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 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 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!

Mt Nakimushi (1103m), Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture, Friday, January 3, 2020

Mt Nyoho in a veil of clouds

For my first hike of 2020, I decided to head to Nikko. Not only is access easy thanks to the JR Nikko line, but since it’s a major sightseeing spot with a famous shrine, most places are open during the Japanese new year. The mountain I chose can be reached on foot from the train station, so I didn’t need to depend on any buses. Sadly, a French woman disappeared while hiking it a few years ago, and I saw several missing posters during the hike.

A glimpse of Mt Nantai through the trees

I arrived in Nikko at 10am, but since it was a short hike, I took my time getting ready, and only set off a little before 11am. It was a nice day and the view of Kirifuri Highland covered in the snow from Nikko city was quite spectacular. The start of the hike climbed relentlessly through thick forest. Less than an hour later, I reached the minor peak of Mt Konosu 神ノ主山 (842), and there was a glimpse of the surrounding mountains through a break in the trees.

A steep climb just before the top (left) and a steep descent just after (right)

It took me another hour of determined climbing to reach the top of Mt Nakimushi 鳴虫山 (meaning crying insect). There should have been a good view of the main peaks of Nikko from the top, but today they were hidden behind the clouds. It was pretty cold at the top – despite the sunny weather, a few snowflakes floated down. After a quick lunch, I started to head down a steep staircase on the other side of the mountain just after 1pm.

Sunny ridge on the way down

It took me about an hour and a half to reach the base of the mountain. I saw few people during the hike, and it was very quiet and peaceful. Although it’s not a difficult hike, the mountain is very steep on both sides of the path. Also, there are many points where one can easily lose the trail. There were warnings in Japanese and English, but they seemed fairly new. Having hiked the path myself, I can understand a little better how someone could go missing there.

Returning to Nikko station along the Daiya river

After reaching the base of the mountain, I walked along a narrow road to the nearby Yashio Hot Spring. I saw a monkey on the way. I am not sure if that brings good luck, but I’d like to think so. After a nice hot bath, I decided to walk back to Nikko station since it was still early. It took less than an hour following the river, and by 5pm I was on the express train back to Tokyo.

First monkey sighting of 2020

Watch a video of a wild monkey in Nikko

NEXT UP: Mt Ozawa in Gunma

Karikomi Lake, Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture, Sunday, July 21, 2019

The very long rainy season had put a premature end to the first half of the 2019 hiking season…but I was determined to get one more hike in before the hot and busy (for me) summer arrived – my next chance would probably not be till September. Since I was a little out of shape, I chose a short and easy one in Nikko, hoping that the overcast skies, and voting for the national elections, would keep the crowds away. I was looking forward to visiting the Oku-Nikko area since I hadn’t been there since my climb of Mt Myoho two years ago.

Lake Karikomi and Mt Taro in the background

I took advantage of the more expensive, but direct Tobu Nikko line train – being able to sit and sleep during the 2 hour trip was definitely worth the express surcharge. In Nikko there was a light drizzle. I didn’t fancy walking in the rain but I couldn’t turn back now. Going up “Irozaka slope”, the bus was enveloped in thick mist. Fortunately, once we emerged at Chuzenji lake, we were above the mist and I could see the lake and mountain sides – the sky overhead was overcast and the peaks were in the cloud though.

Today’s hike was through green mossy forest

I got off at the very last stop, Yumoto-onsen. This small, somewhat run-down, onsen town town seemed totally deserted, 11am on a Sunday morning. Was the town in decline or was my timing bad, I wondered to myself. I made my way to the start of the hiking path behind the town, also the source of it’s hot springs. There is a wooden observation path, and two small pools of bubbling water – not the most exciting tourist attraction but it’s always cool to see hot water coming out of the ground.

See the hot spring water bubbling up and hear the birds chirping near Karikomi lake

The path climbed for a few minutes, then crossed a road, before heading along the side of small forested valley. Despite being at 1500m, the air felt unpleasantly heavy – very different from my previous hike 2 weeks earlier, and one thousand meters lower. It took me less than an hour to reach a pass, where I took a short break. Afterwards, the hiking was mostly level and along a broad easy-to-walk path. I took off my bear bell so that I could enjoy the intense chirping of birds.

A signpost in the forest

After some descending along wooden staircases through a thick moss covered forest, I arrived at Karikomi Lake 刈り込み湖 just before one o’clock. After checking out the view and having a quick lunch, I set off along the path through beautiful forest, passing another small lake, and finally arriving in a wide grassy valley. Since I needed to catch the 3pm bus from the Astoria Hotel I couldn’t linger and I powered up the mountainside opposite and over another pass, with Mt Taro on my left, a 300 famous mountain that I have yet to climb.

A grassy field suddenly appeared

A hidden valley in the middle of the Nikko National Park

From there it was a quick and easy thirty minute descent to the hotel – I had to overtake a very big group of elementary school children on the way. I made the bus but had to forego the onsen, otherwise I would miss the last express train back, and that would mean getting to Tokyo really late. By the way, this place would have snagged fourth place on my list of places to go when it’s hot and humid, except that the traveling time is too long for a daytrip – seven hours for only four hours of hiking.

On the shore of Karikomi Lake

Nikko-Shirane Ropeway & Goshiki-Numa Lake, Katashina Town, Gunma Prefecture

I did this hike with my mother who was visiting Japan for a couple of weeks. Since it was quite far from Tokyo, we spent the night at the Takasaki Dormy Inn Hotel, and the next morning, I drove to the Nikko-Shirane Ropeway. Even though it was a weekday, I was surprised by how few people there were, especially since it was the middle of the summer holidays. The place is mainly a ski resort in the winter so perhaps people aren’t aware that it also runs from June to October. I love ropeways and I keep on discovering new ones – it’s amazing how many there are in Japan!

Sun shining through the forest

At the top of the ropeway, inside Nikko National Park and nearly 2000m high, the visibility wasn’t the best, and the views were a little disappointing. At least it was cooler than down in the valley. The hike started out on a fairly level trail through beautiful forest. After an hour or so, we had to climb steeply for a short while to reach the edge of a pond. Here I was able to look up towards the top of Mt Nikko-Shirane. I had been hoping to get my revenge, since it was in clouds when I climbed it several years ago. However, the top was in the clouds again, and another ascent seemed pointless.

Midaga Pond near the top of Mt Nikko-Shirane

We continued a little further and reached the edge of a crater with at the bottom, the beautiful Goshiki-Numa lake 五色沼 (which means five-colour lake). Since we had enough time, I decided we could descend to the shore of the lake and climb back up again. Unfortunately the descent was steep and rocky, and we regretted it a bit.

The Goshiki-numa lake, inside Tochigi prefecture

After enjoying the peace and quiet of the lake, we made our way back up to the edge of the crater via a different path, and then walked back the way we had come. At the pond, we passed a group of noisy school children who had come up a different path. We headed back down the steep path to the forest below, and at the bottom we took another trail that looped back to the top of the ropeway.

View of Maru-numa lake from the ropeway

Check out the views of Nikko-Shirane

On the drive back to Takasaki we stopped at the very impressive Fukiware Waterfalls 吹割の滝 where we could walk along the river and the falls for a short way.

Where is all the water going?

Check out one of the famous waterfalls in Japan