Jomine Park (498m) & Sanbaseki Gorge, Kamikawa Town & Fujioka City, Saitama & Gunma Prefectures

As I was looking for a way to continue my exploration of western Gunma, I found a section of the “Kanto Fureai no Michi” surrounded by four previously climbed peaks: Mt Jomine, Mt Mikabo, Mt Sakura and Mt Yokogai. The highlights were a viewpoint of Kanna lake and a river gorge; on the downside, the route followed paved roads instead of hiking paths. I wasn’t worried about access, since I had traveled to the area before. It would be a short hike, so I could leave later than usual. Although most of the hike would be inside Saitama, except the river gorge, I would be arriving and leaving via Gunma. The weather was supposed to be fine all day, and although I wouldn’t be summiting any mountains, I was hoping to get some good views along a hidden valley close to Tokyo.

Hiking the Kanto Fureai no Michi 関東ふれあいの道

Kanna lake and Shimokubo dam from Jomine Park

I had only a few minutes to transfer to the bus after arriving at Shinmachi station around 10h30. I got off one hour later, a couple of stops before the dam and the lake, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I could see Jomine park and the dam straight ahead, so I got my bearings easily. After getting ready, I used my phone GPS to find my way to the bottom of the river valley. I crossed the bright red Tosenkyo bridge (登仙橋), also crossing into Saitama prefecture at the same time, and walked up the road opposite, alongside a small river.

Straight ahead and at the top of the mountain, Jomine park

Looking downstream (left) and upstream (right) from Tosenkyo Bridge

I soon spotted a small path next to the river and immediately switched to it so that I could better enjoy the sight and sound of the rushing water. I was now walking inside Tobagawa river park (鳥羽川河川公園). At 1pm, I rejoined the road, which climbed steeply and away from the river. Half an hour later, I reached a junction: straight ahead the road continued to the top of Mt Jomine, 4km away and 500m higher; however, I took a sharp turn to the right, along a gently rising, almost flat road.

A pleasant stroll through Tobagawa river park

Yellow iris next to Toba river

I now had my first good view of the day: looking east, I could make out the top of Mt Yokogai which I had climbed just one month ago; huge cumulus clouds were crowding the sky to the south, and although rain was forecasted closer to Tokyo, the surrounding mountains were still in the sun. At 2pm I arrived at Jomine Park (城峰公園) and had lunch at the observatory overlooking Kanna lake (神流湖) to the north. Beyond it, I could see the rounded top of Mt Sakura.

The only hiking path on this “hike”

Cloudy weather to the south over Chichibu

After lunch, I made a quick tour of the park and found another less impressive viewpoint on the other side, and at 3pm, I headed down a wide road leading to the dam. After only a few minutes, I reached a shortcut following a log staircase overgrown with grass; it was the first and only hiking path of the day. Less than 10 minutes later, I was back on the road. At 4pm, I was on the pedestrian road that ran along the top of Shimokubo dam (下久保ダム).

The blue-green water of Kanna lake

Kanna lake, a hidden gem

This was the second highlight of the day: looking west, I could see Kanna lake sparkling under the afternoon sun; turning around, I could see the impressive ravine through which flowed the Kanna river. After walking up and down the dam, I headed down into the deep valley on a road closed to traffic; 15 minutes later, I was at the entrance of the Sanbaseki Gorge (三波石峡). Although the riverside path is no longer in use, I could approach the river via four small paths situated at regular intervals along a road.

Looking down at the river gorge from the lake dam

Solar panels getting the sun at the end of the hike

Each riverside spot was like straight out of a fairytale: at the first two, the clear water rushed through huge boulders, 48 of which have names; at the last two, the light-green water flowed lazily under grey cliffs. The sinking sun shone down the valley through the leaves and onto the water; a slight breeze blew occasionally, its coolness welcome on a warm day. I took a short break at the third spot and enjoyed this magical secluded place.

Kanna river in the late afternoon sun

A magical spot along the Sanbaseki Gorge

It was now past 5pm and my bus was due in half an hour. I continued along the road at a fast pace and soon arrived back at the red bridge which I had crossed five hours ago. Huge grey clouds had now spread above, and it seemed like it could rain at any moment. I quickly climbed out of the valley back to the bus stop. One hour later I was at Shinmachi station, from where it was a 90 minute train ride back to Tokyo.

Mt Koo (550m), Mt Hinata (482m) & Mt Taka (420m), Fujioka City, Gunma Prefecture [Ontake Trail]

After visiting Mt Sakura the previous year, I really wanted to do another hike in the same area. I knew there were two more short trails to the north, making them suitable for the winter. However, looking online, there seemed to have few views, and I thought it would be nicer to visit during the new green of spring. I chose the better maintained Ontake trail, over the more adventurous Kamatori trail. By starting with Mt Koo, a separate peak connected by a short walk on the road, I could extend the hike to 3 hours. These trails weren’t shown on my hiking map and weren’t mentioned in my hiking guides, so I had to rely exclusively on information found online. Getting to the start of the hiking trail would require a combination of two local trains and a bus: not the easiest route, but with plenty of time between connections, it seemed problem-free. The weather forecast was “cloudy with sun later on”; although the views were supposed to be scarce, the new green of spring always looks better in the sun, so I was hoping for some sunlight on this hike.

View of the Kanto plain through a break in the mountains

Start of the “2000-step staircase”

The sky was grey and gloomy during the first part of the my trip. However, while switching to the Hachiko line, the clouds parted, and after arriving at Gunma-Fujioka station at 10am, the sun was shining. Instead of a bus, I got on a mini-van, a common form of public transport in this part of Gunma. A little before noon, I got off at the last stop, called “nisen-kaidan-iriguchi” (二千階段入口), meaning entrance to the 2000-step staircase. Looking west, I could make out the foothills of Mt Mikabo, its top half lost in the clouds.

Some of the 2000 steps of Mt Koo

View from the top of Mt Koo

It certainly didn’t feel like 2000 steps: it took me just five minutes to reach the the summit of Mt Koo (子王山 こおうやま meaning small king), completely in the trees. Walking north and down a few meters, I reached an opening in the trees, where I had a view of the Kanto plain with the tall buildings of Takasaki city to the northeast. I should have been able to see Mt Haruna, Mt Akagi and the Nikko mountains, but the weather still wasn’t good enough. I had an early lunch before setting off again.

The beautiful spring green of Gunma

Start of the Ontake hiking trail

I went down some steeps steps on the other side, and then followed a forest road round the mountainside, arriving back at my starting point 15 minutes later. I walked east along the countryside road till I reached the entrance to the Ontake trail (御嶽コース). The trail descended for a short while, before crossing a metallic bridge and then heading up a ridge. Soon, I was walking along a level path through the forest. At 1h30, I reached the narrow summit of Mt Hinata (日向山 meaning in the sun); oddly enough, despite being surrounded by trees, the summit marker was…in the sun.

A level section of the trail (left) / An interesting trio of trees (right)

By the afternoon, the good weather had prevailed

The trail continued up and down, with the steeper sections helpfully equipped with rope; half an hour later I was at the top of Mt Ontake-Taka (御嶽高山), once again hemmed in by the trees. Past the summit, the path started to descend and at 2h30, I emerged onto a forest road. At 3pm, I reached the road and the end of the hiking trail. It walked ten minutes to the Takayama-sha Ruins bus stop, next to a world heritage site, where I caught the mini-van back to Gunma-Fujioka station. It took only a few minutes to connect to the Shonan-Shinjuku line, after which it was a 90-minute ride back to central Tokyo.

See the view from the top of Mt Koo and the waters of the Sanmyo River

Mt Azuma (481m), Kiryu City, Gunma Prefecture

I wanted to do another hike in the Kiryu area since its low hilly terrain is perfect for winter. I had already completed all the ones in my hiking book, but searching online, I noticed that a section of the “Kanto Fureai no Michi” went up a peak I had yet to climb, before going down the other side and ending at a nature center and a bus stop. It was a little on the short side, so I decided to extend it with a roundtrip to the next peak along the same ridge; the trail continued further for another 5 km to Mt Narukami, which I had climbed two years ago. If I walked that far, I probably wouldn’t make it down before dark, so I decided to keep that section for a longer day. I had been to Kiryu station before so I knew exactly how to get there. Since there was no bus to catch to the start of the trail, I could be flexible with my departure time, something which is much appreciated on cold winter mornings!

View of Kiryu city from the Kite’s Rock

I got to Kiryu station in under 2 hours on a sunny and windless day – ideal conditions for hiking. After a thirty minute walk through a residential neighbourhood, I reached the entrance of Azuma Park behind a temple, and the start of the hiking trail. Today’s mountain seemed popular with families, and many children were having fun climbing the steep, rocky “man’s slope” (男坂). The rocks formed a kind of natural staircase and it was easier to go up than it seemed at first.

View of the Hachioji Hills from the top of Mt Azuma

Nice hiking north of Kiryu city

I soon had my first view of the day from the Kite’s Rock (トンビ岩). Eastwards and directly below, Kiryu city filled up all available flat space between hilly ridgelines. Directly south, the Hachioji Hills stretched west to east between the city and the Kanto plain. However, I couldn’t spot any Black Kites circling above the valley. After some more steep climbing, I arrived at the top of Mt Azuma (吾妻山 あづまやま azumayama), a little after noon.

The long ridge leading to Mt Senjin

Viewpoint near the highest point of the hike

It was unseasonably warm – a thermometer under the summit sign indicated 20°C! The views were similar to before and, after finding a place to sit, I had an early lunch. The summit was getting crowded, and I decided to set off again after twenty minutes. The trail followed the gentle ridge northwards through a mixed forest of pine and cedar. I had occasional views on both sides; to the east was the long ridge leading to Mt Senjn; to the west, I could make out the shape of Mt Akagi despite the midday haze. I had seen no other hikers since lunch, and it was very peaceful.

Less protection from the wind along this section

Looking west, Mt Akagi faintly visible on the right

An hour later, I passed the turn-off for the nature center. I continued up the ridge and was rewarded with a sweeping view to the south. I could see the forested ridge I had walked up, and beyond, the Kanto plain, a vast urban area, its many buildings reflecting the afternoon sun. Past this viewpoint, the trail entered a leafless forest; unimpeded, the cold winter wind now swept over the ridge. At 2pm, I was standing at the top of Mt Ogata (681m 大形山). My map promised a view to the south but it was completely obscured by trees, even without their leaves. However, I did get a glimpse of Mt Narukami on the North side.

Last view of the day from the Nature Observation Forest

Some easy hiking to finish the day

I walked back to the previous viewpoint where I sat down for a short break under the warm sun. By 3pm, I was on the path for the nature center, heading down and west; thirty minutes later I reached the Nature Observation Forest (自然観察の森). There were several paths through this forest, and since the bus wasn’t due for another hour, I tried to pick the longest one. I reached the bus stop at 4h30, a few minutes before the sun disappeared behind the mountains, and I was back at Kiryu station by 5pm, where I boarded a local train for the 2 hour ride back to Tokyo.

Tomioka Alps (Mt Kannari 320m) & the Gunma Museum of Natural History

I had first read about this hike in my Gunma hiking book, but it was too short and too far for a day hike, so I reluctantly set it aside. Later on, I found out that the Kanto Fureai no Michi also went through the area, and I could use it to extend the hike eastwards. The path passed by the Gunma Museum of Natural History which I could also visit, if time allowed. I generally don’t drop by museums on hikes, but this one had a high rating on Google Maps, and I was interested in learning more about the local animals and plants. I was excited about checking out another “Alps” trail; according to online reviews, it was “the cleanest hiking course in Japan, ” apparently because the locals sweep the leaves off. It was a station to station hike on the Joshin Dentetsu line, a railway line I had used many times before. The weather forecast showed the sun mark for the whole day, so I was looking forward to some good views of the mountains of western Gunma.

The mountains of western Gunma under a grey sky

I reached the small Nanja station a little after 10am. The promised sun was hiding behind grey clouds, and it seemed unlikely that it would emerge anytime soon, a rare miss for the Japanese Meteorological Agency. I kept my fingers crossed that it wouldn’t rain. Every cloud has a silver lining though, and these ones were high enough for the surrounding mountains to be still visible. After half an hour of walking, I reached the small shrine at the base of the Tomioka Alps (富岡アルプス tomioka arupusu), also known as the Kannari Hiking course.

Mt Inafukumi, climbed 2 years ago

The trail is definitely clean of leaves

It took just ten minutes of climbing to reach the top of Mt Azuma (328m 吾妻山 あずまさん azumasan), and the first views. Looking west, I could see the outskirts of Shimonita village, with Mt Ozawa behind; directly ahead was the triangular shape of Mt Inafukumi. As expected, the trail went up and down along the ridgeline and over several minor summits. I reached the halfway point just before noon where there was a mini natural museum (ミニ自然博物館) consisting of a glass cabinet with various exhibits related to the local plants and animals, a foretaste of my museum visit planned for the afternoon.

The Mini Nature Museum

At the extreme left, the pointed tip of Mt Ushibuse

I reached the second viewpoint of the day thirty minutes later, next to the summit of Mt Kannari (神成山 かんなりやま kannariyama). Looking east, I could see the pointed summit of Mt Ushibuse. Directly beneath, a train on the Joshin Dentetsu line was moving along the valley floor (see video). After a brief stop for lunch, I set off again, now heading down to the bottom of the valley. I passed by a somewhat scary statue of “fudosama” lurking among the bamboo next to the trail. At 1pm, I was off the mountain and walking through Tomioka Town. It would take 45 minutes to reach the museum, which was starting to seem like a good place to spend a cold and cloudy winter afternoon.

See the views from the Tomioka Alps

A good thing the museum has a high roof

I spent nearly two hours exploring the Gunma Museum of Natural History, but could easily have spent three hours or more. Of the five sections, the most impressive one by far was “The Age of the Earth” which held full-size dinosaur skeletons and scaled-down animated models (see video and gifs). The most interesting section, for me, was “The Nature and Environment of Gunma.” It contained a forest diorama, and seeing different kinds of trees side by side helped me understand the subtle differences between them. There were also many mounted animals, some of which I had never seen or only glimpsed briefly while hiking.

A fossil dig display

I’ve seen many copper pheasants fly away from me

Visually, the museum is stunning; a pity there are no English explanations. By the time I had satisfied my curiosity, it was already past 3pm, and I had to rush through the three remaining sections. I had originally planned to continue walking the Fureai no Michi and finish at Higashi-Tomioka station. However, I now had to leave that for another day. At 4pm, I walked back to Joshu-Nanokaichi Station, the closest station to the museum. Although the weather was disappointing, the museum visit definitely made it a success. By 4h30 I was back on the train for Takasaki, for the 2h30 minute trip back to Tokyo.

To hear them roar, watch the video below

See the animated Tyrannosaurus Rex

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 Mae-Kesamaru (1878m), Midori Town, Gunma & Tochigi Prefectures

I climbed the highest peak of this mountain two years ago in June, the “back peak”. I had planned to climb the lower “front peak” last year but it kept on getting postponed. At just 100 km from Tokyo, it’s closer than many other peaks I’ve easily climbed as day trips. However, the trail entrance is a two-hour drive from the closest city. Apart from the long drive, the hike itself seemed straightforward, going up and down the same way. The front and back peaks used to be connected by a trail, but over time it has “weathered” and it’s now officially closed. The weather was supposed to be good, but since I would be hiking inside the Nikko National Park, I knew the weather could be changeable. For the effort of going to the same mountain, I was hoping I would get a different view from last time.

Hiking in the Ashio Mountains 足尾山地

The Southern section of the Nikko National Park

I arrived at Maebashi station around 8h30 and was on the road by 9am. Once I arrived in the Watarase river valley, there were fewer cars and I enjoyed the drive. Just before Sori station, I turned left up a narrow mountain road. The road was in rather bad condition, with potholes, fallen rocks and branches on the road, and I had to drive really slowly till the parking lot next to the trail entrance (elevation 1200m). It was 11am and there were three ladies enjoying a break at the resthouse. I asked them whether they had just come down the mountain; they told me they were volunteers who cleaned the parking toilet. They offered me some snacks, and then drove off.

Turning around, Mt Akagi

A nice ridge walk, not easy to find in the area

Twenty minutes later, I started up the staircase at the start of the hike. After a short climb, the path leveled as it followed a narrow ridge. The thick forest blocked out the sunlight, and the trail was faint and hard to follow. I was soon back in the sun after one side of the ridge became a grassy slope, giving me a great profile view of today’s mountain. Turning around, I saw Mt Akagi where I was hiking less than two months ago. As I climbed, the grassy slope got steeper and steeper, but soon I was back in the forest and on a level track.

The Ashio mountains, beautiful and hard to reach

From left to right: Mt Sukai, Mt Nikko-Shirane and Mt Koshin

A little past noon, I reached a wooden lookout tower and a marker for the Kanto Fureai no Michi. The tower was disappointing as the view was mostly blocked by trees – not really surprising since it was built 25 years ago. However I was alarmed to see lots of big dark clouds gathering on the other side of the ridge; there was no time to dawdle. Luckily the next section was mostly flat. At a clearing I passed the turnoff for the emergency hut; there were many rock cairns, and it felt a bit spooky. Further on, there was another clearing filled with rock cairns. It was odd to see so many of them since the trail was well below the tree limit and there was no risk of getting lost.

Walking through the birch trees

Withered pine trees near the top

After some gently climbing, I reached the top of Mt Komaru 1676m (小丸山 komaruyama). The clouds had temporarily moved away, and I had an excellent view of the Ashio mountains (足尾山地) stretching northwards all the way to Mt Koshin, Mt Sukai and Mt Nikko-Shirane to the North. After a short break, I continued along the path, going down for a bit, and then past a very dodgy emergency yellow-coloured shelter – it would have to be a very big emergency for me to stay there! the path then climbed again, through a forest of white-barked birch trees. I soon reached the base of a very steep climb below the summit. Grabbing ropes, rocks and branches, I pulled myself up and up. It wasn’t dangerous, but it was quite a workout.

Below, a great hiking area closer to Tokyo

Stretching into the distance, the Kanto Plain

After the path flattened and started to curve around the round summit, I was rewarded with sweeping views to the West. I could see the low mountains of Southern Tochigi and Eastern Gunma, the Kanto plain and Mt Akagi. Since the Kanto plain is flat and wide, it felt like being on a plane. At 2pm I was standing on the top of Mt Mae-Kesamaru 1878m (前袈裟丸山 maekesamaruyama). The view from the summit marker was so-so, but moving through the trees towards the start of the closed trail for Mt Ato-Kesamaru, gave me a much better view. Straight ahead was the other Kesamaru mountain; to the right were the Ashio mountains and the Nikko National Park; to the left the mountains of Northern Gunma. Maybe it was due to climbing in a different season, but I felt that the views on this Kesamaru mountain were better.

Looking at “back Kesamaru” from “front Kesamaru”

Autumn is around the corner

I started down at 2h30. I was anxious to get to my car as soon as possible; I wanted to get back to Maebashi before dark. Also, since I was heading back the same way, I knew I was alone on the mountain. Actually, I was wrong; once I reached the grassy slope close the parking area, I saw, and heard, several deer jumping through the forest. After observing and listening to the deer, I moved on, and was back at my car less than 2 hours after leaving the top. It was still sunny; I was relieved that the weather had held all day. I drove back the same way, and got back to Maebashi station around 6h30 before it got completely dark. I caught the train for Takasaki, and then jumped on the direct train for Tokyo.

Mt Mae-Kesamaru in the late afternoon sun

Mt Choshichiro (1579m), Maebashi City, Gunma Prefecture

This was my 4th trip to Mt Akagi, but my first time by car. This ancient volcano has many peaks and trails surrounding the top crater, making it a great hiking destination for all levels. On my previous visit, I followed a little-used trail down a beautiful river valley. I was looking to repeat that experience, but on the other side of the mountain. As usual, I was concerned about the weather. The forecast called for rain showers, but I hoped that there would be an equal amount of sunshine.

Hiking on Mt Akagi 赤城山

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I arrived at the Konuma Parking lot around 1pm in sunny weather. Today’s hike was relatively short so I stopped for an early soba lunch on the way. The moment I set off, thicks clouds rolled in, followed by some light rain. Fortunately, there was no wind and the temperature was comfortable. It took me barely half an hour to reach the top of Mt Choshichiro (長七郎山 choushichirousan), less than 100 meters higher than my starting point. The rain had let up, but all I could see was white cloud…and lots of dragonflies.

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Do you dare to walk under?

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The East side of Mt Akagi

After this nice warm-up, I continued down the other side. This path was steep, and some sections had been washed away, maybe by last year’s powerful typhoons. Ten minutes later, I reached a four-way intersection with a sign. I took the path opposite for Otogi no Mori オトギの森, meaning fairytale forest. There were many paths but almost no signs; most joined up a little further down; a few headed down to the Kasu river on the right. I avoided the latter since from my pre-hike research I knew that the area around the river had been damaged by typhoons.

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A hidden river valley near the top of Mt Akagi

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Otogi no Mori or Fairytale Forest

Eventually I reached the center of Otogi no mori, a flat quite area with many impressive oak trees, possible “konara“, and a view across the river valley. Continuing straight along the sole remaining path, I soon reached another intersection where I turned right towards Cha-no-ki-batake Pass (茶ノ木畑峠). Here it was possible to hike down to a waterfall and Akagi hot spring, but that will be a hike for another day. I turned right again, and followed the ridge. It was an easy walk, but the views through the trees were lost in the cloud.

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Ropes to help the hiker

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For once the bamboo grass was replaced with regular grass

Very soon, the path started to descend steeply. It was slippery because of the recent rain, but I managed to reach the river without any mishaps. I hadn’t expected to find such a beautiful river valley on the upper slopes of Mt Akagi. There was no one else and it felt lonely and mysterious. At the end, the water was funnelled through a narrow opening between some rocks and disappeared into a dark cave – quite an interesting and unexpected sight. It’s called Choushi no Garan 銚子の伽藍 (“choshi” is a kind of sake container, narrow at the top and wide at the base).

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The Kasu river valley, a fun place to explore

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All the water from the river disappeared into a rocky tunnel

It was now 4pm, and it had started raining softly again. The trail continued up the other side of the mountain, but it was steep, muddy and overgrown with bamboo grass, so I decided to head back the same way. Soon, the rain stopped again and some sun broke through. I took a different and more direct path back through Fairytale Forest and reached Konuma lake around 5pm. I had an amazing view of the lake through the mist, with Mt Jizo and its TV antenna behind. From a distance, it looked like the spires of a fairytale castle. While walking back to the my car, I had one more surprise – a couple of deer bounding away through the forest.

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The “towers” of Jizo

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Konuma Lake in the late afternoon

I was glad I was able to discover another great river valley, although there was no path next to it. The weather was good enough for hiking, but I’ll need to return on a sunny day for the views, probably in the Spring of the Autumn.

Check out “Choushi no Garan” on Mt Akagi

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Mt Nakahara (1969m), Katashina Village, Gunma Prefecture

Hiking in Oze 尾瀬

I had been to Oze twice before, but each time I stayed overnight. I had heard that Oze was too far from Tokyo for a daytrip, so I had never really given it much thought. However, I have become more willing to put up with long train rides in order to find new hiking spots so I thought I would give it a try. It would mean about 9 hours travel for less than 6 hours hiking , even with using the shinkansen. Would it be worth it? another reason, I had avoided the area was because of the crowds. This time I planned to go on a weekday. Would I have the place to myself? for once the weather wasn’t a concern – a rarity for Oze, the forecast called for sun and clouds, with no rain expected till the evening.

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Looking back at Mt Shibutsu from Yoko-Tashiro

I arrived at Hatomachi Pass 鳩待峠 at 10h30. There was only a handful of hikers, all heading down to the Ozegahara Marshland.  I took a different path, behind the rest house, and opposite the path for Mt Shibutsu. I was walking alone on an elevated walkway, and quite happy to be back in Oze National Park after a few years. The surrounding forest was pretty, but a little spoiled by all the “sasa” or bamboo grass.

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Clouds, Pines and Ponds

An hour after setting off, I reached an open grassy space called Yoko-Tashiro 横田代. Behind me was Mt Shibutsu, a hyakumeizan, it’s summit lost in the clouds. To it’s right was another hyakumeizan, Mt Makihata, snow still visible around the summit. I had started off quickly, but here I spent some time. It was still sunny, but impressive clouds were quickly moving in from the East, making for some dramatic pictures.

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Flower season in Oze

It took me another 30 minutes to reach the top of Mt Nakahara (中原山 nakaharayama), a minor peak surrounded by fir trees. Around this point, I finally started meeting other hikers. Very soon I emerged into another open grassy space, this time with many ponds (and from the noise, frogs), known as “Ayame-Daira” アヤメ平 or Iris Plain, although there were any iris flowers yet. There was some sitting space, so I decided to have lunch, although by now the weather had become overcast and grey.

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Walking through the Oze Marshland

I reached Fujimi Pass 富士見峠 just before 1pm. At this stage, I needed to descend towards the Marshlands. There were two paths, and I chose the shorter one called the “Nagazawa-Shindo” 長沢新道. Although it was mostly downhill, it was least pleasant part of today’s hike, first down a wet and slippery wooden walkway, then down a steep and rocky path. After crossing a small stream followed by some beautiful forest, I reached the flat open space of Oze Marshlands. At the end of the valley stood Mt Shibutsu, towering clouds perched dramatically above it.

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In July expect lots of clouds and green

From here, the hike was straightforward, and I had hiked the same way on my previous trip. However, unlike last time, there was almost no one, and it felt amazing to have the place to myself. I walked fast, stopping from time to time to take photos of the blue iris flowers which were in full bloom everywhere. I passed the visitor center at 3h30 without stopping, and started to climb back to Hatomachi Pass, which I reached at 4h10, five hours and thirty minutes after setting out, and twenty minutes before the bus was due to leave. A couple of hikers arriving 10 minutes after me, claimed to have spotted a bear!

“chinguruma” (top left), Iris (top right & bottom left), “kisuge” (bottom right)

Overall I was very satisfied with the hike mainly since it was crowd-free. The bus there and back was also empty, so the travel part was comfortable as well. I hope I can return this season and try another hike through the Oze National Park.

 

Listen to the sounds of Oze 

Tanbara Highland (1200m), Numata City, Gunma Prefecture & Bear Sighting

I had been to Tanbara highland in May 2018, so I thought it would be the perfect place for some easy hiking during the rainy season. Since I had already been to the highest point, Mt Kanomata, this time I decided to take a different trail and skip this summit. This would make for a slightly shorter hike which was good, since this time I was driving there and back myself (it’s also possible to get there by bus). My main concern was the temperature – would it already be too hot and humid to hike comfortably?

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Tanbara Lake, seen from ski slope, turned grassy field

I arrived at the Tanbara Center house 玉原センターハウス around 12h30. Contrary to my expectations, the air felt a little chilly and a few raindrops were falling; however, the sun was just coming out from behind the clouds. I set off the along the same trail as my previous hike, heading gently uphill through a beautiful beech forest and following a small bubbling stream. Just before arriving at the Tanbara camping ground, I turned left along the road towards the Lavender Park  in bloom from next month only. Now, however, the flowers were still closed, and the area was deserted.

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Hiking next to a small stream

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The Tanbara Lavender Park

I walked up one of the paths among the flowerbeds to a small observatory. It had a bell that one can ring to scare away any bears that may be lurking nearby. I gave it a good ring. After climbing down, I spotted a black shape out of the corner or my eye. It was about a hundred meters away on the edge of the ski slope (Tanbara is a ski resort in the winter months). Using the zoom of the camera, I was able to ascertain that this was in fact a bear cub. It seemed unperturbed by the noise of the bear bell, but a few seconds later it ran off into the forest. This was my fourth bear sighting, and it had been a while since the previous one, so this made my day.

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Bear cub above the Lavender Park (taken using 10x zoom on my camera)

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Tanbara is mainly known as a ski resort

I headed back down, and continued along the hiking trail up into a forested area between two lavender zones. Unfortunately, after a few minutes, the trail became so overgrown with bamboo grass that I had to give up . Even though it was indicated on the maps, it was obvious that the trail wasn’t much used, most people preferring the direct route to the summit. I decided to make my way back to the start of the hike, and turn right along the the bird-watching route 探鳥ルート so that I could at least reach the beech flats ブナ平, one of the highlights of the hike (I didn’t see any birds though).

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Tanbara Marsh, after descending from the beech flats

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The Iris flowers were in full bloom

Around 4pm, and somewhat behind schedule, I was finally walking on a level path among the beech trees. This is one of the rare places with a mostly flat trail high up in the mountains, so it’s perfect for beginners. Soon, I turned left, down the river source route 水源ルート, ending up at Tanbara Marsh 玉原湿原 around 4h30, another of the highlights of this hike. After crossing the marsh on wooden planks, I emerged onto a road (closed to traffic), and I was back at the parking lot just before 5pm. Even though I couldn’t do the hike exactly as I had planned, I was still able to hike for around 5 hours through beautiful nature in good weather. I was also relieved that the temperature and humidity had turned out to be perfect for hiking!

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