Mt Sekison (1667m) & Mt Hanare (1256m), Karuizawa Town, Nagano Prefecture, Tuesday, May 3, 2022

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

上信越高原国立公園 

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

Mt Sajiki (1915m), Mt Murakami (1746m) and Mt Kakuma (1980m), Gunma Prefecture, Sunday, September 1st 2019

Continuing my tour of Japan’s National Parks, I next visited the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park in Gunma prefecture. Despite the poor weather forecast, I decided to risk taking the shinkansen to Ueda city. There, I rented a car and drove up the Western part of Mt Asama. I had been there a few years ago to climb Mt Yunomaru and Mt Eboshi, but there were a few more peaks that had remained unclimbed.

The balding top of Mt Yunomaru, climbed in November 2015

From Ueda station, I could see that the mountains were in the clouds, and on the way up I encountered thick mist. Fortunately, I broke through it before I reached Yunomaru Kogen above 1700m, and I even had some sun after I parked my car. I immediately rushed up the hiking trail, since I knew that the blue sky that had opened up overhead wouldn’t last. The path was quite nice, and I reached the top of Mt Sajiki 棧敷山 at exactly 11 o’clock. I had an excellent view of Mt Azuma and Mt Kusatsu-Shirane, hundred famous mountains I had already climbed.

Mt Azuma, climbed at the end of May 2012

I retraced my steps for a few minutes, and turned left to take an alternative path down. I soon reached a lookout point towards Yunomaru Kogen. At this point, the weather had become overcast, but luckily the clouds were quite high, and I could make out the Japanese Alps in the distance. The path then descended quite steeply. After it bottomed out, I was walking in a spooky, dark forest . I soon arrived at an intersection for the small brother of Mt Sajiki – I decided to check it out. I soon reached the top of Mt Kosajiki 小棧敷山 but the views were limited. Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to get back to my car.

The highest point of Mt Asama

I drove on to my next target at Kazawa Kogen 鹿沢高原. This time, I simply had to go up and down the same trail. I walked as fast as I could up the relatively easy path and reached the summit of Mt Murakami 村上山 just before noon. I was greeted by a vast panorama of Western Gunma, centered on Tashiro Lake. The views were wider than the previous summit and it was a good place to enjoy some lunch.

 

Mt Kusatsu-Shirane and Tashiro Lake

I quickly made my way back down and drove back up to Kazawa Onsen 鹿沢温泉. It was 2h30 and I had one more peak to climb, but I had to be back by 4h30 for the last entry at the hot spring. I raced up and reached the top of Mt Kakuma 角間山 a little after 3h30. Nearing 2000m, the vegetation had become alpine. While I was taking pictures of the view, it suddenly started raining, which for once was a good thing, since it forced me to head back down rather quickly. I half ran back the same way, and made it to the onsen with a few minutes to spare.

 

View Westwards from the top of Mt Kakuma

NEXT UP: Hiking from Yanagisawa Pass to Shirasawa Pass (Yamanashi Prefecture)

Mt Asamakakushi (1757m), Takasaki City, Gunma Prefecture

For this hike, I drove a rental car from Takasaki city to a small parking area near the entrance of the trail to the mountain. Starting from an elevation of 1450m at 11am, the hike to the top took only one hour. Although the top of Mt Asamakakushi 浅間隠し, meaning “Hidden Asama” was similar to that of my previous hike, it was a lot colder, since I was further North.

Yatsugatake in the background

The view of snow covered Asamayama to the West was breathtaking. I could also see the entire Joshin-Estsu mountains forming the Northern edge of the Kanto plain; there are just too many mountains to list here. Southwards, I could make out the Yatsugatake range, Karuizawa and the Oku-Chichibu mountains. Finally the three holy mountains of Gunma – Myohgi, Haruna and Akagi – were all visible in the same panorama.

The Joshinetsu mountains

After an hour taking pictures and eating lunch in near freezing temperatures, I made my way down the same way I had come up. Once back to the car, I drove to the onsen at Hamayu Sanso at the base of the mountain. I got there just before 2pm and I was able to warm myself up, before driving back to Takasaki station.

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Mt Settou (1736m), Mt Junigadake (1683m) Kawaguchiko Town, Yamanashi Prefecture

I had already hiked parts of the Misaka mountains – the mountainous area between Mt Fuji and the Oku-Chichibu mountains (for example Mt Ou to Mt Oni). However, I had never hiked the central part, between Kawaguchi and Saiko lakes. I decided to approach from Ashigawa valley on the North side, and finish at lake Saiko, on the South side. I took the Chuo line to Isawa Onsen station, and then the bus to the farmer’s market in Ashigawa 芦川. I had a very good impression of the place since they offered me free tea while I got ready for my hike!

Kawaguchiko City surrounded by nature

I started out after 10am, and walked along the road for about 20 minutes to the start of the trail, which then went straight up the side of the mountain, through trees completely bare of leaves. I reached Oishi pass (1515m) 大石峠 around noon. I had been there once before when hiking from Mt Kuro further to the East. This time I turned right and continued Westards along the ridge.

Kofu valley and beyond the Oku-chichibu mountains

The hiking path went up and down a wide ridge through beautiful evergreen forest. I had occasional views of Mt Fuji to my left, lake Kawaguchi behind me, and the Ashigawa valley to my right. I soon reached the top of Mt Settou 節刀ヶ岳 the third highest mountain along the ridge, after Mt Mitsumine and Mt Oni. From there I could see all the way to the Southern Alps, and the Kofu valley.

Against the sun, looking back towards Minobu

After admiring the view, I started to head down towards Saiko lake. Soon, I had to negotiate a slightly tricky bit involving some rocks and chains. After that, I arrived at the top of Mt Junigadake 十二ヶ岳 which translates simply as “Peak 12”, from where I had some more great views of Mt Fuji ahead of me. I now had two options. The path to the left was an exciting ridge including suspended bridges. Alternatively, I could head straight down to Izumi no Yu, a hot spring on the side of Saiko Lake. Since it was already 3pm, I decided to head down, and leave the exciting ridge for another hike.

Tokyo Wide Pass – Where to go? Part II : Karuizawa

In this post we shall explore the Karuizawa area on the Nagano shinkansen line beyond Takasaki. Unfortunately, since the start of the Hokuriku shinkansen in 2015, reserved seats tend to sell out quickly during holidays due to the continuing Kanazawa boom.

Karuizawa (around 70 minutes from Tokyo station) has 3 things going for it:

1) It sits at the foot of the active volcano Mt Asamayama (current status: smoking)

2) John Lennon used to live there for a while with Yoko Ono

3) Situated at 940m above sea level, it’s a pleasant place to visit in the summer months.

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Asamayama from the Hanamagariyama hike

Below are some hiking suggestions (for Mt Asama see the post on Sakudaira): 

 

  • Karuizawa station to Yokokawa station (Dentetsu main line, return via Takasaki)

This is a great hike on the old Nakasendo route connecting Takasaki to Karuizawa with great views of  Mt Asama, Mt Myougi and the Nishijoshuu area. There is an abandoned station and railway line at the end and monkeys can be seen in the warmer months. 

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View of Yokokawa from the Nakasendo trail

  • Mt Hanamagari 鼻曲山 1655m, Kanto 100 famous mountain

Access is by bus but you can walk back to the station. This hike is on the ridge opposite Mt Asama and has good views of Mt Asamakakushi (North) and the Kirizumi onsen area (East). It was a rather dull walk through the bare forest in the winter, but should be nicer when greener. 

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Mt Tsunoochi (left) & Mt Ken-no-mine (right)

  • Mt Asamakakushi 浅間隠山 1756m, 200 famous mountain (climbed in 2017)

It’s a long walk along a road from the closest bus stop in Kita-Karuizawa unless you can hitch a ride. There is an option to descend to Asamakakushi onsen and ride a bus to Nakanojo on the Agatsuma line (return via Takasaki) but buses only run on weekdays.  

  • Mt Happu ハ風山 1315m to Mt Arafune 荒船山 1423m, 200 famous mountain

This is a long hike for fast walkers connecting Minami-Karuizawa with the Nishijoushuu area. Access is by bus and ends at Arafune onsen (last bus to bus to Shimonita is at 15:46). The hike can be shortened by descending from the farm near Monomiyama 物見山 1375m.

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View of Karuizawa & Mt Asama from Mt Happu

  • Kirizumi onsen area 霧積温泉

I haven’t explored this area yet since access is only via car or taxi but it seems to have some interesting and exciting mountains.

  • Mt Kusatsu-Shirane 草津白根山 2171m, a hundred famous mountain

There is a bus from Karuizawa station which (with one change) will take you all the way to the pass below Mt Shirane (2010m) and beyond to Shiga kogen 志賀高原. I haven’t done this yet with the pass. Mt Shirane is currently active and some parts may be off-limits. 

  • Shiroito waterfall 白糸の滝

The waterfall is less than 30 minutes away by bus and you can walk back to the station in around 4 hours through beautiful woods. This is a relatively easy hike and beautiful in the autumn months.

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View of Nishijoushuu from the Nakasendo route