Kotohira Hills (highest point 398m), Chichibu City, Saitama Prefecture, Wednesday, February 23, 2022

I needed a short hike to get back in shape after a five-week break. I had done part of this trail several years ago, after visiting Chichibu’s famous “shibazakura” (carpet cherry blossom). The surrounding forest, wedged between the terraces of Mt Buko’s northern face and the populated Arakawa valley, was unexpectedly green and peaceful. This was the perfect opportunity to return and walk the entire length of these hills from my hiking guidebook. I would use the Laview limited express, and then the local Chichibu line to get to Kagemori station. I would end up at Seibu-Chichibu station, so I just had to time my arrival with the hourly train back to Tokyo. The weather was supposed to be cold and sunny. I hoped I would get some sun and views through the trees on a cold, clear winter day.

On the left, the Minano Alps, on the right, Higashi-Chichibu

I was surprised to see snow on the ground after exiting the last tunnel on the Seibu-Chichibu line. I knew the trail could be done without crampons, but I wanted to keep my feet dry. Around 10h30, I boarded the colourful Chichibu line and saw no more snow on the way to Kagemori (影森), the next station. At 11am, after walking on a road for a while, I reached Daien Temple (大淵寺), temple number 27 on the Chichibu Pilgrimage (Chichibu-fudasho); behind it was the start of the Kotohira Hiking Trail (琴平ハイキングコース).

The colourful design of the Chichibu line train

Some sun trickling through

From the start, I had to navigate some icy sections. As the path climbed out of the valley, sunshine started to filter down and all traces of snow vanished. Through a break in the trees, I observed the train make its way back along the valley (see video). I soon arrived at Gokoku Kannon (護国観音), a statue of the Buddhist deity of compassion, with a wide view of the mountains on the Saitama-Gunma border; on the left, I could see the huge bulk of Mt Ryokami; in the center were the Minano Alps; on the right lay Mt Hodo with snowy Akagi faintly visible in the background.

View of the mountains along the border of Saitama and Gunma

Kannon statue (left), a narrow and sunny ridge (right)

I followed the trail up and down a narrow ridge, mostly in the sun thanks to the winter trees ; on the right, loomed the terraced north side of Mt Buko. At noon, I arrived at a small temple, part of Temple 26 of the Chichibu-fudasho, located at the base of a staircase on the left. It was nicknamed “Mini-Kiyomizu-dera” because it was on top of wooden stilts. After a short climb, I came upon a statue of Buddha, and nearby, the “Monk’s Meditation Rock”, from where I had another good view to the north. The path then suddenly ended at a small wooden structure at the top of a cliff.

Visible through the trees, the terraced northern face of Mt Buko

The path was mostly snow-free

After stepping onto the wooden platform, I spotted a ladder on the other side, enabling me to get down the cliff and resume my hike. Half an hour later, I found a sunny, grassy spot with a view of Mt Buko, so I decided to take a break for lunch. I continued again at 1pm, and soon had a view of Mt Ryokami to the west through the bare branches. A little later, I passed the highest point of the Kotohira Hills (琴平丘陵 ことひらきゅうりょう kotohira-kyuuryou), completely in the trees, and apart from a triangulation point, totally featureless.

A steep slope up (left) a steep staircase down (right)

The pyramidal north face of Mt Buko, used for rock mining

The path now descended through dark forest, this section familiar from my previous visit, and at 1h30, emerged onto a forest road next to a stream. For the next half an hour, I walked along a mostly flat, straight path before reaching Hitsujiyama Park; in addition to the “carpet sakura”, it also has regular cherry blossoms trees, although the buds were still firmly closed. A little after 2pm, I was back at Seibu-Chichibu station where I boarded the next limited express for the 80-minute ride back to Tokyo.

See the Chichibu line travel along the Arakawa river valley

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