Yamabito Profiles: Brian O’Donovan

Oddly quiet near the peak of Mount Yari, 2007.


Welcome to the second in our series of Yamabito Profiles in honor of Mountain Day, 2017.  Some of our friends in Nagano’s mountaineering community have graciously shared their thoughts about Nagano’s KIta Alps along with some beautiful pictures they took over the course of their adventures.


(Brian O’Donovan has lived in various parts of Nagano Prefecture almost continuously since 2004.  Having acquired a taste for mountains and the outdoors during his time as a Scout Master in his native Ireland, he naturally decided to make Nagano his home.  Brian now lives with his family in Matsumoto and runs the popular Matsumoto Backpackers guesthouse–see links at bottom of page)

Q: Hello Hello!  Dispensing with the small talk, we have a few questions about your experiences in the mountains of Nagano.

A: Go on then, fire away.

Q:  Let’s jump right in.  When did you first experience the Kita Alps?

A:  It was a springtime tour of Mae Jonen to Chougatake.  Since it was right after Golden Week there was still a lot of snow, requiring full snow gear.  Sometime after that I hiked Yari and the Daikiretto.  Since I had been doing a lot of climbing in the Minami Alps, I felt well prepared for the big peaks.

Q: What are some of your faves.

A: To be honest, I’d rather look at the big mountains from a distance than up close.  Mid range peaks like Tsubakuro and Jonen are great for viewing Yari and other famous mountains in the area, as well as being great hikes in their own right.

Misty Mountain Hop: Yari viewed from Tsubakuro.

Nearing the famous Enzansou mountain lodge, en route to the peak of Tsubakuro. (Note Yari in the distance).

Q: Can you think of one or two memorable experiences in the Northern Alps?

A: Yeah, a friend of mine and I hiked Yari once and, due to a late morning arrival, basically had the peak to ourselves. PRO TIP: Yari is mobbed in the early morning and afternoon, but if you manage to arrive nearer to midday, you can avoid the crowds.

No waiting in line to take this shot. Yari quiet as a church yard around 11:00am.

Q:  What’s a hike you have always wanted to do, but haven’t gotten round to yet?

A: I’d like to start at Nakabusa Onsen and head to up do a long hike from Tsubakuro to Ontenjo before moving on to Jonen and Chou and then descending to the onsen area below.  It could also be concluded by hiking down to Kamikochi.  A more challenging variation would be to do the entire Omote Ginza trail and hit Yari as the final peak.

The peak of Mount Jonen in spring.

Q:  Anything you’d like to do again (if you only had the time)?

A: Sure, it’s a bit of a lazy choice, but I’d love to head up to the Karasawa Col and set up a tent at the campsite there.  I’d enjoy a relaxing beer at the lodge then, while getting ready to sleep, I could take in  the site of all the colored tents being lit up from with to gradually form a beautiful mosaic of reds, blues and yellows.

Bottoms up. Beer at a great height is just the best. (Pictured: Mount Shirouma, summer of 2012.  photo: Tammy Akahane).

See all those colorful tents?

Well, they’re really magical by night. (photos: Tammy Akahane).

Q: What’s your favorite time of year enjoy the mountains?

A: I’d say late September into October.  There are no issues with snow, you don’t sweat as much and the crowds aren’t quite as bad as summer.  I can’t stress the sweat factor enough.  It can be really grueling doing long hikes in the summer heat, especially for someone who grew up used to Irish weather.

Q: OK, so when it comes to different kinds of alpine activity, such as trekking or technical climbing, which do you prefer?

A: I like to do either multi-day trips or technically challenging shorter routes.  You don’t want to mix the two as carrying the equipment necessary for both would completely wreck you over the course of the journey.

Don’t let Brian’s modesty fool you. He’s got some moves in his locker!

Q: Let’s talk alpine wildlife in Nagano.  What’s your favorite critter to have a run-in with?

A:  Like everyone, I love raicho and have seen them with all stages of their changing plumage from snow white to brown to somewhere in between.  But my favorite thing to see is that bemused look in a Kamoshika’s eyes when it spots a human.  It’s not afraid or really even interested, but it acknowledges you just the same.  It’s quite charming, somehow.

“Oh…it’s you.” The Japanese Serrow (Kamoshika to his friends) offers a typically deadpan reception.

Q: How about food.  What do you usually prepare for a long excursion in the mountains?

A: For me, a camping stove with a pot for boiling water is a must.  I like a bit of nabe at the end of the day.  Dehydrated rice (available from popular alpine sport retailers like Ishii Sports) is great for carb-loading on the go.  I will often boil up some soup and combine it with rice for a midday meal.

Q: Aaaaand for our final question, any plans for Mountain Day this year?

A: (Laughs) Well, I’ll have to ask the wife about that.  With two young kids, including a newborn, I can just run off to the mountains for the weekend.   I spoke about enjoying mountain scenery before, so I might head to the lakes in Omachi to cool off and enjoy the alpine climate during the hottest time of the year.

Q:  Brilliant!  Thanks for your time, Brian.

A:  Not at all.  Keep in touch.

(For info on Matsumoto Backpackers, visit their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/MatsumotoBackpackers/?ref=br_rs or head to their homepage http://matsumotobp.com/ja/ )

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That’s all for today’s profile.  We hope you enjoyed it and invite you to join us for an all new profile of a new guest tomorrow!