Yanagisawa Pass to Shirasawa Pass, Koshu City, Yamanashi Prefecture, Saturday, September 7 2019

Coincidentally, I ended up hiking in another national park, this time the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, the closest one to Tokyo. I took the limited express Chuo line all the way to Enzan – they updated this line to all reserved seating earlier this year, and I have to admit that so far it’s a positive change, since I’ve been able to get a seat every time, which wasn’t the case with the old system.

From Enzan station, I took a bus all the way up to Yanagisawa pass at nearly 1500m. After I got the bus I was able to see a good view of Mt Fuji, as well as some classic cars parked just behind the viewpoint. The last time I was there, I went East towards Mt Keikan and Daibosatsu Rei. This time I made my way first West, then North, along an easy to hike path through beautiful forest. I could hear deer but I couldn’t see them – I did see a toad though. Since there were no major peaks along the way, I saw almost no other hikers, and the weather was a lot better than I had expected – sun and clouds, but no mist.

Mt Fuji from Yanagisawa pass

I soon reached Yanagisawa no Tou 栁沢の頭 where there was another view, and a little further, I got to an even better viewpoint, Hanze no Tou ハンゼの頭 (1681m). I could see Mt Daibosatsu Rei, Mt Fuji, the Kofu valley and the entire range of the South Alps. Another hiker even pointed out the pointed peak of Mt Kinpu which I had completely missed. One of the best views in the area and almost completely deserted!

Mt Fuji with blue mountains in the foreground

After an enjoyable lunch, I continued along the long ridge that forms part of the backbone of the Koshu Alps, as the mountains of Yamanashi are called. I soon reached the Kasatori forest path – there was no signpost, but I instinctively turned left, and found the continuation of the hiking path a little further, just beyond the NTT antenna.

The South Alps – notice the pointy peak of Mt Shiomi in the middle

The path was flat and easy to hike, but as most paths in Japan, it didn’t last. I soon reached a steep downhill which took me to a construction site, a little surprising high up on the mountain. They were installing solar panels, something I’ve been seeing more and more on my hikes. Past the solar panels, I lost the path for a short while, but managed to get back on it soon enough. This is a trail that could certainly do with more signposting.

Clouds converging on Mt Daibosatsu Rei

Soon the path begun a series of steep uphills and downhills. I would love to recommend this hike to people who are looking for a not-so-challenging hike, but although the climbs and descents aren’t long, they were pretty steep! I got some nice views Eastwards of Mt Keikan and Daibosatsu Rei, as well as the triangular summit of Mt Kumotori further in the distance. In front of me was Mt Kasatori, and to the West was Mt Kobushi and Mt Kentoku. I had already hiked all these peaks and connecting ridges, so it was enjoyable to view them from a distance.

Looking back towards Tokyo

I was starting to wonder when I would arrive at Shirasawa pass 白沢峠 when I suddenly spotted a couple of people sitting in chairs in a clearing ahead. It was quite surreal since I hadn’t seen anybody for the past 3 hours. But here they were relaxing and smoking cigarettes in the middle of nowhere, as if they were at some campsite. There was also an abandoned vehicle in the middle of the clearing with a tree growing in the middle of it. I wasn’t too surprised to see it there, since I had seen photos of it while researching the hike.

It’s like something from a Ghibli movie!

There was a jumble of signs nearby and I couldn’t quite make out where I was, but surely not Shirasawa-toge! first I wasn’t at a pass; second there was no path heading down to the East. I asked the two people, not hikers, relaxing near the abandoned truck but they had no idea. The younger of the two vaguely gestured to the right saying that they had come up through the forest, but I couldn’t see a path. I decided to continue along the main trail.

Solar panels with Mt Kobushi in the background

I continued for nearly half an hour, during which the path went down a bit, and then started to climb again. It had turned into a wide and not so nice forest path. I was starting to wonder when I would get to the pass, when it suddenly hit me – the grassy area with the two guys and the car was the pass! I immediately turned around and started to run back. When I got back, the 2 guys had gone, and I found the path down to the bus stop – it was really faint and hard to see, but it was a proper trail.

Luckily it was easy to run and I sped down it as fast as I could. Soon I was following a mountain stream, and then I reached a dirt road, where I passed the two guys who were in fact motorcyclists. I half hiked and half ran, and finally reached the Koshu Kaido (which runs all the way from Tokyo) where I caught the bus (the same one as in the morning) back to Enzan station.

Japanese toad I spotted on the trail

Next up: Mt Mikuni in Gunma prefecture

November Snow Hiking, Daibosatsurei (2047m), Yamanashi Prefecture

With  early freak snowstorm, mountains in the Kanto area received up to 20 cm of fresh snow. I did a short reconnaissance up Mt Hiwada 日和田山 (305m) near Hanno station on Friday. Unfortunately snow and November temperatures don’t really mix, and everything was melting as if Mother Nature was trying to cover up some big mistake in a hurry.

Big lumps of snow were falling from the branches making walking under the trees quite perilous. In other places snowmelt was coming down in streams of water just as if it were raining, except that it was a beautiful sunny day. Overall the muddy and wet conditions were starting to make me despair that I would be able to find a good place to go hiking on Saturday. Too low, I would encounter similar slushy conditions. Too high and there was a risk of losing the trail or worse, running into trouble on a steep section.

I finally hit upon an interesting idea which I was able to confirm after a quick search on internet. Buses for Daibosatsurei (2047m) 大菩薩嶺, one of the hundred famous mountains, usually run till about mid-December, after which the service is stopped till the spring because of snow. Daibosatsurei is a relatively easy mountain to hike, a place I was familiar with, and that would also make a good snow hike, except that in the in the winter months you would have to hike up (and down) from a much lower point, the entrance of the Daibosatsu mountain trail at 900m. However, despite the unusual snowfall the buses were still running on Saturday November 25th and thus it was possible to get all the way up to Kamihikawatouge 上日川峠, nearly 600m higher, and a very good convenient starting point for a stroll in the snow.

After getting off at Kaiyamato 甲斐大和 station, I rushed to get in line at the bus stop. Daibosatsurei is a highly popular place to hike, not only because it’s a hyakumeizan but it’s also relatively close to Tokyo and easy to hike. However this time, we were only a handful of people waiting for the bus. Perhaps most people were dissuaded by the snowy conditions or maybe less people go there after the Koyo (autumn leaves) season.

Whatever the reason, I almost thought they were right when the bus failed to turn up on time. We were informed by the bus driver of another bus that ours was running late because of the icy roads. Our ride finally rolled in 30 minutes late making a loud rattling noise because of the snow chains. For once this was a good thing, since the hike I had planned, a simple loop of the top part of the mountain was a tad too short. With half an hour shaved off, the timing was perfect.

There are few mountain roads in the Tokyo area that are open through winter and thus it was quite a unique experience riding up the mountain with snow banks on either side and, ice and snow underneath on the higher parts of the road.

20161126_150734
Icy conditions on the road to Kamihikawa Pass

I was finally able to start hiking just after 11am. At 1600m the snow was already getting heavy and wet, and any hiking below that point was bound to be unpleasant. I took the ridge trail leading straight up to the summit. Under the trees, it was enjoyable to hike on the snow, made compact and firm by the footsteps of previous hikers, and on the rocky sections higher up, the snow had completely disappeared from anything in direct sunlight. There was no ice, and crampons weren’t necessary on the ascent although I had light ones in my pack, and several people were using them, mainly for going down. The views of Mt Fuji and the entire range of the South Alps were stunning. I had been to Daibosatsurei before but the views hadn’t been anywhere as great.

20161126_121526
Mt Fuji in a sea of clouds
20161126_122951
The South Alps with their winter caps on

The top ridge at around 2000m was freezing and the snow was 20cm deep and practically powdery.  From the highest point, you can walk down along the ridge enjoying the beautiful winter scenery. At the emergency hut on the Daibosatsu Pass I turned right and walked down along the gently sloping wide path that meanders through the forest at the base of the top ridge back to the bus stop. Being somewhat sure-footed and having heavy solid hiking boots, I never had to resort to my crampons.

All in all a satisfying if somewhat short hike (under 4 hours) in a snowy setting and a good choice after a late autumn / early winter snowstorm. Most likely the bulk of the snow under 2000m will have melted by next weekend making this a one-off.

20161126_132559
The Daibosatsu Ridge
20161126_134735
The famous Daibosastu Pass

Honjagamaru (1631m), Otsuki City, Yamanashi Prefecture

This 100 famous mountain of Yamanashi would deserve a place among the 200 or 300 famous mountains of Japan. It offers a challenging climb and a wide view from the top, including Mt Fuji and the South Alps. The trail is also easily accessible on foot from Sasago station on the Chuo line. Funnily enough, it’s not called a “yama” (mountain), but a “maru” (circle).

HOW TO GET THERE: Take the Chuo line from Shinjuku station and get off at Sasago station a couple of stops past Otsuki station. Don’t do like me: fall asleep and miss your stop. I was lucky to be able to get off two stations later, and catch a train back within ten minutes – there are only about 2 trains an hour out there.

Ask for a hiking plan for Honjagamaru

 

THE ROUTE: From Sasago station’s sole exit, walk up the road on the right. Within 50 meters you will reach a T-Junction. This was probably the most confusing part of the hike, since the hiking sign clearly points to the left, whereas my map indicated a right turn. According to the map the left trail was a hard to follow route to another summit on the same ridge. Since it was published 3 years ago, things may have changed.

I decided to go right anyway, and after walking along a dirt road for about 15 minutes, I was relieved to spot a sign for the trail entrance, pointing to a dirt trail going up the mountain on the left. I set off along it with renewed confidence, only to reach an unmarked branching barely ten meters further. The left branch followed the bottom of the valley, and the right one went literally straight up the mountain side.

The beautiful ridge line path

Having already lost a significant amount of time by missing my station, and locating the trail entrance, I followed my gut instinct and went right. I guessed that the paths would probably join up later, as it often happens when you encounter an unmarked branching. They never did, and for the time being it was a mystery.

I quickly discovered that my chosen path was extremely steep – so steep that a couple of times I had to kick in the dirt with the tip of my hiking shoes to get a grip. The path was also very faint; I was starting to wonder whether it was the right choice after all when suddenly I saw a pink ribbon attached to a low branch, the unofficial trail marker throughout the area. The climb to the first shelf was intense, and left me gasping my breath at an electric pylon. After that it was easier going. The surrounding forest was beautiful and felt quite wild.

Some autumn colours

There was another confusing part about an hour after I started climbing, when the path disappeared into some dense vegetation, some sort of grass that had grown out of control. There wasn’t a clear path leading around it, so in the end I picked up a stick and literally beat a path through it myself. I finally emerged onto a road on the other side, as predicted by my map, and thus confirming that I was on the right path.

After the road, there was another very steep dirt path requiring more kicking. Eventually big rocks and boulders started appearing on either side of the path, a sure sign I was approaching the summit ridge. At last, I reached a minor summit 1377 meters high, but there wasn’t much of a view, so I soon continued along the ridge line.  After a while I got to see some beautiful autumn colours, looking amazing with the blue sky in the background.

More autumn colours

Finally I started getting some glimpses of Mt Fuji. After confirming with a descending hiker that the summit had a clear view of Mt Fuji, I hurried along till I reached the summit of Honja-ga-maru 本社ヶ丸, and a stunning view. To the south was glorious Mt Fuji, so close I felt could touch it; in front and to the left was Mt Mitsutoge, a 200-famous mountain; to the West were the South Alps; to the North were Yatsugatake and the mountains of the Chichibu-Tama-Kai national park; the view to the East was hidden by trees. I found a good sitting spot on a rock with a view of Mt Fuji, and had by lunch.

After lingering as long as I dared, I started downhill, continuing along the ridge. There were several more excellent viewpoints on the way. The surrounding rocky scenery felt very wild. On the way, I scared away a family of partridges. At one point, there was a path leading down to Sasago station to the right. I ignored it since I intended to follow the ridge lime for some more time before heading down.

Mt Fuji in the autumn

Just after that there was another tricky part – the path switches back and goes down the opposite side of the mountain. This is the path to Mt Mitsutoge. Shortly after you go under the trees, there is small path leading right and following the ridge again. The sign has fallen down so it is easy to miss. At the fork for Mt Haccho (八丁山 haccho-yama), I turned right to get off the mountain. The round-trip to the top of this mountain takes barely 15 minutes, but I had to drop it since I had lingered too long at the summit, and was in a hurry to get down before it got dark.

View south from the top

A little further there was yet another tricky part. A little before Onna-zaka Pass (女坂峠 onnazaka-toge), there was a path to the right for Sasago station that wasn’t on the map. The route through 女坂峠 was longer and involved an up and down, whilst this new route was more direct. Actually, we were 3 hikers hesitating at this sign. In the end, as evening was arriving quickly, we all chose caution over adventure, and took the fastest route back to the station. Unfortunately, it was also probably the least beautiful option as it descended quickly through secondary forest. As a consolation, it did offer some nice views of Honja-ga-maru and the surrounding peaks.

Honjagamaru from near the end of the hike

Finally after going back and forth through some newly planted pines trees, the path joined up with the official map path. This was the path to the station I had ignored earlier. I was glad I had taken the ridge line path on the way up, since it was truly beautiful with many views. Soon after, the road became paved, and it was a pretty boring 40 minute-walk to the station. According to the map there was supposed to be a bath near the end of the hike. However the locals told me it had closed.

CONCLUSION: Strongly recommended if you are looking for a station to station quiet hike in beautiful forest with great views within 2 hours from Tokyo. The main drawbacks are some navigational difficulties and no onsen at the end.

Ask for a hiking plan for Honjagamaru