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

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 Hinata (1660m) & Ojira River Valley, Hokuto City, Yamanashi Prefecture, Tuesday, November 23, 2021

This is a mountain that I’ve wanted to climb since I saw it from the top of Mt Amagoi last year; although it’s quite a bit lower, its white summit caught my eye. I found out that by taking a bus from Nirasaki sation on the Chuo line, I could get quite close to the start of the hiking trail and could use the same bus for the return. The trail seemed straightforward: up and down the same way, without any steep sections. The weather was supposed to be sunny but cold. If I had enough time, I would also try to visit the nearby Ojiragawa ravine. Although the autumn colours would be past their peak, I was looking forward to doing a new hike in the Minami Alps.

The white rocks of Mt Hinata

Mt Amagoi, climbed in June 2020

After a comfortable ride on the Chuo line limited express, I arrived at Nirasaki station around 8h30. I was the sole passenger on the bus and got off at the Hakushu roadside station (白州道の駅) a little before 9h30. I walked along a straight road heading towards the Minami Alps at a right angle, and noticed that snow had fallen on the highest peaks. I finally reached the start of the hiking trail around 10h30.

Some autumn leaves could still be seen at the start of the trail

The trees near the upper part of the trail were completely bare

Most of the leaves had already fallen and the path was a patchwork of colors. The lower part of the trail had many intersections but the way to the top was always clearly signposted; the higher part zigged-zagged up the mountain side through a forest of bare larch trees. At noon, I had a view of Mt Fuji to the east through the bare branches. Although it was a sunny day, the wind felt bitterly cold, and I took a short break to add a layer of clothing.

Mt Yatsugatake with the first snow of the season

A beautiful but cold day

At 12h30, I reached a level section within the forest. At the edge of the trees on the west side, I found the summit marker for Mt Hinata (日向山 ひなたやま hinata-yama meaning facing the sun), a Yamanashi 100 famous mountain. Directly ahead I could see the long ridge leading to the summit of Mt Amagoi. North was the extensive bulk of Yatsugatake with a fresh layer of snow, its highest peaks hidden in the clouds. Walking south along the sandy summit, I could admire the dramatic rocky peak of Mt Kaikoma, popping in and out of the clouds.

Mt Kaikoma, one of the highest peaks of the South Alps

The summit has a good view of Mt Fuji

I walked as far as I dared along the ridge before turning back. On the east side, I could see the elongated profile of Mt Hou, as well as Mt Fuji in its winter cap. The sandy summit was buffeted by strong gusts of icy wind forcing me to retreat into the cover of the trees. After a quick lunch, I started to head down at 1h30. It soon felt much warmer and I could remove a layer of clothing. I walked down the same way and reached the base of the mountain before 3pm.

The pool at the base of Jinja waterfall

The beautiful green waters of Ojiragawa river

It was still early so I had time to quickly check out Ojiragawa Keikoku (尾白川渓谷 ojiragawa-keikoku). I went to Jinja waterfall (神蛇滝) and back. I was impressed by the green colour of the pool at its base. The trail continued further up the valley, and I hope one day to hike it in its entirety. On the way back to the bus stop, I dropped by Ojira no yu hot spring at 4pm for a quick hot bath. Once bacl at Nirasaki station, I boarded the limited express for the two-hour trip back to Tokyo.

See the sands of Mt Hinata and the turbulent waters of the Ojira river

Mt Tetemiezu (1047m) & Mt Okubo (980m), Kanna Town, Gunma Prefecture, Saturday, November 20, 2021

I had climbed this remote mountain four years ago but had missed the main viewpoint, slightly off the main trail; the weather hadn’t been at its best either. I decided to give it another try, but this time from the Gunma side, so that I could go up and down via a different route. If I had enough time, I would make a roundtrip to the next peak along the ridgeline. I knew how to get there since I had visited the area twice before this year; however it would be the first time to ride the pass so far down the Kanna river valley. It was supposed to be a sunny day, usual for this time of the year. I hoped to enjoy a peaceful walk along the border of Saitama and Gunma, and perhaps catch the last of the autumn leaves.

View of Mt Ryokami under the dark clouds

I arrived at Shinmachi station before 8h30 and boarded a comfortable minibus bound for Ueno village, about 3 hours away. I got off at a bus stop just past Manba Village, after a nearly two-hour picturesque ride up a remote river valley. The weather had been sunny up to this point, but as I crossed the Kanna river, the sun disappeared behind some clouds and didn’t reappear fully till the late afternoon. I soon reached the trail entrance, covered by a blanket of fallen yellow leaves.

Most of the autumn leaves had already fallen

The trail presented no particular difficulties

I had occasional glimpses of the valley below through the trees, now bare of leaves, as I followed the path up the mountain side. I encountered several forks but the hiking trail was always clearly signposted. It took about an hour to reach Sakamaru Pass (坂丸峠 858m). There, I turned left along a level path through tall cedar trees, below the ridgeline on the Saitama side, looking familiar from my previous hike on this mountain. After a short, steep climb I reached Nagakubo Head (長久保の頭 ながくぼのあたま nagakubo-atama).

Left back, Mt Jomine, right front, Mt Okubo

Soon arriving at Sugi pass

Even though, at 1066m, it was the highest point of the hike, it wasn’t today’s summit. At first glance, it seemed totally surrounded by pine trees, but this time I was able to find a viewpoint of Chichibu above a deforested area on the south side. Since it was past noon, I found a tree stump and sat down for lunch. The clouds were in and the views weren’t as great as I had expected. South, I could see the triangular summit of Mt Buko; looking west, I spotted the flatter triangular peak of Mt Jomine. After lunch, I walked along the edge of the open area, and turning around, I saw the double rounded peaks of nearby Mt Mikabo, with some blue sky in the background.

Gazing at Chichibu past the Suzuki

The narrow ridge leading to Mt Okubo

It started to feel cold so I retraced my steps and continued my hike. I saw a handful of other hikers, as opposed to no one on my previous visit, and I was glad this mountain enjoyed some popularity. Ten minutes later, after a short up and down, I reached the summit of Mt Tetemiezu (父不見山 ててみえずやま tetemiezu-yama), a Kanto and Gunma hundred famous mountain. Slightly lower than the other peak, it had no view at all. Since I wanted to avoid cooling down, I moved on without a break. After some descending, I arrived at a crossroads under a lone cedar tree, aptly named Sugi Pass (杉の峠 sugi-no-toge meaning cedar tree pass). On my previous trip I had gone down via the path on the right; this time I would need to go left.

Mt Ryokami, a Japan hundred famous mountain

Some sun near the summit of Mt Okubo

Since it was only 1h30, I had time for the one hour round-trip to the next peak. It wasn’t an official trail, just red strips attached to branches along the way, and so it required some path finding. After turning slightly left down a slope through dark forest, I found myself climbing a narrow rocky ridge. It was definitely the most exciting part of the hike. Fifteen minutes later I reached the top of another deforested area and the summit of Mt Okubo (大久保山(おおくぼやま ookubo-yama), where I had my best views of the day, as well as some sun. To the south, I could see jagged outline of Mt Ryokami, looking menacing under dark clouds.

The view from the summit of Mt Okubo

Some autumn leaves could still be seen

After a short break, I headed back the same way and reached Sugi pass a little after 2h30. I followed a gently sloping forest road for about an hour, and then a road for about ten minutes, and arrived at a bus stop on the same road I had used in the morning, just as the sun dipped below the mountain ridge. After getting on the bus, I deciced to get off halfway to take a quick hot bath at Sakurayama hot spring, which I had visited once before after hiking Mt Sakura. I finally arrived back at Shinmachi station at 6h30pm, where I boarded the shonan-shinjuku line for the two-hour ride back to Tokyo.

See the views on the border of Saitama and Gunma

The double-rounded top of Mt Mikabo

Mt Mino (587m), Chichibu City, Saitama Prefecture, Thursday, November 11, 2021 [Monkeys]

I had already climbed this mountain a few years ago, but I wanted to return on a crisp autumn day hoping to get better views. I also wanted to explore the park covering the mostly flat summit area. Finally, I was looking forward to catching the last autumn leaves of the season. Although this mountain is easily accessible by train, I decided to go by car as it would allow me to visit another sightseeing spot on the same day.

View from the one of the summit observation platforms

It was a perfect autumn day as I rode the Laview limited express to Chichibu station, where I switched to a rented car. It was a short drive to the parking lot below Minoyama Park, and an even shorter stroll to the highest point of Mt Mino (蓑山 みのやま minoyama). It’s also known as “Utsukushi no Yama” (美の山) meaning “beautiful mountain”, perhaps referring to its round, regular shape, or perhaps to the springtime views, when the many cherry trees are in full bloom.

The hills of Eastern Chichibu

The broken summit of Mt Ryokami

I checked out the view from each of the 3 observation platforms facing south-west, west and east. West, I could see the wide Chichibu valley surrounded by the Oku-Chichibu mountains and flanked by the triangular summit of Mt Buko on the left, and the jagged top of Mt Ryokami on the right. East, I could see the low mountains of Higashi-Chichibu with Chichibu Highland Farm directly opposite, and in the distance, Mt Akagi and Mt Nantai.

Walking through Minoyama Park

A beautiful day at the end of the autumn season

It took less than an hour of easy hiking to complete the loop of Minoyama Park. Along the way, I came across another observation deck on the north side with a good view of Mt Happu, as well as a maple tree with fiery red autumn leaves. At 12h30, I was back at the parking lot. I drove the winding road down to the bottom of the valley and dropped by Miyabi An (みやび庵) for a tasty soba lunch. Next, I decided to check out the nearby Urayama dam (浦山ダム) and Chichibusakura lake.

Chichibusakura lake from Urayama Dam

View of Mt Jomine from Urayama Dam

I spotted movement in the trees next to the road after getting out of the car at the dam parking. Peering into the forest I saw a troupe of Japanese macaques foraging for food. I was excited to see monkeys not having encountered any for a long time and spent some time observing them (see video). After a quick tour of the dam, I drove back a short way to Jurin’s Geo coffee shop for a quick break around 3pm, before heading back to Chichibu station and the eighty-minute ride by limited express train back to Tokyo.

See the views from Mt Mino and the monkeys of Chichibu

This is the 200th blog post on Hiking Around Tokyo

Mt Tana (1171m), Yamanashi City, Yamanashi Prefecture, Saturday, 6 November, 2021

I wanted to do one last hiking trip in the low mountainous area between Yamanashi and Kofu cities before the end of the year. Looking through my guidebook, I found a suitable loop hike with Mt Fuji views. I could reach the start of the trail by taxi from Yamanashi station and then walk back at the end. I was worried about getting a seat on the train so I decided to reserve it beforehand online. The clear sunny weather was supposed to continue for a few more days and the autumn colours would still be at their peak. I was looking forward to a pleasant hike above the Kofu valley.

View from the summit of Mt Tana

Late afternoon above the Kofu valley

After an uneventful ride on the Chuo limited express under sunny blue skies, I caught a taxi outside Yamanashi-shi station at 10am. Fifteen minutes later, I was standing outside Hottarakashi onsen, a hot spring featured in the manga Yuru Camp. Since today’s hike was on the short side, I took a few minutes to check it out. I discovered that there were two outdoor baths, each with its own entrance: a small one facing Mt Fuji and a large one facing the Kofu valley. From a viewing area next to the bath entrance, I got a glimpse of Japan’s most famous mountain in its brand new winter coat.

View from Hottarakashi hot spring

Mt Fuji in its winter coat

At 10h30, I finally set off along a level forest road passing above the Hottarakashi Camping Ground. The surrounding forest had been cut down so I had some good views south of the Misaka mountains surrounding Mt Fuji, now in the clouds. Half an hour later, I reached the official entrance of the trail through bright yellow “suzuki” grass dancing in the wind. A few minutes later I was walking up the mountain side through dark forest and soon reached a fork: left was the “kasane-ishi” trail (重ね石コース meaning rock pile trail) and right was the “yama-no-kami” trail (山の神コース meaning mountain god trail), both leading to the summit.

The Mikasa mountains

Entrance to the trail through Japanese pampas grass

I took the left branch and made my way up a steep slope, assisted by ropes tied between the trees. At times the path disappeared under a carpet of leaves, so I was glad for the ropes showing the way even, though I didn’t always need to use them. It was the tail end of the autumn leaves season and from time to time the wind blew through the trees, causing dead leaves to tumble gently to the ground. I eventually arrived at “kasane-ishi” marked by a large boulder. From there, the path became less steep and followed a ridge sprinkled with rocks of various sizes. This rocky section was easier to navigate than the one on nearby Mt Kabuto and the ropes clearly showed the way.

Despite the rocks, the path was easy to follow

It was the perfect time for autumn leaves

After another steep section, I reached the nearly flat summit ridge and at 12h15 I was standing on the highest point of Mt Tana (棚山 たなやま tana-yama), meaning shelf mountain, probably referring to its elongated, horizontal summit. Looking west, I could see the South Alps already covered in snow: looking east, I had a view of the massive bulk of Daibosatsurei and the ridgeline stretching south; the other directions were blocked by trees. I was the only person there and, in-between gusts of wind, it was very peaceful. After a leisurely one-hour lunch in the sun, I walked back a few meters to the junction with the mountain god trail.

Walking the summit ridge

The long ridge stretching south from Daibosatsurei

The path leading down was even steeper than the one up and I was glad that I had followed the guidebook’s recommendation to go up the other half. Fortunately, I could count on the ropes to steady myself. Half an hour later, I reached the bottom of a gloomy valley and soon after I was back at the trail junction from where I would follow the same route back. At 2pm, I was back under the sun walking along the forest road, the views in the afternoon sun somewhat different from the morning, although Mt Fuji was still nowhere to be seen.

Looking north towards the Chichibu-Tama-Kai national park

Dusk on Mt Tana (right)

I was surprised to see no other hikers on the mountain since it was an easy hike near a popular camping site. At 2h30, I was back at the Hottakarashi hot spring. It seemed crowded so I continued down the road to the less busy Puku Puku Onsen. Although I couldn’t see Mt Fuji, I had a great view of the mountains lining the eastern half of the Kofu valley from the outdoor bath. At 4pm, I walked down through Fuefukigawa Fruit Farm and arrived at Yamanashi-shi station just before 5pm. Since I had bought my ticket online after my hot spring bath, I just had to board the next limited express for the ninety minute ride back to Tokyo.

See the falling leaves on Mt Tana

Mt Gassan (1287m), Nikko City, Tochigi prefecture, Saturday, October 30, 2021

I thought I should really do one more hike from the Aizu-Kinugawa train line before it got too cold and started to snow. Looking through my guidebook, I found a mountain I could reach by taking a bus from Kinugawa-Onsen and along a river valley hidden behind the sprawling mass of Mt Nyoho. Although it was a short hike and required some road walking to get to the start of the trail and back, I had never been to that area nor ridden that bus line before. I was worried about missing the last bus back, since it would be a long walk to the station. I also wondered whether the autumn leaves would finally be at their peak, since it had been so cold a week earlier. On the other hand, the weather was supposed to be a perfect with warmer temperatures and almost no wind. I was looking forward to getting some new views and seeing the first autumn colours of the season.

Autumn colours at the Kuriyama dam lake

Mt Gassan in the late afternoon sun

It was a beautiful autumn day as I rode the comfortable Nikko line to Shimo-Imaichi station, where I transferred to the local train for the short trip to Kinugawa-Onsen. I hadn’t been there for nearly ten years and I soaked up the atmosphere of this popular hot spring resort while waiting for my bus to leave. It was an exciting ride following the Kinugawa river valley and past Kawaji dam. Although today’s mountain was only six kilometers away, the bus traveled three times that distance as the road curved around to the back of the mountain.

View from the road leading to the entrance of the hiking trail

A perfect day for hiking

I got off the bus just past 11am and quickly set off up a small road through the forest and alongside a river. I soon reached a deforested area and after a series of switchbacks, I had my first views. I was stunned by the reds and oranges covering the mountain side directly opposite. Looking west, I could see what I thought was Kinu-Numa Swamp at the end of the river valley. I soon passed a cow barn with a bright red roof surrounded by pastures, both deserted at this time of the year. Looking up, I could see see see thin white strips of clouds spreading across the blue sky.

A cow barn belonging to Hikage Farm

Mt Nyoho, one of the Oku-Nikko mountains

Around 12h30, I reached a flat area with a view to the south and some more pastures: this was Hikage Farm (日蔭牧場 hikage-bokujo), just below Mt Meoto (夫婦山). It was a short and easy climb up this mountain, but it would have to be for another time, since I was on a tight schedule. On the west side, I could see the long ridge leading from Kirifuri Highland to the summit of Mt Nyoho. The road sloped down, and looking east through the trees , I could see the fiery red summit of today’s mountain. A few minutes later, I reached the start of Meoto Tunnel (夫婦トンネル).

Mt Meoto in its autumn coat

First view of Kuriyama Dam lake

It was a spooky five minute walk through this tunnel, fortunately closed to traffic (see video). I emerged back into the sunlight at the base of Kuriyama dam and I could now see the full shape of Mt Nyoho. I had never seen it from this direction before, and I was impressed by its massive size; it truly belongs to the 100 famous mountains of Japan. I continued along the level road and reached the start of the hiking trail at exactly one pm. I took a short break and then started up the narrow ridgeline path.

A narrow ridge path through bamboo grass

Mt Takahara and Hunter Mountain Ski Resort

After twenty minutes, I already had some excellent views of Mt Meoto, the colour of rust, and the blue Kuriyama Dam lake. I continued to climb through beautiful forest enclosed on three sides by the Nikko National Park. Ten minutes later, I reached the top ridge. I had a superb view of Mt Takahara directly west, through a break in the trees; I could make out patches of light green that would become the ski runs of Hunter Mountain in the winter. To the north, in the midst of a multitude of mountains, I spotted the elegant, subdued shape of Mt Shibakusa. Soon after, I reached the highest point of Mt Gassan (月山 がっさん meaning “Mt Moon”), a Tochigi hundred famous mountain.

Imaichi lake and the Kanto plain

Walking down to Kuriyama Dam Lake

Famous for its azalea flowers in the spring, all it offered now were bare branches hiding the view. However, just a few meters further, I reached the top of a small rocky area and a wide panorama. Stretching away towards the west were the low mountains of southern Tochigi. A vermillion ridge ended at Imachi dam and lake at the head of a green-brown valley leading into the Kanto plain. It was nearly 2pm so I sat down for a late lunch under the warm autumn sunshine. Although it was possible to descend the rocky area towards the lake, it wasn’t part of today’s route.

A peaceful walk along the shoreline

Sun setting on Mt Nyoho

Around 2h30, I made my way back along the top ridge and took the right path at a fork, heading north and down towards Kuriyama lake. At times the path was hard to follow because of the bamboo grass, but fortunately I could rely on the pink ribbons on the branches. I had glimpses of the lake through the trees, the surrounding forest bright yellow under the afternoon sun. I arrived at the peaceful lake shore thirty minutes later. Since I had a bus to catch, I quickened my pace and soon reached the road leading to the base of the dam, from where I made my way back through the tunnel and up to hikage farm.

Late afternoon at Hikage Farm

Same views but different lighting

It was past 3h30 and the sun was setting just above the highest point of Mt Nyoho. I walked down the road, now in the shade, the views of this morning looking different in the late afternoon sun. I reached the bus stop with a few minutes to spare. After a 45 minute ride, I got off at Kinugawa-Koen station around 5pm, one stop before Kinugawa-onsen, so that I could take a quick hot spring bath at Iwaburo (meaning “rock bath”). After a pleasant soak in the outdoor bath, I caught the local train for Shimo-Imaichi station, where I boarded the limited express “Kegon” for the ninety minute ride back to Tokyo.

See the red and orange colours of Mt Gassan

Mt Kabuto (913m), Fuefuki City, Yamanashi Prefecture, October 10, 2021

I had done many hikes in Yamanashi, but I had never been to the hills between Yamanashi and Kofu cities. My hiking guide had two suggestions for that area, but, after studying my map, I ended up choosing another mountain in-between, because it was shorter and easier to access. I would take a taxi from Yamanashi-shi station to the start of the trail, and after a loop hike, return on foot via a road to a hot spring, and Kasugaicho station on the local Chuo line. Although the trail went through a rocky area, it didn’t seem to present any major difficulties. I was more concerned about spiders and their webs blocking the way, a recurring headache when hiking under 1000 meters in September and October. The weather was supposed to be cloudy at first with sun in the afternoon, and since there was a viewpoint near the top, I hoped I could get to see the mountains of Yamanashi as well as Mt Fuji.

View south from the rocky area

The weather was gloomy and cloudy as I rode the limited express out of Shinjuku. It didn’t seem like I would get any views today, as white mist spilled out of the valleys on both sides of the Chuo line. I asked the taxi driver to drop me off at “Nageshi Somen“, close to the start of the trail, and less than ten minutes away. As I got ready for the hike, I felt that despite the overcast weather, I was lucky that the temperature felt just right for hiking.

Statue near my taxi drop-off point

An easy to walk path at the start of the hike

After walking along a dirt road for twenty minutes, I arrived at a fireworks store and the start of the hiking trail. I was soon walking on a flat wide path through pleasant forest next to a small river. It took another 20 minutes to reach the start of the “rocky area” trail (岩場コース iwaba-kosu). After a short climb up the side of the mountain, I reached the the rocks and cliffs on the east side of the mountain. I took a break to observe some people practice their rock climbing skills on a huge boulder (see video).

Cairn along the first part of the “rocky area” trail

Walking between the rocks on the east side of the mountain

I reached the first viewpoint of the day as the noon chime echoed through the wide valley below. Directly below, I could see the Kasugai golf course and, on the other side of the valley, the foothills of the Misaka mountains, their peaks lost in the low clouds. I was now halfway up the “rocky area” course and I had fun scrambling between and over rocks of various sizes, using fixed chains to pull myself up when necessary. I could also relax since there were no webs spun across this section of the trail.

Kasugai golf course and the Misaka mountains

My lunch view – somewhere to the right is Mt Fuji

I soon reached a gently sloping ridgeline, and by 12h30 I was standing on top of Mt Kabuto (兜山 kabuto-yama), meaning helmet mountain because of its rounded shape. The summit, a hundred famous mountain of Yamanashi, was completely in the trees, but after walking south along a short path, I arrived at a bench with a view through a break in the trees, a good place for lunch. The weather hadn’t really improved, and although I was supposed to be able to see Mt Fuji, just 30 kilometers away behind Mt Oni and Mt Settou, all I could make out was a white wall. After lunch, I made my way back to the summit and followed the trail west through the forest.

A rocky narrow ridge near the highest point of the hike

View on the way down at the edge of a deforested area

I walked along a rock strewn ridge, slowly rising to an altitude above 1000 meters, the back of the helmet perhaps; for the first time this season, the air felt chilly. The path then suddenly dropped down the back of the “helmet”, and as the temperature went back to comfortable, I had to start dodging spiderwebs again. Luckily for me, each time I stepped into one, its maker was on the higher half, just above the top of my cap. I turned left into a valley and was now walking through the beautiful “Kabuto-yama no Mori” (the Mt Kabuto forest). I was the only hiker around and I was constantly spooked by falling acorns. At 2pm, I reached a forest road between a deforested area and Umezawa river, the same one I had followed earlier in the day.

Looking back at Mt Kabuto

View from the road between the golf course and the vineyards

I walked at a leisurely pace to the parking lot near the start of the “rocky area” trail, completing the loop. I then continued on a paved road, with the river below on the left and a golf course on my right. Looking back, I could see the helmet-shaped summit of Mt Kabuto. Ahead, I had a bird’s eye view of Kofu valley. The weather was finally improving and patches of blue sky were visible above. After a steep descent through some vineyards, I arrived at the Iwashita hot spring inside a building dating from 1888. It was just past 3pm, so I had time for a quick dip, before walking to the nearby train station. I rode one stop and switched to the limited express for the eighty minute ride back to Shinjuku.

Hiking over “Helmet mountain”

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 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!