Mt Gassan (1287m), Nikko City, Tochigi prefecture, Saturday, October 30, 2021

I thought I should really do one more hike from the Aizu-Kinugawa train line before it got too cold and started to snow. Looking through my guidebook, I found a mountain I could reach by taking a bus from Kinugawa-Onsen and along a river valley hidden behind the sprawling mass of Mt Nyoho. Although it was a short hike and required some road walking to get to the start of the trail and back, I had never been to that area nor ridden that bus line before. I was worried about missing the last bus back, since it would be a long walk to the station. I also wondered whether the autumn leaves would finally be at their peak, since it had been so cold a week earlier. On the other hand, the weather was supposed to be a perfect with warmer temperatures and almost no wind. I was looking forward to getting some new views and seeing the first autumn colours of the season.

Autumn colours at the Kuriyama dam lake

Mt Gassan in the late afternoon sun

It was a beautiful autumn day as I rode the comfortable Nikko line to Shimo-Imaichi station, where I transferred to the local train for the short trip to Kinugawa-Onsen. I hadn’t been there for nearly ten years and I soaked up the atmosphere of this popular hot spring resort while waiting for my bus to leave. It was an exciting ride following the Kinugawa river valley and past Kawaji dam. Although today’s mountain was only six kilometers away, the bus traveled three times that distance as the road curved around to the back of the mountain.

View from the road leading to the entrance of the hiking trail

A perfect day for hiking

I got off the bus just past 11am and quickly set off up a small road through the forest and alongside a river. I soon reached a deforested area and after a series of switchbacks, I had my first views. I was stunned by the reds and oranges covering the mountain side directly opposite. Looking west, I could see what I thought was Kinu-Numa Swamp at the end of the river valley. I soon passed a cow barn with a bright red roof surrounded by pastures, both deserted at this time of the year. Looking up, I could see see see thin white strips of clouds spreading across the blue sky.

A cow barn belonging to Hikage Farm

Mt Nyoho, one of the Oku-Nikko mountains

Around 12h30, I reached a flat area with a view to the south and some more pastures: this was Hikage Farm (日蔭牧場 hikage-bokujo), just below Mt Meoto (夫婦山). It was a short and easy climb up this mountain, but it would have to be for another time, since I was on a tight schedule. On the west side, I could see the long ridge leading from Kirifuri Highland to the summit of Mt Nyoho. The road sloped down, and looking east through the trees , I could see the fiery red summit of today’s mountain. A few minutes later, I reached the start of Meoto Tunnel (夫婦トンネル).

Mt Meoto in its autumn coat

First view of Kuriyama Dam lake

It was a spooky five minute walk through this tunnel, fortunately closed to traffic (see video). I emerged back into the sunlight at the base of Kuriyama dam and I could now see the full shape of Mt Nyoho. I had never seen it from this direction before, and I was impressed by its massive size; it truly belongs to the 100 famous mountains of Japan. I continued along the level road and reached the start of the hiking trail at exactly one pm. I took a short break and then started up the narrow ridgeline path.

A narrow ridge path through bamboo grass

Mt Takahara and Hunter Mountain Ski Resort

After twenty minutes, I already had some excellent views of Mt Meoto, the colour of rust, and the blue Kuriyama Dam lake. I continued to climb through beautiful forest enclosed on three sides by the Nikko National Park. Ten minutes later, I reached the top ridge. I had a superb view of Mt Takahara directly west, through a break in the trees; I could make out patches of light green that would become the ski runs of Hunter Mountain in the winter. To the north, in the midst of a multitude of mountains, I spotted the elegant, subdued shape of Mt Shibakusa. Soon after, I reached the highest point of Mt Gassan (月山 がっさん meaning “Mt Moon”), a Tochigi hundred famous mountain.

Imaichi lake and the Kanto plain

Walking down to Kuriyama Dam Lake

Famous for its azalea flowers in the spring, all it offered now were bare branches hiding the view. However, just a few meters further, I reached the top of a small rocky area and a wide panorama. Stretching away towards the west were the low mountains of southern Tochigi. A vermillion ridge ended at Imachi dam and lake at the head of a green-brown valley leading into the Kanto plain. It was nearly 2pm so I sat down for a late lunch under the warm autumn sunshine. Although it was possible to descend the rocky area towards the lake, it wasn’t part of today’s route.

A peaceful walk along the shoreline

Sun setting on Mt Nyoho

Around 2h30, I made my way back along the top ridge and took the right path at a fork, heading north and down towards Kuriyama lake. At times the path was hard to follow because of the bamboo grass, but fortunately I could rely on the pink ribbons on the branches. I had glimpses of the lake through the trees, the surrounding forest bright yellow under the afternoon sun. I arrived at the peaceful lake shore thirty minutes later. Since I had a bus to catch, I quickened my pace and soon reached the road leading to the base of the dam, from where I made my way back through the tunnel and up to hikage farm.

Late afternoon at Hikage Farm

Same views but different lighting

It was past 3h30 and the sun was setting just above the highest point of Mt Nyoho. I walked down the road, now in the shade, the views of this morning looking different in the late afternoon sun. I reached the bus stop with a few minutes to spare. After a 45 minute ride, I got off at Kinugawa-Koen station around 5pm, one stop before Kinugawa-onsen, so that I could take a quick hot spring bath at Iwaburo (meaning “rock bath”). After a pleasant soak in the outdoor bath, I caught the local train for Shimo-Imaichi station, where I boarded the limited express “Kegon” for the ninety minute ride back to Tokyo.

See the red and orange colours of Mt Gassan

Mt Shibakusa (1341m), Nakamiyori, Tochigi Prefecture, Saturday, October 23, 2021

I really wanted to do more hikes along the Aizu-Kinugawa train line in northern Tochigi; although it’s directly connected to Tokyo via the Tobu limited express trains, so far I had only done a handful of mountains along it, the last one being Mt Hiruga, one year ago. Despite being completely surrounded by mountains and inside a national park, it has fewer hiking trails than the neighbouring Nikko area. Using my hiking guidebook, I located a suitable station-to station hike starting from Nakamiyori-onsen station with supposedly nice views. As this was just one stop before the one for Mt Hiruga, I was familiar with the way there (and back) and I could arrive early enough in the day to complete the hike before dark. The weather forecast was good: sunny but a little windy. It had been unseasonably cold the past week, and I wondered whether I would be able to see the first autumn colours of the year.

The expected autumn colours with unexpected snow

The weather was clear but the mountains were in the clouds, as I rode the Revaty limited express to Kinugawa Onsen where I transferred to the old-fashioned Aizu mountain express for the last leg of the trip, up a narrow gorge and through dark tunnels. Unfortunately, after exiting the last tunnel, I was greeted with cloudy skies and I could see water drops on the window panes. At 10h15 I was standing outside an unmanned station under a light drizzle. Looking west, I could see today’s mountain at the end of the valley, briefly lit up by the sun through a break in the clouds, giving me hope of better weather as I started out on my hike.

The first part of the hike was along a beautiful river

I followed a small road through a sleepy village and then along a picturesque river, till I reached Mitoshi Bridge (見通し橋). Around this point the rain let up and the sun started to break through the clouds from time to time. It seemed like the weather would clear up, although I wasn’t sure it would do so fast enough. At 11h30 I reached the start of the trail. The first part zigzagged up the mountain side and was easy to walk. Twenty minutes later, I reached an electric pylon. The sun had come out again, so I took off a layer and no sooner had I done it, the wind started blowing fiercely.

The steepest part of the hike around “oiwa”

Several minutes after the pylon I took a small steep path branching to the right and heading straight up the ridge. I was following a path through beech trees slowly curving northwards; although I was a few kilometers outside the Nikko national park, the surrounding forest was wild and beautiful. The wind was blowing in gusts, sometimes so strong that I worried that a branch would fall on my head. After some climbing, I reached the aptly named “Oiwa” (大岩), meaning big rock, at 12h30. There was a steep narrow corridor behind it equipped with a long rope, which I used to haul myself up.

View of Mt Takahara, with Nakamiyori nestled at its base

At the top of the rock, I took a short break to enjoy the view. I could see Mt Takahara as well as the valley and ridge I had just walked up. I only had a short way to go till the summit, so I decided to save lunch till then. The ridge stayed level for a short while before climbing steeply again. The ground was still wet from the recent rain and I had to be careful not to slip. I reached the narrow top of Mt Shibakusa (芝草山 しばくさやま shibakusayama, meaning “Mt Lawn”), a hundred famous mountain of Tochigi, a little past 1pm. I was impressed that the summit sign was in English. It was still too early for the autumn colours, although the leaves were starting to show hints of red.

Mt Arakai and it’s early winter coat

By now, the weather had recovered, although the wind was still blowing strongly. Looking northwest, I could see Mt Arakai, its summit covered with a dusting of snow. I was the only person on the mountain and it felt wonderful to be completely surrounded by mountains without any noise, except the occasional howling of the wind. After a quick lunch, I headed down. At 2pm, I was back at the “big rock”. I took a short break to enjoy the view some more. Going down the roped corridor required more care than going up; I applied the three point technique, always making sure I had three points of support before moving.

Looking back at Mt Shibakusa from Nakamiyori

One hour later I was back at the start of the trail. I noticed that the box for submitting hiking plans was actually an old fridge (it wasn’t in use anymore). While walking back on the road I spotted a praying mantis – I hadn’t seen one since my hike on Mt Hiruga, which made me think that the area was a good environment for this species. Shortly after, I spotted a buck bounding away from the road and into the forest. Half an hour later I was back at Nakamiyori and after a quick hot spring bath at Ojika-no-yu 男鹿の湯, I hopped onto the local train for Shimo-Imaichi station, where I transferred to the Kegon limited express for the 90 minute train ride back to Tokyo.

Listen to the wind blowing on Mt Shibakusa

Mt Kabuto (913m), Fuefuki City, Yamanashi Prefecture, October 10, 2021

I had done many hikes in Yamanashi, but I had never been to the hills between Yamanashi and Kofu cities. My hiking guide had two suggestions for that area, but, after studying my map, I ended up choosing another mountain in-between, because it was shorter and easier to access. I would take a taxi from Yamanashi-shi station to the start of the trail, and after a loop hike, return on foot via a road to a hot spring, and Kasugaicho station on the local Chuo line. Although the trail went through a rocky area, it didn’t seem to present any major difficulties. I was more concerned about spiders and their webs blocking the way, a recurring headache when hiking under 1000 meters in September and October. The weather was supposed to be cloudy at first with sun in the afternoon, and since there was a viewpoint near the top, I hoped I could get to see the mountains of Yamanashi as well as Mt Fuji.

View south from the rocky area

The weather was gloomy and cloudy as I rode the limited express out of Shinjuku. It didn’t seem like I would get any views today, as white mist spilled out of the valleys on both sides of the Chuo line. I asked the taxi driver to drop me off at “Nageshi Somen“, close to the start of the trail, and less than ten minutes away. As I got ready for the hike, I felt that despite the overcast weather, I was lucky that the temperature felt just right for hiking.

Statue near my taxi drop-off point

An easy to walk path at the start of the hike

After walking along a dirt road for twenty minutes, I arrived at a fireworks store and the start of the hiking trail. I was soon walking on a flat wide path through pleasant forest next to a small river. It took another 20 minutes to reach the start of the “rocky area” trail (岩場コース iwaba-kosu). After a short climb up the side of the mountain, I reached the the rocks and cliffs on the east side of the mountain. I took a break to observe some people practice their rock climbing skills on a huge boulder (see video).

Cairn along the first part of the “rocky area” trail

Walking between the rocks on the east side of the mountain

I reached the first viewpoint of the day as the noon chime echoed through the wide valley below. Directly below, I could see the Kasugai golf course and, on the other side of the valley, the foothills of the Misaka mountains, their peaks lost in the low clouds. I was now halfway up the “rocky area” trail and I had fun scrambling between and over rocks of various sizes, using fixed chains to pull myself up when necessary. I could also relax since there were no webs spun across this section of the trail.

Kasugai golf course and the Misaka mountains

My lunch view – somewhere to the right is Mt Fuji

I soon reached a gently sloping ridgeline, and by 12h30 I was standing on top of Mt Kabuto (兜山 kabuto-yama), meaning helmet mountain because of its rounded shape. The summit, a hundred famous mountain of Yamanashi, was completely in the trees, but after walking south along a short path, I arrived at a bench with a view through a break in the trees, a good place for lunch. The weather hadn’t really improved, and although I was supposed to be able to see Mt Fuji, just 30 kilometers away behind Mt Oni and Mt Settou, all I could make out was a white wall. After lunch, I made my way back to the summit and followed the trail west through the forest.

A rocky narrow ridge near the highest point of the hike

View on the way down at the edge of a deforested area

I walked along a rock strewn ridge, slowly rising to an altitude above 1000 meters, the back of the helmet perhaps; for the first time this season, the air felt chilly. The path then suddenly dropped down the back of the “helmet”, and as the temperature went back to comfortable, I had to start dodging spiderwebs again. Luckily for me, each time I stepped into one, its maker was on the higher half, just above the top of my cap. I turned left into a valley and was now walking through the beautiful “Kabuto-yama no Mori” (the Mt Kabuto forest). I was the only hiker around and I was constantly spooked by falling acorns. At 2pm, I reached a forest road between a deforested area and Umezawa river, the same one I had followed earlier in the day.

Looking back at Mt Kabuto

View from the road between the golf course and the vineyards

I walked at a leisurely pace to the parking lot near the start of the “rocky area” trail, completing the loop. I then continued on a paved road, with the river below on the left and a golf course on my right. Looking back, I could see the helmet-shaped summit of Mt Kabuto. Ahead, I had a bird’s eye view of Kofu valley. The weather was finally improving and patches of blue sky were visible above. After a steep descent through some vineyards, I arrived at the Iwashita hot spring inside a building dating from 1888. It was just past 3pm, so I had time for a quick dip, before walking to the nearby train station. I rode one stop and switched to the limited express for the eighty minute ride back to Shinjuku.

Hiking over “Helmet mountain”

Mt Kozuke (448m) & Nosubari Viewpoint (634m), Ogose Town, Saitama Prefecture

Looking at my hiking map, I found another unexplored corner of “Oku-Musashi”: by connecting various local trails, I could make a loop in a hidden valley beyond the Seibu-Chichibu train line and the “Green Line” road. I would take the Tobu line to Ogose station, from where it was a short bus ride to the start of the hike, and return via the same way. It was a short hike so I could leave Tokyo mid-morning and still catch the last bus back around 5pm. The weather was unseasonably hot, and I was worried how comfortable I would be hiking at a low altitude; however, the skies would be mostly clear of clouds, so I could count on some good views.

Lunch with a view from Moroto no Kuruwa

A peek through the trees below the summit of Mt Kozuke

It was a short ride to Ogose, so I was comfortable even though, for once, I wasn’t on a limited express train. At 11am, I set off under a very hot sun. The first part of the hike was along a road next to a mountain stream. Along the way I stopped at a “Garden Terrace”, a kind of flower garden you can visit for free. It was officially closed at this time of the year, but the owner invited me in for some coffee and a piece of homemade cheesecake on their terrace in the middle of the garden. I was touched by their welcoming attitude, and after a friendly chat, I continued on my way.

View from near the start of the Shiroyama hiking trail

The hills of Tokigawa Town are also rich in hiking possibilities

After an hour of easy road walking, I reached the start of the Shiroyama hiking trail (城山ハイキング). From this point, I started waving a stick in front of me to clear the spiderwebs. Despite this, I still managed to walk into several cobwebs, luckily devoid of spiders each time. After some switchback climbing through thick forest, I reached the top of Mt Kozuke (小築山 こづけやま kozukeyama) around 1pm. The summit was in the trees so I soon moved on. The next section was through mixed forest with occasional views. I stopped for lunch at a place called “Moroto no Kuruwa” (もろとの郭) since I could sit down on a log and enjoy a view of Ogose to the west.

An easy to follow trail through the forest

View towards Saitama from the Nosubari viewpoint

After lunch, I found myself on a gently rising path through dark forest. At 2pm, the trail started to climb steeply and very soon I reached Hananoki pass (花の木峠 683m) on the Odaira ridge (大平尾根), the highest point of the hike and just below the “Green Line”. The hiking path then exited onto a road and twenty minutes later I arrived at the Nosubari observatory (野末張見晴台). I had an excellent view of the Kanto plain and the eastern reaches of the Oku-Musashi hills. In the late afternoon, the sky was hazy so I couldn’t make out the skyscrapers of Tokyo. After a short break, I rejoined the trail just beyond the road and resumed my descent.

Trail *almost* blocked on the way down

The spider Red Spider Lily which flowers in the autumn

It took an another hour of quiet hiking down a peaceful valley shielded from noise to reach a paved road. Half an hour later I was back on the road I had taken in the morning, and soon after I was back at the bus stop. As I had some time before the bus, I decided to explore the nearby Umesono ume no Eki (うめしの 梅の駅) where I bought some craft sour made from local lemons and plums (I had it at home and it was great). Around 5pm, I caught the last bus back to Ogose station and by 5h30 I was sitting on the train for the short ride back to Tokyo.

Watch a video of hiking in Ogose (includes a spider and a caterpillar)

Caterpillar spotted just past the end of the hiking trail

Hanno Alps from Nenogongen Temple (510m) to Maezaka (425m), Hanno City, Saitama Prefecture

Since I was satisfied with the outcome of the previous hike along the Okumusashi Long Distance Trail, I decided to repeat the experience with another section. This time I would hike along the northern half of the Hanno Alps (I had done the southern part a few years ago). To get to the start of the hike, I would take the same bus as the previous two hikes, but get off a few stops further. I would then follow the most direct route up Mt Atago and head to the start of the trail behind the temple. I decided to end the hike at another bus stop instead of Agano train station, mainly because it was a line I had never used before – I just had to make sure that I didn’t miss the last bus. This time the weather was supposed to be perfect all day with summer-like temperatures. This would be another short hike, and I hoped that it wouldn’t be too hot in the afternoon for comfortable hiking in the hills of Tokyo.

Hiking the Okumusashi Long Trail 奥武蔵ロングトレイル

View of Agano from the Okumusashi Long Trail

I stepped off the bus just after noon under a blazing hot sun. I turned right onto a narrow road leading up a river valley and soon arrived at the start of the hiking trail. It didn’t seem much in use nowadays: the first part was the bed of small stream, and the next part was overgrown with ferns. However, halfway up the mountainside, I entered the cool shady forest, and the path became easier to follow. After an hour of effort, I had reached the top of the ridge. I was now back on the “Fureai no Michi” as well as the “Okumusashi Long Distance Trail”. From there it took a few more minutes to reach Mt Atago and Nenogongen temple.

Climbing Mt Atago via the most direct route

Since it was nearly 1pm, I decided to have lunch at the same spot as before. The view was even better this time but I couldn’t linger since it was already early afternoon. At 2pm I reached another viewpoint, at a parking lot. In the clear weather, I could see the skyscrapers of Tokyo and the Tokyo Skytree – unusual for this time of the day. I now was at the beginning of the Hanno Alps (飯能アルプス hannou arupusu). I followed a narrow trail down the mountainside and I noticed that I was no longer on the “Fureai no Michi”, as the trail became hard to follow with fewer signposts.

Lunch with a view

The trail rejoined the ridge top after hugging the side of the mountain for a short while. This was one of the best sections of the hike: I saw no one along the narrow ridgeline as it rose and dipped, twisted left and right through a mixed forest. The surrounding vegetation was sparse and bright green under the afternoon sun, the complete opposite of the previous hike through lush dark forest. At 3pm a steep slope, almost like a cliff, appeared on the left – a rope had been added to prevent accidents. Occasionally I had a glimpse of the Agano valley through the trees. At one point, I thought I could even make out the house of David Niehoff of Kanto Adventures on the Green line directly opposite.

The little patch of light green in the center is Kanto Adventures

Suddenly, the path descended steeply and the ropes came in handy here. A few minutes later, I popped out on a small lonely road. I followed it downhill for a couple of minutes before turning left onto another, mostly level, hiking path. This led to a crossroad at Maezaka (前坂): straight ahead was the second half of the Hanno Alps; downhill and to the left was Agano station; however, I turned right towards Nakato (中藤). For the first time today I encountered some serious spiders webs across the path; fortunately I was facing the sun, so I was able to dodge them in time. I soon reached another road next to a stream which I followed all the way to the bus stop at the bottom of the valley.

Suzuki grass, another sign of autumn

Although I was close to civilisation, I was completely surrounded by nature: it was very peaceful, the perfect place for a summer cottage. On the way, I passed some intriguing wood sculptures and while I was taking some photos a man came out to talk to me in good English. Apparently he had lived in many countries around the world, and the sculptures had been donated by his students. After our brief chat, I reached the bus stop a little after 4h30 with ten minutes to spare for the return bus. One hour later, I was comfortably seated on Laview limited express bound for Tokyo.

Mt Mine (548m), Mt Nobotto (436m) & Mt Shusuke (383m), Hanno City, Saitama Prefecture

After unexpectedly walking a part of the “Okumusashi Long Trail” on my previous hike, I decided to explore another section of this new long distance trail. I would access it the same way, by riding a bus from Hanno station and climbing to Takedera Temple; this time however, I would follow the ridgeline south instead of north; at the end, I would catch the same bus back, but closer to the station. My hiking map didn’t show any good trails along this route, so I was putting my trust in the “Okumusashi Long Trail”. Thanks to the many buses running from and to Hanno station, I could leave later in the day and finish anytime before nightfall. The weather forecast announced low clouds but no rain; I didn’t think there would be any viewpoints anyway, so I left for my hike in high spirits.

Hiking the Okumusashi Long Trail 奥武蔵ロングトレイル

Misty view from the Yahatazaka Pass

From Ikebukuro station, it took just ninety minutes to reach the bus stop near the start of the trail. It was already past noon and the weather was gloomier than I had expected; the surrounding mountains were cloaked in mist. I nearly walked into a spider web while visiting the restroom at the bus stop, it was already spider season again and I still had vivid memories of my spider-infested hike up Mt Kinjo last year. I grabbed a walking stick near the start of the trail so that I could wave back and forth to clear any webs in my way.

Temple bell of Teradera

The bell made a long resonating noise when struck

I soon arrived at the first viewpoint at the base of an electric pylon; I saw many flowers with white, fluffy seed heads, a sign that summer was ending soon. It took 30 minutes to reach Yahatazaka (八幡坂) at the top of ridge. I decided to make a short detour above Taketera Temple. It was a good idea since I soon came upon another viewpoint as well as the temple bell. The view was solid white, so I consoled myself by giving the bell a good gong (see video). After reaching the trail for Mt Atago, I headed back to Yahatazaka, passing Teradera on the way.

View from Yahatazaka Pass towards Yahatazaka

Following the pylons

I was finally walking south along the ridge. After some downhill, I reached Yahatazaka Pass (八幡坂峠 560m), another viewpoint at the base of a pylon, where I stopped for a quick lunch. The next part of the trail was perhaps the nicest part of the hike. It followed the pylons along a narrow clearing overgrown by ferns. I was all alone, except for a family of pheasants. It reminded me of walking the firebreaks in the Ardennes. Very soon, I reached a signpost for Mt Takinoiri (滝ノ入山 580m), the highest point of the hike, although it didn’t feel like a mountain summit.

Signs of the summer end: a seed head and a mushroom head

View south towards the hills of Okutama

After a quick descent and a flat bit through dark forest, I reached the final and best viewpoint of the day, Mt Mine (嶺 みね), at the base of another pylon. I could see the green rounded hills of Okutama stretching into the distance; I made a mental note to return on a day with better weather. The next part of the trail wasn’t marked on my map; I continued my hike feeling excited to be exploring a brand new path. I was soon walking through thick, beautiful forest; it almost felt like I was inside the nearby Chichibu-Tama-Kai national park.

Among the vegetation, there is a trail somewhere

Another obstacle to surmount

I arrived at a small road, but easily found the next part of the trail beyond. After hiking through some more lovely forest, I arrived at the summit of Mt Nobotto (登戸 のぼっと). There was no view, just some noisy crows, so I continued without a break. At 3h30, I reached the final summit of the day, Mt Shusuke (周助山 しゅすけやま shusuke-yama). No sooner had I set off again that I walked into a spider web; fortunately for me its owner was on the higher reaches. After dusting off the cobwebs, I headed down the mountain. Very soon I reached houses and a road, and at 4h15 I was sitting on the bus back to Hanno station where I caught the limited express back to Tokyo.

Listen to the sounds of the Okumusashi Long Trail

Mt Atago (653m), Hanno City, Saitama Prefecture [Fureai no Michi]

I was looking for a new hike in the Oku-Musashi area (meaning “Deep Tokyo” but actually in Saitama). I decided to explore a ridgeline west of Mt Warabi and south of Mt Izu, following the “Kanto Fureai no Michi” for most of the way, and including a minor peak and a couple of temples along the way. Since it was a short hike, with frequent buses to the start of the hike and frequent trains from the end, I could leave later than usual. The forecast announced cloudy with some sun around lunchtime; temperatures were predicted to be cool for the season – perfect for some low altitude hiking at the end of spring. I was looking forward to walking through beautiful nature close to Tokyo just before the start of the rainy season.

Hiking the Fureai no Michi ふれあいの道

View of the Oku-Musashi mountains from Nenogongen Tenryu-ji Temple

Mt Buko at the very end of the valley

I arrived at Hanno station around 10h30 under grey skies and transferred to a Seibu bus, full of hikers headed for Mt Bonomine. I got off at the following stop and at 11am I was walking up the mountain side through a dark forest. Twenty minutes later I reached a clearing with a view northwards: at the end of the valley I could make out Mt Komochi and Mt Buko. After fifteen more minutes I reached a pass, from where it was a pleasant stroll on a level path to the moss-covered Taka-dera temple (高寺 490m).

Pleasant walking through the hills of Saitama Prefecture

The moss-covered roof of Taka-dera visible through the trees

I was intrigued by a pair of wooden totem poles representing buffalo-headed humans playing flutes: I had never seen anything like it before. I continued along the easy to follow and easy to walk Fureai no Michi trail. The path rose slightly before becoming level again. At 12h30 I reached another pass. Here the trail left the mountain side and followed the ridgeline. I climbed a path crisscrossed with roots and then walked down a log staircase. At 1pm, I was at the top of Mt Atago (愛宕山), completely surrounded by trees and slightly off the main trail.

Totem pole of Taka-dera (left) and guardian demon of Tenryu-ji (right)

Easy hiking along the mountain side

A little further, I reached an amazing viewpoint of the valley, through which the Seibu-Chichibu line passes. There was even an unoccupied bench, and the clouds had started to melt away, so I decided to stop for lunch. To the north, I could see the observatory at the top of Mt Maru and Dodaira; opposite was the Oku-Musashi Green line; looking south I thought I could spot Mt Hiwada. After a peaceful lunch, I continued to Nenogongen Tenryu-ji Temple (子ノ権現天龍寺 520m) just a few minutes away. There was another viewpoint above the temple and next to the bell, with the Kanto plain spreading eastwards.

The perfect place for a lunch break

Looking east towards the Kanto plain

I walked out of the temple complex past two guardian demons and a huge cedar tree and after a short trot on the road, reached the trail for Nishi-Agano station. I descended through beautiful forest and then followed a small babbling brook at the bottom of the valley. At 3pm, I reached some houses and a paved road; it took another thirty minutes through pleasant countryside to reach the station. I was just on time for the local train, which I rode for a short while before switching to the Laview Limited express at 4pm for the short and comfortable ride back to Tokyo.

Enjoy the sights and sounds of the Saitama section of the Fureai no Michi

Mt Taka (1668m) & the Chuzenji Lake Nature Trail, Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture

Since climbing Mt Shazan last summer, I had been wanting to return and explore the shoreline of Chuzenji lake. Although circling the entire lake would be too long for a day hike, it was possible to do only the western and southern sides, away from the main road, and also include a small summit on the way. Since I visit Oku-Nikko nearly every year, I was familiar with the way there and back; I could use a bus to get to the start of the hike, and also for the return. My main concern was to finish the hike early enough so that I could get back to Nikko station in time for the last limited express back to Tokyo. The rainy season hadn’t arrived yet and blues skies were forecast for the entire Kanto area, so I was looking forward to exploring a new corner of “deep Nikko” in good weather.

Hiking in the Nikko National Park 日光国立公園

Sightseers taking a break at the western end of Chuzenji lake

The weather was as forecast and I could see Mt Nantai and Mt Nyoho from my seat on the Nikko line. At 9h30 I boarded a bus for Yumoto-Onsen; one hour later I got off at the Ryuzu falls (1355m above sea level), and just before 11am I set off on my hike. The surrounding forest was beautiful and the trail was well-maintained: it definitely felt like I were hiking inside a National Park. There were few views from the trail: I had a glimpse through the trees of Sengohara plain to the north and of Chuzenji lake to the south. The sound of buzzing insects was deafening; luckily I had brought repellent with me today.

Hiking inside the Nikko National Park

Hiking up Mt Taka

It took me less than an hour to reach the top of Mt Taka (高山 たかやま takayama). There was no view but it was grassy with several places to sit down. I took a short break and then continued down the other side. The path zigzagged down the steep terrain and ten minutes later I reached a pass and a junction. To the right was Sengohara; however, I headed left, down a wide, gently sloping valley alongside a small stream. Eventually, the valley flattened, and I was walking in the midst of some very tall trees.

The paradisiac shore of lake Chuzenji

Boarding deck at Senjugahama

At 12h30 I reached the white sandy shore of Chuzenji lake. Under the blue sky, it felt like I was on a Pacific island. I continued along the shady path to the right, circling the lake counter-clockwise. Ten minutes later, I arrived at Senjugahama (千手ヶ浜), also accessible via boat and bus, which explained the number of people I saw there. I moved on quickly, enjoying the various views of the lake and Mt Nantai to the left. Twenty minutes later, after crossing a river on a small footbridge, I was back on a hiking trail with no one else around.

Sailing boat with Mt Nantai directly behind

Mt Taka from the southern side of Chuzenji lake

It took about three hours of solitary hiking through pleasant forest to reach the end of the hiking trail at the Italian Embassy Villa Memorial Park. During the first half, the narrow trail went up and down but also remained within sight of the lake. The second half was wider and flatter and I had to be careful not to lose the trail. I wasn’t sure till the final hour that I would make the bus, but it was with great relief that I got to the bus stop with ten minutes to spare. At 5pm, I was comfortably seated on the Tobu bus back to Nikko station, at at 6pm I was on the limited express for Asakusa station.

See the views along the Chuzenji Lake Nature Trail

One of the many view of Mt Nantai along the trail

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