Must-see autumn alpine dreamland between the two tallest Dewa Sanzan peaks with a twisted backstory
Despite its appearance as an autumn wonderland nestled between Mt. Gassan and Mt. Yudono of the Dewa Sanzan, Mt. Ubagatake has a very twisted history
姥ヶ岳 | うばがたけ
Mt. Ubagatake (姥ヶ岳うばがたけ) is a 1670m (5479 ft.) peak in the Murayama and Shonai regions of Yamagata prefecture. Mt. Ubagatake is open from July to October. Mt. Ubagatake 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 1 hour for a climb.
1670m (5479 ft.)
A (requires little expertise)
1 (easy to hike)
1) Gassan Ski Lift Trail 2) Ubasawa Koya Ato Trail
Best time to climb
July to the first snow of October
Day trip possible?
Minimum Time Required
Despite being one of the peaks off Gassan, the tallest of the Dewa Sanzan mountains, Ubaga-take is a surprisingly easy hike. Not only that, Ubaga-take is one of the best spots in the prefecture to take in the autumn leaves, has the latest ski season in the whole of Japan, and boasts a 360° panorama over Gassan and towards Yudono-san, the Asahi Alps to the south, and on fine days the Shonai Plains, Sea of Japan, and even as far as the Oga peninsula in Akita Prefecture is visible.
But don’t let this simple explanation fool you. In truth, Ubaga-take’s namesake is a strange and frankly morbid one that gives much more context to Gassan’s moniker of The Dewa Sanzan’s “Mountain of Death”. If you can get over that though, this peak is a real sight to behold, especially during the leaves of autumn, or did I mention that already.
Written as 姥ヶ岳, the Kanji for Ubaga-take quite literally means ‘the peak of old women’. On the surface you might think Ubaga-take was simply named after an old woman, an old woman loved hiking there, or perhaps an old woman used it for collecting mountain vegetables or something similar. However, the reason I heard is much, much, darker than that.
Gassan is known as the mountain where our souls venture to after we pass, and if legend is to be believed, Ubaga-take got its name as the place where they sent old women, almost always widows, out to pasture. Perhaps they were just giving the old women a head start up Gassan, The Dewa Sanzan’s Mountain of Death. Either way, Ubaga-take wouldn’t exactly be the worst place to draw your last breath.
Ubaga-take is located to the south west of Gassan alongside the ancient pilgrimage path that connects the Dewa Sanzan’s tallest peak with Yudono-san. This makes it a great detour when climbing Gassan from the Uba-sawa Trailhead, or as a stop along the ancient pilgrimage route.
Of course Ubaga-take is a great spot in and of itself, taking only 30 minutes one-way from the top of the Gassan Ski Lift, or as a longer hike for those opting to walk the whole way, my recommendation for those wanting to take in the autumn leaves.
With more than 10 metres of snow settling on its summit annually, Gassan gets the heaviest snow of any mountain in Japan. This deep snow dictates Ubaga-take’s hiking season, which begins in July and usually ends in the middle of October, again once the first snow of the coming winter falls. Ubaga-take really shines once the leaves have started turning from about mid-September onwards. However, the ski season starts much earlier than that.
The heavy snow on Gassan means that it has the latest ski season in all of Japan. As home to the Gassan Ski Lift, Ubaga-take can be enjoyed as early as April, when people flock from all over the country to get in some summer skiing. Making use of two heights of ropes on the ski lift, the combined skiing and hiking seasons means that the Gassan Ski lift on Ubaga-take might just have the longest period of use of any ski lift in Japan, open at least six months of the year.
Gassan is about as unpredictable a mountain as it gets, so if you’re heading up Ubaga-take, be sure to be prepared. I’ve been up Gassan multiple times when the farthest we could see was probably 10 or so metres ahead, and if you’re there early in the hiking season, you also have snow to contend with.
Always bring rain protection and plenty of water and dry food. At the same time, Gassan and Ubaga-take can be very exposed in the summer heat, so sun protection may also be necessary. For those who are there early in July, you will need crampons to combat the snow, but don’t worry if you don’t have any, they can be rented at the lower station of the Gassan Ski Lift.
Speaking of the Gassan Ski Lift, making use of it is by far the easiest way to climb up Ubaga-take, and in fact this makes it one of the easiest peaks to summit in the whole of Yamagata Prefecture. The Gassan Ski Lift in Ubasawa can be accessed from Route 112, the road connecting inland Yamagata and the Shonai region on the Sea of Japan coast. From Route 112, basically follow the signs to Gassan taking the turnoff in Nishikawa. Make sure you are on Route112 and not the Yamagata Highway, I made that mistake and had to backtrack for at least 30 minutes.
There are busses to the Gassan Ski Lift from the Nishikawa Interchange that is connected to the highway bus network, meaning access is possible from big stations nearby such as Yamagata City and Sendai. The busses from the Nishikawa Interchange to Ubasawa where the Gassan Ski Lift is located leave at 8:45, 11:20, 14:15, and 16:35. The busses back from Ubasawa to the Nishikawa Interchange leave at 10:20, 12:20, 14:20, 15:20, and the last bus leaves at 17:33. The one-way journey takes about 50 minutes.
The Gassan Ski Lift Trail is one of the easiest hikes there is; from the top of the Gassan Ski Lift, Ubaga-take’s summit is only a 30 minute hike. The day we climbed, a mother was walking her kindergarten-aged boy up, and although it did seem a bit of a struggle for him, he was able to reach the summit and was quite delighted indeed in having done so.
Those after a bit more of a challenge can opt for the Ubasawa Koya Ato Trail (Ubasawa Hut Remains Trail) that runs adjacent to the Gassan Ski Lift. This trail adds at least 2 hours to the hike, perfect for really taking in the autumn leaves.
These two trails are the official ones, but it would also be possible to make a stop at Ubaga-take on the way down Gassan, or up from Yudono-san. More on that below.
From the top of the Gassan Ski Lift, head up the trail and keep to the left. Passing a few rest areas to take in the grand views on the way, after about 30 minutes you will reach the summit. Then all you need to do is go back the same way you came.
The Gassan Ski Lift is open for hikers from around the middle of June onwards (the date changes annually). The ski lift costs ¥1,100 return for adults and ¥700 for children, or ¥600 and ¥400 one-way respectively (no age was specified for children).
If you want to stay out for a little bit longer, keep heading down the other side of the mountain. Go straight at the Kaneuba junction that has a path to the left leading to Yudono-san, and you will soon arrive at another junction called Ushikubi (cow’s neck). This is where the Ubasawa Koya Ato Trail links up, and you can easily cut back to the ski lift.
Keep to the right as you head down, there is one point where the Ubasawa Koya Ato Trail veers off to the left that you would be best to avoid. This is unless you have two hours to spare and don’t mind hiking all the way back down to the car park, forgoing the ski lift.
If you keep going straight here, you will start heading up to Gassan. From this point to the summit of Gassan you want to allow at least 2 hours one-way. After following a ridge that steadily rises for a few kilometres, the path becomes gradually steeper and involves climbing large rocks, but the views from up there really are quite something.
It’s also possible to climb Ubaga-take without using the Gassan Ski Lift by taking the Ubasawa Koya Ato Trail. The trail is quite a bit longer, taking more than an extra 2 hours one way, but the path is well-maintained and is a great option for taking in the autumn leaves.
Heading to the Gassan Ski Lift’s lower station from the Ubasawa car park, there is a part where the path veers off to the right just before the final slope. This is the Ubasawa Koya Ato trail.
Be sure to try some of the fresh water along the path that comes straight from the melted snow when you get the chance. After about one hour and 40 minutes you should arrive at the Ushikubi (cow’s neck) junction.
A right turn here will take you to up the last stretch to the summit of Gassan. For Ubaga-take head west (left) from here and follow the mountain ridge. Before long you will arrive at the Kane-uba junction from where a right turn will take you to Yudono-san, and a left turn to the summit of Ubaga-take.
Another idea I had as a contingency plan in case we couldn’t get a park at the Gassan Ski Lift was to climb Ubaga-take from Yudono-san instead. I don’t see why this wouldn’t be possible, although with all the ladders, huge boulders, and mountain streams to contend with I think it would be rather tough indeed.
The stretch from the Kaneuba junction down to Yudono-san is one of the toughest stretches of the mountain, and that’s when you’re going down. I’d hate to have to go up it, but it’s definitely a possibility.
All you’d have to do is to start climbing up from Yudono-san shrine (which is what we refer to when we say Yudono-san), and then take a right at the Kaneuba junction. The problem would be knowing when the junction is, I guess, which would probably require reading the sign that unfortunately is only in Japanese at the moment (we’re working on doing something about that).
We climbed Ubaga-take on the last possible Sunday before the mountain closed. One week later and Gassan had a sprinkling of snow. Basically, if you’re coming on a weekend in the middle of October, expect crowds.
I was worried that if we weren’t early enough we would have missed out on a car park, as happened to my friend the week prior. There were parking wardens there and fortunately we made it in time, even getting car park right at the front so we didn’t have to walk that much further.
We had originally planned to climb to the summit of Gassan via Ubaga-take from the Gassan Ski Lift, then coming straight back down. However, I very mindlessly missed the turnoff on the highway, twice, so probably lost us at least 30 minutes. We went with the intention of getting a whole lot of footage, and also with a beginner hiker, so we really did need that extra 30 minutes to get up Gassan, but it was still a really good day out.
We made it to the Gassan Ski Lift, purchased our tickets, and took a ride on the lift. Man was that view something else! It would almost be worth just riding the ski lift! Then after a shortish 30–45 minute hike, we got to the summit of Ubaga-take.
There was a bit of cloud cover, but not enough that we couldn’t see out over the Shonai plains and the Sea of Japan, and then also to the Asahi alps. After about 15 minutes up the top, we headed in the direction of Gassan.
If like us you do leave it a little bit too late, watch out for people making their way down Gassan. Half way up the last stretch, there were a hell of a lot of people coming down, which meant we had to give way quite a lot and were slowed down considerably. That was when we realised the writing was on the wall.
We would have really needed to push it to have any chance at making it all the way to the summit. With a beginner hiker, that wasn’t really realistic, nor was it that attractive a proposition what with all the clouds at the summit. So we turned around.
However, I think if you’re an average hiker, and you leave early enough, aiming to get to the Gassan Ski Lift at 8am right as it opens, you’ll do well to take this route.
The Gassan Ski Field is one of the rarest spots in Japan in that it is open from April to July. I can’t think of another ski lift that gets six months of action in a year. If you’re coming for a ski, day passes cost ¥4,700 and ¥3,500 for adults and children respectively. The lift is open daily from 8am to 4:30pm, and closes in the middle of June to switch the ropes from the higher position to the lower one.
Representing the world of the afterlife, Gassan is where we atone for past misgivings and pray for a safe journey into the afterlife on the Dewa Sanzan Journey of Rebirth. If you have the energy, it’s well worth climbing Ubaga-take and Gassan together. Just pray that you have a good day for it, the tallest Dewa Sanzan mountain is known for it’s horrendous weather, giving extra credence to its moniker ‘The Mountain of Death’. While the Ubaga-take side of Gassan sure packs a punch, climbing from the 8th station where the Midagahara Marshlands and Busshoike Pond await is also a very popular option, and puts you closer to Haguro-san.
Speaking of Haguro-san, the lowest-lying of the Dewa Sanzan peaks represents the world of the present on the Dewa Sanzan Journey of Rebirth. Explore Haguro-san’s cedar forest complete with stone stairway, Five Story Pagoda, Haraigawa (exorcism) River, Saikan shrine lodging, and Dewa Sanzan Shrine at the summit of Haguro-san. Of the three peaks, only Haguro-san is low enough to not be covered in metres of snow in the colder months, making it accessible year-round.
Known to represent the world of the present where we overcome our worldly desires, Haguro-san is home to the Shukubo pilgrim lodges, such as Master Hoshino’s Daishobo and Master Hayasaka’s Daishinbo, the Haraigawa River and Suga-no-taki falls, the Grandfather Cedar, Five Story Pagoda, and stone stairway amongst the cedar forest that leads to Saikan and Dewa Sanzan Shrine at Sanjingosaiden at the summit. Be sure to check out the Haguro Kodo, the ancient path up Haguro-san as well.
Known as the Oku-no-in and the final destination on the Dewa Sanzan Journey of Rebirth, Yudono-san represents the world of the future where we come across our future selves, and has an object of worship that marks the exact location we are said to be reborn.
Yudono-san was an extremely popular location in itself during the Edo Period (1603-1868), with pilgrims to the Dewa Sanzan traveling on foot from all over Japan for the chance to be reborn. Yudono-san had its own set of Shingon Buddhist temples that refused to switch allegiances unlike Haguro-san and Gassan, until the Meiji Restoration when it was forcibly switched to Shintoism. This is apart from a few temples nearby, such as Dainichibo Ryusuiji Temple and Churenji Temple.
Yudono-san was traditionally the final mountain on the Dewa Sanzan journey of rebirth, and is famous for Sen’ninzawa, ‘The Swamp of the Immortals’, training ground to the Sokushinbutsu self-mummified monks. Sokushinbutsu are known in English as Living Buddha or Buddha Mummies, and came about through the belief in Shingon Buddhism that reaching Buddhahood in this life was possible.
By becoming Sokushinbutsu, the monks believed they could provide salvation to the people by proving that Buddhahood was attainable in the current world. Churenji and Dainichibo Temples on Yudono-san are home to some Sokushinbutsu, and there are a few others scattered around housed in temples scattered throughout Yamagata and the surrounding prefectures.
Located on the way to the Gassan Ski Lift, Shizu Onsen is one of two major Onsen (hot spring) resort towns on the Dewa Sanzan and Gassan, the other being Hijiori Onsen. Shizu Onsen flourished over the centuries thanks to its location along the Rokujurigoe Kaido, the path connecting inland Yamagata with the Shonai coast.
Surrounded in a forest of beech trees, Shizu Onsen itself is an snowy mountain escape straight out of a James Bond movie, with giant yet humble Ryokan resorts that get pummeled during the winter season lining the village streets. Each lodge provides great views and high-quality onsen water that is great on the skin. There’s even a resort there called Tsutaya run by a Dewa Sanzan Yamabushi friend of mine that was featured in Our Man in Japan with James May.
Hijiori Onsen is named after a monk who healed his broken elbow in the hot spring water found there. Tucked away in the hills behind Gassan, Hijiori Onsen is famous for recording the greatest snowfall of any region in Japan, and there is even an annual competition to see who can dig through the snow to the ground the fastest. The path to the summit of Gassan from Hijiori Onsen is the longest available, and requires one night on the mountain.
Said to have been opened in 1200, yet with its heyday in the 1600s, the moss-covered paths, relics, and old teahouses found on the side of the road connect us to a time gone by. Named after its distance of 60 ri, a traditional distance based on how much ground someone carrying a load could make in one hour (it has since been defined as 3.93 kilometres or about 2.44 miles), the Rokujurigoe Kaido is an ancient path of over 100km connecting inland Yamagata with the Shonai region on the coast of the Sea of Japan.
This path truly prospered with pilgrims paying a visit to Yudono-san, the most sacred of the three Dewa Sanzan during the Edo Period (1603-1868). Be sure to check out the Nanatsuki Falls, said to have been used by Yamabushi for their waterfall meditation.