TIM BUNTING

KIWI YAMABUSHI

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Dancing in the Dawn Lilies: Shoga-dake and The Fuji of The North (Mt. Shoga-dake)

しょうがだけ 

Mt. Shogadake

笙ガ岳

Shoga-dake is a former Shugendo peak on Chokai-zan famous for its floral brilliance.

If you love mountains of flowers, look no further than Shoga-dake (笙ガ岳), the Chokai of the West. Known for its dawn lilies, and the Chokai Thistle unique to the mountain, Shoga-dake is one of the best spots for flower viewing in the whole of Tohoku, northern Japan.

SHOGA-DAKE

Mt. Shogadake, Shogadake

笙ガ岳しょうがだけ 

Shoga-dake (笙ガ岳しょうがだけ) is a 1635m (5364 ft.) peak in the Shonai region of Yamagata prefecture best climbed from July to August. Shoga-dake is a level 4 in terms of physical demand, which means it is relatively hard to hike, has a B technical grade, which means it doesn’t require too much expertise, and you want to allow at least 3 hours for a climb.

Mountain Range

Chokai-zan

Region

Shonai

Elevation

1635

Technical Demand

B (Relatively easy)

Physical Demand

4 (Difficult)

Trails

Four: 1) Hokodate Trailhead (6.5 hours return), 2) Odaira Trailhead (6.5 hours return), 3) Nagasakado Trailhead (8 hours return), 4) Ninotaki Falls Trailhead (8 hours return)

Best time to climb

July to August

Day trip possible?

Yes

Minimum Time Required

6.5 hours

SHOGA-DAKE

Mountains of Dawn Lilies

Dawn lilies cover the path up to Shoga-dake, a peak known for its alpine flora

Love mountains and mountains of flowers? Then Shoga-dake is for you. As one of the peaks located on Chokai-zan, the tallest mountain entirely in Tohoku, Shoga-dake isn’t exactly easy to reach, but once there your efforts will surely be rewarded. 

Chokai-zan is famous for having the highest precipitation of any mountain in Japan, and it’s the rain and water from the melting snow that means so many varieties of alpine plants are able to survive and thrive here. The distinct orangey-yellow Dawn Lily is but one of the many different kinds of flowers that grow on Shoga-dake, such as the Chokai Azami, the Chokai Thistle, an indigenous species to Chokai-zan. 

With four trails of varying lengths and difficulties, the 1635m Shoga-dake also offers a lot to beginner and expert hikers alike. Either way, your trip to Shoga-dake will be rewarded with the best views of some of the prettiest flowers this side of the Mogami River, not to mention The Sea of Japan and Tobishima Island if the weather gods treat you well. 

Shoga-dake and Dewa Fuji

Chokai-zan seen from the rice fields of Sakata. Shoga-dake can be seen covered in cloud to the left of the peak.

Due to its apparent resemblance with Japan’s tallest peak, Chokai-zan is also known as The Fuji of The North or Dewa Fuji, referring to its location in the former province of Dewa (Chokai-zan is a former Dewa Sanzan). However, from where I live, Chokai-zan looks nothing like Mt. Fuji. That would take perfect cloud placement, a hell of a lot of squinting, and quite a bit of photoshop magic to pull off.

It is very likely that Chokai-zan did in fact resemble Mt. Fuji in the past. Chokai-zan is an active volcano that has been known to erupt from time to time, including most recently in the 1970s. In fact, there’s a legend that an eruption long ago caused Chokai-zan to blow its top, with a huge chunk flying off and landing in the ocean and forming what we now know as Tobishima Island ( article), the only inhabited island in Yamagata prefecture.

No, Chokai-zan looks like Chokai-zan. And one of the reasons for that is the multiple peaks that give the mountain its characteristic asymmetrical shape. Shoga-dake is the tallest of these peaks that isn’t the summit, a claim that has led it to being honourably crowned ‘The Chokai of the West’.

The peak shaped like an instrument

The Chinese Cheng next to the Japanese Sho, the namesake for Shoga-dake (photo from Wikipedia)

Now I’m guessing here, but the part where the chunk came off could well be what gave Shoga-dake its name. Shoga-dake (written 笙ヶ岳 or 笙ヶ嶽) literally means ‘the mountain of the Sho’, referring to a Sho, an ancient instrument based on the Chinese Cheng with reeds of differing heights, much like the peaks of Chokai-zan. It’s also possible that the mountain was named after bamboo growing there that is used in the instrument, but I prefer the shape argument. Either way, Shoga-dake is named after a very beautiful sounding, and looking, instrument. 

Shoga-dake Climbing Season

Some of the Dawn Lilies Shoga-dake is famous for

Just like Chokai-zan, Shoga-dake opens for climbing once the snow melts, usually in July. The dawn lilies are usually out from July to the end of August, so it would be wise to climb Shoga-dake then, although August is the perfect time for some respite from the heat, and September has the autumn leaves to also enjoy.

Getting there: Trailheads to Shoga-dake

Shoga-dake offers something for everyone, with four trails of varying lengths and difficulties. First are the two trailheads that 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. Then, the road goes all the way back down to Kisakata in Nikaho City, part of Akita Prefecture. 

Along the road lie the Odaira and Hokodate Trailheads. The Hokodate trail is the easiest, with the Odaira trail a close second. It helps to bear in mind that these two trailheads are the traditional starting points for climbing to the summit of Chokai-zan, so if you go on a weekend or public holiday, expect things to get a bit busy. Like us, you may be forced to park about 500m away from the main car park.

Those after more of a challenge would be looking for the Nagasakado Trail that follows the Nagasakado ridge down in Yuza Town, or the Ninotaki Falls Trail that begins with a short tour of some of Chokai-zan’s most beautiful waterfalls.

These two trails are arguably better suited for more experienced climbers. The trails are considerably longer, steeper, and require more technical knowledge due to the range of terrain needed to traverse. If you’re really up for a challenge, or just really want to cool off in a waterfall after your hike, I’d definitely recommend taking one of these trails. 

The Hokodate Trailhead to Shoga-dake (6.5 hours return)

View from the lookout at the Hokodate Trailhead

Those wanting to take things relatively easy should be able to reach the summit without too much effort by taking the Hokodate trail. The Hokodate trailhead located at the fifth station of Chokai-zan is also known as the Kisakata entrance, and is by far the most popular way to climb to the summit of Chokai-zan. It goes without saying, but Shoga-dake can also be reached from the Hokodate trailhead.

The most failsafe way to do so is to climb to the Chokai Crater, then hook around to the right, follow the path along the ridge that goes through the meadows of flowers, and pass over a few peaks to where Shoga-dake awaits. From the crater, it should take about one hour.

Potential Shortcut to Shoga-dake

A bug on some of the many flowers that line the path to Shoga-dake

There is a shortcut to Shoga-dake from the Hokodate trail that does go all the way to the crater. This would be the most direct route of all four. However, I would only recommend this route to those with a guide or highly experienced climbers for two main reasons; the signage is poor at best and this path does require walking on snow.

For the shortcut, after 90 minutes or so climbing up from the Hokodate Trailhead, you will come across an area with a wide opening to the right. This is called Sai no Kawara (賽の河原), a Kawara is a spot where two rivers converge, but this particular spot was dry once we got there. Look up to the right, there should be some snow banks, or a part that was obviously a river in the past. Head up that way.

When you reach the top of the valley, you’ll see a path laid in stone that leads up to the crater. There’s no need to take this path to get to Shoga-dake. Take the path to the right (if you can see it, hence the guide recommendation) that takes you through marshlands and to the trail up to Shoga-dake. 

When we were climbing up, we had no idea there was a turn off there until we saw people walking on the snow. We climbed back this way, but nearly got lost doing so, so be extra careful here.

The Odaira Trailhead to Shoga-dake (6.5 hours return)

A cloudy mountain near Shoga-dake with snow in the foreground

For those who want a bit more of a challenge, and for an easier time with parking on popular days, park your car at the Odaira trailhead (mistakenly called Ohira on Google Maps) and start the hike there. The Odaira Trail will take a bit more effort, as the incline is steeper, so is better suited to intermediate climbers. The Odaira Trailhead is the fourth station up Chokai-zan, and is also known as the Fukura Trailhead. Alternatively, you can stay at the Odairaso Lodge located right at the entrance.

Although the path is steeper than the Hokodate trail, it should be quicker depending on your level of fitness. You’ll pass through a beech forest and the Shimizu Okami shrine, after which you will see some of the alpine vegetation. Keep following the path until you get to a ‘T’ intersection where there is an open area. Take a right here and there will be two peaks to summit before you reach Shoga-dake.

The Nagasakado Trailhead to Shoga-dake (8 hours return) 

Chokai-zan reflected in the rice fields of Sakata

True to its name meaning ‘the long incline path’, the Nagasakado trail is steep and long and meanders up a ridge starting near the base of Chokai-zan in Yuza. Right at the start there is a fork in the road at a river gorge that you want to take to the right. At the next fork in the road, take the path that has been maintained. 

After walking quite a distance through a natural forest, there is a giant rock called Katamochi’iwa. Once you’ve passed this rock, the incline gets steeper. This part of the path is red clay, so it can be very slippery when wet. Keep following the trail up and the view will open up at a place called Garaba. From here it is a 2 hour hike to the summit.

The Ninotaki Falls Trailhead to Shoga-dake (8 hours return)

Ninotaki Falls at the base of Chokai-zan. This is where one of the trails to Shoga-dake begins in earnest.

Keep following the forest path from the Ichinotaki and Ninotaki Falls Car Park, and you’ll eventually come out at a mountain path. This path will take you to a crossroads for emergency vehicles. Take a right and follow the path that takes you to a fork in the road at the Hinoso stream. Cross the stream here, and in about 40 minutes you will arrive at the place called Garaba where you meet the Nagasakado trail. After about 2 hours of hiking, the path will open up and before long you will arrive at Shoga-dake.

Our Experience Hiking Shoga-dake

The trail to the Chokai crater

For the past few weeks, one of my favourite things to do is get up early, walk the two minutes to my local rice fields, pull up a foldable chair, and catch the sun as it rises over the mountains. Most days there is at least some cloud cover, and in recent times I’ve been able to catch a glimpse of the summit of Chokai-zan on more days than not. All the while I sit there and stare at the mountain and imagine being in the clouds, scheming for my next escape from the stifling heat of the Japanese summer. 

Mountain days are exciting days. After researching the mountains, checking their height, checking their trails, checking the features that make them remarkable enough to make the list of 100 famous mountains of Yamagata, I get as excited as I was on my first day of school. The day we climbed Shoga-dake started out this way, but as I looked up at the mountain before me, it had all but disappeared in a sea of ominous clouds.

Mountain Daze

The sun rises over Chokai-zan seen from the rice fields of Sakata City, Yamagata Prefecture.

The guidebooks are good and all, giving you information that puts you in the direction of the places you want to see, but seeing is believing. Seeing something with your own eyes, being able to judge it for yourself, that’s what it’s all about. Not taking someone else’s word for it. That’s why we climb mountains. Cloud be damned, I was going to make it up Shoga-dake that day.

Armed with that in mind, I was still hoping that the cloud would clear, and that we would get the promised spectacular views out over the Shonai plains, the Sea of Japan, Tobishima island, and beyond, that Shoga-dake is known for. At least that was the plan.

Choosing a trail for Shoga-dake 

Snow covers parts of the trail up to Shoga-dake

We were considering the Odaira trailhead for something different, but were put off by the proprietor of the Odairaso lodge who said it was a pretty tough climb. Hokodate trailhead it was. 

Shoga-dake lies a little off to the side of the main trail from Hokodate, but getting to the right path was also quite the adventure. We decided to play it safe, and hiked all the way to the crater.

Chokai-zan’s crater is usually used as the halfway mark up Chokai-zan, but for us, it was our lunch spot, and where we took a 270° turn to head back down another part of the mountain. By the time we got to the crater, we could pretty much only see white. Every once in a while we got lucky; the cloud gave way and we caught glimpses of the crater, but nothing much else.

Onwards to Shoga-dake

The crater lake of Chokai-zan during one of the short periods of time it was visible that day!

After an elongated lunch (the hike there wasn’t as easy as expected), we set off for Shoga-dake. We followed the narrow mountain path through green meadows covered in orangey-yellow Dawn lilies, and Chokai Azami, the purple downwards-facing Chokai Thistle that only grows here. All the while the misty clouds rolled over the hills, brushing wind over the meadows of flowers. 

Our visibility was bad at best, only able to see about 10–20m around us. We could hear the sound of bells in the distance, a status symbol for mountaineers in Japan. 

Through the fog, the only thing we could see was the path ahead interspersed with giant patches of snow among the green grasses and strikingly beautiful flowers. The fog was something out of the heaven depicted in Hollywood movies. We trusted that fog. We trusted that it would take us to the summit of Shoga-dake, until it didn’t, and we were all tired out.

YAMAP to the rescue!

Where we stopped trying to get to the summit

We were all quite tired by this point, and the thick fog meant we had no idea how much longer we had to climb. A quick look at the YAMAP app (Japanese) though, and I could tell that we were close. I opted to go ahead alone, and if I found the summit, I was to blow my conch to let the others know just how far away we were. And so, conch in hand, I ventured up into the fog heading towards the summit. Turns out we were right next to it. 

Although it wasn’t the sunny day I had imagined, the day was good for its own reasons. The cloud cover certainly kept us cool, and the way the cloud moved over the mountainside, well that’s something you can only experience on days such as this.

Visibly not visible

Looking down from the summit of Shoga-dake. You can almost make out the meadows of flower amongst the clouds

On hot days you’re at risk of heatstroke. Today was not one of those days. Shoga-dake is famous for its flowers, and it was covered in them. You don’t need a grand view to be able to enjoy flowers.

When we got to the top of Shoga-dake, we actually didn’t know the easiest way to get back home. There was supposed to be a shortcut to take us back to the main path, the one we had come up from Hokodate. But visibility was so poor, we actually missed the turn off and walked right past it. Rather fortunately, enough cloud cleared when we were at the top of Shoga-dake to see that we had walked straight past the path we needed to take mere minutes earlier. 

The Clouds of Chokai 

Meadows of flowers blanket Shoga-dake. Some of which can only be seen here, such as Chokai Azami, the Chokai Thistle.

The path back was an adventure. It required walking through a marshland much like that of Midagahara on Gassan. This is entirely predictable as they are at about the exact same altitude, and they were both formed by volcanic eruption so the area does level out somewhat. 

After the marshland, we had giant piles of snow to walk on. Thankfully the way the snow melted meant there were dips that were about the perfect size to be used as steps. As we made our way down, the cool air from the snow and the cloud cover kept us refreshed. It would have been the exact opposite if it were a sunny day, but thankfully the clouds of Chokai kept us cool. 

After a brisk hike down the path we had come up, we made it back to our car in one piece, and enjoyed an ice cream at the Hokodate lodge for a job well done. 


Nearby locations worth checking out

Here are a few of my favourite places nearby that are well worth checking out, even if you aren’t planning on hiking Shoga-dake or Chokai-zan.

Chokai-zan Summit

The view from the summit of Chokai-zan over The Sea of Japan

As you can probably tell from the picture, Chokai-zan’s summit is certainly very rocky! When you get nearer the summit, it suddenly turns into a giant pile of rocks that you have to stumble through to make it to the summit. This contrasts hugely with the meadows of flowers that blank the summit of 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 quite 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 at the base of Chokai-zan

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

The almighty Tamasudare Falls in the township of Masuda, Sakata, near the Nagasakado and Ninotaki Trailheads to Shoga-dake

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 on the northern side of Chokai-zan. The only waterfall on Chokai-zan to face the summit.

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

Checking out Mototaki Falls on Chokai-zan

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

Cafe Nico, Mochaccino, and sweets at Espresso Aube on the Route 7 in Nikaho

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!


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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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