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

Hiking in the Togakushi Highlands 戸隠高原

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

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

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

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

Below: Easy and fun hiking along the crater rim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early winter snow on the way down

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The name Kurohime translates into English as “Black Princess”

NEXT UP: Mt Minobu (Yamanashi)

Mt Kushigata (2052m), Minami Alps, Yamanashi Prefecture, Saturday, June 22, 2019

After my foray into the very southern part of the Southern Alps the previous weekend, I decided to go back and do one of the few higher mountains in the Minami Alps that can be done as a day trip from Tokyo. I had been wanting to climb this one for a while but since it requires a car, I kept putting it off (it can be done via public transport but you’d have to stay the night before in the area). The weather wasn’t perfect but I decided to risk it anyway, and I was glad I had!

It was my first time experiencing the new “all seats reserved” Chuo line, and overall, I felt that it was an improvement over the previous system. At least I was guaranteed a seat, which is essential when traveling all the way out to Kofu, where I had reserved a shared car. The trip up to the parking lot at Ikenochaya 池の茶屋 (1860m) was mostly uneventful – the road was pretty bad in some parts, but I had seen worse. I snagged the second to last parking spot. Under a thick cover of clouds, and the odd drop of rain, I was ready to set out at 11h15.

Super easy hiking for the first thirty minutes

The first part of the hike was incredibly easy to hike – a gently sloped series of switchbacks leading to a viewpoint of Mt Kitadake which was unfortunately entirely in the clouds. Rain was falling intermittently, but I didn’t mind since the surrounding vegetation, mostly ferns, was a very beautiful shade of light green. Soon the path started to descend via a series of log staircases. The amount of descent started to alarm me – I should be going up a mountain not down – but my guidebook and the numerous signposts reassured me that I was on the right trail.

Looking back up this long log staircase

The path soon bottomed out and I was rising again, gently, through beautiful typical Southern Alps forest scenery. At this point I got a bit confused. I pride myself on my sense of direction, but here I will admit I lost track a bit. The path did what I thought was a loop, yet I never crossed my previous path. Eventually I arrived at a flattish area with a wooden walkway, and white flowers that ressembed sakura, but which were in fact oxalis.

An unexpected flower observation section on the hike

Apparently the area is famous for its irises, but they weren’t in bloom yet. In no time, I reached the top of Mt Hadaka (meaning Mt Naked). I was supposed to see the main peaks of the Southern Alps and Mt Fuji but in reality I saw nothing. However the temperature was pleasant, even a little cool, and there was no wind, so I settled down for some lunch.

At first sight I thought these were some really late blooming mountain sakura

The next section was through amazingly beautiful forest, full of massive camphor trees and moss-covered undergrowth. At one point I spotted a solitary juvenile Kamoshika (Japanese serow), passively munching some grass (see video). I arrived at the top of Mt Kushigata 櫛形, a two-hundred famous mountain, a little after 2h30, where there was a relatively new summit marker, a few meters from the old weather-worn one. The clouds were still in, so no view, but it was very peaceful and quiet. I had not seen anybody in the past hour and a half.

Most of the hike scenery and trail was like this

I set off for the final part of the hike back to the parking area. The mist had rolled in, providing some very nice photo opportunities. At the car park, my car was the only one left – time to head back! Heading down the mountain, the sun broke few in a few places, I was able to get some nice views of the valley below. Instead of taking the train directly back to Tokyo, I got off at Isawa Onsen, less than ten minutes away. It’s a great place to have a hot spring bath, and I got to taste some Yamanashi wines at the wine server in the tourist office below the train station – a great way to finish a Yamanashi hike!

Tree in the mist number 1

Tree in the mist number 2

Have you ever seen a Kamoshika while hiking?

Mt Kenashi (1964m), Mt Ama (1771m), Fujinomiya City, Shizuoka Prefecture

Mt Kenashi is a famous mountain but not part of the original one hundred. It is part of the famous two hundred mountains, which isn’t too shabby considering that there are thousands of mountains in Japan. It sits opposite Mt Fuji and thus has some excellent viewpoints of Japan’s most famous volcano. Consequently, there are quite a few people climbing this mountain.

Hiking in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park

富士箱根伊豆国立公園

HOW TO GET THERE: The biggest drawback is that this mountain is tough to get to from Tokyo. You will need to shell out 5000 yen to take the Shinkansen from Tokyo station to Shinfuji station in Shizuoka (about an hour), and then put down another 1300 yen for the bus to the Asagiri Green Park entrance (also about an hour). To take your mind of all this spent money, there are great views of Mt Fuji along the way.

Fortunately the way back is slightly cheaper. At the end of the hike you can catch the same bus taken in the morning and get off in Kawaguchiko. From there, you have a choice between a local train or the limited express back to Shinjuku. The latter is more expensive and only runs a few times a day. Alternatively, you can take a bus to Shinjuku station for less than 2000 yen. However if you are going back on a weekend, beware of traffic jams. You could also take this way to go there but you would end up at the start of the hike half an hour later, and to trains heading out to the Mt Fuji can be packed (less so so on the way back).

Ask for a hiking plan for Mt Kenashi

THE ROUTE: Once again I was the only person to get off the bus; it seems that most people come here by car. I had to walk along a flat road for about half an hour to reach the base of the mountain and the start of the hiking trail. The view of Mt Kenashi towering above me was impressive; I wondered if I really was going to be able to manage this long and steep 1000+ meter climb. On the way I passed a wide and grassy camp site on my right with some excellent views of Mt Fuji. I definitely want to camp here some time in the future.

At the end of the long asphalt road I turned left following the signs for Mt Kenashi. Eventually I entered the forest, passed numerous parked cars, and started climbing along a rock path. There were two main paths up Mt Kenashi. I chose the shorter one so that I would have enough time to take the long ridge route down. The path was divided into 10 stations each marked with a sign, similar to the Mt Fuji stations. I passed quite a few people going up and down the mountain. The weather was sunny and not too cold for a November day, although judging from the absence of leaves higher up, it seemed that autumn was already finished on this mountain.

Mt Kenashi with the camp site at its base

As expected the climb was seemingly endless. Similar to when I was climbing Mt Takanosuya in the mist, the top ridge always seemed to be out of reach, always just beyond my level of vision. Every time the path became level, and I thought I was finally there, it would surprise me by rising steeply again. I was slowly getting higher than the rest of the ridgeline, and it felt like I was ascending some kind of spire.

At last I reached a small rocky outcrop, marked as a viewpoint of Mt Fuji. I decided to have an early lunch there, not because I was especially hungry, but because the view was fabulous; there was a comfortable unoccupied sitting spot, and there was no guarantee of something similar at the summit. However I only got past my first sandwich when I was forced to flee because of a group of hikers that talked loudly behind me while taking photos of the view.

Pine tree forest at the base of Mt Kenashi

From this point I reached the top ridge quite quickly. I overtook a lady hiker for the second time, who couldn’t figure it out how that was possible (she hadn’t seen me taking my lunch break on the rocky outcrop earlier on). From there, on it was an easy stroll to the summit of Mt Kenashi (毛無山 kenashiyama – means hairless mountain). Interestingly, just by stepping onto the ridge, the temperature dropped to near freezing. At nearly 2000m, winter had arrived.

As expected, there were plenty of people at the summit. I still managed to find a decent spot to sit down and finish my lunch. Unfortunately, the view of Mt Fuji wasn’t as good from here. However, before I could tuck in, a friendly hiker told me (in good English) that if I continued ten more minutes along the ridge line, I would reach a much better spot for lunch with a 360 view, including Mt Fuji and the Southern Alps. That seemed like a very attractive proposition, so after having him take the obligatory photo of me and the summit marker, I set off for this perfect lunch spot.

The first view of Mt Fuji before the summit

Sadly, I never found it, and one hour later I reached the next summit, Mt Ama (雨ヶ岳 amagadake), the last viewpoint before going down the mountain, and last chance for a (late) lunch. I was lucky I had eaten something before reaching the top, since I wasn’t able to find any good sitting spots with a view along the ridge. Even when I had a 360 degree view, the bamboo grass on either side was just too high to sit down comfortably. I guess the other hiker had walked the ridge in other seasons when the grass hadn’t been so high. The ridge was a mix of cold and shady forested sections, and warm and sunny  grassy sections. The views of Mt Fuji were the best I had ever seen since the sun was behind me; I could make out all the details of the snowy rocky summit area. There were also far less people walking the ridge, since most people, having come by car, had  to go up and down Mt Kenashi the same way.

I found a rectangular block of stone perfect for sitting. moved it into the sun and sat down to enjoy the rest of my lunch while examining Mt Fuji. However, I couldn’t stay too long however since I had a bus to catch. Soon I could see lake Motosuko on my left but too many branches in the way meant that I couldn’t get a good picture.  Oddly enough I had the same kind of experience going down as when going up. Three times I thought I had reached the lowest point between 2 peaks only to discover that the path dipped further down.

Picture perfect view of Mt Fuji along the ridge

Finally I reached the flat part between two peaks and at another viewpoint of Mt Fuji, I saw the escape path for the bus stop leading down to the right. Here I met a male hiker on his way up. He told me that he was going to camp at the top of the mountain so that he could see the sun rising above the summit crater of Mt Fuji the next day, also called Diamond Fuji. It’s something I have never been able to see, but at the same time I don’t think I want to put in some much effort.

After a short while I reached a junction for the Tokai Nature trail. I had to jog along the last flat portion of the way, and I finally reached the bus stop with less than five minutes to spare. The bus back was empty at first but filled up quickly at the next stop. Despite that it was an enjoyable ride since you could see Mt Fuji from time to time.

CONCLUSION: A difficult but rewarding hike with fantastic views up a famous mountain that will see the crowds melt away during the second part.

Ask for a hiking plan for Mt Kenashi

View to the South