Hiking the Nakasendo: Usui Pass to Yokokawa Station & Megane Bridge, Gunma Prefecture, October 2020

I had hiked this Gunma section of the Nakasendo (中山道) in January 2015 using the Tokyo Wide Pass; it’s less well-known than the section in the Kiso valley. I thought it would be interesting to redo it in a different season. First, the autumn leaves would be at their peak around the start of the hike. Next, I hoped that in the warmer weather I would be able to see monkeys along the way. I also wanted to add a side trip to the nearby Megane Bridge. Finally, I was looking forward to using the hot spring near the end of the hike, which was closed on my last visit . Instead of taking the Shinkansen to Karuizawa, I decided use a combination of train and bus, longer but cheaper; then, to make up for the later arrival, I would take another bus up to Usui Pass instead of walking. The forecast was cloudy with a hope for sun, but apart from Usui Pass, there were few views along the way.

Hiking in the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park 上信越高原国立公園

View from Usui Pass (photo taken in January 2015)

The trip to Karuizawa went smoothly: I had good views of Mt Myogi from the train, and saw some nice autumn colours from the bus. From Karuizawa station, I walked to the bus stop of the Red Bus (赤バス aka basu), a small seasonal sightseeing bus. There were few passengers and I was able to enjoy the view from the front of the bus as it zipped through old Karuizawa, and then zoomed up a narrow mountain road to Usui Pass (see video). The clouds were in and the view wasn’t great; in consolation there was a resplendissant Japanese maple tree in orange and red. I finally set off on the Old Nakasendo Highway (旧中山道 kyu-nakasendo) around 12:30.

River crossing along the Nakasendo

After an eroded downhill section, I crossed a small stream, and then followed a narrow level path till it merged with a wider trail heading down again. It was around here that my map reported monkey sightings, so I kept my eyes open and ears peeled. During the Meiji area there also used to be a village around here, and here and there its remains could be seen, making this part of the hike somewhat spooky. Past a rusting bus on one side of the path, and a rotting house on the other side, I heard strange noises coming from the treetops. At first I thought they were monkey noises, but it turned out to be some kind of bird call. I got lucky a little further. After going a little off the trail to investigate some suspicious noises, I stumbled upon a troop of monkeys moving through the forest. Unlike the ones from Okutama lake, these ones were shy and scattered at once, except for a large male, coolly walking away through the trees (see video).

The path followed the natural folds of the mountain

After the excitement of seeing monkeys (second time this year), I resumed my hike along this Edo period highway. The road became level again, and offered glimpses of mountain ridges and river valleys left and right. There were occasional white signs in Japanese, explaining various natural and historical landmarks. Most of this hike was inside the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park and the surrounding nature was wild and beautiful. Soon the road narrowed and turned into a hiking path again; it started to twist and turn, following the natural folds of the mountain ridge as it slowly descended into the valley. For a short while, I walked above a mountain stream tumbling down a small narrow valley. I took a moment to observe a large butterfly return obsessively to a curiously shaped-flower, and feed greedily on its nectar (see video).

A butterfly enjoying a nectar lunch

At 2h30, I finally arrived at a small rest house. I remembered it well from my previous visit. The guest book, slightly moldy despite it’s plastic casing, was still there, sadly devoid of English entries since spring this year. I found my old entry from 5 years ago and added a fresh one. The path turned rocky and started to descend in a series of switchbacks. On my winter hike I had good views of Mt Myogi and Yokokawa town around here; now, however, the view was blocked by tree leaves. Around 3pm, I reached the base of the mountain, and arrived at the modern road connecting Karuizawa and Yokokawa. On the other side and down some steps, I found myself on the “Apto Road” (アプトの道) that went through a tunnel under the road. This pedestrian road is named after the “Abt system”, a rack system, used by the old Usui line to transport passengers up the mountain side to Karuizawa from the middle of the Meiji era till 1963.

Tunnel number five along the “Abuto Road”

It was getting late but I decided to stick to my plan of exploring this road. Keeping to the day’s theme, it passed through several tunnels, some pitch black and some glowing orange from the interior lighting. Half an hour later at the end of the longest one, I arrived at the highlight of the day, Megane bridge (めがね橋 megane-bashi), the longest brick arch bridge in Japan. It was wonderful to walk on this marvel of Meiji era engineering. Apparently the autumn colours are spectacular here, but I was a couple of weeks early. Past the bridge, the road ducked into yet another dark tunnel. It was possible to continue a few more kilometers to an abandoned railway station, but it was getting late, and I decided to head back. The road ran straight and slightly downhill to Toge-no-yu hot spring which I reached in less than half an hour.

Megane Bridge, one of the wonders of the Meiji Era

After a speedy hot bath, I was ready to continue. By now it was 5h30 and already pitch dark outside. It had also started to drizzle. I was still 3 kilometers from the train station. I had walked it before – the road was straight and paved so there was little risk of getting lost or hurt. I briefly considered calling a taxi, but what better way to finish a spooky hike than a walk in the dark past an abandoned railway station? On the way, I discovered that my headlight only worked intermittently. I hurried past the disused Maruyama station building on the left, a darker shadow among the shadows. At 6pm, I passed the closed Annaka Tourist information office, and was finally walking under street lights. I reached the still-in-use Yokokawa station, well in time for the return train to Takasaki and Tokyo.

Ask for a hiking plan for the Nakasendo

The old Maruyama train station (photo taken in January 2015)

Ride the Red bus through Karuizawa up to Usui Pass

From mountain streams to wild monkeys, the Nakasendo has lots to offer

Mt Kasuga (1158m), Mt Meisho (1236m) & Mt Inayama (1112m), Fuefuki City, Yamanashi Prefecture

This hike followed the ridgeline in the opposite direction of Mt Shaka. I had been wanting to return there for a while, but couldn’t figure out how to get back to the train station at the end of the trail. After poring over maps and bus timetables, I discovered that the bus taking me to the starting point, also passed relatively close to the end point. Unfortunately, the trail was just off my Mt Fuji hiking map, and it wasn’t included in my “Mountains of Yamanashi” guide book either. So using the Yamareco website, and information from the Inayama Zelkova Forest website, I created my own hike. It involved a round-trip on one section, thus forming a Y shape.

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Bird’s eye view of Kofu City

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Hard to believe that this is just 100 km from Tokyo

After taking the comfortable Chuo line limited express to Isawa Onsen, I boarded a nearly empty bus for the one-hour trip to Torisaka Pass 鳥坂峠. This was my third time taking this bus, and each time it has been empty; a shame since it goes into a valley surrounded by several good hiking trails with views of Mt Fuji. I arrived at the pass just before 11am, and although several cars were parked there, I saw no one during my hike. The other hikers probably went the other way, towards Mt Shaka. I first followed a road (closed to cars) for a few minutes, till I reached a small trail on the right, marked by a stone monument. After about five minutes of climbing, I reached the ridgeline where I took the trail heading left.

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Easy-to-spot start of the trail

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Nice hiking trail at 1000 meters elevation

The next section was a pleasant ramble that climbed gradually through bare trees. At an elevation of 1000m, spring had yet to arrive. It was a blue sky day, but a cold wind was blowing from the valley below. I soon arrived at Kasugasawa-no-to 春日沢の頭 (1235m), a flat open space surrounded by trees. After a short up and down, I reached Mt Kasuga 春日山. Here again there was no view. Since it was only noon, I decided to wait a little longer for lunch. After another short descent, I reached a narrow road, closed to cars in the winter. I continued up a surprisingly steep trail on the opposite site, to the top of Mt Meisho 名所山. The trail continued beyond to another road, from where it was possible to walk to the last stop of my morning. However, I preferred to retrace my steps, back down the steep slope, thanks to which I could get some views of the Oku-chichibu mountains above the trees.

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Steep slope on Mt Meisho

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The Oku-Chichibu Mountains with Mt Kinpu in the center

Once I was back on the road I had crossed earlier, I walked along it, heading North for 5 minutes to an amazing viewpoint with a bench of the Kofu valley. It was 1h30 so I decided to take a break for lunch. To my left, I could see the South Alps, the highest peaks hidden in the clouds; in front the wide expanse of the Kofu valley, with the buildings of Kofu city in the middle, and Yatsugatake under a big cloud behind; to my right, I could see the Oku-Chichibu mountains, completely free of clouds, with the small triangular peak of Mt Kinpu in the middle.

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Looking Northwest towards Nagano

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Looking Northeast towards Yamanashi

It was still terribly windy, so I had to cut my lunch short. I made my way back to Kasugasawa-no-to, where I took a path to the left, and followed a wide downhill slope. I reached Mt Ina 稲山 just before 3pm. There was another view, similar to the one I had during lunch. Here I had the choice between a North trail and a South trail, both of the same length. They each followed a ridge above a valley and ended at the same place. I couldn’t find the North one, so the choice was easy. From now, the ridge became steeper and more narrow, with many tall pine trees along the path. You truly felt you were hiking in the mountains, a feeling you don’t always get when hiking closer to Tokyo.

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Some of the best hiking was through the Zelkova forest

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Approaching the end of the hike

At 4pm I emerged onto a small road and a small parking area. On the way to the bus stop, I made a short detour by the nearby Yatsushiro-Furusato Park. There were some “Kofun” (ancient mound tombs), and good views of the surrounding mountains. At 5h30 I caught the empty bus back, and reached Isawa onsen station before 6pm. After a quick hot spring bath at Yamanami Hotel, I got the limited express train back to Tokyo.

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Late afternoon sun in Yatsushiro-Furusato Park

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Looking back at Mt Inayama (left)

Mt Byobu (948m) & Mt Sengen (804m), Hakone Town, Kanagawa Prefecture, Saturday, February 15, 2020

Hiking in the Hakone Mountains

My last visit to Hakone was in December 2014 when I hiked the mountains around Lake Ashi. The area is close to Tokyo, offers good hiking and sightseeing at the same time. However, like Mt Fuji and Nikko, it sits right on the tourist trail, so buses, and hot springs, are usually crowded. The recent, and unfortunate, drop in the number of tourists was a good chance to do some hiking there, as well as support the area. There was a hike in my “Mountains of Kanagawa” that I had been wanting to do for a while. However, it was a bit short (3 hours), so using my Hakone hiking map, I built a longer hike that would take me from Hakone Town on Lake Ashi, all the way down to Hakone-Yumoto station. There were few views, and no sun, so I wasn’t able to get many good pictures. Nevertheless it was a good ramble.

Shy Fuji on a grey day

I used the comfortable Romancecar from Shinjuku, but got off at Odawara, one stop before Hakone-Yumoto. Since most buses start from there, I thought I would have a better chance of getting a seat. To my surprise, the driver wouldn’t let me board till I told him my exact destination. I had memorised the kanji, but couldn’t recall how to say them, so I just said “Hakone”. The driver replied, in English, “Hakone is wide.” Suddenly the name popped into my head. “Sekisho-ato!” I blurted out; the driver acknowledged it as a valid bus stop, and I was finally allowed to board the completely empty bus.

Start of the trail among the bamboo bushes

The bus remained mostly empty, even after passing Hakone-Yumoto. I could see the usual line of sightseers at the bus stop, but for some mysterious reason they didn’t get on. The bus passed by the Yusaka trail 湯坂道, the starting point of the second part of today’s hike. As was established earlier, I got off at Sekisho-ato 関所跡, meaning “checkpoint ruins”, the start of the Hakone section of the Old Tokaido Road (more on that later), and popped into a nearby souvenir shop. On the other side, there was a view of Lake Ashi, with Mt Fuji partially hidden by Mt Mikuni.

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Steep climbing on Mt Byobu

At 10 o’clock I finally set off. I found the start of the trail indicated by a signpost near the bus stop. Very soon I reached some steps going straight up the mountain side. They were so steep that at one point it felt like a ladder would have been more appropriate. Thankfully it didn’t take long to reach the top of the ridge, after which it was pleasant stroll along a mostly level trail to the top of Mt Byobu 屛風山, part of the outer crater rim of Mt Hakone.

Walking through thick vegetation above Hakone Town

It was entirely surrounded by trees, so I didn’t linger, and followed the path down the other side. There were some glimpses of the surrounding mountains through the trees. Even though I was close to a major hot spring resort, I couldn’t see any buildings nor hear any noise. It felt like I was exploring a hidden valley. Less than thirty minutes later, I reached the Tokaido road, connecting Hakone-Yumoto with Hakone Town, and the Amazake-Chaya Teahouse. I decided to take a short break and have some of their famous non-alcoholic sweet sake with “chikara-mochi” meaning “power rice cake”. This was a welcome break, since I had forgotten half of my lunch at home.

Refueling with some sweet sake and power mochi

At noon, I was powered up and ready to continue hiking. I was now walking the Old Tokaido Road to Hatajuku 畑宿. I could have followed it all the way from Hakone Town, since it started near the bus stop I got off. However, it seemed that, apart from the historical aspect, it wouldn’t make for an interesting hike, so I preferred the detour through the mountains. The Tokaido used to connect Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo period. Most of it has disappeared, but some sections have been restored along the Hakone part.

An ancient road dating back to the 17th century

It’s stone-paved, so it was easy to mentally travel back in time, and imagine what it must have been like to walk this road 400 years ago. However, it wasn’t easy to walk on the stones. At first it ran parallel to the modern Tokaido road, so the noise of cars was never far away. When the modern road made a series of switchbacks down the side of the mountain, the ancient one descended directly via a series of stone steps, at the end of which was a short section of road-walking.

A not so old staircase on the Old Tokaido Road

At one point there was a view of the Shonan coast and Odawara city below, probably quite spectacular on days with better visibility. Half an hour later, I reached Hatajuku, a center for traditional handicrafts, and left the Old Tokaido Road. It continues all the way down to Hakone-Yumoto, but I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you are into Historical reenactment.

Turn right here to return to the paved road

I walked up the Hakone Shindo Road for a few minutes till the start of the trail for the Hiryu falls 飛龍の滝 up the other side of the mountain. The first part was punishingly steep. The next part, following a rushing stream, was more level but surprisingly rocky at times, especially for regular sightseers who just wanted to see the falls, not experience a full-blown hike. I got to the observation platform base of the falls at 1h30, and was underwhelmed by what I observed. The water rushing down the rocky side of the mountains never really “fell”, but I figured it would look more impressive after a big rainfall. However, the picturesque Hiryu river made the climb worthwhile.

Hiryu river valley, just below the falls

The next part of the trail was badly damaged, probably due to last year’s typhoons. A little higher up were signs that the trail was being repaired, and the next part was a lot better. The trail climbed steadily through thick forest along steps built into the gentle slope. I was now all alone as most people turn back at the waterfalls.

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Trail after the waterfall

At 2pm, I reached the Yusaka hiking trail. To the left was the road I had taken earlier by bus. Turning around, I saw a sign on the trail I had just come up, reminding me that I was inside the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. I headed right along a wide path, doubling as a firebreak. I soon reached a table on top of a grassy mound. According to my map, this was the top of Mt Takanosu 鷹ノ巣山 (834m). There was no summit marker, but instead there was a sign saying this was the location of the ruins of Takanosu castle. A little further was a steep and short descent, followed by a gentle climb. I had some views of the Gora area of Hakone (cable car service should resume on March 20) and Mt Kintoki in the background (Mt Ashigara on some maps). Before I knew it, I was at the top of Mt Sengen 浅間山. There was another table, but no view.

A glimpse of Gora with Mt Kintoki in the background

The final section of the hike followed the firebreak along a ridge, all the way back down to Hakone-Yumoto. I am sure this would be a nice hike on a sunny spring or autumn day, but today under a grey sky and surrounded by leafless trees, it felt rather bleak. However it was quite warm for the time of the year, around 15 degrees, so it was odd walking in a winter landscape in spring-like temperatures. I reached the ruins of Yusaka castle a little before 4pm. Apart from a signboard there wasn’t much to see. A few minutes later, I popped out onto the main road next to a river. I had a hot spring bath at nearby Izumi, before walking the 5 minutes back to the train station, where I caught the Romancecar back to Tokyo.

NEXT UP: Mt Ushibuse in Gunma

Mt Konara (1712m), Yamanashi City, Yamanashi Prefecture, Saturday, September 28, 2019

There are so many mountains in Yamanashi prefecture that I sometimes feel I won’t be able to climb them all. Today’s hike, mostly level and downhill, was perfect for my ankle that was still a bit painful. On top of that, the weather forecast called for high-altitude clouds – I needed something that would be well below that. Otome highland 乙女高原 at around 1500m and situated below Mt Kinpu seemed liked the perfect place, and I was lucky to get a seat the day before on the reservation-only bus for Odarumi pass.

Mt Fuji with a rocker’s hairstyle

A surprising thing happened on the way to the start of the trail. The bus, operated by Eiwa Kotsu, failed to show up at Enzan station. Despite the gloomy forecast, it was a beautiful sunny morning, and around 30 people were in line. Eventually, a replacement bus arrived 40 minutes late – I never found out what happened.

View from the top of Mt Konara (Mt Fuji on the right)

Luckily I wasn’t on a tight schedule, unlike those who were doing the roundtrip to Mt Kinpu. I was the only person who remained on the bus for the final segment along Otome lake to Yakeyama Pass 焼山峠 – everybody else had transferred to minibuses for Odarumi pass. I was finally ready to start at 10h45, a full hour behind schedule. In the meanwhile, the high-altitude clouds had rolled in.

The start of the trail felt a bit spooky

Shortly after starting out, I was feeling spiderwebs all over my arms and legs. However, I couldn’t see the offending web or find any trace of it on myself. Also, the path was several meters wide – a bit unsuitable for spinning a web. The feeling persisted, and I was starting to think that I was imagining it. Eventually I was able to spot some ultra-thin filaments attached to some leaves – can’t imagine what kind of insects the spider was hoping to catch. The feeling of walking through spider webs continued for the first hour of the hike.

Thin spider webs crossing the path

Cobwebs aside, this part was also some of the best hiking I had done recently. Even though Otome highland is just outside the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, I thought that the trail and the surrounding forest were especially beautiful. I saw just one person on the way to the summit, one hour away. The trail was easy to walk: wide, grassy and gently undulating. The total height gain was less than 200 meters, which is why I had chosen this hike, since steep inclines were bad for my ankle.

At one point the path split into a new and an old path. The new one went up a steep slope, whereas the old one continued level through the forest. I choose the latter one, since according to the map, they joined up again, and they did indeed after a few minutes, with almost no elevation gain – go figure.

New path but worn-out sign?

With very little effort, I reached the top of Mt Konara 小楢山, a mountain few people have heard of, and was greeted with some sunshine, a wide panorama, and a group of hikers having lunch. Luckily the top was quite spacious, and I found a quiet spot for my own lunch. I could see Mt Fuji, although the top was in the clouds and Kofu city. I could also make out Mt Kenashi, Mt Kuro, Mitsutoge and Daibosatsu Rei.

The top of Mt Konara, a good place for lunch

During lunch, I studied the rest of the course in my guidebook. I realised that the rest of the trail was tougher than I had imagined – a succession of ups and downs with several rocky sections. Normally I would have thought “Perfect!” However, with my weak ankle, I wanted to avoid anything too adventurous. So I decided to take a different route down. Shortly past the summit, instead of continuing southwards, there are a couple of trails heading West. Their names translate roughly as “Missed Mother” and “Missed Father”. I took the latter since it allowed for a slightly longer hike.

After the summit the path gets narrower

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a difficult trail as well. In addition to being hard to see, making it necessary to search for the pink ribbons attached to the trees, it was steep, going directly down the side of the mountain. Luckily it wasn’t too long (about an hour), and I soon emerged onto a forest trail, not without a certain amount of relief. From there it was thirty minutes to the road, and another hour to the bus stop through Yamanashi Prefecture’s famous vineyards. It was the middle of the harvest season, and I was surrounded by beautiful ripe grapes on all sides – I was very tempted to pick some!

The sun tried valiantly to break through the cloud cover

Bus drive to the start of the trail

 

NEXT UP: Mt Shirasuna in Gunma Prefecture