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.

Japanese birch trees cover the mountainside

 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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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”

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

Yanagisawa Pass to Shirasawa Pass, Koshu City, Yamanashi Prefecture, Saturday, September 7 2019

Coincidentally, I ended up hiking in another national park, this time the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, the closest one to Tokyo. I took the limited express Chuo line all the way to Enzan – they updated this line to all reserved seating earlier this year, and I have to admit that so far it’s a positive change, since I’ve been able to get a seat every time, which wasn’t the case with the old system.

From Enzan station, I took a bus all the way up to Yanagisawa pass at nearly 1500m. After I got the bus I was able to see a good view of Mt Fuji, as well as some classic cars parked just behind the viewpoint. The last time I was there, I went East towards Mt Keikan and Daibosatsu Rei. This time I made my way first West, then North, along an easy to hike path through beautiful forest. I could hear deer but I couldn’t see them – I did see a toad though. Since there were no major peaks along the way, I saw almost no other hikers, and the weather was a lot better than I had expected – sun and clouds, but no mist.

Mt Fuji from Yanagisawa pass

I soon reached Yanagisawa no Tou 栁沢の頭 where there was another view, and a little further, I got to an even better viewpoint, Hanze no Tou ハンゼの頭 (1681m). I could see Mt Daibosatsu Rei, Mt Fuji, the Kofu valley and the entire range of the South Alps. Another hiker even pointed out the pointed peak of Mt Kinpu which I had completely missed. One of the best views in the area and almost completely deserted!

Mt Fuji with blue mountains in the foreground

After an enjoyable lunch, I continued along the long ridge that forms part of the backbone of the Koshu Alps, as the mountains of Yamanashi are called. I soon reached the Kasatori forest path – there was no signpost, but I instinctively turned left, and found the continuation of the hiking path a little further, just beyond the NTT antenna.

The South Alps – notice the pointy peak of Mt Shiomi in the middle

The path was flat and easy to hike, but as most paths in Japan, it didn’t last. I soon reached a steep downhill which took me to a construction site, a little surprising high up on the mountain. They were installing solar panels, something I’ve been seeing more and more on my hikes. Past the solar panels, I lost the path for a short while, but managed to get back on it soon enough. This is a trail that could certainly do with more signposting.

Clouds converging on Mt Daibosatsu Rei

Soon the path begun a series of steep uphills and downhills. I would love to recommend this hike to people who are looking for a not-so-challenging hike, but although the climbs and descents aren’t long, they were pretty steep! I got some nice views Eastwards of Mt Keikan and Daibosatsu Rei, as well as the triangular summit of Mt Kumotori further in the distance. In front of me was Mt Kasatori, and to the West was Mt Kobushi and Mt Kentoku. I had already hiked all these peaks and connecting ridges, so it was enjoyable to view them from a distance.

Looking back towards Tokyo

I was starting to wonder when I would arrive at Shirasawa pass 白沢峠 when I suddenly spotted a couple of people sitting in chairs in a clearing ahead. It was quite surreal since I hadn’t seen anybody for the past 3 hours. But here they were relaxing and smoking cigarettes in the middle of nowhere, as if they were at some campsite. There was also an abandoned vehicle in the middle of the clearing with a tree growing in the middle of it. I wasn’t too surprised to see it there, since I had seen photos of it while researching the hike.

It’s like something from a Ghibli movie!

There was a jumble of signs nearby and I couldn’t quite make out where I was, but surely not Shirasawa-toge! first I wasn’t at a pass; second there was no path heading down to the East. I asked the two people, not hikers, relaxing near the abandoned truck but they had no idea. The younger of the two vaguely gestured to the right saying that they had come up through the forest, but I couldn’t see a path. I decided to continue along the main trail.

Solar panels with Mt Kobushi in the background

I continued for nearly half an hour, during which the path went down a bit, and then started to climb again. It had turned into a wide and not so nice forest path. I was starting to wonder when I would get to the pass, when it suddenly hit me – the grassy area with the two guys and the car was the pass! I immediately turned around and started to run back. When I got back, the 2 guys had gone, and I found the path down to the bus stop – it was really faint and hard to see, but it was a proper trail.

Luckily it was easy to run and I sped down it as fast as I could. Soon I was following a mountain stream, and then I reached a dirt road, where I passed the two guys who were in fact motorcyclists. I half hiked and half ran, and finally reached the Koshu Kaido (which runs all the way from Tokyo) where I caught the bus (the same one as in the morning) back to Enzan station.

Japanese toad I spotted on the trail

Next up: Mt Mikuni in Gunma prefecture

Mt Sajiki (1915m), Mt Murakami (1746m) and Mt Kakuma (1980m), Gunma Prefecture, Sunday, September 1st 2019

Continuing my tour of Japan’s National Parks, I next visited the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park in Gunma prefecture. Despite the poor weather forecast, I decided to risk taking the shinkansen to Ueda city. There, I rented a car and drove up the Western part of Mt Asama. I had been there a few years ago to climb Mt Yunomaru and Mt Eboshi, but there were a few more peaks that had remained unclimbed.

The balding top of Mt Yunomaru, climbed in November 2015

From Ueda station, I could see that the mountains were in the clouds, and on the way up I encountered thick mist. Fortunately, I broke through it before I reached Yunomaru Kogen above 1700m, and I even had some sun after I parked my car. I immediately rushed up the hiking trail, since I knew that the blue sky that had opened up overhead wouldn’t last. The path was quite nice, and I reached the top of Mt Sajiki 棧敷山 at exactly 11 o’clock. I had an excellent view of Mt Azuma and Mt Kusatsu-Shirane, hundred famous mountains I had already climbed.

Mt Azuma, climbed at the end of May 2012

I retraced my steps for a few minutes, and turned left to take an alternative path down. I soon reached a lookout point towards Yunomaru Kogen. At this point, the weather had become overcast, but luckily the clouds were quite high, and I could make out the Japanese Alps in the distance. The path then descended quite steeply. After it bottomed out, I was walking in a spooky, dark forest . I soon arrived at an intersection for the small brother of Mt Sajiki – I decided to check it out. I soon reached the top of Mt Kosajiki 小棧敷山 but the views were limited. Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to get back to my car.

The highest point of Mt Asama

I drove on to my next target at Kazawa Kogen 鹿沢高原. This time, I simply had to go up and down the same trail. I walked as fast as I could up the relatively easy path and reached the summit of Mt Murakami 村上山 just before noon. I was greeted by a vast panorama of Western Gunma, centered on Tashiro Lake. The views were wider than the previous summit and it was a good place to enjoy some lunch.

 

Mt Kusatsu-Shirane and Tashiro Lake

I quickly made my way back down and drove back up to Kazawa Onsen 鹿沢温泉. It was 2h30 and I had one more peak to climb, but I had to be back by 4h30 for the last entry at the hot spring. I raced up and reached the top of Mt Kakuma 角間山 a little after 3h30. Nearing 2000m, the vegetation had become alpine. While I was taking pictures of the view, it suddenly started raining, which for once was a good thing, since it forced me to head back down rather quickly. I half ran back the same way, and made it to the onsen with a few minutes to spare.

 

View Westwards from the top of Mt Kakuma

NEXT UP: Hiking from Yanagisawa Pass to Shirasawa Pass (Yamanashi Prefecture)

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

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

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

 

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

The top of Mt Higashi-Azuma in good weather

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

Here I turned right instead of going straight

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

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

Blue skies and clouds reflected in a pond

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

 

Part 2: Uba-ga-hara – Kama-Numa Pond

A beautiful lake high up in the mountains

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

The path leading down and back to the visitor center

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

 

Part 3: Jododaira – Mt Azuma-Kofuji

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

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

Walking above the clouds…

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

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

 

Clouds rolling by at nearly 2000m elevation

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

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

Lake Karikomi and Mt Taro in the background

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

Today’s hike was through green mossy forest

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

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

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

A signpost in the forest

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

A grassy field suddenly appeared

A hidden valley in the middle of the Nikko National Park

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

On the shore of Karikomi Lake

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

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

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

Smaller falls on the way to the main attraction

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

Entrance to the path to the waterfalls

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

The Minami Aki river after merging with the Kita Aki river

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

Not a real hiking trail but more of a walking path

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

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

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

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

Racing the stream on the return

Watch out for this interesting chap on the way back

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

The sign says “Have a seat!”

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

Careful not to take a tumble into the river!

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

I found this little fella along the path

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

Check out the power of water

Mt Maruyama (1098m), Hinohara Village, Yamanashi & Tokyo Prefectures, Saturday, June 1st, 2019

I decided to return to the same area as the previous week, and do a portion of the Mitosan-Takosan ridge that I had never hiked before. It contains no major summits, but since it was featured in my Tokyo prefecture hiking book, I thought it would be make a nice ramble. Also, the weather was cooler, so I could start later and lower down. This time I was hiking South and East of Mt Mito, as opposed to the West and North the week before.

Iris season has started!

I took the bus from Uenohara station, but one hour later than the week before. Since the bus didn’t go all the way to Matsuhime pass, I was the only passenger. I got off at Gobara, in the charming village of Saihara 西原村. At 10:40 on a Saturday Morning it was completely deserted, and I wondered where everybody was. The hike was fairly well-signposted, and soon I was climbing up the side of the valley through forest.

Easy-to-hike: I passed a mountain biker coming down around here

It was cloudy and sunny but temperature-wise, perfect for hiking. The climb up was surprisingly beautiful: the path was easy to hike, and the surrounding forest felt wild and untouched – exactly what I crave for in a hike. Apart from a mountain biker, I saw no-else on the climb up. Halfway up, there was a nice viewpoint of Nishihara village, and the ridge I had hiked down from Matsuhime toge, 3 years ago.

After an hour and a half I reached Nishihara pass, and other hikers. I made a quick roundtrip to the top of Mt Makiyose 槇寄山 (1188) less than a minute away. I had been there once before when I had hiked down from Mt Mito years ago. I had a quick bite since there were a couple of benches and admired the view to the South – I could make out the shape of Mt Gongen, another peak climbed years ago.

I then retraced my steps and followed the ridge Southeast. The forest was beautiful and peaceful, with few people. I couldn’t quite decide if the area reminded me of the mountains directly south of the Chuo line, or of the ridge on the opposite of the Akigawa river valley. In any case, the ridge was wide and easy to walk, very unlike the section further down, around Mt Shoto, where it gets really narrow and tricky.

An enjoyable hike in the late spring

Eventually I reached another pass, Kazuma Pass, with benches and a viewpoint to the South. This was the point I had left the ridge on my previous hike down from Mt Mito, so from now on it was new territory. The weather had turned definitely cloudy, not a big problem in the pleasant June temperature. It was past one, so I sat down for the second part of my lunch.

The long ridge leading to the top of Mt Gongen

Another hour of hiking brought me to the top of Mt Maruyama 丸山 – no view unfortunately. I didn’t linger, and the path which had been fairly level up to now, started to descend. Oddly enough, English translations on the signposts appeared around here – I guess I was officially in Tokyo territory. I emerged at Asama Pass, and joined up with the “Kanto Fureai no Michi” about one hour later. I had been here when I climbed Mt Shoto. I had now officially hiked the entire ridge from Mt Mito to Mt Takao.

The sun made it through the clouds from time to time

From here, I turned left and started to head down to the Akigawa river valley and the bus stop for Musashi-Itsukaichi Station. I was one hundred meters from the stop and five minutes before the bus was scheduled to arrive, when it suddenly careened around a corner at top speed! I ran desperately after it waving my hand, but once I reached the bus stop, I wasn’t allowed to board! It turned out that it was a “zouhatsu” 増発 or extra bus which runs in the high season. Another, half empty, bus came along a few seconds later – I guess the Nishitokyo bus company likes its passengers to travel comfortably!

Off-the-beaten-track: Saihara Village