Exploring the Tara Mountains

The Tara Mountains are the collective name of the ten or so peaks that form the southwestern border between Nagasaki and Saga prefectures. Though named for Tara-dake (996m), the tallest mountain of this range is actually Kyoga Dake (1076m). Nearby towns and cities include Kashima, Ureshino, and Tara in Saga, and Takaki, Isahaya, Omura, and Higashisonogi in Nagasaki. Route 444 cuts a clear path from Kashima to Omura, providing easy access for the majority of activities described in this travel guide.

Basics and Precautions


Weather in the Tara mountains is typical of southern Japan. Spring is warm and often hazy. Summer begins with tsuyu, a.k.a. the rainy season, which usually lasts from June and until mid-July. August and September are hot and humid. Fall is cool and dry, lasting until mid-December. Winters are relatively mild with little or no snow in the lower lying regions. The upper reaches of the Tara mountains however, are often covered in snow. The plus side is that the skies over Kyushu are crisp and clear during these months, making for the best views while hiking. Temperatures throughout the region remain uncomfortably cold until the end of March, when the cherry tree blossoms signal the true start of spring.

Leave a note

In 2003, an accomplished alpine climber named Aron Ralston went for a day hike in the canyon lands of southeastern Utah. Given his impressive level of fitness and history of climbing extremely dangerous peaks, he neglected to inform anyone as to where he was going. After all, it was only a day hike. Then a rock fell on his arm, trapping him in a narrow, unfrequented canyon. To his credit, he persevered for a week with little food or water, waiting for help that wasn’t coming, before cutting his arm off at the elbow and escaping. Amazing story, but totally unnecessary. Don’t pull a “Ralston”; leave a note describing the day’s travel plans with a trusted friend or relative.


The valleys and low lying areas of the Tara Mountains are typically without coverage while some ridgelines have a clear strong signal. Ryutosen is almost completely out of range. The paramedics can be reached at 119, the police at 110.

Though forest fires are relatively rare in Japan, they can still happen. Abundant warning signs attest to this very real danger. The fire department can be reached at 119.

People and crime

Japanese hikers and outdoor enthusiasts are some of the greatest people this society has to offer. Most are extremely friendly and are pleased to meet a foreigner with mutual interests. That said, people are people and crime can happen anywhere. Use common sense. Lock car doors before leaving the parking area, back away if someone on the trail proves unnerving, etc.

Dealing with the police

Japanese police can legally stop a foreigner at anytime, with or without reason, to ask for identification. Non-residents will need to show their passport, residents their alien registration card (i.e. gaijin card). Failure to present the appropriate item will result in a major hassle at the very least. Always carry the appropriate documents even when in the sticks.


Public garbage cans are rare; most people bring their refuse home. Please do the same.


Tara Mountain fauna include snakes, small lizards, raccoons (tankuki), rabbits, wild boar (see warning below) and a variety of birds, amphibians, and insects. Unfortunately, there are no deer.

Kyushu is largely free of large dangerous animals: there are no bears here. The one exception may be the inoshishi, or wild boar. Inoshishi are abundant throughout Japan. Adult males can easily grow to over a meter in length and have menacing tusks. Females are also quite large. Though this animal is rarely aggressive unless its young are threatened, an attack would be injurious to say the least. Such an unlikely scenario is most likely to occur between March and July, when the piglets are most dependent upon their mother for protection. Anyone who comes upon a seemingly aggressive wild boar should make lots of noise, throw rocks, and if all else fails, climb a tree.


Japanese bees don’t seem to be as aggressive as their North American cousins, but they still sting. Of more concern is the giant centipede, known as mukade. These brownish colored insects are seven to thirteen centimeters long and live throughout rural Japan, particularly in forested areas. The bite is extremely painful and often warrants a hospital visit. Always keep an eye out for these guys.

Outdoor Gear

Base Camp in Saga City sells outdoor apparel, camping supplies, climbing and kayaking gear, hiking boots, and guide books. They’re happy to order anything not in stock. It’s located on Route 207 about two blocks west of Kencho (the prefecture’s administrative center) and is open until 8pm most nights of the week.


The Tara Mountains offer an abundance of things to do for the mildly to the super fit: hiking, camping, backpacking, rock climbing, and swimming. These should all be done at your own risk.


Rating system

The intensity of all hikes is rated on the following scale: easy, moderate, difficult, and strenuous. Unfortunately, most fall into the last two categories.

Trail conditions

Trails in Japan tend to go directly up the mountain, rarely employing switch-backs. The result is severe erosion on some routes, especially during and after the rainy season. Ridge line trails can be steep and rocky. Ropes are set up at many places to aid hikers.

Route finding

Because there is no single entity that maintains and regulates hiking routes, trail markers take on a variety of forms: colored ribbon or tape tied to trees, spray painted rocks, traditional signs, and cairn (pile of rocks). Some routes are fairy obvious, others not so. Stay alert while hiking.

Trails descriptions and translations

The two main destinations seem to be Tara and Kyoga Dake, though numerous peaks can be incorporated when hiking to either of these points. The described routes are the author’s personal favorites; many other varieties are possible and are too numerous to list. Feel free to create a customized route.

Relevant place names and landmarks have been translated into romaji to cater to the foreign hiker. However, actual trail signs are in kanji. While the romaji translations are convenient, be sure to cross check all signs with their corresponding points on the hiking map shown below, which is labeled in both romaji and kanji.

Hiking from Saga Prefecture

Nakayama Staircase

Duration: 2-2.5 hours.

Starting point and ending point: Nakayama Campground

Access: Road #252 from either Route 444 outside of Kashima or Route 207 in Tara-cho. Turn off at the sign for the Nanayama Campground and continue to the parking area (“P2” on the map).

Parking: across from the Tori gate in the camground

Difficulty: difficult

Description: The trail begins at the tori gate which stands in front of several cabins. Follow the stone staircase, rumored to be built by monks several hundred years ago, as it climbs the mountain. There will be periods of flat dirt trail followed by more stairs (don’t worry, it’s not so bad!). Eventually, there will be a crossroads with several colorful signs. Continuing the stair theme, turn left and keep climbing. After about 20 minutes you’ll reach the peak of Tara Dake. Double back to return. The 300 year oldRoku Jizo, or “Six Stone Buddhas” add a sense of history to Tara Dake and are worth the 15 minute detour. They can be reached from where the Tara Dake staircase begins by following the sign at that junction (in English for once).

Nakayama Loop

Duration: 3 hours

Starting point and ending point: Nakayama Campground

Access: Road #252 from either Route 444 outside of Kashima or Route 207 in Tara-cho. Turn off at the sign for the Nanayama Campground and continue to the parking area (“P2” on the map).

Parking: across from the tori gate in the campground

Difficulty: moderate

Description: Facing the tori gate, turn right and follow the road to where it is chained. Climb over this barrier and turn left on the first logging road (cement). After about ten minutes there will be a tree marked with red tape on the right side of the road. The trail begins here and cuts across the same road several times as it snakes up the mountains. Eventually, the route heads away from the road before coming to a four way trail intersection. Turn left here. 40 minutes away sits Sasaga Dake, possibly the most beautiful peak in the Tara mountains. Skirt the steep rock face until it ends. To the left of a small rock face there is a barely visible trail leading to Sasaga’s top. After summiting, return to the main trail and follow it as it runs parallel to the ridgeline. In another thirty minutes the trail meets the tori gate and stone staircase of Tara Dake. If desired, continue on to that peak’s summit. Otherwise, turn left and take the stone staircase trail back to the Nakayama campground.

Nakayama to Kyoga Dake Loop

Duration: 3-4 hours

Starting point and ending point: Nakayama Campground

Access: Road #252 from either Route 444 outside of Kashima or Route 207 in Tara-cho. Turn off at the sign for the Nakayama Campground and continue to the parking area (“P2” on the map).

Parking: across from the tori gate in the campground

Difficulty: difficult

Description: Use the same directions as for the “Nakayama Loop” hike (see above), but turn right at the trail junction. There will be signs for Kyoga Dake. Follow this spotty trail to the summit, but be sure to take the left fork when the trail splits. This is far from obvious, though someone has scratched the kanji for Kyoga Dake into a rock where the trail forks. The right fork also leads to Kyoga Dake but takes longer. After summiting, return to the aforementioned trail junction and once again follow the directions for the “Nakayama Loop” hike over Sasaga Dake and back to the Nakayama parking area.

Hiratani-Kyoga Dake Route

Duration: 3 hours

Starting point and ending point: Hiratani Campground

Access: From Kashima take the 444 towards Omura. There’s a large parking area (“P1” on the map) after the onsen and nature center but before the tunnel. The trail starts here.

Parking: road side parking lot

Difficulty: difficult

Description: After parking, walk up the road parallel to Route 444 in the direction of the tunnel. Turn left at the trail sign. Continue straight at the first fork. The trail will follow a small creek and before coming to a fire road. Cross the road and continue into the pine forest. This section of the trail is steep but is luckily quite short. At the top of the hill turn right and follow the ridgeline to the summit. Several rocky outcroppings require ropes but the trail is otherwise mild. It takes about an hour to reach Kyoga Dake. On a clear day the views from this peak are spectacular. Hikers are encouraged to sign the notebook found in the summit’s metal box. Double back to return to the parking lot.

Hiking from Nagasaki Prefecture

Hachodani to Tara Dake

Duration: 2-2.5 hours.

Starting point and ending point: Parking Area #3 (“P3” on the map)

Access: Route 444 westbound from Kashima, eastbound from Omura. After the dam, look for the signs for “Kuroki Valley” and make the appropriate turn. This is Route 252 and it runs the length of the valley. At a certain point, the road will fork at a white sign with red kanji characters and a small garbage collection area (cage) behind it. Take the right fork and drive past the wooden hikers’ hut (yamagoya) on the left hand side of the road. Continue on this road until arriving at Parking Area #3.

Parking: Parking Area #3

Difficulty: moderate

Description: This relatively short but rewarding hike begins at the chained road adjacent to the parking area. Follow this logging road for about fifteen minutes until coming upon an old bathroom. This is Hachodani. Turn right off the road and follow the trail up the mountain. After following a creek for about twenty minutes, turn right at the trail junction. This path will pass the Kinsenji mountain hut (the bird watching is reportedly good here) before it reaches the Tara Dake staircase. Continue upward for fifteen minutes to reach the summit. Double back to return.

Hachodani to Kyoga Dake Loop

Duration: 3-4 hours

Starting point and ending point: Parking Area 3 (“P3” on the map)

Access: see directions for Hachodani to Kyoga Dake hike

Parking: Parking Area #3

Difficulty: difficult/strenuous

Description: Follow the same directions as for the Hachodani to Kyoga Dake hike but instead of turning right after the bathrooms, continue straight ahead on the road until it narrows into a proper trail. This lovely path runs parallel to a series of waterfall-fed pools for the first hour or so. When it tops out at a ridgeline junction, turn left (this is the same trail junction mentioned in the “Nakayama Loop” hike description). Follow this path to the summit of Kyoga Dake. The trail picks up again on the opposite side of the mountaintop and follows the ridgeline before descending into a sparse forest. It eventually becomes a dry creek bed which can be steep in places; overall, it’s a pretty a strenuous descent. After the trail leaves the creek bed and becomes a simple forest trail, take the left fork where the trail splits (shown as a dotted line on the map) until it ends at a road which leads back to Parking Area #3.

Gokahara Dake Hike

Duration: 3-4 hours

Starting point and ending point: Gokahara trail head (see map)

Access: follow the same directions as for all hikes beginning in the Kuroki Valley, but turn right at the first fork after the hikers’ hut (see map). Continue until the road ends at a T intersection and turn left onto the narrow gravel road. There’s a small grassy area immediately after this turn on the left hand side (“P4” on the map). A sign for the trail is a little way up the road.

Parking: grassy area described above

Difficulty: difficult

Description: The trail begins at a river then enters a thick pine forest. Stay on this trail as it passes numerous waterfalls and rocky outcroppings. A section of the trail follows an old logging road but is otherwise a proper hiking route. After about an hour or so the trail will start to climb to the ridgeline, following a dry creek bed. Trail markers are spotty here; keep an eye out for the tape but generally just head uphill. At the top of the ridge turn left and continue to the summit. Though its covered with satellite dishes, the views from Gokahara Dake are decent. The trail picks up again on the right side of the summit viewing area and descends steeply. Continue over the summit of Nakadake (no sign) until reaching another trail junction. Turn left here and descend to a recently asphalted logging road. This point is called Hachodani on the map. Turn left again at this road and take it to Parking Area #3 where the road continues (left). A 15 minute walk will lead back to the original fork in the road (see access). Turn left at this corner and continue to the grassy parking area.

Dai Mo Mi no Ki (Big Momi Tree)

Duration: 90 minutes-two hours

Starting point and ending point: Gokahara trail head (see map)

Access: Same as for Gokahara Hike

Parking: same as for Gokahara Hike

Difficulty: moderate

Description: Follow the trail for Gokahara. After about 10 minutes there will be a sign in kanji on the left side of the trail for Dai Mo Mi no Ki. Turn left here and follow the tape. Be advised that this trail is rarely used and can be difficult to follow. The only markers are the random pieces of tape around a tree branch, often faded to the point of being hardly visible. There is also a dicey creek crossing. Despite these challenges, this short but adventurous trail is not especially strenuous and the Dai Mo Mi Tree is well worth the effort. Double back to return.

Other Hikes

Kori Dake

Duration: 90 minutes-two hours

Starting point and ending point: Bathroom along the road to Nodake.

Access: follow the same directions as for the Nodake Climbing Area (see climbing section) but continue past Nodake for about seven minutes. There will be a public bathroom on the right hand side with a small gravel parking area in front of it.

Parking: In front of the bathroom.

Difficulty: Moderate

Description: The trail begins at the bathroom and soon climbs a flight of steps to a power line corridor. Continue past these and into the forest until the trail comes to a logging road. Turn right here and follow the road as it narrows into a proper trail. Stay on this trail for approximately forty five minutes to reach the grassy summit, which has quality views of Omura Bay. Return by double backing or look for an alternate trail down the western side of the summit. The latter winds down the side of the mountain until it forks. A one minute detour straight ahead leads to a rocky outcrop at least eighty meters in height (there’s potential for turning this into a multi-pitch sport climb as the rock is high quality). Turn left at the previously mentioned fork to get back to the original trail and then turn right to return to the gravel parking area.

Ryutosen Waterfall hike

Duration: 30 minutes to 1 hour; it’s really up to the hiker

Starting point and ending point: From the Upper Area of Ryutosen start/end at the staircase. From the Lower Area, start/end at the parking area.

Upper area access: From Route 34 in Ureshino, turn left on Route 6. Stay on this for about a 20 minute drive through the countryside. Turn right at the school (it’s the only school around at that point). Follow the road as it curves to the right. You will see a brown farmhouse on the right. Turn left immediately after/at this house. This road will take you through some lovely grass lands, most of which belong to the Japanese Self Defense Forces. Follow the road pass the military barracks. Turn left at the tea farm, following the signs for Ikoi no Hiroba. Stay on this road (ignore the smaller turn offs). After about two minutes, there will be a sign on the right hand side of the road, marked Ryutosen, and a staircase that leads down to the river.

Lower area access: From either Ureshino or Omura take the 34 towards Higashisonogi town. Turn left/right on Route 190 and take this road until it ends at a parking lot.

Parking: In the Upper Area, park at the top of the staircase. For the Lower Area, park in the lot where the road ends.

Difficulty: Sometimes slippery but otherwise easy.

Description: This short hike follows a boulder-strewn river and its many deep pools as it snakes through a verdant ravine. If a longer hike is desired, consider following the scenic road past Lower Area parking lot to where the land opens up. There are excellent swimming possibilities at Ryutosen from summer to fall, and several local crags are climbable year round (see respective sections for details). A somen noodle shop with river views is located at the Lower Area parking lot. It’s open during the summer months though operating hours are far from consistent.


It’s unclear whether or not backpacking is technically allowed in the Tara Mountains, though that shouldn’t deter anyone. Japanese hikers are more likely to be impressed than upset over such feats, and cars should be fine parked over night. At any rate, it’s definitely not popular as all of the hikes can be done in a day. This doesn’t mean that several trails couldn’t be strung together into a longer route and accomplished over two days. Loops options are definitely possible. Through-hikes from Nagasaki to Saga are an option, though two cars would be needed (a bus is an inconvenient but possible alternative). Be sure to bring a water purifier and avoid making a campfire.


Like backpacking, roadside or “car” camping isn’t very popular. It too may be technically illegal, though no one seems to mind. Possible make shift campsites include any of the parking areas, the grassy parks along the banks of the Kuroki river, the park at the Nodake dam, and just about anywhere a tent will fit. As there is a nearby Japanese military base that occasionally hosts live fire exercises, camping in the upper Ryutosen area (see Ryutosen climbing/swimming/hiking section) is not recommended.

Saga prefecture has two proper campgrounds: Hirtani and Nakayama. Both have cabins and other amenities, but neither are open for more than a few weeks each summer. Campgrounds in Nagasaki include one in the Kuroki Valley and another that is a twenty minutes past the Nodake Climbing Area. These (and most campgrounds in Japan) tend to be overpriced and family orientated. Save the cash and avoid these traps.

Rock climbing

Warning: Climbing is inherently dangerous. Always climb with a partner. Climb at your own risk.

The Tara Mountains are blessed with two of the best rock climbing crags in western Japan. Both are less than an hour’s drive from Kashima and less than 30 minutes from Omura. Route maps for these and other Kyushu climbing areas can be purchased at Base Camp (see details in “Basics”).

Etiquette Warning: In Japan, climbers often leave gear on the wall for days or weeks at a time. This is not “booty” and should not be taken. Other climbers would view this as stealing, plain and simple. However, gear can be removed should a climber want to red point a certain route. Put removed gear in a sheltered but visible spot so that the owner will find it when he or she returns.


Location: Nagasaki-ken near the Nodake Dam.

Directions (Saga Prefecture): From Kashima, take Route 444 towards Omura. About 10 minutes after the tunnel, there will be a large reservoir and a pale green suspension bridge. Turn right before this bridge and follow the black-top road up. Nodake will be on your right after a seven or eight minute drive. Park cars on the left side of the road.

Directions (Nagasaki Prefecture): From Omura, take Route 444 towards Kashima. After the pale green suspension bridge, turn left. At this point, follow the same directions as described above for coming from Saga.

Number of routes: About 50 in solid use, with an additional 20 that need substantial cleaning.

Shade cover: most of the 5.12s are exposed, the rest are relatively sheltered.

Climbing season: year round

Climb during the rain: Yes, though if it’s been raining for several days the drip from up mountain will saturate many routes.

Water available: Yes.

Ryutosen (Lower Area: Chushajou and Mannaka)

Location: Nagasaki near Hagashisonogi town.

Directions: From either Ureshino or Omura take Route 34 towards Higashisonogi town. Turn left/right on Route 190. After about five to seven minutes there will be a pair of trees marked with red tape on the left side of the road. Be watchful as it is difficult to spot the first time around. This is the trail to Mannaka Area. There are spaces to parallel park here. Continue down the road to where it ends at a parking lot and noodle shop (open only in summers). Chushajou Area is across the river from here.

Number of routes: Mannaka has 75 routes listed but only about 55 that are climbable. Chushajou has 33 but maybe half are overgrown.

Shade cover: About 50%.

Climbing season: year round, though the crimpy nature of the holds makes winter climbing painful. Also, the summer mosquitoes are fierce.

Climb during the rain: No

Water available: No

Ryutosen (Upper Area: Hashi and Gakkou)

Location: Nagasaki Prefecture between Ureshino and Hagashisonogi towns.

Directions (Saga Prefecture): Follow the directions from “Ryutosen River Trail” (see hiking section) but continue past the staircase for the Ryutosen waterfall and across the bridge. Immediately after the bridge is a small monument. Park here. Follow the trail from behind the monument through a pine forest. The trail splits at a large but broken rock face; the right fork leads to Gakkou Area, the left across the river to Hashi Area.

Directions (Nagasaki Prefecture): The easiest way to get here from Nagasaki-ken is to follow the directions to the Lower Area and then hike up the river trail. This is a bit strenuous when shouldering a pack of climbing gear, but the trail is much more beautiful and faster than driving the slow and complicated route around the entire ravine.

Number of routes: Hashi Area has about 15 solid routes while Gakkou Area contains 10.

Shade cover: The Hashi Area is exposed, especially after noon. Most of the Gakkou Area has partial or full shade cover.

Climbing season: year round, though AM climbing is recommended at Hashi Area during summer.

Climb during the rain: No

Water available: No


Warning: Swimming in rivers can be dangerous. There are no life guards. Swim at your own risk.

Many of the creeks and rivers have pools deep enough for swimming. Most are accessible only by hiking. Do not swim in any of the reservoirs.


There are excellent swimming possibilities throughout the Ryutosen area. All are along the Ryutosen River Trail (see “Hiking”). The Ryutosen waterfall, from which the ravine gets its name, is 18 meters in length. The 23 meter deep pool is surrounded by a low rock floor; perfect for diving. Down river is another deep pool. This one is surrounded by large rocks. It’s not uncommon (nor dangerous given its depth) to see local high school boys jumping or diving from these launching pads. Further down river are still more deep pools. Before attempting any of these “jumps”, it might be a good idea to scout out the pool for any hidden rocks. Be especially mindful of this when swimming during or after the rainy season has ended.

See “Upper Area directions” in “Hiking: Ryutosen.”


Saga’s Hiratani Onsen (0954.64.2321) is on Route 444 about a minute before the tunnel. Entrance is 600 yen, towels 200 yen. It’s open everyday from 8am until 9pm. They also rent ryokan-style rooms which include traditional Japanese meals and unlimited bathing at their onsen. Expect such lodging to be expensive. Call for details or to make a reservation.

There’s an onsen located near the Mannaka Climbing Area of Ryutosen (see climbing section for details). Operating hours are spotty. After turning off Route 34 on to Route 190, look for a barn-like building perched on a hillside off to the right. There’s a large red onsen symbol on side of it (oval with rising steam above). Turn right at the cement bridge and continue up the mountain towards the building. There are a few signs for the onsen in Japanese along the way.