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

Hiking in the Joshin-Estu Kogen National Park

上信越高原国立公園

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

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

Clouds slowing vanishing above Tanohara Marshland

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

Kidoike at the start of today’s hike

Looking back at Tanohara Marsh

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

Blue sky reflected in Sankakuike

Shiga Lake Hotel reflected in Hasuike

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

Today’s mountain, Mt Asahi

Caution: monkey crossing

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

Sky and clouds reflected in Ichinuma

Monkey enjoying the pond view

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

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

Last pond of the day, Mizunashiike

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

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

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

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

See the ponds and monkeys of Shiga-Kogen

Mt Sekison (1667m) & Mt Hanare (1256m), Karuizawa Town, Nagano Prefecture, Tuesday, May 3, 2022

I finally had a chance to use the Tokyo Wide Pass,first time in four years, and in the end I did three hikes in a row. For the first one, I chose a small volcanic protrusion on the south side of Mt Asama (similar to Mt Hoei), which had been on my to-climb list for a while; being a relatively short trip up and down the same trail, it was reserved for a shinkansen jaunt. If I had time and energy after that, I would climb a small peak within Karuizawa Town, apparently the first one climbed by the Japanese Emperor, an enthusiastic hiker. After getting off the high-speed train, a short train ride on a local line, followed by an equally short taxi ride, would bring me to the start of the trail. I could travel to the second mountain by local bus, and at the end, walk half an hour back to the shinkansen station. The weather was supposed to be clear but cool for the season. I was looking forward to visiting Karuizawa after nearly two years and getting some close-up views of Mt Asama.

Hiking in the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park

上信越高原国立公園 

Mt Asama still wearing its winter coat

Karuizawa with Mt Myogi and Nishi-Joshu in the background

I had never seen Tokyo station so crowded: on the platform itself, it was nearly impossible to figure out where the end of the line was, and I was very lucky to snag one of the last unreserved seats. After a comfortable ride, I got off at Karuizawa station just before 10am, and transferred to the much less crowded Shinano railway for the two-stop ride to Shinano-Oiwake. I was pleasantly surprised to see cherry trees still in full bloom, one month after Tokyo. I got on the last taxi waiting outside the station and was at the trail entrance by 10h30. After getting ready and having a late breakfast, I set off at 11am.

Walking under the pine trees at the start of the trail

The surreal Nigori River

The first part of the hike was along an easy to walk trail, slowly rising through a pine forest within the southern reach of the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park (上信越高原国立公園). The altitude was around 1000 meters and spring was in full swing. Just before noon, I reached Nigori River (濁川 meaning “murky river”). I was stunned by its surreal yellow colour, probably due to the volcanic nature of the area. I was lucky to catch this sight on a sunny day, the water surface glittering like gold. After a few more minutes, I reached Chi-no-taki (血の滝), meaning “blood waterfall”, although it was still a muddy yellow.

Following a yellow river through the winter woods

Mt Asama, one of the hundred famous mountains of Japan

I was walking through a forest bare of leaves, since at 1400 meters, winter was back. The path continued to follow the Nigori river, passing “chi-no-ike” (血の池 “blood pond”), before turning away to the left, up a small valley. I soon reached the ridgetop, where I had my first view of Mt Asama, its rocky summit still sprinkled with snow. I walked up a short, steep slope in the opposite direction, and just after 1pm, was standing on the top of Mt Sekison (石尊山 せきそんさん sekison-san), its characters meaning stone and respect.

Yatsugatake, its highest peaks still covered in snow

Mt Asama is also an active volcano

The view was alot better than expected: on the east side, I could see the ridge connecting Mt Hanamagari with Usui Pass; behind Karuizawa was the craggy top of Mt Myogi; south were the mountain ranges of western Gunma; to the west, I could make out the shape of Yatsugatake, its highest peaks still shining white; the opposite side offered a stunning closeup view of Mt Asama. I was the only person on the mountain, so I settled on the grass for a quiet lunch. After half an hour, I started to descend the same way.

Still some snow due to a recent spring storm

It’s still winter above 1500 meters

I saw some puffs of smoke rise from the crater, reminding me that I was on the side of an active volcano. I retraced my steps back to the trail entrance; now and then the wind was blowing quite hard and made the tall pines trees sway above me. I moved quickly, as I wanted to allow enough time for the second climb of the day. I arrived back at my starting point at 3pm, and soon after reached the bus stop of the Chikuma city bus. Karuizawa being a popular resort town, I got stuck in some traffic and only reached the South Entrance of Harareyama Park (離山公園 after 4pm.

A well-maintained walkway along the steeper parts

Nearing the top

It was a relaxing climb through the forest, greener at 1000 meters; the steeper part near the top was along a well-maintained wooden walkway. Frequent signs breaking up the hike into 100 meter segments, were encouraging on the flat bits, less so on the ascending ones. At the end of a long staircase past some cherry trees still in full bloom, I reached the top of Mt Hanare (離山 はなれやま hanare-yama), the name meaning separation. To the west, I had a wider view of Mt Asama, as well as Mt Sekison, where I had been standing three hours earlier; it was against the sun, and would surely look even more impressive in the early morning.

Mt Asama from the top of Mt Hanare

Cherry blossoms, pink in the late afternoon sun

I was enjoying the late afternoon view when the five o’clock chime sounded through the valley. Normally, a call for children to come home for dinner, it also meant I had to hurry down if I wanted to catch my planned Shinkansen, about one hour later. I set off towards the East Entrance, and after some descending, I reached a wide gravel road taking me down to the base of the mountain. The last part was a pleasant walk past summer cottages set within the forest, for which Karuizawa is famous. At 6pm, I was back at the station, where I boarded the high speed train for the one hour ride back to Tokyo.

See the yellow waters of Nigori River and the volcanic fumes of Mt Asama

Mitsutoge (1785m), Fuji-Kawaguchi & Nishi-Katsura Towns, Yamanashi Prefecture, Friday, December 10, 2021 [Snow hike]

I had been thinking about visiting the Fuji Five Lakes area again. Having heard on the news that it had snowed there, I decided to make it my next destination, as it would be a great opportunity to do some snow walking close to Tokyo. Also, I could use the Fuji Excursion limited express from Shinjuku, which hadn’t existed on my last visit 5 years ago. From the station, I could catch a bus to the trail entrance. Reaching an elevation of 1230m, it’s one of the highest bus lines near Tokyo that is open all year round. After climbing to the summit, I would go down the opposite side to Mitsutoge station on the Fujikyu line. I was a little unsure about the weather forecast: it was supposed to be sunny, despite the presence of high-altitude clouds. However, I was mainly concerned about the amount of snow and ice on the trail. I packed my light crampons and planned alternatives, feeling excited about seeing the first snow scenes of the season.

Hiking inside the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park

富士箱根伊豆国立公園

View of Mt Fuji from the Mitsutoge lodge

A popular rock climbing spot

I travelled to Kawaguchiko under gloomy, grey skies, and felt certain I would be hiking inside freezing cold clouds. However, once I was on the bus, the clouds parted, the sun started shining and Mt Fuji appeared. At 10h30 I started hiking from “Mitsutoge Tozan Guchi” (三つ峠登山口), first on a road next to a mountain stream, then on a forest road, winding gently up the mountain side.

Finally, snow!

Just a little further on to the highest point

I saw the first traces of the recent snowfall thirty minutes later, and one hour after setting off, I could feel the satisfying crunch of snow underfoot. It was melting quickly but enough was left to create the hoped for winter landscape. Patches of blue were spreading above as the weather continued to improve. I passed a handful of hikers, and even a couple of jeeps (see video), probably fetching supplies for the lodges before the busy weekend.

Looking south towards the Tenshi mountains

The Mikasa mountains with the Japanese Alps behind

At noon, I had a glorious view of snowy Fuji outside the Mitsutoge Lodge. I had an early lunch and then continued to the highest point, Mt Kaiun (開運山 meaning “better fortune”), above an impressive rocky face. This part truly felt like a snow hike, but thanks to steps placed on the steep slope, I didn’t need to take my crampons out. At 12h30 I was on top of Mitsutoge (三ッ峠 みつとうげ), a 200-famous mountain of Japan. Despite the name, “three passes”, it has three summits rather than mountain passes.

Time to head down down – on the right is Yatsutagake

The southern ridge of Mitsutoge

I had arguably one of the best views of the entire area, the visibility being excellent despite high clouds veiling the sun. Ancient volcanoes surrounded the younger Fuji-san: Mt Hakone, Mt Amagi, Mt Ashitaka and Yatsugatake. The snowy peaks of the Japanese Alps stretched across the western horizon. I could see all the main mountain ranges: Doshi, Tanzawa, Tenshi, Misaka, and Chichibu. Only the north side was blocked by trees and a radio tower; to the northeast, Tokyo was covered in a grey smog.

The Doshi mountains with Tanzawa in the background

Mt Kura with Mt Shakushi directly behind

By 1pm the sun had completely vanished; thankfully it was a windless day and it wasn’t as cold as I had expected. I retraced my steps to the lodge and, since it was still early, I made a roundtrip to Mt Kinashi (木無山 1732m), another of the three summits. Although the name means “without trees”, they were inconveniently blocking the view; only Mt Fuji was visible directly south. By now, it was nearly 2pm and time to head down.

Reaching the base of the cliffs

High-altitude clouds masking the sun

It soon became clear I wouldn’t need my crampons at all today. I descended safely, thanks to a series of steps and a walkway, and reached the base of the cliffs. It’s a popular rock climbing spot and a couple of people were practicing their skills. All traces of snow were now gone, but it was thrilling to walk under the cliff face. At first, the path was mostly level, as it went round to the east side, but eventually it started to zigzag into the valley .

Mt Fuji in the afternoon shade

Last sun rays of the day

I could still see Mt Fuji through gaps in the trees, its eastern side now in the shade. The sun made a final appearance, shining briefly through the leafless trees, before disappearing for good behind a ridge at 3pm. Shortly after, I reached a paved road at the trail entrance. I dropped by Mitsutoge Green Center to take a hot bath before continuing to the nearby Mitsutoge station. At 5pm, I boarded a local trail for Otsuki, where I transferred to the Chuo limited express for the one-hour ride to Tokyo.

See the snowy views of Mitsutoge

Mt Myojo (924m) & Mt Myojin (1169m), Hakone Town, Kanagawa Prefecture, Sunday, November 28, 2021

This was a hike that I had done over ten years ago but in reverse. Back then, the visibility hadn’t been so good, so I wanted to redo it in clearer weather. I had climbed Mt Myojin one year earlier, but I was hoping that this time the wind wouldn’t be so cold and Mt Fuji would have its winter coat. I would also be able to ride the Hakone Tozan railway, for the second time this year, to Gora station, near the start of the trail. I would finish at Daiyuzan Saijoji Temple, from where it’s a short bus ride to Daiyuzan station. The weather was supposed to be sunny all day, meaning I could look forward to some great views inside the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park.

Hiking inside the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park

富士箱根伊豆国立公園

Download a map of the Mt Myojo and Mt Myojin hike

This map was developed for Japanwilds with the Hokkaido Cartographer

Find more Japan hiking maps on Avenza

View of Mt Fuji from Daimonji-Yaki

View of Mt Fuji from the top of Mt Myojin

The day was clear and sunny and I could see Mt Fuji while riding the Romance car limited express to Hakone-Yumoto. I arrived a little before 9h30, just in time for the transfer to the Hakone Tozan railway. As the train made its way up the valley via a series of switchbacks, I was able to admire the autumn trees dotting the mountainsides. After getting off at Gora station around 10am, I headed down a series of staircases to a bridge over the Haya river, and then followed a road up the other side of the valley to the start of the hiking trail.

Autumn leaves next to Haya river

Gora and Mt Hakone

It was a windless day and it felt pleasantly warm in the late autumn sun. I started climbing at 11am up a zigzag trail. Half an hour later, I reached Hakone Daimonji Yaki (箱根大文字焼き meaning “big burning character”) where I got a wide view of the valley below. Directly ahead was Mt Hakone and the smoking Owakudani; on the right side, to the west, I could see white-capped Mt Fuji, completely clear of clouds. It took another twenty minutes to reach the top ridge, and a few minutes later, at noon, I was standing on the top of Mt Myojo (明星ヶ岳 みょうじょうがたけ myoujougatake meaning “Morning star”). It didn’t feel like a summit and the trees blocked the view in all directions.

Mt Fuji and its winter cap

Walking between the bamboo grass

I continued without a break along the ridge heading west, towards Fuji, and downhill, through a tunnel of bamboo grass. Eventually, I reached a flatter section from where I could see the climb towards Mt Myojin. I passed many hikers on the way, and I was glad to see other people enjoying the perfect weather and the great views. The visibility was excellent and, looking East, I could see Oshima and other Tokyo islands. At 1h30, I reached the top of Mt Myojin (明神ヶ岳 みょうじんがたけ myoujingatake), a Kanto 100-famous mountain. It wasn’t as cold as last time but it was more crowded; this time the visibility was so good that I could even see the snowy peaks of the Minami Alps, nearly 100 kilometers away. I kept my lunch break short, and set off again before 2pm.

The fumes of Owakudani

Sagami bay and the Shonan coast

I met no other hikers on the gentle descent to Saijoji Temple. The path followed an area cleared of the trees because of a disused chairlift, which enabled me to have good views of the Tanzawa mountains and Sagami bay to the north. Lower down, I could still see some yellow and orange Japanese maple leaves. Although I was now outside the National Park boundaries, the trail went through beautiful forest. At 3h30, I arrived at the Saijoji temple complex in the midst of giant cedar trees.

Looking north towards Tokyo

Pleasant hiking on the way down

Since the sun had already dipped behind the mountains, I decided to skip a visit of the temple grounds and head directly to the Only You hot spring resort (a play on words: “you” sounds like the Japanese word “yu” for hot water”). After a relaxing hot bath, I took the free shuttle bus to the nearby Daiyuzan station. There, I rode a local train to Odawara station and then transferred to the limited express for the one hour trip back to Tokyo.

See the views between Mt Myojo and Mt Myojin

Mt Koshin (1892m), Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture, Sunday, November 14, 2021

This mountain had been on my to-climb list for the past few years. I needed to go by car and be physically fit to be able to do it it as a daytrip; good weather was also a requirement to justify the expense of the trip and the effort of the climb. The drive from Nikko station and back seemed straightforward, although I would need to skip the after-hike hot spring bath if I wanted to be back before dark. The beautiful autumn weather was supposed to continue for a few more days. However, due to the higher elevation, I had little hope of seeing any autumn leaves. My only concern was about the trail itself, since it went through an extensive rocky area, equipped with ladders and chains; it looked fun but I needed to be careful. Finally, I was looking forward to hiking inside the southern part of the Nikko national park and seeing some great views.

View of Mt Sukai from near the summit of Mt Koshin

Koshin Lodge with the cliffs of Mt Koshin in the background

I arrived in Nikko around 9h30 under a mostly cloudy sky. By the time I reached my car, I noticed a blue patch slowly expanding from the east, and after I arrived at the Ginzan-Daira parking area (銀山平駐車場) a little after 11am, the sky was entirely blue above. At 1130, I was walking a long a flat road closed to traffic and hugging the mountainside above a steep river valley; one hour later I reached the red shinto gate at Ichi-No-Tori (一の鳥居) marking the start of the hiking trail.

The forest road leading to the start of the hiking trail

The first part of the trail was fairly easy to hike

I followed a beautiful mountain stream up a gently sloping path. On the way, I crossed a couple of wooden bridges and passed several huge rocks with various names. A little after 1pm, I reached Koshin lodge (庚申山荘), where most hikers spend the night, and then hike to Mt Sukai and back the next day. Rising dramatically behind it, I could see the cliffs through which somehow a trail led to the summit. I took a short break and set off again, reaching the rocky base about ten minutes later.

The trail followed a lively mountain stream

Climbing steeply from here

I was the only person on the trail so I resolved to be doubly cautious as I made my way up through the rocks. I was amazed that anybody would think of creating a path up what was almost a rocky cliff, and I would only recommend it to surefooted hikers. I moved quickly, soon reaching the cliff top and a view point from where I could see the low mountains of southern Tochigi. I continued through a thick pine forest along a gentler sloping trail. At 2pm, I reached the top of Mt Koshin (庚申山 こうしんざん koshinzan), a hundred famous mountain of Tochigi.

Halfway up the rocky area

Surefootedness is a must here

It was completely in the trees but after walking a few minutes along the ridgeline, I reached a break in the trees and a fantastic view. Directly opposite, I could see Mt Nokogiri and Mt Sukai. To the north was Mt Shirane and Mt Nantai. I was the only person enjoying this glorious panorama on a peaceful windless day. I wanted to stay longer but I needed to head back before it started to get dark. I went down the same way, although now it was mostly in the shade.

Gazing upon the mountains of Tochigi from above the cliffs

View of the Nikko national park from near the summit

It took me an hour a half to get back to the trail entrance. Since I was on schedule, I had a quick look at the nearby 7 waterfalls of Koshin (庚申七滝), although access to some of the falls was currently closed. I reached the parking area just before 4h30 and left soon after. As I drove along the Watarase river valley, I came upon a troop of monkeys crossing the road. I reached Nikko station at 5h20 and then hopped onto the Kegon limited express for the ninety-minute ride back to Tokyo.

Follow the mountain stream to the top of Mt Koshin

Hiking the Nakasendo: Usui Pass to Yokokawa Station & Megane Bridge, Gunma Prefecture, October 2020

I had hiked this Gunma section of the Nakasendo (中山道) in January 2015 using the Tokyo Wide Pass; it’s less well-known than the section in the Kiso valley. I thought it would be interesting to redo it in a different season. First, the autumn leaves would be at their peak around the start of the hike. Next, I hoped that in the warmer weather I would be able to see monkeys along the way. I also wanted to add a side trip to the nearby Megane Bridge. Finally, I was looking forward to using the hot spring near the end of the hike, which was closed on my last visit . Instead of taking the Shinkansen to Karuizawa, I decided use a combination of train and bus, longer but cheaper; then, to make up for the later arrival, I would take another bus up to Usui Pass instead of walking. The forecast was cloudy with a hope for sun, but apart from Usui Pass, there were few views along the way.

Hiking in the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park 上信越高原国立公園

View from Usui Pass (photo taken in January 2015)

The trip to Karuizawa went smoothly: I had good views of Mt Myogi from the train, and saw some nice autumn colours from the bus. From Karuizawa station, I walked to the bus stop of the Red Bus (赤バス aka basu), a small seasonal sightseeing bus. There were few passengers and I was able to enjoy the view from the front of the bus as it zipped through old Karuizawa, and then zoomed up a narrow mountain road to Usui Pass (see video). The clouds were in and the view wasn’t great; in consolation there was a resplendissant Japanese maple tree in orange and red. I finally set off on the Old Nakasendo Highway (旧中山道 kyu-nakasendo) around 12:30.

River crossing along the Nakasendo

After an eroded downhill section, I crossed a small stream, and then followed a narrow level path till it merged with a wider trail heading down again. It was around here that my map reported monkey sightings, so I kept my eyes open and ears peeled. During the Meiji area there also used to be a village around here, and here and there its remains could be seen, making this part of the hike somewhat spooky. Past a rusting bus on one side of the path, and a rotting house on the other side, I heard strange noises coming from the treetops. At first I thought they were monkey noises, but it turned out to be some kind of bird call. I got lucky a little further. After going a little off the trail to investigate some suspicious noises, I stumbled upon a troop of monkeys moving through the forest. Unlike the ones from Okutama lake, these ones were shy and scattered at once, except for a large male, coolly walking away through the trees (see video).

The path followed the natural folds of the mountain

After the excitement of seeing monkeys (second time this year), I resumed my hike along this Edo period highway. The road became level again, and offered glimpses of mountain ridges and river valleys left and right. There were occasional white signs in Japanese, explaining various natural and historical landmarks. Most of this hike was inside the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park and the surrounding nature was wild and beautiful. Soon the road narrowed and turned into a hiking path again; it started to twist and turn, following the natural folds of the mountain ridge as it slowly descended into the valley. For a short while, I walked above a mountain stream tumbling down a small narrow valley. I took a moment to observe a large butterfly return obsessively to a curiously shaped-flower, and feed greedily on its nectar (see video).

A butterfly enjoying a nectar lunch

At 2h30, I finally arrived at a small rest house. I remembered it well from my previous visit. The guest book, slightly moldy despite it’s plastic casing, was still there, sadly devoid of English entries since spring this year. I found my old entry from 5 years ago and added a fresh one. The path turned rocky and started to descend in a series of switchbacks. On my winter hike I had good views of Mt Myogi and Yokokawa town around here; now, however, the view was blocked by tree leaves. Around 3pm, I reached the base of the mountain, and arrived at the modern road connecting Karuizawa and Yokokawa. On the other side and down some steps, I found myself on the “Apto Road” (アプトの道) that went through a tunnel under the road. This pedestrian road is named after the “Abt system”, a rack system, used by the old Usui line to transport passengers up the mountain side to Karuizawa from the middle of the Meiji era till 1963.

Tunnel number five along the “Abuto Road”

It was getting late but I decided to stick to my plan of exploring this road. Keeping to the day’s theme, it passed through several tunnels, some pitch black and some glowing orange from the interior lighting. Half an hour later at the end of the longest one, I arrived at the highlight of the day, Megane bridge (めがね橋 megane-bashi), the longest brick arch bridge in Japan. It was wonderful to walk on this marvel of Meiji era engineering. Apparently the autumn colours are spectacular here, but I was a couple of weeks early. Past the bridge, the road ducked into yet another dark tunnel. It was possible to continue a few more kilometers to an abandoned railway station, but it was getting late, and I decided to head back. The road ran straight and slightly downhill to Toge-no-yu hot spring which I reached in less than half an hour.

Megane Bridge, one of the wonders of the Meiji Era

After a speedy hot bath, I was ready to continue. By now it was 5h30 and already pitch dark outside. It had also started to drizzle. I was still 3 kilometers from the train station. I had walked it before – the road was straight and paved so there was little risk of getting lost or hurt. I briefly considered calling a taxi, but what better way to finish a spooky hike than a walk in the dark past an abandoned railway station? On the way, I discovered that my headlight only worked intermittently. I hurried past the disused Maruyama station building on the left, a darker shadow among the shadows. At 6pm, I passed the closed Annaka Tourist information office, and was finally walking under street lights. I reached the still-in-use Yokokawa station, well in time for the return train to Takasaki and Tokyo.

Ask for a hiking plan for the Nakasendo

The old Maruyama train station (photo taken in January 2015)

Ride the Red bus through Karuizawa up to Usui Pass

From mountain streams to wild monkeys, the Nakasendo has lots to offer

Mt Iwate (2038m), Hachimantai City, Iwate Prefecture, Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Every year, I try to make at least one hiking trip to northeastern Japan. In 2020, I was able to visit the area several times thanks to the now discontinued JR East Welcome Rail Pass. On this first trip of the season, I rode the shinkansen 450 kilometers to Morioka city, where I spent the night. The next day, I would drive to the eastern side of the volcano, and go up and down the Uwabo Trail, one of the 7 trails leading up to summit crater. Going by bus would allow for a traverse, but would also require an overnight stay at a hut. According to the forecast, the weather was supposed to be mostly clear and not too windy, perfect conditions, since the top part was completely exposed. I was feeling fit and ready for the big climb and descent, and was looking forward to seeing the panoramic views from Iwate prefecture’s highest peak.

Hiking in the Towada-Hachimantai National Park

十和田八幡平国立公園

The summit crater of Mt Iwate

Looking down at Onawashiro Lake

I could see the conical shape of Mt Iwate just 20 kilometers away, from the bridge over Kitakami river, on the way to pick up my car. A little after 8am, I parked on the forest road behind Uwabo shrine (上坊神社). Looking straight ahead, I could already see the flat crater summit above the trees. I quickly set off on the well sign-posted Uwabo Trail (上坊コース). Shortly after entering the forest, I came upon a huge bear bell and gave it hearty gong. I followed the path straight up the volcano side through a beautiful forest, and at 10am, reached Tsuruhashi junction (ツルハシ分れ), where it merged with the Sunabashiri trail (砂走コース).

First close-up view of the volcano

Below the crater

I had my first views of the flat valley to the east, giving me a preview of what to expect higher up. I followed the now level trail as it headed north, hugging the volcano side and passing under some ghostly white beech tree branches, already bare of leaves. At 10h30, the tree cover suddenly disappeared; I could see the summit crater again, a dark outline against the mid-morning sun. A few minutes later, I reached the comfortable-looking Hirakasafudo emergency hut (平笠不動避難小屋). From here the views widened, the vegetation mostly consisting of creeping pine; northwards, I could see the Hachimantai plateau, covered with thick forest.

Looking north towards Hachimantai

Walking the crater rim

I started to climb the steep, inner crater, the path heading straight up under the high sun, the low vegetation gradually replaced by volcanic rock and sand. I could now see the tear-shaped Onawashiro lake (御苗代湖), encircled by trees and enclosed by the outer crater; beyond, views of the Towada-Hachimantai National Park extended northwards. After reaching the rim, I turned left for the final, gentler climb to the highest point. A little after 11am, I was standing on the summit of Mt Iwate (岩手山(いわてさん iwate-san), a Japan 100 famous mountain. Huge clouds floated past overhead, blocking the view of Akita to the west.

The top of Mt Iwate, like a different world

Completing the tour of the crater

Looking east, however, was like looking out of the window of a plane, the buildings and roads of the flat plain barely discernable, 1500 meters below. I made my way around the crater rim in a clockwise direction, enjoying the desert-like views, and at 12h30, I started my descent. One hour later, I was back at the Tsuruhashi junction, and by 3pm I was back at my car. Before heading to my hotel in Morioka, I dropped by the Yakehashiri-no-Yu (焼け走りの湯) for a well-deserved hot spring bath.

See the views from the top of Mt Iwate volcano

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