Hiking in Tohoku: Mt Karo (430m), Shinchi Town, Fukushima Prefecture

I had first heard about the newly-created Michinoku Coastal Trail inside the Sanriku Fukko National Park in 2019, but I couldn’t consider hiking it till the JR East Welcome Pass was introduced last year. My first task was to pick a section that could be done as a day-hike from Tokyo. The ones near the Miyagi / Fukushima border seemed ideal since they could easily be reached from Sendai, a 90-minute shinkansen ride from Tokyo. Next I tried to find a section with more hiking trails than roads. I settled on the Shinchi route: although it followed some roads, it also went up a small mountain with views of the Pacific ocean and the Mt Zao mountain range – hopefully the weather would be good. Even if it weren’t, I was excited to hike in new area of Japan.

The north side of Mt Karo covered in trees

For once, the shinkansen was delayed, and I lost one hour on the way to Sendai. To make up for this, I called a taxi from Shinchi station on the Joban line to take me to the start of the trail, 6 kilometers away, and I was ready to start hiking at 11h45. The weather was good but cold; there was even a thin layer of snow in places out of the sun’s reach. I chose to head up the “chobo” or view trail; it meant I would be walking with my back to the view, but I wanted to be in the sun to warm myself up. Even though it was a short climb, there were frequent signs along the way telling me how many meters were left to the summit.

Mask-wearing shrine guardian

Walking the sunny “view” path up

It took me half an hour to reach a small shrine inside a cluster of cedar trees. Right next to it, and bare of trees, was the summit of Mt Karo (鹿狼山 かろうさん karousan). Looking east, I took in the blue immensity of the Pacific ocean; squinting north, I could just make out the Oshika peninsula in Miyagi; gazing south, I could admire the rolling hills of the Abukuma highlands; turning west, I could see the mountains and valleys of Fukushima, but in the distance, Mt Zao was in the clouds. I decided to walk northwards to the end of the trail, and then retrace my steps for a second chance at the view.

View from the the top of Mt Karo

Beautiful weather over the Pacific

First I had to tackle a steep and slippery staircase covered in snow. The trail then followed the rolling ridgeline as it slowly descended to the coastal plain. The surrounding forest, bare of foliage, was beautiful as the sun shined through unimpeded. It took me 45 minutes to reach the end of the hiking trail at a road crossing. There, I turned around and walked the same way back. Although this trail is called the Zao view route, the only view of Mt Zao was from the summit, which I reached again at 2h30.

In the back somewhere is Mt Zao

Most of the other mountains were visible

Mt Zao was still stubbornly inside the clouds, so after eating the last part of my lunch, I quickly made my way down the mountain following the “jukai” or “sea of trees” route. It was entirely in the shade and covered in snow. Luckily it wasn’t too steep, but I had to be careful not to slip. The trees next to the path had labels, and this kept me at a safe speed, as I stopped to study their names. At the bottom, I turned right and followed the road for a short while to reach the Karo no Yu onsen.

A tricky descent aided by ropes

Most of the snow along the ridge had melted

I had an excellent view of the coast from the outdoor bath; the bath itself was tiny and could only fit one person, probably a good thing in these times. I ended up calling a taxi again for the return to Shinchi station since it was already 4 o’clock and a long way back to Tokyo. While waiting for the train, I noticed that the train station was brand new, and reflected on how well the area had recovered so far, after being ravaged by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

Mt Myojin (1169m), Hakone Town, Kanagawa Prefecture, December 2020

I had climbed this peak more than ten years ago, starting at Daiyuzan Saiyoji Temple, and finishing at Gora, the last stop on the Hakone Tozan line. This time, I decided to start from the entrance of the hiking trail for Mt Kintoki, and finish on the Daiyuzan train line, meaning that the two hikes would only overlap very slightly. On the up side, this would combine a short climb with a long descent, and an easy return by train. On the down side, there was an hour of road walking at the end and no hot spring. Overall, I was excited to try a new route, in an area I hadn’t visited since February. I had some misgivings about the weather; we were in the middle of a cold snap, and the temperature at the top would be around freezing. I was most concerned about keeping my fingers warm, especially when taking photos. However, no matter how cold it turned out to be, I would be satisfied as long as I could see Mt Fuji in its winter coat.

Hiking in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park

Mt Hakone, the highest peak in the Hakone area

Mt Kintoki, a 300-famous mountain

I rode the Romance Car limited express train under a beautiful blue sky to Odawara, where I transferred to a Hakone Tozan Bus. I got off in Sengokuhara and walked to the closest convenience store to buy supplies for the hike. There I bought a pair of gloves that work with a smartphone touchscreens. I had never used such gloves before, so I hoped they would do the job today. At 10:30, I was finally ready to hike. Thanks to the many signposts, I easily found the start of the trail and was quickly making my way up to the ridgeline, reaching it at around 11am.

The Sengokuhara plain and part of the Hakone outer caldera rim

Menacing Mt Hakone

I was now following a path through bamboo grass higher than my head. After some more climbing, I had the first views of the day; to the west, I could see Mt Kintoki; to the south, was Sengokuhara, a vast plain in the middle of the Hakone caldera; behind it was the outer crater rim, curving eastwards; finally, under a dark cloud, and looking like Mordor’s Mount Doom, was Mt Hakone. It was cold and windy but still sunny. The gloves were hit-and-miss; I usually managed to take a picture only after a few tries.

No view but also no wind

Looking ahead and looking back views

Most of the trail was through a bamboo tunnel, like walking in a giant maze. Apart from a few gaps, there were no views, but at least the bamboo kept the wind out. At one point, the trail dipped down through a forest on the north side, to rejoin the ridge near the top of Mt Hiuchiishi 988m (火打石岳) around noon. From there, I had a good view of the last part of the climb to the top of today’s mountain; it looked close but it took me another hour to get there.

Mt Fuji’s “glacier”

Strate visible on the side of the mountain

I finally saw Mt Fuji near the top of the climb, but it was a different view from what I expected; the side facing me had snow halfway down, but the sides were bare, so it looked like a glacier. It was a good addition to my collection of Fuji pictures. To the right, I could see the entire range of the Tanzawa mountains, from Mt Mikuni to Mt Oyama. There was less bamboo grass here, and I had many good views of Mt Hakone, looking more and more menacing. I was now close enough to see the plumes of the sulfur fumes (it is an active volcano).

In the center, Mt Mikuni

Mt Oyama at the very right

The dark clouds over Mt Hakone had extended their reach to include the sky directly above me. I arrived at the summit of Mt Myojin (明神ヶ岳 みょうじんがたけ myoujingadake) at the coldest point of the day. There was no sun and the wind was now blowing hard. I took off my gloves to eat lunch, and my fingers ended up getting a bit numb after all. There were two other hikers, and after one of them complained of the cold, the other one asked if she was sensitive to the cold. In my mind, I was thinking “right now, yes, very much!”

The Shonan coast and Tokyo bay

Mt Hakone with Gora at its feet

The cold finally won over the views, and I moved on quickly, rubbing my hands to warm them up. On the other side of the flat summit, I finally had a view east of the Shonan coast and Tokyo Bay. Ten minutes later, I reached the turn-off for the descent. I launched myself down the path, relieved to be out of the freezing cold wind. The path was easy to walk and not too steep, so I could move at a fast pace. Before long I was feeling more comfortable and was even able to remove a layer of clothing. Although I was now outside the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, the surrounding forest seemed more beautiful than before.

A short section of road before returning to the hiking trail

Two pines marking a view point

I saw no one on the way down and enjoyed the solitude of the mountain. Around 2h30, I popped out on to a road which I followed for a short while, before reaching a couple of pine trees and a view of the Tanzawa mountains to the north. By now, the sun had reappeared, so I stopped to finish the rest of the my lunch in warmer conditions. I set off again at 3pm. The path dived back into the forest, and thirty minutes later I reached the end of the trail and a small road. This was the prettiest section of the hike, and I thought it was a shame it wasn’t mentioned in any of my guidebooks.

A pleasant forest trail near the end of the hike

Autumn leaves and a fiery dusk

The walk back to the station turned out to be quite interesting. I passed by some trees still showing off their beautiful autumn colours. I also saw a statue of Ninomiya Sontoku, an important historical figure born in the area. Finally, just after sunset, I saw the Tanzawa mountains (and clouds) tinted in red. I lost some time here taking photos, but I could afford it, since the train ran frequently. I reached the tiny Tsukahara station just before 5pm, from where it was a short ride to Odawara and the Romance Car limited express back to Tokyo.

The “red” Tanzawa mountains

See the views from the top, filmed in strong wind (again)

Mt Jizo (1483m) & Mt Yuhi (1526m), Kanuma City, Tochigi Prefecture, December 2020

These two mountains had been on my to-climb list for a while. I knew how to get there since I had walked past the the trail entrance when climbing Mt Yokone in 2018. I was concerned that I might not be able to complete the hike before the last bus back at 17h15; I would have to hike quickly with few breaks. On the other hand, I was confident that the weather would be good, and I was looking forward to getting some good views of the Nikko mountains. I was also excited to hike in an area surrounded by mountains and far from populated areas.

On the right, the highest point of today’s hike

I reached Furumine Shrine under the sunshine at 10am. It was a route I had traveled before, riding the Nikko train from Ikebukuro and then a bus from Shin-Kanuma station. After getting ready, I walked along the road to the start of the trail. I remembered how I raced down the same road two years before to catch the last bus back. Half an hour later, I was walking up a valley along a forest road. It was peaceful and quiet, and even a little warm in the mid-morning sun. After 30 more minutes, I reached the start of the hiking trail. It continued past the end of the road, heading up the side of the mountain. I crossed a small stream and passed right by another one. I wasn’t hiking inside the Nikko National Park, only 5 km away, but it was almost as if.

Enjoying the last of the sunshine

During my climb, clouds had mysteriously appeared overhead, and when I reached the top ridge at noon, Mt Nantai was on the verge of disappearing. There was still some sun on the trail as I turned right and headed up the last steep slope. Twenty minutes later, I was standing on top of Mt Jizo (地蔵岳 じぞうだけ jizodake). It was mostly in the trees, so although the clouds seemed there to stay, I wouldn’t have had much of a view anyway. I soon moved on. The next part was highly enjoyable, as the path followed the grassy level ridge northwards. Looking left and right I could see nothing but white. Fortunately there was no wind and it was eerily quiet.

An easy to hike trail

Very soon, I reached the turn-off for my next peak. The trail seemed to head straight down and straight up again. However, it turned out to be an optical illusion; after a short downhill, the trail was mostly level, and there was only a short climb to the summit of Mt Yuhi (夕日岳 ゆうひだけ yuhidake). Here, there was a big break in the trees to the North. I had a fleeting view of Mt Sukai to the west before it was engulfed in the clouds. Just a few months ago, I had been hiking Mt Shazan somewhere in those clouds above lake Chuenjiko. I munched on my lunch staring at a white wall wondering what went wrong with my weather forecast. I concluded that I would have a good reason to return to the area in the future, perhaps in the spring to enjoy greener colours.

Walking through beautiful winter landscape

I was starting to feel the cold. Looking at the time, it was nearly 1h30, and I realised that if I left right away, I might be able to make the earlier 15h45 bus instead of the 17h15 one. I was moving fast since I wasn’t taking many photos. I retraced my steps, past the turn-off, past Mt Jizo and back to where I had reached the ridge. There, I continued straight towards the south. Even though the weather was worse than expected, I decided to continue with my loop hike. There weren’t many views, but the winter forest was beautiful in its own way.

Walking between peaks

This section was a succession of ups and downs. I passed several minor summits: Mt Karariko 1351m (唐梨子山), Mt Oiwa (大岩山), Mt Gyoja 1328m (行者岳). At 3pm, I reached the end of the hiking trail, marked by a shinto gate, and after following a forest road for a short while, I reached the National road 58. I had about forty minutes to reach the bus stop, about 6 kilometers away. Recalling my mad dash from the previous time, I decided to give up on the earlier bus. I arrived at the bus stop just before 4pm and decided to check out the famous Furumine shrine.

Thank you Tengu-ya!

Afterwards, I was allowed to wait inside the Tengu-ya Soba restaurant even though they were already closed. They made me feel welcome, placed a heater to keep me warm, and offered me hot tea and manju for free. The manju was quite tasty and I bought a pack to take home. One of the staff chatted with me in Japanese, asking me questions not only about my home country but also about life in Tokyo. In the covid era, I was extremely touched by their hospitality. I was so comfortable that I almost missed the bus back. I assumed it would be parked in front of the restaurant, but in reality it was parked 100 meters down the road. So I ended up making a dash for the bus again!

One of the guardians of Furumine Shrine

Mt Jomine (1038), Chichibu City, Saitama Prefecture, December 2020 [South Ridge Route]

I had visited this Kanto 100-famous mountain twice before, in the winter and in the spring. Although it was early December and the leaves had already fallen in the mountains, it was sunny and pleasant in the daytime – so in my mind this would count as an autumn trip. My plan was to ascend the same route as in 2015, but without snow this time, and then descend via the South Ridge route (南尾根コース). The previous time I had used the Omotesando route (表参道コース), so I was looking forward to hiking a new trail. I could see on the map that it had a viewpoint along the way, and ended further down the mountain than the other trail, although it was still a 40 minute walk on a paved road to the bus stop. One concern was that the bus to the start of the trail left rather late in the morning. Since the days were shorter now, I would probably have to wait for the return bus in the dark; luckily, there was an excellent hot spring at Seibu-Chichibu station to warm myself up at the end of the day.

Left back, Mt Ryokami, and right back, Mt Akaguna

The sky was worryingly overcast as I left Tokyo with the Seibu line. Fortunately, the clouds ended over Chichibu, and there was beautiful blue sky above the mountains on the Saitama-Gunma border. At Seibu-Chichibu station, I changed to the Chichibu line, and got off at Minano, four stations away, where I caught a mini-bus for the start of the trail. There was a group of hikers at the bus stop, and they graciously let me board first. They got off near Mt Happu, and I was alone for the last part of the ride, along a narrow winding road. I was surprised that a bus service was needed in such a remote area, but occasionally a clearing and a house appeared after a sharp bend. I got off at 11am, and walked up to the shelter above the road to get ready for hiking.

Following the Fureai no Michi up the mountain

Several large “jorogumo” spiders were hanging from the rafters, so I had to be careful not to disturb their webs with my head. At 11h30, I set off along the road, and soon spotted the turn-off for the Kanto Fureai no Michi, which I would follow to the pass just below the summit. I enjoyed the trail as it wound slowly up a narrow valley through beautiful and peaceful forest. I noticed that the signposts were worn-out and hard to read. Many years ago, the Fureai no Michi trails might have been quite popular. However, nowadays, interest had waned for some reason – perhaps hikers are more interested in reaching summits than walking long-distance trails. As far as I know, there is no published book on these trails.

Clouds over Higashi-Chichibu

I reached the first viewpoint of the day at 12h15, next to a white electric pylon. I could see the Chichibu valley to the south, and behind it, Mt Buko and the mountains of Higashi-Chichibu. Nearby was a bench, but it was too early to take a break. Along the way I passed a couple of junctions. Each time I took the left, level branch, avoiding the minor summits on the right, since I knew there was no view. It took me half an hour to reach the road at Isama pass (石間峠). Here I said goodbye to the Fureai no Michi. I would have liked to continue along it, but it now followed the road down to Kanna Lake in Gunma. Although it was closed to traffic, I preferred stick to dirt trails whenever possible.

The final steps before the summit

After hiking up a series of staircases, I reached the observation tower and the top of Mt Jomine (城峯山じょうみねさん jominesan) at 1pm. The Japanese name means “Castle Peak”, perhaps a reference to the rocky section further west along the top ridge. It seemed to double as a communication tower as there were several satellite dishes attached to it. Although the Saitama side was cloudy – no chance of seeing Mt Fuji – there was nothing but blue sky on the Gunma side. This is probably one of the best views in the area, and also one of the easiest to access.

The observation and communication tower

Looking at the view, I could recall many of my past climbs in the area: Mt Mikabo (climbed in 2016), Mt Inafukumi (2019), Mt Akaguma (not yet climbed), Mt Tetemiezu (2017), Mt Futago (2017) and Mt Ogura (2018). In the distance, I could also make out several 100 famous mountains of Japan: Mt Asama, Yatsugatake, Mt Ryokami, Mt Kobushi, and Mt Kumotori, its peak lost in the clouds. Despite the height of the tower, the the Kanto plain to the east was hidden by trees. As I was busy checking out the view and taking photos, I didn’t mind eating my lunch standing as there were no seats.

Blue skies over Gunma

I managed to tear myself from the view at 2pm, and headed down the South Ridge course. The first part was quite steep and lined with ropes; afterwards, the trail became less steep, but remained narrow and adventurous; overall it was a lot more fun than the Omotesando trail. There were a couple of junctions without signposts, meaning that the branches would join up again; both times I took the right ones, as they seemed more interesting. There were a couple of openings through the trees to the south, but the superb westward view promised by my map never appeared. I had planned to take a break there – I hadn’t sat down once so far today – but that would have to be wait a bit longer as there were no other good spots.

Heading down the South Ridge trail

I saw no-one else on the trail and I was able to enjoy the quiet solitude of walking in the mountains. I finally popped out onto the road at 3h30. The valley was already in the shade and getting chilly. I made my way down to the river next to the road, and sat on a large rock for a late break. I had an hour and half till my bus so for once I could take my time. I spotted many spiders – I was amazed that they could survive the night in sub-zero temperatures. I strolled down the road, admiring the small houses of the Saitama countryside. I saw several huge “kaki” (Japanese persimmon trees). Although it’s the national fruit of Japan, I rarely see it growing in the wild. I reached the bus stop at 16h45, and after a short wait in the cold, I hopped on the empty bus for Seibu-Chichibu station and a hot bath.

Mt Kobushi (left) and Mt Ryokami (right)

Mt Ogura (front) and Yatsugatake (behind)

Sengenrei (903m), Hinohara Town, Tokyo Prefecture, November 2020

I had good memories hiking this ridgeline in 2014, so I was keen to redo it. This time, instead of starting from the bottom of the valley, I decided to start from near the base of Mt Mito. I would mostly be walking on level or downhill terrain, a rare thing in Japan, so I was looking forward to a relaxing ramble. Last time, I had still been able to see some autumn colours, so I was hoping I would be lucky again, even though the season was nearly over. I also decided to skip the Hossawa falls at the end, since I knew there was less water at this time of the year. The weather forecast was perfect: blue skies and higher than average temperatures. I wasn’t sure if anything could make this hike better.

Hiking in the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park

View of Mt Gozen from the top of Sengenrei

It was still early when I got off the bus at the Citizen’s forest (都民の森). While the other passengers headed up Mt Mito, I continued on the sidewalk next to the road for Okutama lake. After it ended abrubtly, I was forced to walk on the winding but busy mountain road. It didn’t feel very safe, but fortunately, I soon arrived at the Sengenone parking lot, where there was an excellent view of the ridgeline I would be following today. After getting ready, I walked past a sign informing me that I was inside the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, and entered the hiking trail a little after 10am.

The Sengen Ridge in the autumn

Hiking a level trail through the forest

Barely 15 minutes later, I reached the first peak of the day, Mt Obayashi 1078m (御林山 おばやしやま obayashiyama). Some trees had been cut down so it was possible to see the view southwards – I recognised the ridge I had hike over a year ago. There was no wind, and no noise, except for the song of a nearby bird. Even though I had just set out, I sat down for a few minutes to enjoy the peace and quiet. After setting off, I quickly reached another clearing with an even better view to the south. The trail was mostly level, with some small ups and down and frequent signposts. Half an hour later, I reached the trail junction I had hiked up 6 years ago; from now, the trail would be more familiar.

The ridge I hiked in June 2019

There were many statues and other religious icons along the trail

I passed a good viewpoint of Mt Gozen on the left, one of the 3 mountains of Okutama. A little further, I arrived at a huge boulder called Saru-Ishi (サル石) because the pattern on the face of the rock resembles the handprint of a monkey. Just before 1pm, I reached a wide deforested area on the left. I had an excellent view of Mt Gozen, Mt Odake (another of the 3 Okutama mountains), and Mt Mitake. In the distance, I could also see Mt Kumotori, the highest point of Tokyo prefecture, and a hundred famous mountain of Japan. I was tempted the stop for lunch, but I knew that the summit with an equally good view, wasn’t far away.

A narrow path following the mountainside

Climbing towards the sun

I reached a junction where both branches were signposted for the summit. On my previous hike I had taken the level path on the left. This time, I took the right branch for the summit of Koiwa-Sengen 908m (小岩浅間). The trail was rather faint and there was no view, so I concluded that the left path was probably the better of the two. Walking down the other side, I soon reached the Sengen Ridge Rest Area (浅間尾根休憩所) where a group of people were having lunch. This is also where the trail merged with the Kanto Fureai no Michi climbing up from the valley on the right. I continued without stopping to the Sengenrei viewpoint just a few minutes away.

Mt Gozen, with Mt Kumotori behind on the left

Mt Odake with a white leafless birch tree in the front

I had the viewpoint entirely to myself. Since it was already 1h30, I sat down on one of the benches surrounded by the pale yellow “suzuki” and enjoyed lunch with a view. Although Sengenrei (浅間嶺 せんげんれい) felt more like a ridgeline, it had a proper summit marker at the highest point. Thin wisps of white cloud had now appeared in the sky, but it was still warm under the late autumn sun. I set off again just before 2pm. After passing a flat area with some beautiful autumn colours, the path started to descend. Suddenly, a helicopter flew by overhead, disturbing the quiet of the forest. I supposed it was bringing supplies to the mountain huts in the area.

Double view of Mt Gozen and Mt Odake with autumn leaves in the foreground

Rocky path down the mountain

The trail left the ridgeline and followed a rocky path next to a small stream. Eventually, I arrived at a soba restaurant (closed today), on the bend of a paved road, which I now had to walk on for a short while. Fortunately, there was no traffic. I walked past a small shrine and a good view of Mt Odake, and arrived at Tokisaka pass (時坂峠) just before 3pm. Here, I ducked down a small hiking path on the right, under a huge fiery red maple tree. The path descended quickly and soon I was walking among small fields and small houses. After walking down a staircase covered in fallen leaves, I joined a paved road leading to the Hossawa Falls marking the end of the hike.

One of the short road sections along the hike

Huge maple tree at Tokisaka Pass

I noticed some movement on the left side just as I walked through Hossawa Falls parking lot. Taking a closer look, I saw a couple of monkeys scampering besides the small river below. I was pretty excited, since it was only my third time seeing wild monkeys this year. Scanning the side of the mountain, I realised that that there was a whole troop of them in the forest above the river. They were shier than the ones I had seen next to Okutama lake the previous year, but I was still able to film them at a distance (see video). I wanted to linger there longer, but it was nearly 3h30, and I had a bus to catch. Since I hadn’t expected to see any monkeys today, I felt quite satisfied with my hike inside the National Park closest to Tokyo.

Ask for a hiking plan for Sengenrei

Check out the monkeys of the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park

Hiking in Tohoku: Mt Otakine (1192m), Fukushima Prefecture, November 2020

It seemed that north-eastern Japan didn’t share the sunny autumn weather of the Kanto area, as most of the central, mountainous part was continuously engulfed in cold, cloudy weather. I was forced to look southeast for a place with more suitable hiking conditions, and I finally settled on this remote mountain, the highest peak of the Abukuma Plateau (阿武隈高地). It was also an opportunity to ride a new train line, the Ban-Etsuto line (磐越東線). There was no public transport, but since the trailhead was only a short taxi ride away, I felt it wouldn’t be an issue. The weather forecast was sunny but with strong winds. Since this was a relatively low mountain below the tree line, it didn’t worry me either. I was really looking forward to seeing the summit view in an area I had never been to before.

View of the Abukuma Plateau halfway up

I had great views of the Nikko mountains on the shinkansen, thanks to the clear weather over the Kanto area. At Koriyama station, I transferred to the local JR Ban-Etsuto line and arrived at the tiny station of Kanmata at 10:40. The taxi driver wasn’t familiar with the start of the hiking trail; at first he thought I wanted to go to Abunuma Cave (something for another visit), so I ended up giving him directions using Google Maps. At 11:20, I was finally ready to start hiking up the “ishipokke” (石ポッケ) trail. Although it’s a 300-famous mountain of Japan, at times the path was hard to follow; I had to hunt for the “pink ribbons”, small strips of coloured paper attached to tree branches marking the way. Soon I was walking through green bamboo grass among white bare trees under blue skies – quite similar to my recent hike on Mt Izumi. There were no other hikers on the mountain; apparently it isn’t a popular hiking destination in the colder months. Some trees were twisted into fantastic shapes reminding me of the Spooky Old Tree children’s book.

Hiking up through the bamboo grass

One of the “fantastic” trees along the way

The mountainside soon became dotted with boulders, probably the reason behind the name of the trail (“ishi” means stone in Japanese). They had interesting names like “yareyare ishi” (meaning “oh dear! rock”). Around the same time, the wind suddenly picked up and clouds filled the sky. At 12h30, I reached a series of huge rocks taller than the trees. I climbed on top of the biggest one, and nearly got knocked down by the powerful gusts (see video). I was surprised that the wind could be so strong at this low altitude. Staying on all fours, I quickly snapped some photos of the view. Eastwards was the Pacific ocean; stretching southwards, I could see the low mountains of the Abunuma plateau; westwards, Mt Nasu was sitting under big, dark clouds; finally, looking northwards, I could see the highest point of today’s mountain. It was also the location of a Japan Self-defense base, in the shape of a white sphere, like a planetarium. Directly below in the opposite direction, wind turbines were working hard on this windy day. I was glad to see alternative forms of energy taking root in the area.

View from the “pokke” rocks

The Abunuma Plateau

I managed to eat my sandwich before it got blown away, and left as soon as I was done, since the sun was now in the clouds and it was freezing cold. A little after 1pm, I reached the turn-off for “perapera-ishi“(ペラペラ石) which according to my guidebook was worth a look. It took me 15 minutes of mostly level walking to reach a collection of big rocks looking out on the Pacific coast. Dark grey clouds hovered above, and the view wasn’t as great as I had hoped. In the distance, I thought I could see a chimney of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant just 30 kilometers away, where disaster had struck about 10 years ago. Back then, some people in Tokyo were afraid of Fukushima, but now some people living in places such as Fukushima are afraid of people from Tokyo. I retraced my steps to the main trail, and continued to the nearby summit area.

Skirting the south side of the base

The wind turbines were working hard today

The path didn’t lead directly to the highest point, but first skirted the southern side of the base; on the left was a wide view of the valley. I soon reached another intersection, where I took a level path on the right through the forest. At 2h15, I finally reached a shrine that doubled as the summit marker of Mt Otakine (大滝根山 おおたきねやま otakineyama). Right next to it was the base, surrounded by a fence and blocking the view on the north side (the south side was blocked by trees); although the base looked impressive from a distance, I felt envious that only self-defense soldiers could get a view after climbing the mountain (if they didn’t helicopter up). I made my way back to the intersection where the view was better and sat down in the grass to have the rest of my lunch. This time I was able to enjoy it more, as the sun had come back and the wind was busy blowing somewhere else. Seen from above, the impressive “pokke” rock formation reminded me of Mt Komochi.

Following the power line down the mountain

Golden pampas grass in the afternoon sun

I checked my watch and saw that it was past 2h30. I had to get back to the station in less than two hours, including walking back to the station. The return path followed a clearing made for a power line and electric poles, heading straight down the mountain. It was steep and tough on the knees but the bird’s-eye view was worth it. Lower down, as the slope became less steep, I enjoyed walking among the “suzuki” (Japanese pampas grass), golden in the afternoon sun. It took me about 30 minutes to reach the road at the base of the mountain. From there it was another hour walk to the station. Looking back occasionally, I could see the round white self-defense base shining in the late afternoon sun, the grey “pokke” rocks poking through the winter forest, and the silver wind turbines spinning in the never-tiring wind.

See the strong winds that nearly blew me off my feet on Mt Otakine

Mt Mae-Hachibuse (1836m) & Mt Hachibuse (1928m), Okaya City, Nagano Prefecture, November 2020

This mountain came to my attention quite recently, while watching the anime Yuru-Kyan (Laid-back Camp). One of the characters goes solo camping at Takapotchi Highland (高ボッチ高原), a place in Nagano prefecture I had never heard of before. So I looked it up on my map, and although it didn’t seem to have much hiking potential, the mountain north of it seemed worth a visit; even more since there was an onsen near the start of the trail. The main issue was access, since there was no public transport. In the end, I decided to rent a car, since it was less than an hour drive from Matsumoto. I would need to walk up and down the same way, but I didn’t mind, since the highlight of the hike was the panoramic view of the North Alps from the summit. This meant that I had to make sure to go on a day with clear weather. That day also turned out to have a strong wind forecast, so I mentally prepared myself for being buffeted by winter gusts on the treeless summit.

View towards the North Alps and Utsukushigahara

There was almost no traffic on the way there, which was a relief, since the last part was along a narrow mountain road. I arrived at 11am, and after getting ready, set off at 11h30. Fifteen minutes later, I reached a river and a bridge. I crossed the bridge and followed the river for a short while before climbing up the mountainside through forest. There is a distinct feeling about hiking in Nagano, that is different from the Kanto area. The forest feels wild and untouched; there is moss everywhere growing on rocks and fallen trees, probably because of the colder, wetter weather. The sun was shining, and although the autumn leaves season was already over, the surrounding forest was still beautiful. At this late hour, I was the only person on the trail.

Start of the hike through a mossy forest

Late morning sunny hiking

The trail met up with the river again about twenty minutes later and followed it for the next hour. It might have taken me less time, except that the river was so beautiful in the sunlight that I spent a lot of time taking photos and shooting movies. It was probably one of the most beautiful river walks I had ever done, almost rivaling Tokuwa river valley from a few weeks before. I could only imagine how beautiful it was in the spring or autumn. Around 1pm, the path and river finally parted ways. I walked as fast as I could to make up for lost time, as the path now zigzagged up the side of the mountain.

Lots of great river views on the way up

The perfect hike for river lovers

I had my first views of Utsukushigara Highland (美ヶ原高原) About half an hour later, rising above the trees. I also got blasted with an icy cold wind forcing me to stop and add a layer of clothing. A few meters further, I got the view I had come for: the entire range of the North Alps, also known as the spine of Japan, stretching south to north, from Mt Hotaka, all the way to Mt Shirouma. It sometimes seems exaggerated to compare the Japan Alps with the Swiss Alps; today, however, the appellation was justified, as the entire range was crowned in snow. I had seen this view before, but from further away, and this might be the best view one can get of the North Alps.

The northern half of the North Alps

Utsukushigahara, one of the hundred famous mountains of Japan

Just before 2pm, I reached a crossroads. I turned right and a few minutes later I was standing on top of Mt Mae-Hachibuse (前鉢伏山 まえはちぶせやま maehachibuseyama). The wind wasn’t too strong here, so I decided to have lunch. I then retraced my steps to the intersection, and walked up a wide gravel path with sweeping views of the whole area. Shortly afterwards, I reached the summit of Mt Hachibuse (鉢伏山 はちぶせやま hachibuseyama), a 300-famous mountain of Japan. On the other side, there was a tiny shrine and a shinto gate, which looked quite spectacular with the North Alps in the background. There was also a small observation tower, which seemed quite pointless seeing that there were no trees around to obscure the view. Nonetheless, I climbed the ladder to the top.

Shinto shrine near the top of Mt Hachibuse

Observation tower near the top of Mt Hachibuse

Just as I stood on the top, the wind suddenly picked up. I had a great view of Yatsugatake, Mt Fuji, Suwa lake, the Central Alps, the South Alps, as well as the North Alps. As I was filming the view, my smartphone nearly got blown out of my hands. It was getting cold and it was already past 3pm. I decided to quickly head back. Although I had no bus to catch, I preferred to avoid driving in the dark along narrow mountain roads. I was back at my car 90 minutes later, and after a nice soak at Hinoki no Yu, I was driving back to Matsumoto city, where I caught the Chuo limited express for the 2h40 train ride back to Tokyo.

Mt Fuji, the South Alps and Suwa lake

Check out the river running down the slopes of Mt Hachibuse

See the view of the North Alps from the top of Mt Hachibuse

Hiking in Tohoku: Mt Izumigadake (1175m), Miyagi Prefecture, November 2020

For my next trip using the JR East Welcome Rail Pass 2020 I decided to head back to Tohoku, but not so far north this time, since I wanted to have a snow-free hike. It seemed that it had snowed on this mountain earlier in the month, but it had mostly melted by now. I packed my light crampons just in case. The weather forecast was sunny, but very windy, not suitable conditions for hiking according to the mountain weather website I use. I decided to risk it anyway. Another concern was getting there. After a 90-minute shinkansen ride to Sendai city, 300km from Tokyo, I would have to navigate the Sendai subway to get to the bus stop – I hadn’t even known that Sendai city had a subway! Hopefully, it would be less complicated that the Tokyo one. Finally, since it was apparently a popular hiking destination, a kind of Mt Takao for Miyagi prefecture (it even has a chairlift), there were many courses up the mountain, so I had to figure out the best route to take. In the end, I choose the Suijin course up (水神コース) and a combination of the Kakko and Kamoshika courses down, since they seemed to have the best views.

The summit of Mt Izumi from Okanuma

Navigating the Sendai subway turned out to be fairly easy. A kind Sendaian(?) pointed me to the correct platform for the bus. I was first in line but the bus turned out to be surprisingly empty. I arrived at the the huge parking lot at the base of the mountain around 11h30. There were quite a few other hikers on the trail, enjoying the fine weather, and trying to catch the last of the autumn colours. Fortunately, the Suijin course was wide and rocky. I walked quickly as the path climbed gradually through a forest of leafless trees. There were no views; however, the contrast of pale tree trunks against the blue sky was stunning.

Going up the Suijin course

Contrast of bare trees and blue sky

At 1pm, I reached an open space and the first views, as well as strong gusts of wind! After putting on an extra layer, I was able to enjoy the view; to the east was the flat coastal plain with Sendai city in the center; to the West I could see Mt Funagata with patches of snow on the top; stretching southwards was the mountainous area on the border of Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures. Visibility was excellent today. I was able to make out the Ide and Asahi mountain ranges, as well as Mt Zao. It took me just a few more minutes to reach the highest point of Mt Izumi (泉ヶ岳 いずみがだけ izumigadake), a 300-famous mountain of Japan.

On the right, Mt Funagata

The view towards Mt Zao

The flat wide summit was completely in the trees. There was no wind but also no views. I walked five minutes westwards towards the next peak, Mt Kita-Izumi, and found a spot with a view and without too much wind, perfect for lunch. At 2pm, I was ready to descend. I seemed to be the last person left on the mountain. The wind had completely disappeared, and the conditions were perfect for hiking. At first, I had great views east towards Sendai city. Then the path curved westwards around the mountain-side and entered the forest. Half an hour later, I reached an open space. Turning around, I had a good view of the rounded summit I had just come down from. I continued along the now level path, and soon reached a junction. Here, I turned left and headed towards the Kamoshika course.

In the distance, Sendai city

Lots of mountains to climb

At 3pm, I reached Okanuma (岡沼), a wide open space with Japanese pampa grass, called suzuki in Japanese. Looking back, I had some more good views of the summit in the late autumn sun. After a short climb and descent, I reached another open space called Usagidaira (兎平 meaning rabbit plain) with pampas grass and isolated groups of birch trees. There was no-one around; I was definitely the last person left on the mountain. I reached the final descent which was very steep and followed a ski run (this mountain is also a ski resort in the winter). The view of the mountains west and south in the late afternoon sun was fantastic. I descended as quickly as my knees would allow, and reached the bottom of the mountain at 4pm, only 5 minutes before the departure of the return bus. At 5pm, I was back on the Sendai subway, and at 6pm I was on the shinkansen back to Tokyo.

Miyagi mountains in the late afternoon sun 

See the wind blowing through “Suzuki”

Mt Madarao (1382m), Shinano Town, Nagano Prefecture, November 2020

I first spotted this mountain while hiking Mt Kurohime the previous year. I knew about it as a ski resort, so I thought I would do some skiing there in the winter. However, there was little snow last season, and I ended up not going. So I decided to use the JR East Welcome Rail Pass 2020 to go to Nagano, and climb it before it the snow arrived. The best approach seemed to be to walk from the train station to the start of the trail, and finish at Tangram hot spring on the other side. From there, I could catch a bus back .It wasn’t a long hike so I would have plenty of time for a hot bath. The weather forecast was good: sunny in the morning, cloudy in the afternoon. It was supposed to snow the next day – good news, since I still hoped to ski there this winter.

Nojiri lake with Mt Izuna on the left, and Mt Kurohime on the right

I was the only passenger who got off at the tiny Furuma station at 10am. The weather was clear, with just some wisps of white clouds on a blue background, a sure sign that rain or snow was on the way. I could clearly see the mountains of the Myoko-Togakushi-Renzan National Park to the west. I would be hiking just outside that park today, as its outer limit only stretched as far as the nearby Nojiri lake. The one-hour walk to the start of the trail was pleasant, following small roads through harvested fields, with good views of today’s mountain, the base of which was still a fiery red orange colour.

Cirrus clouds with Mt Madarao behind on the right

Autumn colours at the base of the mountains

Fifteen minutes later, I was in the midst of the autumn larch trees. Looking up at the orange tree crowns against the blue sky, I had the feeling of being inside the world of the Lorax from the Dr Seuss book. A little later, I even came across a hairy caterpillar that could have featured in one of his books (see video). Around noon, the path started to climb gently, and half an hour later I reached the top of the ridge. The surrounding trees were now bare of leaves, but the branches were still thick enough to hide the view.

Larch trees in the autumn

Straight out of a Dr Seuss book

At 1pm, I reached a superb viewpoint of lake Nojiri with the peaks of Togakushi Highland rising up directly behind. This was the top of the minor peak of Mt Daimyojin (1360m 大明神岳). I sat down for lunch with a view, and then continued a few more minutes to the highest point of Mt Madarao (斑尾山 まだらおやま Madarao-yama), a 300-famous mountain of Japan. The summit was mostly in the trees, except the north-east side, through which I could see the Nozawa-Onsen ski resort, across the valley less than 20 kilometers away. Behind, I could see the snowy summit of Mt Hakkai.

Easy hiking most of the way up

On the summit ridge, it’s already winter

I was surprised to see snow on the next part of the trail, as it turned north along the summit ridge. Apparently, there had been a snowstorm in the past few days. I hadn’t taken my crampons but I soon realised that the snow was soft and wet. I proceeded cautiously as the trail went down a steep slope. I soon reached a sunny flat section, and I was able to relax again. On the right, I got good views of Shiga Kogen, and Mt Kosha, a mountain I hope to climb one day. At 2 pm, I reached the turn-off for Madarao village. This wasn’t the way I had chosen to go down, but I decided to have a quick look.

Mt Kosha with Shiga Kogen behind

Highest point of the Madarao ski resport

I arrived at another great viewpoint, a few meters further, next to the top of a chairlift. I was glad I had chosen to check it out. I sat at the edge of the landing platform – I didn’t quite dare sit on one of the chairs – and had the rest of my lunch. To the north, a low mountain range straddled the border of Nagano and Niigata prefectures. The Shin-Etsu trail follows the top ridge and I hope to hike that section one day (part of today’s hike was also along it). Looking east, I could make out the majestic top of Mt Myoko above the trees.

The Shin-Etsu trail passes just under the clouds

Looking north towards Niigata prefecture

Back on the main trail, I soon reached a 360 degree viewpoint after some more downhill, combining all previous views. After snapping the necessary photos, I set off again, and ten minutes later, I arrived at another chairlift with more good views of Mt Myoko. It was now against the sun with a thin line of clouds in front, creating a dramatic appearance, like the entrance to a mysterious mountain kingdom. At this point, I had two options for reaching the hot spring, my final destination. Even though, I wasn’t behind schedule, I chose the most direct route, since I couldn’t afford to miss the bus back.

Mt Myoko is one of the 100-famous mountains of Japan

Mt Myoko also has a ski resort famous for getting lots of snow

The direct way followed a steep ski slope, probably a black run. There was also some snow here, but the hiking path zigzagged instead of going straight, so I was able to descend safely. The next part followed what seemed to be a blue run, wide and almost flat. At 15:15, I reached a road on the border with Niigata. The trail continued on the other side, but here I turned and followed the road to nearby the Tangram onsen. By now, the clouds had rolled in, and I could no longer see the top of the mountain I had just come down; it felt like it could start snowing at any moment. After a nice hot bath, I boarded the last mini-bus for Kurohime station. There, I took the Kita-Shinano line to Nagano station and then switched to the Shinkansen for the 90-minute trip back to Tokyo.

Zigzagging down the ski slope

Tangram Onsen with the top of Mt Myoko in the background

See the view from the top and the base of Mt Madarao

Hiking in Tohoku: Mt Akita-Komagadake (1637m), Akita Prefecture, October 2020

For my second hike using the JR East Welcome Rail Pass 2020, I decided to venture further North. My first trip took me to the border of Akita prefecture; this time I would be completely inside. As before, I had to leave with the very first shinkansen to get to Tazawako station, 450 kilometers from Tokyo, in time for the bus to the 8th station. The weather was supposed to be sunny and warm for late October. As before, I got a detailed route description from Wes Lang’s hiking in Japan website. I only had one concern: according to online reports, there was a thin layer of snow on the summit. Just in case, I decided to bring some light crampons; I wouldn’t want to have to turn back on my first real hike in Akita!

Hiking in the Towada-Hachimantai National Park 十和田八幡平国立公園

While getting ready near the start of the trail at Hachigome (八合目 1300m), I was able to admire the snow-covered peaks of this still active volcano. The snow didn’t extend down to the parking lot 300 meters below, and didn’t seem very thick. Autumn blues skies extending in every direction made me feel optimistic about today’s hike. As long as the snow wasn’t too deep, I wouldn’t have too worry.

Looking down at Nyuto Onsen

I set off at 9h30 up a gently sloping path circling the base of the first peak. The mountains of Akita, coloured red brown at the end of the autumn season, spread out to the west. As I progressed, the view gradually extended southwards. Soon, I was able to see Tazawa lake, and even Mt Chokai in the far distance. It felt great to be hiking on such a beautiful day inside the Towada-Hachimantai National Park.

Lake Tazawa, Japan’s deepest lake

It took me 45 minutes to reach the first snow on the saddle between the two highest peaks. I made my way along a wooden walkway, next to a frozen lake, till I reached the Hachigome hut (八合目小屋). There, I turned left for the final climb, up a wooden staircase. Less than 30 minutes after reaching the saddle, I was at the top of Mt Oname (男女岳 the name combines the characters for man and women), the highest point of Mt Akita-Komagadake (秋田駒ヶ岳), the highest peak of Akita prefecture and a 200-famous mountain of Japan.

The wooden walkway near the top of Mt Akita-Koma

After taking in the fantastic 360 degree views from the summit, including Mt Iwate to the North, I went back down the same way I had come up. At the hut, I took the path on the opposite side of the lake, and after a few minutes, I reached the turn-off on the left for my next peak. A few minutes of tough climbing along a snowy slope brought me to the ridge, where I turned right. It was nearly 11h30 and, despite the snow, it was starting to get quite warm.

The semi-frozen volcanic crater lake with Mt Iwate in the background

Fortunately the snow was soft in the late morning sun, and no crampons were needed for the narrow rocky path along the top ridge. I reached the small snow-covered shrine at the top of Mt Odake (女岳 using only the character for woman here) around 11h30 with a great view of Tazawa lake. There was almost no wind, and it felt quite pleasant in the autumn sun, so I took short break for lunch.

The path between Mt Odake and Mt Yoko

Since I had completed the first part of the hike on schedule, I decided to take the longer route, following the crater ridge counter-clockwise. This section was narrower and rockier, and few hikers had chosen to take this route. Fortunately, the thin layer of snow wasn’t an issue, and the views looking back to Mt Oname were spectacular. So far, this was a very enjoyable hike, even with the thin layer of snow.

Mt Oname, the highest-point of Mt Akita-koma

After passing several small peaks, I finally reached Mt Yoko (横岳) at 12h30, where I had a good view of the central plain of Iwate prefecture to the east. It was starting to get quite warm, and I felt that I had been wrong to worry about the snow. I had the rest of my lunch and set off in good spirits.

Mini-crater on the southern side of the volcano

It only took me a few minutes to reach the next peak, the flat rounded top of Yakemori (焼森), from where I had a breath-taking view of Mt Akita-Komagadake. I’m surprised it isn’t part of the hundred famous mountains of Japan. I spent some time enjoying the panoramic views. There was path going directly back to Hachigome, but I decided to continue straight, and take the longer route back since it was still early.

Looking North towards the Towada-Hachimantai National Park

Suddenly I was walking in deep snow (see video). It had snowed a lot more on this side, probably because it was facing Northwards. It was soft, so I could run down through it. However, I soon had another problem. This part of the trail was overgrown with bamboo grass! I had to fray a passage through it and at times the bamboo was higher than my head. I started to wonder whether I had made a mistake taking the longer way.

Mt Akita-Koma in the afternoon

Eventually the path leveled and then started to climb again. The snow had disappeared but the path was muddy and slippery. At 1h30 I reached the top of Mt Sasamori (笹森山 meaning bamboo forest, a well-deserved name!). I was pretty exhausted after fighting through the bamboo, and then having to keep my balance on the treacherous trail. After a short break, I continued on my loop hike, now heading downhill and westwards.

Mt Akita-Koma in the autumn

After a short up and down, I was standing on top of Mt Yumori 1(湯森山) at 2pm, the last of today’s peaks. After gazing at the mountains of Akita one last time, I set off on the final descent towards the parking lot at Hachigome. It followed a staircase in bad need of maintenance. At 2h30 I was finally back at my starting point. On the way back, I stopped by at the Arupa Komakusa hot spring which had perhaps one of the best views I’ve ever had from an outdoor bath.

After-hike soak with a spectacular view

Hiking on the highest peak of Akita Prefecture