Jomine Park (498m) & Sanbaseki Gorge, Kamikawa Town & Fujioka City, Saitama & Gunma Prefectures

As I was looking for a way to continue my exploration of western Gunma, I found a section of the “Kanto Fureai no Michi” surrounded by four previously climbed peaks: Mt Jomine, Mt Mikabo, Mt Sakura and Mt Yokogai. The highlights were a viewpoint of Kanna lake and a river gorge; on the downside, the route followed paved roads instead of hiking paths. I wasn’t worried about access, since I had traveled to the area before. It would be a short hike, so I could leave later than usual. Although most of the hike would be inside Saitama, except the river gorge, I would be arriving and leaving via Gunma. The weather was supposed to be fine all day, and although I wouldn’t be summiting any mountains, I was hoping to get some good views along a hidden valley close to Tokyo.

Hiking the Kanto Fureai no Michi 関東ふれあいの道

Kanna lake and Shimokubo dam from Jomine Park

I had only a few minutes to transfer to the bus after arriving at Shinmachi station around 10h30. I got off one hour later, a couple of stops before the dam and the lake, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I could see Jomine park and the dam straight ahead, so I got my bearings easily. After getting ready, I used my phone GPS to find my way to the bottom of the river valley. I crossed the bright red Tosenkyo bridge (登仙橋), also crossing into Saitama prefecture at the same time, and walked up the road opposite, alongside a small river.

Straight ahead and at the top of the mountain, Jomine park

Looking downstream (left) and upstream (right) from Tosenkyo Bridge

I soon spotted a small path next to the river and immediately switched to it so that I could better enjoy the sight and sound of the rushing water. I was now walking inside Tobagawa river park (鳥羽川河川公園). At 1pm, I rejoined the road, which climbed steeply and away from the river. Half an hour later, I reached a junction: straight ahead the road continued to the top of Mt Jomine, 4km away and 500m higher; however, I took a sharp turn to the right, along a gently rising, almost flat road.

A pleasant stroll through Tobagawa river park

Yellow iris next to Toba river

I now had my first good view of the day: looking east, I could make out the top of Mt Yokogai which I had climbed just one month ago; huge cumulus clouds were crowding the sky to the south, and although rain was forecasted closer to Tokyo, the surrounding mountains were still in the sun. At 2pm I arrived at Jomine Park (城峰公園) and had lunch at the observatory overlooking Kanna lake (神流湖) to the north. Beyond it, I could see the rounded top of Mt Sakura.

The only hiking path on this “hike”

Cloudy weather to the south over Chichibu

After lunch, I made a quick tour of the park and found another less impressive viewpoint on the other side, and at 3pm, I headed down a wide road leading to the dam. After only a few minutes, I reached a shortcut following a log staircase overgrown with grass; it was the first and only hiking path of the day. Less than 10 minutes later, I was back on the road. At 4pm, I was on the pedestrian road that ran along the top of Shimokubo dam (下久保ダム).

The blue-green water of Kanna lake

Kanna lake, a hidden gem

This was the second highlight of the day: looking west, I could see Kanna lake sparkling under the afternoon sun; turning around, I could see the impressive ravine through which flowed the Kanna river. After walking up and down the dam, I headed down into the deep valley on a road closed to traffic; 15 minutes later, I was at the entrance of the Sanbaseki Gorge (三波石峡). Although the riverside path is no longer in use, I could approach the river via four small paths situated at regular intervals along a road.

Looking down at the river gorge from the lake dam

Solar panels getting the sun at the end of the hike

Each riverside spot was like straight out of a fairytale: at the first two, the clear water rushed through huge boulders, 48 of which have names; at the last two, the light-green water flowed lazily under grey cliffs. The sinking sun shone down the valley through the leaves and onto the water; a slight breeze blew occasionally, its coolness welcome on a warm day. I took a short break at the third spot and enjoyed this magical secluded place.

Kanna river in the late afternoon sun

A magical spot along the Sanbaseki Gorge

It was now past 5pm and my bus was due in half an hour. I continued along the road at a fast pace and soon arrived back at the red bridge which I had crossed five hours ago. Huge grey clouds had now spread above, and it seemed like it could rain at any moment. I quickly climbed out of the valley back to the bus stop. One hour later I was at Shinmachi station, from where it was a 90 minute train ride back to Tokyo.

Mt Koo (550m), Mt Hinata (482m) & Mt Taka (420m), Fujioka City, Gunma Prefecture [Ontake Trail]

After visiting Mt Sakura the previous year, I really wanted to do another hike in the same area. I knew there were two more short trails to the north, making them suitable for the winter. However, looking online, there seemed to have few views, and I thought it would be nicer to visit during the new green of spring. I chose the better maintained Ontake trail, over the more adventurous Kamatori trail. By starting with Mt Koo, a separate peak connected by a short walk on the road, I could extend the hike to 3 hours. These trails weren’t shown on my hiking map and weren’t mentioned in my hiking guides, so I had to rely exclusively on information found online. Getting to the start of the hiking trail would require a combination of two local trains and a bus: not the easiest route, but with plenty of time between connections, it seemed problem-free. The weather forecast was “cloudy with sun later on”; although the views were supposed to be scarce, the new green of spring always looks better in the sun, so I was hoping for some sunlight on this hike.

View of the Kanto plain through a break in the mountains

Start of the “2000-step staircase”

The sky was grey and gloomy during the first part of the my trip. However, while switching to the Hachiko line, the clouds parted, and after arriving at Gunma-Fujioka station at 10am, the sun was shining. Instead of a bus, I got on a mini-van, a common form of public transport in this part of Gunma. A little before noon, I got off at the last stop, called “nisen-kaidan-iriguchi” (二千階段入口), meaning entrance to the 2000-step staircase. Looking west, I could make out the foothills of Mt Mikabo, its top half lost in the clouds.

Some of the 2000 steps of Mt Koo

View from the top of Mt Koo

It certainly didn’t feel like 2000 steps: it took me just five minutes to reach the the summit of Mt Koo (子王山 こおうやま meaning small king), completely in the trees. Walking north and down a few meters, I reached an opening in the trees, where I had a view of the Kanto plain with the tall buildings of Takasaki city to the northeast. I should have been able to see Mt Haruna, Mt Akagi and the Nikko mountains, but the weather still wasn’t good enough. I had an early lunch before setting off again.

The beautiful spring green of Gunma

Start of the Ontake hiking trail

I went down some steeps steps on the other side, and then followed a forest road round the mountainside, arriving back at my starting point 15 minutes later. I walked east along the countryside road till I reached the entrance to the Ontake trail (御嶽コース). The trail descended for a short while, before crossing a metallic bridge and then heading up a ridge. Soon, I was walking along a level path through the forest. At 1h30, I reached the narrow summit of Mt Hinata (日向山 meaning in the sun); oddly enough, despite being surrounded by trees, the summit marker was…in the sun.

A level section of the trail (left) / An interesting trio of trees (right)

By the afternoon, the good weather had prevailed

The trail continued up and down, with the steeper sections helpfully equipped with rope; half an hour later I was at the top of Mt Ontake-Taka (御嶽高山), once again hemmed in by the trees. Past the summit, the path started to descend and at 2h30, I emerged onto a forest road. At 3pm, I reached the road and the end of the hiking trail. It walked ten minutes to the Takayama-sha Ruins bus stop, next to a world heritage site, where I caught the mini-van back to Gunma-Fujioka station. It took only a few minutes to connect to the Shonan-Shinjuku line, after which it was a 90-minute ride back to central Tokyo.

See the view from the top of Mt Koo and the waters of the Sanmyo River

Mt Taro (1165m) and Mt Kokuzo (1077m), Ueda City, Nagano Prefecture

I had seen these two mountains before on previous hiking trips to Nagano since the shinkansen passes through a tunnel under them. Although they aren’t as high or as beautiful as other mountains in the area, they are on a ridge jutting into the Chikuma river valley and the summit views are apparently quite spectacular. I could get to the start of the hike by taking a taxi from the station, and then walk back from the end of the trail. I decided to stick to the route recommended by my guidebook, moderate in time and difficulty. The forecast was good, and I was hoping to get a view of the Japanese North Alps covered in snow.

View of the northern half of the Japanese North Alps

Looking southeast up the Chikuma river valley

I couldn’t have hoped for better weather as I got off the bullet train at Ueda station at 9:30. A short taxi ride brought me to the start of the trail entrance, next to where the highway enters a tunnel under the mountain. At 10am, I started up the mountain side; as the noise of the cars faded away, I was able to enjoy the silence of the forest, the trees at the very end of winter still bare of leaves. Just before 11am, I passed under a huge stone shinto gate, marking the entrance to the shrine located near the summit. Half an hour later, I reached a big bright red shinto gate below the shrine itself.

Easy hiking near Ueda city

The flat top of Utsukushigahara

After walking up some steps, I had my first big view of the day. Half a kilometer below, Ueda city stretched away southeast along the floor of the Chikuma river valley; Mt Tateshina with its rounded top rose behind it; the flat plateau of Utsukushigahara, still topped with snow, lay directly south; looking west, I could see roughly half of the snow-capped peaks of the North Alps, the other half being cut off by the trees; Mt Fuji, 125 km away, and the peaks of the South Alps could be faintly seen beyond the Yatsugatake range.

Views of the Japanese North Alps

I got on my stomach and wriggled through the miniature shinto gate in from of the main shrine building; the taxi driver had told me that it brings luck! After a few more minutes of climbing, I arrived at the highest point of Mt Taro (太郎山 たろうやま tarouyama). The view was similar, but I could now see the entire North Alps, from Mt Hotaka to Mt Shirouma. It was past noon so I sat down for an early lunch on the grassy top. Around 1pm I set off again along a pleasant undulating ridge trail. Many trees were labeled by name, but since they were still bare of leaves, they all looked alike!

Hiking between Mt Taro and Mt Kokuzo

Looking northwest down the Chikuma river valley

I passed by some more spectacular viewpoints of Ueda city; looking north, I could also see Mt Azuma and the peaks of Togakushi highland. At one point, I was able to observe cars moving along the highway as they exited the tunnel on the other side of the mountain. It took me an hour and half to reach the top of Mt Kokuzo (虚空蔵山 こくうぞうやま kokuuzouyama). By now, the sun had moved west and thin clouds had appeared to the south, radically changing the views. With the sun directly above, the southern part of the North Alps with the pointed tip of Mt Yari in the center, resembled a painting.

Heading down in the afternoon

Gentler slopes near the base of the mountain

After enjoying the warm sun for a while, I started to go down just before 3pm. It took me only a few minutes to reach a rocky viewpoint directly above Ueda city; it felt like I was looking down from inside a plane. The next part of the trail became quite steep and was lined with ropes; soon I reached gentler slopes through a pine forest near the base of the mountain. At 4pm I arrived at Zama shrine and the end of the hiking trail; this is also where the shinkansen enters a tunnel under the mountain. I followed the road back to Ueda station where I jumped on the shinkansen for the one hour ride back to Tokyo.

Mt Iwatakeishi (793m), Mt Kuro (842m) & Mt Onita (505m), Ome and Hanno Cities, Tokyo and Saitama Prefectures, January 2021

I was looking for some more “Kanto no Fureai trails” close to Tokyo. I found a promising section in the Okutama area and decided to combine it with a couple of nearby mountains, forming a zigzag hike, straddling Tokyo and Saitama prefectures. My main concern was whether I would have enough time to complete what seemed like an ambitious hike. The last section followed local trails that weren’t shown on my hiking map, and I was hoping they would be easy to follow. I had been to the area many times before, so I was familiar with the way there and back. The weather forecast was good, and I was looking forward to my first multi-prefecture hike in a while.

Hiking in the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park

Looking east towards Tokyo

I arrived at Kawai station at 9h30 on a sunny winter day. I quickly made my way down to the Ome-Kaido road to catch the bus scheduled to arrive in a few minutes. I got off before the other passengers headed for Bonomine, and followed the signs, first through the village, and then along a paved forest road, which later became a dirt road. At 10h30, just when I was starting to think that I would be walking on this road all the way to the top, I spotted the hiking trail leading off to the right and up the mountain side.

The low, hilly area of Oku-Mukashi

The path to Mt Takamizu

The trail went up a small valley through a gloomy, dark forest. Suddenly, it veered left, leaving the valley and hugging the sunny mountain side. It took me another twenty minutes to reach Nasaka pass (名坂峠). Today’s hike was along the ridge to the left, but, I decided to first do a short round trip to the peak on the right. At 11am, I was standing on the top of Mt Iwatakeishi (岩茸石山 いわたけいしやま iwatakeishi-yama), a Kanto hundred famous mountain I had climbed once before in the spring a few years ago. There were so many people at the top it was hard to find a place to sit down!

On the left, Mt Kawanori

The ridge leading down from Mt Kuro towards Kosawa pass

The view was a lot better than I remembered. To the east was the summit of Mt Takamizu; looking north, I could see the mountains of Oku-Musashi; eastwards was Mt Kawanori and Mt Honita. I walked south along the summit ridge to another viewpoint, where I could see right through the middle of the Okutama mountains all the way to Daibosatsurei and the long ridge leading away from it to the south. After having a late breakfast, I made my way back to the pass and started the long climb along the ridge, part of the Fureai no Michi, leaving the crowds behind me.

In the back, Daibosatsurei

This is still inside Tokyo Prefecture

There were almost no other hikers along this section and it was very peaceful. It was also quite warm, and felt like March rather than January. After about an hour, I reached a viewpoint above a cliff from where I could see Mt Mitake and its shrine to the south; behind and on the right was Mt Odake; Mt Fuji, further behind, was hidden by the clouds. I reached the lonely but sunny top of Mt Kuro (黒山くろやま kuroyama meaning black mountain). There was no view but there was a bench in the sun so I sat down and had some lunch. I decided to skip Bonomine, which I had climbed several times before, and head down another ridge; it formed a sharp angle with the one I had just come up, like a bent elbow.

Looking towards Mt Mitake

A good place for a break

Here the trail became more difficult to follow; I was no longer following the Fureai no Michi, and the signposts were less frequent. At one point, I passed a group of lumberjacks just as the tree they had been cutting crashed to the ground (I was at a safe distance). Just afterwards, I crossed a forest road where a group of hunters was getting ready. They had a loud barking dog, but fortunately it was locked inside a cage. I started to walk faster to put some distance between myself and the hunt. Suddenly, I was no longer on the path. Using Google Maps, I saw that the ridge curved northwards around this point. I retraced my steps and quickly found the trail again.

The sunny top of Mt Kuro

Still sunny through the leafless trees

I could hear the noise of barking getting ever closer. The hunting dog eventually caught up and overtook me. Having seemed quite agressive earlier on, it showed no interest in me. Later on, it passed me again on its way back, having failed to find anything hunt-worthy (see video). On the left side, I had some glimpses of the Iruma valley. Around 2h30, the path started to descend steeply and I saw some towering cedar trees. This section was very beautiful and I was glad it was protected since it was part of the Chichibu-Tama-Kai national park. At 3pm I reached Kosawa Pass (小沢峠). It was later than I had planned and I needed to quicken the pace if I wanted to be able to climb today’s last mountain before dark.

Mostly hiking through forest at lower altitude

Approaching the last mountain of the day

The sun was already low on the horizon and I had to be careful not to miss the frequent twists and turns of the trail through the dark forest. It took me one hour and a lot of ups and downs to reach the top of Mt Onita (大仁田山 おおにたやま oonita-yama). There was a small gap through the trees on the east side through which I could see the flat Kanto plain. For some reason, one side of the summit sign was in English. I took a short break before heading down as fast as I could. It took me 20 minutes to reach the road and the bus stop. At 5h30 I was at Hanno station where I got the Limited Express train for Tokyo, relieved that I had managed to complete this long hike before sunset.

Check out the views from the top of Mt Iwatakeishi

Mt Honita (1224m), Okutama Town, Tokyo Prefecture, December 2020 [Monkeys]

For my final hike of the year, I decided to look for something not too far nor too difficult. I wanted everything to go smoothly since many services close around the New Year. I settled on a mountain that could be done station to station on the Okutama line. It was next to Mt Kawanori which I had climbed several years ago in the spring. Back then, the skies were clear but hazy, so I was hoping for better views in the crisp winter weather; perhaps I might even spot Mt Fuji. A less popular climb than its neighbour, I was hoping for a peaceful and solitary hike inside the national park closest to Tokyo.

Hiking in the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park

Hiking up Mt Honita

I reached Hatonosu station at 10am on a blue sky winter day. I soon found the start of the hiking trail, and after climbing through the village, entered the forest covering the mountain side. One hour later, I arrived at the first trail junction, marked by a small shrine. I took a short break and then headed up the left branch. The path climbed gradually through dark forest. At noon, I emerged from the trees onto a steep ridge partly free of trees. By now, however, thin clouds had rolled in; looking back, the views east towards Tokyo weren’t as good as I had hoped. A little later I was standing on the top of Mt Kobutaka (1116m コブタカ山).

Still sunny in the morning

Getting cloudy around noon

I continued without a break, and after some more climbing, reached the top of Mt Honita (本仁田山 ほにたやま honitayama). Despite the high clouds, I was able to see Mt Fuji, just to the left of Mt Mito, and perfectly framed by the surrounding trees. Its snowy top was still incomplete, unusual so late in the year. I sat down on a tree stump opposite Japan’s highest mountain and had lunch. It felt cold without the sun, and I soon moved on. The descent was steep and some sections were lined with rocks; I had to be careful not to stumble here, especially since it felt like I was alone on the mountain. Before I knew it, I was already halfway down the mountain. By now, the sun had returned, and it felt a lot warmer; today’s hike was turning out pretty well.

Mt Fuji from the top of Mt Honita

The sun has returned

Around 2pm, I heard some noise from the forest; looking carefully, I spotted monkeys! this was my fourth time to see them this year. Like the previous times, they were rather cautious and kept their distance. The terrain here was steep and rocky, and I couldn’t move far from the path to take pictures. I had to use the zoom of my smartphone camera, balancing image stability with monkey visibility. I finally gave up and continued on my way. Suddenly, around a bend, I spotted a solitary monkey about 10 meters from the path. He didn’t seem to mind me and let himself be filmed while cracking open nuts with his teeth (see video). I had hoped for a solitary hike, but I was glad to enjoy the company of the locals!

An Okutama monkey

The Okutama factory

At 2h30, I let the monkeys finish their meal in peace, and resumed my peaceful hike. Ten minutes later, I reached a road at the end of the trail. As I walked back to the station, I passed by the Okutama Industrial Plant. It was an eyesore and a fascinating sight at the same time; an ugly metallic structure inside the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park just minutes away from a wild monkey habitat, it was a scene that seemed to belong to a Hayao Miyazaki movie. It reminded of the factory at the base of Mt Buko. At 3pm, I was back at Okutama station, a 90-minute train ride from Shinjuku.

See the monkeys of Okutama in action

Hiking in Tohoku: Mt Karo (430m), Shinchi Town, Fukushima Prefecture

I had first heard about the newly-created Michinoku Coastal Trail inside the Sanriku Fukko National Park in 2019, but I couldn’t consider hiking it till the JR East Welcome Pass was introduced last year. My first task was to pick a section that could be done as a day-hike from Tokyo. The ones near the Miyagi / Fukushima border seemed ideal since they could easily be reached from Sendai, a 90-minute shinkansen ride from Tokyo. Next I tried to find a section with more hiking trails than roads. I settled on the Shinchi route: although it followed some roads, it also went up a small mountain with views of the Pacific ocean and the Mt Zao mountain range – hopefully the weather would be good. Even if it weren’t, I was excited to hike in new area of Japan.

The north side of Mt Karo covered in trees

For once, the shinkansen was delayed, and I lost one hour on the way to Sendai. To make up for this, I called a taxi from Shinchi station on the Joban line to take me to the start of the trail, 6 kilometers away, and I was ready to start hiking at 11h45. The weather was good but cold; there was even a thin layer of snow in places out of the sun’s reach. I chose to head up the “chobo” or view trail; it meant I would be walking with my back to the view, but I wanted to be in the sun to warm myself up. Even though it was a short climb, there were frequent signs along the way telling me how many meters were left to the summit.

Mask-wearing shrine guardian

Walking the sunny “view” path up

It took me half an hour to reach a small shrine inside a cluster of cedar trees. Right next to it, and bare of trees, was the summit of Mt Karo (鹿狼山 かろうさん karousan). Looking east, I took in the blue immensity of the Pacific ocean; squinting north, I could just make out the Oshika peninsula in Miyagi; gazing south, I could admire the rolling hills of the Abukuma highlands; turning west, I could see the mountains and valleys of Fukushima, but in the distance, Mt Zao was in the clouds. I decided to walk northwards to the end of the trail, and then retrace my steps for a second chance at the view.

View from the the top of Mt Karo

Beautiful weather over the Pacific

First I had to tackle a steep and slippery staircase covered in snow. The trail then followed the rolling ridgeline as it slowly descended to the coastal plain. The surrounding forest, bare of foliage, was beautiful as the sun shined through unimpeded. It took me 45 minutes to reach the end of the hiking trail at a road crossing. There, I turned around and walked the same way back. Although this trail is called the Zao view route, the only view of Mt Zao was from the summit, which I reached again at 2h30.

In the back somewhere is Mt Zao

Most of the other mountains were visible

Mt Zao was still stubbornly inside the clouds, so after eating the last part of my lunch, I quickly made my way down the mountain following the “jukai” or “sea of trees” route. It was entirely in the shade and covered in snow. Luckily it wasn’t too steep, but I had to be careful not to slip. The trees next to the path had labels, and this kept me at a safe speed, as I stopped to study their names. At the bottom, I turned right and followed the road for a short while to reach the Karo no Yu onsen.

A tricky descent aided by ropes

Most of the snow along the ridge had melted

I had an excellent view of the coast from the outdoor bath; the bath itself was tiny and could only fit one person, probably a good thing in these times. I ended up calling a taxi again for the return to Shinchi station since it was already 4 o’clock and a long way back to Tokyo. While waiting for the train, I noticed that the train station was brand new, and reflected on how well the area had recovered so far, after being ravaged by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

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