Hiking in Tohoku: Mt Otakine (1192m), Fukushima Prefecture, November 2020

It seemed that north-eastern Japan didn’t share the sunny autumn weather of the Kanto area, as most of the central, mountainous part was continuously engulfed in cold, cloudy weather. I was forced to look southeast for a place with more suitable hiking conditions, and I finally settled on this remote mountain, the highest peak of the Abukuma Plateau (阿武隈高地). It was also an opportunity to ride a new train line, the Ban-Etsuto line (磐越東線). There was no public transport, but since the trailhead was only a short taxi ride away, I felt it wouldn’t be an issue. The weather forecast was sunny but with strong winds. Since this was a relatively low mountain below the tree line, it didn’t worry me either. I was really looking forward to seeing the summit view in an area I had never been to before.

View of the Abukuma Plateau halfway up

I had great views of the Nikko mountains on the shinkansen, thanks to the clear weather over the Kanto area. At Koriyama station, I transferred to the local JR Ban-Etsuto line and arrived at the tiny station of Kanmata at 10:40. The taxi driver wasn’t familiar with the start of the hiking trail; at first he thought I wanted to go to Abunuma Cave (something for another visit), so I ended up giving him directions using Google Maps. At 11:20, I was finally ready to start hiking up the “ishipokke” (石ポッケ) trail. Although it’s a 300-famous mountain of Japan, at times the path was hard to follow; I had to hunt for the “pink ribbons”, small strips of coloured paper attached to tree branches marking the way. Soon I was walking through green bamboo grass among white bare trees under blue skies – quite similar to my recent hike on Mt Izumi. There were no other hikers on the mountain; apparently it isn’t a popular hiking destination in the colder months. Some trees were twisted into fantastic shapes reminding me of the Spooky Old Tree children’s book.

Hiking up through the bamboo grass

One of the “fantastic” trees along the way

The mountainside soon became dotted with boulders, probably the reason behind the name of the trail (“ishi” means stone in Japanese). They had interesting names like “yareyare ishi” (meaning “oh dear! rock”). Around the same time, the wind suddenly picked up and clouds filled the sky. At 12h30, I reached a series of huge rocks taller than the trees. I climbed on top of the biggest one, and nearly got knocked down by the powerful gusts (see video). I was surprised that the wind could be so strong at this low altitude. Staying on all fours, I quickly snapped some photos of the view. Eastwards was the Pacific ocean; stretching southwards, I could see the low mountains of the Abunuma plateau; westwards, Mt Nasu was sitting under big, dark clouds; finally, looking northwards, I could see the highest point of today’s mountain. It was also the location of a Japan Self-defense base, in the shape of a white sphere, like a planetarium. Directly below in the opposite direction, wind turbines were working hard on this windy day. I was glad to see alternative forms of energy taking root in the area.

View from the “pokke” rocks

The Abunuma Plateau

I managed to eat my sandwich before it got blown away, and left as soon as I was done, since the sun was now in the clouds and it was freezing cold. A little after 1pm, I reached the turn-off for “perapera-ishi“(ペラペラ石) which according to my guidebook was worth a look. It took me 15 minutes of mostly level walking to reach a collection of big rocks looking out on the Pacific coast. Dark grey clouds hovered above, and the view wasn’t as great as I had hoped. In the distance, I thought I could see a chimney of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant just 30 kilometers away, where disaster had struck about 10 years ago. Back then, some people in Tokyo were afraid of Fukushima, but now some people living in places such as Fukushima are afraid of people from Tokyo. I retraced my steps to the main trail, and continued to the nearby summit area.

Skirting the south side of the base

The wind turbines were working hard today

The path didn’t lead directly to the highest point, but first skirted the southern side of the base; on the left was a wide view of the valley. I soon reached another intersection, where I took a level path on the right through the forest. At 2h15, I finally reached a shrine that doubled as the summit marker of Mt Otakine (大滝根山 おおたきねやま otakineyama). Right next to it was the base, surrounded by a fence and blocking the view on the north side (the south side was blocked by trees); although the base looked impressive from a distance, I felt envious that only self-defense soldiers could get a view after climbing the mountain (if they didn’t helicopter up). I made my way back to the intersection where the view was better and sat down in the grass to have the rest of my lunch. This time I was able to enjoy it more, as the sun had come back and the wind was busy blowing somewhere else. Seen from above, the impressive “pokke” rock formation reminded me of Mt Komochi.

Following the power line down the mountain

Golden pampas grass in the afternoon sun

I checked my watch and saw that it was past 2h30. I had to get back to the station in less than two hours, including walking back to the station. The return path followed a clearing made for a power line and electric poles, heading straight down the mountain. It was steep and tough on the knees but the bird’s-eye view was worth it. Lower down, as the slope became less steep, I enjoyed walking among the “suzuki” (Japanese pampas grass), golden in the afternoon sun. It took me about 30 minutes to reach the road at the base of the mountain. From there it was another hour walk to the station. Looking back occasionally, I could see the round white self-defense base shining in the late afternoon sun, the grey “pokke” rocks poking through the winter forest, and the silver wind turbines spinning in the never-tiring wind.

See the strong winds that nearly blew me off my feet on Mt Otakine

Mt Mae-Hachibuse (1836m) & Mt Hachibuse (1928m), Okaya City, Nagano Prefecture, November 2020

This mountain came to my attention quite recently, while watching the anime Yuru-Kyan (Laid-back Camp). One of the characters goes solo camping at Takapotchi Highland (高ボッチ高原), a place in Nagano prefecture I had never heard of before. So I looked it up on my map, and although it didn’t seem to have much hiking potential, the mountain north of it seemed worth a visit; even more since there was an onsen near the start of the trail. The main issue was access, since there was no public transport. In the end, I decided to rent a car, since it was less than an hour drive from Matsumoto. I would need to walk up and down the same way, but I didn’t mind, since the highlight of the hike was the panoramic view of the North Alps from the summit. This meant that I had to make sure to go on a day with clear weather. That day also turned out to have a strong wind forecast, so I mentally prepared myself for being buffeted by winter gusts on the treeless summit.

View towards the North Alps and Utsukushigahara

There was almost no traffic on the way there, which was a relief, since the last part was along a narrow mountain road. I arrived at 11am, and after getting ready, set off at 11h30. Fifteen minutes later, I reached a river and a bridge. I crossed the bridge and followed the river for a short while before climbing up the mountainside through forest. There is a distinct feeling about hiking in Nagano, that is different from the Kanto area. The forest feels wild and untouched; there is moss everywhere growing on rocks and fallen trees, probably because of the colder, wetter weather. The sun was shining, and although the autumn leaves season was already over, the surrounding forest was still beautiful. At this late hour, I was the only person on the trail.

Start of the hike through a mossy forest

Late morning sunny hiking

The trail met up with the river again about twenty minutes later and followed it for the next hour. It might have taken me less time, except that the river was so beautiful in the sunlight that I spent a lot of time taking photos and shooting movies. It was probably one of the most beautiful river walks I had ever done, almost rivaling Tokuwa river valley from a few weeks before. I could only imagine how beautiful it was in the spring or autumn. Around 1pm, the path and river finally parted ways. I walked as fast as I could to make up for lost time, as the path now zigzagged up the side of the mountain.

Lots of great river views on the way up

The perfect hike for river lovers

I had my first views of Utsukushigara Highland (美ヶ原高原) About half an hour later, rising above the trees. I also got blasted with an icy cold wind forcing me to stop and add a layer of clothing. A few meters further, I got the view I had come for: the entire range of the North Alps, also known as the spine of Japan, stretching south to north, from Mt Hotaka, all the way to Mt Shirouma. It sometimes seems exaggerated to compare the Japan Alps with the Swiss Alps; today, however, the appellation was justified, as the entire range was crowned in snow. I had seen this view before, but from further away, and this might be the best view one can get of the North Alps.

The northern half of the North Alps

Utsukushigahara, one of the hundred famous mountains of Japan

Just before 2pm, I reached a crossroads. I turned right and a few minutes later I was standing on top of Mt Mae-Hachibuse (前鉢伏山 まえはちぶせやま maehachibuseyama). The wind wasn’t too strong here, so I decided to have lunch. I then retraced my steps to the intersection, and walked up a wide gravel path with sweeping views of the whole area. Shortly afterwards, I reached the summit of Mt Hachibuse (鉢伏山 はちぶせやま hachibuseyama), a 300-famous mountain of Japan. On the other side, there was a tiny shrine and a shinto gate, which looked quite spectacular with the North Alps in the background. There was also a small observation tower, which seemed quite pointless seeing that there were no trees around to obscure the view. Nonetheless, I climbed the ladder to the top.

Shinto shrine near the top of Mt Hachibuse

Observation tower near the top of Mt Hachibuse

Just as I stood on the top, the wind suddenly picked up. I had a great view of Yatsugatake, Mt Fuji, Suwa lake, the Central Alps, the South Alps, as well as the North Alps. As I was filming the view, my smartphone nearly got blown out of my hands. It was getting cold and it was already past 3pm. I decided to quickly head back. Although I had no bus to catch, I preferred to avoid driving in the dark along narrow mountain roads. I was back at my car 90 minutes later, and after a nice soak at Hinoki no Yu, I was driving back to Matsumoto city, where I caught the Chuo limited express for the 2h40 train ride back to Tokyo.

Mt Fuji, the South Alps and Suwa lake

Check out the river running down the slopes of Mt Hachibuse

See the view of the North Alps from the top of Mt Hachibuse

Hiking in Tohoku: Mt Izumigadake (1175m), Miyagi Prefecture, November 2020

For my next trip using the JR East Welcome Rail Pass 2020 I decided to head back to Tohoku, but not so far north this time, since I wanted to have a snow-free hike. It seemed that it had snowed on this mountain earlier in the month, but it had mostly melted by now. I packed my light crampons just in case. The weather forecast was sunny, but very windy, not suitable conditions for hiking according to the mountain weather website I use. I decided to risk it anyway. Another concern was getting there. After a 90-minute shinkansen ride to Sendai city, 300km from Tokyo, I would have to navigate the Sendai subway to get to the bus stop – I hadn’t even known that Sendai city had a subway! Hopefully, it would be less complicated that the Tokyo one. Finally, since it was apparently a popular hiking destination, a kind of Mt Takao for Miyagi prefecture (it even has a chairlift), there were many courses up the mountain, so I had to figure out the best route to take. In the end, I choose the Suijin course up (水神コース) and a combination of the Kakko and Kamoshika courses down, since they seemed to have the best views.

The summit of Mt Izumi from Okanuma

Navigating the Sendai subway turned out to be fairly easy. A kind Sendaian(?) pointed me to the correct platform for the bus. I was first in line but the bus turned out to be surprisingly empty. I arrived at the the huge parking lot at the base of the mountain around 11h30. There were quite a few other hikers on the trail, enjoying the fine weather, and trying to catch the last of the autumn colours. Fortunately, the Suijin course was wide and rocky. I walked quickly as the path climbed gradually through a forest of leafless trees. There were no views; however, the contrast of pale tree trunks against the blue sky was stunning.

Going up the Suijin course

Contrast of bare trees and blue sky

At 1pm, I reached an open space and the first views, as well as strong gusts of wind! After putting on an extra layer, I was able to enjoy the view; to the east was the flat coastal plain with Sendai city in the center; to the West I could see Mt Funagata with patches of snow on the top; stretching southwards was the mountainous area on the border of Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures. Visibility was excellent today. I was able to make out the Ide and Asahi mountain ranges, as well as Mt Zao. It took me just a few more minutes to reach the highest point of Mt Izumi (泉ヶ岳 いずみがだけ izumigadake), a 300-famous mountain of Japan.

On the right, Mt Funagata

The view towards Mt Zao

The flat wide summit was completely in the trees. There was no wind but also no views. I walked five minutes westwards towards the next peak, Mt Kita-Izumi, and found a spot with a view and without too much wind, perfect for lunch. At 2pm, I was ready to descend. I seemed to be the last person left on the mountain. The wind had completely disappeared, and the conditions were perfect for hiking. At first, I had great views east towards Sendai city. Then the path curved westwards around the mountain-side and entered the forest. Half an hour later, I reached an open space. Turning around, I had a good view of the rounded summit I had just come down from. I continued along the now level path, and soon reached a junction. Here, I turned left and headed towards the Kamoshika course.

In the distance, Sendai city

Lots of mountains to climb

At 3pm, I reached Okanuma (岡沼), a wide open space with Japanese pampa grass, called suzuki in Japanese. Looking back, I had some more good views of the summit in the late autumn sun. After a short climb and descent, I reached another open space called Usagidaira (兎平 meaning rabbit plain) with pampas grass and isolated groups of birch trees. There was no-one around; I was definitely the last person left on the mountain. I reached the final descent which was very steep and followed a ski run (this mountain is also a ski resort in the winter). The view of the mountains west and south in the late afternoon sun was fantastic. I descended as quickly as my knees would allow, and reached the bottom of the mountain at 4pm, only 5 minutes before the departure of the return bus. At 5pm, I was back on the Sendai subway, and at 6pm I was on the shinkansen back to Tokyo.

Miyagi mountains in the late afternoon sun 

See the wind blowing through “Suzuki”

Mt Madarao (1382m), Shinano Town, Nagano Prefecture, November 2020

I first spotted this mountain while hiking Mt Kurohime the previous year. I knew about it as a ski resort, so I thought I would do some skiing there in the winter. However, there was little snow last season, and I ended up not going. So I decided to use the JR East Welcome Rail Pass 2020 to go to Nagano, and climb it before it the snow arrived. The best approach seemed to be to walk from the train station to the start of the trail, and finish at Tangram hot spring on the other side. From there, I could catch a bus back .It wasn’t a long hike so I would have plenty of time for a hot bath. The weather forecast was good: sunny in the morning, cloudy in the afternoon. It was supposed to snow the next day – good news, since I still hoped to ski there this winter.

Nojiri lake with Mt Izuna on the left, and Mt Kurohime on the right

I was the only passenger who got off at the tiny Furuma station at 10am. The weather was clear, with just some wisps of white clouds on a blue background, a sure sign that rain or snow was on the way. I could clearly see the mountains of the Myoko-Togakushi-Renzan National Park to the west. I would be hiking just outside that park today, as its outer limit only stretched as far as the nearby Nojiri lake. The one-hour walk to the start of the trail was pleasant, following small roads through harvested fields, with good views of today’s mountain, the base of which was still a fiery red orange colour.

Cirrus clouds with Mt Madarao behind on the right

Autumn colours at the base of the mountains

Fifteen minutes later, I was in the midst of the autumn larch trees. Looking up at the orange tree crowns against the blue sky, I had the feeling of being inside the world of the Lorax from the Dr Seuss book. A little later, I even came across a hairy caterpillar that could have featured in one of his books (see video). Around noon, the path started to climb gently, and half an hour later I reached the top of the ridge. The surrounding trees were now bare of leaves, but the branches were still thick enough to hide the view.

Larch trees in the autumn

Straight out of a Dr Seuss book

At 1pm, I reached a superb viewpoint of lake Nojiri with the peaks of Togakushi Highland rising up directly behind. This was the top of the minor peak of Mt Daimyojin (1360m 大明神岳). I sat down for lunch with a view, and then continued a few more minutes to the highest point of Mt Madarao (斑尾山 まだらおやま Madarao-yama), a 300-famous mountain of Japan. The summit was mostly in the trees, except the north-east side, through which I could see the Nozawa-Onsen ski resort, across the valley less than 20 kilometers away. Behind, I could see the snowy summit of Mt Hakkai.

Easy hiking most of the way up

On the summit ridge, it’s already winter

I was surprised to see snow on the next part of the trail, as it turned north along the summit ridge. Apparently, there had been a snowstorm in the past few days. I hadn’t taken my crampons but I soon realised that the snow was soft and wet. I proceeded cautiously as the trail went down a steep slope. I soon reached a sunny flat section, and I was able to relax again. On the right, I got good views of Shiga Kogen, and Mt Kosha, a mountain I hope to climb one day. At 2 pm, I reached the turn-off for Madarao village. This wasn’t the way I had chosen to go down, but I decided to have a quick look.

Mt Kosha with Shiga Kogen behind

Highest point of the Madarao ski resport

I arrived at another great viewpoint, a few meters further, next to the top of a chairlift. I was glad I had chosen to check it out. I sat at the edge of the landing platform – I didn’t quite dare sit on one of the chairs – and had the rest of my lunch. To the north, a low mountain range straddled the border of Nagano and Niigata prefectures. The Shin-Etsu trail follows the top ridge and I hope to hike that section one day (part of today’s hike was also along it). Looking east, I could make out the majestic top of Mt Myoko above the trees.

The Shin-Etsu trail passes just under the clouds

Looking north towards Niigata prefecture

Back on the main trail, I soon reached a 360 degree viewpoint after some more downhill, combining all previous views. After snapping the necessary photos, I set off again, and ten minutes later, I arrived at another chairlift with more good views of Mt Myoko. It was now against the sun with a thin line of clouds in front, creating a dramatic appearance, like the entrance to a mysterious mountain kingdom. At this point, I had two options for reaching the hot spring, my final destination. Even though, I wasn’t behind schedule, I chose the most direct route, since I couldn’t afford to miss the bus back.

Mt Myoko is one of the 100-famous mountains of Japan

Mt Myoko also has a ski resort famous for getting lots of snow

The direct way followed a steep ski slope, probably a black run. There was also some snow here, but the hiking path zigzagged instead of going straight, so I was able to descend safely. The next part followed what seemed to be a blue run, wide and almost flat. At 15:15, I reached a road on the border with Niigata. The trail continued on the other side, but here I turned and followed the road to nearby the Tangram onsen. By now, the clouds had rolled in, and I could no longer see the top of the mountain I had just come down; it felt like it could start snowing at any moment. After a nice hot bath, I boarded the last mini-bus for Kurohime station. There, I took the Kita-Shinano line to Nagano station and then switched to the Shinkansen for the 90-minute trip back to Tokyo.

Zigzagging down the ski slope

Tangram Onsen with the top of Mt Myoko in the background

See the view from the top and the base of Mt Madarao

Hiking in Tohoku: Mt Akita-Komagadake (1637m), Akita Prefecture, October 2020

For my second hike using the JR East Welcome Rail Pass 2020, I decided to venture further North. My first trip took me to the border of Akita prefecture; this time I would be completely inside. As before, I had to leave with the very first shinkansen to get to Tazawako station, 450 kilometers from Tokyo, in time for the bus to the 8th station. The weather was supposed to be sunny and warm for late October. As before, I got a detailed route description from Wes Lang’s hiking in Japan website. I only had one concern: according to online reports, there was a thin layer of snow on the summit. Just in case, I decided to bring some light crampons; I wouldn’t want to have to turn back on my first real hike in Akita!

Hiking in the Towada-Hachimantai National Park 十和田八幡平国立公園

While getting ready near the start of the trail at Hachigome (八合目 1300m), I was able to admire the snow-covered peaks of this still active volcano. The snow didn’t extend down to the parking lot 300 meters below, and didn’t seem very thick. Autumn blues skies extending in every direction made me feel optimistic about today’s hike. As long as the snow wasn’t too deep, I wouldn’t have too worry.

Looking down at Nyuto Onsen

I set off at 9h30 up a gently sloping path circling the base of the first peak. The mountains of Akita, coloured red brown at the end of the autumn season, spread out to the west. As I progressed, the view gradually extended southwards. Soon, I was able to see Tazawa lake, and even Mt Chokai in the far distance. It felt great to be hiking on such a beautiful day inside the Towada-Hachimantai National Park.

Lake Tazawa, Japan’s deepest lake

It took me 45 minutes to reach the first snow on the saddle between the two highest peaks. I made my way along a wooden walkway, next to a frozen lake, till I reached the Hachigome hut (八合目小屋). There, I turned left for the final climb, up a wooden staircase. Less than 30 minutes after reaching the saddle, I was at the top of Mt Oname (男女岳 the name combines the characters for man and women), the highest point of Mt Akita-Komagadake (秋田駒ヶ岳), the highest peak of Akita prefecture and a 200-famous mountain of Japan.

The wooden walkway near the top of Mt Akita-Koma

After taking in the fantastic 360 degree views from the summit, including Mt Iwate to the North, I went back down the same way I had come up. At the hut, I took the path on the opposite side of the lake, and after a few minutes, I reached the turn-off on the left for my next peak. A few minutes of tough climbing along a snowy slope brought me to the ridge, where I turned right. It was nearly 11h30 and, despite the snow, it was starting to get quite warm.

The semi-frozen volcanic crater lake with Mt Iwate in the background

Fortunately the snow was soft in the late morning sun, and no crampons were needed for the narrow rocky path along the top ridge. I reached the small snow-covered shrine at the top of Mt Odake (女岳 using only the character for woman here) around 11h30 with a great view of Tazawa lake. There was almost no wind, and it felt quite pleasant in the autumn sun, so I took short break for lunch.

The path between Mt Odake and Mt Yoko

Since I had completed the first part of the hike on schedule, I decided to take the longer route, following the crater ridge counter-clockwise. This section was narrower and rockier, and few hikers had chosen to take this route. Fortunately, the thin layer of snow wasn’t an issue, and the views looking back to Mt Oname were spectacular. So far, this was a very enjoyable hike, even with the thin layer of snow.

Mt Oname, the highest-point of Mt Akita-koma

After passing several small peaks, I finally reached Mt Yoko (横岳) at 12h30, where I had a good view of the central plain of Iwate prefecture to the east. It was starting to get quite warm, and I felt that I had been wrong to worry about the snow. I had the rest of my lunch and set off in good spirits.

Mini-crater on the southern side of the volcano

It only took me a few minutes to reach the next peak, the flat rounded top of Yakemori (焼森), from where I had a breath-taking view of Mt Akita-Komagadake. I’m surprised it isn’t part of the hundred famous mountains of Japan. I spent some time enjoying the panoramic views. There was path going directly back to Hachigome, but I decided to continue straight, and take the longer route back since it was still early.

Looking North towards the Towada-Hachimantai National Park

Suddenly I was walking in deep snow (see video). It had snowed a lot more on this side, probably because it was facing Northwards. It was soft, so I could run down through it. However, I soon had another problem. This part of the trail was overgrown with bamboo grass! I had to fray a passage through it and at times the bamboo was higher than my head. I started to wonder whether I had made a mistake taking the longer way.

Mt Akita-Koma in the afternoon

Eventually the path leveled and then started to climb again. The snow had disappeared but the path was muddy and slippery. At 1h30 I reached the top of Mt Sasamori (笹森山 meaning bamboo forest, a well-deserved name!). I was pretty exhausted after fighting through the bamboo, and then having to keep my balance on the treacherous trail. After a short break, I continued on my loop hike, now heading downhill and westwards.

Mt Akita-Koma in the autumn

After a short up and down, I was standing on top of Mt Yumori 1(湯森山) at 2pm, the last of today’s peaks. After gazing at the mountains of Akita one last time, I set off on the final descent towards the parking lot at Hachigome. It followed a staircase in bad need of maintenance. At 2h30 I was finally back at my starting point. On the way back, I stopped by at the Arupa Komakusa hot spring which had perhaps one of the best views I’ve ever had from an outdoor bath.

After-hike soak with a spectacular view

Hiking on the highest peak of Akita Prefecture

Hiking in Tohoku: Mt Kurikoma (1626m), Miyagi Prefecture, October 2020

On October 16th, JR East introduced the JR East Welcome Rail Pass 2020. For just 12000 yen, I could travel for 3 consecutive days in Kanto, Nagano, Niigata and the whole of Tohoku, including the use of the shinkansen. My first thought was: “How many mountains can I climb thanks to this?” The second was: “Can I do them as day trips from Tokyo?” Up to now I had been mostly limited to the Kanto area, but now, thanks to the shinkansen, my strike zone had been considerably expanded. For this first mountain, I had to leave Tokyo before 6am to catch the 9am bus from Ichinoseki station on the Tohoku shinkansen line, nearly 400 kilometers North of Tokyo. I had 6 hours to complete the hike, which seemed more than enough. I would even have time for a hot bath at Sukawa Onsen (須川温泉) near the start of the hiking trail. I didn’t have a hiking guide book for Miyagi prefecture, so I relied on Wes Lang’s description of the route. The weather forecast seemed good: some clouds, some sun, and most importantly, no rain. I was ready for my first hike in Miyagi prefecture.

Crossing Nagorigahara Marsh

Sukawa Onsen’s big rotemburo

There was some construction going on in front of the bus stop at Ichinoseki station, and I wasn’t sure where to stand in line for the bus. In the end, there was just one other passenger, also a hiker, so there was ample seating space for the ninety-minute trip. The ride from the valley up to Sukawa Onsen at 1100 meters was spectacular: even though the clouds were in, the autumn colours were still at their peak. After getting off the bus at 10:30, I had a quick look around in the visitor center, which would certainly be closed by the time I finished my hike. They had an interesting collection of stuffed wildlife, including several bears. Directly opposite was an outdoor bath, one option for the after-hike soak. Just beyond, a hot water stream rushed down the mountain side, creating puffs of steam (see video), reminding me that today’s mountain was also an active volcano.

Autumn colours were still at their peak

One of the several streams on the mountain

I reached the start of the hiking path at the top of some stone steps, and very soon I had some good views of the mountainous area to the North. This time, I was inside the Kurikoma Quasi-National Park (栗駒国定公園) and it seemed very wild and devoid of human activity. Around 11h30, I arrived at Nagorigahara marsh (名残ヶ原), crossed via a wooden walkway like in the Oze marshlands. The weather continued to be mostly overcast, with occasional sunny spells, and I was worried that the summit would be in the clouds. I passed the junction for the most direct route up to the summit, currently closed due to high levels of volcanic gas. I was now back on a muddy hiking trail. After crossing several streams, the trail started to climb. Soon I was above the trees, and there were good views north and east.

Path leading down to Kurikoma highland in Miyagi

View North towards Iwate

Around 12h30, I reached the final climb to the summit. There were patches of snow here and there, but none on the trail itself, which was a relief, since I hadn’t brought crampons. At 1pm, I was standing on the top of Mt Kurikoma (栗駒山 くりこまやま kurikomayama), one of the 200-famous mountains of Japan. I was surprised to see several other hikers; apparently the trail on the other side from Kurikoma Highland (car access only) is more popular. Miyagi prefecture stretched away beneath me to the east; south and north were many mountains I couldn’t identity since I wasn’t familiar with the area. No sooner had I finished lunch that the mist arrived. There were no more views and it was suddenly very cold. It was nearly 2pm and heading down at once seemed like a good idea.

Different path on the return through the marshland

The changing room at Kurikoma Sanso

I descended the same way as before but turned left in the marshland so that I could return via a different route. It took me through an area with white sand that reminded me of my hike on Kozushima island. I was back at Sukawa onsen at 3h30 and had an hour before the return bus. I decided to take a bath at Kurikoma Sanso a few minutes down the road inside Akita prefecture, since it had an outdoor bath with a view of the valley. It was a good decision since the bath was nearly empty at this time and it was very relaxing. Afterwards, I caught the 4h30 bus back to Ichinoseki station, with the same hiker as on the way there. At the shinkansen station, I hopped on the Tohoku shinkansen for the 2h30 high-speed ride back to Tokyo.

Mt Morai (1717m), Sakuho Town, Nagano Prefecture, Monday, October 5th, 2020

Having climbed Mt Ogura in 2018, I had wanted to do another hike in the same area, between Yatsugatake and Western Gunma. After checking my Nagano guidebook, I found the perfect candidate just ten kilometers to the north. I attempted it last year, but had to abort at the last minute because of poor weather (I visited Picchio in Karuizawa instead). Since access was with the Komi line via Saku-Daira, I needed to use the Tokyo Wide Pass. The weather on my chosen day was dubious, so I decided to delay my departure by a couple of hours to take advantage of sunnier weather forecast to arrive in the afternoon. Since it was a short hike, and I had planned to use a taxi to get to the start of the trail, a late start wouldn’t be an issue. So once again, my number one concern was the weather – would I get clear skies on my second attempt on this faraway mountain?

Panoramic view from the summit

I arrived at Haguroshita station at the rather late hour of 11am. The sky was still overcast but I was feeling optimistic. The taxi driver told me that the current Emperor, an avid hiker, had once climbed this mountain. The last kilometer of the road, including the parking area, was closed due to road repair, and so I expected to see no one else on the mountain today. The first part of the hike followed a forest road parallel to a river. The surrounding forest was wild and undisturbed, and it felt wonderful to be hiking in Nagano prefecture. I was occasionally startled by sudden noises coming from the forest – falling chestnuts, not a bear stepping on a branch. A little after noon, I reached the official start of the hiking trail. Looking up, I could see wide patches of blue sky.

Forest road at the start of the hike

One of the 100 giant trees of Japan

The trail climbed slowly through the dark and peaceful forest. It took me about half an hour to reach a giant Japanese Horse Chestnut tree (トチノキ tochinoki). It’s one of the hundred giant trees in Japan (I had last encountered one in Ibaraki earlier this year). After checking out this impressive giant tree, I continued on my way. For the first time while hiking, I spotted several daddy long-legs spiders (see video at the end). There were many fern plants on the ground, a nice change from bamboo grass. The path was getting steeper and steeper, and soon it became a series of switchbacks. I was quickly gaining altitude, and thirty minutes later I popped onto a ridge. I was greeted with a blast of cold wind, and I had to take a short break to add a layer of clothing.

Steep climbing among the ferns and birch trees

Hard to believe that the top is only minutes away

After only a few minutes of fast walking along the wooded ridge, I reached the rocky top of Mt Morai (茂来山 もらいさん moraisan) a little before 2pm. Above my head was a nice surprise – beautiful blue sky, as I had hoped. I dropped my pack and enjoyed the views. Spreading beneath me eastwards, were the low mountains of Nishi-Joshu (western Gunma). Straight ahead was the flat top of Mt Arafune, and to the right, was the serrated top of Mt Myogi. Southwards, I could see Mt Ogura, and behind it, the pointy top of Mt Kinpu. South-West, I could just make out the outline of the South Alps. Northwards was the populated valley of Saku. However, the summits of both Yatsugatake and Asamayama were still in the clouds. After spending a full hour on the summit, I started to head down.

Blue skies!

Dark clouds lingered above Mt Yatsu

I retraced my steps to where I had joined the ridgeline earlier, and continued straight. The path soon dived down the other side of the mountain. At times, it was faint and hard to follow, and I had to slow to check the way carefully. After a steep descent, the path leveled, and became easier to walk as it followed a small river. It took me just thirty minutes to descend all the way to the parking lot on the other side of the mountain. However, it was another hour and a half walk, first along a forest road, then a paved road, back to the station. The first part was along a river through beautiful forest; the second part went next to yellow rice fields ready for harvest (and a few already harvested), with good views of Mt Morai. I got to the small unmanned Kaize station at 5pm, fifteen minutes before the train arrived to take me back to Tokyo.

Caution: video features spiders!

Mt Morai with a banana hairstyle

Mt Kinjo (1369m), Minamiuonuma City, Niigata Prefecture

Hiking this Echigo Hundred Famous mountain turned out to be a very unusual experience. Since I had used the Tokyo Wide Pass to hike on Yatsugatake, I wanted to use it once more within the 3-day limit. An approaching typhoon meant rain for the entire Kanto region, but fortunately the Echigo mountains worked to hold back the clouds, and gave the Yuzawa area one extra day of sunny weather. I hadn’t really thought about climbing this mountain before, but it seemed like a good hike for the early autumn. Since there were four trails to the top, I first needed to decide my route. A little research showed that one trail had recently been closed due to typhoon damage, and two others required caution. Since it was my first visit, I decided to go up and down the remaining trail. Although it was physically demanding with a 1000 meter ascent, it seemed fairly straightforward. I had planned everything in detail, but there was one element I couldn’t have foreseen, and which nearly forced me to abandon my hike!

Hiking in the Echigo Mountains 越後山脈

View of Mt Makihata from the summit

I left rainy Tokyo by shinkansen and arrived in sunny Niigata less than an hour later. I transferred to the local Hokuhoku line – “hokuhoku” is an expression meaning chuckling to oneself- and got off at Shiozawa station about ten minutes away (this section isn’t covered by the Tokyo Wide Pass). From there it was a short taxi ride to the start of the trail near Kikoji Temple. The driver was very chatty and had many questions about air travel. At 9am, I was ready to hike. It took me only ten minutes to reach the first viewpoint next to a shelter. There were a couple of bells that one can ring to scare away bears; I gave one of them a good “gong”. The Niigata countryside, a patchwork of fields, was spread out beneath my feet. Turning around, I could see the top of today’s mountain and the long ridge leading to it. My starting point was only 300 meters high, and it felt quite warm under the early autumn sunshine.

The Niigata countryside

The hiking trail follows the left ridgeline

No sooner had I set off again, that I walked into a spiderweb. After clearing my face of the sticky thin threads, I turned around to see that my head had just missed its occupant, a “jorogumo” or golden orb-weaving spider. It reminded me of my hike on Mt Ashitaka last year. A few minutes later, I spotted another web across the path with a big golden spider at face level. I used a branch to gently break the web just below the spider and slipped under. A few meters further, there was another web. I repeated the procedure, but I couldn’t do it so well this time, and ended up breaking most of it, the owner making a quick escape onto a nearby branch. I was impressed with the sturdiness of their weavings – true feats of engineering! I kept the branch in hand, constantly waving it in front of me, in case I failed to spot a web, which happened occasionally in the shady sections.

The entire trail was well-maintained

The tunnel through the shrubs

From that point on, there were webs every few meters. The easy-to-walk path formed a tunnel through the shrubs which the spiders exploited to spin their traps; I had never seen so many of them before. If they weren’t strung across the path, they were hanging from the branches on each side and in the trees above. Keeping an eye out for the webs, as well as partly breaking and slipping under them, was time-consuming and energy sapping. As I would need to return the same way, anything I dodged on the way up, would be waiting for me on the way down. I had fallen behind schedule and needed to pick up the pace if I wanted to catch the last bus back. I switched to a two-stick double-chopping movement; this technique was tiring on the arms, but at least I was moving at a good pace again. It was like hacking one’s way through the jungle with a machete. I felt sorry for the spiders and their hard work, but eventually other hikers would be passing through, and the webs would be cleared anyway. I found it hardest when the path suddenly climbed steeply; I had to raise my head and arms at a sharp angle in order to keep clearing the path. A couple of times I heard a rustling noise near my feet, and saw a snake slither away; not only did I have to watch out for spiders but for snakes as well!

A spectacular view of Niigata

The route up this ridge is no longer in use

It took me 2 hours to reach the stone marker for the 5th station (“gogoume” 五合目) around 700m high and halfway up. I took a short break and had some food; I was drenched in sweat and my arms were starting to feel sore. There seemed to be no end to the spiderwebs. I couldn’t imagine doing this all the way to the summit, and then repeating it on the way down, since in the space of a few hours new webs would surely be spun. As I munched on my onigiri, I considered giving up. The good weather was holding and the summit was visible in front of me, so I decided to continue just a little further. From this point, the path entered into a forest of beech trees, and the spiders webs magically disappeared. I soon reached the 7th station surrounded by tall birch trees, the rustle of their leaves in the wind sounded like soft rain (see video at the end). The path then rose sharply, with some sections lined with ropes or chains. Thirty minutes later I reached a flat section with great views; I could now see the craggy top of Mt Hakkai to the North. I was above 1000 meters high, and all that was left to climb was the pyramidal summit. It was a long, steep slog but seemed easy compared to what I had endured lower down. At 12h30, the path leveled again and I had my first views of Mt Makihata. After one last scramble up a rocky outcrop, I was finally standing at the top of Mt Kinjo (金城山 きんじょうさん kinjousan).

Summit of Mt Kinjo

Highest point of Mt Kinjo

The surrounding views were astounding, mainly because of the 1000 meter height difference between the flat valley and the top. There were no high mountains westwards, and I had a bird’s eye view of Niigata prefecture. Looking East, I could see the massive bulks of the “Echigosanzan“, the three Echigo mountains, with dark clouds sitting on each summit. Southwards, I could make out the Tanigawa mountain range, half-hidden by the clouds. High altitude cirrus clouds were streaking across the sky from the South, a sure sign of rainy weather. I sat down for lunch, keeping a safe distance from the top of the cliff on the South side of the flat top. The summit marker doesn’t really mark the highest point. It’s another thirty-minute scramble along the ridge to a slightly higher spot among the trees and without a view, a little beyond the emergency hut; I decided to skip it. A few meters away, I found a rocky slab where I could lie down, close my eyes, and enjoy the warm sun and soft silence created by the absence of wind. I was alone, except for a pigeon, sitting on a nearby boulder, apparently also enjoying the panoramic views.

A close-up of the Joro spider

Can you spot the spider?

At 1h30 I headed down and since I knew that the trail was spider free till the 5th station, I moved as quickly as I could. One hour later, I was walking with a stick in front of me again. As I had expected, some webs had been rebuild, although by smaller spiders. Going downhill, I was walking at a straighter angle and I was hitting the higher webs. Despite my best efforts, I occasionally got tangled in them; it was hard to determine whether the web I was caught up in was connected to the spiders dangling nearby; once I stopped just a couple of centimeters short of a big yellow and black spider hanging in mid-air. Since I was keeping an eye out for arachnids, I also spotted other small creatures such as a praying mantis and a big grasshopper. I reached the bottom of the mountain at 4pm under cloudy skies. It took me 7 hours to go up and down, including a hour break at the top; it would have taken six if it hadn’t been for the spider webs. In all my climbs in Japan and around the world, I had never experienced such an exhausting battle to the top. Since the “Joro spider” is mostly active in the autumn, I guess it’s easier to climb this mountain in other seasons. It was a 15-minute walk to the bus stop which I reached with twenty minutes to spare. Unfortunately, the hot spring inside Echigo-Yuzawa station was already closed so I wasn’t able to wash away the cobwebs till I got back to Tokyo !

Listen to the sound of leaves rustling in the wind

Traditional Niigata architecture with Mt Kinjo in the background

Mt Hachi (2041m), Mt Akaishi (2109m) & Mt Terakoya (2125m), Yamanouchi Town, Nagano Prefecture

I had been to Shiga Kogen once before, but I had done it as an overnight trip, staying at Kusatsu Onsen on the way. This time I wanted to see whether it was possible to do it as a day hike, by using the Shinkansen to approach from from the Nagano side. I was also curious to see how crowded public transportation would be this far from Tokyo. The temperature in Tokyo was supposed to exceed 35 degrees, so I was worried that it might be too hot for comfortable hiking. Finally, I was hoping for clearer weather this time round; last time, thick clouds rolled in around noon and hid a lot of the views. This is an original hike spanning the central part of the Joshin-Etsu National Park.

Hiking in Shiga Kogen 志賀高原

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In the foreground, Mt Kasa, in the background, Togakushi Highland

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The jewel of Shiga Highland, Onuma lake

I arrived at Nozomi のぞみ just below Mt Yokote at 10h40 after a four hour journey that included a regular train, the shinkansen, a limited express and a bus. As I had hoped, the final train and the bus were nearly empty, most people having come by car. It took me about an hour to reach the top of Mt Hachi (鉢山 hachiyama) -sadly no view from the top. The descent was pretty tough, the trail being in urgent need of maintenance. It’s possible to skip this summit by starting from Hotaru Onsen instead.

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Today’s hike, from the top of Mt Yokote, lit up by the sun

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The final, and highest section, of today’s hike

The next section was mostly flat and easy, the views obscured by head-high bamboo grass growing on both sides of the trail. There were a couple of spots where the views to the East opened up, and I was able to see Mt Yokote and, further away, Mt Haruna. Looking up, I was still able to enjoy the blue sky and white clouds. I didn’t feel too hot thanks to the combination of clouds and light wind. I saw about three toads along the trail, but I couldn’t get any good pictures or video before they hopped under the bamboo grass.

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Mt Yokote, today’s starting point

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I didn’t expect to see Mt Haruna so clearly today

After a short climb, I reached the rocky top of Mt Akaishi (赤石山 akaishiyama) just after 2pm. From the summit, I could see the whole of Shiga Kogen. South was Mt Yokote, West was Onuma Lake and Mt Shiga, North was Mt Iwasuge (which I hope to climb in the future), and East was Mt Haruna. Despite the threat of thunderstorms, good weather prevailed, and I was able to see views that had been denied to me on my previous visit.

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Mt Akaishi, the middle section of today’s hike

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The final meters before the top of Mt Akaishi

After a short lunch break, I set off again. The path headed down steeply, then was level for a while, before climbing again. I passed the top of Mt Terakoya (寺子屋山 terakoyayama), surrounded by trees, but didn’t stop long since I was slightly behind schedule. Very soon, I emerged from the trees and I could see my final destination, the top of the Higashi-Tateyama Gondola Lift, which I reached at 4pm (last Gondola down at 4h20). I could have walked down to the base and bus stop, but then I wouldn’t have had time to take a much-needed hot spring bath at Hotel Higashidate. I was the sole passenger on the bus ride back to Yudanaka station.

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Onuma lake with Mt Shiga behind

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Looking Northwards to Niigata prefecture

Although it’s a long way there and back, not to mention the price, I was very satisfied to be able to hike in such beautiful surroundings; at times, I could only see mountains in every direction. This hike is also special in the sense that I could start and finish at around 2000 meters high, a good altitude for hiking in the summer. Finally, because it’s so far from the capital, there were few other hikers so I really had the mountains to myself.

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Akaishi means red rock so it’s easy to see where the name comes from

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Mt Amagoi (2037m), Hokuto City, Yamanashi Prefecture

Hiking in the Minami Alps 南アルプス

As the weather becomes hotter and humid, I need to find higher and higher places to go hiking. This also means traveling further from Tokyo, since I have already climbed the highest peaks close to the capital. I had never heard of this Yamanashi 100-famous mountain 140 km West of Tokyo in the Minami Alps, till I saw it listed on a website about Yamanashi prefecture (I was researching river walks). My previous visit to the area was in November 2018 when I climbed Mt Nyukasa, about 10 km to the North.

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As usual, access was a bit of a headache; in the end I decided to take a train to Nagasaka station on the Chuo line, then take a taxi from there to the trail entrance, next to the Hakushu Village campsite; other options would have been too long for a daytrip. According to my map, the hike was about 6 hours; since I hadn’t recovered my hiking legs yet, I was curious whether it would be as easy as it seemed. Also, since it was the middle of the rainy season, I wasn’t sure whether I would get any good views.

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View of the Minami Alps on the way to the trailhead

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The forest is beautiful this time of the year

The taxi dropped me off right at the trail entrance at 10am, after a long winding drive up a narrow mountain road. I was surprised to see how lush and green the surrounding vegetation was; definitely worth risking a little rain, although today the sun was shining. The start of the trail gently wound up the side of the mountain, packed earth beneath my boots, the rare steep sections offset by low wooden steps. It was very peaceful. The temperature was on the warm side, but since there was no hard climbing, I didn’t break a sweat.

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An easy to hike trail going up

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First views of Mt Kaikoma (right) and Mt Hou (left)

Around noon, I got my first views to the South of Mt Kaikoma and Mt Hou, two “hyakumeizan” in the Minami Alps. Slightly to the left, I could make out the triangular outline of Mt Fuji, nearly 70 km away.  Much closer, and lower, was the white sandy top of Mt Hinata which I have yet to climb (it had the river valley I was researching). I took a short break and had the first half of my lunch, before setting off again. The trail now alternated climbing and level parts. I had some more views, this time to the East of the Oku-Chichibu mountains. I passed several groups walking down; it seems many people drive to the campsite and just walk up and down the same way.

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Some level hiking – are we getting close to the summit?

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Mt Kaikoma through the trees

During the climb, I couldn’t see the summit at all, and apart from a stream halfway up, there were no landmarks to tell me how far along I was. Suddenly, at 1pm, I reached the top of Mt Amagoi (雨乞岳 あまごいだけ). There was one other hiker, who left soon after I arrived. I had good views East and South, the Yamanashi side, but the Nagano side was hidden by the trees. Descending a little bit on the other side, I was able to make out Yatsugatake on the left side. While having some lunch sitting on a fallen tree, it was so peaceful that a deer wandered closeby, but ran off immediately after spotting me (I still got a photo).

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Hello my dear! 

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Opposite, the Oku-Chichibu mountains

The weather had now turned cloudy, and it felt cool above 2000m. I started to head down after 1h30, along a very steep slope –  I was glad I hadn’t climbed this way! At 2pm, the path flattened and led me to a T junction. To the right, it was a short roundtrip to a place called Suisho Nagi 水晶ナギ, a place where crystal used to be mined. In less than 15 minutes I emerged onto an impressive narrow sandy and rocky ridge with surrounded by green forested mountains. I couldn’t see any sign of civilisation, and I felt like I was exploring a new world.

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On the right Mt Nokogiri, a 200-famous mountain next to Mt Kaikoma

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Going down was also easy (except the bit near the top)

It was getting late so I quickly made my way back to the main trail. From here the path was easy to walk, although there were no more views. It took me an hour and a half to reach the road at the end of the trail, where there is a shrine called Sekison 石尊神社 accessed via a long steep staircase. It was a 20 minute walk to the bus stop opposite a 7/11/ from where I caught a bus around 17h30 for Nirasaki station. Closeby was the Hakushu whisky brewery, normally open to visitors but now closed due to the pandemic.  I ended walking nearly 6 hours, and I definitely felt it the next day, although I was glad that I had clear weather and great views!

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