Nasu Mountain Range:
Learning about Mountain Worship
at Mt. Chausu
Nasu Mountain Range:
Learning about Mountain
Worship at Mt. Chausu
Mt. Chausu (Chausu-dake) in the Nasu mountain range is an active volcano that emits smoke and ash on a daily basis. It offers hikers the opportunity to experience unique volcanic landforms, spectacular views from the summit and colorful foliage on the mountain side during autumn. Follow the trail tracing the history of mountain worship to the summit, then enjoy visiting the local historic hot springs and craft beer brewery after your descent.
Mountain Worship in Japan
Mountain worship has been practiced in Japan for over 2,000 years. It has deep roots in Shinto, which is regarded as Japan’s only indigenous religion. These days Shinto is inextricably associated with the large number of shrines that can found scattered across the country in small villages and larger towns alike, but the birth of Shinto predates these structures by several hundred years, or even centuries according to some historians. Shinto as it was practiced before the advent of shrines is known as Koshinto (old Shinto), the essence of which is the worship of nature itself. Practitioners of Koshinto regarded every single element of nature as divine, but focused mainly on four objects of worship – mountains, rocks, trees and the sun. These were considered the source of all life and therefore held in the highest regard. They were referred to as ‘kami’ – the Japanese word for divine spirits/divinities.
It was only after Buddhism was introduced to Japan from the Asian continent, with its elaborate temples and sacred images, that shrines began springing up around the country as places to practice Shinto. However, the sites of these structures were always placed within close proximity to the sacred mountains, forests, and rock formations people had already been traveling to, for worshipping purposes, for centuries.
After the arrival of physical shrines in Japan, the Japanese continued to worship the various elements of nature considered sacred, a tradition that continues today in the form of pilgrimages to a number of mountains among other things.
And this is what brought me to Mt. Chausu in Tochigi Prefecture!
Mt. Chausu is located in the Nasu region of Tochigi Prefecture, roughly 150 kilo meters north of Tokyo. It is part of the Nasu Volcanic Zone, a complex group of volcanic mountains, also known as the Nasu mountain range (Nasu-Renzan), in the northeastern part of the Nikko National Park.
Standing at an elevation of 1,915 meters above sea level with plumes of volcanic smoke spilling from multiple facets on a daily basis, Mt. Chausu is currently the only active volcano in Tochigi Prefecture. Mt. Chausu is part of Mt. Nasu-dake which comprises three mountains in total, they are Mt. Chausu, Mt. Asahi-dake and Mt. Sanbonyari-dake.
It is estimated that Mt. Chausu started erupting some 16,000 years ago, with the last major eruption being roughly 600 years ago and the last minor eruption approximately 100 years ago.
Beautiful in all seasons, Mt. Chausu is a popular destination for hikers and tourists alike, especially during the fall months when the autumn colors set the landscape alight with a striking mixture of deep reds, bright yellows and an array of orange tones.
Most sightseers opt to reach the base of the summit via the ropeway cable-car that runs from early spring to late fall. Those who fancy giving their legs a good workout though can hike up from the bottom via the very path that pilgrims have been tackling for hundreds of years as part of their mountain worship ritual. This is the route I opted to take up Mt. Chausu, with the guidance of a local inn-keeper and outdoor enthusiast called Yamasaki-san.
A Path Well-trodden
The entrance to the path up the mountain is located just behind Nasu Yuzen Shrine, a Shinto shrine established and constructed in the 7th century. Nasu Yuzen Shrine is said to enshrine the spirit or kami of onsen – the Japanese word for natural hot-spring.
It is well worth taking the time to explore Nasu Yuzen Shrine before you start your hike up Mt. Chausu, especially in the early morning when mist from the mountain descends upon the grounds of the shrine, creating a mysterious, almost haunting atmosphere, perfect for getting in the mood for a good hike up a sacred mountain!
Being the shrine of onsen, there is of course a natural hot-spring at the entrance to the shrine where you can dip your feet in geothermally heated waters, which feels great especially during the colder months.
Also, just a few meters away you will also find Shika-no-yu, which is believed to be the oldest onsen bathhouse in Tochigi Prefecture. Shrouded in history, this hot-spring is said to have first been discovered in the 7th century, and frequented by various high-ranking feudal lords and samurai during the Edo period. The hottest bath at Shika-no-yu is a whopping 48-degree Celsius, making it a great place to soak your weary bones at the end of your hike up Mt. Chausu, assuming you take the same route down when you’re finished!
Once you are on the path up the mountain, you will quickly find yourself surrounded on all sides by tall trees as the route winds through a forest. The remnants of stone markers (referred to as stations in Japanese) that guided pilgrims up the mountain can be found along the way, some in better shape than others.
The higher you get the shorter the trees become, as they slowly thin out and eventually completely disappear. This portion of the hike is made up of gently sloping terrain along a well-trodden path that isn’t particularly challenging.
After approximately three and a half hours of relatively quiet hiking with very few people in sight you will arrive at the ninth station which also happens to be the top of the aforementioned ropeway. Depending on the season, time of day and of course weather, this area can be rather crowded compared to the path you have just come from, don’t let this put you off though, the views from up here are absolutely stunning and worth putting up with the crowds for!
From this point you can reach the top of the summit in approximately 45-60 minutes, also note that the terrain will get slightly more challenging from here with steeper ascents and rockier walking paths.
Arriving at the top you are afforded stunning 360-degree views over the Nasu mountain range, across the Kanto plains and with great views of the Nikko mountain range in the distance as well.
Circumnavigating the crater at the summit will bring you to the true peak of Mt. Chausu which is marked with a wooden torii gate and small Shinto shrine (not related to Nasu Yuzen Shrine where we started the hike). This is a great place to tuck into some lunch and plan your ongoing route.
Your options from this point include doing what we decided to do on this day, which is looping around back to the ninth station via Ushigakubi, a plateau on the side of Mt. Chausu at an elevation of 1,730 meters which affords more great views of the adjacent peaks, or continuing on to one of the other big mountains that share the Nasu Volcanic Group with Mt. Chausu. These include Mt. Asahi-dake and Mt. Sanbonyari-dake at 1,896 meters and 1,916 meters respectively. The time and physical effort it takes to reach these peaks would require further research as I didn’t do them myself, but I saw plenty of people who were planning to reach at least one of these other two mountains after Mt. Chausu, so it is very much doable in a single day.
The Seasonal Change of Colors on Mt. Chausu
As mentioned before, Mt. Chausu is a popular place to see the autumn foliage, and with good reason too! It boasts some of the most spectacular fall colors I have seen during my ten years in Japan, and I have traveled quite extensively, so I don’t say that lightly.
Over the course of approximately two weeks, the thick green vegetation that covers the side of the mountain and much of the surrounding area changes from a vibrant green color to an extra vibrant mixture of reds, yellows and every possible hue in between, that will stop you dead in your tracks, mouth agape, if you are lucky enough to be there at the right time. The whole area appears to be ablaze, which with the added element of plumes of volcanic smoke billowing into the air, makes for a surreal and highly visual seasonal experience. This for me was a much-appreciated extra layer of beauty to add on top of an already beautiful and very interesting hike. My guide informed me that traversing the path from Mt. Chausu towards Mt. Sanbonyari-dake and then looking back in the direction of Mt. Chausu illuminated in the mid-afternoon sun makes for some of the best autumnal views in the mountain range. Sadly, we didn’t have time to experience this, but it is certainly on my list of things to do if and when I get the chance to head back here in the future!
About the Author
Benjamin Beechey (also known as Ben Beech) is a freelance photographer based in Tokyo, originally from England. A keen but amateur hiker, he enjoys exploring Japan’s many mountainous regions, always with camera in hand! You can see more photos from his adventures in Japan over on his instagram.com/benjaminbeech
A Journey Through the Foothills of the Nasu Mountain Range
Nasu Kogen Beer is a craft beer brewery in Nasu, situated approximately 10 kilometers from Nasu Yuzen Shrine and the entrance to Mt. Chausu. It was established in 1996 by Takashi Oyamada after he spent some time in Germany learning about European brewing techniques, which he now works hard to perfect for the Japanese market.
They have twelve varieties of beer, both bottled and on tap, including internationally acclaimed and award-winning brews. Nasu Kogen Beer is situated on the edge of a small forest, surrounded by rice paddies, making it a great place to stop for a relaxing beer or to pick up some souvenirs to take back with you from the Nasu region.
Situated just below Nasu Yuzen Shrine, there is a wooden walkway that leads you to a field of almost one thousand Jizo stone statues known as Sentai Jizo (literally, “One thousand Jizo statues”). Jizo is regarded as the guardian angel of travelers in Buddhist mythology, so this is why you often find them on the side of the road or at the entrance to temples around the country.
The Jizo statues here were all made by the same man, who started crafting them by hand about forty years ago. His plan was to create one thousand statues in total, and he now has less than fifty left to complete his mission!
The boardwalk also takes you to Sessho-seki (literally, “Killing Stone”) – a large stone that features heavily in Japanese mythology.
Mt. Nasu-dake is the collective term for multiple mountains located inside Nikko National Park, including mountain such as Mt. Chausu (Chausu-dake), Mt. Asahi (Asahi-dake) and Mt. Sanbonyari (Sanbonyari-dake). The route that heads for Mt. Chausu utilizing Nasu Ropeway is highly popular among tourists because of its easy access up to an altitude of approximately 1700 meters. The Takaoguchi course, introduced here, has fewer users despite its well-maintained environment, allows hikers to enjoy a tranquil hike.
Enter the trailhead from the side of Nasu Yuzen Shrine. A gentle hike continues through a forest of trees such as water oak and Japanese larch for a while.
Hike a steeper zigzag path up to the ridge, where the foliage on the mountainside can be seen through the woods.
The vegetation starts to change at around 1700-meter into bleak volcanic landform, with more rocks and fewer trees and grass.
Turning left at the fork, the path reaches an open space known as Ushigakubi. Colorful foliage of maples, Erman’s birch, azalea and others can be seen well in the direction of Ubagadaira from here. There are also some benches, perfect for a break.
Heading north from Ushigakubi a little, the steam of the blowhole known as Mugen Jigoku (literally, “eternal hell”) comes in sight. The unique odor of sulfur can be smelled in the surrounding area.
Return back to Ushigakubi and proceed on the gently sloping traverse. This will eventually reach the fork that branches off to the ropeway station and the summit.
Hike up in the direction of the summit until reaching the crater, then head left and you will soon reach the summit. Large rocks are scattered around the summit, where a small shrine is erected. The view from here is superb overlooking the townscape in the foothills and the mountains of the Tohoku region.
Walk around the crater clockwise and the gorgeous foliage on the eastern slopes of Mt. Asahi (Asahi-dake) can be seen to the north. Use the ropeway for descending.
The area is known for bear sightings. Make sure not to encounter them especially on the ascent to Ushigakubi, where there are few people. Making noise as you hike by wearing bear-repellent bells or by talking with your friends is an effective precaution. Mt. Chausu is also known for strong winds. Be careful, especially on the summit, where there is no shelter against the wind. Make sure to bring an extra coat to stay warm. The trailhead at Nasu Yumoto Onsen (hot spring) and the ropeway station are the only locations equipped with toilets.
Kazuyuki Yamasaki: Hiking and canyoning guide working in Nasu. Also operates Guesthouse ITTAN.
Written by HIKES IN JAPAN
Take a JR Bus from Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal in Shinjuku Station to Nasu Onsen (approx. 3 hours and 30 minutes).
The Nasu Yuzen trailhead is located near the bus stop. For returning, use a shuttle bus from Nasu Ropeway to Nasu Onsen (approx. 15 minutes).
Take the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Nasu Shiobara Station (approx. 2 hours). From Nasu Shiobara Station to Nasu Yumoto Onsen, take a shuttle bus (approx. 50 minutes), and you’ll find the Nasu Yuzen trailhead near the bus stop. For returning, take a shuttle bus from Nasu Ropeway to Nasu Shiobara Station (approx. an hour and 10 minutes).
Use Nasu Ropeway for the descent. It runs every 20 minutes. The last descending ride is at 4:30 PM (may change seasonally). Be careful not to miss it, or it will be over an hour-long hike down the trail to the station in the foothills.