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 Kamakura (216m), Motegi Town, Tochigi Prefecture

This was another hike following the Kanto Fureai no Michi. This time I combined two short segments, so that I could start and end at a train station. The trail went through the countryside and low hills of Eastern Tochigi, near the border with Ibaraki, and about 20 kilometers North of Kasama city. I was hoping that I would be able to walk on forest paths, and that I would be able to enjoy a hike that didn’t take me up a mountain.

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A secret spot in Tochigi Prefecture

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Naka River near Shimono-o Bridge

Although I had planned to hike from train station to station, in the end I took a bus from Utsunomiya (Google Maps insisted it was quicker). I arrived at Motegi station, the last stop on the Moka railway, at 10am. I had never been to this corner of the Kanto area before; even though it was just 100km from the center of Tokyo, it felt like I had traveled to the other side of Japan. It was a beautiful blue sky day, and the temperature was on the warm side. I got ready and started walking around 10h30. I followed the distinctive Fureai no Michi signs to a river, which in turn led me to Shiroyama Park, located on top of a low hill.

 

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View of Motegi town from Shiroyama Park

There was a small watchtower on one side, probably a reconstruction. From the top, I had a good view of Motegi town to the South, cut in two by the Sasaka river. In the distance I could make out the ridgeline of Mt Takamine. On the other side of the park were the foundations of Shiroyama Castle, as well as some weeping cherry blossom trees or “shidarezakura” in full bloom. The trail continued down the other side of the hill and onto a small road. At 11h30, I arrived at Arakashi Shrine. The path from the entrance “torii” and the shrine itself was lined with some impressive giant cedars.

 

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Shidarezakura in full bloom

The next hour was mostly along small back roads. Walking on a road with little traffic is fine. However the longer you do this, the more you feel tired in your legs. There were some wide views, but like with forest roads, fewer surprises. The road took me all the way to the top of Mt Kamakura 鎌倉山, and despite its low elevation, there were good views on both sides of narrow forested valleys. There was a small shelter, so I sat down for lunch.

 

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View North from the the top of Mt Kamakura

Afterwards, I followed a small trail for a few minutes along the top ridge, past a tiny shrine, and arrived at a dramatic viewpoint. It showed a wide bend of the Naka river, famous for being the clearest river in the Kanto area. While I was taking pictures, I noticed a couple of birds of prey, flying in circles and using the air currents to gain altitude once they had drifted too low (see video at the end).

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Mt Kamakura Viewpoint

I couldn’t stay too long since today’s hike was about 25 kilometers. Also, there was a soba restaurant, on the other side of the river, that I wanted to drop by, even though I had just had lunch. I quickly followed a small path down the side of the small mountain. While crossing the bridge, I noticed a group of people kayaking down the river, something I might like to try one day.

 

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Naka River as seen from the bridge

After a delicious meal of cold soba and tempura or “tenmorisoba” at Sobanosato Magino, I continued on my way at about 2h30. The next two hours were again mostly along small roads. They were interrupted by two short sections of lovely forest walking. Occasionally I had some good views of the surrounding hills. There were a couple of observation towers, but the views must have been better decades ago, when the trees weren’t so high.

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One of the nicer sections of the hike

It was getting late, so I decided to skip the last part of the hike to Kaiishi Shrine, and head directly to the train station. I recrossed the Naka river, and followed the road till I reached the Ryumon falls 龍門の滝 just after sunset. After admiring the falls, I made my way to the nearby and appropriately named Taki station (meaning waterfall station) to wait for the local train for Utsunomiya, where I would hop on the shinkansen for Tokyo. In the end there was a little too much road walking for my taste, but I was happy that I was able to summit at least one mountain!

 

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Ryumon falls and Sakura

 

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Sunset on the Naka River

Birds in flight above Tochigi Prefecture

Mt Sekison (486m) & Mt Shinko (506m), Ashikaga City, Tochigi Prefecture, Sunday, January 19, 2020

This was a short hike with easy access from Tokyo, perfect for the winter season. I took a train to Omata station on the Ryomo line, from where I walked about 45 minutes to the start of the trail, since there were no suitable buses in the morning. It was mostly straight ahead, with a view of today’s mountain: a long thin rocky ridge stretching Southwest to Northeast.

View of Mt Akagi from Omata station

The start of the trail was near a small shrine, and I set off quickly since it was already past 11am. There was a notice saying that one of the trails down nearby Mt Senjin was closed due to fallen trees – I had walked that down path in 2018 and it was indeed nearly impassable! The climb up was through nice forest. Soon, it became steep and rocky. Turning around, I got some nice views of the Hachioji Hills and Mt Asama. Northwards, I could see Mt Akagi with snow on the upper reaches.

Steep climbing near the top

These were the only views I would get during the hike. If I had known, I would have sat down on those rocks and had an early lunch there. Further on, I could only get fleeting glances through the bare branches of the trees, even though my guidebook promised good views. The climb ended at a small shrine, and a nice flat area with a bench. It was already occupied by a group, so I continued along a level path.

View of the Hachioji Hills halfway up the mountain

From this point the hike was fairly easy. I reached the top of Mt Sekison 石尊山, a combination of the characters for rock and respect, just after noon. Trees obstructed most of the view. Even though they were bare of leaves, it was impossible to take any good photos. I found a sunlit rock and sat down to have some lunch. It took me another thirty minutes along the summit ridge to reach the top of Mt Shinko 深高山, a combination of the characters for deep and high, another viewless summit.

View of Mt Akagi from the steep and rocky climb

I found another rock in the sun to sit on, and finished my lunch. From here, the trail went down steeply for a while, before becoming level again. Just before 2pm, I reached a crossroads above Inoko tunnel, very close to the end of the hike. There were two options for finishing the hike, to the left and the right, both about the same distance. I was headed right towards Matsuda, to the right, since there was a bus in about one hour. Since it was only 30 minutes away, I decided to check out the connecting trail for Mt Senjin which was straight ahead.

Mostly easy hiking on Mt Sekison

I hadn’t realised I could cross over to Mt Senjin, and I might have attempted it, if it had been earlier in the day. The path climbed steeply and I was hoping for some views. However, they didn’t materialise, and I finally turned back. Hopefully I can hike this trail in the future. I retraced my steps and took the path for Matsuda. At 2h30 I was out of the forest and on a road, and I reached the bus stop with time to spare. By the way, buses in the Ashikaga area costs a flat fee of 200 yen – a very good deal for hikers!

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Mt Asama with its winter coat

NEXT UP: Tengu Rock & Akaboko in Tokyo

Mt Hagaba (775m), Kanuma City, Tochigi Prefecture, Saturday, December 14, 2019

My last visit to this part of Tochigi was in December 2018. I was concerned about snow on the hiking trails in mid-December, so I chose a low mountain close to Kanuma station. The whole area has many mountains with lots of hiking trails, and so far I’ve only scratched the surface.

A hidden valley encircled by mountains

A short bus ride (the same one for Furumine Shrine) took me to the entrance of Choanji Temple 長安寺 a little before 9am. The start of the trail, to the right of the temple, had been washed away by typhoon Hagibis. Fortunately, wands with pink ribbons had been placed through the wreckage of fallen trees, allowing me to make my way to an undamaged forest road above, leading to a good view of the valley below.

It’s a scramble but the path is still climbable

I then left the forest road for a nice hiking trail taking me to the top of the ridge with even better views of the entire area. Westwards, I could see Kobugahara and Mt Yokone, which I had climbed last year. There was a power line that cut across the entire landscape; the pylons were placed at the top of each ridge, and the electrical wires spanned the valley in a spectacular manner.

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Bringing electricity to all villages in the mountains

After taking in the views, I continued along the ridge and soon entered a cedar forest with few views. This part was fairly easy, with some slight ups and downs. Suddenly the path started to climb steeply; rocky sections appeared, with rope on the side to help pull yourself up. The air also got colder – I could feel that the top was close. I reached the summit of Mt Hagaba 羽賀場山 completely in the trees just before 12h30. I found a small opening facing Southeast, and sat down to have lunch, with a view of the hills of Southern Tochigi stretching away into the distance.

Looking back towards Kanuma

Since I had barely completed half of the hike, I couldn’t spend too much time at the top. After setting off again, the path started to descend quite steeply – too much in fact. I realised that I may have lost the trail. I retraced my steps. Suddenly I heard some voices to my right. The ridge on that side didn’t descend quite so much, so I found what seemed like a path and crossed over. Once I was off the steep slope, I was more confident I was on the right path. I then encountered a group of three hikers – the only people I saw on the entire hike, and the sources of the voices I had heard earlier.

As the hike progressed, the ridge got narrower

From this point, the path went up and down more steeply. There were more and more rocky sections – it was starting to turn into an exciting hike. At one high point I had a glimpse of the Nikko mountain range through the trees. After one final steep climb, I reached the top of Mt Otenki お天気 (777m) at 2pm. It was an unusual summit in that there were at least five different summit markers! A few meters beyond the summit, there was a magnificent view of Mt Nikko-Shirane, Mt Nantai and Mt Nyoho. To the left and right were countless other mountains and ridges, mostly snow-free.

The Nikko mountain range

I would have spent an hour gazing at the view, but according to my guidebook, another 90 minutes were needed for the descent, and my return bus was at 4pm. I reluctantly started going down at 2h30. The path was very steep. It split into two and I took the left path following the ridge (both paths take the same time). I reached the bottom of the valley as the sun was starting to get low, creating some nice effects in the forest.

Late afternoon sun filtering through the forest

I arrived back the road and the bus stop after only one hour, one of the rare times I’ve ended a hike way ahead of schedule. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to do in the neighborhood, but I was able to use the time to get ready for the two hour trip back to Tokyo.

Sunset on Mt Hagaba

NEXT UP: Mt Omaru in Kamakura, Kanagawa