Hiking Yake Dake: Intro to the Japanese Alps

I just returned from a small group hike to Yake Dake (焼岳), an active volcano in the Northern Alps of Japan.

I thought about giving up halfway up the trail for the first time during a hike. I usually try not to bite off more than I can chew, but with the pandemic inactivity, the short but steep trail leading to Yake Dake (2455 meters) coupled with unexpected extreme nausea felt during the first 30 minutes of the hike made me question whether it was a good idea to go on a hike in the Japanese Alps after being a home buddy for many months.

It was also the first time I joined a group hike in Japan, and I felt awful initially, worrying about slowing down my group – the members of which have obviously been hiking more frequently than me over the last few months. In the end, it all worked out great, and I had a great day out hiking in Nagano/Gifu (as I understand there is some border controversy) with a small and very welcoming group led by our amazing guide, David Niehoff of Kanto Adventures.

Crater Lake at Yake Dake

Most of the group members (9 people in total including our guide) knew each other from previous hikes but they were all very welcoming towards a new-comer and made me feel at ease even at times I felt awful for being the slowest among the pack.

David, our guide, is an extremely experienced climber, but I think he is also very experienced in leading a group hike, which requires a set of skills that are much different from one`s own climbing experience and strengths. He showed a genuine interest in our enjoyment of the hike, had a very easygoing but attentive style, and was very careful with the timing/weather situation. I would recommend Kanto Adventures – David`s own company – to anyone looking for a multi-day hike or a day trip departing from Tokyo (mostly departing from Fuchu Station on the outskirts of Tokyo, easily accessible from Shinjuku). He offers hikes to many regions in Japan, including multi-day hikes in the Alps. You can check out his adventure calendar on Kanto Adventures website.

Yake Dake – difficulty scale

I have to say that Yake Dake is definitely not a technical hike but requires constant climbing and substantial altitude gain in a short amount of time. The hike takes around 6-hours in total (round-trip).

David lists Yake Dake among one of the easier hikes that it offers. I would just suggest that you look at as many photos as you can and be mindful of the quick altitude gain in a short amount of time. Wes Lang of Hiking in Japan lists the hike as grade 4 out of a difficulty scale of 5 (though I am not sure if his rating only applies to Kamikochi approach or both).

The overall hiking distance to Yake Dake (through Nakanoyou trail) is around 7-kilometers and covers an altitude gain of around 800-meters. Just to compare – Miyanoura Dake hike from Yodogawa Trail in Yakushima covers approximately 16-kilometers in distance (round trip) and 567-meters of total altitude gain. So in comparison to Miyanoura Dake, Yake Dake requires a more constant climbing with very few flat sections. Nothing technical or too difficult but still being mentally prepared in advance would help – I sure was not.

Nakanoyou and Kamikochi trails to Yake Dake

There are two main trails to the peak of the Yake Dake – Nakanoyou and Kamikochi approaches. We took the Nakanoyu route, which is slightly more difficult to get to than Kamikochi if you are solely relying on public transport. I understand that the Kamikochi route is the most popular choice, likely due to the easier access. Kamikochi trail involves a number of steel ladders that you have to tackle along the way. Based on the photos, they do not appear to be very difficult, but many blog posts warn people about those sections if they are afraid of heights.

Nakanoyu route on the other hand is a straight forward climb taking you through a beautiful dense forest for the first 1 – 1.5 hours before leaving the forest behind in the last hour and making you face your goal the whole time during the last section of the hike. There are no steel ladders or chains to tackle.

The reward at the end of the Yake Dake is a very stunning one that you can already get a sneak preview of during the approach with the fumes coming out of the lake near the peak. Similar to the Miyanoura Dake hike that I did in Yakushima in the summer of 2020, it really psychologically helps to see your goal ahead to push forward during the increasingly steep sections.

Volcano and valley views 

Your approach to the peak will first take you to a small and beautiful crater lake, which will give you the first visually euphoric moment during the hike. You will probably want to take a break here to take (many) photos and enjoy the thrill of being so close to the crater of an active volcano.

You will then follow the trail starting on your right and then take a sharp detour to the left to reach the peak in a matter of minutes after that sharp turn. Follow the circle signs on the rocks, and you will be fine. I stopped many times during that section. I was no longer tired or suffering from nausea but wanted to take in the scenery as much as I could and take many photos. Be careful – if you take the road going down as opposed to the final leap to the peak starting on your left, you will not reach the peak but start a 3-4-hour-long trail taking you all the way down to Kamikochi. That is a very tempting option (especially with the views and psychological appeal of going down as opposed to climbing up), but you need to plan ahead for that alternative route down, given the timing it requires. 

The final approach to the peak at Yake Dake

We were very lucky weather-wise, we had mostly sunshine during the ascent and the rain caught up with us only during the descent when were already deep in the forest. That was quite fortunate considering that we did the hike in late June during the peak rainy season in Japan.

I would recommend Yake Dake hike to anyone looking for an introduction to the Japanese Alps. It was not my first visit to the Japanese Alps but my first hike in those mountains and I could already tell that the Alps were a different set of beasts compared to some more gentle hikes of Kyushu including Yakushima. For some of those easier hikes, you can check out my post where I list some of my favorite hikes and walks in Japan.

Access to Yake Dake trailhead and logistics

On our way out to the mountains, we took off from Fuchu Station right outside of Tokyo to avoid the Friday night city traffic. Fuchu Station is one of those big and very well-equipped stations if you have to do some last-minute food shopping, etc. I got there a little early and had a nice chicken dinner at an izakaya within a few minutes of the station on foot (highly recommended). Although the ride to the trailhead from Tokyo takes merely 3.5 hours, we left the night before and camped at a roadside station to have an early start the next morning. There was a roof above our heads, and we did not set up tents but just used our sleeping pads and bags, which we were advised to bring with us (otherwise, if you let him know in advance, David has some rentable ones available). 

We woke up around 5 am and were at the trailhead by 6.30 am. We parked at the car parking space right after you pass Nakanoyu Onsen. The trail was quite busy, but there were no lines or any noticeable congestion. As it is becoming increasingly popular in Japan, we also came across a couple of trail runners during the hike. We took our time at the peak (possibly around a 45-minute break) and completed the whole trail in 6 hours. It was a good pace for me after many months of inactivity, but many people can probably do it in five hours or less on a good day.

We ended the hike at Nakanoyu Onsen before getting back on the road back to Tokyo. The entry fee to the onsen was already included in the reasonable trip price. The onsen had a couple of baths (above 45 degrees Celsius) with nice views (including an outdoor bath) and amazed us all with its immaculately clean facilities. We were back at Fuchu Station a little after 5.30 pm and I am glad that we did the hike on Saturday – allowing a relaxing day at home on Sunday writing this blog post.