TIM BUNTING

KIWI YAMABUSHI

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CHOKAI-ZAN (Mt. Chokai)

ちょうかいざん 

Chokai-zan

鳥海山

Tallest peak entirely in Tohoku often said to resemble Mt. Fuji, leading to the name Dewa Fuji (after the former province of Dewa).

Chokai-zan is a tall peak that towers over the Shonai region and the Dewa Sanzan to the south

CHOKAI-ZAN

Mt. Chokai, Chokai-san, Mt. Chokai-san, Mt. Chokai-zan, Chokaizan, Chokaisan, Dewa Fuji, Fuji of the North

鳥海山ちょうかいざん 

Chokai-zan (鳥海山ちょうかいざん) is a 2236m (7335 ft.) peak in the Shonai region of Yamagata prefecture best climbed from July to October. Chokai-zan is a level 5 in terms of physical demand, which means it is hard to hike, has a C technical grade, which means it requires a moderate level of expertise, and you want to allow at least 8 hours for a climb.

Mountain Range

Chokai-zan

Region

Shonai

Elevation

2236

Technical Demand

C (requires some expertise)

Physical Demand

5 (Difficult to climb)

Trails

Three. 1) Odaira (10 hours return), 2) Hokodate (10 hours return), 3) Yunodai (8 hours return)

Best time to climb

July to October

Day trip possible?

Yes

Minimum Time Required

8 hours

CHOKAI-ZAN

Located on the borders of Yamagata and Akita Prefectures, Chokai-zan (Mt. Chokai) is the tallest peak in Yamagata Prefecture, and the tallest peak entirely in Tohoku. The beautiful shape of the mountain led it to also being named ‘Dewa Fuji’ (Dewa was the name of the former province Chokai-zan is located in). Chokai-zan is an active volcano, having erupted and changing its shape many times over the years.

Chokai-zan boasts over 200 species of alpine vegetation, and has extensive areas home to birds of prey that the mountain hawk eagle (Kumataka) and golden eagle (Inuwashi) use for breeding grounds.

View from the summit of Mt. Chokai with huge boulders and an expansive blue sky

Chokai-zan is an active volcano currently at eruption level 1, which simply means you need to be warned that it is in fact an active volcano (as of March 2022, more details can be found here in Japanese).

Chokai-zan is famous for having the highest precipitation of any mountain in Japan, and the rain and water from the melting snow on Chokai-zan provides a habitat for the many varieties of alpine plants able to survive and thrive there. The distinct orangey-yellow Dawn Lily is but one of the many different kinds of flowers that grow on Chokai-zan, and the Chokai Azami, the Chokai Thistle, is an indigenous species to Chokai-zan.

Chokai-zan opens for climbing once the snow melts in July, and its season finishes when the first snow falls, usually in the middle of October. 

Getting there: Trailheads to Chokai-zan

Mt. Chokai Crater Lake in the middle of summer surrounded by Dawn Lilies and snow

The two main trailheads up Chokai-zan begin on the Chokai Blue Line. The Chokai Blue Line is a mountain road that winds its way from Fukura in Yuza to the fifth station of Chokai-zan at Hokodate, the where Hokodate trailhead is. The Chokai Blue Line then goes all the way back down to Kisakata in Nikaho City, part of Akita Prefecture.

If you’re heading up the Chokai Blue Line from the Yuza Town side, you will pass the Odaira trailhead at the Odaira Mountain Hut. The Hokodate trail is the easiest, with the Odaira trail a close second. The Hokodate Trailhead can get extremely busy at weekends and on public holidays, so be warned that you may need to park your car further away than you might like. 

Hokodate Trailhead from Fukura, Yuza Town (5–6 hours one way)

The paths of Mt. Chokai are very rocky but with lush greenery in 360 degrees

There are steep parts right at the beginning of the hike, however after that the path evens out a bit more for you to enjoy the excellent views, Chokai-zan crater lake, and the orange-white dawn lilies, and chinguruma (Geum pentapetalum) alpine flowers along the way. 

Yunodai Trailhead from Sakata City (4 to 5 hours one-way)

A thin dirt trail to Mt. Shogadake from Mt. Chokai crater lake with dawn lilies either side and remaining snow in the distance

The Yunodai Trailhead starts at the Yunodai Rest Spot in the former Yawata Town part of Sakata City. The distance isn’t that far, but there are many steep parts that make it take longer than you’d think. The course is more for experienced hikers, and gives a more realistic experience of the difficult side of Chokai-zan. 

There is a large section of snow that remains until early autumn nearer to top of the trail. When visibility is low it can be very easy to get lost here, so due care must be taken. There are many cases of people getting lost on the way down, so beware of the following points:

  1. Make sure you take the right path at the Fushihaidake junction heading towards the Azami-zaka slope(あざみ坂). The start for the Yunodai Trailhead at the Fushihaidake junction is not at the sign, rather it is a little to the left further down the trail towards the south.
  2. If you go straight down at the Azami-zaka slope (even when there is snow), you will go off the main trail, so be sure to cross the small section of snow to the right (slightly to the south west). 
  3. It is easy to lose your way while walking on the large sections of snow. Please take care here. 

Nearby locations worth checking out

Shoga-dake

Mt. Shogadake covered in dawn lilies seen from Mt. Chokai

To the west of Chokai-zan’s crater lake is another mountain on the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata list, Shoga-dake

It would definitely be possible to climb to the summit of both Chokai-zan and Shoga-dake in the same day. The easiest way to do so would be to climb from the Odaira trailhead and hit up Shoga-dake, then continue your way up the mountain. Climbing from Hokodate would mean a bit of backtracking, as the path from the crater to Shoga-dake takes at least one hour one-way. However, if you were to take the shortcut at the Sai no Kawara (賽の河原), it wouldn’t be so bad.

The waterfalls of Chokai-zan

Chokai-zan has the highest precipitation and most waterfalls of any mountain in Japan. Naturally, it also has some of the freshest water that feeds some of Japan’s best oysters, a whisky factory featuring some of Japan’s finest, and of course hundreds and hundreds of rice fields. Here are some of my favourite waterfalls to check out in the area.

Ichinotaki and Ninotaki Falls

Ichinotaki Falls in Yuza on the southern face of Mt. Chokai

Originally, we had planned on climbing from the Ninotaki trail as this offered more of a challenge. However, we were with an inexperienced climber, and felt it best to take the path we knew. In saying that, we also equally know the path to Ninotaki Falls at the base of the mountain in Yuza. This is a popular location to escape to in the middle of the summer heat as there are three very powerful and beautiful waterfalls to either look at, or in our case, swim in.

From the Ninotaki Falls Carpark, it is a brisk 10–15 minute hike to Ichinotaki Falls and onwards to Ninotaki Falls. Just keep following the path to get to the trail that goes up Chokai-zan.

Dohara-no-Taki Falls (Dohara Falls)

On the road that leads to the Ninotaki Falls, there is a carpark on the left-hand side for Dohara-no-Taki Falls. Dohara-no-Taki is remarkable in that there are two natural springs right next to each other, but with completely different sources that even taste different. It’s fun just to check this place out, but it is also a great spot to fill up on fresh mountain water.

Tamasudare Falls

Tamasudare Falls is a 63m tall waterfall in Masuda, Sakata City, near the Yunodai Trailhead of Mt. Chokai

If you’re climbing from the Yuza side and have a car, Tamasudare Falls isn’t too much of a stretch to reach. The 63m tall Tamasudare falls is the tallest waterfall in Yamagata Prefecture, the prefecture with the most waterfalls in Japan.

Tamasudare was apparently named by Kukai (Kobo Daishi), the famous monk who brought Shingon Buddhism to Japan in the 9th century. The name refers to beads (Tama) falling down like a bamboo screen (Sudare). Regardless, the enormity of the falls really makes you feel the power of nature just by trying (and failing) to stand next to it.

Hottai-no-taki Falls

Hottai-no-taki Falls is a small waterfall with a deep turquoise pool below

The 57m tall Hottai-no-Taki is located on the northern side of Chokai-zan, and is the only waterfall on Chokai-zan that faces the summit. It’s uncertain how Hottai-no-Taki was named, but the legend goes that Kukai (Kobo Daishi, recognise the name?) saw an old man there and asked the name of the waterfall, to which the old man simply replied ‘Hottai’. When Kukai asked who the old man really was, the old man replied ‘I am Fudomyo’o, The Immovable who protects this waterfall’, before quickly disappearing.

Hottai-no-Taki features three cascades, and was formed on a single sheet of molten rock that is over 50m in thickness. There are even some 2-metre wide potholes under Hottai-no-Taki formed by whirlpools created from erosion originating from the waterfall’s force.

The drive to Hottai-no-Taki is simply breathtaking, taking you over mountain roads, through tiny hamlets amongst the rice fields, and along pristine mountain streams. It is by far one of my favourite drives in Japan, and that’s saying something, and has the bonus of being great for picnics and camping.

Mototaki Falls

Mototaki Falls are wide waterfalls with multiple flows

Mototaki Falls is not as big as the other waterfalls on Chokai-zan, but it is just as beautiful, if not more so. Mototaki falls is wider than it is tall, featuring hundreds of tiny waterfalls that all converge into the mountain stream below. Mototaki Falls is an excellent spot to cool off from the summer heat as well.

Espresso Aube in Nikaho

Espresso Aube in Nikaho is a great spot to have some coffee and cake

If you have time for coffee, and let’s face it, you always have time for coffee, there’s no better spot in the surrounding area to get your fix than at Espresso Aube (website in Japanese) in Nikaho (Google Map). As the name suggests, this tiny cafe specializes in espresso-based drinks, but also has a variety of amazing cakes and slices to choose from, and freshly roasted beans to boot. This place is so good that at least once a month I purposely make the two-hour return trip there just to get a Cafe Nico, an espresso topped with fluffy milk, orange zest, and cinnamon! My top recommendation for cafe in the region!

Resources:

Yamagatayama page: https://yamagatayama.com/hyakumeizan/no-043/ 

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About the author

Tim Bunting Kiwi Yamabushi

TIM BUNTING – KIWI YAMABUSHI

OFFICIAL DEWA SANZAN YAMABUSHI NAME:

RYOSEN – SPREADER OF TRUTH

Hi, I’m Tim Bunting AKA the Kiwi Yamabushi, a New Zealander who became a Yamabushi Ascetic in the Dewa Sanzan mountains of north Japan. I’m part of the Yamabushido team, and we host life-altering Yamabushi training on the Dewa Sanzan (website I made). People come to us for the ultimate mindfulness experience, to reach the next level, or simply connect with nature and themselves.

I’m on a mission to summit all 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata Prefecture to spread the splendour of this fabulous location, and in dedication to all those who lost their lives out in nature, including my father.

Sign up for the Mountains of Wisdom mailer for updates, follow me on social (IG, FB, YT, Twitter, TikTok, CR, all @kiwiyamabushi), or send me an email to get in touch.

Tim.

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