Mt Tsurugatoya (1374m), Otsuki City, Yamanashi Prefecture, Saturday, June 4, 2022 [Monkeys & 4K video]

I wanted to do a hike along the Chuo line, because of its easy access from Tokyo and relatively high mountains, perfect for escaping the early summer heat. It seemed like a good time to do a hike I had planned next to Mt Honjagamaru, starting from Sasago station., a couple of stops from Otsuki. However, it was a little on the short side, a shame during the long days of June. Studying my hiking map, I saw that instead of ending back at the Chuo line, I could traverse to the next valley, south of Mt Takagawa. As an added bonus, I could finish at Yorimichi no Yu hot spring near Tsurushi station. The weather forecast was the same as the previous few weeks: sunny and warm, with relatively little humidity. I was looking forward to hiking a local mountain and enjoying a hot bath after a long ramble.

View towards Otsuki city

View of the Doshi mountains through the trees

It was a beautiful June day as I rode the limited express to Otsuki, where I changed to the local Chuo line, finally getting off at Sasago station at 10am. Before hitting the hiking trail, I checked out the nearby Sasaichi sake brewery. By 10h30, I was walking up a narrow road through the forest alongside a river. I soon reached the end of the road and continued on a hiking trail, up a beautiful river valley; I was astonished that I had never heard of this spot before. A little after 11am, the path suddenly turned left, zigzagging up the mountain side.

River valley at the start of the hike

Getting close to the top ridge

It was a steep climb, with a couple of flat bits at an electric pylon and a road crossing. At noon, I reached a shoulder and saw movement out of the corner of my eye: I had stumbled on a troop of monkeys. I had not known there were monkeys in this area and spent half and hour observing them. Unlike the Okutama ones, they seemed quite scared of me, and kept a good distance; only one, probably the alpha male, completely ignored me while sitting on a tree stump next to the path (I kept my distance from him). At 12h30, I finally reached a narrow ridgetop, where I turned left.

Walking the narrow ridgetop

View towards Mitsutoge

I followed an undulating path through low, bright green trees; I saw no-one and felt far from the world. Just before 1pm, I had a view through a break in the trees: to the west was Mitsutoge, and to the east, the Doshi mountains. I continued on my way, enjoying the peace and quiet of this little hiked trail, and 15 minutes later reached the summit of Mt Tsurugatoya (鶴ヶ鳥屋山 つるがとややま tsurugatoyayama). It was in the trees, so I moved on without a break. The trail headed down steeply, the rocky sections equipped with ropes; I soon emerged onto a road, but picked up the trail again, 50 meters on the right.

Few hikers on this trail

A deforested area half way down the mountain

Here, I had a sweeping view north and east, as the trees had been cut, and upon reaching the top of a knoll, I sat down on a stump for a late lunch. To the north there was Mt Takigo, and behind, its summit in the clouds, Mt Gangaharasuri; to the east Mt Iwadono, Mt Momokura , and Mt Takagawa, surrounding Otsuki city; further south, I spotted Mt Kuki, Mt Imakura, and the Tsuru Alps, beyond Tsuru city. The latter was my final destination and it seemed still quite far; on top of that, many low dark clouds had gathered in that direction, hiding the highest peaks of the Doshi mountains.

Mt Takigo on the other side of the Chuo line

Today’s lunch stump

After lunch, I continued down a winding trail through a lovely pine forest. At 3pm, I reached a road which I followed for about half an hour to the start of Chigasaka Highway (近ヶ坂往還), hidden behind an old person’s home. It was a pleasant trail, gently climbing through mixed forest, although the sections before and after the pass were overgrown with grass, making it hard to follow. A little before 4pm, I arrived at a crossing at Chigasaka Pass (近ヶ坂峠 662m). After enjoying its tranquil atmosphere, I went straight down the other side.

Walking down through the pine trees (left) Heading up to Chigasaka Pass (right)

Walking through the tall grass around Chigasaka pass

I descended a grassy gully surrounded by tall trees; this was one of the most beautiful forested areas I had ever seen in the Tokyo area. Around 4pm, I reached a small stream which I followed for a short while, before reaching a house and a road at the edge of the forest. From there, it took less than an hour to reach Yorimicho no Yu onsen, six hours and a half after setting out in the morning; after a satisfying soak, I boarded the Fujikyu line for Otsuki, where I transferred to the limited express for the one hour trip back to Shinjuku.

See the river valley and the monkeys of Mt Tsurugatoya

Mt Okuratakamaru (1781m) & Mt Hamaiba (1752m), Otsuki and Koshu Cities, Yamanashi Prefecture, Saturday, May 28, 2022 [with 4K video]

I was looking for a relatively easy hike above 1500 meters ending at a hot spring, conditions dictated by the increasingly warm weather. I had walked most of the long ridge extending south from Daibosatsurei, but on examining my hiking map, I found a short, unexplored section. As an added bonus, it included one of the 12 beautiful Mt Fuji views of Otsuki. I could reach the start of the trail by taking the Chuo line to Kai-Yamato station and then a bus to Tenmoku hot spring; I could return to my starting point via a different trail further to the south. The weather was supposed to be sunny, warm and relatively dry. I was looking forward to enjoying the fine spring weather before the start of the rainy season, as well as getting a good view of Mt Fuji.

View of Mt Fuji near Mt Hamaiba

A ridge trail with plenty of views of Mt Fuji

It was a beautiful day as I rode the fully booked limited express to Otsuki where I changed to the local line for Kai-Yamato station. There, I squeezed onto an equally full bus for the ten-minute ride to Yamato Tenmoku Onsen; I was the only person to get off, the other passengers probably headed for the Daibosatsurei trailhead. I used a bench in front of the hot spring to get ready, and, at 10h30, set off along a narrow paved road through a green forest. One hour later, I reached the start of the trail for Yunosawa Pass (湯の沢峠).

Start of the trail for Yunosawa Pass

Looking back at Mt Kuro, further north along the ridge

I was soon heading up one of the most beautiful river valleys I had ever walked, made especially beautiful by the sunshine filtering through the new green of spring; few hikers, several river crossings and some fallen trees along the path made it quite adventurous as well. I could hear the croaking of toads, hiding under the mud, and the song of birds, hiding in the trees. A little before 1pm, I reached Yunosawa Pass, which had a parking area and a restroom. At a T-junction, I took the right branch and soon reached a grassy ridgeline.

Looking forward towards Mt Okuratakamaru

Getting close to the summit

I had a great view of the snowy peaks of the South Alps, from Mt Kaikoma to Mt Hijiri. It was a short, relaxing stroll to Mt Okuratakamaru (大蔵高丸 おおくらたかまる ootakumaru), also a 100 famous mountain of Kanto and Yamanashi; the name uses “maru” meaning round, instead of “yama“, and indeed, the summit was round and almost featureless. However, as promised, it had a stunning view of Mt Fuji, its crater rim still snowy white. I also had a view of the South Alps, and the Chuo line valley on the opposite side. It was 1h30, so I found a place to sit down for lunch; half an hour later, I continued on my way.

Mt Fuji still had its snowy cap

View southeast towards the Chuo line

The trail was easy to hike and easy to follow; I had excellent views in all directions. Huge cumulus clouds passed overhead and made me worry slightly about a sudden downpour. At 2h30, I reached Mt Hamaiba (ハマイバ丸 はまいばまる hamaibamaru), another “round” summit. Although this summit was mostly in the trees, Mt Fuji could be seen through a gap on the south side. After admiring Japan’s most famous mountain, I set off again. The path started to descend, and one hour later, reached Komeshoi Pass (米背負峠). There, I turned right, down another river valley.

Heading down from Komeshoi pass

The road back to Tenmoku onsen

This valley was just as beautiful as the one I had ascended, the rushing water sparkling under the mid-afternoon sun. At 4pm, I emerged onto a road, which I followed off the mountain; the road twisted and turned, giving me good views of the green hills of Yamanashi. After passing through a dark tunnel, I reached the main road, and at 5pm, I was back at Tenmoku Onsen. After a refreshing bath, I caught the bus for Kai-Yamato station, then boarded the train for Otsuki, and finally switched to the limited express for the one hour comfortable ride back to Shinjuku.

See the river and Fuji views on the Mt Okuratakamaru hike in 4K

Mt Otakatori (376m), Ogose Town, Saitama Prefecture, Sunday, May 22, 2022 [with 4K video]

I wanted to do a late afternoon hike close to Tokyo since the weather had suddenly become quite warm; I also wanted to try out the camera of my new smartphone. I chose a relatively low mountain I had climbed six years ago, which I could redo using different trails. I would take a train to Ogose in the early afternoon, have a soba lunch near the station, and finish the hike at a hot spring facility, newly opened since my previous visit; afterwards, I could use the onsen shuttle bus to return to Ogose. The weather was supposed to be sunny in the daytime and overcast in the evening. I was looking forward to doing another hike in the forests on the eastern edge of Oku-Musashi.

View from the top of Mt Otakatori

View form Nishiyama-Takatori

I arrived at Ogose station at 2pm, the hottest time of the day, and quickly made my way to Yoshiro (よしひろ), which I reached just at the end of the lunch time. After a satisfying soba meal, I walked another 15 minutes to the start of the trail inside the Go-Daison Azalea Park (五大尊つつじ公園). The flowering season was already over and the park was deserted. I found a small path through the forest, not on my map, but which led to a viewpoint of Ogose Town at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the World (世界無名戦士之墓), on the 2nd floor of a gleaming white monument.

Path to the tomb of the unknown soldier of the world

View from the monument of the unknown soldier

I had an excellent view of the Kanto plain thanks to the clear May weather, despite being less than 200 meters high. Behind the monument was the start of the trail up today’s mountain. It was about 4pm and the temperature was just right for some light hiking. After a short climb, I arrived at Nishiyama-Takatori (西山高取 271m), not a summit, but a shoulder on the mountain with a view east through the trees. It was also the intersection of several paths; after checking my map, I went south down some steps, before turning right at a T-junction.

Steps leading down from Nishiyama-Takatori

A trail mostly through the forest

I followed a pleasant level path through the green forest, stopping now and then to listen the sound of birds singing. I passed a group of white limestone rocks (白石様 shiraishi-sama) and a minor summit named Mt Nekko (根っ子山 324m), both completely in the trees. Around 5pm, I started to climb again, and after reaching a forested ridgeline, turned left. A few minutes later I was on the top of Mt Otakatori (大高取山 おおたかとりやま ootakatoriyama), where I had a view eastwards through a break in the trees. After a short break, I continued south along the summit ridge, reaching another minor peak, Mt Katsuragi (桂木山 367m) just before 5h30.

An easy to walk trail

Late afternoon on Mt Otakatori

The gloom was starting to gather, so I took the next path down, a shortcut according to a handwritten sign. I had passed some hikers earlier, but now I was all alone, except for a large animal I heard but never saw. The path became level and easy to walk, luckily, since visibility was dropping fast. Around 6pm, I passed another viewpoint on top of a hill, but not much to see under the grey clouds. A few minutes later I emerged onto a road inside O-Park Ogose ( オーパークおごせ). After a quick hot bath, I boarded the free shuttle bus for Ogose station where I caught the Tobu line for the one hour ride back to Ikebukuro.

See the green and hear the birds of Mt Otakatori in 4K

Kaburi Pass (508m) and Amagoi Hill (574m), Hanno City, Saitama Prefecture, Sunday, May 15, 2022

I wanted to hike in the hills close to Tokyo to enjoy the the new green of Spring. I had already done most of the trails in the Oku-Musashi area, but looking at my hiking map, I found two interesting trails I hadn’t done yet; between them, was a trail I had done more than ten years ago in the autumn, which I was happy to do again in a different season. I would take a train to Moroyama and from there a taxi to Kamakita lake; I would end at Kuroyama, from where I could catch a bus back to Ogose. Since the travel time was relatively short, I wouldn’t have to leave at the crack of dawn. Although there were no summits on the way, I hoped to get some good views from the “Green Road”. The weather was supposed to be mostly clear with pleasant temperatures. I was looking forward to exploring some new trails and enjoying a relaxing Spring hike.

View of the Hanno Alps from Kaburi Pass

Spider taking a break on an Iris

I rode the Tobu line under cloudy skies and arrived at Moroyama station a little past 10am. Since the bus to Kamakita lake wasn’t running on Sundays, I took a taxi instead and was ready to hike by 11am, just as the sun was coming out of the clouds. I was surprised at how much greener everything looked since my previous visit one month ago; rather than cherry blossoms, I got to enjoy many Irises (“shaga“) on the side of the road.

The sun breaking through the clouds

A pleasant path up to the “Green Line”

At a bend in the road, I spotted the trail entrance past a stream running through grassy area dotted with irises. I followed an easy to walk path through the forest, enjoying the sound of birds singing and reached a junction with a ridge trail running parallel to the Oku-Musashi Green Line (奥武蔵グリーンライン) just after 12h30. From there, I followed a mostly level road to Kaburi Pass (顔振峠) where I had a good view of the Hanno Alps on the other side of the valley.

An easy to walk trail through the forest

Hazy view of the Kanto plain from Amagoi Hill

I followed a small trail above the pass to a viewpoint of the Kanto plain on the east side; it was also the summit of Amagoi Hill (雨乞い塚 あまごいづか amagoizuka). It was 1h3o, so I sat down on a tree stump for a late lunch. The sun had gone back into the clouds and the view was hazy. I was the only person there and it was very peaceful. At 2pm, I continued my hike and walked along the road, past Kanto Adventures, to the start of the descent towards Kuroyama. Halfway down, I passed the eerie statue of En no Gyoja at the top of some rocks in a clearing. A little further, I spotted some deer escaping into the forest.

“En no Gyoja” statue on the way to Kuroyama waterfall

A small waterfall, not part of the Kuroyama 3 waterfalls

Shortly after 3h15, I reached a stream at the base of the mountain; it led me to the 3 waterfalls of Kuroyama (黒山三滝), Tengu-Taki (天狗滝), Medaki (女滝) and Odaki (男滝), from where it was a short walk down the road to the bus stop. On the way back, I stopped off at the Ume no Yu hot spring for a refreshing bath, and then caught then next (and last) bus for the short ride to Ogose station, from where it was a one hour ride on the Tobu line to Ikebukuro.

See the flowers and hear the birdsong on the Amagoi hill hike

Mt Arikasa (873m), Nakanojo Town, Gunma Prefecture, Sunday, May 8, 2022

I wanted to squeeze in one more hike before the end of Golden week after recovering from the three previous ones. I decided to visit Nakanojo in Gunma, as it was an area I was interested in exploring more. I found a three-hour loop in a booklet I picked up on my last visit; this mountain wasn’t in my guidebook, nor shown on any of my maps, so I had to rely on information online. I would ride the shinkansen to Takasaki, where I would transfer to the Agatsuma line. After getting off at Nakanojo, I could catch a bus for Sawatari Onsen, the last stop on the line. The hike itself went around a rocky, isolated peak, also a popular climbing area, with a short round-trip to the flat top on the south side. I was concerned about that part, as it included chains and ladders; I would have to proceed with caution going up, and even more on the way down. The weather was supposed to be clear and not too hot. I was looking forward to going to Nakanojo again and visiting a new hot spring town hidden in the mountains of Gunma.

View west from below “The Ladder”

Bus heading back to Nakanojo with Mt Arikasa in the background

It was a blue sky day as I rode the shinkansen, and then the local train, to Nakanojo. Around 10h30, I boarded a bus for Sawatari Onsen (沢渡温泉), my first time to ride this line. I got off at the last stop, just past the hot spring town, near a bridge over the Sawatori river. Straight ahead, I had a good view of today’s mountain, an isolated peak jutting straight up out of the green forest. As I got ready at the nearby Seseragi Park (せせらぎ公園), I wondered how the trail would get to the top of the rock. At 1130, I set off along a road, and half an hour later, just before another bridge over the river, I turned left onto a forest road.

Forest road leading to the West Entrance

Interesting rock formation in the middle of the forest

I had some more impressive views of today’s climb, after arriving at a fork in the road. I took the right branch for the West Entrance (西口), which I reached a little after noon. I followed the trail straight up the mountain side and soon reached an open shelter in the middle of the forest. I took a short break and then continued on my way. At 12h30, I reached a turnoff for a natural rock formation, resembling a dolmen, visible through the trees on the right. After circling it and peering through the gap in the middle, I resumed my climb.

The funny “Hahaha” sign (left) / Climbing “The Ladder” (right)

Start of the climb up “The Ladder”

The path turned right under some cliffs, the higher parts hidden by the green canopy of the trees ; here and there, I spotted chains used by rock climbers. At 1pm, I arrived at the East Entrance (東口) trail junction and the start of the roundtrip for the summit; I followed the path as it wound clockwise around the steep summit and passed a funny sign informing me that I was at an elevation of 888 meters, read as “Hahaha” in Japanese (ハハハ). Very soon, I was walking through a rocky area with views to the west through the trees; looking down, I realised I was at the edge of a cliff.

View south from the rocky outcrop

The very green East Entrance

I had also reached the chain and ladder section, called “The Ladder” (梯子); I climbed with care, but near the end I couldn’t advance while keeping three points of contact at all times; after some consideration, I finally found a way, and after fixing it in my mind for the return, continued with the ascent, now in a counter-clockwise direction. A few minutes later, I reached a rocky outcrop from where I had a view south of forested hills. Soon after, I arrived at the flat top of Mt Arikasa (有笠山 ありかさやま arikasayama), a Gunma 100 famous mountain. I couldn’t see anything through the trees, so I headed back almost at once; I got down “The Ladder” safely, and since it was 1h30, found a good place to sit for lunch, at a safe distance from the cliff edge. Afterwards, I continued along the trail, now heading downhill towards the East entrance.

The well-maintained “promenade” above Sawatari Onsen

View of Sawatari onsen, a secret hot spring resort in Gunma

As I passed under the cliffs, I could hear the voices of climbers echoing above. I walked along the forest road to the junction I had passed earlier in the day, and then made my way back to Seseragi Park. Since it was just past 3pm, I decided to follow a “promenade” (遊歩道), a short, well-maintained trail on the hillside above the hot spring resort. It took me past a small shrine surrounded by bright red Azalea, with good views of Mt Arikasa and Sawatari Onsen. At 4pm, I dropped by Ryumeikan (龍鳴館), for a quick hot bath before catching the bus back to Nakanojo. Once back in Takasaki, I rode the green car of the Shonan-Shinjuku line back to Tokyo, bringing to an end a series of successful golden week hikes.

See the views along the Mt Arikasa hike

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 Sekison (1667m) & Mt Hanare (1256m), Karuizawa Town, Nagano Prefecture, Tuesday, May 3, 2022

I finally had a chance to use the Tokyo Wide Pass,first time in four years, and in the end I did three hikes in a row. For the first one, I chose a small volcanic protrusion on the south side of Mt Asama (similar to Mt Hoei), which had been on my to-climb list for a while; being a relatively short trip up and down the same trail, it was reserved for a shinkansen jaunt. If I had time and energy after that, I would climb a small peak within Karuizawa Town, apparently the first one climbed by the Japanese Emperor, an enthusiastic hiker. After getting off the high-speed train, a short train ride on a local line, followed by an equally short taxi ride, would bring me to the start of the trail. I could travel to the second mountain by local bus, and at the end, walk half an hour back to the shinkansen station. The weather was supposed to be clear but cool for the season. I was looking forward to visiting Karuizawa after nearly two years and getting some close-up views of Mt Asama.

Hiking in the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park

上信越高原国立公園 

Mt Asama still wearing its winter coat

Karuizawa with Mt Myogi and Nishi-Joshu in the background

I had never seen Tokyo station so crowded: on the platform itself, it was nearly impossible to figure out where the end of the line was, and I was very lucky to snag one of the last unreserved seats. After a comfortable ride, I got off at Karuizawa station just before 10am, and transferred to the much less crowded Shinano railway for the two-stop ride to Shinano-Oiwake. I was pleasantly surprised to see cherry trees still in full bloom, one month after Tokyo. I got on the last taxi waiting outside the station and was at the trail entrance by 10h30. After getting ready and having a late breakfast, I set off at 11am.

Walking under the pine trees at the start of the trail

The surreal Nigori River

The first part of the hike was along an easy to walk trail, slowly rising through a pine forest within the southern reach of the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park (上信越高原国立公園). The altitude was around 1000 meters and spring was in full swing. Just before noon, I reached Nigori River (濁川 meaning “murky river”). I was stunned by its surreal yellow colour, probably due to the volcanic nature of the area. I was lucky to catch this sight on a sunny day, the water surface glittering like gold. After a few more minutes, I reached Chi-no-taki (血の滝), meaning “blood waterfall”, although it was still a muddy yellow.

Following a yellow river through the winter woods

Mt Asama, one of the hundred famous mountains of Japan

I was walking through a forest bare of leaves, since at 1400 meters, winter was back. The path continued to follow the Nigori river, passing “chi-no-ike” (血の池 “blood pond”), before turning away to the left, up a small valley. I soon reached the ridgetop, where I had my first view of Mt Asama, its rocky summit still sprinkled with snow. I walked up a short, steep slope in the opposite direction, and just after 1pm, was standing on the top of Mt Sekison (石尊山 せきそんさん sekison-san), its characters meaning stone and respect.

Yatsugatake, its highest peaks still covered in snow

Mt Asama is also an active volcano

The view was alot better than expected: on the east side, I could see the ridge connecting Mt Hanamagari with Usui Pass; behind Karuizawa was the craggy top of Mt Myogi; south were the mountain ranges of western Gunma; to the west, I could make out the shape of Yatsugatake, its highest peaks still shining white; the opposite side offered a stunning closeup view of Mt Asama. I was the only person on the mountain, so I settled on the grass for a quiet lunch. After half an hour, I started to descend the same way.

Still some snow due to a recent spring storm

It’s still winter above 1500 meters

I saw some puffs of smoke rise from the crater, reminding me that I was on the side of an active volcano. I retraced my steps back to the trail entrance; now and then the wind was blowing quite hard and made the tall pines trees sway above me. I moved quickly, as I wanted to allow enough time for the second climb of the day. I arrived back at my starting point at 3pm, and soon after reached the bus stop of the Chikuma city bus. Karuizawa being a popular resort town, I got stuck in some traffic and only reached the South Entrance of Harareyama Park (離山公園 after 4pm.

A well-maintained walkway along the steeper parts

Nearing the top

It was a relaxing climb through the forest, greener at 1000 meters; the steeper part near the top was along a well-maintained wooden walkway. Frequent signs breaking up the hike into 100 meter segments, were encouraging on the flat bits, less so on the ascending ones. At the end of a long staircase past some cherry trees still in full bloom, I reached the top of Mt Hanare (離山 はなれやま hanare-yama), the name meaning separation. To the west, I had a wider view of Mt Asama, as well as Mt Sekison, where I had been standing three hours earlier; it was against the sun, and would surely look even more impressive in the early morning.

Mt Asama from the top of Mt Hanare

Cherry blossoms, pink in the late afternoon sun

I was enjoying the late afternoon view when the five o’clock chime sounded through the valley. Normally, a call for children to come home for dinner, it also meant I had to hurry down if I wanted to catch my planned Shinkansen, about one hour later. I set off towards the East Entrance, and after some descending, I reached a wide gravel road taking me down to the base of the mountain. The last part was a pleasant walk past summer cottages set within the forest, for which Karuizawa is famous. At 6pm, I was back at the station, where I boarded the high speed train for the one hour ride back to Tokyo.

See the yellow waters of Nigori River and the volcanic fumes of Mt Asama

Mt Ozaku (879m) & Mt Gassan (890m), Kanuma City, Tochigi Prefecture, Sunday, April 17, 2022

I had been wanting to climb the first peak for several years, one of the few remaining from my list of the Kanto hundred famous. I kept on postponing it, since the hike went up and down rocky sections fitted with ladders and chains, and thus required dry weather and a good level of fitness. The stars lined up in mid-April, and I decided to grab the small window of opportunity. To get there, I would need to take a taxi to the start of the trail, since the morning bus left too early for the train from Tokyo. After the short loop hike described in my mountains of Tochigi guidebook, I would have ample time to catch the early afternoon bus back. I was looking forward to visiting one of my favourite hiking spots and experiencing what seemed like an exciting trail.

Looking at Gassan from Ozaku-yama

The sky was disappointingly grey as I left Tokyo on the Nikko line limited express, although patches of blue started to appear as I approached Shin-Kanuma station at 9am, giving me reason to hope; however, the clouds reasserted themselves during the twenty minute taxi ride to the entrance of the Kasoyama Shrine (加蘇山神社). I followed a small road for about 15 minutes to the shrine itself, perched on top of a long flight of stone steps. I spotted the trail on the left, past a small wooden gate topped with tuffs of green moss, with towering cedar trees on each side.

Steps leading to Kasoyama Shrine

The start of the trail

I walked along a level path surrounded by the new green of spring, here and there yellow Japanese buttercups adding touches of yellow. I passed the small “kiyotaki” waterfall (清滝), and after some gentle climbing, reached a small rest house, next to the slightly bigger “ryugataki” waterfall (竜ヶ滝). A little further, the trail split in two: I took the left branch as it included the trickier sections best tackled on the ascent; later on, I would descend via the right branch. The path suddenly became steep and rocky, and required more careful walking. I arrived at a second rest house just before 11am where I took a break.

Kiyotaki waterfall and Japanese buttercups

Ryugataki waterfall (left) stone lantern along the trail (right)

Before me rose a long rocky face fitted with a pair of parallel chains. Even though I had seen pictures beforehand, it seemed amazing that a path led straight up. After securing my pockets and tightening the straps of my bag, I proceeded with caution, as the surface, still damp from the morning dew, was slippery. At the end of the chained section, a long steel ladder led to a oku-no-miya (奥ノ宮), a tiny, off-trail shrine, hidden under a rocky crop. After a quick investigation, I continued along the main trail, as it cut around the rocky face to the south, wisely avoiding the direct approach.

Rocky section fitted with chains on the way up

A more dangerous section fitted with ladders

The chains and ladders soon reappeared, and there was even a short bridge along a narrow ridge with steep drops on each side. All this equipment seemed new and securely fastened, and for a while, I could enjoy the thrilling aspect of walking along the side of a rocky cliff, the thick vegetation masking the views and providing a false sense of security. Here and there, I could see pink rhododendron (“shakunage“), the flowers being in bloom precisely at this time of the year. At 11h3o, I reached the ridge top with a sense of relief and a few minutes later, I was standing on top of Higashi Kennomine (東剣ノ峰) where I had a view of today’s first summit directly north.

Shakunake near the top (left); ladder between east and west kennomine (right)

View to the west near the summit of Mt Ozaku

The next section was the scariest of the entire route: a long descent via a steep ladder. I moved slowly but steadily, always making sure to keep three points of contact at all times. At the base, after a short climb, I reached Nishi Kennomine (西剣ノ峰). There was a view on the east side, but today, all I could see was white. I continued down the other side and was faced with another series of ladders, less steep this time, at the bottom of which was yet another climb. Hoping this would be the last one, I charged off and in no time reached the top of Mt Ozaku (石裂山 おざくやま ozaku-yama meaning “split stone”), a Kanto 100-famous mountain. The only view was through a gap in the trees on the north side, through which I could see today’s next peak. The narrow summit was occupied by a large group, so I retreated to another spot with a view west, just a couple of minutes away.

Heading down a steep and rocky ridge

Lower down, walking alongside a rocky face

It felt chilly, almost as if winter was making an encore. I sat down for a quick lunch before resuming my hike. At 1pm, I reached the summit of Mt Gassan (or Tsukiyama 月山, meaning “moon mountain”). It had a lichen-covered shinto gate, a bunch of shakunage flowers and an old thermometer attached to the summit sign, the mercury level showing just below the 10° mark. After a short break, I descended a steep rocky ridge, then turned right onto a switchback path through cedar trees. I reached another chain-fitted rocky bit, at the back of the large group I met on the summit. They graciously let me pass ahead of them; I had to be doubly careful not to make a false move in front of an audience.

A lonely Kamoshika enjoying the spring leaves

A rare sight, especially at such a low altitude

I was now walking through an impressive canyon, a rock face on my right and a small stream on my left. Eventually, it widened into a valley, the new green of spring reappearing at the lower altitude. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted movement high on the opposite slope – a solitary “kamoshika” or Japanese serow, munching on the new leaves; I hadn’t seen one since Mt Kushigata, three years ago. After observing this rare and magical sight for a while, I moved on quickly; I was still on schedule, but couldn’t afford to miss the only bus of the afternoon. On the opposite side of the valley, I noticed scores of fallen trees, probably due to the powerful typhoons of recent years; looking up through the gap in the forest, I saw blue sky, at last.

Walking back to the trail entrance

Better weather at the end of the day

I carefully stepped on green moss-covered rocks to cross the stream I had been following, reaching the junction and the rest house I had passed earlier in the day. It was now 2pm and only half an hour to go, so I could complete the hike at a relaxed pace. I checked out a small pool of water next to the path and discovered dozens of tadpoles in the shallow water, also a rare sight, since I hadn’t seen any since 2019. I also saw some “mitsumata” flowers, last seen on Mt Ashitaka the previous year. I arrived safely back at the bus stop under blue skies, the day’s forecast finally coming true. At 3pm, I got on the small bus for Shin-Kanuma station, where I transferred to the limited express for the 90-minute ride to Tokyo.

See the sights of Mt Ozaku and Mt Gassan

The flowers of Tochigi in the spring

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