How to conquer Japan in 60 short minutes
A brisk hike up Nihon-koku means that within 60 minutes, you too can claim to have conquered ‘The Country of Japan’. But how did this humble peak on the border of Niigata and Yamagata Prefectures come to be known as ‘The Country of Japan’? Read on to find out.
日本国 | にほんこく
Nihon-koku (Mt. Nihonkoku, 日本国, にほんこく, にほんごく) is a 555m (1820 ft.) peak in the Shonai region of Yamagata prefecture best climbed from April to November. Nihon-koku 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 2 hours for a climb.
Nihon-koku (also possibly the Asahi Mountain Range)
3) Nakanomata Trail (2 hours return), Onabe Trail (2 hours return), Zaodo Trail (2 hours return)
Best time to climb
April to November
Day trip possible?
Minimum Time Required
2 hours return
Judging by the fact that North America has hundreds of names for snow due to the sheer variety and amount, a country covered in mountains should naturally have tons of names for mountains. And for Japan, that just so happens to be the case. Yama, with its on-yomi reading of San, Take or Dake, referring to more of a cliff face, and Mine, also read as ho or po that translates to the English peak.
However, Nihon-koku is a Koku, a country or state, and there are three prevalent theories as to why this peak on the border of Niigata and Yamagata came to be known as ‘the country of Japan’.
The first theory, and my favourite one, is that in the latter years of the Edo period (1603–1868), a famous hunter named Endo Taroji caught a remarkable falcon at the summit of Nihon-koku. After presenting the falcon to Tokugawa Ieharu, the tenth Tokugawa Shogun and de facto ruler of Japan at the time, the Shogun was so taken aback from the beauty of the falcon he said, ‘This falcon is unmatched on heaven and earth! This mountain, from where this amazing beast was caught, shall be known as Nihon-koku, the country of Japan, from here on out’. Well, it was my favourite.
The next theory as to how Nihon-koku became Nihon-koku is perhaps more convincing of a reason. I talked a bit about it in the article on Haguro-san, but according to legend, the Dewa Sanzan, the three mountains of Dewa, were declared a religious ground by Prince Hachiko way back in 593.
Prince Hachiko is said to have passed away on Haguro-san at the age of 53. Sometime late in his life, it was said that Prince Hachiko stood at the top of Nihon-koku and pointed in the direction of his birthplace, Asuka in Nara Prefecture. Here, the prince declared ‘from this point south is Nihon-koku, the country of Japan!’ Hence the mountain was named as such.
The third, and seemingly more plausible explanation, is that after Prince Hachiko passed away, there was the Taika Reform of 645 enacted by the Yamato Imperial Court. The Yamato had established palisades in a strategic position called the Iwafune-no-ki (the Iwafune Pallisades), located in the region of Iwafune in Murakami City, Niigata Prefecture.
At that time, Yamato Japan was ruled from Asuka, Nara Prefecture, where Prince Hachiko had come from. It just so happened that anywhere north of Nihon-koku was not officially part of Yamato Japan. Rather, the other side of the border was controlled by tribes of Emishi, also known as Ezo, native Japanese who inhabited the Japanese archipelago long before the Yayoi Japanese arrived from the mainland.
The Yamato had been trying to lay claim to both sides of Nihon-koku even as far back as 250AD. However, it wasn’t until the Heian Period (794 to 1185) that they expelled the “Barbarian” Emishi, and the northern part of Honshu officially became the Japan we know and love. Nihon-koku lay along the border, and since it was a part of Japan, it was named as such.
In the past, flags were given out to people who summited Nihon-koku that read ‘I conquered Japan’. In 2013, they wanted to recreate the ‘I conquered Japan’ thing with certificates, but there was some resistance to the term ‘conquer’, and it was replaced with a ‘I reached the summit’ certificate. So, while you may not be able to get the right certificate, you at least get to claim to have conquered Japan if you climb this summit.
From the summit of Nihon-koku, we can see the Sea of Japan, Awashima and Sado Islands, Mt. Chokai to the north, and Mt. Gassan and the Asahi Mountain Range to the east, and while mysteries (may) remain as to the naming of this peak, we do know that Nihon-koku was used for centuries by mariners as a landmark for where to make their landing. Nihon-koku does also have another name, Imakusayama written 石鉢山.
Nihon-koku is located in snow country, so isn’t open year-round. The official opening date for climbing each year coincides with its height; the fifth day of the fifth month, but you can climb it from as early as April. The mountain closes officially when the snow falls, usually mid-November. At a guess it would still be possible to snowshoe through the cedar forest on Nihon-koku, although it is very steep indeed.
There are five mountains along the Shonai coast that are comparable in size and stature to Nihon-koku, that I would suggest also have a similar best time to climb; Takadate-yama, Arakura-yama, Kumanonaga-mine, Fujikura-yama, and lastly Atsumi-dake, also have extensive beech forests that are wonderful to explore, especially during the late spring when the greenery is out, and when the autumn leaves are on show. Of these, probably the best to explore in terms of things to see and the amount of challenge would be Mt. Atsumi, with the mountain Sakura of Arakura-yama a close second.
There are three main trails up Nihon-koku; the Nakanomata trail from Tsuruoka City, Yamagata, to the north, and the Omata and Zaodo trails from Murakami City in Niigata prefecture to the south.
If you’re coming from the Yamagata side, you’ll want to hit up the Nakanomata Trail, and getting there is truly half the adventure. The Nakanomata Trail begins in a small hamlet called Onabe, a quaint hamlet deep in the mountains behind Nezugaseki, the southernmost township along the western Shonai coast of Tsuruoka City.
To get to Onabe from central Tsuruoka, you can either take the scenic route along the Sea of Japan, or the scenic route through the dozens of tiny farming villages. We opted to drive along the Sea of Japan on the way there, and to take the farming village route on the way back. If you’re a fan of rural Japan, you’ll probably want to take this route.
From Onabe, take the road heading south towards Niigata Prefecture for about 1km. On the right-hand side you will see a split in the road with a gravel path through a forest that leads to the trailhead (with signs). If it’s been raining, be careful, this path is probably best suited to 4WD cars. It is also be possible to park here and walk if you need to.
About 500m down the forest path there is a car park for 3 cars, and the trailhead. The sign had fallen off the post and just lay on the ground, but it was still there. You’ll see a path that heads into the mountain on the left-hand side where a whole lot of trees have been felled. Keep following this path and take a left.
The path will take you into the cedar forest with tons of switchbacks and a steep incline. Thankfully, there is only one path, so it is easy to follow, but it is quite steep, so it takes a lot out of you. Make sure you have correct footwear as the trail can be slippery in parts, even when dry.
The Nakanomata Trail takes you through a cedar forest that changes to beech closer to the summit, and in retrospect isn’t actually that long. It took us less than an hour to get up the path that the Yamagata website said would take 90minutes.
The Omata Trail is one of two trails up Nihon-koku that begins on the Niigata Prefecture side in the hamlet of Omata in Murakami City. The trailhead is on the opposite side of the road from the Nihonkoku Fureai Park. The Omata trail is recognised as one of Niigata’s long-distance nature paths, and is an easy stroll up a slight incline through a bright forest.
Along the way, there is a ridge from which you can see the Sea of Japan, and from the Janoge ridge, the point of where the Omata trail meets the Zaodo Trail, you can see the Asahi Mountain Range in the distance, and the Nakanomata and Omata hamlets at the base of the mountain. From the Janoge ridge, the path goes down slightly, and after that there is an incline of about 100m to the summit.
Heading south from the Omata hamlet along the former Dewa Kaido path, the path to the Dewa Sanzan, you will find the Zaodo trailhead. The trail starts with a slight incline amongst a cedar forest, and passes the Zaodo (Zao Hall). The climb is tough in parts through a steep incline amongst the camellia trees, but once you’re through here there is a hut at the Janoge ridge from where you can take a rest as you enjoy the view. This is where the Zaodo and Omata trails meet. There is a downhill trail of about 1km connecting the Zaodo and Omata trails, so you can enjoy both trails quite easily.
Nihon-koku is a brisk hike whichever trail you choose to tackle. Nihon-koku makes a great spot for some trail running, as the incline definitely gets your heart rate up but it isn’t a huge mountain by any stretch of the term. At the top there are a few clearings with benches from where the view over the Sea of Japan or the surrounding mountains is quite spectacular, making Nihon-koku a pretty good spot for a picnic as well. I think it’s worth climbing this mountain just to say you’ve conquered Japan.
Located near Nihon-koku is the quaint hot spring town of Atsumi Onsen, in fact it is so close we went through Atsumi Onsen to get to there. Atsumi-dake is one of the 100 Famous Mountains of Yamagata and is located in the north of this hot spring town. As one of Tsuruoka City’s three Onsen towns (the other two being Yutagawa, and Yunohama), Atsumi Onsen is one of the coolest places in the Shonai region.
Located at the southern end of Tsuruoka, with only Nezugaseki further south, Atsumi Onsen is a great spot for a walk amongst the Sakura in spring, or a visit to the rose garden in June. While you’re there though, if you’re not staying at Tachibanaya with their awesome onsen, do be sure to check out Chitto Mocche, a locally-run cafe that is famous for its outdoor foot baths.
Yamairagawa is a small hamlet of only around 600 residents tucked in the mountains behind Atsumi onsen that apparently dates back to the Nara period. Famous for its Kabuki performances said to date back to the 1700s, including one famous performance for the Sokushinbutsu Tetsumonkai Shonin in thanks for helping the region avoid the plague. There has been a Kabuki competition since 1827 between the people of Warabino Village to the north and Sanemata Village to the south. Yamairagawa Kabuki and Yamato Noh are both performed in the area. Kabuki is a form of entertainment for the people, and Noh is always dedicated to the Kami gods.
Nezugaseki is the town at the southernmost point of Tsuruoka City’s Shonai coast, and was once one of the main checkpoints into the Ou region (the other two were in Shirakawa and Nakosonoseki). According to local legend, Nezugaseki was the checkpoint where the events of the famous Kabuki play Kanjincho took place. The tiny fishing village of Nezugaseki has a few peculiarities worth checking out, such as Itsukushima Shrine, the Nenjunomatsu Garden, and Asahiya Sushi Restaurant.
Itsukushima Shrine isn’t that grand, but it has many cool statues and artefacts and juts out on the coast where there is a pretty cool lighthouse to explore.
Nearby, there is a traditional Japanese garden called the Nenjunomatsu Garden, home to a very special 400-year-old Bonsai tree called the Nenjunomatsu (lit. the Buddhist Rosary Pine). What makes the Nenjunomatsu pine tree special is that it is less than 4m tall, but has one branch that stretches out 20m to the east. The diameter of the main trunk is 1.16m, but the one branch that sticks out has a diameter of 1.3m.
This is because the Nenjunomatsu Garden is actually the garden of a 400-year-old former Ryokan called Murakamiya that went out of business in 1960, but the garden and Bonsai were felt to be too special to destroy. The owner of the Ryokan requested the bonsai pine be a Garyu, a pine shaped like a dragon. The Nenjunomatsu is one of only 10 such Garyu in Japan, however none of them have a branch that reaches this length.
The Nenjunomatsu was registered as a natural monument of Yamagata prefecture on August 1, 1955, and the whole garden was redesigned by world-famous landscape architect Ken Nakajima in 1994.
Nezugaseki is also home to one of my favourite sushi restaurants, Asahiya. Asahiya is owned by an eccentric sushi chef, one of the craziest guys I know who even hosts sushi parties on top of Maya-san, and who was enamoured by one of the Sokushinbutsu of Mt. Yudono, Tetsumonkai Shonin, and even has many of the actual tools used by Tetsumonkai Shonin as he trained to reach enlightenment in this current world. If you have a Japanese speaker, definitely take the time to listen to the chef’s speech if you can.
Murakami City has a done a great job in recent years preserving the olden-style cityscape with gorgeous traditional buildings. I’ve only been there once, but I knew I definitely wanted to come back. Murakami is famous for its dried salmon, you’ll find a few shops along the main street that are just full of salmon hanging from the ceiling. It’s great for lovers of the popular fish, but not so for those who get grossed out easily.
While not in Murakami, my wife and I had a really good time at Cafe Dal in Tainai City about 25 minutes away. Again we only went there once, but I remember thinking it was definitely visiting again.
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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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