Shiga-Kogen & Mt Asahi (1524m), Yamanouchi Town, Nagano Prefecture, Sunday, September 4, 2022 [Monkeys]

Hiking in the Joshin-Estu Kogen National Park

上信越高原国立公園

After a two-month break, I was looking for an easy hike to get back in shape. I also wanted to visit a national park for a total immersion in nature. Shiga-Kogen, last visited two years ago, seemed like the ideal choice, since it had mostly level hiking trails passing next to small lakes, as well as a minor summit. I could get there by taking the shinkansen to Nagano city, then ride the “snow monkey” limited express to Yudanaka, and finally board a bus for the last leg of the trip. For the return, I would catch the same bus but from a slightly lower elevation. The weather was supposed to be cloudy and sunny; hopefully the sun would have the upper hand. I knew that Yudanaka is famous for its snow monkeys bathing in hot water in the winter; in the summer, however, they tend to roam further away, so I thought I might catch a glimpse of them along the way.

View of Biwaike and the peaks of Shiga-Kogen from Mt Asahi

Clouds slowing vanishing above Tanohara Marshland

I rode the Hokuriku shinkansen under blue skies, enjoying the views of the mountains surrounding the Kanto Plain. After getting off at Nagano station, I boarded the limited express for the one hour ride to Yudanaka, where I switched to a surprisingly empty bus for Shibutoge (渋峠); a little before 11h30, I finally got off at Kidoike Pond (木戸池 1620m, meaning “Wooden Door Pond”). After getting ready, I set off on a wooden walkway next to the lake side, but very soon made a hard right up a short slope, leading to the top of a grassy rise.

Kidoike at the start of today’s hike

Looking back at Tanohara Marsh

I enjoyed a fantastic view of twin peaks emerging from the clouds and a wide grassy area directly below; I felt I had made the right choice by visiting Shiga-Kogen (志賀高原) and the Joshin-Etsu National Park (上信越高原国立公園) on my first Autumn hike, even though at the moment, the lower sections were still in the mist. I made my way down to Tanohara Marsh (田ノ原湿原 1610m), and followed another wooden walkway to the forest on the other side; after a road crossing and a descent along a rocky trail, I reached Sankakuike Pond(三角池 1630m, meaning “Triangle Pond”), a little after noon.

Blue sky reflected in Sankakuike

Shiga Lake Hotel reflected in Hasuike

As I approached the lake, I marveled at the reflection of blue sky and fluffy white clouds on the perfectly still water surface, the low clouds having temporarily parted. I continued along the gently undulating path through thick forest, and soon arrived at Kami-no-koike (上の小池 1570m), a lot smaller than the two previous ones. At 12h30, I was walking the length of the narrow Nagaike (長池 1584m, meaning “Long Pond”) while observing the mad dance of the dragon flies.

Today’s mountain, Mt Asahi

Caution: monkey crossing

I took a while to enjoy its mysterious atmosphere: wisps of cloud drifting down the opposite slope, creating ripples on the water surface. I crossed another road, and arrived at Shimo-no-koike (下の小池 1610m), the smallest lake so far, covered in bright green water plants. Next, I emerged onto a steep slope near the top of a chairlift (Shiga-Kogen is also a ski resort). At the bottom, I passed through a tunnel and found myself at Hatsuike Pond (蓮池 1490m, meaning “Lotus pond”). I walked over to the nearby Ariake-no-oka Observatory where I had a view of Mt Terakoka and Higashi-Tateyama.

Sky and clouds reflected in Ichinuma

Monkey enjoying the pond view

At the other end of the lake, I was mesmerised by the reflection of the white facade of Shiga Lake Hotel. I popped into the nearby Shiga Kogen Yama no Eki (志賀高原山の駅), a mountain roadside station, to check their flower chart. I crossed the road once more, and after descending through the forest, reached Biwaike Pond (琵琶池 1390m), the largest lake so far. Through a gap in the trees, I had my first view of today’s mountain, a flattish peak rising above the opposite shore. I was hoping to have lunch there, it was already 2pm, but before that, I dropped by Ichinuma Pond (一沼 1410m), the prettiest pond of the day.

Mt Ura-Shikakogen (left) and Mt Ura-Shigakogen (right)

Last pond of the day, Mizunashiike

As I approached, I was surprised to see a monkey squatting on the wooden walkway, and then two more relaxing in a tree above. In total, I spotted about a dozen, eating various plants, as well as water lily leaves; one brave monkey even went for a dip in the cold water. After they had all left, I resumed my hike up a pleasant path through a forest of Japanese white birch (白樺 shirakaba). A little before 3pm, I reached the summit of Mt Asahi (旭山 あさひやま asahi-yama). It was mostly in the trees, however, on the east side the valley bottom was faintly visible; on the west side, I could see Biwa lake, as well as Mt Shiga, Mt Terakoya and Mt Higashi-Tate.

Japanese Monkshood, one of the many flowers of Shiga-Kogen

View of sun rays passing through clouds from near the bus stop

After enjoying the best view of the day, I retraced my steps to a junction I had passed earlier, and took the left branch. I soon emerged from the forest, crossed a road for the last time, and followed a grassy path to the tiny Mizunashiike Pond (水無池 1470m meaning “Pond without water”), the last and lowest pond of the day. I saw some purple bell-shaped flowers, called Yama-Torikabuto (ヤマトリカブト Japanese monkshood). I followed the trail around the marsh, reaching a road and a bus stop just before 4pm. After getting back to Yudanaka, once more on an empty bus, I caught the “Snow Monkey” to Nagano where, after enjoying some local sake inside the station, I boarded the shinkansen for the 90 minute ride back to Tokyo.

See the ponds and monkeys of Shiga-Kogen

Kanhashu Viewpoint (771m), Hanno City, Saitama Prefecture, Monday, June 13, 2022

I wanted to do a half-day hike near Tokyo to escape the early summer heat and humidity. Poor weather had prevented me from going as planned on the weekend, but fortunately, I had an opportunity to go the Monday right after. I decided to visit a viewpoint in Oku-Musashi, which I had last visited about ten years ago. I could take the limited express “Laview” train to Nishi-Agano station; it made a special stop there during the spring and autumn. After reaching the highest point, I could descend via a different trail to “Kyuka Mura” where I could enjoy a hot spring bath; day trippers were only allowed on weekdays, so it was a good chance to drop by. Afterwards, I could use their free shuttle bus to get to Agano station on the Seibu-Chichibu line. The weather was supposed to cloudy and cool in the early morning, turning sunny and warm in the mid-morning. I hoped that I could reach the top before it got too hot, and was looking forwards to revisiting a favorite spot after several years.

Good visibility from the Kanhashu Viewpoint

Looking East towards the Kanto Plain

I was slightly disappointed to see that the sky was still completely overcast after arriving at the tiny Nishi-Agano station around 8h30. I walked a short way along the road to the trail entrance and surprised a black and white cat sitting in the tall grass nearby; it escaped into the forest before I could say “hi”. I followed the wide path, labeled as the “Panorama Route” on my map, up a green valley alongside a tiny brook.

An easy path to start the hike with

Although it was called the Panorama route, there were few views

At 9am, I reached an open space offering a view of the forested valley and neighbouring hills. The path narrowed and after a couple of switchbacks up a shoulder of the mountain side, entered the forest and started to climb more steeply; half an hour later, it merged with another path coming from the left and became level. I found this part of the hike very pleasant, as sunshine was now filtering through the trees and the birds had started to sing.

Mt Fuji, barely visible from Takayama

Out of the forest and through the flowers

At 10am, I reached a road with a viewpoint and was excited to spot Mt Fuji in the distance. After admiring its still snowy cap, I picked up the next part of the path less than a hundred meters away, opposite a signpost for Takayama (高山), a place I would return to later; I was now on the well-trodden Kanto Fureai no Michi. After crossing the road a second time, the trail finally emerged from the forest and passed through some Kalmia bushes (カルミア) covered in white flowers.

View south towards Okutama, and lost in the clouds, Tanzawa

The Musashi hills fading into Musashi

I hoped this was the last climb of the day as the sun was shining directly above and it was starting to feel quite warm. At 10h30, I was relieved to reach the Kanhashu viewpoint (関八州見晴台 かんはっしゅうみはらしだい kanhasshuu-miharashidai), which translates as the Kanto 8 provinces lookout and refers to its historical role. There was an open shelter and a number of trees providing some welcome shade. I took a break on a bench to enjoy the view and a late breakfast.

A better view of Mt Fuji from the highest point of the hike

One of the few paths with a view in Oku-Musashi

The view was better than I had remembered: to the west, the Oku-musashi hills melted into the Kanto plain; to the south, they merged with the Okutama mountains; Mt Fuji was visible behind the long flat summit of Mt Bonomine; closer by were the Hanno Alps on the other side of the Agano valley; supposedly, Mt Akagi and the peaks of Oku-Nikko could be seen on the north side, but today they were lost in the haze. At 11h30, I made my way back to Takayama and Takayama-Fudoson Temple (高山不動尊), just off the main road.

View of Oku-Musashi between Takayama and the Takayama-Fudoson Temple

The main building of Takayama-Fudoson Temple

I was astounded to see such a magnificent structure in the middle of the forest; it’s these kind of moments that make hiking in Japan so rewarding. I returned to the road and soon rejoined the hiking trail again, leading back into the forest. After a few minutes, I reached a junction where I turned right. The path was level for a while, providing me with some relaxing rambling, but then proceeded to rush straight down the mountain, ending at a lovely stream.

A glimpse of “Holiday Village” (on the left)

Crossing the Koma river

After crossing a rickety bridge, I emerged into a narrow, sunny valley at around 12h30. I noticed a small house on the right, meaning I was getting near the end of today’s walk. However, it took another half hour of small ups and downs, a couple more bridges and road crossings, to finally arrive at Kyuka Mura Hot Spring (休暇村 meaning Holiday Village), nestled in a bend of the Koma river. After an enjoyable hot bath, I hopped on the shuttle bus for Agano, where I boarded the local line to Hanno, and then transferred to the limited express for the forty-minute ride back to Tokyo.

See the views from the Kanhashu viewpoint (in 4K)

Mt Tsurugatoya (1374m), Otsuki City, Yamanashi Prefecture, Saturday, June 4, 2022 [Monkeys & 4K video]

I wanted to do a hike along the Chuo line, because of its easy access from Tokyo and relatively high mountains, perfect for escaping the early summer heat. It seemed like a good time to do a hike I had planned next to Mt Honjagamaru, starting from Sasago station., a couple of stops from Otsuki. However, it was a little on the short side, a shame during the long days of June. Studying my hiking map, I saw that instead of ending back at the Chuo line, I could traverse to the next valley, south of Mt Takagawa. As an added bonus, I could finish at Yorimichi no Yu hot spring near Tsurushi station. The weather forecast was the same as the previous few weeks: sunny and warm, with relatively little humidity. I was looking forward to hiking a local mountain and enjoying a hot bath after a long ramble.

View towards Otsuki city

View of the Doshi mountains through the trees

It was a beautiful June day as I rode the limited express to Otsuki, where I changed to the local Chuo line, finally getting off at Sasago station at 10am. Before hitting the hiking trail, I checked out the nearby Sasaichi sake brewery. By 10h30, I was walking up a narrow road through the forest alongside a river. I soon reached the end of the road and continued on a hiking trail, up a beautiful river valley; I was astonished that I had never heard of this spot before. A little after 11am, the path suddenly turned left, zigzagging up the mountain side.

River valley at the start of the hike

Getting close to the top ridge

It was a steep climb, with a couple of flat bits at an electric pylon and a road crossing. At noon, I reached a shoulder and saw movement out of the corner of my eye: I had stumbled on a troop of monkeys. I had not known there were monkeys in this area and spent half and hour observing them. Unlike the Okutama ones, they seemed quite scared of me, and kept a good distance; only one, probably the alpha male, completely ignored me while sitting on a tree stump next to the path (I kept my distance from him). At 12h30, I finally reached a narrow ridgetop, where I turned left.

Walking the narrow ridgetop

View towards Mitsutoge

I followed an undulating path through low, bright green trees; I saw no-one and felt far from the world. Just before 1pm, I had a view through a break in the trees: to the west was Mitsutoge, and to the east, the Doshi mountains. I continued on my way, enjoying the peace and quiet of this little hiked trail, and 15 minutes later reached the summit of Mt Tsurugatoya (鶴ヶ鳥屋山 つるがとややま tsurugatoyayama). It was in the trees, so I moved on without a break. The trail headed down steeply, the rocky sections equipped with ropes; I soon emerged onto a road, but picked up the trail again, 50 meters on the right.

Few hikers on this trail

A deforested area half way down the mountain

Here, I had a sweeping view north and east, as the trees had been cut, and upon reaching the top of a knoll, I sat down on a stump for a late lunch. To the north there was Mt Takigo, and behind, its summit in the clouds, Mt Gangaharasuri; to the east Mt Iwadono, Mt Momokura , and Mt Takagawa, surrounding Otsuki city; further south, I spotted Mt Kuki, Mt Imakura, and the Tsuru Alps, beyond Tsuru city. The latter was my final destination and it seemed still quite far; on top of that, many low dark clouds had gathered in that direction, hiding the highest peaks of the Doshi mountains.

Mt Takigo on the other side of the Chuo line

Today’s lunch stump

After lunch, I continued down a winding trail through a lovely pine forest. At 3pm, I reached a road which I followed for about half an hour to the start of Chigasaka Highway (近ヶ坂往還), hidden behind an old person’s home. It was a pleasant trail, gently climbing through mixed forest, although the sections before and after the pass were overgrown with grass, making it hard to follow. A little before 4pm, I arrived at a crossing at Chigasaka Pass (近ヶ坂峠 662m). After enjoying its tranquil atmosphere, I went straight down the other side.

Walking down through the pine trees (left) Heading up to Chigasaka Pass (right)

Walking through the tall grass around Chigasaka pass

I descended a grassy gully surrounded by tall trees; this was one of the most beautiful forested areas I had ever seen in the Tokyo area. Around 4pm, I reached a small stream which I followed for a short while, before reaching a house and a road at the edge of the forest. From there, it took less than an hour to reach Yorimicho no Yu onsen, six hours and a half after setting out in the morning; after a satisfying soak, I boarded the Fujikyu line for Otsuki, where I transferred to the limited express for the one hour trip back to Shinjuku.

See the river valley and the monkeys of Mt Tsurugatoya

Mt Okuratakamaru (1781m) & Mt Hamaiba (1752m), Otsuki and Koshu Cities, Yamanashi Prefecture, Saturday, May 28, 2022 [with 4K video]

I was looking for a relatively easy hike above 1500 meters ending at a hot spring, conditions dictated by the increasingly warm weather. I had walked most of the long ridge extending south from Daibosatsurei, but on examining my hiking map, I found a short, unexplored section. As an added bonus, it included one of the 12 beautiful Mt Fuji views of Otsuki. I could reach the start of the trail by taking the Chuo line to Kai-Yamato station and then a bus to Tenmoku hot spring; I could return to my starting point via a different trail further to the south. The weather was supposed to be sunny, warm and relatively dry. I was looking forward to enjoying the fine spring weather before the start of the rainy season, as well as getting a good view of Mt Fuji.

View of Mt Fuji near Mt Hamaiba

A ridge trail with plenty of views of Mt Fuji

It was a beautiful day as I rode the fully booked limited express to Otsuki where I changed to the local line for Kai-Yamato station. There, I squeezed onto an equally full bus for the ten-minute ride to Yamato Tenmoku Onsen; I was the only person to get off, the other passengers probably headed for the Daibosatsurei trailhead. I used a bench in front of the hot spring to get ready, and, at 10h30, set off along a narrow paved road through a green forest. One hour later, I reached the start of the trail for Yunosawa Pass (湯の沢峠).

Start of the trail for Yunosawa Pass

Looking back at Mt Kuro, further north along the ridge

I was soon heading up one of the most beautiful river valleys I had ever walked, made especially beautiful by the sunshine filtering through the new green of spring; few hikers, several river crossings and some fallen trees along the path made it quite adventurous as well. I could hear the croaking of toads, hiding under the mud, and the song of birds, hiding in the trees. A little before 1pm, I reached Yunosawa Pass, which had a parking area and a restroom. At a T-junction, I took the right branch and soon reached a grassy ridgeline.

Looking forward towards Mt Okuratakamaru

Getting close to the summit

I had a great view of the snowy peaks of the South Alps, from Mt Kaikoma to Mt Hijiri. It was a short, relaxing stroll to Mt Okuratakamaru (大蔵高丸 おおくらたかまる ootakumaru), also a 100 famous mountain of Kanto and Yamanashi; the name uses “maru” meaning round, instead of “yama“, and indeed, the summit was round and almost featureless. However, as promised, it had a stunning view of Mt Fuji, its crater rim still snowy white. I also had a view of the South Alps, and the Chuo line valley on the opposite side. It was 1h30, so I found a place to sit down for lunch; half an hour later, I continued on my way.

Mt Fuji still had its snowy cap

View southeast towards the Chuo line

The trail was easy to hike and easy to follow; I had excellent views in all directions. Huge cumulus clouds passed overhead and made me worry slightly about a sudden downpour. At 2h30, I reached Mt Hamaiba (ハマイバ丸 はまいばまる hamaibamaru), another “round” summit. Although this summit was mostly in the trees, Mt Fuji could be seen through a gap on the south side. After admiring Japan’s most famous mountain, I set off again. The path started to descend, and one hour later, reached Komeshoi Pass (米背負峠). There, I turned right, down another river valley.

Heading down from Komeshoi pass

The road back to Tenmoku onsen

This valley was just as beautiful as the one I had ascended, the rushing water sparkling under the mid-afternoon sun. At 4pm, I emerged onto a road, which I followed off the mountain; the road twisted and turned, giving me good views of the green hills of Yamanashi. After passing through a dark tunnel, I reached the main road, and at 5pm, I was back at Tenmoku Onsen. After a refreshing bath, I caught the bus for Kai-Yamato station, then boarded the train for Otsuki, and finally switched to the limited express for the one hour comfortable ride back to Shinjuku.

See the river and Fuji views on the Mt Okuratakamaru hike in 4K

Mt Otakatori (376m), Ogose Town, Saitama Prefecture, Sunday, May 22, 2022 [with 4K video]

I wanted to do a late afternoon hike close to Tokyo since the weather had suddenly become quite warm; I also wanted to try out the camera of my new smartphone. I chose a relatively low mountain I had climbed six years ago, which I could redo using different trails. I would take a train to Ogose in the early afternoon, have a soba lunch near the station, and finish the hike at a hot spring facility, newly opened since my previous visit; afterwards, I could use the onsen shuttle bus to return to Ogose. The weather was supposed to be sunny in the daytime and overcast in the evening. I was looking forward to doing another hike in the forests on the eastern edge of Oku-Musashi.

View from the top of Mt Otakatori

View form Nishiyama-Takatori

I arrived at Ogose station at 2pm, the hottest time of the day, and quickly made my way to Yoshiro (よしひろ), which I reached just at the end of the lunch time. After a satisfying soba meal, I walked another 15 minutes to the start of the trail inside the Go-Daison Azalea Park (五大尊つつじ公園). The flowering season was already over and the park was deserted. I found a small path through the forest, not on my map, but which led to a viewpoint of Ogose Town at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the World (世界無名戦士之墓), on the 2nd floor of a gleaming white monument.

Path to the tomb of the unknown soldier of the world

View from the monument of the unknown soldier

I had an excellent view of the Kanto plain thanks to the clear May weather, despite being less than 200 meters high. Behind the monument was the start of the trail up today’s mountain. It was about 4pm and the temperature was just right for some light hiking. After a short climb, I arrived at Nishiyama-Takatori (西山高取 271m), not a summit, but a shoulder on the mountain with a view east through the trees. It was also the intersection of several paths; after checking my map, I went south down some steps, before turning right at a T-junction.

Steps leading down from Nishiyama-Takatori

A trail mostly through the forest

I followed a pleasant level path through the green forest, stopping now and then to listen the sound of birds singing. I passed a group of white limestone rocks (白石様 shiraishi-sama) and a minor summit named Mt Nekko (根っ子山 324m), both completely in the trees. Around 5pm, I started to climb again, and after reaching a forested ridgeline, turned left. A few minutes later I was on the top of Mt Otakatori (大高取山 おおたかとりやま ootakatoriyama), where I had a view eastwards through a break in the trees. After a short break, I continued south along the summit ridge, reaching another minor peak, Mt Katsuragi (桂木山 367m) just before 5h30.

An easy to walk trail

Late afternoon on Mt Otakatori

The gloom was starting to gather, so I took the next path down, a shortcut according to a handwritten sign. I had passed some hikers earlier, but now I was all alone, except for a large animal I heard but never saw. The path became level and easy to walk, luckily, since visibility was dropping fast. Around 6pm, I passed another viewpoint on top of a hill, but not much to see under the grey clouds. A few minutes later I emerged onto a road inside O-Park Ogose ( オーパークおごせ). After a quick hot bath, I boarded the free shuttle bus for Ogose station where I caught the Tobu line for the one hour ride back to Ikebukuro.

See the green and hear the birds of Mt Otakatori in 4K

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 was coming out of the clouds. I was surprised at how much 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 birds singing 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 a 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; it was 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 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. A little further, I spotted some deer escaping into the forest.

“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 on 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

上信越高原国立公園 

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