Shiga-Kogen & Mt Asahi (1524m), Yamanouchi Town, Nagano Prefecture, Sunday, September 4, 2022 [Monkeys]

Hiking in the Joshin-Estu Kogen National Park

上信越高原国立公園

After a two-month break, I was looking for an easy hike to get back in shape. I also wanted to visit a national park for a total immersion in nature. Shiga-Kogen, last visited two years ago, seemed like the ideal choice, since it had mostly level hiking trails passing next to small lakes, as well as a minor summit. I could get there by taking the shinkansen to Nagano city, then ride the “snow monkey” limited express to Yudanaka, and finally board a bus for the last leg of the trip. For the return, I would catch the same bus but from a slightly lower elevation. The weather was supposed to be cloudy and sunny; hopefully the sun would have the upper hand. I knew that Yudanaka is famous for its snow monkeys bathing in hot water in the winter; in the summer, however, they tend to roam further away, so I thought I might catch a glimpse of them along the way.

View of Biwaike and the peaks of Shiga-Kogen from Mt Asahi

Clouds slowing vanishing above Tanohara Marshland

I rode the Hokuriku shinkansen under blue skies, enjoying the views of the mountains surrounding the Kanto Plain. After getting off at Nagano station, I boarded the limited express for the one hour ride to Yudanaka, where I switched to a surprisingly empty bus for Shibutoge (渋峠); a little before 11h30, I finally got off at Kidoike Pond (木戸池 1620m, meaning “Wooden Door Pond”). After getting ready, I set off on a wooden walkway next to the lake side, but very soon made a hard right up a short slope, leading to the top of a grassy rise.

Kidoike at the start of today’s hike

Looking back at Tanohara Marsh

I enjoyed a fantastic view of twin peaks emerging from the clouds and a wide grassy area directly below; I felt I had made the right choice by visiting Shiga-Kogen (志賀高原) and the Joshin-Etsu National Park (上信越高原国立公園) on my first Autumn hike, even though at the moment, the lower sections were still in the mist. I made my way down to Tanohara Marsh (田ノ原湿原 1610m), and followed another wooden walkway to the forest on the other side; after a road crossing and a descent along a rocky trail, I reached Sankakuike Pond(三角池 1630m, meaning “Triangle Pond”), a little after noon.

Blue sky reflected in Sankakuike

Shiga Lake Hotel reflected in Hasuike

As I approached the lake, I marveled at the reflection of blue sky and fluffy white clouds on the perfectly still water surface, the low clouds having temporarily parted. I continued along the gently undulating path through thick forest, and soon arrived at Kami-no-koike (上の小池 1570m), a lot smaller than the two previous ones. At 12h30, I was walking the length of the narrow Nagaike (長池 1584m, meaning “Long Pond”) while observing the mad dance of the dragon flies.

Today’s mountain, Mt Asahi

Caution: monkey crossing

I took a while to enjoy its mysterious atmosphere: wisps of cloud drifting down the opposite slope, creating ripples on the water surface. I crossed another road, and arrived at Shimo-no-koike (下の小池 1610m), the smallest lake so far, covered in bright green water plants. Next, I emerged onto a steep slope near the top of a chairlift (Shiga-Kogen is also a ski resort). At the bottom, I passed through a tunnel and found myself at Hatsuike Pond (蓮池 1490m, meaning “Lotus pond”). I walked over to the nearby Ariake-no-oka Observatory where I had a view of Mt Terakoka and Higashi-Tateyama.

Sky and clouds reflected in Ichinuma

Monkey enjoying the pond view

At the other end of the lake, I was mesmerised by the reflection of the white facade of Shiga Lake Hotel. I popped into the nearby Shiga Kogen Yama no Eki (志賀高原山の駅), a mountain roadside station, to check their flower chart. I crossed the road once more, and after descending through the forest, reached Biwaike Pond (琵琶池 1390m), the largest lake so far. Through a gap in the trees, I had my first view of today’s mountain, a flattish peak rising above the opposite shore. I was hoping to have lunch there, it was already 2pm, but before that, I dropped by Ichinuma Pond (一沼 1410m), the prettiest pond of the day.

Mt Ura-Shikakogen (left) and Mt Ura-Shigakogen (right)

Last pond of the day, Mizunashiike

As I approached, I was surprised to see a monkey squatting on the wooden walkway, and then two more relaxing in a tree above. In total, I spotted about a dozen, eating various plants, as well as water lily leaves; one brave monkey even went for a dip in the cold water. After they had all left, I resumed my hike up a pleasant path through a forest of Japanese white birch (白樺 shirakaba). A little before 3pm, I reached the summit of Mt Asahi (旭山 あさひやま asahi-yama). It was mostly in the trees, however, on the east side the valley bottom was faintly visible; on the west side, I could see Biwa lake, as well as Mt Shiga, Mt Terakoya and Mt Higashi-Tate.

Japanese Monkshood, one of the many flowers of Shiga-Kogen

View of sun rays passing through clouds from near the bus stop

After enjoying the best view of the day, I retraced my steps to a junction I had passed earlier, and took the left branch. I soon emerged from the forest, crossed a road for the last time, and followed a grassy path to the tiny Mizunashiike Pond (水無池 1470m meaning “Pond without water”), the last and lowest pond of the day. I saw some purple bell-shaped flowers, called Yama-Torikabuto (ヤマトリカブト Japanese monkshood). I followed the trail around the marsh, reaching a road and a bus stop just before 4pm. After getting back to Yudanaka, once more on an empty bus, I caught the “Snow Monkey” to Nagano where, after enjoying some local sake inside the station, I boarded the shinkansen for the 90 minute ride back to Tokyo.

See the ponds and monkeys of Shiga-Kogen

Mt Sakado (634m), Minami-Uonuma City, Niigata Prefecture, Thursday, May 5, 2022

For my third trip using the Tokyo Wide Pass, I decided to head north to Niigata: reachable via shinkansen and covered by the pass; the beautiful May weather was supposed to last for one more day in the Yuzawa area. Looking at my hiking map, I found a suitable mountain that promised some good views, also the site of an ancient castle, and close to a train station. The hike was under three hours, which was fine, since it would be my third one in as many days. From Echigo-Yuzawa station, I would ride a local line for a few stops, and then walk to the start of the trail; since it was a loop hike, I could travel the same way back. The forecast announced blue skies again, but also summer-like temperatures. I was a little concerned as this hike was 1000 meters lower than the two previous ones, but I was excited about visiting Niigata again after nearly two years and seeing the Echigo mountains in spring.

The Echigo mountains in spring

Mt Kinjo, climbed two years ago

It was another beautiful May day as I rode the nearly empty shinkansen to Echigo-Yuzwa, where I transferred to the JR line for the short ride to Muikamachi. Standing outside the station, I had a view of today’s mountain, looking more impressive than it had on paper. I walked through the town and over the Uono river, reaching the trailhead at Torisaka Shrine (鳥坂神社) just before 11am. I was surprised to see some snow in the shade, even though I was only 200 meters above sea level. I didn’t make me feel any cooler as I started up the Yakushi Ridge Route (薬師尾根コース) on what was so far the hottest day of the year.

First view to the south of the Joshin-Etsu mountains

Climbing the log steps under the midday sun

I made my way up a grassy slope, lined with a handful of Buddhist statuettes. I soon reached the first viewpoint of the day: looking south, I could make out Mt Tanigawa and Mt Naeba in the midday haze, still white with snow. Contrary to my expectations, from this point forward the path was out of the tree cover, and it felt very hot under the midday sun. On the other hand, thanks to the clear weather, I enjoyed amazing views back of the flat Yuzawa valley, as the path followed a narrow ridge, that eventually merged with the summit ridgeline. Looking south again, I could now see Mt Kinjo, patches of snow still covering its top half.

Looking back at Muikamachi Town

One of the flat sections of the Yaukushi Ridge Route

The steeper sections of the trail were fitted with log steps, making it easy to climb; higher up, there was even a metal staircase. Just before 1pm, I arrived at the small wooden shrine marking the summit of Mt Sakado 坂戸山(さかどやま sakado-yama). Although the summit of yesterday’s mountain seemed artificial, today’s summit was man-made, all that was left of the highest point of Sakado castle. On the north and east sides, I had a spectacular view of the 3 great mountains of Echigo covered in snow: Mt Hakkai, Mt Echigo-Koma and Mt Naka. I found a spot in the shade and sat down for lunch. Once done, I made a short round-trip to a couple more grassy mounds along the eastern ridge, also part of the castle ruins.

The steeper bits were fitted with log steps (left) and metal ones (right)

Looking down at Minami-Uonuma City

I was rewarded with amazing views in all directions; it almost felt like I was hiking in Switzerland. I also saw many Mangolia flowers (tamushiba) along the path. At 2pm, I started to head down the Shirosaka Route (城坂コース). Very quickly the path dived into the forest, the cool shade a welcome relief; however, I was soon out of the trees again at the top of a steep valley. I followed a switchback path while enjoying the bird’s eye views of the flat valley below, framed on both sides by bright green ridges. It was the hottest time of the day and amazingly many people were still going up. Half an hour later, I reached a famous cherry blossom spot near the flatter base of the mountain.

A side view of Mt Hakkai

Making the roundtrip along the east-west ridge

I was shocked to see many trees broken in half: apparently an avalanche had swept down the steep mountain side during the winter. However, I was amazed to see some flowers still in full bloom on one of the damaged trees (see video), a sign of hope among the destruction; this also meant that I had seen cherry blossoms on all 3 hikes. I followed the now level path, and after passing under some cedar trees, I was back at my starting point by 3pm. It took about an hour for the return to Echigo-Yuzawa station, where I enjoyed a hot spring bath and some local sake, before boarding the shinkansen for the eighty minute ride to Tokyo.

A switchback path down the Shirosaka Route

See the views of Mt Sakado in the spring

A slideshow of some more photos of the Mt Sakado hike

Mt Meshimori (1643m), Minamimaki Village, Nagano Prefecture, Wednesday, May 4, 2022

For my second trip using the Tokyo Wide Pass, I chose another relatively easy mountain opposite Yatsugatake and about fifty kilometers south of the previous hike. I would travel to Kobuchizawa using the Chuo limited express, change to the Koumi line for Nobeyama, and finally hop on a bus for Shishi Rock, just opposite the trail entrance. After reaching the summit, I would descend via a different trail to Kiyosato, one station before Nobeyama. The sunny May weather was supposed to hold one more day, with slightly warmer temperatures. I was looking forward to visiting Kiyosato again, and seeing Yatsugatake from a new angle and in a different season.

Yatsugatake still topped in white in the middle of spring

The conical top of Mt Meshimori

I arrived at Kobuchizawa shortly before 10am on a perfect, blue-sky day, and boarded the highest train line in Japan for the 45 minutes ride to the highest train station in Japan, Nobeyama (1345m). It was my first time there and the wide open fields surrounding it gave the impression of being on a high plateau. I had planned to get some extra food from a 7\11 near the station, the highest convenience store in Japan, but the free loop bus was leaving in a few minutes, and I decided to get on rather than wait for the next one.

View of Yatsugatake from Shishi Rock

The South Alps also visible from Shishi Rock

I has some a great side view of Yatsugatake during the ten-minute ride to Hirasawa pass (平沢峠); although the surrounding countryside was bright green, the higher reaches of this ancient volcano were still of a brilliant white. Before starting my hike, I checked out the rocky formation of Shishi-iwa (しし岩 meaning lion rock); standing on the highest rock, I could see the Minami Alps to the south. After a short climb, I passed the flat summit of Mt Hirasawa (平沢山 1653m), from where it was a mostly an easy, level walk to a trail junction. I went left and after a short climb, arrived at the exposed and windy peak of Mt Hiramori (平盛山 1643m).

Near the Mt Hiramori (left) and Mt Meshimori (right) junction

The rounded summit of Mt Hiramori

Looking south, I could see the conical shape of today’s mountain, miniature people walking up and down the steps on the western side: it seemed almost man-made and reminded me of the “Lion’s Mound” in Belgium. To the east, I could see the highest peaks of Oku-Chichibu, Mt Kinpu, and Mt Miuzugaki with its blue-grey cliffs. After a short break, I set off again, and a few minutes later, arrived at the top of Mt Meshimori (飯盛山 めしもりやま meshimori-yama), just after 1pm. Its name could be translated as “a pile of food” which only made me hungrier, since I hadn’t packed a lunch today.

View of Yatsugatake from near the top of Mt Meshimori

View of the highest peaks of Oku-Chichibu

After enjoying the panoramic view, which included a faintly visible Mt Fuji, I headed down the western side; surrounded by pine trees and facing a view of the Alps on the left and Yatsugatake on the right, I almost felt like I was hiking in the Swiss Alps. At 1h30, I arrived at an intersection with a forest road near an open shelter. Here, I was delighted to see some cherry blossoms near full bloom, since I had thought I had already seen the last ones of the season. I continued down the path through green forest and soon arrived at a road outside a village. Beyond, the road descended into a river valley and then up the other side.

Walking towards Kiyosato

Walking through the new green of spring

It was only 2pm when I arrived at Kiyosato so, I hopped on another loop bus (this one had a flat fee) for Sun Meadows, where I got on a chairlift for Kiyosato Terrace (1906m), a viewpoint halfway up Mt Yatsugatake. Like the day before, I got to observe the mountain where I had been just two hours earlier. A ton of people were lining up for the return trip, so I opted to walk down to Utsukushi Mori (美し森 meaning beautiful forest). It was a peaceful walk, on a path little used this time of the year. I passed the lonely Hagoromo Pond (羽衣池 1610m) before arriving at a viewpoint on Mt Utsukushimori (美し森山 1542m) at 4pm.

View of the highest peaks of Yatsugatake from Utsukushi Mori

Last view before heading down to Utsukushi Mori bus stop

It enjoyed one last view of the South Alps, as well as a closeup view of Mt Aka and Mt Gongen, before heading down to the bus stop just a few minutes away, where I caught the same loop bus back to Kiyosato station. I had half an hour before the train back so I had a local beer and some food at a table outside a nearby Family mart. Around 5pm, I boarded the Koumi line and transferred to the Chuo limited express in Kobuchizawa for the comfortable two-hour ride back to Shinjuku.

See the views of Mt Meshimori

Mt Tokko (1266m), Ueda City, Nagano Prefecture, Sunday, April 10, 2022

My last hike to the Ueda area had been less than 6 months ago, but I wanted to enjoy the views of Nagano again during the last clear days of early spring. I would climb a mountain south of Bessho Onsen, a famous hot spring resort, easily accessible from Tokyo by Shinkansen and local train; from the station, I could catch a local bus to the start of the trail. My guidebook recommended a five-hour loop hike combining two of the three trails on the mountain. On top of blue skies all day, the weather was supposed to be unseasonably warm, meaning that I could dress lightly. I was looking forward to getting views of the snow-covered North Alps, as well as enjoying a relaxing hot spring bath at the end.

View north from Daruma-iwa

Mt Tokko during plum blossom season

I didn’t see a single cloud in the sky on the 70-minute shinkansen ride to Ueda, where I switched to the Bessho line. Half an hour later, I got off at the charming Bessho Onsen station (別所温泉), the last stop on the line. Fresh off the platform, I was greeted by two ladies dressed in kimonos, who kindly directed me to the bus stop behind the station, marked by a bright red sign. A ten-minute ride on a light blue bus brought me to Chuuzenji Temple (中禅寺) at the foot of today’s mountain, and a ten-minute walk up a paved road led me to a fence with a gate, and the entrance of today’s hike.

Some sun filtering through the cedar trees on the way up

View east of Azuma-yama and Asama-yama

I spent a few minutes studying a beautiful and detailed hand-drawn map of the path to the top, displayed in front of the fence, before passing through it and heading into shady cool cedar forest. Although it was only 10h30, I was already feeling quite warm. I followed to a small stream and soon reached Fudo waterfall (不動滝). I left the stream behind, and after passing through a patch of camphor trees still bare of needles, made my way up a steep switchback path, some sections lined with rope to assist the unsteady hiker.

Mt Asama without its characteristic plume of smoke

The Japanese North Alps still in their winter coat

At 11h30, I had my first views of through the leafless trees; it felt odd to be in short sleeves surrounded by a winter landscape. A few minutes later, I reached the top of the ridge where I turned left. Pine trees were growing here and there and the air was filled with birdsong. After a short scramble, I arrived at Daruma Rock (だるま岩), an oval shaped rock, protruding from the mountain side like a pimple. Hidden behind was a rocky platform with a wide view of the valley. In the distance, I could see the white peaks of the North Alps, Togakushi highland, Mt Azuma, and Mt Asama, for once without its distinctive plume of smoke.

Mt Komayumi with the North Alps in the background

A solitary pine tree at the summit with Mt Tateshina on the far right

After enjoying the wide views, the best of the day, I set off again. I soon arrived at a junction, where I turned left, and after one last climb, reached the top of Mt Tokko (独鈷山 とっこさん tokko-san) just after noon. To the north, I had similar views as before; to the south, I could now see Mt Tateshina and the Utsukushi-ga-hara plateau. Even though I was over 1000 meters high, it still felt too hot to sit in the sun. Fortunately, a lone pine tree provided some shade, so I sat down for lunch. At 1pm, I made my way back to the junction, and followed the Miyazawa trail (宮沢コース) for a few meters, before taking the right branch for the Sawayamaike trail (沢山池コース).

Following the Sawayamaike Trail

Looking out on the southern side of Mt Tokko

This trail was surprisingly hard to follow; I frequently had to stop to look for strips of pink ribbons indicating the way. Occasionally, I passed white signposts stuck to trees, reassuring me that the narrow ridge I was following was indeed a hiking path. I had no views and saw no one as I followed the undulating ridge westwards. At 2pm, I turned right, down a narrow valley through which flowed a small stream. The path was still faint and in rather bad condition, forcing me to step carefully and continue to hunt for signs of the route.

Walking along the valley near the end of the hike

View of Joshinetsu-kogen from Shitakuike

About an hour later, I reached a deserted road at the end of the trail, which I then followed to the right. I was soon walking through the Nagano countryside in early spring mode, plum trees in full bloom. To my right, I had a side view of Mt Tokko, and I could appreciate the ridge I had followed after lunch. I stopped by Shitakuike pond (舌喰池) to admire the view of the mountains of Joshinetsu highland. Since it was only a couple of kilometers back to the station, I decided to walk, and was rewarded with seeing Japanese pheasants hunting for food next to the road (see video). I was back at the station with enough time for a hot bath at the modern Aisome no Yu (あいそめの湯) before my 4h30 train back to Ueda, where I caught the high-speed train for Tokyo.

See the sights and hear the sounds of Mt Tokko

Akigawa Hills Trail (highest point 270m) & Takiyama Park, Hachioji City, Tokyo Prefecture, Friday, April 8, 2022

Cherry blossom season ended had ended early in Tokyo this year. I decided to search for the last blossoms in the western part of the city. I would start by walking along the hills south of the Akigawa river, from Akigawa station to Musashi-Masuko station on the Itsukichi line. Then, I would make my way to a nearby prefectural park, famous for its cherry blossom trees. At the end, I would catch a bus for Hachioji station. The weather forecast was good with temperatures ideal for an afternoon stroll. I was looking forward to doing some hiking inside the city and seeing the last sakura of the season.

First part of the Akigawa Hills Trail

It was a beautiful spring day as I stepped off the train at Akigawa station. It was a little after noon, so I stopped by nearby Kiryu-an for an excellent soba noodle lunch. After, I stopped at the nearby Chiyotsuru museum (千代鶴資料館), a famous brand by Nakamura, a local sake brewery (中村酒造). I could see some sake making equipment and also taste some freshly brewed sake.

Sign marking the start of the trail

Reaching the ridge top (left) cherry blossom trees (right)

At 2pm, I reached the trail entrance of the Akigawa Hills Route (秋川丘陵コース), next to the Ken-O expressway. I found myself immersed in nature as soon as I started walking along the trail; I was astounded by the sudden change in scenery. In no time, I reached the top of the ridge, where I turned left. The trail went up and down gently; occasionally I had views of the city to the right; looking up, I could spot cherry blossom trees here and there.

A bamboo forest tunnel

Some open spaces near the end of the trail

At 2h30, the trail went down the other side of the ridge and followed a small river valley for a short while. Eventually, I was walking again on the ridge; the trees had been cleared along some sections, offering good views north and south. Soon the path descended and after reaching a road, turned north alongside a golf course. At 3h30, I arrived at Yamada ridge, taking me accross the Akigawa river, after which it as a short walk back to Masuko station.

A view of western Tokyo from Takiyama park

Late afternoon stroll along the Takiyama trail

Since it was getting late, I took a taxi to the entrance of Takiyama Park (滝山公園). There were few people at this late hour. I found the cherry blossom trees, still in full bloom, as well as a good view of western Tokyo, where the Tamagawa and Akigawa merge. I walked southeast along the Takiyama trail and reached a road and a bus stop at 6pm, just before nightfall. After getting off at Hachioji station, I took the Chuo line limited express for the short ride back to Shinjuku station.

See a cherry blossom storm or “sakura-fubuki”

Mt Takakusa (501m) & Mankanho (470m), Yaizu & Shizuoka Cities, Shizuoka Prefecture, Sunday, December 19, 2021

I hadn’t been to Shizuoka since March, so I felt I should make at least one more trip before the year end, especially since the clear December skies would be ideal for seeing Mt Fuji and the Pacific ocean. I found a suitable hike in my guidebook, through a small mountainous area next to the sea and south of Mt Hamaishi and Satta Pass. I could get to the start of the trail by riding the shinkansen to Shizuoka station, and then change to the Tokaido line for a few stops; finally a bus would get me to the base of the mountains. Afterwards, I could catch another bus directly back to Shizuoka station: thanks to the bullet train, this hike could be done as a daytrip. The weather was supposed to be good, although windy, and I was looking forward to exploring a new area and getting some views of snow-capped Fuji.

Looking back at Yaizu city on the way up

View of Shizuoka city and Mt Fuji from the Korean Rock

I arrived at Yaizu station a little after 9am on a cold but cloudless day. I was pity I had no time to use the hot spring footbath outside the station before the bus arrived. At 10 am, I got off at the entrance for Rinsoin Temple (林叟院), the start of two trails up the mountain. I chose the “Sakamoto B trail” (坂本Bコース), since it went up the sunny mountain side, whereas the A trail followed a paved road along the valley bottom. The breeze was blowing, but thanks to the sun and the low altitude, it didn’t feel too cold; I was surprised, however, to see some autumn leaves still hanging on to the branches.

Hiking under the winter sun on the way up

Yellow Suzuki and blue Suruga

Less than an hour later, I had my first views of the day: directly below was Yaizu city, filling the wide, flat coastal area; beyond was Suruga bay, sparkling under the winter sun; looking west, I could see the foothills of the South Alps across the bay; finally, turning eastwards, I could make out the outline of Izu peninsula. The path headed straight up through low vegetation, quickly gaining more altitude and repeatedly crossing a switchback road. Shortly after merging with another, more popular trail, I reached the top of Mt Takakusa (高草山 たかくさやま takakusa-yama meaning “tall grass”), a 100 famous mountain of Shizuoka.

The tail end of the South Alps

Mt Hanazawa (foreground) and the Izu peninsula

The view was half-blocked by the trees covering most of the summit, but at least Mt Fuji was visible to the north, a cloud parked on its head. Since it was noon, I sat on a bench for an early lunch. Half an hour later, I set off again down a narrow path heading north. I saw almost no one and enjoyed the solitude of the surrounding forest. Through gaps in the trees, I could see the ocean speckled with the white foamy tips of the breaking waves. After several ups and downs, I arrived at Kurakake pass (鞍掛峠), where I crossed a road and continued along the trail on the other side.

A narrow but easy to walk trail through the forest

Looking back at Mt Takakusa (on the left)

I was now on a path steadily rising through a thick forest. I passed many people and assumed I would soon be arriving at the highlight of the hike. It took half an hour to reach the edge of the forest with a view of what I had hiked so far. Soon after, I arrived at the wide flat summit of Mankanho (満観峰 まんかんほう). The name means “satisfying view”, and indeed, I had no complaints: I could see Shizuoka city spreading out at the foot of Mt Fuji, with the Minobu mountains on the left, and Mt Ashitaka on the right; on the opposite side, I could see the southernmost part of the South Alps, many of its peaks new to me. It was now 1h30, so I found an empty bench and had the rest of my lunch.

View of Mt Fuji from Mankanho

View of the South Alps from Mankanho

I was the last person to leave the summit at 2pm, following a path northwards back into the forest. After a short while, I reached the top of Mariko-Fuji (450m 丸子富士), a minor peak, cone-shaped like its namesake. It was entirely in the trees, but had a well-used visitor’s book, so I left a short message before continuing. Soon after, I arrived at “koyodai” (紅葉台 meaning “autumn colours pedestal”), a rocky prominence in the forest with a single maple tree on top, its bright orange leaves swaying in the wind. Next, I passed by a tiny tea field, probably producing some special kind of tea due needing this remote location. At 3h30, I was finally standing on top of the Korean Rock (韓国岩), a natural platform jutting out from the mountainside.

The final view of the day from the Korean Rock

Looking back at Mt Hanazawa

I had a close-up view of Shizuoka city with Mt Fuji rising above. The sun was sinking below the ridgeline behind me, and half the city was already in the shade; I had to hurry if I wanted to make it down before dark. Almost immediately, I encountered an unexpected fork in the trail. I decided to go left on the “Zelkova route” (けやきコース) descending in a steep zigzag. At the top of some fields, I had my final view of the day; although the low-lying city was now completely in the shadows, the surrounding mountains were still bathed in soft yellow light. A few minutes later I reached a temple and the end of the hiking trail. After a short bus ride to Shizuoka station, I jumped onto one of the frequent bullet trains for the one-hour ride back to Tokyo.

See what it feels like to hike Mt Takakusa

Mt Komayumi (1223m), Aoki Village, Nagano Prefecture, Sunday, December 5, 2021

I was hoping to do one last hike in Nagano before the start of the ski season and I was also keen on exploring the Ueda area some more. I found another mountain in my guidebook that I could reach with a short bus ride from the station. Buses ran frequently so I could be flexible with the departure time. I would go up and down different routes, but I would end up on the same bus line. The forecast called for sun and above freezing temperatures, so I was hoping to get a good view of the North Alps covered in snow.

Download a map of the Mt Komayumi hike

This map was developed for Japanwilds with the Hokkaido Cartographer

Find more Japan hiking maps on Avenza

View of the Chikuma river valley from the summit

Frost-covered trees on nearby summits

I enjoyed the views of the mountains of Gunma from the Hokuriku shinkansen on a cloudless day. After emerging from the tunnels around Karuizawa, I was greeted by dull, grey skies. Outside Ueda station, I had a little sun while waiting for the bus, but after getting off in Aoki village at 10am, the weather was again cold and miserable; it almost felt like it was going to snow. Trusting in the forecast, I set off through the village and reached the start of the trail a little after 10h30.

First view of the summit

Leafless trees going up, green pines going down

At 11am, I had the first views of today’s mountain: a rounded peak, with a rocky base and pine trees lining the top. Shortly after, I made my way up a steep slope through leafless trees, leading to my first views of the valley, below the rocky base. The sun suddenly came out, as the clouds moved swiftly south, leaving behind a solid blue sky. I could now see the surrounding mountains, the trees on the higher sections covered by frost. At 11h30, I reached a viewpoint on a shoulder from where I could see Mt Asama in the distance, cloud-free and its summit crater white with snow.

Frosty wonderland near the summit

Looking down towards Aoki village

I was surprised to see snowflakes falling gently as I reached the summit ridge. The trees were covered in frost and the surrounding scenery felt magical. At noon, I was standing on the top of Mt Komayumi (子檀嶺岳 こまゆみだけ komayumi-dake). Below, the wide valley of the Chikuma river at the foot of Mt Asama stretched from east to west. The snow had stopped falling, and the clouds were slowly melting away from the highest peaks of Nagano: east, I could see the rounded top of Mt Tateshina, to the west were the double peaks of Mt Azumaya, and looking south, I could make out the the white snows of the North Alps, shining between layers of clouds.

The North Alps, visible between the clouds

A pleasant descent through a sunny pine forest

I decided to head down earlier than planned, after the narrow summit had suddenly become packed with other hikers. At first, the path was covered with a thin layer of snow, forcing me to proceed carefully. I was walking on the north side, out of the sun and through a bare forest; soon after, I was back on the east side, walking under the warm winter sun through a green pine forest. At 2pm, I arrived at a paved road and a village, and half an hour later, I got to a bus stop on a busy road. It was a short ride to Ueda station, from where I caught the shinkansen for the one hour ride back to Tokyo.

See the snow falling on the summit of Mt Komayumi

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.