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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Mt Sakura (591m), Fujioka City, Gunma Prefecture, Saturday, February 29, 2020

Unlike my other hikes, this one took me up a mountain I hadn’t known existed till recently. I found out about it during my research on the Gunma Fureai no Michi trail. I saw it again the previous week, on the map of the Gunma-Fujioka area outside the station, and I noticed that a loop hike was possible using local trails. Since it wasn’t mentioned in my “Mountains of Gunma” guidebook, I found all the necessary information on the Fujioka City website.

Mountain panorama, less than 100km from Tokyo

Although today’s starting point was less than ten kilometers away from where I started last week, it was in a different valley, so I needed to take a different bus, from Honjo station, a few stops before Takasaki. The nearly empty bus took me to Onishi 鬼石, a charming little town in a valley encircled by mountains. The main street was lined with wooden lanterns, called “joyato”, a kind of nightlight, giving the town a traditional feel. I’d love to see the city in the nighttime.

View of Onishi Town in the morning

Same view but in the afternoon

I chose to go up via the Onishi Route. It took me thirty minutes along a small road to reach the start of the hiking trail. I wasn’t sure that I was in the right place because the signpost had fallen down, and was lying on the road about fifty meters away, an ominous sign. I decided to push ahead anyway. I was following a fairly new forest road as it wound up the mountain. There were no other signposts, but the general direction seemed to match my map.

Solar panels are everywhere in the Japanese countryside

Looking Southwards to Chichibu

At 11am, I emerged into a clearing that was covered with solar panels, the reason for the new forest road. To the West, I had a view of the Kanto plain, and to the East, I was able to spot my target mountain, still relatively far away. I still wasn’t 100% sure I was on the hiking trail. I continued on the forest road down the other side, and it was with relief that I finally spotted a hiking signpost. I now continued with a spring in my step, past more solar panels, and onto a level forest road following the side of the mountain through the forest. From this point, signs and signposts were a lot more frequent. I have mixed feelings about walking on forest roads. They are easy to walk, but since they are wide and mostly straight, you don’t have the constant changing scenery you get on the smaller trails.

Sunny section of the forest road

Less sunny section of the forest road

Just after noon, the trail intersected briefly with the road going to the top of the mountain, but then continued as a steep path next to an interesting wooden house. As I passed in front, the owner, a man in his sixties, came out. We started chatting, and he invited me into his home for some “ocha”. For once, I wasn’t behind schedule, and since I was curious about his house, I decided to accept. We had an interesting chat over tea and “dorayaki”. Finally, it was time to go. He offered to drive me to the park near the top of the mountain, since the last part was mainly on the road. It seemed like a good idea, and it allowed me to make up some time.

The area is famous for sakura in the spring, and autumn

The views are better when walking around the side

At 1pm, I was standing at the entrance of Sakurayama Park, famous for its winter cherry blossoms or “fuyuzakura”. Apparently, you can enjoy sakura twice a year. However, at the end of February, the buds were still firmly closed, and the park was almost deserted. I started up one of the staircases leading to the summit, and soon reached the top of Sakurayama 桜山. Unfortunately there was no summit marker and no view. I went down the other side, where there was a grassy space with benches and a good view – a great place for a late lunch. From right to left, I could see Mt Mikabo, one of the highest mountains in the area, Mt Jomine, at the edge of the Chichibu basin, and Onishi town.

The highest peak in the background is Mt Mikabo

Looking South to Saitama from Sakurayama

It was already past two o’clock, and time to continue my hike. Rather than walk back up, I followed a path around the mountain, hoping to get better views. By the time I was back at the entrance of the park, the sunny weather from the morning had turned cloudy. For the descent, I chose the Yashio Route, ending at Yashio Onsen 八塩温泉. It started out as a mostly level forest road, similar to the way up, but after half an hour, it turned into a nice little hiking trail through the woods. There were no other hikers, so it was very peaceful.

Nice hiking trail on the return

Walking between the cedar trees

After another thirty minutes, I reached a great viewpoint of the Kanto plain, just past a shrine to Benzaiten. By now, the visibility was a bit hazy, but it should be spectacular on a clear day. I continued down, and reached the end of the trail and the road after 4pm. I walked ten minutes to Sakurayama Onsen, where I had a quick hot spring bath, before catching the bus back to Shinmachi station and the train home.

On the right is Mt Mitake in Saitama, climbed several years ago

NEXT UP: Mt Sashiro in Ibaraki

Mt Ushibuse (491m), Takasaki City, Gunma Prefecture, Monday, February 24, 2020

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

It was my first time to do a full hike along the Kanto Fureai No Michi, also known as the Metropolitan Area Trail, following section four of the Gunma portion. I chose it because it seemed to mostly follow a hiking path through the mountains. Also, it was in an area I had never been to before, but that I had seen many times while taking the train to Takasaki.

Castle-shaped Observatory near the summit

In Takasaki station, I transferred to the Hachiko line, a small railway running parallel to the Chichibu mountains, all the way to Hachioji. A sign told me that it was leaving from track 3, located between tracks 2 and 4. That seemed obvious, but it also indicated that it shared the same platform, seemingly impossible. However before I could inquire, I spotted track 3 starting at the end of the platform, and it was with relief that I boarded the train. It’s never easy to handle these complicated train situations first thing in the morning!

The Hachiko line platform

The plum blossoms were out

I got off at Gunma-Fujioka station just a few stops away, and waited half an hour for the mini-bus that would take me to the Kami-Kashima bus stop. I was of course the only passenger. The bus headed West following the Ayu river. I got off shortly after 9am, and found myself standing next to the road in a narrow valley under blue skies. It was hard to believe that I had l left the heart of Tokyo only a couple of hours earlier. I quickly located the start of the trail, and made my way up the side of the valley. I passed plum blossom trees, solar panels, and slightly startled locals. Turning around, I saw the rounded peak of Mt Mikabo, which I climbed in 2016. Soon, I was walking along a dirt road through the forest, and I reached Konashi Pass 小梨峠 (584m) just before 10h30.


First views of Mt Haruna past Konashi Pass

At the very right, Mt Shirasuna, which I climbed last year in October

From there it was a long walk downhill into the valley on the other side. At the bottom of the wide valley was the Joshin Dentetsu line, which connects Takasaki with Shimonita, and Tomioka city. This part was very peaceful, and had some good views of Mt Asama, Mt Haruna and Mt Akagi. In the background were the snowy peaks of the Joshin-Estu. There was some trail damage here, probably due to last year’s typhoons, minor at first, but more significant lower down. At one point, I had to clamber over some boulders and fallen trees. I hope that it will eventually get cleared up. As I walked down the valley, the forest road turned from dirt to paved, and ran parallel to a stream, and at 11h30 I emerged onto an asphalt road.

Good hiking trail past around Konashi Pass

No so good trail lower down

I followed the road for a while, before turning left onto a tiny hiking path, up a small forested hill. All too soon I reached another road leading down the other side, through what seemed like an abandoned hamlet. Just after the road started climbing again, I heard a crashing noise coming from the forest to my left. While I was trying to process what it could be, a stag with fully-grown antlers crossed the road a few meters ahead of me. For a few seconds, I remained rooted in place; I had only seen a stag close up once before, while hiking in the Koshu Alps a few years ago. I continued up the road, slowly gaining altitude, and spotted a small hiking path on the left. I decided to check it out quickly. It led me to a bench and a fantastic lookout point. The trail continued down to the base of the mountain. I decided to stop and have some lunch. Afterwards, I retraced my steps, and found that the hiking trail continued straight up the mountain. I decided to leave the road for a while, since I would meet up with it again near the top.

View of Mt Asama

Direct hiking path to the summit

It was a pleasant hike along a sunny ridge. Through the bare trees, I could see the pass I had walked down earlier. The silence was broken by three successive gunshots, and I hoped they weren’t aimed at the stag I had seen earlier. At 13h30, I reached the top of Mt Ushibuse 牛伏山, a Gunma hundred famous mountain. Although the name means “cow sitting on the ground”, I couldn’t see any bovians nearby. There was a small shrine with a bell, a rest house and an NHK antenna. I gave the bell a ring, and then proceeded to the observatory at the top of a Japanese castle replica a few minutes away. I had great views of the Northern part of the Kanto plain and surrounding mountains. Behind, was the were the Oku-Chichibu mountains. Inside the castle were interesting pictures of birds of prey taken in the area.

Mt Haruna in perfect weather

In the background, the Tanigawa mountain range

It was starting to get late, so I started to head down the mountain. The first part was along hiking trails and a second part along a road. At 3pm, I reached Yubata Onsen. I had hoped to take a hot spring bath there, but unfortunately they had a reservation-only system, and the bath was already reserved till 4pm. The owner let me wait on the balcony in case the person left early, but it was not to be. Originally I had planned to take a bus back to the station but since I had some extra time, I decided to walk all the way back following the Fureai no Michi. There were some good views of Mt Haruna and the surrounding countryside. I reached Maniwa station around sunset just after 5pm.

Hiking down Mt Ushibuse

 

Maniwa station just before sunset

NEXT UP: Sakurayama in Gunma

Mt Shirasuna (2140m), Nakanojo Town, Gunma Prefecture, Thursday, October 10, 2019

Hiking in the Mikuni Mountains 三国山脈

This is another mountain that had been on my to-climb list for ages. One reason was access: buses to Nozori lake 野反湖 only ran on weekdays – strange since there is nothing there except a campsite. Another reason was that it seemed to be perpetually inside the clouds. It’s probably one of the rare mountains I’ve never been able to see, despite having made multiple trips to the area, the most recent about 3 weeks earlier.

Mt Shirasuna, cloud-free version

Three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to do a weekday hike, and with perfect blue sky weather before the arrival of yet another typhoon, I decided to tackle this two-hundred famous mountain of Japan. Once I started planning in earnest, another issue arose – it couldn’t be done as a day trip using public transportation. I needed to stay the night at a hotel near Shin-Maebashi station to catch the first train for Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi station. Luckily, I was able to book a decent room the same evening.

The path down with Mt Asamayama in the background

The day of the hike, I caught the first outbound train on the Agatsuma line. For some reason, the train was full of high-school students, who all got off at the same station, apparently to go to Kusatsu onsen. There didn’t seem to be any accompanying teachers, but I guess it was some kind of school trip. I recognised some of them on the train back. After getting off the train, I got on a tiny bus with just one other person. It reminded me of the bus that I used for Mt Mikabo. The ride was very picturesque, through villages and along river valleys. It was part of Gunma that I had never visited before. After more than one hour, we reached a viewpoint over the lake – the driver kindly stopped there for a few seconds so that we could take in the view. In the early morning sun, the surface was a beautiful blue.

The beautiful blue of Nozori lake

The last bus back was at 3pm and I only had a short six hours to reach the top and come back. I had gotten ready on the bus, so after confirming the time of the last bus back with the driver, I left without delay. The start of the hike was through beautiful forest, mostly birch and silver fir trees, but not much in terms of autumn colours. I met no other hikers, not surprising on a weekday. 90 minutes later, I got my first views of the lake and the entire Asamayama range emerging from the morning mist. Later on, I had some good views of Mt Iwasuge 岩菅山, another two-hundred famous mountain I hope to climb someday. Before I knew it, I reached the top of Mt Doiwa 堂岩山 2051m, completely in the trees, just before 11am.

Misty Asamayama – I was hiking the peak on the right side the previous month

From the summit, there were some glimpses of mountains to the North through the trees. However, a few steps beyond, just as the path started descending, I got my first glorious view of the day. The weather was still perfect and I could see the path ahead all the way to my target mountain, as well as the mountains of the Joshinetsu-kogen National Park to the North.

To the South, I could even make out Mt Fuji popping up behind the mountains of Oku-chichibu. I also spotted other hikers climbing the mountain so I wasn’t alone. My original plan was to go up and down the same way. However, since I had progressed quickly, I decided to do a longer loop hike that would end at the other side of the lake (the viewpoint the driver paused at). I was now at the fork of the trail, so I would need to retrace my steps later on, something I didn’t mind doing since it was all views from here on.

Mt Fuji, barely visible 150km away

I lost time admiring and photographing the great views, so I had to hurry during the final climb, and I reached the top of Mt Shirasuna 白砂山 a little after noon. Since I wanted to do the longer route down, I had to pull myself away from the great 360 degree views only after thirty minutes. North was Mt Naeba, East, the Tanigawa range, with Mt Sukai in the distance behind, South, Mt Akagi and Mt Haruna, West, Mt Asama and Shirane-Kusatsu, with the North Alps visible behind. By the way, the hiking path continues all the way to Mt Mikuni, but it’s necessary to stay in a hut along the way.

The path continues…some day I might return to walk it

I hurried back and reached the fork for the loop hike at 1h30. From here I followed a wide and grassy path southwards – I tried to run a bit, but the terrain was uneven under the grass, so I had to be careful. There were good views to my left but the right side was blocked by trees. I was surprised that even on this less traveled hiking path the signage was fairly new and in English. Eventually the path bottomed out and I found myself climbing again. With some effort I reached the top of Mt Hachiken 1953m 八間山 with forty minutes to spare before the last bus back.

Looking back at Mt Doiwa (on the left) and Mt Shirasuna (on the right)

After a couple of minutes rest, I set off again, the final stretch down to the pass above the lake. At this stage I was running most of the way. The ridge seemed endless and I was greatly relieved when the lake and pass appeared to my right. I made to the bus stop with ten minutes to spare. The bus was actually a little late, but according to another passenger, the driver had waited for me for a few minutes before departing. It was the same driver as in the morning, and since I had asked about the last bus he had assumed I would be coming down the say way (that was my original plan) – how kind of him to wait for me!

NEXT UP: Mt Gongen in Kanagawa pref. (Tanzawa)

 

Mt Mitsumine (1122m), Minakami Town, Gunma Prefecture, Monday April 29, 2019

A Kanto hundred famous mountain, this one has been on my list for a long time. For some odd reason, this hike isn’t featured in any of my hiking books, nor on any of my hiking maps. Fortunately I was able to find access information, and a basic hiking map online. It’s possible to do this as a station to station hike starting from Gokan station but the connection to the Joetsu line isn’t very good in the early morning hours. Since the return is via the Jomo Kogen shinkansen station, I decided instead to use the Tokyo wide pass during golden week, and start and finish there.

A good view of Mt Akagi from the North

Mt Mitsumine 三峰山 is a rectangular shaped mountain bordered by cliffs on the Eastern side. From Jomo Kogen station it looks like a ship. The official start of the trail is the parking area near Kawachi Shrine. I was surprised to see crowds of people at the shrine – they seemed to be celebrating some event. Just above is a jump-off point for paragliding. I’ve seen quite of few of these in Japan, but for the first time I got there while people were actually jumping off!

The jump-off spot for paragliders

I sat down for an early lunch and watched while these brave people jumped off one after the other, with Mt Akagi, Mt Komochi, Mt Onoko and Mt Haruna in the background. I was joined by a group of children. They weren’t as patient as me, and one of them yelled “hurry up” (hayaku) while the paraglider was waiting to jump! Finally the last one had jumped and I continued on my way. I was now on top part of the “rectangle” so it was mostly pleasant forest walking on a level path.

Some nice and easy flat-walking

At one point I reached a fork in the road and I had to make a choice: continue straight or make a detour via a couple of lakes or “numa”. I decided to check out the lakes since I wasn’t pressed for time. I wasn’t disappointed since the lakes were quite pretty. I was surprised to see some quite large fish swimming in the second one.

After returning to the main path, I found myself walking quite close to steep cliffs on my right side. There were occasional views of Mt Hotaka still covered in snow. The path bent left, then right, and after short climb a reached the highest point with a great view of the snow-covered Tanigawa range directly to the North. My map showed a path leading from the summit down to Jomo Kogen station.  This was Kanto hundred best #90.

Mt Hotaka still wearing its winter coat

Unfortunately it wasn’t a real path, and soon I was walking down the mountainside from yellow bit of rope to yellow bit of rope (used here instead of the usual pink ribbons). It was fairly hard to follow and I can’t recommend this to inexperienced hikers in Japan (if you don’t get the pink ribbon reference…) It seems most people do this hike by car and do a round trip to the summit. Plus, the weather had changed from sunny to overcast and I started to worry that it would soon start to rain.

It was still sakura season in Gunma

Eventually I emerged onto a forest road which soon turned into a road. On the way, I heard loud croaking noises coming from some water puddles – it was full of rather large-sized frogs. Unfortunately they were very shy and quickly hid under the mud. The end of the hike followed the road all the way back to Jomo Kogen station. Before heading back to Tokyo, I made a brief detour to Echigo-Yuzawa station where I could take advantage of the hot spring bath inside the station.

Watch a paraglider jump into the void!

 

Toad or frog? I couldn’t tell