Kaburi Pass (508m) and Amagoi Hill (574m), Hanno City, Saitama Prefecture, Sunday, May 15, 2022

I wanted to hike in the hills close to Tokyo to enjoy the the new green of Spring. I had already done most of the trails in the Oku-Musashi area, but looking at my hiking map, I found two interesting trails I hadn’t done yet; between them, was a trail I had done more than ten years ago in the autumn which I was happy to do again in a different season. I would take a train to Moroyama and from there a taxi to Kamakita lake; I would end at Kuroyama from where I could catch a bus back to Ogose. Since the travel time was relatively short, I wouldn’t have to leave at the crack of dawn. Although there were no summits on the way, I hoped to get some good views from the “Green Road”. The weather was supposed to be mostly clear with pleasant temperatures. I was looking forward to exploring some new trails and enjoying a relaxing Spring hike.

View of the Hanno Alps from Kaburi Pass

Spider taking a break on an Iris

I rode the Tobu line under cloudy skies and arrived at Moroyama station a little past 10am. Since the bus to Kamakita lake wasn’t running on Sundays, I took a taxi instead and was ready to hike by 11am, just as the sun came was coming out of the clouds. I was surprised how greener everything looked since my previous visit one month ago; rather than cherry blossoms, I got to enjoy many Irises (“shaga“) on the side of the road.

The sun breaking through the clouds

A pleasant path up to the “Green Line”

At a bend in the road, I spotted the trail entrance past a stream running through grassy area dotted with irises. I followed an easy to walk path through the forest, enjoying the sound of bird song, and reached a junction with a ridge trail running parallel to the Oku-Musashi Green Line (奥武蔵グリーンライン) just after 12h30. From there, I followed a mostly level road to Kaburi Pass (顔振峠) where I had good view of the Hanno Alps on the other side of the valley.

An easy to walk trail through the forest

Hazy view of the Kanto plain from Amagoi Hill

I followed a small trail above the pass to a viewpoint of the Kanto plain on the east side, also the summit of Amagoi Hill (雨乞い塚 あまごいづか amagoizuka). It was 1h3o, so I sat down on a tree stump for a late lunch. The sun had gone back into the clouds and the view was hazy. I was only the only person there and it was very peaceful. At 2pm, I continued my hike and walked along the road, past Kanto Adventures, to the start of the descent towards Kuroyama. Halfway down, I passed the eerie statue of En no Gyoja at the top of some rocks in a clearing.

“En no Gyoja” statue on the way to Kuroyama waterfall

A small waterfall not part of the Kuroyama 3 waterfalls

Shortly after 3h15, I reached a stream at the base of the mountain; it led me to the 3 waterfalls of Kuroyama (黒山三滝), Tengu-Taki (天狗滝), Medaki (女滝) and Odaki (男滝), from where it was a short walk down the road to the bus stop. On the way back, I stopped off at the Ume no Yu hot spring for a refreshing bath, and then caught then next (and last) bus for the short ride to Ogose station from where it was a one hour ride on the Tobu line to Ikebukuro.

See the flowers and hear the birdsong of the Amagoi hill hike

Mt Arikasa (873m), Nakanojo Town, Gunma Prefecture, Sunday, May 8, 2022

I wanted to squeeze in one more hike before the end of Golden week after recovering from the three previous ones. I decided to visit Nakanojo in Gunma, as it was an area I was interested in exploring more. I found a three-hour loop in a booklet I picked up on my last visit; this mountain wasn’t in my guidebook, nor shown on any of my maps, so I had to rely on information online. I would ride the shinkansen to Takasaki, where I would transfer to the Agatsuma line. After getting off at Nakanojo, I could catch a bus for Sawatari Onsen, the last stop on the line. The hike itself went around a rocky, isolated peak, also a popular climbing area, with a short round-trip to the flat top on the south side. I was concerned about that part, as it included chains and ladders; I would have to proceed with caution going up, and even more on the way down. The weather was supposed to be clear and not too hot. I was looking forward to going to Nakanojo again and visiting a new hot spring town hidden in the mountains of Gunma.

View west from below “The Ladder”

Bus heading back to Nakanojo with Mt Arikasa in the background

It was a blue sky day as I rode the shinkansen, and then the local train, to Nakanojo. Around 10h30, I boarded a bus for Sawatari Onsen (沢渡温泉), my first time to ride this line. I got off at the last stop, just past the hot spring town, near a bridge over the Sawatori river. Straight ahead, I had a good view of today’s mountain, an isolated peak jutting straight up out of the green forest. As I got ready at the nearby Seseragi Park (せせらぎ公園), I wondered how the trail would get to the top of the rock. At 1130, I set off along a road, and half an hour later, just before another bridge over the river, I turned left onto a forest road.

Forest road leading to the West Entrance

Interesting rock formation in the middle of the forest

I had some more impressive views of today’s climb, after arriving at a fork in the road. I took the right branch for the West Entrance (西口), which I reached a little after noon. I followed the trail straight up the mountain side and soon reached an open shelter in the middle of the forest. I took a short break and then continued on my way. At 12h30, I reached a turnoff for a natural rock formation, resembling a dolmen, visible through the trees on the right. After circling it and peering through the gap in the middle, I resumed my climb.

The funny “Hahaha” sign (left) / Climbing “The Ladder” (right)

Start of the climb up “The Ladder”

The path turned right under some cliffs, the higher parts hidden by the green canopy of the trees ; here and there, I spotted chains used by rock climbers. At 1pm, I arrived at the East Entrance (東口) trail junction and the start of the roundtrip for the summit; I followed the path as it wound clockwise around the steep summit and passed a funny sign informing me that I was at an elevation of 888 meters, read as “Hahaha” in Japanese (ハハハ). Very soon, I was walking through a rocky area with views to the west through the trees; looking down, I realised I was at the edge of a cliff.

View south from the rocky outcrop

The very green East Entrance

I had also reached the chain and ladder section, called “The Ladder” (梯子); I climbed with care, but near the end I couldn’t advance while keeping three points of contact at all times; after some consideration, I finally found a way, and after fixing it in my mind for the return, continued with the ascent, now in a counter-clockwise direction. A few minutes later, I reached a rocky outcrop from where I had a view south of forested hills. Soon after, I arrived at the flat top of Mt Arikasa (有笠山 ありかさやま arikasayama), a Gunma 100 famous mountain. I couldn’t see anything through the trees, so I headed back almost at once; I got down “The Ladder” safely, and since it was 1h30, found a good place to sit for lunch, at a safe distance from the cliff edge. Afterwards, I continued along the trail, now heading downhill towards the East entrance.

The well-maintained “promenade” above Sawatari Onsen

View of Sawatari onsen, a secret hot spring resort in Gunma

As I passed under the cliffs, I could hear the voices of climbers echoing above. I walked along the forest road to the junction I had passed earlier in the day, and then made my way back to Seseragi Park. Since it was just past 3pm, I decided to follow a “promenade” (遊歩道), a short, well-maintained trail on the hillside above the hot spring resort. It took me past a small shrine surrounded by bright red Azalea, with good views of Mt Arikasa and Sawatari Onsen. At 4pm, I dropped by Ryumeikan (龍鳴館), for a quick hot bath before catching the bus back to Nakanojo. Once back in Takasaki, I rode the green car of the Shonan-Shinjuku line back to Tokyo, bringing to an end a series of successful golden week hikes.

See the views along the Mt Arikasa hike

Mt Sakado (634m), Minami-Uonuma City, Niigata Prefecture, Thursday, May 5, 2022

For my third trip using the Tokyo Wide Pass, I decided to head north to Niigata: reachable via shinkansen and covered by the pass; the beautiful May weather was supposed to last for one more day in the Yuzawa area. Looking at my hiking map, I found a suitable mountain that promised some good views, also the site of an ancient castle, and close to a train station. The hike was under three hours, which was fine, since it would be my third one in as many days. From Echigo-Yuzawa station, I would ride a local line for a few stops, and then walk to the start of the trail; since it was a loop hike, I could travel the same way back. The forecast announced blue skies again, but also summer-like temperatures. I was a little concerned as this hike was 1000 meters lower than the two previous ones, but I was excited about visiting Niigata again after nearly two years and seeing the Echigo mountains in spring.

The Echigo mountains in spring

Mt Kinjo, climbed two years ago

It was another beautiful May day as I rode the nearly empty shinkansen to Echigo-Yuzwa, where I transferred to the JR line for the short ride to Muikamachi. Standing outside the station, I had a view of today’s mountain, looking more impressive than it had on paper. I walked through the town and over the Uono river, reaching the trailhead at Torisaka Shrine (鳥坂神社) just before 11am. I was surprised to see some snow in the shade, even though I was only 200 meters above sea level. I didn’t make me feel any cooler as I started up the Yakushi Ridge Route (薬師尾根コース) on what was so far the hottest day of the year.

First view to the south of the Joshin-Etsu mountains

Climbing the log steps under the midday sun

I made my way up a grassy slope, lined with a handful of Buddhist statuettes. I soon reached the first viewpoint of the day: looking south, I could make out Mt Tanigawa and Mt Naeba in the midday haze, still white with snow. Contrary to my expectations, from this point forward the path was out of the tree cover, and it felt very hot under the midday sun. On the other hand, thanks to the clear weather, I enjoyed amazing views back of the flat Yuzawa valley, as the path followed a narrow ridge, that eventually merged with the summit ridgeline. Looking south again, I could now see Mt Kinjo, patches of snow still covering its top half.

Looking back at Muikamachi Town

One of the flat sections of the Yaukushi Ridge Route

The steeper sections of the trail were fitted with log steps, making it easy to climb; higher up, there was even a metal staircase. Just before 1pm, I arrived at the small wooden shrine marking the summit of Mt Sakado 坂戸山(さかどやま sakado-yama). Although the summit of yesterday’s mountain seemed artificial, today’s summit was man-made, all that was left of the highest point of Sakado castle. On the north and east sides, I had a spectacular view of the 3 great mountains of Echigo covered in snow: Mt Hakkai, Mt Echigo-Koma and Mt Naka. I found a spot in the shade and sat down for lunch. Once done, I made a short round-trip to a couple more grassy mounds along the eastern ridge, also part of the castle ruins.

The steeper bits were fitted with log steps (left) and metal ones (right)

Looking down at Minami-Uonuma City

I was rewarded with amazing views in all directions; it almost felt like I was hiking in Switzerland. I also saw many Mangolia flowers (tamushiba) along the path. At 2pm, I started to head down the Shirosaka Route (城坂コース). Very quickly the path dived into the forest, the cool shade a welcome relief; however, I was soon out of the trees again at the top of a steep valley. I followed a switchback path while enjoying the bird’s eye views of the flat valley below, framed on both sides by bright green ridges. It was the hottest time of the day and amazingly many people were still going up. Half an hour later, I reached a famous cherry blossom spot near the flatter base of the mountain.

A side view of Mt Hakkai

Making the roundtrip along the east-west ridge

I was shocked to see many trees broken in half: apparently an avalanche had swept down the steep mountain side during the winter. However, I was amazed to see some flowers still in full bloom on one of the damaged trees (see video), a sign of hope among the destruction; this also meant that I had seen cherry blossoms on all 3 hikes. I followed the now level path, and after passing under some cedar trees, I was back at my starting point by 3pm. It took about an hour for the return to Echigo-Yuzawa station, where I enjoyed a hot spring bath and some local sake, before boarding the shinkansen for the eighty minute ride to Tokyo.

A switchback path down the Shirosaka Route

See the views of Mt Sakado in the spring

A slideshow of some more photos of the Mt Sakado hike

Mt Meshimori (1643m), Minamimaki Village, Nagano Prefecture, Wednesday, May 4, 2022

For my second trip using the Tokyo Wide Pass, I chose another relatively easy mountain opposite Yatsugatake and about fifty kilometers south of the previous hike. I would travel to Kobuchizawa using the Chuo limited express, change to the Koumi line for Nobeyama, and finally hop on a bus for Shishi Rock, just opposite the trail entrance. After reaching the summit, I would descend via a different trail to Kiyosato, one station before Nobeyama. The sunny May weather was supposed to hold one more day, with slightly warmer temperatures. I was looking forward to visiting Kiyosato again, and seeing Yatsugatake from a new angle and in a different season.

Yatsugatake still topped in white in the middle of spring

The conical top of Mt Meshimori

I arrived at Kobuchizawa shortly before 10am on a perfect, blue-sky day, and boarded the highest train line in Japan for the 45 minutes ride to the highest train station in Japan, Nobeyama (1345m). It was my first time there and the wide open fields surrounding it gave the impression of being on a high plateau. I had planned to get some extra food from a 7\11 near the station, the highest convenience store in Japan, but the free loop bus was leaving in a few minutes, and I decided to get on rather than wait for the next one.

View of Yatsugatake from Shishi Rock

The South Alps also visible from Shishi Rock

I has some a great side view of Yatsugatake during the ten-minute ride to Hirasawa pass (平沢峠); although the surrounding countryside was bright green, the higher reaches of this ancient volcano were still of a brilliant white. Before starting my hike, I checked out the rocky formation of Shishi-iwa (しし岩 meaning lion rock); standing on the highest rock, I could see the Minami Alps to the south. After a short climb, I passed the flat summit of Mt Hirasawa (平沢山 1653m), from where it was a mostly an easy, level walk to a trail junction. I went left and after a short climb, arrived at the exposed and windy peak of Mt Hiramori (平盛山 1643m).

Near the Mt Hiramori (left) and Mt Meshimori (right) junction

The rounded summit of Mt Hiramori

Looking south, I could see the conical shape of today’s mountain, miniature people walking up and down the steps on the western side: it seemed almost man-made and reminded me of the “Lion’s Mound” in Belgium. To the east, I could see the highest peaks of Oku-Chichibu, Mt Kinpu, and Mt Miuzugaki with its blue-grey cliffs. After a short break, I set off again, and a few minutes later, arrived at the top of Mt Meshimori (飯盛山 めしもりやま meshimori-yama), just after 1pm. Its name could be translated as “a pile of food” which only made me hungrier, since I hadn’t packed a lunch today.

View of Yatsugatake from near the top of Mt Meshimori

View of the highest peaks of Oku-Chichibu

After enjoying the panoramic view, which included a faintly visible Mt Fuji, I headed down the western side; surrounded by pine trees and facing a view of the Alps on the left and Yatsugatake on the right, I almost felt like I was hiking in the Swiss Alps. At 1h30, I arrived at an intersection with a forest road near an open shelter. Here, I was delighted to see some cherry blossoms near full bloom, since I had thought I had already seen the last ones of the season. I continued down the path through green forest and soon arrived at a road outside a village. Beyond, the road descended into a river valley and then up the other side.

Walking towards Kiyosato

Walking through the new green of spring

It was only 2pm when I arrived at Kiyosato so, I hopped on another loop bus (this one had a flat fee) for Sun Meadows, where I got on a chairlift for Kiyosato Terrace (1906m), a viewpoint halfway up Mt Yatsugatake. Like the day before, I got to observe the mountain where I had been just two hours earlier. A ton of people were lining up for the return trip, so I opted to walk down to Utsukushi Mori (美し森 meaning beautiful forest). It was a peaceful walk, on a path little used this time of the year. I passed the lonely Hagoromo Pond (羽衣池 1610m) before arriving at a viewpoint on Mt Utsukushimori (美し森山 1542m) at 4pm.

View of the highest peaks of Yatsugatake from Utsukushi Mori

Last view before heading down to Utsukushi Mori bus stop

It enjoyed one last view of the South Alps, as well as a closeup view of Mt Aka and Mt Gongen, before heading down to the bus stop just a few minutes away, where I caught the same loop bus back to Kiyosato station. I had half an hour before the train back so I had a local beer and some food at a table outside a nearby Family mart. Around 5pm, I boarded the Koumi line and transferred to the Chuo limited express in Kobuchizawa for the comfortable two-hour ride back to Shinjuku.

See the views of Mt Meshimori

Mt Sekison (1667m) & Mt Hanare (1256m), Karuizawa Town, Nagano Prefecture, Tuesday, May 3, 2022

I finally had a chance to use the Tokyo Wide Pass,first time in four years, and in the end I did three hikes in a row. For the first one, I chose a small volcanic protrusion on the south side of Mt Asama (similar to Mt Hoei), which had been on my to-climb list for a while; being a relatively short trip up and down the same trail, it was reserved for a shinkansen jaunt. If I had time and energy after that, I would climb a small peak within Karuizawa Town, apparently the first one climbed by the Japanese Emperor, an enthusiastic hiker. After getting off the high-speed train, a short train ride on a local line, followed by an equally short taxi ride, would bring me to the start of the trail. I could travel to the second mountain by local bus, and at the end, walk half an hour back to the shinkansen station. The weather was supposed to be clear but cool for the season. I was looking forward to visiting Karuizawa after nearly two years and getting some close-up views of Mt Asama.

Hiking in the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park 

Mt Asama still wearing its winter coat

Karuizawa with Mt Myogi and Nishi-Joshu in the background

I had never seen Tokyo station so crowded: on the platform itself, it was nearly impossible to figure out where the end of the line was, and I was very lucky to snag one of the last unreserved seats. After a comfortable ride, I got off at Karuizawa station just before 10am, and transferred to the much less crowded Shinano railway for the two-stop ride to Shinano-Oiwake. I was pleasantly surprised to see cherry trees still in full bloom, one month after Tokyo. I got on the last taxi waiting outside the station and was at the trail entrance by 10h30. After getting ready and having a late breakfast, I set off at 11am.

Walking under the pine trees at the start of the trail

The surreal Nigori River

The first part of the hike was along an easy to walk trail, slowly rising through a pine forest within the southern reach of the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park (上信越高原国立公園). The altitude was around 1000 meters and spring was in full swing. Just before noon, I reached Nigori River (濁川 meaning “murky river”). I was stunned by its surreal yellow colour, probably due to the volcanic nature of the area. I was lucky to catch this sight on a sunny day, the water surface glittering like gold. After a few more minutes, I reached Chi-no-taki (血の滝), meaning “blood waterfall”, although it was still a muddy yellow.

Following a yellow river through the winter woods

Mt Asama, one of the hundred famous mountains of Japan

I was walking through a forest bare of leaves, since at 1400 meters, winter was back. The path continued to follow the Nigori river, passing “chi-no-ike” (血の池 “blood pond”), before turning away to the left, up a small valley. I soon reached the ridgetop, where I had my first view of Mt Asama, its rocky summit still sprinkled with snow. I walked up a short, steep slope in the opposite direction, and just after 1pm, was standing on the top of Mt Sekison (石尊山 せきそんさん sekison-san), its characters meaning stone and respect.

Yatsugatake, its highest peaks still covered in snow

Mt Asama is also an active volcano

The view was alot better than expected: on the east side, I could see the ridge connecting Mt Hanamagari with Usui Pass; behind Karuizawa was the craggy top of Mt Myogi; south were the mountain ranges of western Gunma; to the west, I could make out the shape of Yatsugatake, its highest peaks still shining white; the opposite side offered a stunning closeup view of Mt Asama. I was the only person on the mountain, so I settled on the grass for a quiet lunch. After half an hour, I started to descend the same way.

Still some snow due to a recent spring storm

It’s still winter above 1500 meters

I saw some puffs of smoke rise from the crater, reminding me that I was on the side of an active volcano. I retraced my steps back to the trail entrance; now and then the wind was blowing quite hard and made the tall pines trees sway above me. I moved quickly, as I wanted to allow enough time for the second climb of the day. I arrived back at my starting point at 3pm, and soon after reached the bus stop of the Chikuma city bus. Karuizawa being a popular resort town, I got stuck in some traffic and only reached the South Entrance of Harareyama Park (離山公園 after 4pm.

A well-maintained walkway along the steeper parts

Nearing the top

It was a relaxing climb through the forest, greener at 1000 meters; the steeper part near the top was along a well-maintained wooden walkway. Frequent signs breaking up the hike into 100 meter segments, were encouraging on the flat bits, less so on the ascending ones. At the end of a long staircase past some cherry trees still in full bloom, I reached the top of Mt Hanare (離山 はなれやま hanare-yama), the name meaning separation. To the west, I had a wider view of Mt Asama, as well as Mt Sekison, where I had been standing three hours earlier; it was against the sun, and would surely look even more impressive in the early morning.

Mt Asama from the top of Mt Hanare

Cherry blossoms, pink in the late afternoon sun

I was enjoying the late afternoon view when the five o’clock chime sounded through the valley. Normally, a call for children to come home for dinner, it also meant I had to hurry down if I wanted to catch my planned Shinkansen, about one hour later. I set off towards the East Entrance, and after some descending, I reached a wide gravel road taking me down to the base of the mountain. The last part was a pleasant walk past summer cottages set within the forest, for which Karuizawa is famous. At 6pm, I was back at the station, where I boarded the high speed train for the one hour ride back to Tokyo.

See the yellow waters of Nigori River and the volcanic fumes of Mt Asama

Mt Ozaku (879m) & Mt Gassan (890m), Kanuma City, Tochigi Prefecture, Sunday, April 17, 2022

I had been wanting to climb the first peak for several years, one of the few remaining from my list of the Kanto hundred famous. I kept on postponing it, since the hike went up and down rocky sections fitted with ladders and chains, and thus required dry weather and a good level of fitness. The stars lined up in mid-April, and I decided to grab the small window of opportunity. To get there, I would need to take a taxi to the start of the trail, since the morning bus left too early for the train from Tokyo. After the short loop hike described in my mountains of Tochigi guidebook, I would have ample time to catch the early afternoon bus back. I was looking forward to visiting one of my favourite hiking spots and experiencing what seemed like an exciting trail.

Looking at Gassan from Ozaku-yama

The sky was disappointingly grey as I left Tokyo on the Nikko line limited express, although patches of blue started to appear as I approached Shin-Kanuma station at 9am, giving me reason to hope; however, the clouds reasserted themselves during the twenty minute taxi ride to the entrance of the Kasoyama Shrine (加蘇山神社). I followed a small road for about 15 minutes to the shrine itself, perched on top of a long flight of stone steps. I spotted the trail on the left, past a small wooden gate topped with tuffs of green moss, with towering cedar trees on each side.

Steps leading to Kasoyama Shrine

The start of the trail

I walked along a level path surrounded by the new green of spring, here and there yellow Japanese buttercups adding touches of yellow. I passed the small “kiyotaki” waterfall (清滝), and after some gentle climbing, reached a small rest house, next to the slightly bigger “ryugataki” waterfall (竜ヶ滝). A little further, the trail split in two: I took the left branch as it included the trickier sections best tackled on the ascent; later on, I would descend via the right branch. The path suddenly became steep and rocky, and required more careful walking. I arrived at a second rest house just before 11am where I took a break.

Kiyotaki waterfall and Japanese buttercups

Ryugataki waterfall (left) stone lantern along the trail (right)

Before me rose a long rocky face fitted with a pair of parallel chains. Even though I had seen pictures beforehand, it seemed amazing that a path led straight up. After securing my pockets and tightening the straps of my bag, I proceeded with caution, as the surface, still damp from the morning dew, was slippery. At the end of the chained section, a long steel ladder led to a oku-no-miya (奥ノ宮), a tiny, off-trail shrine, hidden under a rocky crop. After a quick investigation, I continued along the main trail, as it cut around the rocky face to the south, wisely avoiding the direct approach.

Rocky section fitted with chains on the way up

A more dangerous section fitted with ladders

The chains and ladders soon reappeared, and there was even a short bridge along a narrow ridge with steep drops on each side. All this equipment seemed new and securely fastened, and for a while, I could enjoy the thrilling aspect of walking along the side of a rocky cliff, the thick vegetation masking the views and providing a false sense of security. Here and there, I could see pink rhododendron (“shakunage“), the flowers being in bloom precisely at this time of the year. At 11h3o, I reached the ridge top with a sense of relief and a few minutes later, I was standing on top of Higashi Kennomine (東剣ノ峰) where I had a view of today’s first summit directly north.

Shakunake near the top (left); ladder between east and west kennomine (right)

View to the west near the summit of Mt Ozaku

The next section was the scariest of the entire route: a long descent via a steep ladder. I moved slowly but steadily, always making sure to keep three points of contact at all times. At the base, after a short climb, I reached Nishi Kennomine (西剣ノ峰). There was a view on the east side, but today, all I could see was white. I continued down the other side and was faced with another series of ladders, less steep this time, at the bottom of which was yet another climb. Hoping this would be the last one, I charged off and in no time reached the top of Mt Ozaku (石裂山 おざくやま ozaku-yama meaning “split stone”), a Kanto 100-famous mountain. The only view was through a gap in the trees on the north side, through which I could see today’s next peak. The narrow summit was occupied by a large group, so I retreated to another spot with a view west, just a couple of minutes away.

Heading down a steep and rocky ridge

Lower down, walking alongside a rocky face

It felt chilly, almost as if winter was making an encore. I sat down for a quick lunch before resuming my hike. At 1pm, I reached the summit of Mt Gassan (or Tsukiyama 月山, meaning “moon mountain”). It had a lichen-covered shinto gate, a bunch of shakunage flowers and an old thermometer attached to the summit sign, the mercury level showing just below the 10° mark. After a short break, I descended a steep rocky ridge, then turned right onto a switchback path through cedar trees. I reached another chain-fitted rocky bit, at the back of the large group I met on the summit. They graciously let me pass ahead of them; I had to be doubly careful not to make a false move in front of an audience.

A lonely Kamoshika enjoying the spring leaves

A rare sight, especially at such a low altitude

I was now walking through an impressive canyon, a rock face on my right and a small stream on my left. Eventually, it widened into a valley, the new green of spring reappearing at the lower altitude. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted movement high on the opposite slope – a solitary “kamoshika” or Japanese serow, munching on the new leaves; I hadn’t seen one since Mt Kushigata, three years ago. After observing this rare and magical sight for a while, I moved on quickly; I was still on schedule, but couldn’t afford to miss the only bus of the afternoon. On the opposite side of the valley, I noticed scores of fallen trees, probably due to the powerful typhoons of recent years; looking up through the gap in the forest, I saw blue sky, at last.

Walking back to the trail entrance

Better weather at the end of the day

I carefully stepped on green moss-covered rocks to cross the stream I had been following, reaching the junction and the rest house I had passed earlier in the day. It was now 2pm and only half an hour to go, so I could complete the hike at a relaxed pace. I checked out a small pool of water next to the path and discovered dozens of tadpoles in the shallow water, also a rare sight, since I hadn’t seen any since 2019. I also saw some “mitsumata” flowers, last seen on Mt Ashitaka the previous year. I arrived safely back at the bus stop under blue skies, the day’s forecast finally coming true. At 3pm, I got on the small bus for Shin-Kanuma station, where I transferred to the limited express for the 90-minute ride to Tokyo.

See the sights of Mt Ozaku and Mt Gassan

The flowers of Tochigi in the spring

Mt Tokko (1266m), Ueda City, Nagano Prefecture, Sunday, April 10, 2022

My last hike to the Ueda area had been less than 6 months ago, but I wanted to enjoy the views of Nagano again during the last clear days of early spring. I would climb a mountain south of Bessho Onsen, a famous hot spring resort, easily accessible from Tokyo by Shinkansen and local train; from the station, I could catch a local bus to the start of the trail. My guidebook recommended a five-hour loop hike combining two of the three trails on the mountain. On top of blue skies all day, the weather was supposed to be unseasonably warm, meaning that I could dress lightly. I was looking forward to getting views of the snow-covered North Alps, as well as enjoying a relaxing hot spring bath at the end.

View north from Daruma-iwa

Mt Tokko during plum blossom season

I didn’t see a single cloud in the sky on the 70-minute shinkansen ride to Ueda, where I switched to the Bessho line. Half an hour later, I got off at the charming Bessho Onsen station (別所温泉), the last stop on the line. Fresh off the platform, I was greeted by two ladies dressed in kimonos, who kindly directed me to the bus stop behind the station, marked by a bright red sign. A ten-minute ride on a light blue bus brought me to Chuuzenji Temple (中禅寺) at the foot of today’s mountain, and a ten-minute walk up a paved road led me to a fence with a gate, and the entrance of today’s hike.

Some sun filtering through the cedar trees on the way up

View east of Azuma-yama and Asama-yama

I spent a few minutes studying a beautiful and detailed hand-drawn map of the path to the top, displayed in front of the fence, before passing through it and heading into shady cool cedar forest. Although it was only 10h30, I was already feeling quite warm. I followed to a small stream and soon reached Fudo waterfall (不動滝). I left the stream behind, and after passing through a patch of camphor trees still bare of needles, made my way up a steep switchback path, some sections lined with rope to assist the unsteady hiker.

Mt Asama without its characteristic plume of smoke

The Japanese North Alps still in their winter coat

At 11h30, I had my first views of through the leafless trees; it felt odd to be in short sleeves surrounded by a winter landscape. A few minutes later, I reached the top of the ridge where I turned left. Pine trees were growing here and there and the air was filled with birdsong. After a short scramble, I arrived at Daruma Rock (だるま岩), an oval shaped rock, protruding from the mountain side like a pimple. Hidden behind was a rocky platform with a wide view of the valley. In the distance, I could see the white peaks of the North Alps, Togakushi highland, Mt Azuma, and Mt Asama, for once without its distinctive plume of smoke.

Mt Komayumi with the North Alps in the background

A solitary pine tree at the summit with Mt Tateshina on the far right

After enjoying the wide views, the best of the day, I set off again. I soon arrived at a junction, where I turned left, and after one last climb, reached the top of Mt Tokko (独鈷山 とっこさん tokko-san) just after noon. To the north, I had similar views as before; to the south, I could now see Mt Tateshina and the Utsukushi-ga-hara plateau. Even though I was over 1000 meters high, it still felt too hot to sit in the sun. Fortunately, a lone pine tree provided some shade, so I sat down for lunch. At 1pm, I made my way back to the junction, and followed the Miyazawa trail (宮沢コース) for a few meters, before taking the right branch for the Sawayamaike trail (沢山池コース).

Following the Sawayamaike Trail

Looking out on the southern side of Mt Tokko

This trail was surprisingly hard to follow; I frequently had to stop to look for strips of pink ribbons indicating the way. Occasionally, I passed white signposts stuck to trees, reassuring me that the narrow ridge I was following was indeed a hiking path. I had no views and saw no one as I followed the undulating ridge westwards. At 2pm, I turned right, down a narrow valley through which flowed a small stream. The path was still faint and in rather bad condition, forcing me to step carefully and continue to hunt for signs of the route.

Walking along the valley near the end of the hike

View of Joshinetsu-kogen from Shitakuike

About an hour later, I reached a deserted road at the end of the trail, which I then followed to the right. I was soon walking through the Nagano countryside in early spring mode, plum trees in full bloom. To my right, I had a side view of Mt Tokko, and I could appreciate the ridge I had followed after lunch. I stopped by Shitakuike pond (舌喰池) to admire the view of the mountains of Joshinetsu highland. Since it was only a couple of kilometers back to the station, I decided to walk, and was rewarded with seeing Japanese pheasants hunting for food next to the road (see video). I was back at the station with enough time for a hot bath at the modern Aisome no Yu (あいそめの湯) before my 4h30 train back to Ueda, where I caught the high-speed train for Tokyo.

See the sights and hear the sounds of Mt Tokko

Akigawa Hills Trail (highest point 270m) & Takiyama Park, Hachioji City, Tokyo Prefecture, Friday, April 8, 2022

Cherry blossom season ended had ended early in Tokyo this year. I decided to search for the last blossoms in the western part of the city. I would start by walking along the hills south of the Akigawa river, from Akigawa station to Musashi-Masuko station on the Itsukichi line. Then, I would make my way to a nearby prefectural park, famous for its cherry blossom trees. At the end, I would catch a bus for Hachioji station. The weather forecast was good with temperatures ideal for an afternoon stroll. I was looking forward to doing some hiking inside the city and seeing the last sakura of the season.

First part of the Akigawa Hills Trail

It was a beautiful spring day as I stepped off the train at Akigawa station. It was a little after noon, so I stopped by nearby Kiryu-an for an excellent soba noodle lunch. After, I stopped at the nearby Chiyotsuru museum (千代鶴資料館), a famous brand by Nakamura, a local sake brewery (中村酒造). I could see some sake making equipment and also taste some freshly brewed sake.

Sign marking the start of the trail

Reaching the ridge top (left) cherry blossom trees (right)

At 2pm, I reached the trail entrance of the Akigawa Hills Route (秋川丘陵コース), next to the Ken-O expressway. I found myself immersed in nature as soon as I started walking along the trail; I was astounded by the sudden change in scenery. In no time, I reached the top of the ridge, where I turned left. The trail went up and down gently; occasionally I had views of the city to the right; looking up, I could spot cherry blossom trees here and there.

A bamboo forest tunnel

Some open spaces near the end of the trail

At 2h30, the trail went down the other side of the ridge and followed a small river valley for a short while. Eventually, I was walking again on the ridge; the trees had been cleared along some sections, offering good views north and south. Soon the path descended and after reaching a road, turned north alongside a golf course. At 3h30, I arrived at Yamada ridge, taking me accross the Akigawa river, after which it as a short walk back to Masuko station.

A view of western Tokyo from Takiyama park

Late afternoon stroll along the Takiyama trail

Since it was getting late, I took a taxi to the entrance of Takiyama Park (滝山公園). There were few people at this late hour. I found the cherry blossom trees, still in full bloom, as well as a good view of western Tokyo, where the Tamagawa and Akigawa merge. I walked southeast along the Takiyama trail and reached a road and a bus stop at 6pm, just before nightfall. After getting off at Hachioji station, I took the Chuo line limited express for the short ride back to Shinjuku station.

See a cherry blossom storm or “sakura-fubuki”

Mt Shiraki (616m), Mt Tsukiore (404m) & Fukuroda Falls, Daigo Town, Ibaraki Prefecture, Friday, March 25, 2022

I was looking for a low-altitude destination after recent snow in the Kanto area, as well as a suitable weekday hiking option. I settled on Ibaraki, since I could combine 3 hikes from my guidebook that allowed me to walk from a 100-famous village to a 100-famous waterfall. I had planned a hike around the waterfall 3 years ago, but had to postpone it after injuring my hand. More recently, I had planned another hike above the famous village, but could only reach the trail entrance via a weekday-only bus. Finally, after looking at a map of the area, I realised they were connected by a long ridge trail, normally too long for a daytrip, but possible thanks to the bus. Although it would my longest hike so far this year, it included relatively little climbing and ended at a train station, giving me some flexibility for the return. The forecast announced blue skies all day, although the temperature would be cool for the season. I was looking forward to seeing the views of the Daigo region on the last winter hike of the year and hoped that I could reach the train station before dark.

Looking back at the hike before reaching Mt Tsukiore

Looking north from the Number 2 viewpoint

I rode the surprisingly full Hitachi limited express to Mito, where I transferred to the comfortably empty Suigun line. I got off at Hitachi-Daigo a little after 10h30, about 130km northeast of Tokyo, and felt like I had stepped into a different world: although I was still in Kanto, this was rural Japan, with just a few low buildings and local shops surrounding the station. A few minutes later, I boarded a local bus, first taking me behind the falls where I would end my hike, and then down a valley parallel to the ridge I would follow back. I was the only passenger and got off after just 20 minutes in the middle of nowhere. I followed a side road and soon arrived at the turn-off for Mochikata village (持方集落), a 100-famous village of Japan (日本の里百選 “nihon-no-sato-hyakusen“).

East view from near the top of the road for Mochikata village

Level ridge trail (left) vs steep descending trail (right)

As I walked up a gradually rising road, I spotted snow near the ridgetop; it made me worry that I might encounter wet slippery snow on the trail. I was soon distracted by wide views to the east; somewhere among those low mountains was Mt Tatsuware. At noon, I reached a pass and the trail entrance. After a short climb, the path became level and followed a narrow ridge, thankfully bare of snow. Although the surrounding trees were also bare of leaves, I couldn’t get a glimpse of the birds of prey whose calls I could hear while they circled the valley. I felt far from civilization, all alone on the trail and the view blocked in all directions by the branches. After another short climb, I reached the narrow summit of Mt Shiraki (白木山(しらきさん shiraki-san, meaning white tree). It was already 12h30, so I sat down for an early lunch. I was deprived of a view, but was entertained by a myriad of butterflies fluttering around under the sun. After barely 15 minutes, I resumed my hike.

Bridge leading to the start of the hidden valley

Most of the trail was in the sun and easy to walk

I now headed down a steep rocky path, and although it was lined with ropes for safety, I was amazed by the contrast with the previous section. At 1pm, I emerged onto a road and continued up a path on the other side. I was following an up and down ridge, twisting left and right through cedar trees; before I knew it, I couldn’t tell in which direction I was headed, till I got a reassuring glimpse of the Kuji river valley straight ahead through a break in the trees. Shortly after, I reached the junction with the trail for Mt Nantai and started down a zigzag path, and there, I suddenly came across snow. I proceeded with caution till the trail leveled and the snow vanished. I was now walking on a narrow path hugging the slope: it was the best section of the hike, along a hidden valley cut off from the outside world. A little after 2pm, I started to climb up out of the valley and 30 minutes later, I reached the first viewpoint of the day, officially called the Number 2 viewpoint (第二展望台 だいにてんぼうだい daini-tenboudai).

Late afternoon view from below the summit of Mt Tsukiore

Entrance to Tsukiore Kannon Temple (left) staircase leading to the falls (right)

Against the afternoon sun, the view was mostly outlines and shapes, but still impressive, because of the low hilly nature of the region. I set off again and at 3pm reached a second viewpoint, called the Number 1 viewpoint (第一展望台 だいいちてんぼうだい daiichi-tenboudai), as I was doing them in reverse; it was also the summit of Mt Nabekorogashi 422m (鍋転山 なべころがしやま nabekorogashi-yama, meaning rolling pot). I was somehow behind schedule so I had to pick up the pace. After a short up and down, I reached another viewpoint, on top of some rocks, and turning around, I could observe the ridge I had been following for most of the afternoon. At 3h30, I reached the easy to miss summit of Mt Tsukiore (月居山 つきおれさん tsukiore-san, meaning being on the moon), surrounded by trees again. Without delay, I made my way down another steep path, ending at Tsukiore Pass and the Tsukiore Kanon temple. After ringing the bell, I had to climb a long, steep staircase, the only reward being another long staircase down the other side.

Mt Namase-fuji, an impressive mountain I have yet to climb

Fukuroda falls, a 100 famous waterfall of Japan

Through the trees, I had a glimpse of the magnificent shape of Mt Namasefuji, with Fukuroda onsen nestled at its base; I look forward to climbing it in the future. Further down, I had one last view of the low hilly area on the east side. At 4pm, I finally reached the base of the Fukuroda falls (袋田の滝 ふくろだのたき), a 100-famous waterfall of Japan (日本の滝百選 “nihon-no-taki-hyakusen). I was lucky to catch it while bathed in the last rays of sunlight. After standing in awe of its raw power for a few moments, I pulled myself away for the last stretch of today’s long traverse. Although it was along the road, here and there I could see the plum trees, still in full bloom. I reached the charming station of Fukuroda a little after 4h30, well before sunset and in time for the local train back to Mito, where I switched to the limited express for the one hour ride back to Ueno.

Feel the awesome power of the Fukuroda Falls

Kinone Pass (171m) and Reisui Peak, Minamiboso City, Chiba Prefecture, Sunday, March 20, 2022

I definitely wanted to make one more trip to Chiba this year before the warmer weather arrived. Leafing through my guidebook, I selected a loop hike on the Tokyo bay side of the Boso peninsula. Although it was on the short side, access was straightforward as I could ride the Sasanami limited express there and back. The weather forecast was supposed to be sunny in the morning and cloudy in the afternoon. I was looking forward to getting some good sea views and wondered whether I would get a view of the Mt Fuji on the other side of the bay.

The yellow, red, blue of the beach house roofs

I had my first glimpses of Tokyo Bay from my train seat, ninety minutes after boarding the limited express in Akihabara; it was amazing to think that one of the biggest cities of the world was located on the opposite side. I got off at Iwai station just before 10am, and headed south on a busy road before turning left onto a quiet lane through the countryside. Next, I turned right onto a path parallel to the railway tracks, squeezed between the bay and the hillside. Half an hour later, I reached the entrance of Takasaki park (高崎公園) and continued straight on the slowly rising path.

View of Iwai bay from Takasaki Park

Navigating some course obstacles on the way

I was soon high enough to get a view of the colorful beach house rooftops. I turned left onto a curving log staircase, and at 11am, reached a viewpoint at the top of the park. I could see the dark blue waters of Tokyo and Sagami bays, with the outline of the Miura peninsula beyond; directly below, was Iwai bay, its light blue waters contrasting with the green forested ridge on the north side. As much as I strained my eyes, I could not spot Mt Fuji, normally visible to the northwest according to an illustrative sign board. After a short break, I headed back to the park entrance.

Panoramic view from Reisui peak

Yellow flower fields on the way to the Mt Harada highway

I turned right onto a road leading away from the blue sea and into the hills. I eventually reached the entrance of the hiking path on the left. It was a peaceful trail, through beautiful nature; occasionally I had to duck under a fallen tree, a reminder of the powerful typhoons from 2019. A little after 11h30, I reached Kinone Pass (木ノ根峠 きのねとうげ kinone-touge), its name meaning “tree root”. Despite being a pass, it’s one of the hundred low mountains of Boso; looking back, I had a view of Iwai bay framed by the vegetation. According to my guidebook, I could get a better view a little further east along the ridge.

Exiting the tunnel into a forested valley

These trees were probably knocked down by the 2019 typhoons

The trail was faint, but thanks to pink ribbons attached to branches, I emerged from the trees onto Reisui Peak (冷水ピーク), just before noon, and was rewarded with a panoramic view to the north: as before, I could see the two bays, Miura peninsula and Iwai beach; in the distance, I could now make out the skyscrapers of Yokohama, but Mt Fuji was still hidden; straight ahead, the ragged top of nearby Mt Nokogiri was visible. I sat on a lonely bench to enjoy an early lunch with a view. After, I went down the same way, and followed a road to a tunnel, the start of the “Harada-yama Sawayaka Gaidou” (原田山さわやか街道), built on top of an old highway.

The peaceful Iwabu lake

I was stunned by the sight of a picturesque, forested valley as I emerged from the unlit tunnel. I walked on a road with no traffic and passed through two more dark tunnels (see video). At 2pm, I reached Iwabuko Lake (岩婦湖 iwabuko), at the bottom of a slope lined with cherry blossom trees, their buds still firmly closed. The quiet of the lake was punctuated by birdsong coming from the trees on the opposite shore; a fisherman drifted across the lake on an inflatable floating device. I found a rocky spot near the water and enjoyed the rest of my lunch. From the lake it was another 30 minutes back to the station, where I caught the limited express for the 2 hour ride back to Tokyo.

See the views of Iwai bay, walk the dark tunnels of Mt Harada and listen to the birds of Iwabu lake