Mt Kintoki (1212m), Minami-Ashigara City, Kanagawa Prefecture, Saturday, October 1st, 2022 [Yuhi Waterfall to Otome Pass route]

Hiking in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park

富士箱根伊豆国立公園

I was looking for a hike close to Tokyo, high enough to escape the late summer heat and strenuous enough to maintain my regained form. I decided to revisit a mounatin I climbed ten years ago, which I could traverse north to south via a different route that would include a famous waterfall, as well as views of Mt Fuji. The trail up from Ashigara in Kanagawa, connected by local bus from Matsuda station, had been closed for a while due to typhoon damage; however looking online, it seemed to be in use again. I also saw that the final section was quite steep, a good test of my current physical ability. The trail down ended at a hot spring near Gotemba in Shizuoka, connected to the station by shuttle bus. The weather was supposed to be mostly sunny and warm, with few clouds and little wind, ideal conditions conditions for hiking. I was looking forward to climbing a familiar mountain via a new, challenging route and getting some good views of Mt Fuji in the autumn.

Mt Fuji before it got engulfed in the clouds

Yuhi waterfall, a famous purification spot

A cloudy cover still lingered in the early morning sky, as I rode the Odakyu Romance limited express train to Shin-Matsuda station. There, I boarded a full bus and rode it all the way to Jizodo (地蔵堂), the last stop. I had been there once before on my Yamabushi-daira hike. This time, I continued on foot along a small paved road up a pleasant, green valley. The sun was now shining above, and although it was only 9h30am, it already felt quite warm; despite that, the cosmos flowers were out, a sure sign of autumn.

A 23 meter drop (left) Climbing up the Ashigara Pass trail

Moth spotted near the start of the hike

I was delighted to spot a beautiful yellow moth on a phone booth, possibly a Japanese silk moth. At 10am, I reached the entrance for the short trail to the waterfall, next to a campground. A few minutes later, I was standing in front of the thundering Yuhi waterfall (夕日の滝). The water falls from a height of 23 meters, and apparently it’s a popular place for people to stand under to get purified. At 10h30, I started up the Kintoki trail (金時コース), a gently climbing trail through cedars. After passing an open shelter, the trail went up a shady valley next to a mountain stream.

Easy hiking along the Ashigara Pass trail

The summit of Mt Kintoki, a tough climb via the north side

I was happy to be walking next to a river again, the rushing water like music to my ears. The rocky terrain made it difficult to see the path, but pink ribbons attached to branches, as well as the occasional signpost, led the way. At 11am, the trail left the river and went up a steep ridge. I met no one along this section, adding to the sense of peace and quiet. Half an hour later, after getting a glimpse of today’s summit through a gap in the trees, I reached a level dirt road, also the Ashigara Pass Trail (足柄峠コース). I turned left, and 3o minutes later, arrived at a viewpoint of Mt Fuji.

Mt Fuji slowly disappearing into the clouds

The western part of the Tanzawa mountains

I was lucky that the summit was free of clouds; just a few minutes later some clouds rolled in and refused to budge for the rest of the day. According to my map I was at the remains of the Inohara Fort (猪鼻砦跡 962m), a few stone blocks making a good place to sit and have an early lunch while enjoying the view. Directly ahead loomed the triangular-shaped summit of today’s mountain, looking steep and menacing. I soon set off again, the path now climbing straight up the mountain side, equipped with ropes and ladders for safety.

Lots of ladders to assist the hiker

Mt Hakone at the center of Hakone Volcano

I was surprised to find such a thrilling ascent so close to Tokyo; halfway up, the view through the trees to the northwest made me feel like I was hanging from a cliff. To the left, Mt Fuji was now completely in the clouds, to the right, I could see the green Tanzawa mountain range. I met several people on their way down, and had to find “passing spots” to let them by. At 1pm, I emerged onto the top of Mt Kintoki (金時山 きんときやま kintoki-yama). I had a fantastic view of the entire Hakone area; beyond the outer caldera, I could see Mt Ashitaka, Suruga bay, and a big cloud where Mt Fuji was supposed to be. As on my previous visit, the summit area was fairly crowded so I quickly moved on.

Viewpoint between Mt Kintoki and Mt Nagao

View of Mt Fuji and Gotemba city from Otome Pass

I made my way down a steep path through forest, counter-clockwise along the outer caldera rim, and now inside the Hakone part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Half an hour later, I passed the flat summit of Mt Nagao (長尾山 1150m), surrounded by trees. After some more descending I arrived at Otome Pass (乙女峠 1004m). From a small wooden observation platform, I could see the lower half of Mt Fuji and Gotemba city spread out around its base. At 3pm, I reached a bus stop next to Otome Tunnel; I hopped on the next bus and got off at the nearby Fuji Hakkei no Yu. After a relaxing hot spring bath, I took the shuttle bus to Gotemba station, where I boarded the Odakyu Fujisan limited express for the 100-minute trip back to Shinjuku.

See and hear the sounds and sights of the Yuhi waterfall and Mt Kintoki hike

Hatcho Pond (1170m), Izu City, Shizuoka Prefecture, Sunday, September 25, 2022 [Mt Amagi Hike]

Hiking in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park

富士箱根伊豆国立公園

I wanted to use the Shinkansen for this hike, since a typhoon had dashed my silver week Tokyo Wide Pass plans. I decided to use the Tokaido shinkansen, not covered by the pass, to do a hike on Mt Amagi on the Izu peninsula. It had been five years since my last time there; it would also allow me to make a 4th consecutive visit to a National Park. Looking at my hiking map, I saw that I could hike up the west side to a lake and a viewpoint, and then return via a different path. I would ride the high speed train from Tokyo station to Mishima, and then transfer to the Izu-Hakone line which I would ride to Shuzenji; there, I could hop on a bus for Amagi Tunnel; I would return the same way. The typhoon had brought record rain to the area but online information showed no disruption to public transport; I hoped the trails would be intact as well, since the weather was supposed to be blue skies and warm temperatures. I was looking forward to a nice forest hike and a great view from its highest point.

Hatcho Pond from the observatory

Hatcho Pond on Mt Amagi

It was a beautiful day as I rode the shinkansen from Tokyo station. After arriving at Mishama station, I transferred to the nearly empty Izu-Hakone line; it was an exciting ride along a pretty river valley through green hills. I got off at Shuzenji, the end of the line, and boarded an equally empty bus, finally getting off at the Amagi Pass bus stop (天城峠 あまぎとうげ) just before 11am. I had been here before and so I was familiar with the short hike up to the pass, which I reached less than thirty minutes later.

First view of Mt Fuji

Trail leading to Amagi Pass (left) Beech tree along the trail (right)

I had my first glimpse of Mt Fuji soon after turning left onto a level trail hugging the mountain side. Very soon, the trail took a right turn and went up some logs steps taking me to the ridgeline. Here I found the pathlovely forest harder to follow; eventually it descended back to a level path following the mountain contour. I had another good view of Mt Fuji before reaching a swollen stream rushing down the mountain and cutting straight through the path. After hopping across, I soon arrived at a second ridge, leading to another level path, now heading north.

One of the more level sections of the hike

Looking towards the Aosuzudai viewpoint and the Pacific ocean

I reached a rushing stream interrupting the quiet of the forest. The path turned east and became hard to follow again; I was relieved each time I spotted a wooden signpost. A little after 1h30, I reached the entrance of the Nobori Gyoko trail (上り御幸歩道). Before heading to the viewpoint, I made a short detour to another viewpoint called Aosuzudai (青スズ台), from where I was able to see the ocean and Toshima island; the rest of the view was hidden by high bushes. I soon turned back and a little after 2pm, arrived at the Hatcho Pond observatory (八丁池見晴台) at the top of a metallic staircase.

Mt Amagi, a Japan hundred famous mountain

On the left, the path flooded by the lake

I had a fantastic 360° panoramic view of the center of Izu peninsula: directly below on the north side was Hatcho pond (八丁池) with Mt Fuji behind it; stretching eastwards was the gentle summit ridge of Mt Amagi, a Japan 100-famous mountain; looking south, I could see the Aosuzudai viewpoint and the Pacific ocean; westwards was Mt Chokuro, its summit in the clouds. I felt lucky that the sunny weather had continued the whole day with just a few cumulus clouds floating in from the ocean side. I had the observatory to myself, so I had a late lunch while admiring the views. Half an hour later, I descended to the lake shore.

Some clouds coming in from the south

A gentle descending trail through lovely a forest

I was surprised to see that the path around the lake was flooded. I managed to get to the other side by walking through the forest and reached the entrance of the Kudari Hatcho trail (下り八丁歩道), a little before 3pm. It descended gently through a stunning forest; I passed several huge beech trees, their branches twisting in fantastic shapes, and I could truly feel that I was walking within the Izu part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. The path was hard to follow once again; I was relieved when I eventually got to a level wide path going straight through the forest. After merging with a forest road, the trail headed south, before arriving at a sunny junction at the edge of a cedar forest.

Walking through the Japanese beeches

A giant beech (left) towering cedars (right)

I enjoyed the change in the surrounding vegetation, as well as the extra sunlight filtering through the smaller cedar tree canopies. The path started to descend quickly and soon the sun was lost behind a ridgeline. A little past 4pm, the rocky trail suddenly merged with a small stream; I was glad I had good hiking boots. After about ten minutes of “river walking”, I emerged onto a paved road. From there, it was another half an hour to the Suiseichi Shita bus stop (水生地下), which I reached ten minutes before my bus was due. After arriving at Shunzenji statiom, I had a quick hot bath at the nearby Hyakuwarai no yu hot spring before riding the Izu-Hakone line to Mishima station, where I transferred to the shinkansen for the 40-minute ride back to Tokyo.

See the views up and down Mt Amagi’s west side

Oku-Nikko hike (highest point 1460m), Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture, Saturday, September 17, 2022 [Monkeys]

Hiking in the Nikko National Park 日光国立公園

I was eager to continue my tour of the national parks close to Tokyo. I had last visited Oku-Nikko a little over a year ago, so it seemed like a good choice; I also expected a dip in the crowds between the summer vacation and the Autumn colours season. Looking at my hiking map, I combined some trails northwest of Lake Chuzenji into a loop hike, and although it included no mountains, I hoped it would be more challenging than just a walk in the woods. The area is also the heart of bear territory, with nearly one hundred sightings so far in 2022, so I would need to make sure to pack my bear bell. I would ride the now familiar Nikko limited express from Ikebukuro to Tobu-Nikko, and there switch to a Tobu bus for Yumoto-Onsen, getting off at Akanuma at the edge of the Senjogahara Marshland; the hike would end at the nearby Ryuzu Falls. The weather was supposed to be sunny, with high clouds appearing in the mid-afternoon; the temperatures and humidity were also supposed to be lower, which I hoped would create the ideal conditions for a hike at an average elevation of 1400m. I was looking forward to a nice forest hike, and maybe even catching a glimpse of some animals in the wild.

View of Mt Nantai from Senjugahama

Walking next to Odashirogahara

I left Tokyo under cloudy skies, but fortunately, the sun was shining once I got off the limited express at Tobu-Nikko station. At 11am, I was standing under a light blue sky, opposite Akanuma-Chaya (1390m 赤沼茶屋) at the edge of the Senjogahara Marshsland (戦場ヶ原), ready to start my hike. First, I headed down the “Nature Study Path” (戦場ヶ原自然研究路), the main route leading through the marsh and crowded with other hikers; I soon left it to follow a trail over a wooden bridge and through the forest, a trail I had done previously in the winter on cross-country skis.

First view of Mt Nantai from the Senjogahara Nature Study Path

A mix of walkways (left) and hiking trails (right)

At once, I was able to relax and enjoy the surrounding nature as few people ventured this way. After going through a gate in a deer fence, I reached another intersection where I turned right, onto a wooden walkway. I was now walking among tall larches and silver beeches, the autumn colours would probably be wonderful around this area, and soon reached the edge of Odashirogahara (1408m 小田代ヶ原), a smaller, lesser-known marshland. I turned left at the next intersection, following the contour of the marsh, eventually reaching a viewpoint of the Nikko mountains.

View from the start of the loop around Odashirogahara

View of the mountains of Oku-Nikko

I was impressed by the sight of these majestic peaks rising above the green-brown marsh. From left to right, I could distinguish Mt Taro, Mt Nyoho, Mt Omanago and Mt Nantai, all free of clouds. It was nearly 1pm so I sat down for lunch at one of the picnic tables. Afterwards, I went to check out the nearby stop of the low-emission bus (低公害バス) that runs through the area I was exploring on foot. On the way, I spotted a longhorn beetle making a difficult ascent of the restroom building (see video). A little after 1pm, I set off again, this time along the bus road, going over Yumihari Pass (1433m 弓張峠), and then re-entering the forest via a path on the right.

This part of the hike is bound to be very crowded in the autumn season

From left to right: Mt Taro, Mt Nyoho, Mt Omanago and…

From this point, I enjoyed a solitary ramble through a beautiful forest. This was the best part of the hike, but it was also bear territory, so I tried not to linger. After crossing a bridge over a river, the trail abruptly went up the mountain side, reaching the highest point of the hike, before becoming level again, and finally descending to the valley floor. A little after 2pm, I was again walking on a paved road and soon arrived at another bus stop. It definitely felt weird to see a bus pass by in the middle of a forested valley in the Nikko National Park. Here, I turned right onto a wide, straight track through a larch forest, and half hour later, reached Sainoko Lake (1295m 西ノ湖).

…at the very right, Mt Nantai

A kind of longhorn beetle having trouble with the polished wood

I was surprised to see that the lake was a lot smaller than it appeared on the map. I had somehow fallen behind schedule, so I didn’t have time to cross the wide sandy beach, formerly the lakebed, to reach the shore of the tiny expanse of water. I had the second half of my lunch on a bench and made my way back to the main trail, heading east at a fast pace through a forest of tall oaks. I suddenly heard a high-pitched shriek and noticed movement near the river on the right side. I moved to the edge of the trail, keeping in mind the signs warning hikers not to leave the trail, and saw a troupe of monkeys foraging for food along the river.

Sunny forest in bear territory

The smaller than expected Sainoko lake

I was delighted to be able to observe wild monkeys for the second time in a month. They weren’t as indifferent as the Shiga-Kogen ones, taking note of my arrival, but not as fearful as the ones I saw near Mt Tsurugatoya, soon resuming their quest for food, a couple even turning over stones in the river in search of some river-dwelling treat (the reflection of the sunlight on the water surface made it hard to film). I wanted to keep on watching them but I had to keep moving if I wanted to catch my bus back. A few minutes later, I reached Senjugahama (1276m 千手ヶ浜) at the western edge of Chuzenji lake, also visited on my previous Oku-Nikko hike.

The furthest pier at Senjugahama

A peaceful place after the crowds have left for the day

This time I could fully appreciate its tranquil atmosphere and the stunning view of Mt Nantai rising above the blue lake waters, as both the last boat and last bus had already left, and I was the last person around. After a few minutes of contemplation, I went left, following the path I had taken last year, but in reverse. I quickly passed the turn-off for Mt Taka, continuing straight ahead. It was nearing 4pm and some altostratus clouds had started to spread from the south, a sign of the approaching typhoon; inside the forest it was already dark, except for breaks in the trees letting in the slanting sunshine. The trail went up and down, accommodating the rocky nature of the shore.

The last part of the hike followed the lake shore

Once of the several views through a gap in the trees

I was glad for the exercise on a hike with no ascents. After a final view of the lake from the top of Akaishi Rock (1312m 赤石), reachable thanks to a brand new wooden staircase, I finally emerged at Shobugahama (12297m 菖蒲ヶ浜), arriving at the bus stop ten minutes before the bus for Tobu-Nikko, nearly five hours after setting off. Although I had considered this an easy hike, the many ups and down made me quite tired at the end. I got to the station one hour later, just in time for the 90-minute ride to Kita-Senju on the Tobu Spacia limited express. In the end, I hadn’t seen or heard any bears (or sign of them), but getting to see monkeys close up was just as rewarding.

See the marshlands, forest, lakes and creatures of Oku-Nikko

Monkey looking for food between Sainoko and Senjugahama

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 sunny with some clouds; hopefully the sun would have the upper hand. I knew that Yudanaka is famous for its snow monkeys bathing in hot water in winter; in 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 sharp 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 two 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 crossing a road and descending 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 Pond (上の小池 1570m), a lot smaller than the two previous ones. At 12h30, I was walking the length of the narrow Nagaike Pond (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 with the breeze down the opposite slope, creating ripples on the water surface. I crossed another road and arrived at Shimo-no-koike Pond (下の小池 1610m), the smallest pond so far, covered in bright green water plants. Next, I emerged on 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 passed 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, but 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 the road and the 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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