Day 1: Nakabusa Onsen Trailhead → Mount Tsubakuro (overnight at Enzanso)
Day 2: Mount Tsubakuro → Nakabusa Onsen Trailhead
3D2N Tsubakuro~Otensho~Jonen Route (Intermediate)
Nakabusa Onsen Trailhead/中房温泉登山口 → (6 hours climbing) → Enzanso Mountain Hut/燕山荘 → (3.5 hours) → Mount Otensho/大天井岳 → (3.5 hours) → Mount Jonen/常念岳 → (3.5-hour descent) → Ichinosawa Trailhead/一ノ沢登山口
Day 1: Nakabusa Onsen Trailhead → Mount Tsubakuro (overnight at Enzanso)
Day 2: Mount Tsubakuro → Mount Otensho → Mount Jonen (overnight at Jonengoya)
Day 3: Mount Jonen → Ichinosawa Trailhead
Mount Tsubakuro is easily accessible by public transport. The bus takes you all the way to the Nakabusa Onsen Trailhead, the entrance to climbing Mount Tsubakuro. To get there, take a 55-minute bus ride from JR Hotaka Station (穂高駅) to Nakabusa Onsen (中房温泉). The bus ride costs ¥1,800 per way and the timetable can be found here. JR Hotaka Station is a 30-minute train ride from Matsumoto, a major city in the region. JR Matsumoto Station (松本駅) is a 2.5 hour train ride from JR Shinjuku Station (新宿駅) via the JR Chūō Line on the Limited Express Azusa.
JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)
The new JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)
If you are coming from Tokyo and thinking of visiting Matsumoto and the rest of Nagano Prefecture, check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥18,000, it costs less than a round-trip between Narita Airport and Hotaka (~¥20,000). You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.
The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass. If you are looking for more hiking spots in the region, check out Kamikochi, only 90 minutes away from Matsumoto!
NOTE: From 1 April 2021, there have been some changes in the validity and pricing of the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area). For more information, please check here.
Header image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh