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!

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

Jogasaki Coast, Ito City, Shizuoka Prefecture, Tuesday, February 11, 2020

This hike was unusual because I wasn’t hiking up and down mountains, but along a beautiful coastline. The suspended bridge on the Northern end is a popular sightseeing spot, however few people wander down the hiking trail that extends Southwards along the coast. It took me five hours at a leisurely pace to reach a second suspended bridge near the end of the trail. Although there are no mountains, there were many small ups and downs along the way, and lots of great views of the ragged coastline.


Halfway point of the jagged Jogasaki Coast

I took the Odoriko Limited Express from Tokyo station to Izu-Kogen (2 hours), and then hopped onto a local train to travel back one station to Jogasaki-Kaigan station. This small charming station was entirely made of wood and had a spacious comfortable waiting room. There was a small foot bath next to the platform, and a view of Sagami Bay and Oshima Island from the entrance. The famous early blooming cherry trees were still completely closed, but would be opening very soon.

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Oshima Island from Jogasaki-Kaigan station

Kadowaki Suspension Bridge with Oshima island in the background

I walked 20 minutes to the Boranaya restaurant, which is right next to the start of the Northern end of the trail. Across the bay, I had good views of Futo Hot spring, the next stop after Jogasaki-Kaigan. In the far distance, I could make out the faint outline of the Boso peninsula. It took me less than 30 minutes to reach the wobbly Kadowaki Suspended Bridge 門脇つり橋 (48 meters long and 23 meters high). A little further was the Kadowaki Lighthouse 門脇埼灯台 (25 meters high). I climbed the narrow spiral staircase to the observation floor (17 meters high), but since it was indoors, I couldn’t get any good photos through the glass.

Spectacular rocks near the Kadowaki Suspension Bridge

Grey cliffs and blue sea

It was already past 11am, so I quickly started hiking South along the coastal trail, leaving the sightseers behind. It was a warm sunny winter day; to my left was the dark blue sea sending its foamy waves roaring and crashing onto the ragged coastline; to the left were the mountains of central Izu, under the shadow of thick grey clouds. There were few other hikers, and most of the time I had the trail to myself.

The sparkling sea in the morning

Dark clouds got the upperhand in the afternoon

According to my map, the trail should take about 4 hours. However, every rocky promontory had a small path, branching off the main trail, going to its very tip. Since it would have taken too much time to explore them all, I had to decide which ones would yield the best views, and which ones to skip. I had just started down one such small path, when I was rewarded with a glimpse of a squirrel scampering through the trees. Walking another one, I spotted a couple of adventurous rock climbers on a secluded cliff. There were other climbers in several spots along the way, and I was reminded that the Jogasaki Coast 城ヶ崎海岸 was a popular place for this activity. A lot of these paths went close to the edge of cliffs, so I had to be careful, since unlike the rock climbers, I had nothing to protect myself from a fall!

This squirrel posed for a few seconds so I could take its picture

Climber nearing the top of the cliff

The trail was very well maintained. Fallen trees, no doubt from last year’s powerful typhoons, had been sawn through and removed from the path. There were frequent excellent Japanese / English signposts along the way, as well as information signboards on the various local sights, like the jagged Igaigaine いがいが根 rock formation. The main thing I learned was that the rugged coastline was created from lava flow when nearby Mt Omuro erupted long ago. When exploring the rocky terrain off the trail, I had to be careful not to trip and fall on the sharp lava rock!

Most of the time, the trail was easy to walk

Fallen trees have been removed from the trail

Around noon I passed by Renchaku-ji temple, and was lucky to finally see some early blooming cherry trees. At 2h30, I reached the Tajima no Taki observation platform, from where I could see quite a unique sight: a waterfall over the sea. A little further away, I could see a rock bridge with waves washing through it from both sides, and meeting at the center with a thunderous crash (see video below).

Pink cherry blossoms with a background of blue sky

The rock bridge surrounded by frothy waves

Along the trail there were many beautiful pine trees, possibly Japanese red pine. They were especially prominent along the second half, soaring high in the sky above. According to Wikipedia, they can grow up to 35 meters in height!

Many pine trees along the trail

Walking among the tall pine trees

A few minutes later I reached the Hashidate Suspension bridge 橋立吊橋 (60 meters long and 18 meters high). The trail ends just a little further at a small fishing village. I retraced my steps to the river above the waterfall, and followed it to a parking area and Izu-Kogen station, less than thirty minutes away.

The Hashidate Suspension Bridge

Mt Mihara on Oshima island, an active volcano that last erupted in 1986

One constant throughout the hike was the view of Oshima Island directly opposite and only 20 km away. Some of the other Tokyo islands (Toshima and Ni-jima) were faintly visible further to the South. I could even make out the outline of Kozu-jima about 75 km away. As the day progressed, and the sun moved further west, the details of Mihara volcano on Oshima island became more clearly visible, and I was reminded of my trip there in 2018.

Mt Omuro (580m) Crater Walk

Before heading back to Tokyo, I decided to make a quick visit to Mt Omuro 大室山 (580m), a short bus ride from the station, and the reason the Jogasaki coast exists in the first place. It has a perfect conical shape and is visible from nearly everywhere on the Izu Plateau. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to hike to the top. I rode the chairlift up and walked around the top crater in twenty minutes. There was a spectacular 360 degree panorama of the entire area. I could see Mt Fuji (60 km away), the Hakone mountains, the Tanzawa mountains, the Miura peninsula, Sagami and Tokyo B\bays, the whole Izu-Kogen, the Tokyo Islands and Mt Amagi.

After taking the chairlift back down just before closing, and catching the last bus back, I stopped by Izukogen no Yu Onsen. After a relaxing hot spring bath, I hopped onto the Odoriko limited express headed for Tokyo.

Mt Fuji, Hakone, Tanzawa

Mt Fuji, clear of clouds in the late afternoon

Watch the crashing waves along the Jogasaki Coast

NEXT UP: Mt Sengen in Hakone, Kanagawa

Mt Nakimushi (1103m), Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture, Friday, January 3, 2020

Mt Nyoho in a veil of clouds

For my first hike of 2020, I decided to head to Nikko. Not only is access easy thanks to the JR Nikko line, but since it’s a major sightseeing spot with a famous shrine, most places are open during the Japanese new year. The mountain I chose can be reached on foot from the train station, so I didn’t need to depend on any buses. Sadly, a French woman disappeared while hiking it a few years ago, and I saw several missing posters during the hike.

A glimpse of Mt Nantai through the trees

I arrived in Nikko at 10am, but since it was a short hike, I took my time getting ready, and only set off a little before 11am. It was a nice day and the view of Kirifuri Highland covered in the snow from Nikko city was quite spectacular. The start of the hike climbed relentlessly through thick forest. Less than an hour later, I reached the minor peak of Mt Konosu 神ノ主山 (842), and there was a glimpse of the surrounding mountains through a break in the trees.

A steep climb just before the top (left) and a steep descent just after (right)

It took me another hour of determined climbing to reach the top of Mt Nakimushi 鳴虫山 (meaning crying insect). There should have been a good view of the main peaks of Nikko from the top, but today they were hidden behind the clouds. It was pretty cold at the top – despite the sunny weather, a few snowflakes floated down. After a quick lunch, I started to head down a steep staircase on the other side of the mountain just after 1pm.

Sunny ridge on the way down

It took me about an hour and a half to reach the base of the mountain. I saw few people during the hike, and it was very quiet and peaceful. Although it’s not a difficult hike, the mountain is very steep on both sides of the path. Also, there are many points where one can easily lose the trail. There were warnings in Japanese and English, but they seemed fairly new. Having hiked the path myself, I can understand a little better how someone could go missing there.

Returning to Nikko station along the Daiya river

After reaching the base of the mountain, I walked along a narrow road to the nearby Yashio Hot Spring. I saw a monkey on the way. I am not sure if that brings good luck, but I’d like to think so. After a nice hot bath, I decided to walk back to Nikko station since it was still early. It took less than an hour following the river, and by 5pm I was on the express train back to Tokyo.

First monkey sighting of 2020

Watch a video of a wild monkey in Nikko

NEXT UP: Mt Ozawa 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

Mt Sanpobun (1422m) & Panoramadai (1300m), Fujikawaguchiko Town, Yamanashi Prefecture, Saturday, November 30, 2019

Hiking in the Fuji Five Lakes Area

This is one of my favourite areas to hike in the late autumn and early winter since the views of Mt Fuji are so beautiful. Also, since April 2019, there is a direct limited express between Shinjuku and Kawaguchiko that I really wanted to try. It’s the same deal as the Chuo line limited express – all seats are reserved only. However, for the Fuji train, there were no seats to be had on the day itself, and I had to stand most of the way. Although it’s convenient, I probably won’t be using this train again.

View of Mt Fuji from Yamadaya Hotel

I got off at Fuji station, boarded the bus for Motosu lake, and got off at Yamadaya Hotel next to Shoji lake. The view of Mt Fuji rising from behind the lake was stunning. Originally I wanted to hike all the way to Mt Ou and end at lake Saiko, but considering the fresh layer of snow that covered the higher reaches of the mountain, I decided to shorten the hike, and make a loop back to my starting point. The fact that the Yamadaya hotel also allowed day-trippers to use their hot spring bath was also a factor in that decision.

Already hiking in the snow in November

I started up the hiking path quite late in the day – at 11h15. I had hiked up this path once before in February 2013 in the snow, and there was snow again this time. I met many people coming down – apparently this is a popular hike. I reached Panoramadai パノラマ大 one hour later, and had an early lunch. Six years ago I continued down to lake Motosu on the other side. This time, I retraced my steps to follow the ridgeline Northwards. There were less people, and the path went up and down more steeply. Fortunately, the snow layer was thin, but I had to be careful not to slip on the descending parts. I was glad I had chosen the shorter hike and that I didn’t have to rush!

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View of Shoji lake and Mt Ou in February 2013
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View of Mt Fuji and Aokigahara forest in February 2013

There was a great view of Mt Fuji and Shoji lake, a few meters to the right of the path, just before Shoji pass – I nearly missed it even though it was marked on my map. After that, the path climbed steadily. I reached an area with a small shrine that seemed like the top but wasn’t. It took another five minutes along a level path to reach the true summit of Mt Sanpobun 三方分山. It was surrounded by trees, but there was a nice view of Mt Fuji on the South side.

 

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The best view of the hike was near Shoji Pass
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View from the top of Mt Sanpobun

It was past 2pm and time to head down. On the way, I had some good views of the ridge leading up to Mt Ou – hopefully I can hike it another time. The whole mountainous area spreading North-East, and bound by the Fujikyuko and Chuo lines, is known as the Misaka mountain range. One hour later, I emerged from the forest near the base of the lake. There was an interesting shrine with a couple of very large cedar trees. According to the sign, they were 1200 years old, 10 meters in circumference, and 40m high! A short walk brought me back to my starting point where I was able to take a nice bath with a good view of Mt Fuji in the late afternoon light.

Next up: Mt Iwadono in Yamanashi Prefecture

Mt Kurohime (2053m), Shinano Town, Nagano Prefecture, Saturday, November 9, 2019

Hiking in the Togakushi Highlands 戸隠高原

This was my fourth hike inside Togakushi kogen and the Myoko-Togakushi renzan National Park, one of the places I definitely wanted to visit again in 2019. Although Nagano prefecture had some bad flooding because of Typhoon Hagibis, it was spared the strong winds that knocked down many trees in the Kanto area. I used the shinkansen to make it a day trip. It was also my last “big hike” of 2019; temperatures dropped significantly in the second half of November, and there was more rain than average, meaning snow in the mountains.

Evening clouds mimicking volcanic fumes from the top of Mt Kurohime,

After arriving at Nagano city, I made my way to the Alpico Information Desk across from Zenkoji exit to buy my one-way ticket to the Togakushi Campground. My plan was to walk down the other side of the mountain and end at a train station along the Hoku-Shinano train line, so that I wouldn’t have to go back the same way. Although it was out of season, there were quite a few people, so an extra bus turned up, and everyone was able to sit comfortably during the one-hour ride. All the other passengers got off at the stop for Togakushi shrine, and I was the sole person getting off at the end.

Above: Japanese birch trees, called “kaba”, cover the mountainside

Below: Easy and fun hiking along the crater rim

It was a thirty-minute walk along the road, till I reached a turn-off for a forest road closed to cars, and yet another half and hour to reach the start of the hiking trail. Autumn was late this year, and the needles of the fiery larch trees were still tumbling to the ground. I finally started climbing at 10h30. Very soon, the trees changed to white birch. After one hour of steep climbing, I reached the top of the ridge – actually the crater rim since it’s a volcano – and my first views. Looking back, I could see the entire Togakushi highland, as well as Mt Takatsuma and Mt Izuna. In the distance, I could see the Northern Alps, Mt Yatsugatake and Mt Asama, with plumes of smoke drifting up. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make out Mt Fuji – it should have been visible but it was perhaps too late in the day. Looking forward, I could see Mt Amakazari, Mt Hiuchi and Mt Myoko, the latter two with a dusting of snow on the top.

Above: Mt Takasuma (2353m), a hundred famous mountain, climbed in 2011 & 2014

Below: Mt Izuma (1917m), another volcano and 200 famous mountain, climbed in 2014

I set off again, and saw some patches of leftover snow on the trail, a sure sign that this was the very end of the regular climbing season. As I followed the curve of the crater, slowly bending Northwards, the Chikuma river valley came into view, the longest river in Japan. Looming up above, were the mountains of the Joshin-Etsu. It was my first time to see the view from this side – I had seen it before while skiing in Nozawa Onsen, diametrically opposite. In the center was Mt Madarao and Nojiri lake. The view reminded me of the wide valleys of the Swiss Alps. To my right, the lower half of Mt Izuna was all orange because of the larch trees covering its side and base.

Above: The “Joshin-Etsu” mountains, where Nagano, Niigata and Gunma prefectures meet

Below: Mt Madarao (1382m), also a ski resort in the winter, and Nojiri lake

From this point, the trail was fairly easy to walk with some slight ups and downs, but I lost time taking photos. I reached the summit of Mt Kurohime 黒姫山 a little after 1pm, a 200 famous mountain of Japan, and one five famous mountains of Northern Shishu. At this late hour, I had the summit to myself. Despite the near freezing temperatures, it felt pleasant in the sunshine, with almost no wind. I was so busy admiring the views and taking pictures, that I almost forgot the time, and finally set off after 2pm. I was shocked to discover that my ankle, which hadn’t bothered me much today, was suddenly quite painful. I had been counting on a quick descent to make it down before sunset, but I was uncertain how fast I could go with a lame ankle. Fortunately after a few minutes the pain dissipated, but it was a good reminder to always keep a buffer of time.

Above: Mt Hiuchi (2462m), a 100 famous mountain, climbed in 2012, and Otomi lake

Below: Mt Myoko (2454m), another hundred famous mountain, also climbed in 2012

The path continued along the ridge for a while, before turning sharply to the right and down the steep side of the volcano. With more time, it’s possible to descend the opposite side and explore the ponds inside the narrow crater area. However, I was now confronted with a problem other than time: there was a lot more snow than I had expected. I had to proceed carefully to avoid slipping. Luckily the trail zigzagged down and never became too steep. The snow persisted till more than halfway down, and I was relieved when I was finally walking on leaves and dirt again. I reached the end of the trail a couple of hours later, just past 4pm, and less than thirty minutes later I was at Kurohime station, where I caught a local train back to Nagano station. Hopefully I will get to this area next month for some skiing!

Early winter snow on the way down

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The name Kurohime translates into English as “Black Princess”

NEXT UP: Mt Minobu (Yamanashi)

Mt Ihai (1458m), Susono City, Shizuoka Prefecture, Sunday, October 27, 2019

Hiking on Mt Ashitaka 愛鷹山

This wasn’t my first visit to Mt Ashitaka – I had already climbed the highest peak, Mt Gozen (1504m), in December 2013. I had taken the most direct route up, then headed Northeast to Mt Kuro (1086m), before ending up on the Eastern side of the mountain. The close-up views of snow-capped Fuji were absolutely stunning. However, Mt Ashitaka, a 200-famous mountain, is quite a huge mountain with more peaks to climb and ridges to hike, and I had been meaning to return for a while. As usual, logistics held me up, but his year I discovered that there was limited express train that runs several times a day between Shinjuku and Gotemba – it’s also a very easy way to get to the Mt Fuji area – so I decided it was time to visit Shizuoka again.

Mt Fuji visible from behind the ridge leading up to Mt Ihai

After arriving at Gotemba station, I hopped onto a mostly empty bus for the short ride to the base of Mt Ashitaka. Despite the good forecast, the weather was pretty horrible, and the top of the mountain was hidden in the clouds. After getting off the bus, I couldn’t find any signs, but thanks to Google Maps, I eventually stumbled on a sign indicating the start of the trail. It pointed to a staircase going down, but no sooner had I stepped on it, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a spiderweb spread right across it…with a massive “jorogumo” (a kind of orb-weaver spider) in the center. Although they aren’t poisonous, I didn’t really want one on myself. There was no way around or under it, and rather than destroy the web, I choose to climb over the railing and lower myself onto the staircase lower down.

Today I got to see Mt Fuji wearing a baseball cap

At the bottom of the short staircase, I crossed a small stream and headed up into the forest on the other side. At 9h30, I was finally hiking. Almost immediately, I walked into another spiderweb – luckily it seemed to be spiderless. However, from that point onwards, I decided to arm myself with a small stick, and wave it in front of me as I marched on. The path followed a gently sloping ridge through cedar forest, with few signs to confirm that I was on the correct path. There was no one else, apart from a couple of deer that escaped into the forest. There was a section with many fallen trees, possibly caused by the recent typhoons. Most of this hike on the Eastern side of Mt Ashitaka is inside the Southern part of the Fuji section of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, although there weren’t any signs indicating this.

Cloudy day yet Mt Fuji was clear

Just before 11am, I got my first views of Mt Fuji on the West side. The weather had cleared up a bit but the top of Mt Fuji was still in the clouds – under a kind of baseball cap. The further I climbed, the more the ridge narrowed, and the more views I got. Soon, Mt Fuji was totally clear and I started to lose a lot of time taking photos. I also had some views of Hakone to the East The ridge went on and on, and after what seemed like a long time, I reached Mt Mae, connecting with a trail coming from the valley – there was no view, and the summit marker was half-broken. Beyond that, the path descended a bit and I was able to make out my target peak – it looked close, but it took me another hour to reach. Occasionally I could hear the roar of lions from the nearby Fuji Safari Park below.

Cloudy ridge on the Northern side of Mt Ashitaka

I arrived at the top of Mt Ihai 位牌 (meaning “mortuary tablet” although there were none at the top) at quarter to one, and very behind schedule. There were 2 other people at the top, about to head down. They kindly offered me some tasty “age-senbei” or fried rice crackers, which I enjoyed on the train ride back. From the top, looking Westwards, I could see Mt Fuji and Mt Gozen – according to the sign, the connecting ridge is quite dangerous. The weather was much better now – blue skies with swirls of mist floating by. Southwards, I could make out an impressive valley, but not much else since there were still a lot of clouds in that direction. Originally, I had been planning to hike towards Mt Ashitaka, the peak that gives the whole mountain its name, but I realised that there was no way I could catch the last bus back – at 3h35 – if I took this longer way. If I missed my bus, I faced another two hours of walking to Mishima station on paved roads. So this time, I took the shorter route down.

Swan cloud passing by

Even with this shorter route, I would barely make it to the bus stop on time. Very soon I reached an amazing viewpoint. Behind me, the top of Mt Fuji was visible from behind the ridge I had just climbed up, with a beautiful blue sky in the background. In front, the Hakone mountain range rose up from the valley in between. I had never seen Hakone from this angle – I was so fascinated that I stepped into some brambles, and I had to spend a few minutes putting bandaids on all the scratches (the weather was warm enough for shorts).

Hakone Panorama

I finally managed to pull myself away from the view and continue down the mountain. I really enjoyed this part of the hike, following a narrow forested ridge, and it was a shame I had to rush it. It took me ninety minutes to reach the viewpoint at Ikenodaira 池ノ平 (846m), where I could get a view of Numazu city, Suruga Bay and the Izu peninsula, although the visibility wasn’t the best at this time of the day. I snapped a few pictures and continued down. Very soon I reached a parking and a road, from where it was another thirty minutes to the bus stop, which I reached with ten minutes to spare. This time the bus was pretty full, but I was able to sit all the way to Mishima station, where I caught the shinkansen back to Tokyo.

Clouds on Mt Ashitaka

NEXT TIME: Mt Tengu (Mt Haruna) 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 Daigenta (1764m) & Mt Mikuni (1636m), Yuzawa & Minakami Towns, Niigata & Gunma Prefectures, Saturday, September 14, 2019

Hiking in the Mikuni Mountains 三国山脈

This update should belong to the Tokyo Wide Pass update for Silver week 2019, but since the second hike of that holiday fell through due to a combination of bad weather and a poorly-marked trail, I only managed one hike (a repeat of this year’s Golden Week). I was excited about this hike since it connects two prefectures, and two consecutive stations on the Joetsu Shinkansen. The staff at the ticket window were good enough to confirm that I wanted a return on the same day from a different shinkansen station! It’s also entirely within the Joshin’etsukogen National Park.

Gunma view from the top of the ridge connecting Mt Daigenta and Mt Mikuni

After arriving at Echigo-Yuzawa station in Niigata prefecture, I hopped on the bus headed for Naeba Prince Hotel, getting off at Asakai, a few minutes past the stop for Mt Sennokura. My plan was to hike up the ridge leading South from Mt Tairapyo, so that I could pick up my hike from 2017, about half an hour past the Tairapyo Mountain Hut. My map indicated that the hike went up through the ski resort but that the start of the trail was hard to find. I found something that seemed like a trail and headed up it, but after climbing for nearly thirty minutes, it turned out to be a deadend.

A hint of autumn, looking Westwards to Niigata

I was now faced with two options. Either head back down, and follow the road to the start of the trail of Mt Mikuni (where I had expected to end up) and go and back down from there. Or, cut across the hillside in the hope of coming across the actual trail. I chose the second one, following a very faint overgrown track through thick bushes at the edge of the forest covering the mountainside, thinking all the time that if this doesn’t work out, I’ll have to walk back the same way. Finally I gave up on the bushwacking, and started to climb directly up through the forest. It was pretty steep, but there was less vegetation to slow me down.

The ridgeline I was hiking up

After about ten minutes of climbing straight up the side of the mountain, using the thin trees as handholds, I spotted some rope to the right. I moved towards it, and discovered the path. My joy at finding the path, was tempered by the fact that it headed straight up the mountainside at roughly the same gradient I had been doing just before – the rope was there to help pull yourself up. The path continued for what seemed like forever. I finally reached a minor summit with a view of the remaining way to the top ridge. I had just started out, and I was already exhausted!

The instantly recognizable shape of Mt Naeba, as seen halfway up the ridge

After a short descent, the path continued to climb relentlessly. At precisely noon, I emerged at the high point, more than two hours after setting out, and completely knackered. This was after all my first big ascent since the start of the summer. I admired the great 360 degree view – Niigata to the West and Gunma to the East – then dropped my pack, and headed towards Mt Daigenta 大源太山 about 15 minutes away.

In the foreground Mt Azumaya (climbed May 2017) and in the background Mt Mitsumine (climbed May 2019).

From the top there were good views of Mt Sennokura playing hide and seek in the clouds. Further to the right, Mt Tanigawa was stubbornly sitting inside a big cloud. After a quick bite, I headed back to pick up my pack and started southwards along the ridgeline towards Mt Mikuni visible in the distance. Since I lost time finding the start of the trail, it was now impossible to catch the earlier bus which would have given me some time to use the hot spring at Sarugakyo Onsen. I had been there once before after descending from Mt Azumaya two years earlier and was looking forward to visiting again. Now I had to race to catch the last bus back.

Around 2000m, Autumn has arrived…

After some ups and downs, with spectacular views, especially towards Gunma prefecture, I reached the flat top of Mt Mikuni 三国山 just after 2pm. The name translates as “three country mountain”. In modern times, it sits on the border of two prefectures, but during the Edo period, it probably sat at the junction of three areas. From the top, I was able to see for the first time Mt Inatsutsumi, although Mt Shirasuna beyond was lost in the clouds. I could also see the end of the hike, straight down the side of the mountain to Mikuni Pass, and then further down the valley to Hoshi onsen 法師温泉, a secret hot spring.

Mt Ono (left) and Mt Haruna (right)

The path down to Mikuni pass consisted mostly of wooden steps – perfect for running down since I still wasn’t 100% sure I would be able to catch my bus. In no time, I reached the pass, where I turned left into the forest. Soon I reached a road, beyond which was the path to Hoshi Onsen, the last part of which followed a river. I reached the end of the hike with ten minutes to spare. Since there was no time for a bath, I used the Tokyo Wide Pass to go from Jomo Kogen back to Echigo-Yuzawa (just ten minutes), where there is a hot spring in the station.

Hoshi Onsen, a place I would like to stay at someday

NEXT UP: Mt Konara in Yamanashi Prefecture