Mt Buko (1304m), Yokoze Town, Saitama Prefecture

This was one of the first mountains I climbed in Chichibu. I was intrigued by its pyramid-shaped top, spotted on my previous visits to the area. Could it be easily climbed? why was it two-thirds bare of trees despite being way below the treeline? I decided to go on a hot sunny day in the middle of June; in fact it was the day Michael Jackson passed away. The sky was hazy and the view from the top wasn’t great, so I have always been wanting to make another attempt in the cooler months.

Ask for a hiking plan for Mt Buko

 

Although technically a station to station hike, it’s an hour and a half walk along a paved road from Yokoze station, so getting a taxi to the trailhead is a good option, especially if you’re in a group (it might require prior reservation). I got off the train station at the very early time of 7am so I decided to go on foot. On the way, I got some dramatic views of today’s mountain. It soon became clear that the triangular treeless summit wasn’t natural, but formed through mining – ir was one big quarry. I passed by several factories that seemed to belong to a Hayao Miyazaki movie; they’re probably used to process the mined rock. Further on, the road started to climb, and a beautiful mountain stream appeared on the left side.

The Ghibli-like factories at the base of Mt Buko

I arrived at the “torii” marking the trail entrance at 8h45. It was flanked by a pair of dog or wolf guardians, something I don’t usually see. There are rumours that wolves still exist in Chichibu; perhaps this is where there used to live. Beyond was an extremely steep mossy concrete road heading straight up the mountain through dense cedar forest. Every time I consider redoing this hike, this part comes to mind. Thankfully it was soon over, and I was following a regular hiking path. Half an hour later I reached a waterfall called “fudotaki” 不動滝. Past it was a small log bridge crossing a narrow ravine, adding a little bit of a excitement to the day.

Wolf deity shrine statue

Another hour of hot and sweating climbing brought me to a log staircase that seemed to go on and on, but with some views to the South at the top. Fortunately most of the hike so far had been under the trees. From this point, it was a short walk to the highest point of Mt Buko 武甲山 (bukozan), the height of which seemed to be under a fierce debate judging from a very basic map I saw there – it had 3 different heights with one crossed out! I was surprised to see that the summit area was covered in forest. However, the North side was completely open, and was guarded by a low fence. As I walked up to it, I saw that I was standing at the top of a cliff. Far below was a flat area with tracks for vehicles; below that the forest reappeared. The mining seemed to be making its way from the top of the mountain to the bottom. So far it was one third down but I wonder how low they will go?

The log bridge hidden among the trees 

As I mentioned before, the views were hazy, but in clear weather, the view of the Chichibu valley must be amazing. I checked my phone, and was stunned by the news of Michael Jackson’s death. It was nearly noon and, despite the elevation, I was getting quite hot, so I decided to head down and take advantage of the tree shade. I enjoyed this section very much. The path was easy to walk and there good views through the trees. Since it was a weekday, mining was going on, and the mountain was rocked by a couple of explosions just past noon. Probably no risk to hikers, but I was glad to be on the opposite side.

A cool dipping spot (beware of snakes!)

After an hour of downhill, I reached a mountain stream with a small waterfall, next to which was a shallow basin of clear water. I couldn’t resist so I took off my shoes and waded in. After my dip, I spotted a snake nearby so in hindsight it probably wasn’t a good idea! The next part was another hour walking along a forest road. However, a pickup truck suddenly arrived behind me; the driver stopped and kindly offered to drive me to the station. I had this kind of experience more than once in Chichibu, and it speaks volumes of the kindness of its people. Since there were 2 people in the cab, I sat on the flatbed, and was able to enjoy the surrounding nature as we drove off the mountain. I reached the station by 4pm. It was still early, so I decided to take a hot bath before the two-hour train ride back to Ikebukuro.

Japanese rat snake (harmless) or Japanese pit viper (dangerous)?

The puzzle of Mt Buko was now solved to my satisfaction (also thanks to some online information). I have mixed thoughts about mining mountains, especially ones that are so prominent. Although it would be nicer to keep them in their natural shape, there is no denying that this one has become more recognisable and famous, thus attracting more hikers.

Ask for a hiking plan for Mt Buko

Check out the mountain stream with its double waterfall

Purpose of this blog

I am an avid hiker. Maybe its because when I was a child my parents used to drag me and my brother on long tiring walks in the mountains most weekends. Or maybe I am seduced by the beautiful and complex shapes of mountains and the awe-inspiring vistas from their summits. Or maybe I am just a sucker for physical punishment and get off on pushing my body and my mind to its limits. Whatever the reason, I really enjoy walking up mountains and not just the famous ones. There are literally dozens of greats climbs within reach of Tokyo and, by steering clear of the aforementioned famous ones, you will not have to share them with half the population of Tokyo. The purpose of this blog is to document some of these hikes.

If a Standalone Kanji Looks Odd, Opt for the “ON” Reading

世界中を転戦する日本の選手達が一堂に会す”

From Baby Steps

While studying Japanese, one of the things I learned early on was that a kanji used by itself would use its “kun” reading, and two kanji used together would use their respective “on” readings. This is a rule with many exceptions. While reading manga, I discovered many two-kanji words that used their kun readings instead. These are so widespread that I think anybody who has studied Japanese would have come across many examples of this.

However, for a long while I wasn’t aware that the opposite could happen as well i.e. a kanji by itself could use the “on” reading, even though there was already a “kun” reading available. I have to admit that this revelation blew my mind. Not only could a word be expressed by a single kanji using the “kun” reading, and a compound using the “on” reading, but once more by a single kanji using the “on” reading (actually, many words can also be written using the katakana form of the English equivalent, so in theory that’s four ways to say the same thing).

The sentence at the top from the Baby Steps manga can roughly translate as “Japanese players competing around the world meet for a short time [at the all-Japan Tennis Tournament]“. The sentence uses 会す read かいす instead of the more usual 会う read あう. I guess the former sounds more formal for example in a narration. In this case, common 会 compounds such as 会議 and 集会 aren’t suitable. Another option would have been to use 集まる or the compound 集合. Here, 集 used by itself with its “on” reading means “a collection”, and so doesn’t fit the sentence.

I guess this means that Japanese, like most languages, has a certain amount of inbuilt redundancy, allowing it to express the same concepts several ways (as the English language has words of German and French origins). However for Japanese, it’s harder to make this connection since we are taught to read single kanji and compounds differently. But once we notice that the hiragana ending of the standalone kanji is different from the expected one (“す” and not “う”), or even missing, we can infer that we should use the “on” reading.

Finding the Odd One Out Among All That Hiragana

“服従するよりほかしかたがなかった”

This is a sentence taken from “The Promised Neverland“. The word at the head of the sentence is read ふくじゅう and means obedience or submission. A literal translation would give “There wasn’t any other way than to obey” although a more natural translation might be “I had to obey“, although the Japanese way makes it sound more resigned. as well as less direct.

What is interesting here is how “仕方” is how the author chose to write it in hiragana instead of kanji. Since Japanese sentences don’t use spaces between words, this makes it doubly difficult to read at a glance, even for a Japanese speaker (I did the test). This is where using the kanji would have been very helpful. This issue crops up quite often when reading manga aimed at younger audiences.

For example, at first glance Doraemon might seem a breeze but it’s a real headache, since it’s 90% kana, making it difficult to distinguish words from grammar. Kids don’t have trouble with it because they are familiar with the sounds of the words. On the other hand, manga targeting adults tend to overuse kanji, using them even for words that are typically written in kana (more on that in another post).

The trick is to be able to recognise common grammatical patterns  such as “なかった“(wasn’t) so one can quickly find the “odd word” out, hidden in the middle of all that hiragana. So when using manga as a study tool, handle these long blocks as road bumps and proceed a little more slowly – you might find something interesting.

Anki X Manga

This is some extra content, mostly unrelated to hiking. I have been studying Japanese for nearly half my life. A few years ago, I started to focus on improving my reading skills. I have always enjoyed reading manga, so I decided to use it to make Anki flashcards. First, I read purely for pleasure, quickly circling any new words with a pencil. Later on, I do a second pass, checking words with an online dictionary Finally, I type the sentence containing the word into a flashcard. This last part has several benefits. It helps me recall the meaning of the word, it allows me to see how the word is used within a sentence, and it reminds me of the scene in the manga.

Over the years, I have accumulated thousands of cards spanning dozens of manga. As the cards are spread out over days, months and even years, interesting combinations tend to pop up on a daily basis, revealing patterns that aren’t easy to notice using other study methods. Also by seeing the cards repeatedly, I became more aware of subtleties and nuances. Finally, forgetting a card after several months and having to relearn it, enabled to see nuances I had missed before. This is a space to share these observations, hoping it may help others studying Japanese.

Hotel Chinzansou “Sea of Clouds”, Bunkyo City

Last month I spent one night at Hotel Chinzansou in the heart of Tokyo. In normal times, its beautiful Japanese-style garden is open to day-time visitors. However, because of the pandemic, it’s now restricted to hotel guests only. So I wasn’t aware that they had been spraying water mist several times an hour to create a sea of clouds.

The blue “sea of clouds” is only once a day

Morning mist at the edge of Yusui-chi pond

The mist dissipates in a matter of minutes, but during that time the lower section on the garden is enveloped in a mysterious atmosphère. It’s even more impressive at night, when the lanterns are turned on. Since there are few guests, it is fun to wander around and get lost in the mist. The path leading to the entrance on the Kanda river is probably the best section.

Statues, mist and a pagoda

The mist only spreads through the lower section of the garden

At certain times, they do scented mists, and once in the evening, they do a blue mist. The very last mist of the day is a big “sea of clouds”, when they release mist for a longer time. This isn’t mentioned on the pamphlet; it was one of the staff who whispered it to me. Another secret is the small shrine behind the pagoda at the top of the garden; it has its own separate mist system.

Path leading to the gate on the Kanda river

The main garden pond turns blue once a day

In Japanese, a sea of clouds is called “unkai” and is something that is typically observed in the mountains in the mornings. Perhaps it’s because people were asked not to travel to other prefectures during the state of emergency, that someone decided to create this special mountain phenomenon inside Tokyo. Whatever the reason, it’s a brilliant idea, since it’s simple to execute and visually spectacular.

Path leading up to the pagoda

“Sea of mists” in the daytime

From November 11th, they are starting “Aurora“, a variant of the “sea of clouds”. From the photos it looks the same, except there is also some mist in the sky. By the way, the sea of clouds started about a year ago, in October 2020. I wonder if they will continue it once the garden is open to day-time visitors again as it might become crowded. In any case, it’s probably best to try and see it before then by staying one night at the hotel if possible.

See the spooky atmosphere of the sea of clouds at Hotel Chinzansou

The East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, Chiyoda City

The first place I tried to visit on my initial trip to Tokyo was the East Garden of the Imperial Palace in the geographical center of Tokyo. It was a Friday morning in September, and after a long hot slog, we found out that it was closed on Fridays (this was before the smartphone). I eventually managed to go inside after moving to Japan a couple of years later. At the time I thought it was quite nice. I paid another visit a few years after that to see the plum blossoms in February, but I didn’t visit the other areas.

The Ote-Mon gate leading to Otemachi

The Doshin Bansho Guard House with Marunouchi in the background

I never dropped by again although I work nearby, simply because there are so many other things to see in Tokyo. Recently, I was walking by in the late afternoon and noticed that the park was still open. Since the entrance was free, I decided to continue my stroll inside. I was glad I did, because I had totally forgotten how beautiful it was. I thought I would be in and out in half an hour, but I ended up being “gently” pushed out before closing time by the many police officers patrolling the gardens. The highlight for me was the Ninomaru garden with its central pond. When standing next to the small waterfall, I couldn’t see any buildings above the trees, and I could forget for a moment I was in Tokyo. A little further, I arrived at an interesting botanical sight: symbolic trees form each prefecture in Japan, including a palm tree from Miyagi. Each tree had a small sign with its name, and I wished I had more time to examine them in detail.

From one side of the pond, a high-rise building visible above the trees

Standing on the other side, just nature and the blue sky

At the top of a slope, I arrived at Tenshu-dai, described in the pamphlet I received from the kind lady at the entrance, as the base of the main tower. The original tower was lost in a fire but according to the signpost it had been the tallest ever built in Japan. I climbed the short but steep slope to the top to check out the view. I couldn’t see much because of the trees, but I was able to get a good look at the beautiful Concert Hall; it looked like it belonged to the Meiji era. One of the police officers on duty there, kindly offered to take my photo.

What is that old-fashioned structure among the high-rise buildings?

The “Tokagakudo” Concert Hall

Next, I walked the entire length of the surprisingly wide lawn to Fujimi-Yagura, meaning “Mt Fuji view turret”. I was hoping to get a glimpse of Japan’s most famous mountain, but I hadn’t realised that the the tower was closed to the public. Also, according to the signboard, it was no longer possible to see Mt Fuji because of all the high-rise buildings. Here, a police man caught up with me, and asked me to make my way to the entrance since the park was closing soon. A black car arrived a few minutes later and followed me till I was nearly out.

The Fujimi Watchtower, hidden in one corner of the gardens

The usual view from the gardens, surrounded by business districts

Walking back to the Otemon gate I admired the various grey stone walls, reminders of the old Edo castle that used to stand on these grounds. Policemen were positioned at every junction and politely showed me the way to the exit. I noticed many benches throughout the park, so I hope to return one day, perhaps in a different season, and spend more time soaking up the peaceful atmosphere of this garden in the heart of Tokyo.

Outside Ote-Mon Gate

William Adams (Miura Anjin) Memorial, Nihonbashi

I had read “Shogun” by James Clavell shortly after arriving in Japan, and had enjoyed every page of it. It recounts the story of the Englishman William Adams, Japanese name Miura Anjin, who was shipwrecked on the coast of Japan in 1600, and lived out the rest of his life here. He established a close relationship with Ieyasu Tokugawa, who unified the country around the same time.

The novel gave me a good sense of what Japan was like 400 years ago. What impressed me while reading this novel was how commoners could lose their lives over the smallest of slights. Often, close family members would be executed at the same time. I feel sometimes that the extreme politeness of the Japanese must have come from this past trauma, although James Clavell may have been exaggerating this practice.

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Close up of the text of the memorial (notice the last line)

Anjin-san, as he is often called throughout the book, was a real person, and it was amazing that he was able to navigate, survive and thrive in such a harsh environment. He might have been the first true “gaijin”. His grave is located on the Miura Peninsula in Tsukayama Park, which I have also visited (but that will be for another post). His Tokyo home was much closer, since it’s located a stone’s throw from Nihonbashi Bridge, the historical center of Edo Tokyo.

The stone memorial marking the spot is squeezed between two modern buildings. There is an English description of his life, crammed into one long sentence. I had to laugh aloud when I saw the final line: “Rebuilt by some Japanese”. That’s quite a nice way of saying “by Anonymous”. It’s definitely worth a quick visit if one is familiar with the story and strolling through out the area.

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Sofuan, Maebashi City, Gunma Prefecture

Before driving up Mt Akagi for a short hike, I decided to drop by Nakaya Sofuan Honten (なかや 桑風庵 本店) for lunch. There were many other soba restaurants along the road, but this one had by far the highest rating on Google Maps. It was also the 4th highest ranked soba restaurant in the Maebashi area, so my expectations were high.

Table with a view

I parked my car in the large parking lot, crossed the road, and followed a small path through a garden to the entrance. Even though it was a weekday, people were constantly arriving and leaving. Fortunately, the restaurant was quite spacious, and I was seated immediately at a table with a view of the garden.

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Sofuan’s handmade soba

I ordered the handmade soba with tempura (天ぷら付き手打ちそば tenpura tsuki teuchi soba). I was impressed with the size of the tempura which included a couple of enormous shrimp. The soba was firm and chewy, and I enjoyed every bite; it’s not often that I eat every scrap on the strainer.

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The entrance to Sofuan

It was also possible to have some chilled “amazake” (sweet sake), but I had to pass since I was driving. One interesting aspect about this place was that you could order two, three and four-person portion of soba and tempura. So instead of getting several plates of tempura, everything comes in one big plate. On the other hand, everybody gets their own plate of soba. I guess that is the one thing Japanese diners would rather not share.

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Nama Soba Gezan, Numata City, Gunma Prefecture

On my way to the Tanbara Highland hike, I stopped for an early lunch at the popular Nama Soba Gezan 生そば下山. The name combines “freshly made soba” with a word that means “descending from the mountain”. I chose it since it had a high rating on Tabelog, and was conveniently situated on the road leading to my hiking destination. I was able to time my arrival to a few minutes before the 11h30 opening time, and was surprised to get the last free parking spot; in reality there were only 3 other cars, but I didn’t expect to be last in line way out in the countryside.

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The restaurant is prepared for long lines

Fortunately I was seated almost immediately. I loved the traditional setting of the restaurant, especially the sunken fireplaces. Although it was possible to sit on a tatami floor, I prefered a table for the sake of my long legs. The menu was all in Japanese, with vertical writing and prices in the Japanese system. I chose Zaru Soba (“seiro” on the menu), Since the buckwheat noodles are made from scratch, I thought this would be the best way to enjoy their flavour. I ordered “maitake tempura moriawase” as a side dish.

On the left “fresh soba” and on the right “mushroom tempura assortment” 

The food was served quickly. I was reminded by the waiter to first dip the noodles into the “tsuyu” sauce before adding the spring onion and radish. Afterwards, I should add them gradually to enjoy the change in taste. Adding toppings little by little is also recommended by some ramen restaurants in Tokyo, so I was familiar with the process. The serving of tempura was huge and delicious. There was even corn on the cob tempura, so unexpected that I bit the cob itself by mistake. The soba itself was a class above anything I had before.

Japanese sunken hearths or “irori” inside the restaurant

There was a “jizake“, or local sake, on the menu, but I had to skip it since I was driving. It was the Tanigawadake brand by the Nagai Brewery which I was familiar with. The total cost was 1600 yen, quite reasonable for a filling soba and tempura lunch. Whether descending or ascending a mountain, it’s a great place to stop for lunch!

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