I had been wanting to climb the first peak for several years, one of the few remaining from my list of the Kanto hundred famous. I kept on postponing it, since the hike went up and down rocky sections fitted with ladders and chains, and thus required dry weather and a good level of fitness. The stars lined up in mid-April, and I decided to grab the small window of opportunity. To get there, I would need to take a taxi to the start of the trail, since the morning bus left too early for the train from Tokyo. After the short loop hike described in my mountains of Tochigi guidebook, I would have ample time to catch the early afternoon bus back. I was looking forward to visiting one of my favourite hiking spots and experiencing what seemed like an exciting trail.
Looking at Gassan from Ozaku-yama
The sky was disappointingly grey as I left Tokyo on the Nikko line limited express, although patches of blue started to appear as I approached Shin-Kanuma station at 9am, giving me reason to hope; however, the clouds reasserted themselves during the twenty minute taxi ride to the entrance of the Kasoyama Shrine (加蘇山神社). I followed a small road for about 15 minutes to the shrine itself, perched on top of a long flight of stone steps. I spotted the trail on the left, past a small wooden gate topped with tuffs of green moss, with towering cedar trees on each side.
Steps leading to Kasoyama Shrine
The start of the trail
I walked along a level path surrounded by the new green of spring, here and there yellow Japanese buttercups adding touches of yellow. I passed the small “kiyotaki” waterfall (清滝), and after some gentle climbing, reached a small rest house, next to the slightly bigger “ryugataki” waterfall (竜ヶ滝). A little further, the trail split in two: I took the left branch as it included the trickier sections best tackled on the ascent; later on, I would descend via the right branch. The path suddenly became steep and rocky, and required more careful walking. I arrived at a second rest house just before 11am where I took a break.
Kiyotaki waterfall and Japanese buttercups
Ryugataki waterfall (left) stone lantern along the trail (right)
Before me rose a long rocky face fitted with a pair of parallel chains. Even though I had seen pictures beforehand, it seemed amazing that a path led straight up. After securing my pockets and tightening the straps of my bag, I proceeded with caution, as the surface, still damp from the morning dew, was slippery. At the end of the chained section, a long steel ladder led to a oku-no-miya (奥ノ宮), a tiny, off-trail shrine, hidden under a rocky crop. After a quick investigation, I continued along the main trail, as it cut around the rocky face to the south, wisely avoiding the direct approach.
Rocky section fitted with chains on the way up
A more dangerous section fitted with ladders
The chains and ladders soon reappeared, and there was even a short bridge along a narrow ridge with steep drops on each side. All this equipment seemed new and securely fastened, and for a while, I could enjoy the thrilling aspect of walking along the side of a rocky cliff, the thick vegetation masking the views and providing a false sense of security. Here and there, I could see pink rhododendron (“shakunage“), the flowers being in bloom precisely at this time of the year. At 11h3o, I reached the ridge top with a sense of relief and a few minutes later, I was standing on top of Higashi Kennomine (東剣ノ峰) where I had a view of today’s first summit directly north.
Shakunake near the top (left); ladder between east and west kennomine (right)
View to the west near the summit of Mt Ozaku
The next section was the scariest of the entire route: a long descent via a steep ladder. I moved slowly but steadily, always making sure to keep three points of contact at all times. At the base, after a short climb, I reached Nishi Kennomine (西剣ノ峰). There was a view on the east side, but today, all I could see was white. I continued down the other side and was faced with another series of ladders, less steep this time, at the bottom of which was yet another climb. Hoping this would be the last one, I charged off and in no time reached the top of Mt Ozaku (石裂山 おざくやま ozaku-yama meaning “split stone”), a Kanto 100-famous mountain. The only view was through a gap in the trees on the north side, through which I could see today’s next peak. The narrow summit was occupied by a large group, so I retreated to another spot with a view west, just a couple of minutes away.
Heading down a steep and rocky ridge
Lower down, walking alongside a rocky face
It felt chilly, almost as if winter was making an encore. I sat down for a quick lunch before resuming my hike. At 1pm, I reached the summit of Mt Gassan (or Tsukiyama 月山, meaning “moon mountain”). It had a lichen-covered shinto gate, a bunch of shakunage flowers and an old thermometer attached to the summit sign, the mercury level showing just below the 10° mark. After a short break, I descended a steep rocky ridge, then turned right onto a switchback path through cedar trees. I reached another chain-fitted rocky bit, at the back of the large group I met on the summit. They graciously let me pass ahead of them; I had to be doubly careful not to make a false move in front of an audience.
A lonely Kamoshika enjoying the spring leaves
A rare sight, especially at such a low altitude
I was now walking through an impressive canyon, a rock face on my right and a small stream on my left. Eventually, it widened into a valley, the new green of spring reappearing at the lower altitude. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted movement high on the opposite slope – a solitary “kamoshika” or Japanese serow, munching on the new leaves; I hadn’t seen one since Mt Kushigata, three years ago. After observing this rare and magical sight for a while, I moved on quickly; I was still on schedule, but couldn’t afford to miss the only bus of the afternoon. On the opposite side of the valley, I noticed scores of fallen trees, probably due to the powerful typhoons of recent years; looking up through the gap in the forest, I saw blue sky, at last.
Walking back to the trail entrance
Better weather at the end of the day
I carefully stepped on green moss-covered rocks to cross the stream I had been following, reaching the junction and the rest house I had passed earlier in the day. It was now 2pm and only half an hour to go, so I could complete the hike at a relaxed pace. I checked out a small pool of water next to the path and discovered dozens of tadpoles in the shallow water, also a rare sight, since I hadn’t seen any since 2019. I also saw some “mitsumata” flowers, last seen on Mt Ashitaka the previous year. I arrived safely back at the bus stop under blue skies, the day’s forecast finally coming true. At 3pm, I got on the small bus for Shin-Kanuma station, where I transferred to the limited express for the 90-minute ride to Tokyo.
See the sights of Mt Ozaku and Mt Gassan
The flowers of Tochigi in the spring