Shiga-Kogen & Mt Asahi (1524m), Yamanouchi Town, Nagano Prefecture, Sunday, September 4, 2022 [Monkeys]

Hiking in the Joshin-Estu Kogen National Park

上信越高原国立公園

After a two-month break, I was looking for an easy hike to get back in shape. I also wanted to visit a national park for a total immersion in nature. Shiga-Kogen, last visited two years ago, seemed like the ideal choice, since it had mostly level hiking trails passing next to small lakes, as well as a minor summit. I could get there by taking the shinkansen to Nagano city, then ride the “snow monkey” limited express to Yudanaka, and finally board a bus for the last leg of the trip. For the return, I would catch the same bus but from a slightly lower elevation. The weather was supposed to be cloudy and sunny; hopefully the sun would have the upper hand. I knew that Yudanaka is famous for its snow monkeys bathing in hot water in the winter; in the summer, however, they tend to roam further away, so I thought I might catch a glimpse of them along the way.

View of Biwaike and the peaks of Shiga-Kogen from Mt Asahi

Clouds slowing vanishing above Tanohara Marshland

I rode the Hokuriku shinkansen under blue skies, enjoying the views of the mountains surrounding the Kanto Plain. After getting off at Nagano station, I boarded the limited express for the one hour ride to Yudanaka, where I switched to a surprisingly empty bus for Shibutoge (渋峠); a little before 11h30, I finally got off at Kidoike Pond (木戸池 1620m, meaning “Wooden Door Pond”). After getting ready, I set off on a wooden walkway next to the lake side, but very soon made a hard right up a short slope, leading to the top of a grassy rise.

Kidoike at the start of today’s hike

Looking back at Tanohara Marsh

I enjoyed a fantastic view of twin peaks emerging from the clouds and a wide grassy area directly below; I felt I had made the right choice by visiting Shiga-Kogen (志賀高原) and the Joshin-Etsu National Park (上信越高原国立公園) on my first Autumn hike, even though at the moment, the lower sections were still in the mist. I made my way down to Tanohara Marsh (田ノ原湿原 1610m), and followed another wooden walkway to the forest on the other side; after a road crossing and a descent along a rocky trail, I reached Sankakuike Pond(三角池 1630m, meaning “Triangle Pond”), a little after noon.

Blue sky reflected in Sankakuike

Shiga Lake Hotel reflected in Hasuike

As I approached the lake, I marveled at the reflection of blue sky and fluffy white clouds on the perfectly still water surface, the low clouds having temporarily parted. I continued along the gently undulating path through thick forest, and soon arrived at Kami-no-koike (上の小池 1570m), a lot smaller than the two previous ones. At 12h30, I was walking the length of the narrow Nagaike (長池 1584m, meaning “Long Pond”) while observing the mad dance of the dragon flies.

Today’s mountain, Mt Asahi

Caution: monkey crossing

I took a while to enjoy its mysterious atmosphere: wisps of cloud drifting down the opposite slope, creating ripples on the water surface. I crossed another road, and arrived at Shimo-no-koike (下の小池 1610m), the smallest lake so far, covered in bright green water plants. Next, I emerged onto a steep slope near the top of a chairlift (Shiga-Kogen is also a ski resort). At the bottom, I passed through a tunnel and found myself at Hatsuike Pond (蓮池 1490m, meaning “Lotus pond”). I walked over to the nearby Ariake-no-oka Observatory where I had a view of Mt Terakoka and Higashi-Tateyama.

Sky and clouds reflected in Ichinuma

Monkey enjoying the pond view

At the other end of the lake, I was mesmerised by the reflection of the white facade of Shiga Lake Hotel. I popped into the nearby Shiga Kogen Yama no Eki (志賀高原山の駅), a mountain roadside station, to check their flower chart. I crossed the road once more, and after descending through the forest, reached Biwaike Pond (琵琶池 1390m), the largest lake so far. Through a gap in the trees, I had my first view of today’s mountain, a flattish peak rising above the opposite shore. I was hoping to have lunch there, it was already 2pm, but before that, I dropped by Ichinuma Pond (一沼 1410m), the prettiest pond of the day.

Mt Ura-Shikakogen (left) and Mt Ura-Shigakogen (right)

Last pond of the day, Mizunashiike

As I approached, I was surprised to see a monkey squatting on the wooden walkway, and then two more relaxing in a tree above. In total, I spotted about a dozen, eating various plants, as well as water lily leaves; one brave monkey even went for a dip in the cold water. After they had all left, I resumed my hike up a pleasant path through a forest of Japanese white birch (白樺 shirakaba). A little before 3pm, I reached the summit of Mt Asahi (旭山 あさひやま asahi-yama). It was mostly in the trees, however, on the east side the valley bottom was faintly visible; on the west side, I could see Biwa lake, as well as Mt Shiga, Mt Terakoya and Mt Higashi-Tate.

Japanese Monkshood, one of the many flowers of Shiga-Kogen

View of sun rays passing through clouds from near the bus stop

After enjoying the best view of the day, I retraced my steps to a junction I had passed earlier, and took the left branch. I soon emerged from the forest, crossed a road for the last time, and followed a grassy path to the tiny Mizunashiike Pond (水無池 1470m meaning “Pond without water”), the last and lowest pond of the day. I saw some purple bell-shaped flowers, called Yama-Torikabuto (ヤマトリカブト Japanese monkshood). I followed the trail around the marsh, reaching a road and a bus stop just before 4pm. After getting back to Yudanaka, once more on an empty bus, I caught the “Snow Monkey” to Nagano where, after enjoying some local sake inside the station, I boarded the shinkansen for the 90 minute ride back to Tokyo.

See the ponds and monkeys of Shiga-Kogen

Mt Tokko (1266m), Ueda City, Nagano Prefecture, Sunday, April 10, 2022

My last hike to the Ueda area had been less than 6 months ago, but I wanted to enjoy the views of Nagano again during the last clear days of early spring. I would climb a mountain south of Bessho Onsen, a famous hot spring resort, easily accessible from Tokyo by Shinkansen and local train; from the station, I could catch a local bus to the start of the trail. My guidebook recommended a five-hour loop hike combining two of the three trails on the mountain. On top of blue skies all day, the weather was supposed to be unseasonably warm, meaning that I could dress lightly. I was looking forward to getting views of the snow-covered North Alps, as well as enjoying a relaxing hot spring bath at the end.

View north from Daruma-iwa

Mt Tokko during plum blossom season

I didn’t see a single cloud in the sky on the 70-minute shinkansen ride to Ueda, where I switched to the Bessho line. Half an hour later, I got off at the charming Bessho Onsen station (別所温泉), the last stop on the line. Fresh off the platform, I was greeted by two ladies dressed in kimonos, who kindly directed me to the bus stop behind the station, marked by a bright red sign. A ten-minute ride on a light blue bus brought me to Chuuzenji Temple (中禅寺) at the foot of today’s mountain, and a ten-minute walk up a paved road led me to a fence with a gate, and the entrance of today’s hike.

Some sun filtering through the cedar trees on the way up

View east of Azuma-yama and Asama-yama

I spent a few minutes studying a beautiful and detailed hand-drawn map of the path to the top, displayed in front of the fence, before passing through it and heading into shady cool cedar forest. Although it was only 10h30, I was already feeling quite warm. I followed to a small stream and soon reached Fudo waterfall (不動滝). I left the stream behind, and after passing through a patch of camphor trees still bare of needles, made my way up a steep switchback path, some sections lined with rope to assist the unsteady hiker.

Mt Asama without its characteristic plume of smoke

The Japanese North Alps still in their winter coat

At 11h30, I had my first views of through the leafless trees; it felt odd to be in short sleeves surrounded by a winter landscape. A few minutes later, I reached the top of the ridge where I turned left. Pine trees were growing here and there and the air was filled with birdsong. After a short scramble, I arrived at Daruma Rock (だるま岩), an oval shaped rock, protruding from the mountain side like a pimple. Hidden behind was a rocky platform with a wide view of the valley. In the distance, I could see the white peaks of the North Alps, Togakushi highland, Mt Azuma, and Mt Asama, for once without its distinctive plume of smoke.

Mt Komayumi with the North Alps in the background

A solitary pine tree at the summit with Mt Tateshina on the far right

After enjoying the wide views, the best of the day, I set off again. I soon arrived at a junction, where I turned left, and after one last climb, reached the top of Mt Tokko (独鈷山 とっこさん tokko-san) just after noon. To the north, I had similar views as before; to the south, I could now see Mt Tateshina and the Utsukushi-ga-hara plateau. Even though I was over 1000 meters high, it still felt too hot to sit in the sun. Fortunately, a lone pine tree provided some shade, so I sat down for lunch. At 1pm, I made my way back to the junction, and followed the Miyazawa trail (宮沢コース) for a few meters, before taking the right branch for the Sawayamaike trail (沢山池コース).

Following the Sawayamaike Trail

Looking out on the southern side of Mt Tokko

This trail was surprisingly hard to follow; I frequently had to stop to look for strips of pink ribbons indicating the way. Occasionally, I passed white signposts stuck to trees, reassuring me that the narrow ridge I was following was indeed a hiking path. I had no views and saw no one as I followed the undulating ridge westwards. At 2pm, I turned right, down a narrow valley through which flowed a small stream. The path was still faint and in rather bad condition, forcing me to step carefully and continue to hunt for signs of the route.

Walking along the valley near the end of the hike

View of Joshinetsu-kogen from Shitakuike

About an hour later, I reached a deserted road at the end of the trail, which I then followed to the right. I was soon walking through the Nagano countryside in early spring mode, plum trees in full bloom. To my right, I had a side view of Mt Tokko, and I could appreciate the ridge I had followed after lunch. I stopped by Shitakuike pond (舌喰池) to admire the view of the mountains of Joshinetsu highland. Since it was only a couple of kilometers back to the station, I decided to walk, and was rewarded with seeing Japanese pheasants hunting for food next to the road (see video). I was back at the station with enough time for a hot bath at the modern Aisome no Yu (あいそめの湯) before my 4h30 train back to Ueda, where I caught the high-speed train for Tokyo.

See the sights and hear the sounds of Mt Tokko

Kinone Pass (171m) and Reisui Peak, Minamiboso City, Chiba Prefecture, Sunday, March 20, 2022

I definitely wanted to make one more trip to Chiba this year before the warmer weather arrived. Leafing through my guidebook, I selected a loop hike on the Tokyo bay side of the Boso peninsula. Although it was on the short side, access was straightforward as I could ride the Sasanami limited express there and back. The weather forecast was supposed to be sunny in the morning and cloudy in the afternoon. I was looking forward to getting some good sea views and wondered whether I would get a view of the Mt Fuji on the other side of the bay.

The yellow, red, blue of the beach house roofs

I had my first glimpses of Tokyo Bay from my train seat, ninety minutes after boarding the limited express in Akihabara; it was amazing to think that one of the biggest cities of the world was located on the opposite side. I got off at Iwai station just before 10am, and headed south on a busy road before turning left onto a quiet lane through the countryside. Next, I turned right onto a path parallel to the railway tracks, squeezed between the bay and the hillside. Half an hour later, I reached the entrance of Takasaki park (高崎公園) and continued straight on the slowly rising path.

View of Iwai bay from Takasaki Park

Navigating some course obstacles on the way

I was soon high enough to get a view of the colorful beach house rooftops. I turned left onto a curving log staircase, and at 11am, reached a viewpoint at the top of the park. I could see the dark blue waters of Tokyo and Sagami bays, with the outline of the Miura peninsula beyond; directly below, was Iwai bay, its light blue waters contrasting with the green forested ridge on the north side. As much as I strained my eyes, I could not spot Mt Fuji, normally visible to the northwest according to an illustrative sign board. After a short break, I headed back to the park entrance.

Panoramic view from Reisui peak

Yellow flower fields on the way to the Mt Harada highway

I turned right onto a road leading away from the blue sea and into the hills. I eventually reached the entrance of the hiking path on the left. It was a peaceful trail, through beautiful nature; occasionally I had to duck under a fallen tree, a reminder of the powerful typhoons from 2019. A little after 11h30, I reached Kinone Pass (木ノ根峠 きのねとうげ kinone-touge), its name meaning “tree root”. Despite being a pass, it’s one of the hundred low mountains of Boso; looking back, I had a view of Iwai bay framed by the vegetation. According to my guidebook, I could get a better view a little further east along the ridge.

Exiting the tunnel into a forested valley

These trees were probably knocked down by the 2019 typhoons

The trail was faint, but thanks to pink ribbons attached to branches, I emerged from the trees onto Reisui Peak (冷水ピーク), just before noon, and was rewarded with a panoramic view to the north: as before, I could see the two bays, Miura peninsula and Iwai beach; in the distance, I could now make out the skyscrapers of Yokohama, but Mt Fuji was still hidden; straight ahead, the ragged top of nearby Mt Nokogiri was visible. I sat on a lonely bench to enjoy an early lunch with a view. After, I went down the same way, and followed a road to a tunnel, the start of the “Harada-yama Sawayaka Gaidou” (原田山さわやか街道), built on top of an old highway.

The peaceful Iwabu lake

I was stunned by the sight of a picturesque, forested valley as I emerged from the unlit tunnel. I walked on a road with no traffic and passed through two more dark tunnels (see video). At 2pm, I reached Iwabuko Lake (岩婦湖 iwabuko), at the bottom of a slope lined with cherry blossom trees, their buds still firmly closed. The quiet of the lake was punctuated by birdsong coming from the trees on the opposite shore; a fisherman drifted across the lake on an inflatable floating device. I found a rocky spot near the water and enjoyed the rest of my lunch. From the lake it was another 30 minutes back to the station, where I caught the limited express for the 2 hour ride back to Tokyo.

See the views of Iwai bay, walk the dark tunnels of Mt Harada and listen to the birds of Iwabu lake

Kasamori Green Path (highest point 135m), Chonan Town, Chiba Prefecture, Sunday, January 9, 2022

I hadn’t been to Chiba since March 2019, because so many trails had been damaged by the powerful typhoons of 2018 and 2019. I found a hike from my guidebook relatively close to Tokyo, in the northern half of the Boso peninsula. The trail seemed to be in good condition, although a bit short for a day trip. Luckily, it could be extended, if needed, since it was on the Kanto Fureai no Michi. I wouldn’t be hitting any summits, but instead following a path with the intriguing name of “Green Path” and ending at a Buddhist Temple in the middle of the forest. I could take a bus from Mobara station to Chonan town, about a couple of kilometers from the start of the hike; at the end, I could catch a different bus back to the station. The weather was supposed to be sunny in the morning and afternoon, with a cloudy period around noon. I was excited to revisit Chiba after a three year interval and enjoy some low-altitude winter hiking.

View of northern Chiba from Nomikin park

The very green Kasamori “Green Path”

It took about one hour on the comfortable Wakashio Limited Express to reach Mobara station, and then another half an hour by bus to get to Chonan town. I first headed downhill towards a wide flat area through which the Habu river flows. At around 10h30, I finally spotted a sign for the Fureai no Michi, leading onto a small road through the countryside. I was surprised to see snow and ice on the shaded sections and had to be careful not to slip, especially when the road started to lead up a slope.

Looking eastwards from the Nomikin park viewpoint

Looking northwards from the observation tower

The road became snow-free as it turned towards the sun. At 11am, I reached a breathtaking viewpoint at the top of a hill inside Nomikin Park (野見金公園). Although I was only about 120m high in an area without any remarkable features, I had an unobstructed view east and north; flat forest stretched away in the distance, divided by a highway through Mobara city ten kilometers away. I had a coffee at Miharashi Terrace, just next to the viewpoint, and then headed over to an observation tower on the next hill.

Kuramochi lake, a paradise for birds

Heading up the “Green Path

I had a fantastic 360 degree view from the top; on the west side, I could even see the snowy summit of Mt Fuji, 130 kilometers away. It was already past noon, so I continued on my way and soon reached Kuramochi lake. I was surprised to hear many kinds of birdsong while standing on the bridge over the lake (see video). Ten minutes later, I arrived at the start of the Kasamori Green Path (笠森グリーンルート kasamori green route). True to its name, the path was entirely surrounded by forest, as it followed a hilly ridge northwards. Although I didn’t get any views, I enjoyed the changing scenery from the top of each set of steps.

The many up and downs of the Kasamori “Green Path

View of the Chiba countryside

After ninety minutes of up and down, I arrived at another observation tower. From the top, I could hear successive gongs from the bell tower of the closeby Kasamori temple, famous for its main hall built on top of wooden stilts. I gave up on a visit as it was quite crowded and rang the bell instead. Since it was only 2pm, I decided to continue north along the Fureai no Michi. I followed small, winding roads through charming countryside and reached my bus stop around 4pm; one hour later, I was back at Mobara station where I caught the limited express for the short ride to Tokyo.

Some snow on the Fureai no Michi

Listen to the bell of Kasamori temple

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 Shazan (1826m), Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture

This was my 8th hike in the Oku-Nikko or “deep Nikko” area (not counting several cross-country skiing trips). It’s one of my favourite places because of the easy public transport access, well-maintained trails, beautiful nature and, if the weather cooperates, breathtaking views. When I climbed Mt Hangetsu in 2018, I discovered a bus line that ended just below the summit, and I hoped to use it for another hike someday. Starting from there, I would be able to reach the next peak in a couple of hours, and then make my way back to Chuzenji Onsen via the lake. In theory it looked doable; in practice, due to the tight bus schedule, I had less than 5 hours to complete the hike. Also, rain was forecast in the afternoon, so I hoped I would be able to make it to the summit, and the views, before the clouds rolled in.

Hiking in Oku-Nikko 奥日光

I arrived at Tobu-Nikko station around 9h30, and caught the bus for Yumoto Onsen; as I had hoped, it was more than half empty on a weekday. I got off at Chuzenji Onsen, where I had to wait about thirty minutes for the bus for Hangetsu 半月, a seasonal bus running only a few months of the year. This time, I was the only passenger. It followed a thrilling road up the side of the mountain, with great views of the mountains South of the lake, and ended at a parking area next to a grassy park, on the shoulder of the mountain. Looking back at it during the hike, it reminded of an Inca terrace (see top photo).

Today’s mountain was the triangular peak in the center

Good trail at the start of the hike

I got off the bus and admired the view for a while. The mountains ridges spread in every direction, with no signs of civilisation in the deep valleys.  I finally set off at 11h30. The start of the trail was easy to walk, alternating level and climbing sections. I soon reached the observation platform below Mt Hangetsu, with a view of Chuzenji lake and Mt Nantai to the North. Since I had been there before, I moved on quickly. The trail continued via a series of tight switchbacks down a steep grassy slope with few trees and great views South and West; the sky was full of big puffy cumulus clouds, the biggest one sitting on top of Mt Nantai!

Summer is the time of Cumulus clouds

Despite all the clouds, the weather remained good

At noon, I reached Hangetsu Pass, where on my previous hike I had turned right, down to the lake; this time I continued straight. After a short climb, I reached the minor peak of Mt Chuzenji 中禅寺山 (1650m) in the middle of the trees. Next was a pleasant half an hour descent through a larch tree forest to Asegata Pass 阿世峠.  I had an early lunch before starting the last big climb of the day. So far the weather was holding, and although it felt hot in the sun, it was pleasantly cool in the shade. On the way up, I passed a couple of good viewpoints of Lake Chuzenji, before reaching a steep, but short, climb through some birch trees.

There is a hiking path following the top of the entire ridge

Climbing through the birch trees, called “kaba” in Japanese

The trees thinned, and I soon emerged onto a grassy rocky slope. Here, I had some of the best views of the day, I stopped every few meters to take photos. On my left, the lower ridges dropped away, giving the impression of being at the top of the world; on my right, the highest mountains of the Nikko National Park loomed above me, their peaks lost in the clouds, giving the impression of being at the edge of a hidden kingdom. I felt grateful that I could do such an amazing hike as a day trip from Tokyo.

The landscape tumbling downwards to the South

Getting close to the top

Shortly before 2pm, I reached the top of Mt Shazan (社山 shazan also read as yashiroyama). Although it’s a steep climb, the altitude difference is only 400 meters, so it didn’t required too much of an effort. Big grey clouds were hovering overhead, and a downpour felt imminent. I popped through some trees past the summit to have a quick look at the next part of the trail, and surprised a deer on the other side; it bounced away before I could get a picture. I saw that the trail continued up and down following the ridge around Chuzenji lake, the highest parts hidden by the slowly approaching mist. I quickly had the rest of my lunch, and headed down the way I had come up.

Mt Nantai, nearly clear of clouds, from the shore of Chuzenji Lake

The Chuzenji lake “Shukaisen” path that goes round the lake

As I hurried down, the clouds retreated and the sun returned. It took me less than a hour to reach the lake shore. From there it was another hour of walking along a pleasant forest path to the end of the hike. The path was peaceful and easy to walk. It’s possible to hike around the lake, and I hope to do this in the future. At 4pm, I was back at Chuzenji Onsen, and I just had time for a quick hot spring bath at Nikko Sansui before catching the bus back to Tobu-Nikko station.

I was glad that this hike could be done in less than 5 hours, although it required some fast walking at the end. The weather forecast turned out to be wrong, a good thing for once!

Tanbara Highland (1200m), Numata City, Gunma Prefecture & Bear Sighting

I had been to Tanbara highland in May 2018, so I thought it would be the perfect place for some easy hiking during the rainy season. Since I had already been to the highest point, Mt Kanomata, this time I decided to take a different trail and skip this summit. This would make for a slightly shorter hike which was good, since this time I was driving there and back myself (it’s also possible to get there by bus). My main concern was the temperature – would it already be too hot and humid to hike comfortably?

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Tanbara Lake, seen from ski slope, turned grassy field

I arrived at the Tanbara Center house 玉原センターハウス around 12h30. Contrary to my expectations, the air felt a little chilly and a few raindrops were falling; however, the sun was just coming out from behind the clouds. I set off the along the same trail as my previous hike, heading gently uphill through a beautiful beech forest and following a small bubbling stream. Just before arriving at the Tanbara camping ground, I turned left along the road towards the Lavender Park  in bloom from next month only. Now, however, the flowers were still closed, and the area was deserted.

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Hiking next to a small stream

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The Tanbara Lavender Park

I walked up one of the paths among the flowerbeds to a small observatory. It had a bell that one can ring to scare away any bears that may be lurking nearby. I gave it a good ring. After climbing down, I spotted a black shape out of the corner or my eye. It was about a hundred meters away on the edge of the ski slope (Tanbara is a ski resort in the winter months). Using the zoom of the camera, I was able to ascertain that this was in fact a bear cub. It seemed unperturbed by the noise of the bear bell, but a few seconds later it ran off into the forest. This was my fourth bear sighting, and it had been a while since the previous one, so this made my day.

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Bear cub above the Lavender Park (taken using 10x zoom on my camera)

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Tanbara is mainly known as a ski resort

I headed back down, and continued along the hiking trail up into a forested area between two lavender zones. Unfortunately, after a few minutes, the trail became so overgrown with bamboo grass that I had to give up . Even though it was indicated on the maps, it was obvious that the trail wasn’t much used, most people preferring the direct route to the summit. I decided to make my way back to the start of the hike, and turn right along the the bird-watching route 探鳥ルート so that I could at least reach the beech flats ブナ平, one of the highlights of the hike (I didn’t see any birds though).

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Tanbara Marsh, after descending from the beech flats

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The Iris flowers were in full bloom

Around 4pm, and somewhat behind schedule, I was finally walking on a level path among the beech trees. This is one of the rare places with a mostly flat trail high up in the mountains, so it’s perfect for beginners. Soon, I turned left, down the river source route 水源ルート, ending up at Tanbara Marsh 玉原湿原 around 4h30, another of the highlights of this hike. After crossing the marsh on wooden planks, I emerged onto a road (closed to traffic), and I was back at the parking lot just before 5pm. Even though I couldn’t do the hike exactly as I had planned, I was still able to hike for around 5 hours through beautiful nature in good weather. I was also relieved that the temperature and humidity had turned out to be perfect for hiking!

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Mt Hashimoto (321m) & Yugate (290m), Hanno City, Saitama Prefecture [updated April 2022]

I was looking for an easy and short station to station hike nearby Tokyo to help me get back into hiking mode after a two-month forced break. I thought it would be too hot and uncomfortable to hike in the low hills of Oku-Musashi 奥武蔵 in the month of June. Also, I had hiked these trails three times previously, so I thought it might not be so interesting. Finally, I had no idea whether the trail would be open and properly maintained. In the end, I couldn’t come up with a better idea, and since the train ride was just over an hour, I decided to just go for it.

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Looking towards Chichibu

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Sakura next to Kamakita Lake

After getting off the train at Higashi-Agano station 東吾野 a little after 10am, it took me less than 5 minutes to reach the start of the hiking trail, behind Agana Shrine 吾野神社. This is surely one of the most convenient hiking trails in the area! the trail immediately starting climbing through beautiful forest. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the trail was well-maintained and the signposts were relatively new; often they were entirely in English. As I moved along the trail, I was amazed at how different the surrounding vegetation looked. Previously, I had seen the light green of early spring, the colours of Autumn, and the snowy whiteness of winter. This time, I was treated to the lush dark green of summer. The forest was still relatively insect-free and the humidity was average; contrary to my expectations, the conditions were nearly ideal. All my concerns had been washed away minutes after starting the hike!

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Start of the hiking trail for Yugate

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A pleasant hiking trail up the mountain side

After less than an hour, I reached the top of Mt Hashimoto 橋本山 (はしもとやま) where I had a good view of the Chichibu mountains to the West. After a late breakfast, I set off again, and reached the tiny village of Yugate ユガテ at noon. Yugate is made up of a handful of houses and fields situated on a small plateau among the hills. There is a nice grassy field on one side, with a couple of benches in the shade – the perfect place for a lunch break. Today however, it was too early for lunch, and the benches were already occupied by groups of hikers. I moved on quickly, reached a fork, and headed along the right branch. I had planned to do a circle hike centered on Yugate, so I would be returning via the left branch later in the day.

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Easy to hike trail through the forest

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The flowers of Yugate

The next section was highly enjoyable: for 40 minutes, the narrow trail followed the side of the mountain through silent forest, crossed a couple of small streams, before climbing to the Oku-Musashi Green Line Road. I saw and heard no one during this time. The area between the station and this road is part of the Nishikawa Forestry Area 西川林業地, and I suppose special care is taken to its maintenance. I had now reached Kitamukijizo 北向地蔵. Instead of following the top of the ridge towards the left, I decided to make a longer loop by descending to the lake on Moroyama Town side of the mountain. The forest here was less beautiful, but the descent was pleasant, and at one point there was a view of the Kanto Plain to the East.

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Yugate, a good place for a break

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Sakura tree in full bloom in Yugate

I reached the edge of Kamakita lake 鎌北湖 just after 1pm, and I was shocked to see that it had been entirely drained for construction work. By now, it was getting pretty hot, and it would have been refreshing to walk alongside a body of water. Instead it was a dusty pit filled with noisy excavators. I wasn’t sure what the purpose was, but apparently it would be completed by April next year.  I quickly made my way around the side of the lake. I was walking on an asphalt road now, and I was starting to feel pretty hot. At 2pm, I turned left onto a gently climbing path up the side of the mountain, bringing me under the welcome shade of the forest.

UPDATE: I walked from Yamakita lake to Nishi-Agano station via Yugate in April 2022 and the lake had been refilled (see picture below).

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View from the hiking path along Kamakita Lake

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Following the path back up to the top of the ridge

After a short climb, I was back on top of the ridge. I noticed that several of the Japanese-only signs had the English names scribbled on them, and I couldn’t help wondering who had added them. I now made my way back down to Yugate. This time the benches were empty, but I wanted to catch an early train back (and I already had eaten my lunch) so after a quick sit down, I moved on. I followed the trail I had come up in the morning, but skipped the summit of Mt Hashimoto by following the “Woman’s Slope” 女坂 that went around the other side. I took an alternative path at the very end and finished at Fukutokuji Temple 福徳寺 from where it was a ten minute walk back to the Higashi-Agano station, arriving there at 3h30.

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The crossroads of Yugate

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Sakura near Nishi-Agano station

This hike is probably one of the best kept secrets of the Tokyo area. Even though, there are no famous shrines or great views, it’s easy to reach and ideal for those who want to do some peaceful “nature bathing”. However, it’s best to wait till that lake is filled up again!

[UPDATE: The lake has been filled up again!]

Mt Suzu (1564m), Maebashi City, Gunma Prefecture, Monday, November 4, 2019

This was my third hike on Mt Akagi, also a dormant volcano and one of the three famous mountains of Gunma (the third one is Mt Myogi). Since it’s a hundred famous mountains of Japan, I knew that the bus from Maebashi station would be packed. Thankfully, they had an extra bus prepared, so everybody was able to sit during the one-hour trip – a good thing considering that the road had many sharp curves. I got off a few stops before the Akagi Visitor Center, at Shinzakadaira 新坂平, and took refuge at the nearby Akagi Tourist Information Center. It was cold and windy – a big change from the warm weather just 2 days ago.

Hiking on Mt Akagi 赤城山

 

Easy hiking among white birch trees

I had a quick look at the displays, which included a mounted bear, then had some coffee and toast for breakfast at the small cafeteria. At 10h30, I was ready to brave the near freezing conditions. The first part of the hike was on an easy path along a forested ridge. An hour later, I reached the highest point, Mt Kuwagara 鍬柄山 (1562m), where I had a fantastic view of the whole area. To the East, I could see the ancient caldera of Mt Akagi with Ono Lake at the center, and the highest point, Mt Kurobi, above. To the North, I could make out Mt Nikko-Shirane and Mt Sukai. To the West, was Mt Haruna, with Mt Asama looming behind. To the South was the round top of Mt Jizo with its TV antennas, another of Akagi’s peaks.

View of Mt Akagi’s main peak Mt Kurobi and Ono Lake

The next part was a steep but short slope bringing me to a saddle at the base of my target peak. The next part was an easy short scramble up a rocky path, aided by chains in a couple of sections. The trees were small and already completely leafless, so I was mostly in the sun. Those same trees blocked most of the view from the top of Mt Suzugatake 鈴ヶ岳, but they kept out the wind during lunch. By standing on a rock, I could make out Mt Kusatsu-Shirane between the trees, although the summit was hidden in the clouds.

The rounded forested summit of Mt Suzu

It was already past 1pm, so I quickly went back down to the same way to the base of Mt Suzu. My guidebook suggested continuing back the same way to my starting point, but since I had time, I decided to take a detour around Mt Suzu. It involved descending about 400 meters on one side, and then ascending the same amount on the other side, but I was feeling fit from all the recent hiking so I didn’t mind. On top of that, I was hoping to see some beautiful autumn colours and enjoy the solitude of a path few people hiked. The path was a bit hard to follow – I had to look out for the “yellow strips” – but from time to time a helpful signpost appeared in the middle of the forest.

The autumn colours were at their peak

As I had hoped, the autumn colours were amazing, especially beautiful in the early afternoon sun – I felt like I was walking down an enchanted valley. To my left was a mischievous mountain stream, sometimes running above ground and sometimes under, the noise of rushing water alternating with silence. Thirty minutes later I reached the other end of Mt Suzu, where huge moss-covered boulders were mysteriously strewn throughout the forest, having apparently rolled down from above. Just beyond, I entered a larch forest, forming a wonderful orange ceiling above my head. I emerged onto a road half an hour later, and a little later I reached the lowest point of the hike, as well as the entrance of another section of the “Kanto fureai no michi” 関東ふれないの道, heading up a forested valley on the other side of Mt Suzu.

Mountain stream and autumn colours

Although the trail was now easier to follow, it was also in the shade, so it was harder to appreciate the autumn colours – it was much colder as well! At one point, the path met up with another stream. Apparently there were some waterfalls further up, but I didn’t have time to investigate. Soon I was climbing back up the side of the mountain. It was hard to make out where I was heading among the multiple folds of the mountain side, and for a while I wasn’t exactly sure where I was on the map. However, according to the ever useful signposts, I was on the right path.

The name “Akagi” can be translated at “Red Castle”

After going up what seemed like a never-ending wooden staircase, it was with relief that I arrived at Depari Pass, joining up with a path I had hiked previously on Akagi. It was nearly four o’clock and the sun was quickly dipping behind the side of the mountain. It took me another thirty minutes to reach the shore of Ono Lake and the bus stop just after sunset. Fortunately the bus back to Maebashi station was fairly empty, most people having taken an earlier bus back.

Mt Akagi mountain stream and crater lake

NEXT UP – Mt Kurohime (Togakushi Kogen) in Nagano

 

 

Mt Tengu (1179m), Takasaki City, Gunma Prefecture, Saturday November 2, 2019

Hiking on Mt Haruna 榛名山

This was my third hike on this dormant volcano, and one of the three famous mountains of Gunma. It’s also a popular sightseeing spot – there was a long line at the bus stop, opposite the West exit of Takasaki station. I got the very last seat, which was lucky since the ride takes one hour (halfway there, they added a second bus for those standing). It turned out that most people were visiting Haruna Jinja, a 1400-year old shrine located on the Southern side of the volcano. Most people got off at the shrine – however I continued all the way to the last stop at the shore of Haruna lake. Once off the bus, I was stunned by the reflection of Mt Haruna-Fuji on the blue surface of the lake.


This was my first time to see this Haruna lake under blue skies

The first part of the hike was down the side of the mountain along the “Kanto Furenai no Michi” (関東ふれないの道). The path had suffered a bit from the recent typhoons, but was still walkable. The autumn leaves were still at their peak, and looked great in the clear autumn weather. At one point I passed an interesting rock formation, that looked to me like a kind of giant monster. Less than an hour after setting out I reached Haruna Shrine which I had passed earlier by bus. I decided to follow the masses of people and check out the shrine. Although it seemed like your typical Japanese shrine, I was impressed by the massive cedar trees. After reaching the main building, I retraced my steps and located the start of the trail, up a road closed to cars near the massive gate marking the entrance to the shrine.

I happened to be at this strange rock just when the sun was shining from behind

The road soon narrowed; for a short while a stream passed over it – its passage underneath having been blocked by stones, no doubt due to the recent typhoons. The start of the hiking trail was marked by a small red “torii”. A few minutes later, I lost the trail. I backtracked a bit, and after scanning the surrounding forest, I managed to pick it up again (a signpost would be good here). A little further, there was a steep, but short slope that brought to the top of a ridge, and a fork. I first headed right to the top of Mt Kyodai (1079m) 鏡台山, completely surrounded by trees. I retraced my steps, and followed the left fork, which brought me to a rocky outcrop and a great panoramic view of Mt Asama and Mt Myogi to the West. After a short break, I headed back, and continued along a very enjoyable and mostly level path with few people.

Beautiful autumn colours on the side of Mt Haruna

Eventually I got to another fork. To the right, was a peak with no view. To the left, the path, running alongside a series of miniature “torii”, led to the true summit of Mt Tengu 天狗山, which I reached around 2pm. There was an excellent view of the Kanto plain to the South, a few meters past the summit. Unfortunately, as with the previous viewpoint, it was against the sun so it didn’t photograph well. I enjoyed the rest of my lunch, perched on top of one of the huge boulders at the viewpoint. My guidebook suggested going back the same way, but I decided to make a loop hike along a slightly longer, less traveled way, following the ridge above the trail I had come on.

Kissing rocks near the top of Mt Tengu

The entrance to this trail was hard to spot – there was a very small sign pointing the way through the bamboo grass, and the trail was very faint. I had to constantly search for “yellow strips” attached to trees. It was an exciting path with great occasional glimpses of the higher peaks of Mt Haruna to the East. However, it was also nerve-wracking, since I was alone on the trail, and I had to be careful not to lose my way. It was starting to get late, and I wanted to be sure to complete the hike before nightfall. On the way, I passed the minor peaks (but also highest peaks of the day) of Mt Kokanehara (1225m) 小鐘原ヶ岳 and Mt Okanehara (1252m) 大鐘原ヶ岳. After the second summit, the path descended quickly, and I was even more careful checking for the yellow strips – I didn’t want to have to climb back up like I had done the previous month in the Tanzawa mountains!

Late afternoon view of Mt Haruna in full autumn splendor

I was relieved to finally reach Jizo pass, where I turned left off the ridge and down into the valley. However the path remained difficult to follow with few signposts. Thanks to some judicious pathfinding, I got on to a good path next to a pretty stream and finally managed to rejoin the road I had walked up a few hours earlier. I was back at Haruna Shrine a little after 4pm, and I had ample time to catch the now mostly empty bus back to Takasaki station.

The birds of Mt Haruna – Swan gliding over the lake and Falcon flying in the sky above

NEXT UP – Mt Suzu (Mt Akagi) in Gunma