Mt Kamakura (216m), Motegi Town, Tochigi Prefecture

This was another hike following the Kanto Fureai no Michi. This time I combined two short segments, so that I could start and end at a train station. The trail went through the countryside and low hills of Eastern Tochigi, near the border with Ibaraki, and about 20 kilometers North of Kasama city. I was hoping that I would be able to walk on forest paths, and that I would be able to enjoy a hike that didn’t take me up a mountain.

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A secret spot in Tochigi Prefecture

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Naka River near Shimono-o Bridge

Although I had planned to hike from train station to station, in the end I took a bus from Utsunomiya (Google Maps insisted it was quicker). I arrived at Motegi station, the last stop on the Moka railway, at 10am. I had never been to this corner of the Kanto area before; even though it was just 100km from the center of Tokyo, it felt like I had traveled to the other side of Japan. It was a beautiful blue sky day, and the temperature was on the warm side. I got ready and started walking around 10h30. I followed the distinctive Fureai no Michi signs to a river, which in turn led me to Shiroyama Park, located on top of a low hill.

 

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View of Motegi town from Shiroyama Park

There was a small watchtower on one side, probably a reconstruction. From the top, I had a good view of Motegi town to the South, cut in two by the Sasaka river. In the distance I could make out the ridgeline of Mt Takamine. On the other side of the park were the foundations of Shiroyama Castle, as well as some weeping cherry blossom trees or “shidarezakura” in full bloom. The trail continued down the other side of the hill and onto a small road. At 11h30, I arrived at Arakashi Shrine. The path from the entrance “torii” and the shrine itself was lined with some impressive giant cedars.

 

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Shidarezakura in full bloom

The next hour was mostly along small back roads. Walking on a road with little traffic is fine. However the longer you do this, the more you feel tired in your legs. There were some wide views, but like with forest roads, fewer surprises. The road took me all the way to the top of Mt Kamakura 鎌倉山, and despite its low elevation, there were good views on both sides of narrow forested valleys. There was a small shelter, so I sat down for lunch.

 

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View North from the the top of Mt Kamakura

Afterwards, I followed a small trail for a few minutes along the top ridge, past a tiny shrine, and arrived at a dramatic viewpoint. It showed a wide bend of the Naka river, famous for being the clearest river in the Kanto area. While I was taking pictures, I noticed a couple of birds of prey, flying in circles and using the air currents to gain altitude once they had drifted too low (see video at the end).

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Mt Kamakura Viewpoint

I couldn’t stay too long since today’s hike was about 25 kilometers. Also, there was a soba restaurant, on the other side of the river, that I wanted to drop by, even though I had just had lunch. I quickly followed a small path down the side of the small mountain. While crossing the bridge, I noticed a group of people kayaking down the river, something I might like to try one day.

 

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Naka River as seen from the bridge

After a delicious meal of cold soba and tempura or “tenmorisoba” at Sobanosato Magino, I continued on my way at about 2h30. The next two hours were again mostly along small roads. They were interrupted by two short sections of lovely forest walking. Occasionally I had some good views of the surrounding hills. There were a couple of observation towers, but the views must have been better decades ago, when the trees weren’t so high.

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One of the nicer sections of the hike

It was getting late, so I decided to skip the last part of the hike to Kaiishi Shrine, and head directly to the train station. I recrossed the Naka river, and followed the road till I reached the Ryumon falls 龍門の滝 just after sunset. After admiring the falls, I made my way to the nearby and appropriately named Taki station (meaning waterfall station) to wait for the local train for Utsunomiya, where I would hop on the shinkansen for Tokyo. In the end there was a little too much road walking for my taste, but I was happy that I was able to summit at least one mountain!

 

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Ryumon falls and Sakura

 

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Sunset on the Naka River

Birds in flight above Tochigi Prefecture

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

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

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Bird’s eye view of Kofu City

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Hard to believe that this is just 100 km from Tokyo

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

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Easy-to-spot start of the trail

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Nice hiking trail at 1000 meters elevation

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

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Steep slope on Mt Meisho

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The Oku-Chichibu Mountains with Mt Kinpu in the center

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

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Looking Northwest towards Nagano

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Looking Northeast towards Yamanashi

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

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Some of the best hiking was through the Zelkova forest

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Approaching the end of the hike

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

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Late afternoon sun in Yatsushiro-Furusato Park

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Looking back at Mt Inayama (left)

Mt Sashiro (205m), Kasama City, Ibaraki Prefecture, Saturday, March 7, 2020

This hike was also different from usual, since it was more walking and sightseeing than pure hiking, albeit with a couple of summits and some views. I had hiked nearly all the mountains near the Mito and Joban lines, except for the ones near Kasama station. The hike described in my “Mountains of Ibaraki” was only 3 hours long . However, it followed the Kanto Fureai no Michi, and I was confident that there would be some interesting sights along the way enabling me to stretch the hike to a full day.

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Nearing the top of the castle

After a later than usual departure, I transferred to the Mito line in Oyama, and reached Kasama station a little before 11am. There was a tiny tourist information office outside, where I picked up some good maps of the area. It took half an hour through town to reach the Kasama Inari Shrine, the main attraction of the area. I spent some time exploring the shrine and the main shopping street in front of it, and I only started up the hiking trail, ten minutes East of the shrine, around 1pm.

Kasama Inari Shrine is dedicated to the fox god

The first part was a short climb up a rounded hill called Fujiyama (143m) 富士山, quite a common mountain name in Japan. It was an azalea park, but none were in flower at this time of the year. Although there was no summit marker, there was an observatory platform with a 360 degree panorama of the entire area. Looking South, I could see Mt Wagakuni, climbed in 2017, and West, Mt Takamine and Mt Bucho, climbed in 2018. The skies were overcast, but I am sure the view must be spectacular on a cloudless day.

Mt Takamine (left) and Mt Bucho (right)

I followed the road down the other side, crossed a larger road, and continued up a small road into a cedar forest. On the side of the road, there was a large boulder known as “Daikokuseki” (大黒石 or big black rock), which had been rolled down from above on castle attackers. A little further on the right, was the start of the road up to the ruins of Kasama castle. Halfway up, I took a shortcut via a flight of moss-covered stairs, to reach a flat grassy space. It was hard to figure out the way when looking at the map, but it was easier while walking it because there were frequent signposts of the Fureai no Michi.

Leafy and mossy steps leading to the ruins of Kasama castle

As with many old Japanese castles, there wasn’t much left to see, just traces of the foundations overgrown by grass. At the back, there was another staircase leading to the shrine at the very top of Mt Sashiro 佐白山, which I reached just after 2pm. It was completely in the trees, except for a small gap to the West. Behind the shrine, was an alternate path going down. It was steep and rocky, but there were some chains for steadying oneself. It led to a place with some big boulders, called ishikura (石倉 or rock cellar). I climbed on top of one of them to see the view to the East. A mostly level path through the forest brought me back to the castle ruins.

Stone steps leading to the top of Mt Sashiro

On the other side, there was a hiking path leading down the mountain through the forest. I arrived at Sashirosanroku park after 3pm. At this point I felt quite satisfied with today’s hiking, and since I was close to the city, I decided to have a late soba lunch. I chose Sobakiri Ichibee そば切り一兵衛, fifteen minutes away on foot. It seemed quite a famous place, judging from the autographs of celebrities covering the walls. After a satisfying meal of soba and tempura, I made my way back to Kasama station, twenty minutes away. There I got the local train for Tomobe, where I switched to the limited express for Ueno.

Soba lunch at Sobakiri Ichibee

NEXT UP: Mt Hinata & Mt Mijo in Tanzawa (Kanagawa)

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

Hiking in the Hakone Mountains

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

Shy Fuji on a grey day

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

Start of the trail among the bamboo bushes

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

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Steep climbing on Mt Byobu

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

Walking through thick vegetation above Hakone Town

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

Refueling with some sweet sake and power mochi

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

An ancient road dating back to the 17th century

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

A not so old staircase on the Old Tokaido Road

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

Turn right here to return to the paved road

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

Hiryu river valley, just below the falls

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

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Trail after the waterfall

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

A glimpse of Gora with Mt Kintoki in the background

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

NEXT UP: Mt Ushibuse in Gunma

Toryu Valley & Mt Omine (1062m), Chichibu City, Saitama Prefecture, November 2019

 

Autumn colours along Toryu-Kei

In mid-November, I went on a day-trip to check out the autumn colours in the Oku-Chichibu area. It had been one month since the devastation brought by Typhoon Hagibis, also known as Typhoon #19, and there was a risk that some trails would be damaged or even closed. However, there are many great places to visit in the area, and I was confident I would find somewhere to walk among the autumn leaves.

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Sign reminding me that I was inside the Oku-Chichibu National Park

I drove from Seibu-Chichibu station, past Mitsumine-Guchi station, to Toryu Bridge 登竜橋 where I left the car. Past the bridge, it’s possible to walk along the Arakawa river in both directions. I first headed downstream; the path had been partly washed away in several places, and was also obstructed by several fallen trees. Since the path was a dead-end, I quickly gave up, walked back past the bridge, and followed the river upstream.

View from Toryu Bridge

First, I followed a gently climbing road past some ancient gravestones. After a few minutes there was a sign for a trail through the forest on the right. This led back down to the river, round a cliff on a wooden walkway, and finished at Ryumon Waterfall 竜門の滝. I retraced my steps to the start of the wooden walkway, and then followed another path further upstream, a few meters above the rushing river. There was a lot of damage here due to the typhoon. The trail was so washed away, that I soon gave up again. In conclusion, it’s impossible to hike along most of the Toryu valley at the moment. On the way back, I followed the road a little further, and it led to the start of the trail to Mistumine Shrine. Apparently, this trail is open and undamaged.

Entrance to the trail for Mitsumine Shrine

Afterwards, I drove another twenty minutes, past the turn-off for Mitsumine Shrine, all the way to the Irikawa river valley. I was going to leave the car at the Irikawa Camping Ground and explore the river upstream. However, the access road was closed due to typhoon damage, and it wasn’t possible to reach the start of the trail. I had to fallback on plan C: completely avoid river valleys, and drive to nearby Tochimoto Plaza 栃本広場 where I could hike Eastwards along a low ridge sandwiched between two lakes.

Beautiful autumn colours in “deep Chichibu”

This time I was lucky. The path was easy to hike with no damage at all; the autumn leaves were still at their peak. It took me about thirty minutes to reach the top of Mt Omine 大峰山 completely in by trees. Even the little viewing platform wasn’t high enough to see over them. The path continued along the ridge, but since it was now downhill through a thick cedar forest, and I had get back to the car, I decided not to go any further. Luckily, it was possible to take a slightly different path back, with occasional glimpses of Oku-Chichibu-Momiji lake through the trees.

Easy hiking through the forest

I drove a different way back, following a very picturesque road with good views towards Mt Wanakura. I got back to Seibu-Chichibu station before 4pm where I was able to enjoy a nice hot bath, and taste some local sake inside the station, before taking the brand new and futuristic looking Laview Limited Express train back to Tokyo. After the heavy rains and strong winds that hit the Kanto area last October,  I think that most hiking trails in Tokyo, Saitama and Tochigi prefecture are still hikable, except the ones following river valleys. Those ones may be closed for a while, but hopefully they’ll be restored sometime in the future.

View of Mt Wanakura in the late afternoon

Hossawa Falls to Musashi-Itsukaichi Station, Hinohara Village, Tokyo Prefecture, Friday, July 5, 2019

Despite the long rainy season this year, I managed to squeeze in a short hike on a cloudy, rain-free day. Although the elevation of the walk was relatively low – between 400m and 200m – the temperature and humidity were also low for July, so conditions were quite pleasant throughout the day. In general, this hike is best attempted in the spring and autumn.

I had last been to Hossowa falls 払沢の滝, one of the hundred famous waterfalls in Japan, located inside the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, after hiking Mt Sengen 浅間山 a few years ago. Then, Autumn was in full swing and I got to see some beautiful autumn leaves along the short trail to the waterfall. This time, the surrounding trees were lush with green leaves, and hydrangea flowers (ajisai アジサイ) were still in full bloom. The river and small falls leading up to the waterfall were wider and bigger that I had remembered, perhaps due to the high amount of rain that had fallen in recent weeks.

Smaller falls on the way to the main attraction

I had set off late and so I arrived at the Hossawa Falls entrance bus stop 払沢の滝入口, just after noon, and promptly started up the narrow climbing road to the left of Hinohara Tofu – their tofu donut makes an excellent snack! I soon reached an information board that showed the details of the whole area, and another one showing the location of 13 (!) waterfalls in the area of Hinohara Village, Hossawa falls being the most impressive one.

Entrance to the path to the waterfalls

Hossowa waterfall is located at the Eastern base of a narrow ridgeline wedged between the Kita Aki river to the North, and the Minami Aki river to the South. The latter is the longer of the two, and takes its source at the base of Mt Mito. The Kita Aki river joins the Minami Aki river just before the falls. Further downstream, it joins up with the Yozowa river (coming down from Mt Mitake to the North), and finally becomes the Akigawa river (which later merges with the Tamagawa further East).

The Minami Aki river after merging with the Kita Aki river

Since I was taking many photos of the river and flowers, it took me nearly half an hour to reach the waterfall, along an easy-to-walk path with no steep inclines. Along the way there were good views of the rushing stream below.

Not a real hiking trail but more of a walking path

On the left, a ravine, on the right, a cliff

There is a wooden sloping section that can get slippery when wet – someone took a tumble just as I was approaching! According to Wikipedia, the total length of the falls is 60m, divided into four sections – it was indeed an impressive sight to behold. You can get relatively close to the base pool, but the best shots can be obtained next to the stream, a little further away. After comparing with photos from my previous visit, I can confirm the falls are much bigger in the rainy season than in the autumn.

You can even feel the wind blowing from the force of the falling water

The return was much faster, and it only took me 15 minutes to get back to the main road. There were few people on a weekday, but I expect there would be a lot more people visiting on the weekend. There is also a cafe at the start of the path but it was closed on Friday.

Racing the stream on the return

Watch out for this interesting chap on the way back

Once back at the Tofu shop, I made my way back to Musashi-Itsukaichi station, sometimes following the main road, and sometimes following smaller and quieter roads on the other side of the river. The various bridges offered nice views of the Minami Aki river. The parts on the left side of the river made for a pleasant ramble through nice countryside with occasional glimpses of the river through the trees.

The sign says “Have a seat!”

Just before Sawato Bridge 沢戸橋, about two kilometers from the station, I stumbled upon a small path heading down on the right. According to the information board, it was the Akigawa Kyuryo Trail 秋川丘陵コース, a very nice discovery! I crossed the Bonbori river on a small wooden bridge, and then followed a very nice hiking path along the right side of the Akigawa river.

Careful not to take a tumble into the river!

Too soon the path joined up with the road again. There a small detour away from the river was needed, but soon I was walking next to the Akigawa again with good views of the surrounding hills. I reached the train station just after 5pm. Hopefully, I’ll be able to return sometime and continue hiking East along the Akigawa!

I found this little fella along the path

The “ajisai”, the symbol of Japan’s rainy season

Check out the power of water