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
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.
C (requires some expertise)
5 (Difficult to climb)
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?
Minimum Time Required
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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
Yamagatayama page: https://yamagatayama.com/hyakumeizan/no-043/
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About the author
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.
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