I finally had a chance to use the Tokyo Wide Pass,first time in four years, and in the end I did three hikes in a row. For the first one, I chose a small volcanic protrusion on the south side of Mt Asama (similar to Mt Hoei), which had been on my to-climb list for a while; being a relatively short trip up and down the same trail, it was reserved for a shinkansen jaunt. If I had time and energy after that, I would climb a small peak within Karuizawa Town, apparently the first one climbed by the Japanese Emperor, an enthusiastic hiker. After getting off the high-speed train, a short train ride on a local line, followed by an equally short taxi ride, would bring me to the start of the trail. I could travel to the second mountain by local bus, and at the end, walk half an hour back to the shinkansen station. The weather was supposed to be clear but cool for the season. I was looking forward to visiting Karuizawa after nearly two years and getting some close-up views of Mt Asama.
Hiking in the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park
Mt Asama still wearing its winter coat
Karuizawa with Mt Myogi and Nishi-Joshu in the background
I had never seen Tokyo station so crowded: on the platform itself, it was nearly impossible to figure out where the end of the line was, and I was very lucky to snag one of the last unreserved seats. After a comfortable ride, I got off at Karuizawa station just before 10am, and transferred to the much less crowded Shinano railway for the two-stop ride to Shinano-Oiwake. I was pleasantly surprised to see cherry trees still in full bloom, one month after Tokyo. I got on the last taxi waiting outside the station and was at the trail entrance by 10h30. After getting ready and having a late breakfast, I set off at 11am.
Walking under the pine trees at the start of the trail
The surreal Nigori River
The first part of the hike was along an easy to walk trail, slowly rising through a pine forest within the southern reach of the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park (上信越高原国立公園). The altitude was around 1000 meters and spring was in full swing. Just before noon, I reached Nigori River (濁川 meaning “murky river”). I was stunned by its surreal yellow colour, probably due to the volcanic nature of the area. I was lucky to catch this sight on a sunny day, the water surface glittering like gold. After a few more minutes, I reached Chi-no-taki (血の滝), meaning “blood waterfall”, although it was still a muddy yellow.
Following a yellow river through the winter woods
Mt Asama, one of the hundred famous mountains of Japan
I was walking through a forest bare of leaves, since at 1400 meters, winter was back. The path continued to follow the Nigori river, passing “chi-no-ike” (血の池 “blood pond”), before turning away to the left, up a small valley. I soon reached the ridgetop, where I had my first view of Mt Asama, its rocky summit still sprinkled with snow. I walked up a short, steep slope in the opposite direction, and just after 1pm, was standing on the top of Mt Sekison (石尊山 せきそんさん sekison-san), its characters meaning stone and respect.
Yatsugatake, its highest peaks still covered in snow
Mt Asama is also an active volcano
The view was alot better than expected: on the east side, I could see the ridge connecting Mt Hanamagari with Usui Pass; behind Karuizawa was the craggy top of Mt Myogi; south were the mountain ranges of western Gunma; to the west, I could make out the shape of Yatsugatake, its highest peaks still shining white; the opposite side offered a stunning closeup view of Mt Asama. I was the only person on the mountain, so I settled on the grass for a quiet lunch. After half an hour, I started to descend the same way.
Still some snow due to a recent spring storm
It’s still winter above 1500 meters
I saw some puffs of smoke rise from the crater, reminding me that I was on the side of an active volcano. I retraced my steps back to the trail entrance; now and then the wind was blowing quite hard and made the tall pines trees sway above me. I moved quickly, as I wanted to allow enough time for the second climb of the day. I arrived back at my starting point at 3pm, and soon after reached the bus stop of the Chikuma city bus. Karuizawa being a popular resort town, I got stuck in some traffic and only reached the South Entrance of Harareyama Park (離山公園 after 4pm.
A well-maintained walkway along the steeper parts
Nearing the top
It was a relaxing climb through the forest, greener at 1000 meters; the steeper part near the top was along a well-maintained wooden walkway. Frequent signs breaking up the hike into 100 meter segments, were encouraging on the flat bits, less so on the ascending ones. At the end of a long staircase past some cherry trees still in full bloom, I reached the top of Mt Hanare (離山 はなれやま hanare-yama), the name meaning separation. To the west, I had a wider view of Mt Asama, as well as Mt Sekison, where I had been standing three hours earlier; it was against the sun, and would surely look even more impressive in the early morning.
Mt Asama from the top of Mt Hanare
Cherry blossoms, pink in the late afternoon sun
I was enjoying the late afternoon view when the five o’clock chime sounded through the valley. Normally, a call for children to come home for dinner, it also meant I had to hurry down if I wanted to catch my planned Shinkansen, about one hour later. I set off towards the East Entrance, and after some descending, I reached a wide gravel road taking me down to the base of the mountain. The last part was a pleasant walk past summer cottages set within the forest, for which Karuizawa is famous. At 6pm, I was back at the station, where I boarded the high speed train for the one hour ride back to Tokyo.
See the yellow waters of Nigori River and the volcanic fumes of Mt Asama