Mt Hinata (404m) & Mt Mijo (237m), Isehara & Atsugi Cities, Kanagawa Prefecture

There is a section of the Kanto Fureai no Michi that passes by Mt Oyama. It doesn’t go all the way to the summit, but goes past the top of the cable car halfway up the mountain. I had hiked the section on the Southern side a few years ago, and I had always wanted to return and hike the Northern section. It continues to Nanasawa onsen 七沢温泉 which seemed like a good place to finish. Mt Oyama, a 300 famous mountain, is a popular hiking spot close to Tokyo, but since I went on a weekday there were relatively few people.

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View halfway up Mt Oyama from Afuri Jinja Shrine 

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Viewpoint of Mt Oyama and mostly empty benches

I took the Odakyu Romancecar to Isehara, where I transferred to one of the frequent buses for the Oyama Cable car. For once, the bus was nearly full. Since it was a short hike, I left later than usual, and got there around 11am. It had been a few years since my last visit, and I had forgotten that it was a twenty minute-walk up the Koma Sando コマ参道 shopping street to the cable car station. Since the next one was leaving at 11h20, I flew up the flights of steps, past the shops selling spinning tops, and hopped on to the green cable car just before they closed the doors.

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Cable car up Mt Oyama

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View from the top of the cable car

After getting off, I decided to walk up the steps to Afuri-Jinja Shrine 阿夫利神社 to check out the view. It was a bit hazy in the late morning but I could just make out the boso peninsula in the far distance. The path up Mt Oyama is behind the shrine, but the Fureai no Michi trail is at the base of the steps, so I headed back down, and it was around noon when I finally started hiking. The first part was mostly flat, hugging the side of the mountain. The surrounding trees were very beautiful, and I saw a giant cedar tree soaring up into the sky next to a tiny shrine.

A couple of impressive trees along the trail

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Few people hiking on a weekday

Half an hour later, I reached a viewpoint with a dozen benches, to accommodate the weekend crowds. I could see the triangular summit of Mt Oyama, as well as the urban spread to the North. After a short break, I set off for Hinata-Yakushi Temple 日向薬師寺, in the opposite direction of the trail for Mt Oyama, heading down the mountain. Some workers were doing maintenance on the trail, due to be completed today according to a sign I saw lower down. I had some good views Southwards of the Izu peninsula. Past a rather large jizo statue, which I first mistook for a person, the path turned sharply off the ridge and went downhill via a series of switchbacks.

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View of the Izu Peninsula

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Jizo statue protecting the traveler

Around 1h30, I emerged onto a road, but I soon turned left onto a small trail to Johotsuganji Temple. At this point, I had left the Fureai no Michi. After about ten minutes, I arrived at a small cave at the base of a cliff. It contained some Buddhist statues, and from the croaks I was hearing, some frogs as well! The trail continued up the mountain, along a ridge crisscrossed with tree roots, making it a little difficult to follow. Before reaching the highest point, the path turned right and followed the side of the valley. Here the path showed signs of maintenance, and was much easier to follow. Around 2pm I reached an old bench, a good place for a break and a late lunch. There was no view, but the surrounding was very peaceful save for the chirping of birds. The path continued, along a level ridge extending northwards.

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The roots along this ridge made for tricky walking

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Easier level ridge after lunch

This was my favourite part of the hike. It felt very wild and isolated; it was hard to believe that I was less than 10km from Hon-Atsugi station. I was also surprised that I had never heard about it before; perhaps the locals wanted to keep it a secret. After some descending, and then a short climb via log steps, I reached the summit of Mt Hinata 日向山. Through a break in the trees, I could see the flat expanse of Tokyo. The weather which had been sunny and warm in the morning, was now overcast and windy. I continued along the trail downhill, and soon reached an intersection. I continued straight up the other side to the top of Mt Mijo 見城山, the site of an ancient castle. The view was much better here; below was Nanasawa onsen, and the forested hills separating it from Tokyo.

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A 120 year-old Ryokan in Nanasawa Onsen

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A rare but no longer functional rotary phone

Since the trail ended here, I retraced my steps to the intersection, only a few minutes away, and turned left down the mountain, following the sign for the intriguingly named Turtle Rock 亀岩 (in English on the sign). I spotted it, just before arriving at a road, a massive moss-covered boulder in the midst of the cedar forest beyond a small stream. I walked up the road for a few minutes to check out the Nanasawa Observatory. It was a worn-out structure with an unimpressive view, a curiosity from past times. However, I did get a glimpse of the first signs of spring on the branches of the nearby trees. I continued down the road, and just after 4pm, I arrived at Tamagawakan, a Ryokan more than 100 years old; it even had an old rotary public phone near the lobby. After a short hot spring bath, I caught the bus for Hon-Atsugi station from the nearby bus stop, and from there, I took the Romancecar for the short trip back to Tokyo.

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Mt Sakura (591m), Fujioka City, Gunma Prefecture, Saturday, February 29, 2020

Unlike my other hikes, this one took me up a mountain I hadn’t known existed till recently. I found out about it during my research on the Gunma Fureai no Michi trail. I saw it again the previous week, on the map of the Gunma-Fujioka area outside the station, and I noticed that a loop hike was possible using local trails. Since it wasn’t mentioned in my “Mountains of Gunma” guidebook, I found all the necessary information on the Fujioka City website.

Mountain panorama, less than 100km from Tokyo

Although today’s starting point was less than ten kilometers away from where I started last week, it was in a different valley, so I needed to take a different bus, from Honjo station, a few stops before Takasaki. The nearly empty bus took me to Onishi 鬼石, a charming little town in a valley encircled by mountains. The main street was lined with wooden lanterns, called “joyato”, a kind of nightlight, giving the town a traditional feel. I’d love to see the city in the nighttime.

View of Onishi Town in the morning

Same view but in the afternoon

I chose to go up via the Onishi Route. It took me thirty minutes along a small road to reach the start of the hiking trail. I wasn’t sure that I was in the right place because the signpost had fallen down, and was lying on the road about fifty meters away, an ominous sign. I decided to push ahead anyway. I was following a fairly new forest road as it wound up the mountain. There were no other signposts, but the general direction seemed to match my map.

Solar panels are everywhere in the Japanese countryside

Looking Southwards to Chichibu

At 11am, I emerged into a clearing that was covered with solar panels, the reason for the new forest road. To the West, I had a view of the Kanto plain, and to the East, I was able to spot my target mountain, still relatively far away. I still wasn’t 100% sure I was on the hiking trail. I continued on the forest road down the other side, and it was with relief that I finally spotted a hiking signpost. I now continued with a spring in my step, past more solar panels, and onto a level forest road following the side of the mountain through the forest. From this point, signs and signposts were a lot more frequent. I have mixed feelings about walking on forest roads. They are easy to walk, but since they are wide and mostly straight, you don’t have the constant changing scenery you get on the smaller trails.

Sunny section of the forest road

Less sunny section of the forest road

Just after noon, the trail intersected briefly with the road going to the top of the mountain, but then continued as a steep path next to an interesting wooden house. As I passed in front, the owner, a man in his sixties, came out. We started chatting, and he invited me into his home for some “ocha”. For once, I wasn’t behind schedule, and since I was curious about his house, I decided to accept. We had an interesting chat over tea and “dorayaki”. Finally, it was time to go. He offered to drive me to the park near the top of the mountain, since the last part was mainly on the road. It seemed like a good idea, and it allowed me to make up some time.

The area is famous for sakura in the spring, and autumn

The views are better when walking around the side

At 1pm, I was standing at the entrance of Sakurayama Park, famous for its winter cherry blossoms or “fuyuzakura”. Apparently, you can enjoy sakura twice a year. However, at the end of February, the buds were still firmly closed, and the park was almost deserted. I started up one of the staircases leading to the summit, and soon reached the top of Sakurayama 桜山. Unfortunately there was no summit marker and no view. I went down the other side, where there was a grassy space with benches and a good view – a great place for a late lunch. From right to left, I could see Mt Mikabo, one of the highest mountains in the area, Mt Jomine, at the edge of the Chichibu basin, and Onishi town.

The highest peak in the background is Mt Mikabo

Looking South to Saitama from Sakurayama

It was already past two o’clock, and time to continue my hike. Rather than walk back up, I followed a path around the mountain, hoping to get better views. By the time I was back at the entrance of the park, the sunny weather from the morning had turned cloudy. For the descent, I chose the Yashio Route, ending at Yashio Onsen 八塩温泉. It started out as a mostly level forest road, similar to the way up, but after half an hour, it turned into a nice little hiking trail through the woods. There were no other hikers, so it was very peaceful.

Nice hiking trail on the return

Walking between the cedar trees

After another thirty minutes, I reached a great viewpoint of the Kanto plain, just past a shrine to Benzaiten. By now, the visibility was a bit hazy, but it should be spectacular on a clear day. I continued down, and reached the end of the trail and the road after 4pm. I walked ten minutes to Sakurayama Onsen, where I had a quick hot spring bath, before catching the bus back to Shinmachi station and the train home.

On the right is Mt Mitake in Saitama, climbed several years ago

NEXT UP: Mt Sashiro in Ibaraki

Mt Byobu (948m) & Mt Sengen (804m), Hakone Town, Kanagawa Prefecture, Saturday, February 15, 2020

Hiking in the Hakone Mountains

My last visit to Hakone was in December 2014 when I hiked the mountains around Lake Ashi. The area is close to Tokyo, offers good hiking and sightseeing at the same time. However, like Mt Fuji and Nikko, it sits right on the tourist trail, so buses, and hot springs, are usually crowded. The recent, and unfortunate, drop in the number of tourists was a good chance to do some hiking there, as well as support the area. There was a hike in my “Mountains of Kanagawa” that I had been wanting to do for a while. However, it was a bit short (3 hours), so using my Hakone hiking map, I built a longer hike that would take me from Hakone Town on Lake Ashi, all the way down to Hakone-Yumoto station. There were few views, and no sun, so I wasn’t able to get many good pictures. Nevertheless it was a good ramble.

Shy Fuji on a grey day

I used the comfortable Romancecar from Shinjuku, but got off at Odawara, one stop before Hakone-Yumoto. Since most buses start from there, I thought I would have a better chance of getting a seat. To my surprise, the driver wouldn’t let me board till I told him my exact destination. I had memorised the kanji, but couldn’t recall how to say them, so I just said “Hakone”. The driver replied, in English, “Hakone is wide.” Suddenly the name popped into my head. “Sekisho-ato!” I blurted out; the driver acknowledged it as a valid bus stop, and I was finally allowed to board the completely empty bus.

Start of the trail among the bamboo bushes

The bus remained mostly empty, even after passing Hakone-Yumoto. I could see the usual line of sightseers at the bus stop, but for some mysterious reason they didn’t get on. The bus passed by the Yusaka trail 湯坂道, the starting point of the second part of today’s hike. As was established earlier, I got off at Sekisho-ato 関所跡, meaning “checkpoint ruins”, the start of the Hakone section of the Old Tokaido Road (more on that later), and popped into a nearby souvenir shop. On the other side, there was a view of Lake Ashi, with Mt Fuji partially hidden by Mt Mikuni.

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Steep climbing on Mt Byobu

At 10 o’clock I finally set off. I found the start of the trail indicated by a signpost near the bus stop. Very soon I reached some steps going straight up the mountain side. They were so steep that at one point it felt like a ladder would have been more appropriate. Thankfully it didn’t take long to reach the top of the ridge, after which it was pleasant stroll along a mostly level trail to the top of Mt Byobu 屛風山, part of the outer crater rim of Mt Hakone.

Walking through thick vegetation above Hakone Town

It was entirely surrounded by trees, so I didn’t linger, and followed the path down the other side. There were some glimpses of the surrounding mountains through the trees. Even though I was close to a major hot spring resort, I couldn’t see any buildings nor hear any noise. It felt like I was exploring a hidden valley. Less than thirty minutes later, I reached the Tokaido road, connecting Hakone-Yumoto with Hakone Town, and the Amazake-Chaya Teahouse. I decided to take a short break and have some of their famous non-alcoholic sweet sake with “chikara-mochi” meaning “power rice cake”. This was a welcome break, since I had forgotten half of my lunch at home.

Refueling with some sweet sake and power mochi

At noon, I was powered up and ready to continue hiking. I was now walking the Old Tokaido Road to Hatajuku 畑宿. I could have followed it all the way from Hakone Town, since it started near the bus stop I got off. However, it seemed that, apart from the historical aspect, it wouldn’t make for an interesting hike, so I preferred the detour through the mountains. The Tokaido used to connect Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo period. Most of it has disappeared, but some sections have been restored along the Hakone part.

An ancient road dating back to the 17th century

It’s stone-paved, so it was easy to mentally travel back in time, and imagine what it must have been like to walk this road 400 years ago. However, it wasn’t easy to walk on the stones. At first it ran parallel to the modern Tokaido road, so the noise of cars was never far away. When the modern road made a series of switchbacks down the side of the mountain, the ancient one descended directly via a series of stone steps, at the end of which was a short section of road-walking.

A not so old staircase on the Old Tokaido Road

At one point there was a view of the Shonan coast and Odawara city below, probably quite spectacular on days with better visibility. Half an hour later, I reached Hatajuku, a center for traditional handicrafts, and left the Old Tokaido Road. It continues all the way down to Hakone-Yumoto, but I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you are into Historical reenactment.

Turn right here to return to the paved road

I walked up the Hakone Shindo Road for a few minutes till the start of the trail for the Hiryu falls 飛龍の滝 up the other side of the mountain. The first part was punishingly steep. The next part, following a rushing stream, was more level but surprisingly rocky at times, especially for regular sightseers who just wanted to see the falls, not experience a full-blown hike. I got to the observation platform base of the falls at 1h30, and was underwhelmed by what I observed. The water rushing down the rocky side of the mountains never really “fell”, but I figured it would look more impressive after a big rainfall. However, the picturesque Hiryu river made the climb worthwhile.

Hiryu river valley, just below the falls

The next part of the trail was badly damaged, probably due to last year’s typhoons. A little higher up were signs that the trail was being repaired, and the next part was a lot better. The trail climbed steadily through thick forest along steps built into the gentle slope. I was now all alone as most people turn back at the waterfalls.

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Trail after the waterfall

At 2pm, I reached the Yusaka hiking trail. To the left was the road I had taken earlier by bus. Turning around, I saw a sign on the trail I had just come up, reminding me that I was inside the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. I headed right along a wide path, doubling as a firebreak. I soon reached a table on top of a grassy mound. According to my map, this was the top of Mt Takanosu 鷹ノ巣山 (834m). There was no summit marker, but instead there was a sign saying this was the location of the ruins of Takanosu castle. A little further was a steep and short descent, followed by a gentle climb. I had some views of the Gora area of Hakone (cable car service should resume on March 20) and Mt Kintoki in the background (Mt Ashigara on some maps). Before I knew it, I was at the top of Mt Sengen 浅間山. There was another table, but no view.

A glimpse of Gora with Mt Kintoki in the background

The final section of the hike followed the firebreak along a ridge, all the way back down to Hakone-Yumoto. I am sure this would be a nice hike on a sunny spring or autumn day, but today under a grey sky and surrounded by leafless trees, it felt rather bleak. However it was quite warm for the time of the year, around 15 degrees, so it was odd walking in a winter landscape in spring-like temperatures. I reached the ruins of Yusaka castle a little before 4pm. Apart from a signboard there wasn’t much to see. A few minutes later, I popped out onto the main road next to a river. I had a hot spring bath at nearby Izumi, before walking the 5 minutes back to the train station, where I caught the Romancecar back to Tokyo.

NEXT UP: Mt Ushibuse in Gunma

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

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


Halfway point of the jagged Jogasaki Coast

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

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Oshima Island from Jogasaki-Kaigan station

Kadowaki Suspension Bridge with Oshima island in the background

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

Spectacular rocks near the Kadowaki Suspension Bridge

Grey cliffs and blue sea

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

The sparkling sea in the morning

Dark clouds got the upperhand in the afternoon

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

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

Climber nearing the top of the cliff

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

Most of the time, the trail was easy to walk

Fallen trees have been removed from the trail

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

Pink cherry blossoms with a background of blue sky

The rock bridge surrounded by frothy waves

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

Many pine trees along the trail

Walking among the tall pine trees

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

The Hashidate Suspension Bridge

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

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

Mt Omuro (580m) Crater Walk

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

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

Mt Fuji, Hakone, Tanzawa

Mt Fuji, clear of clouds in the late afternoon

Watch the crashing waves along the Jogasaki Coast

NEXT UP: Mt Sengen in Hakone, Kanagawa

Mt Atago (394m), Akaboko (409m) & Kasumi Hills, Ome City, Tokyo Prefecture, Saturday, February 1, 2020

 

While trying to find some new hikes to do in the Tokyo area, I came across the Kasumi Hills (kasumi kyuryo 霞丘陵) in my guidebook. Starting from Higashi-Ome station, it ended at Iwakura Onsen 岩蔵温泉, halfway between Ome and Hanno cities. It seemed like the perfect hike except that it was only three hours long. After studying my Okutama hiking map, I saw that it was possible to extend it by hiking some minor peaks South of Ome city.

Ome city and the Okutama mountains

At 9am on a sunny morning, I got off at Miyanohira station on the Ome line. Each carriage was decorated with a Flying Squirrel or musasabi ムササビ theme. The hiking trail started on the other side of the Tama river, across Wada bridge, and was indicated by a signpost. Soon, I was walking along a path that went through a thick bamboo forest alongside a small creek, then climbed to the top of a low ridge. There, another signpost told me to turn right. Before that, I decided to investigate the path heading left. It turned out to be a very nice, not-on-my-map, alternate start to the hike, from Shinmei Shrine 神明神社.

Another path leading to the start of the hike

I retraced my steps and started to head up the ridge. Very soon, I reached another junction and a viewpoint of the Okutama mountains. The main trail continued to the left. I turned right instead, going downhill, then back up, reaching the top of Mt Atago 愛宕山 at 10h30. This section isn’t signposted, and I had to figure it out from Google Maps. The view is mostly obstructed by trees – even standing on a tree stump I couldn’t make out much.

Top of Mt Atago marked by a huge tree

Although the path continued down towards Ume no Koen, I returned to the previous junction, and took the path heading left. I was a little behind schedule so I picked up the pace and, consequently completely missed a great viewpoint that was indicated on my map. The path continued through beautiful and peaceful forest. It was hard to believe I was still inside Tokyo prefecture.

Beautiful scenery at the edge of Tokyo

It took me less than an hour to reach Tengu Rock or Tengu-iwa 天狗岩 , a spectacular viewpoint of the Tama river valley and Ome city. It was also the perfect place for an early lunch. No sooner had I set off again, that I reached another amazing viewpoint, Akaboko 赤ぼっこ. I could see the Okutama mountains to the left, the Oku-Musashi mountains in the center, and the skyscrapers of central Tokyo to the right.

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View from Akaboko

I resumed hiking at 12h45, now very much behind schedule. I had planned to reach Ome city, and start the second half of my hike around 1pm. I half walked, half ran down the mountain; fortunately the trail was wide and not too steep. I recrossed the Tama river at 13h45. It took me another hour of road walking to reach Shiofune-Kannon-ji Temple, famous for its Azalea flowers in May.

This popular flower garden was almost empty in the middle of winter

Even in winter, it’s worth a visit. I saw a couple of giant cedars, the tallest one rising up to 43m high! All the buildings had impressive thatched roofs. There is also a huge statue of Kannon at the highest point of the park. I made my way up there, and was rewarded with a view of Mt Fuji, just before it wrapped itself up in clouds. The Kasumi Hills 霞丘陵 hiking trail started just behind the statue, sandwiched between Ome Golf Club and Ome City. I had lost track of time and it was already 3h30.

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Start of the Kasumi Hills hiking trail

I jogged along the easy to follow and well signposted path. I soon reached a road near an athletic park, which took me to Iwakura-kaido Avenue. I needed another hour to do the last part of the hike through Shichikoku-toge 七国峠 (meaning “seven country pass”), but since the onsen was closed to day-trippers after 5pm, I decided to leave it for another day, and follow the road directly to the hot spring. I was able to take a hot bath at the very charming Mamada Ryokan before heading back home.

The signposts were decorated with these painted stones

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

Mt Nyoho in a veil of clouds

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

A glimpse of Mt Nantai through the trees

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

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

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

Sunny ridge on the way down

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

Returning to Nikko station along the Daiya river

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

First monkey sighting of 2020

Watch a video of a wild monkey in Nikko

NEXT UP: Mt Ozawa in Gunma

Toryu Valley & Mt Omine (1062m), Chichibu City, Saitama Prefecture, November 2019

 

Autumn colours along Toryu-Kei

In mid-November, I went on a day-trip to check out the autumn colours in the Oku-Chichibu area. It had been one month since the devastation brought by Typhoon Hagibis, also known as Typhoon #19, and there was a risk that some trails would be damaged or even closed. However, there are many great places to visit in the area, and I was confident I would find somewhere to walk among the autumn leaves.

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Sign reminding me that I was inside the Oku-Chichibu National Park

I drove from Seibu-Chichibu station, past Mitsumine-Guchi station, to Toryu Bridge 登竜橋 where I left the car. Past the bridge, it’s possible to walk along the Arakawa river in both directions. I first headed downstream; the path had been partly washed away in several places, and was also obstructed by several fallen trees. Since the path was a dead-end, I quickly gave up, walked back past the bridge, and followed the river upstream.

View from Toryu Bridge

First, I followed a gently climbing road past some ancient gravestones. After a few minutes there was a sign for a trail through the forest on the right. This led back down to the river, round a cliff on a wooden walkway, and finished at Ryumon Waterfall 竜門の滝. I retraced my steps to the start of the wooden walkway, and then followed another path further upstream, a few meters above the rushing river. There was a lot of damage here due to the typhoon. The trail was so washed away, that I soon gave up again. In conclusion, it’s impossible to hike along most of the Toryu valley at the moment. On the way back, I followed the road a little further, and it led to the start of the trail to Mistumine Shrine. Apparently, this trail is open and undamaged.

Entrance to the trail for Mitsumine Shrine

Afterwards, I drove another twenty minutes, past the turn-off for Mitsumine Shrine, all the way to the Irikawa river valley. I was going to leave the car at the Irikawa Camping Ground and explore the river upstream. However, the access road was closed due to typhoon damage, and it wasn’t possible to reach the start of the trail. I had to fallback on plan C: completely avoid river valleys, and drive to nearby Tochimoto Plaza 栃本広場 where I could hike Eastwards along a low ridge sandwiched between two lakes.

Beautiful autumn colours in “deep Chichibu”

This time I was lucky. The path was easy to hike with no damage at all; the autumn leaves were still at their peak. It took me about thirty minutes to reach the top of Mt Omine 大峰山 completely in by trees. Even the little viewing platform wasn’t high enough to see over them. The path continued along the ridge, but since it was now downhill through a thick cedar forest, and I had get back to the car, I decided not to go any further. Luckily, it was possible to take a slightly different path back, with occasional glimpses of Oku-Chichibu-Momiji lake through the trees.

Easy hiking through the forest

I drove a different way back, following a very picturesque road with good views towards Mt Wanakura. I got back to Seibu-Chichibu station before 4pm where I was able to enjoy a nice hot bath, and taste some local sake inside the station, before taking the brand new and futuristic looking Laview Limited Express train back to Tokyo. After the heavy rains and strong winds that hit the Kanto area last October,  I think that most hiking trails in Tokyo, Saitama and Tochigi prefecture are still hikable, except the ones following river valleys. Those ones may be closed for a while, but hopefully they’ll be restored sometime in the future.

View of Mt Wanakura in the late afternoon

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

Hiking in the Fuji Five Lakes Area

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

View of Mt Fuji from Yamadaya Hotel

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

Already hiking in the snow in November

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

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

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

 

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

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

Next up: Mt Iwadono in Yamanashi Prefecture

Mt Gongen (2715m) & Mt Amigasa (2524m), Hokuto City & Fujimi Town, Yamanashi & Nagano Prefectures, Thursday, October 23, 2019

Hiking on Mt Yatsugatake 八ヶ岳

I was hoping to climb one last big mountain in 2019, before the arrival of snow, and I had had my eye on the two Southernmost peaks in the Yatsugatake range for a while. Even though they are the closest to Tokyo, right between Yamanashi and Nagano, they’re challenging to climb as a day trip from Tokyo – Mt Tengu, further North, was possible thanks to the Hokuriku shinkansen. In the end, I decided to stay the night in Kofu and drive to the mountain; this way I could leave at dawn, and finish around sunset. I had to travel to Yamanashi and back by highway bus, since the trains weren’t running as usual due to damage by typhoon Hagibis. This was a blessing in disguise, since the bus costs half the price of the train, so I could recoup some of the cost of the hotel and the car.

Looking back at the pointy tip of Mt Gongen from Mitsugashira

On Thursday morning, the sky above Kofu city was foggy, but as I drove West along the highway, blue skies appeared overhead. As Yatsugatake came into sight, I got a shock: the top was white with snow! As I drew closer, I saw with relief that it was only the highest peak, Mt Aka (2899m), that was covered in snow, and today’s hike would be snow-free. I reached the Kannondaira parking lot (1560m) just before 8am – there were quite a few cars, even on a weekday. The first part of the hike, a gently rising trail through forest that was still green, was fairly easy. After half an hour, I reached a clearing with a good viewpoint of Mt Fuji sporting a brand new snow cap – a good place for breakfast.

Snow-capped Mt Fuji – the morning mists haven’t fully dissipated yet

The trail continued through thick forest, and after another half an hour I reached the turn-off for my first peak. A steep climb straight up the side of the mountain, with occasional views through the forest of the Kofu valley behind me, brought me to the bare and rocky top of Mt Amigasa 編笠山 at 10h30. The 360 degree view was one of the best I’ve ever seen while hiking.

From left to right I could see Mt Fuji, the Minami Alps, the Chuo Alps, Mt Ontake, Mt Norikura and the Kita Alps – all the highest were covered with snow. I could also see the entire Yatsugatake range stretching North, with in the center the matterhorn-like peak of Mt Aka. There were so many great pictures from this hike, that it was impossible to share them all here.

Today’s mountain is the highest point on the far right, but lower than Mt Aka in the center

After a quick bite, I set off downhill just after 11am, towards a saddle where the Seinen Hut was located, just 20 minutes away. The last part was full of giant boulders, and it took some time since I had to step carefully from boulder to boulder, following painted yellow arrows. After that, I was climbing again through forest. Suddenly, I was above the treeline at around 2600m; there was a sharp drop on my left, and an impressive rocky outcrop towering in front of me.

Fortunately, there was a switchback path on the right, with helpful chains in several places. It looped around the back, and led up to what I thought was the highest point. Noticing that there was no summit marker, I turned around – the true top was behind me, five minutes away and just a little higher. Looking left, I could the impressive “kiretto” or mountain ridge, leading to Mt Aka.

The “kiretto”, on the right, leading up to the highest point of the Yatsugatake

Originally I had planned to go up and down the same way. However, I had made good time climbing up, so I decided to take a different and longer route down. I hurried past another hut to the highest point of my hike, Mt Gongen 権現山 – in fact the highest mountain climbed in 2019. I couldn’t actually get to the very highest point since it consisted of a bunch of huge boulders, but I got as high as I felt safe doing, and had the rest of the lunch while enjoying the view of Mt Fuji in the distance. Since a boulder was in a way, I couldn’t get a perfect 360 degree view. The weather was still sunny, with almost no wind. Despite the high altitude, and proximity of the snowline 200m higher, I was perfectly fine wearing just a base layer. At one point a cargo plane, probably from the Japan Self-Defense Force, flew past the summit (see video at the end).

Perfect view of Mt Fuji from the top of Mt Gongen

I had to set off fairly quickly if I wanted to complete the hike before dark, around 5pm. First I headed down and back up again to Mitsugashira 三ツ頭 (2580m). Looking back, the view of snow-covered Mt Aka, wrapped in mist was breath-taking. By now, it was nearly 2pm and I needed at least a couple of hours to get back to my car, so I pulled myself away from the view, and descended into the forest. This was one of the nicest and easiest downhill hikes I’ve ever done. There were good views of my first peak, with orange larch trees around the base. One hour and a half later, I reached the Yatsugatake crossing path (“oudan hodo” 八ヶ岳横断歩道), part of a trail that circles the entire mountain range –  something to try one day. From there, it was another thirty minutes back to the parking area along a mostly level trail, although the last meters were steep uphill – pretty tough after what was nearly an 8 hour hike! Fortunately, there was a hot spring at the base of the mountain, so I could have a good soak before making the long trip back to Tokyo.

Although it’s called the red peak, today it was partly white

 

I believe this was a JIETAI plane flying past the summit

 

NEXT UP: Mt Ihai (Mt Ashitaka) in Shizuoka

Mt Gongen (1019m), Yamakita Town, Kanagawa Prefecture, Sunday, October 20, 2019

Hiking in the Tanzawa Mountains 丹沢山地

This was my first hike since typhoon Hagibis, which hit the Kanto area the previous week. Not only did it flood many low-lying areas, but it also damaged mountain roads and hiking trails. According to the latest update from the Nishi-Tanzawa visitor center, all trails in their vicinity were open, but this was before the heavy rains that hit the Kanto area again two days before my hike.

The Sunday forecast was supposed to be good, but when I got to Shin-Matsuda station it was definitely overcast. Oddly enough I was the only person to board the bus for Nishi-Tanzawa, a popular hiking destination, especially in the Autumn season. The reason soon became clear – Friday’s rain had caused a landslide along the road, preventing the bus from reaching the visitor center, the starting point for most hikes. Fortunately for me, I was getting off before that, at Tanzawa Lake. The bus ride was along a river, and I noticed that the water was brown and muddy. Further upstream there was a sign saying that water was being released from the dam at Tanzawa lake.

Once, I got off the bus, I was shocked to see the amount of debris, mostly tree branches, floating on the lake. The lake colour was muddy-brown like the river; hopefully it will regain its normal colour soon. On the bright side, it seemed that my target mountain was just low enough to stay clear of the clouds. Before I set off, I dropped by Ochiaikan 落合館 a nice little hotel where I took a bath after hiking Mt Ono three years earlier, to confirm whether they still allowed daytrippers to take a bath (“higaeri nyuyoku” 日帰り入浴). I was told yes, and I said I would be back around 4pm.

Tanzawa lake: May 2016 (left) and Oct 2019 (right)

I had to walk counter-clockwise alongside the lake for about forty minutes to reach the start of the trail. Along the way, I saw a small parking area full of cars and cameras mounted on tripods nearby. I asked one person what they were hoping to photograph. He replied “taka” which according to my dictionary is a falcon or a hawk. Always curious about the local wildlife, I would have liked to stick around to catch a glimpse of the bird, but I was running late, so I had to move on.

Wood debris floating on Tanzawa lake

I reached the start of the trail a little before noon, and started climbing immediately. The trail climbed steeply through cedar forest. From the start it was hard to follow – this wasn’t a popular trail, and according to my guidebook, this hike is mainly done in the spring because of certain flowers that grow higher up. I got a nice surprise on the way – a small light-green frog hopped onto the path. Further up, it was the turn of a light-grey one. I have occasionally seen toads while hiking, but I had never seen a frog till this year. Earlier in the month I had also seen a couple of frogs along the Nakasendo in Nagano prefecture. I had read that the frog population was declining, but perhaps it’s making a rebound?

Frogs posing for pictures along the trail

I’m not sure whether it was because of the recent typhoon, but bright green cedar leaf branches were scattered all over the trail. I had never seen so many before, but they were effective at making the muddy trail underneath less slippery. As I gained altitude, the path became less steep, and the forest less dense, helping me spot two young deer dash away ahead of me. At times, the path was hard to follow, and I often had to rely on the “pink ribbons” to find the correct way.

The hiking path was covered with cedar leaf branches

I reached the flat top of Mt Mitsuba ミツバ山 (834m) just before 1pm. There was an opening in the trees a few meters to the South, but everything was in the clouds beyond the next ridge. In good weather, I imagine one could see Mt Fuji. After a quick break, I continued to climb along the ridgeline. Eventually, I saw mist to my right, so I figured that the top was in the cloud after all. Curiously enough, the left side remained clear for a while, before being engulfed in cloud as well.

This sign was kind of funny so I left it as it was

I reached the lonely summit of Mt Gongen 権現山 before 1pm. According to my map, there weren’t any views, just as well since there wouldn’t have been any because of the mist. This mountain’s name is fairly common: purely by coincidence, the next mountain I climbed, just 3 days later, had the same name. I didn’t even realise it until I went through my photos. After a quick lunch, I set off immediately. Since I had climbed fairly quickly, I hoped to descend equally quickly, and catch an earlier bus back, especially since the weather was poor.

Mysterious and quiet forest at the top

The path down (heading left – the path going past the top is a shortcut leading back down to Tanzawa lake) was as hard to follow as the one going up. There were steps built into the steep slope, but they lacked maintenance. It seems that this path has fallen out of favour among the hiking community, and I can’t recommend it, unless one is seeking absolute solitude. On the way down I had some glimpses of Nakagawa onsen 中川温泉 in the valley below, an aging hot spring town I had stayed at a couple of years ago.

I lost quite a bit of time looking for the trail, at one point heading down a steep valley by mistake and having to climb back up, and I ended up missing the earlier bus, as well as the next one, arriving at the bus stop just below Nakagawa Onsen, at around 4h30. Even though sunset was at 5pm, it got quite dark hiking in the forest after 4pm. I might even have spotted the elusive “taka” taking off from a branch at one one point, but it might have been just a crow.

I finally arrived back at Tanzawa lake just before 5pm, and was looking forward to a hot bath, only to discover that the hotel was closed! However, after knocking at the door, the owner arrived, and kindly let me have a quick bath – since they didn’t see me arrive at 4pm, they thought I had changed my plans, and decided to lock up for the day. After a quick bath, I caught the last bus back to Shin-Matsuda station.

NEXT UP: Mt Gongen in Yamanashi Pref. (Yatsugatake)