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

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

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 has been washed away minutes after starting the hike!

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Start of the hiking trail for Yugate

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

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

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.

 

Construction work on Kamakita Lake

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

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!

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

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 Higashi-Azuma (1975m), Fukushima City, Fukushima Prefecture, Sunday, August 25 2019

After a one-month break, I’ve resumed my hiking activities, despite an ankle that hadn’t really healed. I needed something easy to allow me to get back into the groove, and also at a high elevation, since it was still quite hot and humid. With the weather forecast looking good, I decided to take the shinkansen all the way to Fukushima city, and then drive up the Eastern side of Mt Azuma, a hyakumeizan inside the Bandai-Asahi National Park about 230 km North of Tokyo.

Technically, the highest point is the Western summit about ten-kilometers away, so summiting the Eastern summit doesn’t really count towards increasing my tally of hundred famous mountains, stuck at 81 since last July. Although there is a bus from Fukushima city, the return is quite early, and doesn’t allow enough time to hike to the top and back.

 

Part I: Usagi-daira – Toriko-daira – Mt Higashi-Azuma

The top of Mt Higashi-Azuma in good weather

After parking my car at the free parking at Usagidaira 兎平, just a few minutes from the huge paying parking in front of the Jododaira visitor center, I set off on a small path that went through the campsite on the other side of the road. Apart from a few nice sections, I didn’t enjoy it very much. The path was tricky to walk, and was in dire need of maintenance. It was a relief when I finally reached Toriko-daira 鳥小平 with its wooden walkways and many dragonflies.

Here I turned right instead of going straight

Instead of heading up Mt Takayama straight ahead, I turned right, crossed the Bandai-Azuma Skyline, and slowly started climbing. Shortly, I reached a kind of plateau where I had great views of the summit, as well as a small lake. I was at the same height as the clouds and it was fascinating to watch them drift by. I soon resumed my climb. As I gained more altitude, the weather started to worsen, and by the time I reached the observation point near the top, I was, to my great despair, in the cloud with almost no visibility.

I continued somewhat dejected towards the highest point, but by now it had started raining. I took refuge under the trees just a few meters short of the summit. I put on my rain gear and proceeded to have some lunch. I was hoping the rain would let up, but it only seemed to pound down harder. The wind was blowing, and it felt cold even though it was still August. Finally I gave up and made a dash for the exposed summit of Higashi-Azuma 東吾妻山. I took a quick summit pic, and immediately headed down the other side.

Blue skies and clouds reflected in a pond

I was glad I had put on my rain clothes, as they soon got soaking wet, partly due to the rain, and partly from brushing against wet vegetation. The rain eventually stopped and the sun came out, but I had already descended too far to return to the summit. I didn’t like the path down very much: lots of roots and rock, making it tricky with my bad ankle.

 

Part 2: Uba-ga-hara – Kama-Numa Pond

A beautiful lake high up in the mountains

Eventually, I emerged at Uba-ga-hara 姥ケ原 where I was faced with a crossroads. I decided to head straight rather than head back straight to Jododaira. Very quickly, I reached Kama-Numa Pond 鎌沼池 which was quite a breath-catching sight. The dark blue water and light sky perfectly complemented the light green grassy rocks near the shore, and the dark green forested hills opposite. Definitely a landscape that would be worth painting.

The path leading down and back to the visitor center

Initially I thought I would walk clockwise around the lake, but my footsteps somehow took me counter-clockwise. I hope to come back some day and climb the remaining peaks on the other side of the lake. Eventually I left the lake behind me, and started to head back towards the visitor center. The weather had completely recovered. Descending in the sunshine, it was hard to believe that only one hour earlier I was sheltering from the wind and the rain near the summit!

 

Part 3: Jododaira – Mt Azuma-Kofuji

Spectacular view of “small Fuji” on the side of Mt Azuma

I was behind schedule, so I started to hurry towards Jododaira 浄土平. Although I had come by car, according to signs I had seen on the way up, the road back to Fukushima city closed at 5pm, so I had to make sure I was gone by them. My pace slowed somewhat after I started getting some jaw-dropping views of Mt Azuma-Kofuji 吾妻小富士, the mini-volcano sprouting from the side of Mt Azuma like a pimple. I definitely wanted to walk around the rim!

Walking above the clouds…

Although some sections had steps and walkways, a lot didn’t, so my ankle suffered some more. To my right, steam was venting out of the side of Mt Issaikyo. It was with great relief that I finally reached the visitor center. I took off my rain gear, and then rushed up the side of the mini-volcano and was standing at the edge of the crater less than five minutes later. I managed to walk around it in less than half an hour, enjoying the stunning views in every direction. It’s a pretty easy walk and anyone can do it. I managed to be back at the car before 4h30 and was happily driving back to the train station by 5pm. On the way, I had a quick bath at the very nice public onsen Attakayu.

Next up: Hiking at Yu no Maru, on Mt Asama (Nagano prefecture)

 

Clouds rolling by at nearly 2000m elevation

Karikomi Lake, Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture, Sunday, July 21, 2019

The very long rainy season had put a premature end to the first half of the 2019 hiking season…but I was determined to get one more hike in before the hot and busy (for me) summer arrived – my next chance would probably not be till September. Since I was a little out of shape, I chose a short and easy one in Nikko, hoping that the overcast skies, and voting for the national elections, would keep the crowds away. I was looking forward to visiting the Oku-Nikko area since I hadn’t been there since my climb of Mt Myoho two years ago.

Lake Karikomi and Mt Taro in the background

I took advantage of the more expensive, but direct Tobu Nikko line train – being able to sit and sleep during the 2 hour trip was definitely worth the express surcharge. In Nikko there was a light drizzle. I didn’t fancy walking in the rain but I couldn’t turn back now. Going up “Irozaka slope”, the bus was enveloped in thick mist. Fortunately, once we emerged at Chuzenji lake, we were above the mist and I could see the lake and mountain sides – the sky overhead was overcast and the peaks were in the cloud though.

Today’s hike was through green mossy forest

I got off at the very last stop, Yumoto-onsen. This small, somewhat run-down, onsen town town seemed totally deserted, 11am on a Sunday morning. Was the town in decline or was my timing bad, I wondered to myself. I made my way to the start of the hiking path behind the town, also the source of it’s hot springs. There is a wooden observation path, and two small pools of bubbling water – not the most exciting tourist attraction but it’s always cool to see hot water coming out of the ground.

See the hot spring water bubbling up and hear the birds chirping near Karikomi lake

The path climbed for a few minutes, then crossed a road, before heading along the side of small forested valley. Despite being at 1500m, the air felt unpleasantly heavy – very different from my previous hike 2 weeks earlier, and one thousand meters lower. It took me less than an hour to reach a pass, where I took a short break. Afterwards, the hiking was mostly level and along a broad easy-to-walk path. I took off my bear bell so that I could enjoy the intense chirping of birds.

A signpost in the forest

After some descending along wooden staircases through a thick moss covered forest, I arrived at Karikomi Lake 刈り込み湖 just before one o’clock. After checking out the view and having a quick lunch, I set off along the path through beautiful forest, passing another small lake, and finally arriving in a wide grassy valley. Since I needed to catch the 3pm bus from the Astoria Hotel I couldn’t linger and I powered up the mountainside opposite and over another pass, with Mt Taro on my left, a 300 famous mountain that I have yet to climb.

A grassy field suddenly appeared

A hidden valley in the middle of the Nikko National Park

From there it was a quick and easy thirty minute descent to the hotel – I had to overtake a very big group of elementary school children on the way. I made the bus but had to forego the onsen, otherwise I would miss the last express train back, and that would mean getting to Tokyo really late. By the way, this place would have snagged fourth place on my list of places to go when it’s hot and humid, except that the traveling time is too long for a daytrip – seven hours for only four hours of hiking.

On the shore of Karikomi Lake

Mt Hamaishi (707m), Shizuoka City, Shizuoka Prefecture, Sunday June 16, 2019

I was itching to head somewhere new. A place I hadn’t explored yet. June is the best time of the year to head faraway since the days are long. I decided to head South to Shizuoka prefecture, since it had rained all day the day before and therefore there were bound to be good views of Mt Fuji. It was also the location of a good station to station hike I had recently found in my Shizuoka prefecture hiking guide book. I used the Tokaido line to go all the way to Atami, where I changed to a local line for the final part of the trip to Yui station, halfway between Numazu and Shizuoka cities.

Yui, 3 hours from Tokyo station, is apparently the capital of Sakura Ebi or Sakura Shrimp fishing in Japan. It also used to be on the Tokaido, the ancient pathway that linked Tokyo and Kyoto. I had one small problem after stepping out of the train station just after ten thirty: it was a lot hotter than I had expected. The sun was pounding down from above. Normally I wouldn’t attempt a hike from sea level in June, but the last few days had been unseasonably cool so I thought I could risk it.

Welcome to the town of Sakura Ebi

I set out as quickly, hoping to gain altitude and some coolness as soon as possible. The hike is well signposted, and soon I found myself walking up a narrow road with great views of Suruga Bay behind me. Mt Fuji was still in the clouds. After a little more than an hour a reach a flat area with some fields, toilets and a signboard. Shortly after, I spotted a hiking trail going straight up the mountainside. Although, it wasn’t mentioned in my guide book, I was glad for the opportunity to leave the road.

First good views East towards Izu one hour after setting out

The trail had suffered a bit from the recent rains but climbed steadily through the forest. Eventually I emerged into an open area with great views of Suruga Bay, Izu peninsula, and Mt Fuji, slowly emerging from the clouds. After a short break, I set off again. Instead of climbing the path started to follow the contour of the mountainside – the surrounding vegetation reminded me very much of hiking on the Izu peninsula opposite, also part of Shizuoka prefecture.

Beautiful views North towards Numazu City

Just when I was starting to worry that I was on the wrong path, I saw a signpost that confirmed that I was on the right trail. The summit was just a short way away. The vegetation started to thin and finally I reached a bald grassy hill, behind which I could just make out the top of Mt Fuji, clear of clouds! I rushed the final few meters and snapped a few photos before clouds rolled in and covered Fuji’s summit from view. The summit of Mt Hamaishi 浜石岳 is famous for its great views and I wasn’t disappointed. I could see from left to right, Shizuoka city, the Southern part of the Southern Alps, Mt Fuji, Mt Ashitaka, Hakone, and the Izu peninsula. I probably say this often, but it was one of the best views I had ever seen in Japan, especially on a day trip from Tokyo.

The majestic beauty of Mt Fuji from the top of Mt Hamaishi

After nearly an hour, I was able to drag myself away from the amazing views. I had to head back down to the signpost I had seen earlier. I decided to run since I was behind schedule, and nearly stepped on a large snake! Fortunately the snake jumped out of the way and retreated into the bushes. I wasn’t sure whether it was poisonous or not, but I was a lot more cautious from that point forward. At the signpost I had passed earlier, my path continued straight, following a different way down, Southwards. The forest I was walking through reminded me somewhat of the Southern Alps, not surprising in fact, since, looking at a map, Mt Hamaishi sits at the very end of the end of the Southern Alps (not sure whether it’s geographically part of it).

Blue sky and clouds reflected in Tachibana Pond

Soon I reached a signpost for Tachibana Pond, a short way from the main trail. It was amazing to see such a beautiful pond in the middle of the forest. After tearing myself away from the second great view of the day, I continued down the mountain. This incredibly beautiful part of the hike took two and a half hours, and I saw absolutely no one. At one point I crossed a spooky bamboo forest – even though it wasn’t a windy day, the bamboo trees swished and swayed as if I were in the midst of a storm. Finally I popped out at the Satta Pass viewpoint, just above the ocean. From there, it was another 45 minutes of fast walking back to the station, that would get me back to Tokyo.

Spooky bamboo trail

Check out the snake that was crossing the trail just below Mt Hamaishi

Enjoy the sounds of the bamboo forest swaying in the wind

Mt Mitsumine (1122m), Minakami Town, Gunma Prefecture, Monday April 29, 2019

A Kanto hundred famous mountain, this one has been on my list for a long time. For some odd reason, this hike isn’t featured in any of my hiking books, nor on any of my hiking maps. Fortunately I was able to find access information, and a basic hiking map online. It’s possible to do this as a station to station hike starting from Gokan station but the connection to the Joetsu line isn’t very good in the early morning hours. Since the return is via the Jomo Kogen shinkansen station, I decided instead to use the Tokyo wide pass during golden week, and start and finish there.

A good view of Mt Akagi from the North

Mt Mitsumine 三峰山 is a rectangular shaped mountain bordered by cliffs on the Eastern side. From Jomo Kogen station it looks like a ship. The official start of the trail is the parking area near Kawachi Shrine. I was surprised to see crowds of people at the shrine – they seemed to be celebrating some event. Just above is a jump-off point for paragliding. I’ve seen quite of few of these in Japan, but for the first time I got there while people were actually jumping off!

The jump-off spot for paragliders

I sat down for an early lunch and watched while these brave people jumped off one after the other, with Mt Akagi, Mt Komochi, Mt Onoko and Mt Haruna in the background. I was joined by a group of children. They weren’t as patient as me, and one of them yelled “hurry up” (hayaku) while the paraglider was waiting to jump! Finally the last one had jumped and I continued on my way. I was now on top part of the “rectangle” so it was mostly pleasant forest walking on a level path.

Some nice and easy flat-walking

At one point I reached a fork in the road and I had to make a choice: continue straight or make a detour via a couple of lakes or “numa”. I decided to check out the lakes since I wasn’t pressed for time. I wasn’t disappointed since the lakes were quite pretty. I was surprised to see some quite large fish swimming in the second one.

After returning to the main path, I found myself walking quite close to steep cliffs on my right side. There were occasional views of Mt Hotaka still covered in snow. The path bent left, then right, and after short climb a reached the highest point with a great view of the snow-covered Tanigawa range directly to the North. My map showed a path leading from the summit down to Jomo Kogen station.  This was Kanto hundred best #90.

Mt Hotaka still wearing its winter coat

Unfortunately it wasn’t a real path, and soon I was walking down the mountainside from yellow bit of rope to yellow bit of rope (used here instead of the usual pink ribbons). It was fairly hard to follow and I can’t recommend this to inexperienced hikers in Japan (if you don’t get the pink ribbon reference…) It seems most people do this hike by car and do a round trip to the summit. Plus, the weather had changed from sunny to overcast and I started to worry that it would soon start to rain.

It was still sakura season in Gunma

Eventually I emerged onto a forest road which soon turned into a road. On the way, I heard loud croaking noises coming from some water puddles – it was full of rather large-sized frogs. Unfortunately they were very shy and quickly hid under the mud. The end of the hike followed the road all the way back to Jomo Kogen station. Before heading back to Tokyo, I made a brief detour to Echigo-Yuzawa station where I could take advantage of the hot spring bath inside the station.

Watch a paraglider jump into the void!

 

Toad or frog? I couldn’t tell