Mount Hakusan: Hiking a Sacred Japanese Mountain
Everyone knows about Mount Fuji, but few are aware of Mount Hakusan. Undulating mountain ridges, volcanic crater lakes, breathtaking panoramic views, and a magnificent sunrise are just a few of the magical sights you’ll experience from hiking Mount Hakusan in Ishikawa Prefecture, one of Japan’s most sacred mountains. This article will tell you about Hakusan's sights and story, recommended hiking trails and plans, and what to be aware of when hiking.
Apr 16 2021
Mount Hakusan: A Brief History
Mount Hakusan is one of Japan’s Three Sacred Mountains (三霊山 Sanreizan), along with Mount Fuji in Shizuoka Prefecture and Mount Tateyama in Toyama Prefecture. Mount Hakusan is the centerpiece of Hakusan National Park, which spans the four prefectures of Ishikawa, Fukui, Gifu, and Toyama. Its name literally means “white mountain,” as it is blanketed in snow during the winter months. Hakusan was designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1980, and though it is technically still an active volcano, its last known eruption was in 1659. It now offers nature-lovers some fantastic hikes and sights, and it serves exhausted hikers with wonderful hot spring baths for a relaxing dip to soothe their tired muscles.
Mount Hakusan’s sacred history dates back to the 8th century, when it was believed that the Buddhist priest Taicho (AD 682-767) was the first person to successfully summit the peak in 717. Practitioners of Shugendo, a religion that combines Buddhism, Shinto, and mountain worship, often trained and performed ascetic rites on the peaks of Mount Hakusan, earning it a place in mountain worship over the following centuries
Today, while Mount Hakusan has become a popular recreational hiking spot, its religious roots are still visible, with shrines along the three old "zendojo" (pilgrimage trails) that lead up to the summit from Ishikawa, Fukui, and Gifu prefectures. The hiking trail that we will be suggesting below, which is also one of the most popular, follows part of the ancient Echizen Zenjodo, an original pilgrimage trail that starts from northern Fukui Prefecture used by monks to ascend Mount Hakusan for training and worship.
Mount Hakusan's Hiking Trails
From Ishikawa Prefecture, the two most common hiking routes up Mount Hakusan are the Sabo Shindo and Kanko Shindo, both starting at Bettodeai Trailhead. While the two trails are approximately the same distance, Sabo Shindo is less steep, and therefore easier and faster. Kanko Shindo, as the name suggests ("kanko" means "sightseeing"), runs along a ridge with panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
While the hike can technically be done in a single day, it is much more rewarding and enjoyable to do it over 2 days, with an overnight stay at the Murodo Center (室堂センター), a mountain lodge near the summit. This way, not only can you hike up the 1,190m elevation gain at a leisurely pace and have time to enjoy and discover the beautiful natural scenery of alpine flora and fauna, but more importantly, you’ll be able to summit Mount Hakusan the next morning to experience the magnificent sunrise, a sight to behold standing at 2,702m above sea level atop one of the most sacred mountains in Japan.
What To Look Forward to at Mount Hakusan
Ascending Mount Hakusan
Depending on which trail you choose, as well as your fitness and pace, the hike up should take around 4 to 5 hours, not including breaks, to your overnight accommodation, Murodo. There is a hut on both the Sabo Shindo trail and Kanko Shindo trail. It is worth taking the time to appreciate the treasured natural scenery that Mount Hakusan has to offer, such as the virgin beech forest that is home to an abundance of wildlife, the many rare and protected alpine plants that only grow above a certain elevation, and the lingering snow even in the summer.
Stay Overnight on Mount Hakusan
If you follow our recommendation of doing the hike over 2 days, your destination at the end of the first day’s climb will be Murodo, a huge mountain lodge at 2,450m, equipped with a drying room, flushing toilets, a clinic, and space to house 750 guests. At this elevation, temperatures are 12-14 degrees Celsius lower than in the city, and drops further at night, even in the summer, so be sure to bring warm layers. Interestingly enough, there is a post office here too! Wouldn’t it be nice to send someone (or yourself) a postcard from one of the most important mountains in Japan?
A few important things to note for your stay at Murodo:
- They’re open between 1st May to 15th October, and to stay here you must make a reservation (no drop-ins).
- Long weekends and summer holidays are particularly busy, so make sure you reserve well in advance to make sure you have shelter for the night.
- They also offer dinner and breakfast services in July and August at extra cost. However, be sure to get there early, because dinner service is between 5:00 pm - 6:00 pm. Depending on the month, breakfast service could start as early as 5:30 am.
- You’re also advised to bring your own drinking cup to reduce waste and to carry your trash home with you.
And if the weather is clear, wrap up in some warm clothing and venture outside after sunset to gaze up at the wide expanse of the endless night sky, spotting constellations and shooting stars. The clean air provides the perfect conditions for stargazing from the highest peak in Ishikawa.
The Stars and Sunrise
The sunrise from Gozengamine, the summit of Mount Hakusan, is definitely not one to be missed. Even if you’re not a morning person, you will not regret waking up for a breathtaking sight such as this. As the sun gets closer to making an appearance and the sky gradually lights up, tiredness and sleepiness will give way to anticipation and excitement, and eventually wonder as the sun peeks out from the horizon. Under the right conditions, you might even be able to witness an "unkai" (sea of clouds), a thick blanket of unbroken clouds rippling across just below your feet.
As the warm glow of the sun lights up the land, you will marvel at the 360-degree panoramic view of the other two peaks of HakusanーOnanjimine and Kengamine, the Noto Peninsula, and the peaks of the Northern Alps towering in the distance.
With a whole day ahead of you, there’s plenty of time to further explore the surroundings of this gorgeous landscape before your descent.
Explore Around Mount Hakusan
Just before you leave the summit, pay a visit to the small shrine at the top of Gozengamine, the Hakusan Shirayama-Hime Okumiya Shrine - a reminder of the sacredness of this mountain, and perhaps of nature as well.
There are a number of volcanic crater lakes and ponds as well as a snow valley around the summit area. You could either take a guided tour run by the Murodo Center in the summer, or make your own way through the Oike-Meguri Hiking Trail, a loop that takes you around the seven crater lakes and ponds.
The Hyakuyojo Falls is a real treat if you have the time and energy to do the extra hike, or if you decide to descend north along the Kaga-Zenjodo pilgrimage trail. The waterfall can be viewed from above the Kaga-Zenjodo Ridge, and is a sight to behold with its 90 m vertical drop over the edge of the vast Seijogahara Plain. It is said to be one of the most eminent features of Hakusan National Park. It is even more remarkable in winter, as water gushes out of a snowy plain into an ice basin that resembles a mini snowy volcano, formed by snow and spray of the waterfall turning into ice.
Descending Mount Hakusan
Now for the easy part: the descent. There are a few options for your descent. For example, even if you had come by car and parked at Bettodeai or Ichinose, and had hiked up via Sabo Shindo, you take the Kanko Shindo down to enjoy the panoramic views, especially if it is a nice day. If you take Kanko Shindo down, make sure to keep left at the fork at Keimatsudaira (about 50 minutes from the Tonogaike Shelter Hut) and follow the sign for Bettodeai.
Another alternative is to descend along the Hirasedo Trail. This winds down the mountain’s eastern slope from Murodo, and ends at another spectacle, Lake Hakusui. This large artificial lake can change color with the seasons, but its high sulfur content and the reflection of the primeval beech forest of Oshirakawa give it a magical turquoise-emerald hue for most of the year. And the views of the nearby Mount Bessan and the peaks of Hakusan from the lake are simply awe-inspiring.
Things You Should Be Mindful About When Hiking Hakusan
- Check the weather forecast, and be mindful that the weather in the mountains can change quickly, particularly on high peaks like Hakusan. Pack rainwear and warm layers, as temperatures at the top can be more than 14 degrees Celsius lower than in the city, even in the summertime.
- Be prepared for emergencies: On top of appropropriate clothing, also carry plenty of water and emergency food.
- All hikers are required to fill out a climbing form before starting their ascent at the trailhead, to keep track of who is on the mountain in case any emergencies should arise.
- Avoid weekends and holidays especially during the hiking season of mid-July onwards through August, as huts and trails will be very crowded.
- Arrive early and arrive at the hut or camping around a few hours before sunset, since hiking is prohibited at night as it is dangerous.
- Carry your garbage home, as there are no garbage cans on the mountain. A tip to keep your garbage at a minimum is to bring food in your own containers and a garbage bag to take your trash home.
- Stay on marked trails for your own safety and to protect the delicate alpine fauna of the mountain.
- Do not touch or pick flowers or plants - the National Park Act prohibits the collection of animals, plants, or rocks from the mountain.
- Do not smoke while walking, as it is dangerous and causes a nuisance to others.
- Only relieve yourself in proper toilets to avoid polluting the water in the mountains.
- Camping is only allowed in designated areas.
The rules and guidelines are there to remind everyone to be respectful to others and to the mountain, and to keep everyone safe so that all can enjoy the blessings that this wonderfully stunning place has to offer. Last but not least: don’t forget to enjoy a well-deserved and relaxing onsen (hot spring) bath at the end of your hike!
Getting to Mount Hakusan
By public transport: There are buses from Kanazawa Station (Ishikawa Prefecture) on certain days during the climbing season. From the East Gate of the station, take the bus bound for Bettodeai (別当出合) from bus stand number 1. There are 1 to 3 departures on weekends and national holidays from late June to mid-October, as well as daily departures during the peak of the season from mid-July to mid-August. The ride from Kanazawa takes about two hours and costs 2,240 yen one way.
By car: Bettodeai trailhead is easily accessible by car, with a large parking lot just below the trailhead. However, on busy days during the peak season (around weekends and holidays from mid-July to mid-October), the road is closed to private cars, but there are shuttle buses (500 JPY one way) to ferry hikers to and from a larger parking lot at Ichinose further below the mountain.
Boots On, We're Off!
Mount Hakusan, with its beech forests and its alpine meadows with colorful flowers scattered across the plains in the summer, is truly an incredible place. It is no wonder that it has been worshipped for centuries and is still revered today for its sacredness, terrain, and biodiversity. It is somewhere that nature-lovers and avid-hikers should definitely not miss. So open a map, strap on your hiking boots, and grab your backpack for a wonderful journey up this sacred volcano, retracing the steps of 7th-century Buddhist priests!
Title image credit (left to right): uno.yt / Shutterstock.com, janken / Shutterstock.com
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.