I really wanted to do more hikes along the Aizu-Kinugawa train line in northern Tochigi; although it’s directly connected to Tokyo via the Tobu limited express trains, so far I had only done a handful of mountains along it, the last one being Mt Hiruga, one year ago. Despite being completely surrounded by mountains and inside a national park, it has fewer hiking trails than the neighbouring Nikko area. Using my hiking guidebook, I located a suitable station-to station hike starting from Nakamiyori-onsen station with supposedly nice views. As this was just one stop before the one for Mt Hiruga, I was familiar with the way there (and back) and I could arrive early enough in the day to complete the hike before dark. The weather forecast was good: sunny but a little windy. It had been unseasonably cold the past week, and I wondered whether I would be able to see the first autumn colours of the year.
The expected autumn colours with unexpected snow
The weather was clear but the mountains were in the clouds, as I rode the Revaty limited express to Kinugawa Onsen where I transferred to the old-fashioned Aizu mountain express for the last leg of the trip, up a narrow gorge and through dark tunnels. Unfortunately, after exiting the last tunnel, I was greeted with cloudy skies and I could see water drops on the window panes. At 10h15 I was standing outside an unmanned station under a light drizzle. Looking west, I could see today’s mountain at the end of the valley, briefly lit up by the sun through a break in the clouds, giving me hope of better weather as I started out on my hike.
The first part of the hike was along a beautiful river
I followed a small road through a sleepy village and then along a picturesque river, till I reached Mitoshi Bridge (見通し橋). Around this point the rain let up and the sun started to break through the clouds from time to time. It seemed like the weather would clear up, although I wasn’t sure it would do so fast enough. At 11h30 I reached the start of the trail. The first part zigzagged up the mountain side and was easy to walk. Twenty minutes later, I reached an electric pylon. The sun had come out again, so I took off a layer and no sooner had I done it, the wind started blowing fiercely.
The steepest part of the hike around “oiwa”
Several minutes after the pylon I took a small steep path branching to the right and heading straight up the ridge. I was following a path through beech trees slowly curving northwards; although I was a few kilometers outside the Nikko national park, the surrounding forest was wild and beautiful. The wind was blowing in gusts, sometimes so strong that I worried that a branch would fall on my head. After some climbing, I reached the aptly named “Oiwa” (大岩), meaning big rock, at 12h30. There was a steep narrow corridor behind it equipped with a long rope, which I used to haul myself up.
View of Mt Takahara, with Nakamiyori nestled at its base
At the top of the rock, I took a short break to enjoy the view. I could see Mt Takahara as well as the valley and ridge I had just walked up. I only had a short way to go till the summit, so I decided to save lunch till then. The ridge stayed level for a short while before climbing steeply again. The ground was still wet from the recent rain and I had to be careful not to slip. I reached the narrow top of Mt Shibakusa (芝草山 しばくさやま shibakusayama, meaning “Mt Lawn”), a hundred famous mountain of Tochigi, a little past 1pm. I was impressed that the summit sign was in English. It was still too early for the autumn colours, although the leaves were starting to show hints of red.
Mt Arakai and it’s early winter coat
By now, the weather had recovered, although the wind was still blowing strongly. Looking northwest, I could see Mt Arakai, its summit covered with a dusting of snow. I was the only person on the mountain and it felt wonderful to be completely surrounded by mountains without any noise, except the occasional howling of the wind. After a quick lunch, I headed down. At 2pm, I was back at the “big rock”. I took a short break to enjoy the view some more. Going down the roped corridor required more care than going up; I applied the three point technique, always making sure I had three points of support before moving.
Looking back at Mt Shibakusa from Nakamiyori
One hour later I was back at the start of the trail. I noticed that the box for submitting hiking plans was actually an old fridge (it wasn’t in use anymore). While walking back on the road I spotted a praying mantis – I hadn’t seen one since my hike on Mt Hiruga, which made me think that the area was a good environment for this species. Shortly after, I spotted a buck bounding away from the road and into the forest. Half an hour later I was back at Nakamiyori and after a quick hot spring bath at Ojika-no-yu 男鹿の湯, I hopped onto the local train for Shimo-Imaichi station, where I transferred to the Kegon limited express for the 90 minute train ride back to Tokyo.
Listen to the wind blowing on Mt Shibakusa