sounkyo and yatsugatake are famous but theres a lot more to ice climbing in Japan than that. With so much ice to climb, the problem is one of choice, which is usually dictated by where you want to go, what experience you have and what you want to achieve.
Trips around Central Honshu run at a minimum of 2 days. Trips to Northern Honshu & Hokkaido run at a 3 day minimum.
starting out or just wanting to relax, Japan’s easy ice options are many and varied. From 4 star options and rustic lodges to easy basecamps and remote bivvys theres lots of choice, including ice roadtrips that take in a selection of central Japan’s finest ice.
Akadake Kosen’s well known Ice Candy icewall, with the Yatsugatake escarpment looming behind
With a lodge, an icewall, dozens of ice routes close by and a busy ice climbing scene, Akadake Kosen is a focal point for Japans ice climbers. Everyone from Nae Yagi, Japans champion female ice climber, the Giri Giri Boys and Piolet D’or winners to the swarms of kitted out retirees hang out here. Located in a temperature anomaly, Akadake Kosen is cold and high (2200m) and ringed in by 3000m peaks. Friendly staff and creature comforts like heated toilet seats and coffee make it easy to spend weeks at yatsugatake ice climbing and avoiding civilization.
quiet and beautiful, Amidadakes icefalls are set in secluded valleys a world away from Akadakes busy scene
Over the ridge from Akadake Kosen, Amidadake is quiet and serene with several dozen icefalls hiding up in the peaks maze of approach gullies. Ideal basecamp locations make Amidadake a good place to settle in for a week, accessing different ice falls and routes each day.
下 甲斐駒ケ岳Lower Kaikomagatake
Despite Kaikomagatakes intimidating reputation, its lower valleys are home to easily accessed ice falls and gullies, some of which spill down onto the access road. Lower atitude (1400m) and south-facing, Lower Kaikomagatake is relatively warm and habitable with running water and easy access. Known for its granite walls, the ice on Kaikomagatake is amazingly clear and forms in narrow gullies with a true Japanese character. Some routes include icefalls that wind thru boulder caves and narrow mixed sections.
Dead center of Hokkaidos frozen interior is the little hotspring town of Sounkyo. Insanely cold (mid-winter days average about -20c), Sounkyo is at the entrance of its famous volcanic ravine that has a dozen icefalls along its sides. An easy snowshoe in and a river crossing brings a choice of
Not for beginners, the hard ice areas of Japan are on par with any in the world. ‘Hard’ means significant previous experience necessary, generally to about WI5 with confidence on lead. some hard ice locations are remote, requiring extended time to access and qualifying as a micro-expedition.
鼻水 Yatsugatake pillars
Esoteric and distant, the ‘Hana-mizu’ pillars of Yatsugatake are often discussed but rarely visited. Glimpsed briefly from the approach to Akadake kosen, these pillars have difficult access and form early in the season, often before most climbers have settled into the winter conditions.
obscure but well defined: the area topo for the ice near Sendai in the old guide book, showing the few recorded classic routes
Between the Japanese Alps and Hokkaido lays a huge, mountainous region thats little ventured into during winter, hiding isolated icefalls that only the locals know about. Arguably Japans best ice and mixed climbing location finding these icefalls took a lot of questions, a lot of delving and a lot of misdirections, but eventually we found them, sitting in series of low valleys in a perfect ice formation zone. Two valleys literally drip with ice, covering the valley walls to form hundreds of routes, including about 30 classics within Japan like Megalomaniacs and The Physical Brothers. with a bunch of routes at around M7-8 and loads of WI3 – 6 ice, if it was anywhere near Tokyo it would eclipse Yatsugatake for popularity, but instead its quiet and esoteric. most of the ice routes are between 30 and 90m, strung along multi-layered bands of volcanic rock either side of narrrow gorges. No huge mountains to scale, a short approach and easy access to civilization actually makes this a ‘sportier’ location even tho its 3 times the distance from Tokyo than Yatsugatake.
中 と 上 甲斐駒ケ岳 Middle and Upper Kaikomagatake
Tanuki Suicide: WI5-, M4, 3pitches/130m. Kaikomagatakes Middle Kingdom has countless quality ice routes awaiting first ascents.
Beyond the end of the Lower Kaikomagatake road lays a lifetimes worth of serious ice routes. Most of these options are multi-day affairs that require total self-sufficiency after leaving the roadhead, and it’s here that you enter the world that formed Japans world class climbers like Ichiro Yoshizawa and the Giri Giri Boys. With enough time in the area its possible to link together several ice areas via the high alpine ridges. The ice routes are long – up to 1500m of height gain – with countless variations and options for first ascents.
富士山 Mt Fuji caldera
The most esoteric ice in Japan. Mt Fujis caldera is 200m deep and early in the season can be home to fleeting icefalls along its north-facing side. Steep and cascading, these icefalls are often talked about but rarely climbed, requiring a combination of weather and strategy to open the opportunity…and of course, you have to climb Mt Fujis 3,750m flanks first to get to it.
Sounkyo is famous for its difficult ice and mixed lines. Steep and sustained, the hard routes here have been attractive to international climbers for several years. the same easy approach and super-cold temperatures as the easy options.
‘Big ice’ is similar to alpine ice, being large ice flows up entire peaks, often requiring multiple days on a single route. By their nature Big Ice routes are usually remote, requiring a high level of self-sufficiency.
甲斐駒ケ岳 の 大谷 Kaikomagatake Lost Kingdom
Kaikomagatakes O-ren Tani; +2000m of deep, cold climbing
If remotness is your thing and you like big alpine routes then Kai komagatake is an amazing mini-expedition into Japans ‘lost kingdom of ice’. Upper Kai komagatake is revered amongst Japanese climbers as a step towards serious alpine climbing. No lodges, no busy camp sites, no quick way in or out – a trip into Kai komagatake almost guarantees having the entire area to yourself.
So what’s in there? literally dozens of ice routes and ice falls. some are short overhanging pillars, others are literally mile-high link ups of ice falls, rock and frozen gullies, others still are wide frozen waterfalls. this is an amazing place to head with a small team, set up a base camp to climb out of for a few days, then leave via the classic alpine route.
This trip runs at a 3 day minimum. 4 or 5 days is even better. a week or more gets you to the more formidable routes and qualifies as a micro-expedition
Sendai’s White Dragon Wall; kilometers of perfect ice and rock for mixed climbing
a rare image of the route ‘Mihara’, M7+. from Gakujin magazine
Japans premier mixed routes are outside of Sendai. Miles of walls, much of it overhanging and splattered with wind-shot ice, with easy access makes it a quality sport climbing area for mixed routes.
白竜壁 white dragon wall blog post here
Sounkyo’s bizzare volcanic geology lends it perfectly to sustained, steep crack systems linking random cakes of ice. none are easy, having been pioneered by elite local and foreign climbers, but all are stunning for their natural aesthetics and location.
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