4 years later and I’m back to where it all started, the beauty and weather instability of the Minami Alps in Yamanshi Prefecture.


If you want to learn more about Japans hidden gems and places you can enjoy from beaches to mountains, cities to backstreets, join my journey on my Facebook fan page because it’s chock full of rarely known incredible places to explore!


The Minami Alps or Southern Alps are a range of some of the most rugged mountains in Honshu, most of the peaks topping out at over 3,000m.  The weather is more stable in spring and late autumn than it is the other two seasons.  Summer is particularly unpredictable as we found out the first time we visited.

I don’t even remember what made me go out and buy literally everything we needed to go camping for a week in one big spontaneous shopping spree.  I know I had just finished a big photography assignment, my wife had just been laid off and wasn’t having much luck finding a new job.  It was at this point that I was probably inspired by something I saw or read and somehow it felt like the right time to try something completely new and different.

We went to a local camping shop and ended up buying a tent, tarp, table and chairs.  Then from other places, inflatable mats, pillows, sleeping bags, lighting equipment and so on.  4 years on, that one day shopping spree has blossomed to include kayaking, hiking, spear-fishing, snorkelling, SUP’ing, scuba diving, off-road driving and just recently I discovered bouldering, probably the most intensive and rewarding form of working out I’ve ever tried.  I still have shower-climbing and kite-boarding on my To-Try list.

Since the first time we stayed at Sankeien Auto Camping Ground, I had wanted to come back despite the disappointing experience we had with the weather.  After arriving on a promising beautiful but sweltering 38°C day in July those 4 years ago, the moment I hammered in the last tent peg of our entire set-up of all our brand new shiny equipment and stood back to admire my amazing work, it started to drizzle.  Then it rained.  Then it poured.  It did not stop, night or day.  Since neither of us had any immediate plans for work, I vowed that we would stay until the weather got better.  It never did.  Eventually I gave in to nature and decided we would pack up all the gear wet and head home the next day.  Pulling the last peg out of the tent, the rain stopped, the sun came out, it was both glorious and infuriating.

Each tent site is sectioned off into it’s own boulder and tree surrounded area with enough room to set up a large tent, large tarp and park your car.  Even when the site is full, having your own space away from other campers and more often than not, on a slightly different elevation is really unique to this place, gives you some privacy and is a world away from the feeling of camping in a supermarket carpark which is how so many large popular sites feel like in Japan.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Sankeien Auto Camping Ground 2012 (@ pitch C8)
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Sankeien Auto Camping Ground 2016 (@ pitch C4)

Enquiring ahead I asked the owner of the site if we could have the same space we pitched at the first time we came and she told us there would be nobody here and we were completely free to choose wherever we wanted.  As with 4 years previously we had set out on a beautiful day, but this time in May when the weather is supposedly a bit more stable.  It was glorious but was it going to be infuriating?  What would happen this time I wondered as I looked out towards the alps in the distance from a pit-stop about halfway to our destination.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
From a rest area on the way – You can just make out the snow capped peaks of the Minami Alps in the distance
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
The ruggedness of the mountains becomes more apparent the closer you get

With everything set up (we choose a different site that apparently is a bit larger and has less wind) we headed to the river to gather some dry wood and tinder so I could try out some chopping and battening with a new knife I had just bought and make a fire with a fire steel.  It’s a lot more work than buying a 500 yen pack of firewood from the campsite, but it’s a lot more fun.

Then onto the serious business of smoking some marinated spare-ribs with sakura smoking chips and while that was doing its thing, I set up a hammock, grabbed a beer and took in the views that weren’t possible 4 years ago because of the weather.  This is what makes this site so incredible.  When the sun is shining it really is outstanding.  If you pitch in any of the C or D sites you are pitching parallel to a shallow, fast flowing river which is about 50M away, giving you a nice white noise background sound that I’m sure has a calming effect.  My hammock is set up on the edge of the site on the ridge of the slope that leads down to the river, above the trees in the valley below affording incredible views of the alps.  Settling into my hammock with the ice cold beer, this could be dangerous – I now might not move until the end of the trip, it’s just so perfect.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Panoramic from the hammock!
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Last of the light for today
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Smoked block of ham

We had plans to hike the next day but not to the top of any of those mountains I could see from the hammock.  I choose a route that starts at about 1,000m, would take us past 3 huge waterfalls and if we were making good ground we could peak out at Horaigoya, a 2,382m mountain.  The forecast was rain from the afternoon so we just decided to see how it went.

on the way to the trailhead

We were the only ones to park at the trailhead first thing in the morning which is rare, especially for May and the popularity of the Minami Alps, so as with the campsite, were had this trail all to ourselves it seemed.  I pretty much knew in my mind we weren’t going to summit on this hike and although I’m trying to get as many outdoor/adventure images as I can at the moment to build up my portfolio of adventure photography, I really didn’t think we’d get to any point on the trail that would prove to be a great place to do anything worthwhile so I left the camera in the car.

We posted our itinerary and headed out.  This route is called the Dondokosawa route and it’s really pleasant.  In some places there are 20 to 30m steep drop offs on one side of the trail as you are zigzagging up and I had to keep my dog on a short leash over this stretch.  Not vertical, maybe 60° or so of just loose soil – the sort of ground that would make it really hard to get yourself back up.  You’d probably have to find a different route back up.  There was no way I wanted to go down any of these slopes to go fetch her.  She’s getting very good at this and despite her relatively short legs, she can scramble up large jaggy rock step-up’s pretty easily but she also has a sort of suicidal unpredictability hardwired in.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Somewhere along the Dondokosawa trail

Years ago we were staying at a dog-friendly hotel that has rotenburo (private bath/onsen tubs on the terraces).  We just had dinner and got in the tub and my dog looked a bit lonely locked in the room so I thought it would do no harm to let her at least join us on the terrace.  I got out the tub, slid the door open and she bolted through the gap, ran as fast as she could and jumped right off the terrace (we were only the 2nd floor thankfully) landing in the deep brush below.  So there I am, naked, no shoes, in the early evening, bush-whacking around with my arms looking for my dog and praying that the guests in the rooms below don’t bother to look out of their windows!  In another incident she jumped off the kayak into freezing lake water which I don’t think she has ever forgotten as she runs away every time she sees her life jacket now.  So yeah, keeping her close as we traverse these narrow paths.

Though we had seen a bunch of monkeys on the way up to the trailhead and lots of beware of bear signs, we didn’t get a glimpse of any wildlife until later on into the hike when something brightly orange coloured ran away as it heard us approaching.  At first I thought it was a fox but then it stopped and watched us from a high vantage point where it was clearly visible.  It was a weasel but I had no idea there were orange one’s.  After a bit of research I found it to be a Siberian Weasel, intentionally introduced into Japan several years ago.

We made it to the first waterfall but as the weather had been so fine leading up to this trip, there was literally only a little trickle of water coming down.  We stopped for lunch and I tried out a little shower climbing in my 8 year old hole-ridden hiking boots and got completely soaked.  Some kind of leech thing also attached itself to me and I didn’t realise until that evening in the tent when I took off a sock to find it completely soaked in blood.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Lunch at waterfall
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Shared a walnut I happened to find on the way up

As per the forecast, it started to rain and with the waterfalls not looking so exciting we decided to take our time and make our way back to the car knowing we were either going to go see a beautiful ravine or go kayaking in a nearby lake the next day.

In the morning we visited an onsen and set off for the ravine but the trail was a lot more involved than I what we had been told and my wife didn’t bring any proper shoes.  There were metal ladders and slippery steps that were going to be a bit tricky in her Crocs, so we found a little sand bar next to a crystal clear river to have lunch and went back to camp just as the rain started to set in for the evening.  We knew it was going to rain, but not to the extent it did.  5mm/ph during the night!

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
On a sandbar at Ajiragawa, my dog searching for anything edible
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Absolutely freezing but beautiful crystal clear water

 

ajiragawa river when it’s calm

This was the Minami Alps I knew – non-stop rain and a soaked campsite!  Still determined to get to the ravine before our time ran out, I headed out alone first thing in the morning after taking a few pictures of a rainbow that happened while there was a break in the down pour at about 5am.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Epic view from the campsite in the morning
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Saw this nice view reflected in the car windows

The ravine looked amazing in the pictures I’d seen online but it was just a mess of brown swirls today.  I totally forgot I wasn’t using a fully waterproof casing for the GoPro and wondered how it was going to stand up to the torrential rain.  I imagined it would be OK since I was under the canopy of dense forest, but nopers.  It died about 7 minutes into the hike and I felt sure it was a goner.  Opening up the unit back at camp, water had obviously gotten into to it.  Quite a bit too.  I took the battery out, shook the whole thing to get any remaining water droplets out, put a new battery in, booted it up and it then went ahead a repaired the file that was damaged when it shut off.  Nice!

If you use GoPro, be aware that although the skeleton back packs look like they will be weather proof as they have seals on the inside that sit snuggly against the touch screen, they really aren’t.

ajiragawa after torrential rain

Check out time is noon and what better time than this for the weather to bring on a full monsoonal, typhoonial, squall of torrential rain and wind to bring maximum misery to packing up all your gear?  It was by far the worst conditions I have ever set up or broken down camp in.  Packing up in the rain is so much more annoying than pitching in it.  The job is not done till your home, have unpacked everything from the car, taken everything back out on a sunny day, pitched it somewhere to dry and air it, packed it back up, taken it home and then you get to put it all away again!  Fan-Bloody-Tastic!

I love Sankeien campsite and I am determined to go back and enjoy an extended beautiful weather stay.  Among mountain campsites, this place has to be my favourite.  I love the staff, the site, the facilities are clean and well kept, there’s two lakes nearby for kayaking, lots of mountains to hike, rivers to fish, and onsens to relax in.


If you want to learn more about Japans hidden gems and places you can enjoy from beaches to mountains, cities to backstreets, join my journey on my Facebook fan page because it’s chock full of rarely known incredible places to explore!

Minami Alps Sankeien Auto Camping Ground

http://www.sankeien-camp.com

TEL: 0551-26-2882

  • Check-in:  From noon
  • Check Out: By noon
  • Clean and well maintained facilities
  • Hot showers for a small fee
  • Simple food stuffs and rental equipment available
  • Gas, Charcoal, Ice for sale
  • Drink machines on site
  • Washing machines on site