Mt Byobu (948m) & Mt Sengen (804m), Hakone Town, Kanagawa Prefecture, Saturday, February 15, 2020

Hiking in the Hakone Mountains

My last visit to Hakone was in December 2014 when I hiked the mountains around Lake Ashi. The area is close to Tokyo, offers good hiking and sightseeing at the same time. However, like Mt Fuji and Nikko, it sits right on the tourist trail, so buses, and hot springs, are usually crowded. The recent, and unfortunate, drop in the number of tourists was a good chance to do some hiking there, as well as support the area. There was a hike in my “Mountains of Kanagawa” that I had been wanting to do for a while. However, it was a bit short (3 hours), so using my Hakone hiking map, I built a longer hike that would take me from Hakone Town on Lake Ashi, all the way down to Hakone-Yumoto station. There were few views, and no sun, so I wasn’t able to get many good pictures. Nevertheless it was a good ramble.

Shy Fuji on a grey day

I used the comfortable Romancecar from Shinjuku, but got off at Odawara, one stop before Hakone-Yumoto. Since most buses start from there, I thought I would have a better chance of getting a seat. To my surprise, the driver wouldn’t let me board till I told him my exact destination. I had memorised the kanji, but couldn’t recall how to say them, so I just said “Hakone”. The driver replied, in English, “Hakone is wide.” Suddenly the name popped into my head. “Sekisho-ato!” I blurted out; the driver acknowledged it as a valid bus stop, and I was finally allowed to board the completely empty bus.

Start of the trail among the bamboo bushes

The bus remained mostly empty, even after passing Hakone-Yumoto. I could see the usual line of sightseers at the bus stop, but for some mysterious reason they didn’t get on. The bus passed by the Yusaka trail 湯坂道, the starting point of the second part of today’s hike. As was established earlier, I got off at Sekisho-ato 関所跡, meaning “checkpoint ruins”, the start of the Hakone section of the Old Tokaido Road (more on that later), and popped into a nearby souvenir shop. On the other side, there was a view of Lake Ashi, with Mt Fuji partially hidden by Mt Mikuni.

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Steep climbing on Mt Byobu

At 10 o’clock I finally set off. I found the start of the trail indicated by a signpost near the bus stop. Very soon I reached some steps going straight up the mountain side. They were so steep that at one point it felt like a ladder would have been more appropriate. Thankfully it didn’t take long to reach the top of the ridge, after which it was pleasant stroll along a mostly level trail to the top of Mt Byobu 屛風山, part of the outer crater rim of Mt Hakone.

Walking through thick vegetation above Hakone Town

It was entirely surrounded by trees, so I didn’t linger, and followed the path down the other side. There were some glimpses of the surrounding mountains through the trees. Even though I was close to a major hot spring resort, I couldn’t see any buildings nor hear any noise. It felt like I was exploring a hidden valley. Less than thirty minutes later, I reached the Tokaido road, connecting Hakone-Yumoto with Hakone Town, and the Amazake-Chaya Teahouse. I decided to take a short break and have some of their famous non-alcoholic sweet sake with “chikara-mochi” meaning “power rice cake”. This was a welcome break, since I had forgotten half of my lunch at home.

Refueling with some sweet sake and power mochi

At noon, I was powered up and ready to continue hiking. I was now walking the Old Tokaido Road to Hatajuku 畑宿. I could have followed it all the way from Hakone Town, since it started near the bus stop I got off. However, it seemed that, apart from the historical aspect, it wouldn’t make for an interesting hike, so I preferred the detour through the mountains. The Tokaido used to connect Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo period. Most of it has disappeared, but some sections have been restored along the Hakone part.

An ancient road dating back to the 17th century

It’s stone-paved, so it was easy to mentally travel back in time, and imagine what it must have been like to walk this road 400 years ago. However, it wasn’t easy to walk on the stones. At first it ran parallel to the modern Tokaido road, so the noise of cars was never far away. When the modern road made a series of switchbacks down the side of the mountain, the ancient one descended directly via a series of stone steps, at the end of which was a short section of road-walking.

A not so old staircase on the Old Tokaido Road

At one point there was a view of the Shonan coast and Odawara city below, probably quite spectacular on days with better visibility. Half an hour later, I reached Hatajuku, a center for traditional handicrafts, and left the Old Tokaido Road. It continues all the way down to Hakone-Yumoto, but I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you are into Historical reenactment.

Turn right here to return to the paved road

I walked up the Hakone Shindo Road for a few minutes till the start of the trail for the Hiryu falls 飛龍の滝 up the other side of the mountain. The first part was punishingly steep. The next part, following a rushing stream, was more level but surprisingly rocky at times, especially for regular sightseers who just wanted to see the falls, not experience a full-blown hike. I got to the observation platform base of the falls at 1h30, and was underwhelmed by what I observed. The water rushing down the rocky side of the mountains never really “fell”, but I figured it would look more impressive after a big rainfall. However, the picturesque Hiryu river made the climb worthwhile.

Hiryu river valley, just below the falls

The next part of the trail was badly damaged, probably due to last year’s typhoons. A little higher up were signs that the trail was being repaired, and the next part was a lot better. The trail climbed steadily through thick forest along steps built into the gentle slope. I was now all alone as most people turn back at the waterfalls.

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Trail after the waterfall

At 2pm, I reached the Yusaka hiking trail. To the left was the road I had taken earlier by bus. Turning around, I saw a sign on the trail I had just come up, reminding me that I was inside the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. I headed right along a wide path, doubling as a firebreak. I soon reached a table on top of a grassy mound. According to my map, this was the top of Mt Takanosu 鷹ノ巣山 (834m). There was no summit marker, but instead there was a sign saying this was the location of the ruins of Takanosu castle. A little further was a steep and short descent, followed by a gentle climb. I had some views of the Gora area of Hakone (cable car service should resume on March 20) and Mt Kintoki in the background (Mt Ashigara on some maps). Before I knew it, I was at the top of Mt Sengen 浅間山. There was another table, but no view.

A glimpse of Gora with Mt Kintoki in the background

The final section of the hike followed the firebreak along a ridge, all the way back down to Hakone-Yumoto. I am sure this would be a nice hike on a sunny spring or autumn day, but today under a grey sky and surrounded by leafless trees, it felt rather bleak. However it was quite warm for the time of the year, around 15 degrees, so it was odd walking in a winter landscape in spring-like temperatures. I reached the ruins of Yusaka castle a little before 4pm. Apart from a signboard there wasn’t much to see. A few minutes later, I popped out onto the main road next to a river. I had a hot spring bath at nearby Izumi, before walking the 5 minutes back to the train station, where I caught the Romancecar back to Tokyo.

NEXT UP: Mt Ushibuse in Gunma

Mt Nango (610m), Mt Maku (626m) and Mt Shiro (563m), Yugawara Town, Kanagawa Prefecture

I felt like it was time to try something different, something special to Japan; I wanted to do a hike next to the ocean. I found one such hike in my hiking book, but it seemed a bit short, so I combined it with a couple of nearby peaks. Although the elevation of these three mountains was relatively low, they seemed quite impressive when seen from the sea-side town of Yugawara, famous for its plum blossoms and hot springs. The area is also known for rock climbing, although today’s purpose was purely hiking.

HOW TO GET THERE: From Tokyo or Shinagawa station, catch the Tokaido line to Atami;  Yugawara is the stop before. Depending on the type of train you catch, it takes between 60 and 90 minutes, direct or with changes. This is not a line I take often so it was a pleasant change with lots of views of the sea (sit on the left when heading out). From the station there are frequent buses to “Kaiya” which is the last stop. I was the sole person on the bus for the last portion of the trip, and on the first part of the hike.

Ask for a hiking plan for Mt Nango, Mt Maku, Mt Shiro

THE ROUTE: The bus stops in front of a temple, but the hiking trail doesn’t go through it. There wasn’t anybody around to ask, but I found a sign for the hiking trail along the road that continues up the mountain to the left of the temple. The signposting was particularly poor on this hike, and some route-finding was needed (this was nearly ten years ago so things may have changed). I followed the road as it curved to the right and then back to the left again, with many minor roads branching off it. I eventually reached a sign pointing straight up a very steep slope; it must of had an inclination of 45 degrees; I cannot imagine driving up here with ice or snow, although I guess that it rarely happens in this area (it felt pretty balmy for December).

Mountain Mikans

Japanese citrus fruit or mikan

A cape jutting into Sagami bay

Manazuru peninsula jutting into Sagami bay

Soon I was walking among the mikan trees with their bright orange fruit. I was getting pretty views of Yugawara town, Sagami bay and the surrounding mountains. I couldn’t see any more signs, but I decided to stick to the main road, a tough proposition since the other roads that branched off seemed to be the same width (wide enough for a small car). Instinct served me well, for shortly after entering a forest section, I found another wooden signpost for the summit. Unfortunately this sign was placed a few meters before another junction. I hesitated for a couple of minutes, and then continued in the most plausible direction which was straight ahead.

Towards Izu

Looking South to Izu

Mt Maku, I think

Near the top of Mt Nango

Since I was going up the side of a steep mountain, taking the wrong way could have big consequences. Fortunately, as I reached the top of the ridge, I came upon a third and better sign marking the start of a proper hiking trail. The surrounding landscape had become quite fascinating, not because of its beauty, but because of the sense of abandonment. This area had enjoyed a boom a few decades ago, but was now in decline, and there were a lot of ruined buildings making it a little spooky.

Now I was following a proper hiking path along the ridge. The views were hidden by the surrounding vegetation, lucky in a way, since it had become considerably windy. I was skirting a golf course, surrounded by an electric fence to keep trespassers (or hikers) out. I then reached a road, and after following it for a few minutes, I came to a hiking path on the left heading to the top of Mt Nango (南郷山 nangosan)about ten minutes away. There were some nice views of the coastline a few meters below the summit, better than from the summit itself. Here I met some other hikers, as it usually happens at the tops of mountains, and was easily able to get someone to take my photo.

Mountain scape near the coast

Mountain scenery near the coast

A great forest path

Easy walking through the forest

After a short rest, I set out again for summit number two and the highest point of the hike. Here the signposting let me down again. At the first intersection, there were no signs for my mountain, only a sign going straight to a temple, and a one pointing for the road that running between the two mountains. I had to cross the road at one point, but according to my map, not before passing by a small lake. So I decided to continue straight ahead. This turned out to be wrong, and I was soon forced to retrace my steps. Back at the junction, I took the second path towards the road (now going right). This was a pretty trail, zigzagging down through a pine wood before reaching a flat wooded area, where I crossed what must have been the other path leading down from Mt Nango.

The path to Mt Maku

The path to Mt Maku

Nearing the top

Getting close to the top of Mt Maku

Here I turned right and continued walking through some more delightful forest. I finally spotted the lake that I had been aiming for. It was a small and lonely lake hidden in the middle of the forest. Just beyond it was the road which I crossed in order to re-enter the woods on the other side. This part was really pleasant and made me want to bring other people here.

After a few minutes I reached the path heading for the summit. It took me another fifteen minutes of gentle climbing to reach Mt Maku (幕山 makuyama). From there I could see the ocean and the surrounding mountains. There weren’t any benches so I sat on the ground to have lunch. Since my view while sitting was obscured by bamboo grass, and the wind was terribly strong, probably due to the proximity of the sea, I decided not to linger.

Nice ocean views

Nice ocean views

Enjoying the soft autumn sunshine

Enjoying the soft autumn sunshine

Heading down, I mistakenly turned onto a path circling the summit. Once I realized this, I cut back through the woods and got back on the correct path. I was soon facing south and had some nice views of Sagami bay. I passed a group who had taken my photo on the summit, and left them behind me scratching their heads, since I had left ahead of them.

Eventually I got to the base of the mountain and got to see its famous rock climbing cliffs. There were a few people practising their skill in the good weather. It was interesting to note that they place mattresses underneath in case they fall. That’s Japanese safety for you. This is where the famous Yugawara plum trees are located (just bare branches at this time of the year).

The rocky base of Mt Maku

The rocky base of Mt Maku

Rock Climbing part I

The rock climbing area

I was now following a paved road along the bottom of a valley. It was only 3pm, but the winter sun was already starting to dip below the surrounding ridges. I stopped to take photos of the beautiful colours of a maple tree and the shadows nearly overtook me. A little later I crossed a bridge, went straight another hundred meters,  turned left up another smaller road, and ten minutes later reached a small hiking trail. The paved road continues around Mt Maku, and joins up with the path I went up on the other side.

Orange Maple tree

Orange Maple tree

Short but nice river walk

Short but nice river walk

Here darkness overtook me as the path twisted and turned through thick forest. There were a few ropes and chains, but nothing challenging. It was tough to climb up a mountain again, but it was too soon to head back. After about 30 minutes I reached a small shrine under a small waterfall. Above it, there was a paved path lined with stone lanterns switching back and forth; it felt rather sacred. At this time, there was nobody else around.

Turn left here

Walking along the valley before climbing again

The holy path

The path to the shrine

I reached another road which I followed through a windy tunnel under the highest section of the ridge. On the other side, I emerged back into the sun. I followed the road one hundred meters to a lookout point and a bus stop. Behind the observation platform, I found the hiking trail again. It double backed towards the ridge and passed above the tunnel. This was an enjoyable section despite the strong wind, heading slightly downhill with occasional views of the adjacent ridges and the ocean.

Windy but nice view

In the sun again…

The Izu peninsula

The Izu peninsula

A short while later I reached the final summit of the day, Mt Shiro (城山 shiroyama). It was the lowest of the three peaks, but it had by far the best view, with places to sit down and no vegetation in the way (and toilets as well!). At this late hour, I had the summit to myself. To the South was the Izu peninsula, to the North was the Shonan coastline, and beyond, the Landmark Tower in Yokohama, to the west was Oshima Island. The most amazing thing about this summit was that it was right at the edge of the sea. I think it’s the first time I have stood about 500 meters directly above the coastline.

Ocean view

The coveted ocean view

Mt Maku ridge

Looking back at Mt Maku

I had to pull myself away from this great view only fifteen minutes after arriving, since I really needed to get down before dark. I headed down at a fast pace, the path being relatively easy to walk. There another good view of Oshima island on the way. Very soon I reached a paved road. My map showed that there were a couple of shortcuts so that you didn’t to walk so much on the road. However I got tricked on the second one, it led basically nowhere, and I had to climb five minutes back to the road.

When I got to the real short cut, I didn’t dare to take it so I jogged the wide bend of the road. Soon I started seeing signs of civilisation again: telephone wires, houses and cars. There were again no signs and more roads than were indicated on the map, but following my instinct I ended back at the station by dusk. I celebrated by taking a hot bath at an onsen with outdoor bath just five minutes down the road, on the top floor of the hotel.

Ask for a hiking plan for Mt Nango, Mt Maku, Mt Shiro

Final view of Ooshima

Final view of Ooshima

Mt Kintoki (1212m), Minami-Ashigara City, Kanagawa & Shizuoka Prefectures

This 300-famous mountain jutting out of the Northern tip of the Hakone outer crater, is one of the easiest, and most popular, climbs in the area. I first found out about it from my Kanto hiking book, and realised that I had already seen its pointy top from the train while traveling by train along the Shonan coast. The main attraction seemed to be the unobstructed view of Mt Fuji from the top, but would Japan’s famous volcano be clear of clouds the day of my hike? and with how many other hikers would I have to share the summit with?

Hiking in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park

富士箱根伊豆国立公園

Ask for a hiking plan for Mt Kintoki

 

I took a bus from Hakone-Yumoto station bound for Gotemba, but got off around 9am at the entrance of Kintoki Shrine 金時神社 about 30 minutes later (it’s before the tunnel that passes under the outer crater). The bus was fairly empty, slightly unusual for Hakone. However the parking lot next to the shrine was nearly full. These were the days when the highway toll was a flat fee of 1000 yen on weekends, a kind of stimulus put in place after the Lehman shock (as it is called here). The first part of the hike was fairly easy; it took one hour along a winding trail to reach the top of the rim.  There were some nice views of the outer crater, with Mt Mikuni above lake Ashi directly opposite, and Mt Koma to its left.

My best shot of Mt Fuji 

Turning left, it took another 20 minutes of steep climbing to reach the top of Mt Kintoki 金時山 (kintokiyama or kintokizan). The trees on this section were small, rather like big bushes, and bare of leaves since it was the middle of December. As expected, the top was packed with people and nearly all benches were taken. It seemed to be a popular place to have lunch while enjoying the view of majestic Fuji. Today, the giant was wrapped in grey clouds,  with only its white top showing itself.  It wasn’t the best view I had ever had, but it was still impressive.

Another hiker gazing at Mt Koma, the highest point of Hakone

I found a spot to sit for lunch. In all directions it was mostly blue skies, and I had a great view of the impressive Hakone crater with the Suruga Bay in the background. This was undoubtedly one of the best views of the Kanto area within close reach of Tokyo. After lunch, I went back down the same way but instead of going back to the shrine, I followed the rim a little further East. The path was lined with tall bamboo grass on both sides, but it wasn’t high enough to block out the view of Mt Myojin ahead. At Yagurasawa Pass 矢倉沢峠, I turned right and headed down. The trail was steep this time, and I had to be careful not to slip. Half an hour later, I was back on the road.

Mt Myojin, another great mountain to climb

Although it was a short hike, I didn’t mind since December days are also short. I definitely want to try my luck again to see Mt Fuji completely free of clouds from the top. One more good point about Hakone, is that there are many hot spring hotels. So after completing the hike in about four hours, I was able to have a nice hot soak before making my way back to Tokyo.

Ask for a hiking plan for Mt Kintoki

See the panoramic view from the top of Mt Kintoki