I had seen these two mountains before on previous hiking trips to Nagano since the shinkansen passes through a tunnel under them. Although they aren’t as high or as beautiful as other mountains in the area, they are on a ridge jutting into the Chikuma river valley and the summit views are apparently quite spectacular. I could get to the start of the hike by taking a taxi from the station, and then walk back from the end of the trail. I decided to stick to the route recommended by my guidebook, moderate in time and difficulty. The forecast was good, and I was hoping to get a view of the Japanese North Alps covered in snow.
View of the northern half of the Japanese North Alps
Looking southeast up the Chikuma river valley
I couldn’t have hoped for better weather as I got off the bullet train at Ueda station at 9:30. A short taxi ride brought me to the start of the trail entrance, next to where the highway enters a tunnel under the mountain. At 10am, I started up the mountain side; as the noise of the cars faded away, I was able to enjoy the silence of the forest, the trees at the very end of winter still bare of leaves. Just before 11am, I passed under a huge stone shinto gate, marking the entrance to the shrine located near the summit. Half an hour later, I reached a big bright red shinto gate below the shrine itself.
Easy hiking near Ueda city
The flat top of Utsukushigahara
After walking up some steps, I had my first big view of the day. Half a kilometer below, Ueda city stretched away southeast along the floor of the Chikuma river valley; Mt Tateshina with its rounded top rose behind it; the flat plateau of Utsukushigahara, still topped with snow, lay directly south; looking west, I could see roughly half of the snow-capped peaks of the North Alps, the other half being cut off by the trees; Mt Fuji, 125 km away, and the peaks of the South Alps could be faintly seen beyond the Yatsugatake range.
Views of the Japanese North Alps
I got on my stomach and wriggled through the miniature shinto gate in from of the main shrine building; the taxi driver had told me that it brings luck! After a few more minutes of climbing, I arrived at the highest point of Mt Taro (太郎山 たろうやま tarouyama). The view was similar, but I could now see the entire North Alps, from Mt Hotaka to Mt Shirouma. It was past noon so I sat down for an early lunch on the grassy top. Around 1pm I set off again along a pleasant undulating ridge trail. Many trees were labeled by name, but since they were still bare of leaves, they all looked alike!
Hiking between Mt Taro and Mt Kokuzo
Looking northwest down the Chikuma river valley
I passed by some more spectacular viewpoints of Ueda city; looking north, I could also see Mt Azuma and the peaks of Togakushi highland. At one point, I was able to observe cars moving along the highway as they exited the tunnel on the other side of the mountain. It took me an hour and half to reach the top of Mt Kokuzo (虚空蔵山 こくうぞうやま kokuuzouyama). By now, the sun had moved west and thin clouds had appeared to the south, radically changing the views. With the sun directly above, the southern part of the North Alps with the pointed tip of Mt Yari in the center, resembled a painting.
Heading down in the afternoon
Gentler slopes near the base of the mountain
After enjoying the warm sun for a while, I started to go down just before 3pm. It took me only a few minutes to reach a rocky viewpoint directly above Ueda city; it felt like I was looking down from inside a plane. The next part of the trail became quite steep and was lined with ropes; soon I reached gentler slopes through a pine forest near the base of the mountain. At 4pm I arrived at Zama shrine and the end of the hiking trail; this is also where the shinkansen enters a tunnel under the mountain. I followed the road back to Ueda station where I jumped on the shinkansen for the one hour ride back to Tokyo.