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

Hiking in Tohoku: Mt Kurikoma (1626m), Miyagi Prefecture, October 2020

On October 16th, JR East introduced the JR East Welcome Rail Pass 2020. For just 12000 yen, I could travel for 3 consecutive days in Kanto, Nagano, Niigata and the whole of Tohoku, including the use of the shinkansen. My first thought was: “How many mountains can I climb thanks to this?” The second was: “Can I do them as day trips from Tokyo?” Up to now I had been mostly limited to the Kanto area, but now, thanks to the shinkansen, my strike zone had been considerably expanded. For this first mountain, I had to leave Tokyo before 6am to catch the 9am bus from Ichinoseki station on the Tohoku shinkansen line, nearly 400 kilometers North of Tokyo. I had 6 hours to complete the hike, which seemed more than enough. I would even have time for a hot bath at Sukawa Onsen (須川温泉) near the start of the hiking trail. I didn’t have a hiking guide book for Miyagi prefecture, so I relied on Wes Lang’s description of the route. The weather forecast seemed good: some clouds, some sun, and most importantly, no rain. I was ready for my first hike in Miyagi prefecture.

Crossing Nagorigahara Marsh

Sukawa Onsen’s big rotemburo

There was some construction going on in front of the bus stop at Ichinoseki station, and I wasn’t sure where to stand in line for the bus. In the end, there was just one other passenger, also a hiker, so there was ample seating space for the ninety-minute trip. The ride from the valley up to Sukawa Onsen at 1100 meters was spectacular: even though the clouds were in, the autumn colours were still at their peak. After getting off the bus at 10:30, I had a quick look around in the visitor center, which would certainly be closed by the time I finished my hike. They had an interesting collection of stuffed wildlife, including several bears. Directly opposite was an outdoor bath, one option for the after-hike soak. Just beyond, a hot water stream rushed down the mountain side, creating puffs of steam (see video), reminding me that today’s mountain was also an active volcano.

Autumn colours were still at their peak

One of the several streams on the mountain

I reached the start of the hiking path at the top of some stone steps, and very soon I had some good views of the mountainous area to the North. This time, I was inside the Kurikoma Quasi-National Park (栗駒国定公園) and it seemed very wild and devoid of human activity. Around 11h30, I arrived at Nagorigahara marsh (名残ヶ原), crossed via a wooden walkway like in the Oze marshlands. The weather continued to be mostly overcast, with occasional sunny spells, and I was worried that the summit would be in the clouds. I passed the junction for the most direct route up to the summit, currently closed due to high levels of volcanic gas. I was now back on a muddy hiking trail. After crossing several streams, the trail started to climb. Soon I was above the trees, and there were good views north and east.

Path leading down to Kurikoma highland in Miyagi

View North towards Iwate

Around 12h30, I reached the final climb to the summit. There were patches of snow here and there, but none on the trail itself, which was a relief, since I hadn’t brought crampons. At 1pm, I was standing on the top of Mt Kurikoma (栗駒山 くりこまやま kurikomayama), one of the 200-famous mountains of Japan. I was surprised to see several other hikers; apparently the trail on the other side from Kurikoma Highland (car access only) is more popular. Miyagi prefecture stretched away beneath me to the east; south and north were many mountains I couldn’t identity since I wasn’t familiar with the area. No sooner had I finished lunch that the mist arrived. There were no more views and it was suddenly very cold. It was nearly 2pm and heading down at once seemed like a good idea.

Different path on the return through the marshland

The changing room at Kurikoma Sanso

I descended the same way as before but turned left in the marshland so that I could return via a different route. It took me through an area with white sand that reminded me of my hike on Kozushima island. I was back at Sukawa onsen at 3h30 and had an hour before the return bus. I decided to take a bath at Kurikoma Sanso a few minutes down the road inside Akita prefecture, since it had an outdoor bath with a view of the valley. It was a good decision since the bath was nearly empty at this time and it was very relaxing. Afterwards, I caught the 4h30 bus back to Ichinoseki station, with the same hiker as on the way there. At the shinkansen station, I hopped on the Tohoku shinkansen for the 2h30 high-speed ride back to Tokyo.

Tokuwa River Valley, Yamanashi City, Yamanashi Prefecture, October 2020

I was looking for a good river walk and apparently the nearby Yamanashi prefecture had many of those. I had to give up my first two choices because the river trails were damaged during the massive typhoons of 2019. Fortunately, my third option, near the entrance to the trail for Mt Kentoku, seemed promising. It was a short hike, and although it was possible to go by bus, I chose to hire a car instead. That way, I could have lunch at a soba restaurant on the way there, and drop by a hot spring facility on the way back. The weather forecast was perfect: sunny and warm for this time of the year. However, I had to be careful not to start hiking too late, since the sun sets early at the end of October, and even earlier in the mountain valleys. I wanted to see the sunshine reflected on the water and the autumn leaves, at least for part of the hike. The only thing that made me uneasy was the possibility of crowds along the trail – how well known was this river valley among the hiking community?

Hiking in the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park

秩父多摩甲斐国立公園

One of the river’s many level stretches

…and some of the sudden drops!

I arrived in Kofu after a comfortable train ride on the Chuo line limited express, and used a rental car to drive 45 minutes to the parking lot near the entrance of the trail up Mt Kentoku (乾徳山). On the way, I dropped by Soba Maru (そば丸) for an early soba lunch. From the parking, it was a thirty minute-walk, first on a paved road, and then on a forest road, to Muso waterfall (夢窓の滝 meaning dream window waterfall), and the start of the hiking trail. I was immediately struck by the beauty of the river, one of the best I’ve ever hiked. First, there was no concrete road running next to it (something frequent here). Next, it seemed relatively unscathed by the 2019 typhoons. Finally, there were many excellent views as the river alternated between long flat stretches and sudden drops.

Sunlight reflected on the water surface

…and on the autumn leaves

I decided to have a closer look at the impressive Muso waterfall by walking down a short metal staircase leading to the river side. I had to be extra careful not to slip on the rocks – I didn’t want to get too close! After walking back up, I entered the Tokuwa River valley hiking trail (徳和渓谷コース tokuwa-keikoku kosu). For the first twenty minutes, the trail stayed close to the forest path, occasionally merging with it. Then it suddenly dipped, crossed the river over a wooden bridge, and went up the opposite side. I was pleasantly surprised by how well maintained the trail was and by the near total absence of other hikers. By now, it was nearly 2pm, so it was likely that most people had already come and gone (I had passed a few on the way). Luckily the river valley was still bathed in the autumn sunshine, and the interplay of golden leaves and sparkling water was dazzling.

The start of the hike had many viewpoints next to the river

One of the many small waterfalls dotting the valley

The river views kept on getting more and more spectacular. I was now hiking alongside the western branch of the upper Tokuwa river. I passed four small waterfalls, as the path climbed the rocky right bank via a series of wooden steps. According to my map, I was just inside the southern part of the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. Around 2h20, I reached the highest point of the hike, around 1200m, near Yanagi waterfall (柳滝 meaning willow waterfall). The Tokuwa river continued further but here the path made a U-turn and headed back. I was walking on a level path following the mountain side; below on the right was the river, a white line snaking through the trees. After a few minutes, the trail descended sharply along a ridge, the river disappearing from sight but still heard. I soon arrived back at the wooden bridge, just after a double waterfall, and before the merging of the east and west branches of the river.

The rockier sections were equipped with wooden steps

Many close-up views thanks to the wooden walkways

It was almost 3pm and I was nearing the end of my short hike. I quickly walked back along the forest road, now in the shade, and arrived at my car at 3h30. By now, the entire valley was in the shadow; it was getting cold and nearly everyone had already left. I drove 15 minutes to Hayabusa onsen for a quick hot bath, and then back to Kofu station. As I settled down into my reserved seat for the train ride back to Tokyo, I felt satisfied that I had caught the sunshine and the autumn leaves, and that I hadn’t been caught up in any crowds while hiking this secret river valley.

Travel up and down the Tokuwa river valley

Ken-no-mine (1429m) and Mt Tsunoochi (1393m), Takasaki City, Gunma Prefecture, October 2020

I first spotted these two mountains while hiking Mt Hanamagari in January 2016. Before I could attempt them, there were a couple of things I needed to figure out. First, the trail between the two peaks was a dotted line on my map. After checking online reports by other hikers, apart from being super steep, it didn’t seem to be dangerous. Next, as usual, access was a real headache. My guidebook recommended going by car and hiking up and down from Hamayu Sanso (I had stopped there for a bath once after climbing Mt Asamakakushi). However, I felt it would be more exciting to do a traverse instead. I would take a taxi from Yokokawa station to the parking area for Kirizumi onsen and finish at Hamayu Sanso on the other side. The main drawback was that there were no buses back to Takasaki on the weekend (only on weekdays, strangely enough). I resolved to skip the hot bath, and walk ten kilometers from the end of the hiking path to the closest bus stop, a place called Gonda. I just hoped that I would make it in time for the last bus of the day at 4pm, or I would be stuck there. The weather forecast was good, and the autumn leaves would still be at their peak up in the mountains.

Hiking in the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park 上信越高原国立公園

In the middle, Mt Tsunoochi, and on the right, Kennomine (photo: January 2016)

After getting off at Yokokawa station for the second time this month, I was alarmed to see no taxi waiting outside (I hadn’t reserved one). I called the taxi company, and they said they would send a car over at once. Along the way, the driver pointed out the Shinkansen tracks, exiting the side of the mountain before quickly reentering it on the other side. I had hoped to see one zip by above us, but no luck. The taxi dropped me off at the parking below Kirizumi Onsen (霧積温泉). At 10am I was ready to start hiking. First I followed the path leading to the hot spring hotel. Twenty minutes later, after merging with a forest road, I turned right onto the hiking trail.

The trail hugged the south side of the ridge

The trail rose gradually through the autumn forest and soon reached a fork. The main trail for Mt Hanamagari went left, but today’s mountain was along the right branch. The trail crossed a flat area and became faint; I had to find my way following the pink ribbons attached to the tree branches. I soon reached the main ridge separating Annaka and Takasaki cities. The next section turned quite adventurous. The path followed the top of the ridge for a short while, then, as the ridge narrowed, dropped slightly, and cut across the south side, staying just inside the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park. There were some ravines to the right; at one point, the path hugged the base of a cliff, and I used the chains attached to the rocky face to keep my balance. Views were sparse, but the autumn leaves were stunning. There was no other hikers and I enjoyed the silence of the forest.

Mt Asamakakushi from Kennomine

The ridge widened and welcomed the path back. I made my way up a short slope and at 11h30, I had my first views of the day. Opposite was Mt Asamakakushi, and to the left was Mt Hanamagari, with Mt Asama looming behind. In the background, I could make out the peaks of the Joshin-Etsu, still free of snow. There were more clouds on this side and the mountains played hide and seek in the shadows making it difficult to get good photos. I walked a couple of minutes along the ridge, and reached what I judged to be the summit of Ken-no-Mine (剣の峰 けんのみね kennomine) – the summit marker was broken in half, and the mountain name was illegible. I decided to continue without a break. The next section was the dotted section on the map, and I was keen to get it behind me.

The autumn leaves were at their peak

At first, this steep slope didn’t seem like a big deal. I rushed down, occasionally grabbing tree branches to keep my balance. Soon the terrain became so steep that the trail simply vanished. Once again I had to rely on the pink ribbons. They were spaced far apart, and the path didn’t simply go straight down: it twisted and turned, around boulders, over bundles of tree roots, down narrow gullies, and roped sections followed roped sections. I had to stop several times and carefully scan the the whole mountain side to pick up the trail. The last thing I wanted to do was head down the wrong way and have to climb back up. Although the path was dotted on the map, I was surprised that anyone would dare turn this into a hiking path. My guide book suggested going up and down this trail, and I was thankful for having chosen the traverse instead.

Mt Hanamagari, left, with Mt Asama behind and on the right

At noon, it was with relief that I reached the pass between the two mountains. I was now back on a proper hiking path. I would do a roundtrip to the next peak, before heading down the mountain. It took me about twenty minutes of steady climbing, through a festival of autumn colours, to reach the top of Mt Tsunoochi (角落山 つのおちやま tsunoochi-yama), a name that could be roughly translated as “dropped antlers mountain” – I didn’t see any. The summit area was narrow, covered in trees and bushes, and included a small shrine and shinto gate. If I stood near the highest point, I could get a good view of the whole of northern Gunma, all the way to Mt Tanigawa and Mt Hotaka. The view to the south wasn’t as good, but I could still make out the Kanto plain through the trees.

The mountains of Northern Gunma

One glance at the time told me that I would have to keep my lunch break short. I had a little over 3 hours to get off the mountain, and walk ten kilometers to the bus stop. After taking all the necessary photos, I retraced my steps to the pass. There, the trail doubled back along the steep side of Ken-no-Mine. I saw some impressive cliffs, and had to tackle a couple more chain-lined sections. Soon I was walking down a broad river valley through beautiful forest. Even though I was no longer inside a National Park, I felt this part could have been included. Suddenly, I was off the trail. I walked back for a few minutes, and thanks to the pink ribbons, found the path again, along a dried-up rocky river bed. Thirty minutes after leaving the summit, I reached the end of the hiking trail.

Hiking down in the late afternoon

From there, I walked down a forest road for another half an hour before I reached a prefectural road. It was an enjoyable walk that I did at a fast pace, crossing a beautiful mountain stream several times. One of the reasons I opted to walk to the bus stop was that according to my hiking map, there were good views along the road. I wasn’t disappointed. It also said there were monkeys in the area, but I didn’t get to see any this time – perhaps a good thing since I didn’t have much time to spare. After about an hour an a half of fast walking I reached the bus stop a few minutes before the bus was due. I had to change buses once on the way to get to Takasaki, with a one hour wait in-between. Luckily, the bus arrived early, and I was able to catch the previous bus, meaning I got back to Tokyo earlier than expected – always welcome after a long hike!

Mountain view from the prefectural road

Hiking the Nakasendo: Usui Pass to Yokokawa Station & Megane Bridge, Gunma Prefecture, October 2020

I had hiked this Gunma section of the Nakasendo (中山道) in January 2015 using the Tokyo Wide Pass; it’s less well-known than the section in the Kiso valley. I thought it would be interesting to redo it in a different season. First, the autumn leaves would be at their peak around the start of the hike. Next, I hoped that in the warmer weather I would be able to see monkeys along the way. I also wanted to add a side trip to the nearby Megane Bridge. Finally, I was looking forward to using the hot spring near the end of the hike, which was closed on my last visit . Instead of taking the Shinkansen to Karuizawa, I decided use a combination of train and bus, longer but cheaper; then, to make up for the later arrival, I would take another bus up to Usui Pass instead of walking. The forecast was cloudy with a hope for sun, but apart from Usui Pass, there were few views along the way.

Hiking in the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park 上信越高原国立公園

View from Usui Pass (photo taken in January 2015)

The trip to Karuizawa went smoothly: I had good views of Mt Myogi from the train, and saw some nice autumn colours from the bus. From Karuizawa station, I walked to the bus stop of the Red Bus (赤バス aka basu), a small seasonal sightseeing bus. There were few passengers and I was able to enjoy the view from the front of the bus as it zipped through old Karuizawa, and then zoomed up a narrow mountain road to Usui Pass (see video). The clouds were in and the view wasn’t great; in consolation there was a resplendissant Japanese maple tree in orange and red. I finally set off on the Old Nakasendo Highway (旧中山道 kyu-nakasendo) around 12:30.

River crossing along the Nakasendo

After an eroded downhill section, I crossed a small stream, and then followed a narrow level path till it merged with a wider trail heading down again. It was around here that my map reported monkey sightings, so I kept my eyes open and ears peeled. During the Meiji area there also used to be a village around here, and here and there its remains could be seen, making this part of the hike somewhat spooky. Past a rusting bus on one side of the path, and a rotting house on the other side, I heard strange noises coming from the treetops. At first I thought they were monkey noises, but it turned out to be some kind of bird call. I got lucky a little further. After going a little off the trail to investigate some suspicious noises, I stumbled upon a troop of monkeys moving through the forest. Unlike the ones from Okutama lake, these ones were shy and scattered at once, except for a large male, coolly walking away through the trees (see video).

The path followed the natural folds of the mountain

After the excitement of seeing monkeys (second time this year), I resumed my hike along this Edo period highway. The road became level again, and offered glimpses of mountain ridges and river valleys left and right. There were occasional white signs in Japanese, explaining various natural and historical landmarks. Most of this hike was inside the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park and the surrounding nature was wild and beautiful. Soon the road narrowed and turned into a hiking path again; it started to twist and turn, following the natural folds of the mountain ridge as it slowly descended into the valley. For a short while, I walked above a mountain stream tumbling down a small narrow valley. I took a moment to observe a large butterfly return obsessively to a curiously shaped-flower, and feed greedily on its nectar (see video).

A butterfly enjoying a nectar lunch

At 2h30, I finally arrived at a small rest house. I remembered it well from my previous visit. The guest book, slightly moldy despite it’s plastic casing, was still there, sadly devoid of English entries since spring this year. I found my old entry from 5 years ago and added a fresh one. The path turned rocky and started to descend in a series of switchbacks. On my winter hike I had good views of Mt Myogi and Yokokawa town around here; now, however, the view was blocked by tree leaves. Around 3pm, I reached the base of the mountain, and arrived at the modern road connecting Karuizawa and Yokokawa. On the other side and down some steps, I found myself on the “Apto Road” (アプトの道) that went through a tunnel under the road. This pedestrian road is named after the “Abt system”, a rack system, used by the old Usui line to transport passengers up the mountain side to Karuizawa from the middle of the Meiji era till 1963.

Tunnel number five along the “Abuto Road”

It was getting late but I decided to stick to my plan of exploring this road. Keeping to the day’s theme, it passed through several tunnels, some pitch black and some glowing orange from the interior lighting. Half an hour later at the end of the longest one, I arrived at the highlight of the day, Megane bridge (めがね橋 megane-bashi), the longest brick arch bridge in Japan. It was wonderful to walk on this marvel of Meiji era engineering. Apparently the autumn colours are spectacular here, but I was a couple of weeks early. Past the bridge, the road ducked into yet another dark tunnel. It was possible to continue a few more kilometers to an abandoned railway station, but it was getting late, and I decided to head back. The road ran straight and slightly downhill to Toge-no-yu hot spring which I reached in less than half an hour.

Megane Bridge, one of the wonders of the Meiji Era

After a speedy hot bath, I was ready to continue. By now it was 5h30 and already pitch dark outside. It had also started to drizzle. I was still 3 kilometers from the train station. I had walked it before – the road was straight and paved so there was little risk of getting lost or hurt. I briefly considered calling a taxi, but what better way to finish a spooky hike than a walk in the dark past an abandoned railway station? On the way, I discovered that my headlight only worked intermittently. I hurried past the disused Maruyama station building on the left, a darker shadow among the shadows. At 6pm, I passed the closed Annaka Tourist information office, and was finally walking under street lights. I reached the still-in-use Yokokawa station, well in time for the return train to Takasaki and Tokyo.

Ask for a hiking plan for the Nakasendo

The old Maruyama train station (photo taken in January 2015)

Ride the Red bus through Karuizawa up to Usui Pass

From mountain streams to wild monkeys, the Nakasendo has lots to offer

Mt Hiruga (1848m), Nasushiobara City, Tochigi Prefecture, October 2020

This was a fairly remote mountain situated 150 kilometers directly north of Tokyo. Fortunately, the bus times lined up with the train times, so this hike could be done as a long daytrip. This time, I wasn’t concerned about the weather: the forecast announced sun, then clouds, followed by rain after nightfall. My main concern was whether I could complete an 8h30 hike, according to my guidebook, in six hours. If it took me any longer, I would be forced to take a longer and more inconvenient route back to Tokyo. Finally, I was hoping that I would still be able to see some beautiful autumn colours.

Hiking in the Nikko National Park 日光国立公園

View below the summit before the clouds rolled in

After getting off at Kami-Miyorishiobara-Onsenguchi Station (long name but characteristic of the area), I boarded the diminutive “Yu~ bus” for the short ride to the start of the trail. I was the sole passenger; the conductor was friendly and chatted with me about my plans for the day. The start of the hike was along a small road; I saw famers harvesting rice, and also rescued a praying mantis from a precarious position (see video). Around 10am, I was finally on the hiking path. After a short climb, I reached a level forest road which I followed for about 15 minutes. The sun was shining and I had some good views on the right side.

View of Mt Takahara from the entrance of the hiking trail

Just before 11am, I reached the end of the forest road and was back on the hiking trail. It went up and down through mixed forest. At times, the trail was faint and I had to be careful not to lose it. It was very peaceful and there were no other hikers. Half an hour later, I reached the start of a long climb. Another half an hour later and 400 meters higher, I was hiking through a very different kind of forest. On my map it was called “Asunaro no mori” (アスナロの森 – Thujopsis forest, a kind of conifer). The path, following a ridge as it curved northwest to northeast, was mostly flat, allowing me to enjoy the surrounding vegetation. At one point, I had a glimpse of the summit through a break in the trees.

Shinto gate on the trail

Around noon, I passed under a solitary Shinto gate, placed on the trail for no apparent reason. From here, the trail started to edge upwards again, and the conifers made way to beech trees. This section was incredibly beautiful, the trees trunks twisting themselves into interesting shapes; although I was near the top of the mountain, I felt like I was walking through a wood in the countryside. I was, after all, hiking at the very edge of the Nikko National Park. Around 12:30, the path got steeper, and I thought I was reaching the top, but fifteen minutes later, I emerged onto a shoulder with a view of the summit, still some way ahead. This pattern repeated itself a few more times, during which I passed another hiker on his way down. The sky had become overcast. On the bright side, the autumn colours were still on full display.

Hiking among the beech trees

At 1pm, I finally reached the top of Mt Hiruga (日留賀岳 ひるがたけ), a Kanto hundred famous mountain, just as the mist was rolling in. I had a brief glimpse of the view before the world turned white. I had a quick lunch next to the summit shrine, and then started to descend the same way. It had taken me three hours to reach the top, so I had ample time to get down. However, if I got down early enough, I would be able to take a hot bath before the long trip back. The path was easy to walk so I was able to run most of the way. The forest was eerily quiet, save for the occasional barking of deer, and gloomy; it felt like it could start raining at any moment. I reached the trail entrance a couple of hours later, and thirty minutes later I was at Hana no Yu. After a quick, but satisfying bath, I hopped onto the empty bus for the train station. As I entered the station building, it started to rain, so I counted myself doubly luckily that I finished the hike on time and dry!

Watch the Praying Mantis Rescue video (1:08 minutes)

Mt Morai (1717m), Sakuho Town, Nagano Prefecture, Monday, October 5th, 2020

Having climbed Mt Ogura in 2018, I had wanted to do another hike in the same area, between Yatsugatake and Western Gunma. After checking my Nagano guidebook, I found the perfect candidate just ten kilometers to the north. I attempted it last year, but had to abort at the last minute because of poor weather (I visited Picchio in Karuizawa instead). Since access was with the Komi line via Saku-Daira, I needed to use the Tokyo Wide Pass. The weather on my chosen day was dubious, so I decided to delay my departure by a couple of hours to take advantage of sunnier weather forecast to arrive in the afternoon. Since it was a short hike, and I had planned to use a taxi to get to the start of the trail, a late start wouldn’t be an issue. So once again, my number one concern was the weather – would I get clear skies on my second attempt on this faraway mountain?

Panoramic view from the summit

I arrived at Haguroshita station at the rather late hour of 11am. The sky was still overcast but I was feeling optimistic. The taxi driver told me that the current Emperor, an avid hiker, had once climbed this mountain. The last kilometer of the road, including the parking area, was closed due to road repair, and so I expected to see no one else on the mountain today. The first part of the hike followed a forest road parallel to a river. The surrounding forest was wild and undisturbed, and it felt wonderful to be hiking in Nagano prefecture. I was occasionally startled by sudden noises coming from the forest – falling chestnuts, not a bear stepping on a branch. A little after noon, I reached the official start of the hiking trail. Looking up, I could see wide patches of blue sky.

Forest road at the start of the hike

One of the 100 giant trees of Japan

The trail climbed slowly through the dark and peaceful forest. It took me about half an hour to reach a giant Japanese Horse Chestnut tree (トチノキ tochinoki). It’s one of the hundred giant trees in Japan (I had last encountered one in Ibaraki earlier this year). After checking out this impressive giant tree, I continued on my way. For the first time while hiking, I spotted several daddy long-legs spiders (see video at the end). There were many fern plants on the ground, a nice change from bamboo grass. The path was getting steeper and steeper, and soon it became a series of switchbacks. I was quickly gaining altitude, and thirty minutes later I popped onto a ridge. I was greeted with a blast of cold wind, and I had to take a short break to add a layer of clothing.

Steep climbing among the ferns and birch trees

Hard to believe that the top is only minutes away

After only a few minutes of fast walking along the wooded ridge, I reached the rocky top of Mt Morai (茂来山 もらいさん moraisan) a little before 2pm. Above my head was a nice surprise – beautiful blue sky, as I had hoped. I dropped my pack and enjoyed the views. Spreading beneath me eastwards, were the low mountains of Nishi-Joshu (western Gunma). Straight ahead was the flat top of Mt Arafune, and to the right, was the serrated top of Mt Myogi. Southwards, I could see Mt Ogura, and behind it, the pointy top of Mt Kinpu. South-West, I could just make out the outline of the South Alps. Northwards was the populated valley of Saku. However, the summits of both Yatsugatake and Asamayama were still in the clouds. After spending a full hour on the summit, I started to head down.

Blue skies!

Dark clouds lingered above Mt Yatsu

I retraced my steps to where I had joined the ridgeline earlier, and continued straight. The path soon dived down the other side of the mountain. At times, it was faint and hard to follow, and I had to slow to check the way carefully. After a steep descent, the path leveled, and became easier to walk as it followed a small river. It took me just thirty minutes to descend all the way to the parking lot on the other side of the mountain. However, it was another hour and a half walk, first along a forest road, then a paved road, back to the station. The first part was along a river through beautiful forest; the second part went next to yellow rice fields ready for harvest (and a few already harvested), with good views of Mt Morai. I got to the small unmanned Kaize station at 5pm, fifteen minutes before the train arrived to take me back to Tokyo.

Caution: video features spiders!

Mt Morai with a banana hairstyle