Mt Koshin (1892m), Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture, Sunday, November 14, 2021

This mountain had been on my to-climb list for the past few years. I needed to go by car and be physically fit to be able to do it it as a daytrip; good weather was also a requirement to justify the expense of the trip and the effort of the climb. The drive from Nikko station and back seemed straightforward, although I would need to skip the after-hike hot spring bath if I wanted to be back before dark. The beautiful autumn weather was supposed to continue for a few more days. However, due to the higher elevation, I had little hope of seeing any autumn leaves. My only concern was about the trail itself, since it went through an extensive rocky area, equipped with ladders and chains; it looked fun but I needed to be careful. Finally, I was looking forward to hiking inside the southern part of the Nikko national park and seeing some great views.

View of Mt Sukai from near the summit of Mt Koshin

Koshin Lodge with the cliffs of Mt Koshin in the background

I arrived in Nikko around 9h30 under a mostly cloudy sky. By the time I reached my car, I noticed a blue patch slowly expanding from the east, and after I arrived at the Ginzan-Daira parking area (銀山平駐車場) a little after 11am, the sky was entirely blue above. At 1130, I was walking a long a flat road closed to traffic and hugging the mountainside above a steep river valley; one hour later I reached the red shinto gate at Ichi-No-Tori (一の鳥居) marking the start of the hiking trail.

The forest road leading to the start of the hiking trail

The first part of the trail was fairly easy to hike

I followed a beautiful mountain stream up a gently sloping path. On the way, I crossed a couple of wooden bridges and passed several huge rocks with various names. A little after 1pm, I reached Koshin lodge (庚申山荘), where most hikers spend the night, and then hike to Mt Sukai and back the next day. Rising dramatically behind it, I could see the cliffs through which somehow a trail led to the summit. I took a short break and set off again, reaching the rocky base about ten minutes later.

The trail followed a lively mountain stream

Climbing steeply from here

I was the only person on the trail so I resolved to be doubly cautious as I made my way up through the rocks. I was amazed that anybody would think of creating a path up what was almost a rocky cliff, and I would only recommend it to surefooted hikers. I moved quickly, soon reaching the cliff top and a view point from where I could see the low mountains of southern Tochigi. I continued through a thick pine forest along a gentler sloping trail. At 2pm, I reached the top of Mt Koshin (庚申山 こうしんざん koshinzan), a hundred famous mountain of Tochigi.

Halfway up the rocky area

Surefootedness is a must here

It was completely in the trees but after walking a few minutes along the ridgeline, I reached a break in the trees and a fantastic view. Directly opposite, I could see Mt Nokogiri and Mt Sukai. To the north was Mt Shirane and Mt Nantai. I was the only person enjoying this glorious panorama on a peaceful windless day. I wanted to stay longer but I needed to head back before it started to get dark. I went down the same way, although now it was mostly in the shade.

Gazing upon the mountains of Tochigi from above the cliffs

View of the Nikko national park from near the summit

It took me an hour a half to get back to the trail entrance. Since I was on schedule, I had a quick look at the nearby 7 waterfalls of Koshin (庚申七滝), although access to some of the falls was currently closed. I reached the parking area just before 4h30 and left soon after. As I drove along the Watarase river valley, I came upon a troop of monkeys crossing the road. I reached Nikko station at 5h20 and then hopped onto the Kegon limited express for the ninety-minute ride back to Tokyo.

Follow the mountain stream to the top of Mt Koshin

Mt Gassan (1287m), Nikko City, Tochigi prefecture, Saturday, October 30, 2021

I thought I should really do one more hike from the Aizu-Kinugawa train line before it got too cold and started to snow. Looking through my guidebook, I found a mountain I could reach by taking a bus from Kinugawa-Onsen and along a river valley hidden behind the sprawling mass of Mt Nyoho. Although it was a short hike and required some road walking to get to the start of the trail and back, I had never been to that area nor ridden that bus line before. I was worried about missing the last bus back, since it would be a long walk to the station. I also wondered whether the autumn leaves would finally be at their peak, since it had been so cold a week earlier. On the other hand, the weather was supposed to be a perfect with warmer temperatures and almost no wind. I was looking forward to getting some new views and seeing the first autumn colours of the season.

Autumn colours at the Kuriyama dam lake

Mt Gassan in the late afternoon sun

It was a beautiful autumn day as I rode the comfortable Nikko line to Shimo-Imaichi station, where I transferred to the local train for the short trip to Kinugawa-Onsen. I hadn’t been there for nearly ten years and I soaked up the atmosphere of this popular hot spring resort while waiting for my bus to leave. It was an exciting ride following the Kinugawa river valley and past Kawaji dam. Although today’s mountain was only six kilometers away, the bus traveled three times that distance as the road curved around to the back of the mountain.

View from the road leading to the entrance of the hiking trail

A perfect day for hiking

I got off the bus just past 11am and quickly set off up a small road through the forest and alongside a river. I soon reached a deforested area and after a series of switchbacks, I had my first views. I was stunned by the reds and oranges covering the mountain side directly opposite. Looking west, I could see what I thought was Kinu-Numa Swamp at the end of the river valley. I soon passed a cow barn with a bright red roof surrounded by pastures, both deserted at this time of the year. Looking up, I could see see see thin white strips of clouds spreading across the blue sky.

A cow barn belonging to Hikage Farm

Mt Nyoho, one of the Oku-Nikko mountains

Around 12h30, I reached a flat area with a view to the south and some more pastures: this was Hikage Farm (日蔭牧場 hikage-bokujo), just below Mt Meoto (夫婦山). It was a short and easy climb up this mountain, but it would have to be for another time, since I was on a tight schedule. On the west side, I could see the long ridge leading from Kirifuri Highland to the summit of Mt Nyoho. The road sloped down, and looking east through the trees , I could see the fiery red summit of today’s mountain. A few minutes later, I reached the start of Meoto Tunnel (夫婦トンネル).

Mt Meoto in its autumn coat

First view of Kuriyama Dam lake

It was a spooky five minute walk through this tunnel, fortunately closed to traffic (see video). I emerged back into the sunlight at the base of Kuriyama dam and I could now see the full shape of Mt Nyoho. I had never seen it from this direction before, and I was impressed by its massive size; it truly belongs to the 100 famous mountains of Japan. I continued along the level road and reached the start of the hiking trail at exactly one pm. I took a short break and then started up the narrow ridgeline path.

A narrow ridge path through bamboo grass

Mt Takahara and Hunter Mountain Ski Resort

After twenty minutes, I already had some excellent views of Mt Meoto, the colour of rust, and the blue Kuriyama Dam lake. I continued to climb through beautiful forest enclosed on three sides by the Nikko National Park. Ten minutes later, I reached the top ridge. I had a superb view of Mt Takahara directly west, through a break in the trees; I could make out patches of light green that would become the ski runs of Hunter Mountain in the winter. To the north, in the midst of a multitude of mountains, I spotted the elegant, subdued shape of Mt Shibakusa. Soon after, I reached the highest point of Mt Gassan (月山 がっさん meaning “Mt Moon”), a Tochigi hundred famous mountain.

Imaichi lake and the Kanto plain

Walking down to Kuriyama Dam Lake

Famous for its azalea flowers in the spring, all it offered now were bare branches hiding the view. However, just a few meters further, I reached the top of a small rocky area and a wide panorama. Stretching away towards the west were the low mountains of southern Tochigi. A vermillion ridge ended at Imachi dam and lake at the head of a green-brown valley leading into the Kanto plain. It was nearly 2pm so I sat down for a late lunch under the warm autumn sunshine. Although it was possible to descend the rocky area towards the lake, it wasn’t part of today’s route.

A peaceful walk along the shoreline

Sun setting on Mt Nyoho

Around 2h30, I made my way back along the top ridge and took the right path at a fork, heading north and down towards Kuriyama lake. At times the path was hard to follow because of the bamboo grass, but fortunately I could rely on the pink ribbons on the branches. I had glimpses of the lake through the trees, the surrounding forest bright yellow under the afternoon sun. I arrived at the peaceful lake shore thirty minutes later. Since I had a bus to catch, I quickened my pace and soon reached the road leading to the base of the dam, from where I made my way back through the tunnel and up to hikage farm.

Late afternoon at Hikage Farm

Same views but different lighting

It was past 3h30 and the sun was setting just above the highest point of Mt Nyoho. I walked down the road, now in the shade, the views of this morning looking different in the late afternoon sun. I reached the bus stop with a few minutes to spare. After a 45 minute ride, I got off at Kinugawa-Koen station around 5pm, one stop before Kinugawa-onsen, so that I could take a quick hot spring bath at Iwaburo (meaning “rock bath”). After a pleasant soak in the outdoor bath, I caught the local train for Shimo-Imaichi station, where I boarded the limited express “Kegon” for the ninety minute ride back to Tokyo.

See the red and orange colours of Mt Gassan

Mt Shibakusa (1341m), Nakamiyori, Tochigi Prefecture, Saturday, October 23, 2021

I really wanted to do more hikes along the Aizu-Kinugawa train line in northern Tochigi; although it’s directly connected to Tokyo via the Tobu limited express trains, so far I had only done a handful of mountains along it, the last one being Mt Hiruga, one year ago. Despite being completely surrounded by mountains and inside a national park, it has fewer hiking trails than the neighbouring Nikko area. Using my hiking guidebook, I located a suitable station-to station hike starting from Nakamiyori-onsen station with supposedly nice views. As this was just one stop before the one for Mt Hiruga, I was familiar with the way there (and back) and I could arrive early enough in the day to complete the hike before dark. The weather forecast was good: sunny but a little windy. It had been unseasonably cold the past week, and I wondered whether I would be able to see the first autumn colours of the year.

The expected autumn colours with unexpected snow

The weather was clear but the mountains were in the clouds, as I rode the Revaty limited express to Kinugawa Onsen where I transferred to the old-fashioned Aizu mountain express for the last leg of the trip, up a narrow gorge and through dark tunnels. Unfortunately, after exiting the last tunnel, I was greeted with cloudy skies and I could see water drops on the window panes. At 10h15 I was standing outside an unmanned station under a light drizzle. Looking west, I could see today’s mountain at the end of the valley, briefly lit up by the sun through a break in the clouds, giving me hope of better weather as I started out on my hike.

The first part of the hike was along a beautiful river

I followed a small road through a sleepy village and then along a picturesque river, till I reached Mitoshi Bridge (見通し橋). Around this point the rain let up and the sun started to break through the clouds from time to time. It seemed like the weather would clear up, although I wasn’t sure it would do so fast enough. At 11h30 I reached the start of the trail. The first part zigzagged up the mountain side and was easy to walk. Twenty minutes later, I reached an electric pylon. The sun had come out again, so I took off a layer and no sooner had I done it, the wind started blowing fiercely.

The steepest part of the hike around “oiwa”

Several minutes after the pylon I took a small steep path branching to the right and heading straight up the ridge. I was following a path through beech trees slowly curving northwards; although I was a few kilometers outside the Nikko national park, the surrounding forest was wild and beautiful. The wind was blowing in gusts, sometimes so strong that I worried that a branch would fall on my head. After some climbing, I reached the aptly named “Oiwa” (大岩), meaning big rock, at 12h30. There was a steep narrow corridor behind it equipped with a long rope, which I used to haul myself up.

View of Mt Takahara, with Nakamiyori nestled at its base

At the top of the rock, I took a short break to enjoy the view. I could see Mt Takahara as well as the valley and ridge I had just walked up. I only had a short way to go till the summit, so I decided to save lunch till then. The ridge stayed level for a short while before climbing steeply again. The ground was still wet from the recent rain and I had to be careful not to slip. I reached the narrow top of Mt Shibakusa (芝草山 しばくさやま shibakusayama, meaning “Mt Lawn”), a hundred famous mountain of Tochigi, a little past 1pm. I was impressed that the summit sign was in English. It was still too early for the autumn colours, although the leaves were starting to show hints of red.

Mt Arakai and it’s early winter coat

By now, the weather had recovered, although the wind was still blowing strongly. Looking northwest, I could see Mt Arakai, its summit covered with a dusting of snow. I was the only person on the mountain and it felt wonderful to be completely surrounded by mountains without any noise, except the occasional howling of the wind. After a quick lunch, I headed down. At 2pm, I was back at the “big rock”. I took a short break to enjoy the view some more. Going down the roped corridor required more care than going up; I applied the three point technique, always making sure I had three points of support before moving.

Looking back at Mt Shibakusa from Nakamiyori

One hour later I was back at the start of the trail. I noticed that the box for submitting hiking plans was actually an old fridge (it wasn’t in use anymore). While walking back on the road I spotted a praying mantis – I hadn’t seen one since my hike on Mt Hiruga, which made me think that the area was a good environment for this species. Shortly after, I spotted a buck bounding away from the road and into the forest. Half an hour later I was back at Nakamiyori and after a quick hot spring bath at Ojika-no-yu 男鹿の湯, I hopped onto the local train for Shimo-Imaichi station, where I transferred to the Kegon limited express for the 90 minute train ride back to Tokyo.

Listen to the wind blowing on Mt Shibakusa

Mt Taka (1668m) & the Chuzenji Lake Nature Trail, Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture

Since climbing Mt Shazan last summer, I had been wanting to return and explore the shoreline of Chuzenji lake. Although circling the entire lake would be too long for a day hike, it was possible to do only the western and southern sides, away from the main road, and also include a small summit on the way. Since I visit Oku-Nikko nearly every year, I was familiar with the way there and back; I could use a bus to get to the start of the hike, and also for the return. My main concern was to finish the hike early enough so that I could get back to Nikko station in time for the last limited express back to Tokyo. The rainy season hadn’t arrived yet and blues skies were forecast for the entire Kanto area, so I was looking forward to exploring a new corner of “deep Nikko” in good weather.

Hiking in the Nikko National Park 日光国立公園

Sightseers taking a break at the western end of Chuzenji lake

The weather was as forecast and I could see Mt Nantai and Mt Nyoho from my seat on the Nikko line. At 9h30 I boarded a bus for Yumoto-Onsen; one hour later I got off at the Ryuzu falls (1355m above sea level), and just before 11am I set off on my hike. The surrounding forest was beautiful and the trail was well-maintained: it definitely felt like I were hiking inside a National Park. There were few views from the trail: I had a glimpse through the trees of Sengohara plain to the north and of Chuzenji lake to the south. The sound of buzzing insects was deafening; luckily I had brought repellent with me today.

Hiking inside the Nikko National Park

Hiking up Mt Taka

It took me less than an hour to reach the top of Mt Taka (高山 たかやま takayama). There was no view but it was grassy with several places to sit down. I took a short break and then continued down the other side. The path zigzagged down the steep terrain and ten minutes later I reached a pass and a junction. To the right was Sengohara; however, I headed left, down a wide, gently sloping valley alongside a small stream. Eventually, the valley flattened, and I was walking in the midst of some very tall trees.

The paradisiac shore of lake Chuzenji

Boarding deck at Senjugahama

At 12h30 I reached the white sandy shore of Chuzenji lake. Under the blue sky, it felt like I was on a Pacific island. I continued along the shady path to the right, circling the lake counter-clockwise. Ten minutes later, I arrived at Senjugahama (千手ヶ浜), also accessible via boat and bus, which explained the number of people I saw there. I moved on quickly, enjoying the various views of the lake and Mt Nantai to the left. Twenty minutes later, after crossing a river on a small footbridge, I was back on a hiking trail with no one else around.

Sailing boat with Mt Nantai directly behind

Mt Taka from the southern side of Chuzenji lake

It took about three hours of solitary hiking through pleasant forest to reach the end of the hiking trail at the Italian Embassy Villa Memorial Park. During the first half, the narrow trail went up and down but also remained within sight of the lake. The second half was wider and flatter and I had to be careful not to lose the trail. I wasn’t sure till the final hour that I would make the bus, but it was with great relief that I got to the bus stop with ten minutes to spare. At 5pm, I was comfortably seated on the Tobu bus back to Nikko station, at at 6pm I was on the limited express for Asakusa station.

See the views along the Chuzenji Lake Nature Trail

One of the many view of Mt Nantai along the trail

Kirifuri River, Mt Bishamon (586m) and Mt Chausu (517m), Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture, April 2021

I had been planning on hiking these two mountains for a while, but since the hike itself was under 3 hours, I was putting it off till I found a good way to extend it. Examining my hiking map, I saw that I could take a bus to Kirifuri Highland, and then walk down, above Kurifuri river; I could then connect to the main hike via a thirty minute walk on paved roads. This would double the length of the hike, and would justify the time and expense of traveling all the way to Nikko. An added bonus was that my route would take me past several waterfalls. I had been to Kirifuri Kogen before, so I knew exactly how to get there; for the return, I would walk to the train station, just 20 minutes from the end of the trail. The weather was supposed to be sunny, and I was looking forward to seeing this year’s new green, as well as lower-altitude mountain flowers, normally in full bloom around this time of the year.

View of the mountains of eastern Tochigi

I reached Nikko station at 9h30 under unexpectedly grey skies and caught the bus for Kirifuri (霧降 meaning “falling mist”). I arrived about twenty minutes later, and true to its name, I found myself standing in the midst of thick mist. I retreated to the warmth of the restaurant house where I had a coffee while I got ready for hiking. My weather app stubbornly persisted that it was sunny outside, and I was hoping that by delaying my departure by a few minutes, the weather would miraculously improve.

The mist was starting to lift – time to leave!

Still winter in the mountains above Nikko

The mist had started to lift slightly when I finally set off at 10h30; I could see Nikko city, faintly visible at the bottom of the valley 700 meters below. At 1200m, it was still winter: the grass was yellow and the trees bare of leaves. I made my way down the steep trail, but before reaching the bridge over the Kirifuri river (霧降川), I turned right onto a overgrown and hard to follow path, in need of some urgent maintenance; thanks to the diagonal trail makers attached to trees at regular intervals, I could find my way down through the forest.

Looking back towards Kirifuri Highland

Finally some sun!

The trail veered from Kirifuri river and at 11h30, I reached one of its tributaries. There was no bridge and I had to cross by stepping on stones. I spotted a bone-white antler next to the water (see video) – now if I could just spot its owner…The weather was improving gradually. Looking up, patches of blue sky were appearing overhead; looking right, I could see Kirifuri Highland free of mist; straight ahead, there were green buds uncurling on the tree branches; looking down, I could see dogtooth violets (片栗 カタクリ) covering the ground. At 12h30, I arrived at Choji waterfall (丁字滝), the first of today’s 3 waterfalls.

Water rushing down Choji waterfall

Close up of Choji waterfall (left) and Kirifuri falls from afar

I was lucky that it had rained the night before; the waterfall was at its full power and I spent some time admiring the falling water. It took another hour to reach Kirifuri falls along an easier to follow trail. On the way, I spotted another pheasant; this one ran away quickly but I still got a short video. I had been to Kirifuri falls before but this time I had a nice surprise – although the trees were still bare, rhododendron (シャクナゲ) were growing here and there among the leafless trees. After checking out the falls from the viewing platform, I continued my hike.

Kirifuri river below the Kirifuri falls

The clear waters of Tokoname

The trail had become hard to follow again and signposts were sparse; at times I used Google Maps to check that I was heading in the right direction. At 2h30 I emerged onto a forest road right next to the river. Around a bend, I arrived at the last waterfall of the day, Ryuzu waterfall (竜頭の滝). The river felt wild and beautiful here. I sat down on some rocks for a late lunch listening to the roar of the water below. Ten more minutes of walking brought me to a place called Tokoname (床滑 meaning “slippery floor”), famous for its transparent waters; I could indeed see the rocky brown riverbed clearly. The dirt road left the forest and turned into a paved road, alongside which several varieties of cherry trees, as well as a magnolia tree, were in full bloom. Despite earlier efforts by the sun, the sky remained overcast.

View to the east with the sun in the west

Mt Takahara with Kinugawa Onsen below it on the left

At 4pm, I was finally at the entrance of the hiking trail for today’s mountain. A short climb through a cedar forest brought me to the top ridge, and after some easy walking, I was at the base of the steep summit, covered in rhododendron. At 4h30, I was standing on the summit of Mt Bishamon (毘沙門山 びしゃもんやま bishamonyama named after the guardian god of Buddhism). The cloudy cover had started to break up; I had a great view to the east, enhanced by the afternoon sun in the west. Northeast, I could see Mt Takahara, a two-hundred famous mountain of Japan, with the Kinugawa hot spring resort nestled at its feet; southeast was the craggy top of Mt Kogashi.

The interplay of clouds, blue sky and the sun

Last view of the day of Imaichi City

It was nearly 5pm and I had to hurry to get down before dark. After some up and down through the darkening forest, I soon reached the top of Mt Chausu (茶臼山 ちゃうすやま chausuyama). There was no view so I continued without stopping. At 5h30, I reached a viewpoint of Imaichi city. I was impressed by how developed the valley along the Tobu line was. I saw the express train heading for the capital – hopefully I would be on the next one. Looking north, I enjoyed a spectacle of light and cloud above the Oku-Nikko mountains. I reached the end of the trail at the bottom of a steep staircase. Shortly after 6pm, I caught the local train at Daiyamuko station, and after just one stop, transferred to the Kegon Limited Express for the 90 minute trip back to Tokyo.

See the waterfalls of Kirifuri river

Mt Akayuki (620m), Ashikaga City, Tochigi Prefecture [Forest Fire]

Ashikaga is another area, just a dozen kilometers southeast of Kiryu, that is suitable for winter hiking. Here again, I had exhausted all the suggestions from my guidebook, but I was able to find a section of the “Kanto Fureai no Michi” nearby that would make a good hike. Starting several kilometers north of the city, it was the continuation of the hike I had done up Mt Gyodo in February 2018. There were no peaks on this route, and probably few views, but it ended at a shrine and an interesting rock formation. It seemed a little short, but after examining Google Maps, I discovered a hiking trail that led to Mt Akayuki which I had climbed in November 2018. From there, I could descend to Matsuda town and a bus stop. On my previous trip, I had missed out on that last part, so I was excited at the prospect of climbing this summit a second time.

Looking north, the mountains of Tochigi

I rode the comfortable Ryomo limited express to Ashikaga City, arriving there before 9am. The weather was sunny and I had good views of Mt Akagi to the north. As I boarded the bus, the driver told me that a certain hiking area was prohibited and pointed to a red sign at the front of the bus. Fortunately for me, it concerned Mt Ryogai (両崖山), the peak before Mt Gyodo, and a few kilometers away from my starting point. The fire, which had started just the day before, continued to burn for 3 weeks, unfortunately for the people of Ashikaga, and hikers and lovers of nature in general. From the bus, I could see smoke rising from the ridgeline; a helicopter flew by, releasing water from above.

In the center, smoke from the Ashikaga forest fire

Another helicopter carrying a load of water flew directly over me shortly after I got off the bus (see video). I walked up the narrow road and reached the start of the hiking trail just before 10am. At first, it followed a dirt road through the bottom of a small valley, before suddenly turning right up the mountain side. A few minutes later, I was walking north along a low wide ridge through the forest. The wind was blowing hard today and the cypress trees were swaying above me; I was worried about the fire, thinking it would be hard to put it out in such conditions. At 10h30 I reached the road at Umauchi Pass (馬打ち峠 meaning “hit the horse”).

Sunny conditions all day long

The signboard at the pass said that in ancient times you had to whip your horse to get it up the steep slope. I needed no such encouragement, but finding a bench at this spot, I sat down for a late breakfast. From now, the path gradually went up, but as I had expected, there were few views; at the same time, I was glad that the trees blocked out the cold wind. Half an hour later, I reached a nameless summit with a picnic table. Looking through the trees, I could see Matsuda town stretching south along the valley. After a short break, I continued down the other side, soon arriving at another road crossing.

A great place to hike in the winter

The path now climbed more steeply, but since the steepest sections had log staircases, it remained easy to hike. Thirty minutes later, I reached an area free of trees, and turning around, I had a good view southwards of the ridge I had walked so far. Beyond, I could still see smoke rising from the forest fire (see video). Facing east, I could look down on the Nagusa river valley. The path descended again and very soon I reached the Nagusa Itsukushima Shrine (名草厳島神社). A few minutes later, I reached the Nagusa Megalith Group (名草巨石群), several mossy boulders in the middle of a forest of towering cedar trees. This was also the end of the Fureai no Michi.

Itsukushima Shrine and one of the boulders of the Nagusa Megalith Group

I continued along a paved road as it zigzagged up the mountain. It took 20 minutes to reach a log staircase and the entrance to the hiking trail. Here the path was narrower, with more ups and downs. At one point, I had some good views to the north, although I couldn’t recognise any of the mountains. At 2pm, I reached the turnoff for the terrible path I had taken 2 years earlier. There was now a sign prohibiting entry because of the many fallen trees blocking the path. A few minutes later, I reached the top of Mt Akayuki (赤雪山 あかゆきやま akayukiyama meaning red snow). I sat down on a bench for a short break, facing the view to the east through a break in the trees.

View of the hills of Southern Tochigi

I admired the low hilly area of southern Tochigi while munching on my last onigiri. I then went down as fast as I could and arrived at a road next to Matsuda lake in just twenty minutes. Walking past the dam, I saw a bright red fire engine and a group of fire fighters spreading a bag used for transporting water. As I was walking down the road towards the bus stop, a helicopter flew by overhead; a few minutes later, it flew back with its load of water (see video). It seemed like the efforts to put out the fire were still continuing. I reached the bus stop at 3pm, and by 4pm, I was sitting comfortably again on the Ryomo limited express headed back to Tokyo.

See the view from the top of Mt Akayuki and video of the Ashikaga forest fire

Mt Jizo (1483m) & Mt Yuhi (1526m), Kanuma City, Tochigi Prefecture, December 2020

These two mountains had been on my to-climb list for a while. I knew how to get there since I had walked past the the trail entrance when climbing Mt Yokone in 2018. I was concerned that I might not be able to complete the hike before the last bus back at 17h15; I would have to hike quickly with few breaks. On the other hand, I was confident that the weather would be good, and I was looking forward to getting some good views of the Nikko mountains. I was also excited to hike in an area surrounded by mountains and far from populated areas.

On the right, the highest point of today’s hike

I reached Furumine Shrine under the sunshine at 10am. It was a route I had traveled before, riding the Nikko train from Ikebukuro and then a bus from Shin-Kanuma station. After getting ready, I walked along the road to the start of the trail. I remembered how I raced down the same road two years before to catch the last bus back. Half an hour later, I was walking up a valley along a forest road. It was peaceful and quiet, and even a little warm in the mid-morning sun. After 30 more minutes, I reached the start of the hiking trail. It continued past the end of the road, heading up the side of the mountain. I crossed a small stream and passed right by another one. I wasn’t hiking inside the Nikko National Park, only 5 km away, but it was almost as if.

Enjoying the last of the sunshine

During my climb, clouds had mysteriously appeared overhead, and when I reached the top ridge at noon, Mt Nantai was on the verge of disappearing. There was still some sun on the trail as I turned right and headed up the last steep slope. Twenty minutes later, I was standing on top of Mt Jizo (地蔵岳 じぞうだけ jizodake). It was mostly in the trees, so although the clouds seemed there to stay, I wouldn’t have had much of a view anyway. I soon moved on. The next part was highly enjoyable, as the path followed the grassy level ridge northwards. Looking left and right I could see nothing but white. Fortunately there was no wind and it was eerily quiet.

An easy to hike trail

Very soon, I reached the turn-off for my next peak. The trail seemed to head straight down and straight up again. However, it turned out to be an optical illusion; after a short downhill, the trail was mostly level, and there was only a short climb to the summit of Mt Yuhi (夕日岳 ゆうひだけ yuhidake). Here, there was a big break in the trees to the North. I had a fleeting view of Mt Sukai to the west before it was engulfed in the clouds. Just a few months ago, I had been hiking Mt Shazan somewhere in those clouds above lake Chuenjiko. I munched on my lunch staring at a white wall wondering what went wrong with my weather forecast. I concluded that I would have a good reason to return to the area in the future, perhaps in the spring to enjoy greener colours.

Walking through beautiful winter landscape

I was starting to feel the cold. Looking at the time, it was nearly 1h30, and I realised that if I left right away, I might be able to make the earlier 15h45 bus instead of the 17h15 one. I was moving fast since I wasn’t taking many photos. I retraced my steps, past the turn-off, past Mt Jizo and back to where I had reached the ridge. There, I continued straight towards the south. Even though the weather was worse than expected, I decided to continue with my loop hike. There weren’t many views, but the winter forest was beautiful in its own way.

Walking between peaks

This section was a succession of ups and downs. I passed several minor summits: Mt Karariko 1351m (唐梨子山), Mt Oiwa (大岩山), Mt Gyoja 1328m (行者岳). At 3pm, I reached the end of the hiking trail, marked by a shinto gate, and after following a forest road for a short while, I reached the National road 58. I had about forty minutes to reach the bus stop, about 6 kilometers away. Recalling my mad dash from the previous time, I decided to give up on the earlier bus. I arrived at the bus stop just before 4pm and decided to check out the famous Furumine shrine.

Thank you Tengu-ya!

Afterwards, I was allowed to wait inside the Tengu-ya Soba restaurant even though they were already closed. They made me feel welcome, placed a heater to keep me warm, and offered me hot tea and manju for free. The manju was quite tasty and I bought a pack to take home. One of the staff chatted with me in Japanese, asking me questions not only about my home country but also about life in Tokyo. In the covid era, I was extremely touched by their hospitality. I was so comfortable that I almost missed the bus back. I assumed it would be parked in front of the restaurant, but in reality it was parked 100 meters down the road. So I ended up making a dash for the bus again!

One of the guardians of Furumine Shrine

Mt Hiruga (1848m), Nasushiobara City, Tochigi Prefecture, October 2020

This was a fairly remote mountain situated 150 kilometers directly north of Tokyo. Fortunately, the bus times lined up with the train times, so this hike could be done as a long daytrip. This time, I wasn’t concerned about the weather: the forecast announced sun, then clouds, followed by rain after nightfall. My main concern was whether I could complete an 8h30 hike, according to my guidebook, in six hours. If it took me any longer, I would be forced to take a longer and more inconvenient route back to Tokyo. Finally, I was hoping that I would still be able to see some beautiful autumn colours.

Hiking in the Nikko National Park 日光国立公園

View below the summit before the clouds rolled in

After getting off at Kami-Miyorishiobara-Onsenguchi Station (long name but characteristic of the area), I boarded the diminutive “Yu~ bus” for the short ride to the start of the trail. I was the sole passenger; the conductor was friendly and chatted with me about my plans for the day. The start of the hike was along a small road; I saw famers harvesting rice, and also rescued a praying mantis from a precarious position (see video). Around 10am, I was finally on the hiking path. After a short climb, I reached a level forest road which I followed for about 15 minutes. The sun was shining and I had some good views on the right side.

View of Mt Takahara from the entrance of the hiking trail

Just before 11am, I reached the end of the forest road and was back on the hiking trail. It went up and down through mixed forest. At times, the trail was faint and I had to be careful not to lose it. It was very peaceful and there were no other hikers. Half an hour later, I reached the start of a long climb. Another half an hour later and 400 meters higher, I was hiking through a very different kind of forest. On my map it was called “Asunaro no mori” (アスナロの森 – Thujopsis forest, a kind of conifer). The path, following a ridge as it curved northwest to northeast, was mostly flat, allowing me to enjoy the surrounding vegetation. At one point, I had a glimpse of the summit through a break in the trees.

Shinto gate on the trail

Around noon, I passed under a solitary Shinto gate, placed on the trail for no apparent reason. From here, the trail started to edge upwards again, and the conifers made way to beech trees. This section was incredibly beautiful, the trees trunks twisting themselves into interesting shapes; although I was near the top of the mountain, I felt like I was walking through a wood in the countryside. I was, after all, hiking at the very edge of the Nikko National Park. Around 12:30, the path got steeper, and I thought I was reaching the top, but fifteen minutes later, I emerged onto a shoulder with a view of the summit, still some way ahead. This pattern repeated itself a few more times, during which I passed another hiker on his way down. The sky had become overcast. On the bright side, the autumn colours were still on full display.

Hiking among the beech trees

At 1pm, I finally reached the top of Mt Hiruga (日留賀岳 ひるがたけ), a Kanto hundred famous mountain, just as the mist was rolling in. I had a brief glimpse of the view before the world turned white. I had a quick lunch next to the summit shrine, and then started to descend the same way. It had taken me three hours to reach the top, so I had ample time to get down. However, if I got down early enough, I would be able to take a hot bath before the long trip back. The path was easy to walk so I was able to run most of the way. The forest was eerily quiet, save for the occasional barking of deer, and gloomy; it felt like it could start raining at any moment. I reached the trail entrance a couple of hours later, and thirty minutes later I was at Hana no Yu. After a quick, but satisfying bath, I hopped onto the empty bus for the train station. As I entered the station building, it started to rain, so I counted myself doubly luckily that I finished the hike on time and dry!

Watch the Praying Mantis Rescue video (1:08 minutes)

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 Shazan (1826m), Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture

This was my 8th hike in the Oku-Nikko or “deep Nikko” area (not counting several cross-country skiing trips). It’s one of my favourite places because of the easy public transport access, well-maintained trails, beautiful nature and, if the weather cooperates, breathtaking views. When I climbed Mt Hangetsu in 2018, I discovered a bus line that ended just below the summit, and I hoped to use it for another hike someday. Starting from there, I would be able to reach the next peak in a couple of hours, and then make my way back to Chuzenji Onsen via the lake. In theory it looked doable; in practice, due to the tight bus schedule, I had less than 5 hours to complete the hike. Also, rain was forecast in the afternoon, so I hoped I would be able to make it to the summit, and the views, before the clouds rolled in.

Hiking in Oku-Nikko 奥日光

I arrived at Tobu-Nikko station around 9h30, and caught the bus for Yumoto Onsen; as I had hoped, it was more than half empty on a weekday. I got off at Chuzenji Onsen, where I had to wait about thirty minutes for the bus for Hangetsu 半月, a seasonal bus running only a few months of the year. This time, I was the only passenger. It followed a thrilling road up the side of the mountain, with great views of the mountains South of the lake, and ended at a parking area next to a grassy park, on the shoulder of the mountain. Looking back at it during the hike, it reminded of an Inca terrace (see top photo).

Today’s mountain was the triangular peak in the center

Good trail at the start of the hike

I got off the bus and admired the view for a while. The mountains ridges spread in every direction, with no signs of civilisation in the deep valleys.  I finally set off at 11h30. The start of the trail was easy to walk, alternating level and climbing sections. I soon reached the observation platform below Mt Hangetsu, with a view of Chuzenji lake and Mt Nantai to the North. Since I had been there before, I moved on quickly. The trail continued via a series of tight switchbacks down a steep grassy slope with few trees and great views South and West; the sky was full of big puffy cumulus clouds, the biggest one sitting on top of Mt Nantai!

Summer is the time of Cumulus clouds

Despite all the clouds, the weather remained good

At noon, I reached Hangetsu Pass, where on my previous hike I had turned right, down to the lake; this time I continued straight. After a short climb, I reached the minor peak of Mt Chuzenji 中禅寺山 (1650m) in the middle of the trees. Next was a pleasant half an hour descent through a larch tree forest to Asegata Pass 阿世峠.  I had an early lunch before starting the last big climb of the day. So far the weather was holding, and although it felt hot in the sun, it was pleasantly cool in the shade. On the way up, I passed a couple of good viewpoints of Lake Chuzenji, before reaching a steep, but short, climb through some birch trees.

There is a hiking path following the top of the entire ridge

Climbing through the birch trees, called “kaba” in Japanese

The trees thinned, and I soon emerged onto a grassy rocky slope. Here, I had some of the best views of the day, I stopped every few meters to take photos. On my left, the lower ridges dropped away, giving the impression of being at the top of the world; on my right, the highest mountains of the Nikko National Park loomed above me, their peaks lost in the clouds, giving the impression of being at the edge of a hidden kingdom. I felt grateful that I could do such an amazing hike as a day trip from Tokyo.

The landscape tumbling downwards to the South

Getting close to the top

Shortly before 2pm, I reached the top of Mt Shazan (社山 shazan also read as yashiroyama). Although it’s a steep climb, the altitude difference is only 400 meters, so it didn’t required too much of an effort. Big grey clouds were hovering overhead, and a downpour felt imminent. I popped through some trees past the summit to have a quick look at the next part of the trail, and surprised a deer on the other side; it bounced away before I could get a picture. I saw that the trail continued up and down following the ridge around Chuzenji lake, the highest parts hidden by the slowly approaching mist. I quickly had the rest of my lunch, and headed down the way I had come up.

Mt Nantai, nearly clear of clouds, from the shore of Chuzenji Lake

The Chuzenji lake “Shukaisen” path that goes round the lake

As I hurried down, the clouds retreated and the sun returned. It took me less than a hour to reach the lake shore. From there it was another hour of walking along a pleasant forest path to the end of the hike. The path was peaceful and easy to walk. It’s possible to hike around the lake, and I hope to do this in the future. At 4pm, I was back at Chuzenji Onsen, and I just had time for a quick hot spring bath at Nikko Sansui before catching the bus back to Tobu-Nikko station.

I was glad that this hike could be done in less than 5 hours, although it required some fast walking at the end. The weather forecast turned out to be wrong, a good thing for once!