Mt Gongen (2715m) & Mt Amigasa (2524m), Hokuto City & Fujimi Town, Yamanashi & Nagano Prefectures, Thursday, October 23, 2019

Hiking on Mt Yatsugatake 八ヶ岳

I was hoping to climb one last big mountain in 2019, before the arrival of snow, and I had had my eye on the two Southernmost peaks in the Yatsugatake range for a while. Even though they are the closest to Tokyo, right between Yamanashi and Nagano, they’re challenging to climb as a day trip from Tokyo – Mt Tengu, further North, was possible thanks to the Hokuriku shinkansen. In the end, I decided to stay the night in Kofu and drive to the mountain; this way I could leave at dawn, and finish around sunset. I had to travel to Yamanashi and back by highway bus, since the trains weren’t running as usual due to damage by typhoon Hagibis. This was a blessing in disguise, since the bus costs half the price of the train, so I could recoup some of the cost of the hotel and the car.

Looking back at the pointy tip of Mt Gongen from Mitsugashira

On Thursday morning, the sky above Kofu city was foggy, but as I drove West along the highway, blue skies appeared overhead. As Yatsugatake came into sight, I got a shock: the top was white with snow! As I drew closer, I saw with relief that it was only the highest peak, Mt Aka (2899m), that was covered in snow, and today’s hike would be snow-free. I reached the Kannondaira parking lot (1560m) just before 8am – there were quite a few cars, even on a weekday. The first part of the hike, a gently rising trail through forest that was still green, was fairly easy. After half an hour, I reached a clearing with a good viewpoint of Mt Fuji sporting a brand new snow cap – a good place for breakfast.

Snow-capped Mt Fuji – the morning mists haven’t fully dissipated yet

The trail continued through thick forest, and after another half an hour I reached the turn-off for my first peak. A steep climb straight up the side of the mountain, with occasional views through the forest of the Kofu valley behind me, brought me to the bare and rocky top of Mt Amigasa 編笠山 at 10h30. The 360 degree view was one of the best I’ve ever seen while hiking.

From left to right I could see Mt Fuji, the Minami Alps, the Chuo Alps, Mt Ontake, Mt Norikura and the Kita Alps – all the highest were covered with snow. I could also see the entire Yatsugatake range stretching North, with in the center the matterhorn-like peak of Mt Aka. There were so many great pictures from this hike, that it was impossible to share them all here.

Today’s mountain is the highest point on the far right, but lower than Mt Aka in the center

After a quick bite, I set off downhill just after 11am, towards a saddle where the Seinen Hut was located, just 20 minutes away. The last part was full of giant boulders, and it took some time since I had to step carefully from boulder to boulder, following painted yellow arrows. After that, I was climbing again through forest. Suddenly, I was above the treeline at around 2600m; there was a sharp drop on my left, and an impressive rocky outcrop towering in front of me.

Fortunately, there was a switchback path on the right, with helpful chains in several places. It looped around the back, and led up to what I thought was the highest point. Noticing that there was no summit marker, I turned around – the true top was behind me, five minutes away and just a little higher. Looking left, I could the impressive “kiretto” or mountain ridge, leading to Mt Aka.

The “kiretto”, on the right, leading up to the highest point of the Yatsugatake

Originally I had planned to go up and down the same way. However, I had made good time climbing up, so I decided to take a different and longer route down. I hurried past another hut to the highest point of my hike, Mt Gongen 権現山 – in fact the highest mountain climbed in 2019. I couldn’t actually get to the very highest point since it consisted of a bunch of huge boulders, but I got as high as I felt safe doing, and had the rest of the lunch while enjoying the view of Mt Fuji in the distance. Since a boulder was in a way, I couldn’t get a perfect 360 degree view. The weather was still sunny, with almost no wind. Despite the high altitude, and proximity of the snowline 200m higher, I was perfectly fine wearing just a base layer. At one point a cargo plane, probably from the Japan Self-Defense Force, flew past the summit (see video at the end).

Perfect view of Mt Fuji from the top of Mt Gongen

I had to set off fairly quickly if I wanted to complete the hike before dark, around 5pm. First I headed down and back up again to Mitsugashira 三ツ頭 (2580m). Looking back, the view of snow-covered Mt Aka, wrapped in mist was breath-taking. By now, it was nearly 2pm and I needed at least a couple of hours to get back to my car, so I pulled myself away from the view, and descended into the forest. This was one of the nicest and easiest downhill hikes I’ve ever done. There were good views of my first peak, with orange larch trees around the base. One hour and a half later, I reached the Yatsugatake crossing path (“oudan hodo” 八ヶ岳横断歩道), part of a trail that circles the entire mountain range –  something to try one day. From there, it was another thirty minutes back to the parking area along a mostly level trail, although the last meters were steep uphill – pretty tough after what was nearly an 8 hour hike! Fortunately, there was a hot spring at the base of the mountain, so I could have a good soak before making the long trip back to Tokyo.

Although it’s called the red peak, today it was partly white

 

I believe this was a JIETAI plane flying past the summit

 

NEXT UP: Mt Ihai (Mt Ashitaka) in Shizuoka

Mt Shirasuna (2140m), Nakanojo Town, Gunma Prefecture, Thursday, October 10, 2019

Hiking in the Mikuni Mountains 三国山脈

This is another mountain that had been on my to-climb list for ages. One reason was access: buses to Nozori lake 野反湖 only ran on weekdays – strange since there is nothing there except a campsite. Another reason was that it seemed to be perpetually inside the clouds. It’s probably one of the rare mountains I’ve never been able to see, despite having made multiple trips to the area, the most recent about 3 weeks earlier.

Mt Shirasuna, cloud-free version

Three weeks ago, I had the opportunity to do a weekday hike, and with perfect blue sky weather before the arrival of yet another typhoon, I decided to tackle this two-hundred famous mountain of Japan. Once I started planning in earnest, another issue arose – it couldn’t be done as a day trip using public transportation. I needed to stay the night at a hotel near Shin-Maebashi station to catch the first train for Naganohara-Kusatsuguchi station. Luckily, I was able to book a decent room the same evening.

The path down with Mt Asamayama in the background

The day of the hike, I caught the first outbound train on the Agatsuma line. For some reason, the train was full of high-school students, who all got off at the same station, apparently to go to Kusatsu onsen. There didn’t seem to be any accompanying teachers, but I guess it was some kind of school trip. I recognised some of them on the train back. After getting off the train, I got on a tiny bus with just one other person. It reminded me of the bus that I used for Mt Mikabo. The ride was very picturesque, through villages and along river valleys. It was part of Gunma that I had never visited before. After more than one hour, we reached a viewpoint over the lake – the driver kindly stopped there for a few seconds so that we could take in the view. In the early morning sun, the surface was a beautiful blue.

The beautiful blue of Nozori lake

The last bus back was at 3pm and I only had a short six hours to reach the top and come back. I had gotten ready on the bus, so after confirming the time of the last bus back with the driver, I left without delay. The start of the hike was through beautiful forest, mostly birch and silver fir trees, but not much in terms of autumn colours. I met no other hikers, not surprising on a weekday. 90 minutes later, I got my first views of the lake and the entire Asamayama range emerging from the morning mist. Later on, I had some good views of Mt Iwasuge 岩菅山, another two-hundred famous mountain I hope to climb someday. Before I knew it, I reached the top of Mt Doiwa 堂岩山 2051m, completely in the trees, just before 11am.

Misty Asamayama – I was hiking the peak on the right side the previous month

From the summit, there were some glimpses of mountains to the North through the trees. However, a few steps beyond, just as the path started descending, I got my first glorious view of the day. The weather was still perfect and I could see the path ahead all the way to my target mountain, as well as the mountains of the Joshinetsu-kogen National Park to the North.

To the South, I could even make out Mt Fuji popping up behind the mountains of Oku-chichibu. I also spotted other hikers climbing the mountain so I wasn’t alone. My original plan was to go up and down the same way. However, since I had progressed quickly, I decided to do a longer loop hike that would end at the other side of the lake (the viewpoint the driver paused at). I was now at the fork of the trail, so I would need to retrace my steps later on, something I didn’t mind doing since it was all views from here on.

Mt Fuji, barely visible 150km away

I lost time admiring and photographing the great views, so I had to hurry during the final climb, and I reached the top of Mt Shirasuna 白砂山 a little after noon. Since I wanted to do the longer route down, I had to pull myself away from the great 360 degree views only after thirty minutes. North was Mt Naeba, East, the Tanigawa range, with Mt Sukai in the distance behind, South, Mt Akagi and Mt Haruna, West, Mt Asama and Shirane-Kusatsu, with the North Alps visible behind. By the way, the hiking path continues all the way to Mt Mikuni, but it’s necessary to stay in a hut along the way.

The path continues…some day I might return to walk it

I hurried back and reached the fork for the loop hike at 1h30. From here I followed a wide and grassy path southwards – I tried to run a bit, but the terrain was uneven under the grass, so I had to be careful. There were good views to my left but the right side was blocked by trees. I was surprised that even on this less traveled hiking path the signage was fairly new and in English. Eventually the path bottomed out and I found myself climbing again. With some effort I reached the top of Mt Hachiken 1953m 八間山 with forty minutes to spare before the last bus back.

Looking back at Mt Doiwa (on the left) and Mt Shirasuna (on the right)

After a couple of minutes rest, I set off again, the final stretch down to the pass above the lake. At this stage I was running most of the way. The ridge seemed endless and I was greatly relieved when the lake and pass appeared to my right. I made to the bus stop with ten minutes to spare. The bus was actually a little late, but according to another passenger, the driver had waited for me for a few minutes before departing. It was the same driver as in the morning, and since I had asked about the last bus he had assumed I would be coming down the say way (that was my original plan) – how kind of him to wait for me!

NEXT UP: Mt Gongen in Kanagawa pref. (Tanzawa)

 

Mt Yokote (2307m) & Mt Shiga (2037m), Yamanouchi Town, Nagano Prefecture

I did this hike with my mother who was visiting Japan for a couple of weeks. Since it was quite far from Tokyo, we rented a car in Takasaki, and spent the night in a traditional Japanese inn, or “ryokan”, in Kusatsu Onsen. The next morning was sunny, but by the time we had made our way all the way up to Yugama Lake 湯釜 the clouds had rolled in. We admired the light blue colour of the crater lake, but gave up on climbing Mt Kusatsu-Shirane. I had climbed it before in the clouds, and had little interest in doing it again in similar conditions.

A beautiful crater lake

We drove on to Yokoteyama Ropeway which took us to the top of Mt Yokote 横手山. We got some nice views of Shiga Highland 志賀高原. Fortunately, the Nagano side was still free of clouds. We finally arrived at Kumanoyu (meaning the bear’s bath) where we left the car. We were now firmly inside Nagano prefecture. Another short ropeway took up to the start of the hike. Luckily, the weather was holding up. The first part was quite level. At one point the path went through some very high bamboo, higher than our heads, and I was worried about bears. So I reached into my bag to retrieve my bear bell only to realise that I had left it in the car!

View from the top of Mt Yokote

Soon the path started to climb. It was steep, with big rocks and protruding tree roots, making progress slow. The path slowly wound up the side of the mountain. We saw few people, and thankfully no bears. We reached the top of Mt Shiga 志賀山 just before 2 pm. A little way past the summit, there were some good views of Onuma-ike Lake below. The whole hike is inside the Joshin Etsu Kogen National Park and is very wild and beautiful.

The area of our hike – Mt Shiga is in the clouds on the right

We climbed down via a different path, spotting various small ponds on the way. Finally, after passing through a shinto gate or “torii”, we reached the base of the cone-shaped Mt Shiga. The next part involved walking along an elevated walkway through marshlands – much easier than the rocky path down the mountain! The final part back to the ropeway was along a wide and level path through the forest.

Onuma Lake in the middle of Shiga Highland

Since it was getting late, we decided not to take a bath at Kumanoyu, and leave right away. No sooner had we set off, that a dark shadow dashed across the road – it was a bear cub. It disappeared into the bushes opposite. We waited a bit for a mother bear, but she was nowhere to be seen. In any case the place certainly deserves its name!

Elevated walkway through the marshland 

On the way back, we stopped briefly for some photos at the marker for the highest national road in Japan at 2172m high. The drive down to Kusatsu onsen was through thick mist. We had a bath at the Sainokawara open-air bath, one of the biggest in Japan. After we were done, it started raining really hard, but we managed to get back to Takasaki safe and sound, a little after nightfall.

Hiking up and down Mt Shiga

Nikko-Shirane Ropeway & Goshiki-Numa Lake, Katashina Town, Gunma Prefecture

I did this hike with my mother who was visiting Japan for a couple of weeks. Since it was quite far from Tokyo, we spent the night at the Takasaki Dormy Inn Hotel, and the next morning, I drove to the Nikko-Shirane Ropeway. Even though it was a weekday, I was surprised by how few people there were, especially since it was the middle of the summer holidays. The place is mainly a ski resort in the winter so perhaps people aren’t aware that it also runs from June to October. I love ropeways and I keep on discovering new ones – it’s amazing how many there are in Japan!

Sun shining through the forest

At the top of the ropeway, inside Nikko National Park and nearly 2000m high, the visibility wasn’t the best, and the views were a little disappointing. At least it was cooler than down in the valley. The hike started out on a fairly level trail through beautiful forest. After an hour or so, we had to climb steeply for a short while to reach the edge of a pond. Here I was able to look up towards the top of Mt Nikko-Shirane. I had been hoping to get my revenge, since it was in clouds when I climbed it several years ago. However, the top was in the clouds again, and another ascent seemed pointless.

Midaga Pond near the top of Mt Nikko-Shirane

We continued a little further and reached the edge of a crater with at the bottom, the beautiful Goshiki-Numa lake 五色沼 (which means five-colour lake). Since we had enough time, I decided we could descend to the shore of the lake and climb back up again. Unfortunately the descent was steep and rocky, and we regretted it a bit.

The Goshiki-numa lake, inside Tochigi prefecture

After enjoying the peace and quiet of the lake, we made our way back up to the edge of the crater via a different path, and then walked back the way we had come. At the pond, we passed a group of noisy school children who had come up a different path. We headed back down the steep path to the forest below, and at the bottom we took another trail that looped back to the top of the ropeway.

View of Maru-numa lake from the ropeway

Check out the views of Nikko-Shirane

On the drive back to Takasaki we stopped at the very impressive Fukiware Waterfalls 吹割の滝 where we could walk along the river and the falls for a short way.

Where is all the water going?

Check out one of the famous waterfalls in Japan