Mount Ishizuchi (石鎚山 Ishizuchi-san, 1982 m) is the tallest mountain on Shikoku. The name means Stone Hammer, a suitably awe-inspiring moniker for one of Japan's 7 Holy Mountains.
Most pilgrims only make it to the shrine at the foot of Ishizuchi, but if pulling yourself up the side of a mountain on iron chains sounds like a good time, the climb to the summit is for you.
Ishizuchi is believed to have been an active volcano about 15 million years ago. Designated as a national park in 1955, it has become a reserve for soaring falcons and sneaky dormice alike. The official climbing season is from July 1st until October, but the first day of the season is reserved for men only! It is, however, entirely possible to climb the mountain as early as May or as late as November, although facilities en route will be limited.
In the autumn (around mid-October), the hike up the mountain is a great way to view fall colors. However, on weekends during this time, the trail towards the summit becomes crowded and a bit congested with hikers (some with dogs in tow). In the winter, a ski and snowboarding resort operates on the same grounds. The Joju shrine is open around the year and is a popular place to visit on New Year's Day.
The closest train station is Iyo-Saijō on the JR Yosan Line from Matsuyama to Takamatsu. From Okayama, the Shiokaze Limited Express train makes hourly runs to Iyo-Saijō station (1 hour 50 minutes; ¥4940). The ride from Takamatsu is 90 minutes using the Ishizuchi limited express (¥4520).
From Iyo-Saijō, there are connecting buses to the start of the ropeway (1 hour, ¥970), but there are only 4 buses daily. They're run by the Seto Inland transportation service  (tel +081 0898-23-3450). The 10:23 bus is the last that will get you to Ishizuchi in time to make the climb and catch the last bus back (17:22). A detailed schedule can be found online (in Japanese).
The Ishizuchi #7, departing Takamatsu at 08:44, and the Shiokaze #3, departing Okayama at 08:30AM, will allow you to meet the 10:23 bus. From Matsuyama, the 09:12 Shiokaze #12 will also allow you to catch this bus. (Shiokaze and Ishizuchi trains generally split and combine at Utazu station.)
Mount Ishizuchi can also be reached from Matsuyama via Kuma Kogen town. This route requires taking the JR Bus from Matsuyama[dead link] to Kuma Kogen and transferring to the Iyotetsu Bus to Omogo. In the summer, and only on weekends, the same Iyotetsu bus goes directly to Ishizuchi Tsuchigoya[dead link].
Nearly everybody takes the Ishizuchi Tōzan Ropeway (石鎚登山ロープウェイ)  halfway up, although it's fairly steeply priced at ¥1000/1900 one-way/return. Make sure to start climbing early enough as the last ropeway returns at 18:00.
If you choose to walk instead, the "path" is poorly marked at best and quite dangerous in parts. It will take over two hours. It's quite a hike up from 450 m to 1300 m.
For many visitors, the final destination is Jōju (成就), the site of the main shrine grounds — a classically elegant and austere complex notable mostly for the variety of stone hammers on display here and there. The shrine is a leisurely 20-minute walk up from the ropeway station at an altitude of 1450 m.
The thing to do in these parts is, naturally, to climb up to the summit. Figure on 3 hours for the ascent and at least 2 hours for the descent. There are lockers at the ropeway station if you want to leave excess weight behind, although they are too small for most rucksacks; ask nicely and maybe the staff will stow your gear for you.
- The actual trail starts at Jōju, through a torii gate marked with the characters 登山口 (tōzanguchi). The initial section of the trail in fact descends for the first kilometer, back down to 1300 m.
- From the saddle point Hatchōzaka (八丁坂) starts an endless series of tiring wooden steps built into the mountainside to prevent erosion and landslides. Note that you will see a set of chains here, but the 74-m climb will only get you to a narrow peak of rocks with a beautiful view, and then you must climb back down.
- After an hour of slogging through the forest, you'll reach reach the Yoakashi Pass (夜明かし峠 Yoakashi-tōge, c. 1600 m) and see the last bit of Ishizuchi-san in front of you. Remaining distance to the peak is one kilometer, and remaining elevation to climb is 300 m. There is a barebones camp site not far from here, with no facilities other than a patch of grass, and you probably don't want to lug a tent and sleeping bag up here.
- This is where the fun starts. You can — and many do — take a circuitous (if still steep) ordinary path (迂回路) to the top. But the pilgrim thing is to climb up the near-vertical kusari (鎖), giant iron chains bolted to the cliffs. There are three sets of chains, measuring 33 m, 65 m and 68 m (in order). The chains have footholds, very useful for resting your feet, but a good pair of boots will still come in handy. The final 68 m ascent is the most hair-raising. Three points of contact at all times.
- Your reward is the peak of Misen (弥山, 1974 m), with great views of Shikoku all around. There is also a small shrine and lodge here.
- The actual summit, needle-sharp Tengudake (天狗岳, 1982 m), is right in front of you from here. Only a quick 15-minute hike away, the peak is sometimes off limits due to landslides that take the path with them.
Buy, eat & drink
There is a small group of souvenir shops and restaurants outside the Joju shrines. Most are open 07:00-19:00. Figure about ¥1000 for a small meal or ¥200 for a bowl of miso. There are also a few restaurants on the main road at the bottom of the ropeway.
Bring plenty of water if you intend to walk up to the ropeway station, and avoid drinking from the mountain streams. Bottled water is very expensive at the top, as is beer — about ¥600 for a can of Asahi.
- [formerly dead link] Chōjō-sansō (頂上山荘), ☏ +81 897-55-4168. The name is Japanese for "summit mountain lodge", an apt description of this mountain hut run by the temple. It's open from early May to early November. You will be expected to take all your garbage down with you. A night in fairly spartan accommodations with two meals will cost ¥8500.
- Ishizuchi Fureai-no-Sato (石鎚ふれあいの里), 1-25-1 Nakaoku, Saijo-shi, ☏ +81 897-59-0203. An excellent place to stay, 10 minutes down the road with a bus stop nearby. There is a little restaurant on grounds, bathing facilities with an ofuro (public bath), and barbecue pits. Note that this is really geared for larger groups, so call ahead to reserve and make sure the place is open (and not filled with grade schoolers). Comfortable and well-equipped cabins from ¥2920 for 2; basic rooms starting at ¥1170 per head, and riverside camping space (on gravel) at ¥200/person.
- Hinodeya Ryokan (日の出山旅館) 0897-59-0143 is located close to the Joju Shrine above the Ishizuchi Ropeway
- Tamaya Ryokan (玉屋旅館) 0897-59-0415 is located close to the Joju Shrine above the Ishizuchi Ropeway
- Shiraishi Ryokan (白石旅館) 0897-59-0032 is located close to the Joju Shrine above the Ishizuchi Ropeway