How a group of elderly Japanese men saved our arses
Today these old dudes saved our arses. I want my 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata blog to be a guide of what to do not what not to do. Our experience climbing Kumanonaga-mine (Mt. Kumanonagamine) today was an experience of the latter, and if it wasn’t for the kindness of these old Japanese men we met along the path, we’d probably still be up there.
This morning we set out to climb Kumanonaga-mine, a mountain in the south of Tsuruoka city somewhere between Kinbo-zan and the Shonai coast. We plugged the name of the mountain into Google maps, but didn’t realise our mistake until it was too late.
Things were going great up until then. Not only did we get to see some amazing cloud formations in the distance, a real bonus for when you’re driving in the Japanese countryside, but we also happened upon one of the most mystical shrines I have ever seen in Japan. Yakushi Jinja, as it is known, is a real hidden gem we wouldn’t have known about had we followed the signs pointing in the opposite direction to the way we ended up going (thanks Google).
Picture this; you’re driving up a mountain path, the Japanese farmhouses are so old they are decorated with their own Torii gates and of course customary rice storehouses. Then the road takes you deeper into the mountains, just like in Spirited Away.
Suddenly your gaze turns to the giant red Torii Gates in the middle of the forest just there on the side of the road. Behind it, you notice an ancient hall made with architecture from another century complete with covered basin and tap in the shape of a dragon for purification before entering a shrine. Then, to the left you see a stone stairway covered in moss lead up into a dense cedar forest made that much more atmospheric thanks to the shrouded fog.
Naturally, we went exploring. We were hoping that at the end of this trail we would find another trail to lead us up to the summit. Alas, all we were greeted with was a derelict shrine building deep at the end of the forest path. No path up the mountain for us, although we felt we were off to a pretty good start.
So we backtracked to our car, and then followed the road up the hill on foot as by then the road had turned to gravel which we weren’t eager to risk getting stuck on. The gravel road appeared to keep going up into the mountains, but sure enough there was a sign that pointed into a forest in the mountains saying ‘Kumanonaga-mine this way!’.
We slowly made our way up this path, following a stream most of the way. In the low ferns, we could only just make out a path, but it definitely didn’t look like anyone had been there in recent times. Then, we followed the path up the mountain, passing unnaturally straight cedars as we did so, and unfortunately destroying the webs of many spiders along the way as we did (sorry guys).
Just before we were about to turn around out of fear of having gone the wrong way, we saw a sign that read ‘Kumanonaga-mine 40 minutes this way’. We were on the right path, but we couldn’t see the path. So, we decided to follow our noses and kept heading up the steep inclines through thick bush, this time well above our ankles.
We could sort of make out the path to take and just kept heading in the direction we felt was right. It is most likely that the path we took is one used more by animals like the bears and boars that live in the area than by humans. Before long we came across another sign ‘Kumanonaga-mine 10 minutes this way’. We were getting closer.
Except this time, instead of small ferns to contend with, the supposed path had turned into a waist-height bamboo forest with prickly bushes dispersed here and there. We decided to take the lesser of two evils and headed in the direction of the larger trees, clambering our way through until we finally could finally make out the lookout at the summit.
Getting to the summit of a mountain is so much more rewarding when you’ve had to crawl up a forest to get there. To say we were relieved would be an understatement. Plus, the summit of Kumanonaga-mine is quite special. There’s a tiny shrine in the forest behind the lookout, and from there you can see Chokai-zan, the Shonai Plains, Takadate-yama, Arakura-yama, and all the way out to Sanze and The Sea of Japan.
Once at the summit, we had a spot of lunch, or in my case all of the snack food I had brought as I thought we would be back in time for lunch. Now all we had to do was to figure out how to get back to our car. There was no way we were going to retrace our steps, the hill was hard enough climbing up, no way we could go down without slipping and breaking something.
So, we had a look at our options. The one option that presented itself to me was to head back down the trail we were originally supposed to go on, and then make our way back to the car by foot. It turns out the road goes in completely the wrong direction at the start, and to backtrack it would have taken us an extra 2 or 3 hours. The other option was to test a trail we had found at the summit that we assumed would take us back to the gravel road and back to our car.
Before making any decisions though, we decided to check out more of the area for two reasons; to see the marshes the mountain is famous for, and to see if there were any other paths we had missed. So, we headed down the mountain using the original trail we should have taken.
This trail was probably 100 times easier than the trail we had taken to get where we were. It was very wide, and the path was very soft from all mud, dead leaves and branches.
Before long, we came across the first of the marshes that we had wanted to explore. The marsh had all but dried up, and all we were to find was a bunch of old men with weed whackers and machete-like blades who clearing some of the unwanted weeds.
After the usual exchanges ‘where are you from?’ ‘Why do you have a conch?’ ‘Where are you going?’, we let them know of our predicament. To that, a man who we later discovered was Mr. Igarashi, said ‘oh no bother, once we’ve had our lunch and done a bit more work, we’ll take you back to your car. In the meantime, go and check out that other marsh’.
How lucky were we. This chance encounter had likely saved us 2 or 3 hours of hiking on paved road, a prospect neither of us enjoyed. Not only that, the old men were really nice too, offering us bananas and a bottle of coke each.
We started heading in the direction of the second marsh, and along the way I noticed something brown and long sliding along the path. I wasn’t sure what it was at first, but my friend informed me it was a baby pit viper. Thank god it wasn’t an adult, although I do always carry poison remover just in case something like this does happen.
Then a couple of minutes later, I notice something else moving strangely on a stick. A small caterpillar-like insect reaching out as if to grab onto something. ‘Land leaches’, so my friend tells me. And we look at our legs to find both of us had some on us. After quickly flicking them off, we noped out of there and headed back to the place where the old men had parked their cars, just as they were coming back for lunch.
After our bananas and cokes, we asked Mr. Igarashi how much more work needed doing and he pointed his finger upward at the dark grey sky and said, ‘today? None. It’s about to rain’.
And so, we each got into a Kei Truck driven by one of the men, and started the long journey back to our cars. A few minutes in and the Kei trucks in front of us had stopped. It turns out my friend had been bitten by leaches after all, but fortunately it wasn’t too bad. We spent the next 30 minutes of the drive back reflecting on our stupidity until we reached our car, and said thank you to the men who we could never thank enough.
A big thanks to Mr. Igarashi and Mr. Suzuki for helping us out!!! And a big warning for me to be much more careful the next time I find a mountain to climb!
Kumanonaga-mine is a nice little hike for a bit of a change in scenery. The path is only one hour each way and takes you through some of the coolest marshlands in Shonai. But if you’re anything like us, you will completely screw this up.
Kumanonaga-mine (熊野長峰) is located on the northern edge of the Maya-san mountain range and is famous for its wetlands at about 380–90m of elevation. These wetlands are a Tsuruoka City designated natural monument. The 2.5ha wetlands are home to ground fir and skunk cabbage that usually occur in higher alpine environments and a number of plants that occur in lower wetlands as well.
There is even the smallest species of Japanese dragonfly, the scarlet dwarf. The Japanese luehdorfia (Luehdorfia japonica) native to Japan and the Favonius jezoensis butterfly that live in both cold and warm climates can be found here as well, meaning it is a great wetland for academic research as well.
From Route 7, take the road that heads south at the Tsuruoka Recycle Plaza, pass under the expressway, then follow the road until you reach Route 344. Take a left when you see signs heading towards Ohiro (大広) and follow this road up into the hills.
From the Otani Reservoir Trailhead, Kumanonaga-mine is basically a lasso shape. Take the small mountain path from the Otani Reservoir car park, and once you come out of the cedar forest, head east and where the path splits, take path up to the mountain top. From the top, head towards the Ryuzugaike wetland and the Tatsuogaike wetland, and from there you return to the main path. If the weather is good, you can take in Chokai-zan, the Shonai plains, Takadate-yama, Arakura-yama, Sanze and The Sea of Japan, and the prized wetlands from this course.
Just for your information, when you look out from the summit, there is some shorter grass in the foreground. That is where we came out of. Don’t even think about going down there, because you will NOT be able to find a path there. However, if you go to Kumanonaga-mine according to Google Maps, you will be able to find Yakushi Jinja.
Sanze beach is a popular location in the summer to go swimming. There is a huge rock that people, myself included, love jumping from. There is also a very popular ramen shop there called Konpiraso. Mr. Suzuki who drove me back to our car could not recommend it enough, saying the taste was that which he remembers fondly from his childhood. I am yet to try it though, something to do with a virus and not wanting to contract it.
In the nearby township of Yutagawa, you will find one of my favourite Ryokan (Traditional Japanese Inn) in the region, Tsukasaya. Tsukasaya is run by the young Shoji family, and provides excellent cuisine foraged straight from the surrounding area (including Moso bamboo from Kinbo-zan in the Spring).
Takehiko Shoji, the husband, is a fellow Yamabushi and even a professional Sake sommelier, so he will definitely be able to find you something great to drink. Kanae Shoji, the wife, is fluent in English and has extensive experience serving Japanese and non-Japanese guests alike. In addition, the Ryokan has recently gone through renovations to be like brand new.
Kinbo-zan is a 471m high peak at the edge of the Maya-san mountain range located to the south of Tsuruoka City that is a great place for a day hike following ancient Shugendo Yamabushi paths.
Located along one of the most picturesque parts of the Shonai Coast, the next peak on my 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata is Arakura-yama （荒倉山); famous for Yamazakura mountain sakura and the former Shugendo paths that weave to Arakura Shrine, The Haguro of the West.
In spite of its small 274m stature, the stunning Shimoike and Kami’ike lakes certified as Wetlands of International Importance, huge variety of migratory birds, forests voted as amongst the top 100 in Japan for Shinrinyoku (forest bathing), and 360° views out over the Sea of Japan, Chokai-zan, The Shonai Plains, Gassan, Kinbo-zan and Arakura-yama, mean Takadate-yama sure packs a lot of punch.
The fishing village of Yura is a great little spot with characteristic Hakusan Shrine on the small Hakusan Island that juts out from the coast. Yura is located south of Kamo on the Shonai coast, and is also famous for its Onsen Hot Pools, such as Yurayaotome (Japanese website, I’m in one of the videos), and as the landing spot of Prince Hachiko, founder of the Dewa Sanzan.
The beaches at Yura are one of the top places for an ocean dip in summer, and the village is one of my favourite spots in Shonai; there was even a time I strongly considered buying a house located on the coast there. The house was on the hill and had awesome views of Hakusan Island and you could even see Chokai-zan from the bathroom, however I decided against it when my father in law saw it and said if you don’t do extensive work on the foundations, it would fall off the cliff :).
Yunohama is another beach resort along the coast, and is one of the most popular places for a dip in the Sea of Japan among locals. There are a number of famous Ryokan in Yunohama, perhaps the most famous being Kameya, which even hosted the Emperor and Empress of Japan in 2016 (from memory). Yunohama also has a market on Sunday mornings that is popular amongst locals. The Shonai Country Club golf course is also located nearby.
Atsumi is located in one of the coolest places in the Shonai region, Atsumi Onsen. Located at the southern end of Tsuruoka, with only Nezugaseki further south, Atsumi Onsen is a great spot for a walk amongst the Sakura, or a visit to the rose garden. While you’re there though, if you’re not staying at Bankokuya, do be sure to check out Chitto Motche, a locally-run cafe that is famous for its foot baths outside.
熊野長峰 | くまのながみね
Kumanogamine is a great short hike for a change in scenery taking you through mountain marshes containing Japan's tiniest species of dragonfly, rare Mongolian oak forests, and a view to kill over the Shonai Plains, The Sea of Japan, and the mountains along the Shonai coast.
Kumanonaga-mine (熊野長峰くまのながみね) is a 430m (1410 ft.) peak in the Shonai region of Yamagata prefecture. Kumanonaga-mine is best climbed from mid-April to October. Kumanonaga-mine is a level 1 in terms of physical demand, which means it is easy to hike, has a A technical grade, which means it requires little expertise, and you want to allow at least 18 hours for a climb.
430 m (1411 ft.)
One: Otani Reservoir Trail
Best time to climb
April to October
Day trip possible?
Minimum Time Required