Overcoming travel trouble in Okutama

Mt Shishigura (1288m), Okutama Town and Tabayama Village, Tokyo & Yamanashi Prefectures, Sunday November 19, 2017

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Hiking in Okutama 奥多摩

Yesterday I went for a hike in the Okutama area, starting from the Western edge of Okutama lake at  Miyama Bridge 深山橋, going up Mt Shishigura 鹿倉山 1288m (not Shikakura as the Kanji suggests), and ending up at the Nomekoiyu のめこい湯 hot spring.

However it isn’t about the hike itself that I wish to write but rather about getting to and back from the area in the general. The trouble with Okutama is that it mostly sits within the Tokyo prefecture, one of the most populated areas in the world, and thus the trains and buses are packed, especially during the autumn foliage season.

Fortunately when I went out there on a whim yesterday (bad weather threatened my preferred options), I was able to sit all the way there and back. Seeing that the total travel time was nearly 5 hours, I feel that this considerably enhanced my experience, and it only required a little planning and some luck.

First, I turned up at Shinjuku station 20 minutes before the scheduled departure time of the direct train to Okutama and positioned myself first in line at the appropriate spot on the platform (indicated by an overhead sign). The train pulls in ten minutes early since it starts from Shinjuku so the rest of the waiting time is spent sitting comfortably.

After arriving in Okutama, I got off as quickly as possible and lined up for the bus. Despite the crowds it only took me a few minutes since I had previously charged my Pasmo with a generous amount of money and skipped the bathroom. Once out of the station I swooped onto the first bus attendant I saw to confirm where I should line up for my bus (the one for Kosuge no Yu 小菅の湯). I had perhaps a dozen people ahead of me but I still managed to snag one of the last seats.

On the return, I sacrificed some bath time in order to get to the bus stop ten minutes early. I was third in line which doesn’t necessarily guarantee a seat since the bus starts further up the valley. When the bus turned up, the line behind me had grown to a dozen people and there were only about 5 seats left. My gamble had paid off and I got a good seat too, one with space for my long legs.

There was some traffic on the way back and I was worried that I would miss the last direct train back to Shinjuku but thanks to the experienced driver we got to the station with time to spare. Repeating the same strategy as in the morning (move quickly, well-charged pasmo, skip bathroom break) I got a good seat on the train and the return was as smooth as one could hope for. Obviously these tricks only work if you are hiking by yourself or maybe as a pair (or you have good bladder control).

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Mt Odake, one of the three famous peaks of the Okutama area

As for the hike itself, it was the kind I like. Steep ascents at the beginning, gently sloping ridge line in the middle, alternating views of forest and mountains, and a good wide path for most of the descent. I only crossed a small group of people during the whole hike. Unfortunately I can’t recommend this hike since at times the trail was hard to find / follow and the last part of the trail had somewhat collapsed and was difficult to walk. I hope they repair it soon and also put up more trail makers.

One final note: the Nomekoi Hot spring is only 300 yen but at present the rotemburo (outside bath) is closed for construction. However the inside bath has a high wooden slanting roof which gives it a traditional feel so it is definitely worth taking a bath there.

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The long ridge leading to the summit of My Kumotori (on the left), the highest point in the Tokyo prefecture, as seen from the ridge below the top of Mt Shishigura.

 

Mt Yokote (2307m) & Mt Shiga (2037m), Yamanouchi Town, Nagano Prefecture

I did this hike with my mother who was visiting Japan for a couple of weeks. Since it was quite far from Tokyo, we rented a car in Takasaki, and spent the night in a traditional Japanese inn, or “ryokan”, in Kusatsu Onsen. The next morning was sunny, but by the time we had made our way all the way up to Yugama Lake 湯釜 the clouds had rolled in. We admired the light blue colour of the crater lake, but gave up on climbing Mt Kusatsu-Shirane. I had climbed it before in the clouds, and had little interest in doing it again in similar conditions.

A beautiful crater lake

We drove on to Yokoteyama Ropeway which took us to the top of Mt Yokote 横手山. We got some nice views of Shiga Highland 志賀高原. Fortunately, the Nagano side was still free of clouds. We finally arrived at Kumanoyu (meaning the bear’s bath) where we left the car. We were now firmly inside Nagano prefecture. Another short ropeway took up to the start of the hike. Luckily, the weather was holding up. The first part was quite level. At one point the path went through some very high bamboo, higher than our heads, and I was worried about bears. So I reached into my bag to retrieve my bear bell only to realise that I had left it in the car!

View from the top of Mt Yokote

Soon the path started to climb. It was steep, with big rocks and protruding tree roots, making progress slow. The path slowly wound up the side of the mountain. We saw few people, and thankfully no bears. We reached the top of Mt Shiga 志賀山 just before 2 pm. A little way past the summit, there were some good views of Onuma-ike Lake below. The whole hike is inside the Joshin Etsu Kogen National Park and is very wild and beautiful.

The area of our hike – Mt Shiga is in the clouds on the right

We climbed down via a different path, spotting various small ponds on the way. Finally, after passing through a shinto gate or “torii”, we reached the base of the cone-shaped Mt Shiga. The next part involved walking along an elevated walkway through marshlands – much easier than the rocky path down the mountain! The final part back to the ropeway was along a wide and level path through the forest.

Onuma Lake in the middle of Shiga Highland

Since it was getting late, we decided not to take a bath at Kumanoyu, and leave right away. No sooner had we set off, that a dark shadow dashed across the road – it was a bear cub. It disappeared into the bushes opposite. We waited a bit for a mother bear, but she was nowhere to be seen. In any case the place certainly deserves its name!

Elevated walkway through the marshland 

On the way back, we stopped briefly for some photos at the marker for the highest national road in Japan at 2172m high. The drive down to Kusatsu onsen was through thick mist. We had a bath at the Sainokawara open-air bath, one of the biggest in Japan. After we were done, it started raining really hard, but we managed to get back to Takasaki safe and sound, a little after nightfall.

Hiking up and down Mt Shiga

Mt Sekirou (694m) or the Other Takao

As of October 2020, the trail around Kenkyoji Temple (顕鏡寺) is still closed due to trail damage due to last year’s Typhoon 19 / Hagibis – it’s not possible to reach the summit of Mt Sekiro via this route. No reopening date has been set yet. Please check the Sagamiko Tourist Association website for future updates. 

Last Saturday, I finally made it back to Mt Sekirou 石老山 (694 m) for the 3rd time. I wrote about this mountain in an earlier blog post and at the time I had to cut short the loop hike because of a sudden snowstorm. I had promised to update the post once I managed to complete it but so much time has passed since then – four years – that I think it warrants a new post. Another reason I’d like to write about it again is that as the title suggests, it has many things in common with nearby Mt Takao. However unlike Takao, there aren’t as many people.

First it all it has relatively easy access.  Although it requires a bus ride from Sagamiko 相模湖 which is the next station from Takao station, buses depart on average twice an hour all day long. I didn’t even check the bus timetable in advance this time and the bus left within ten minutes of arriving at the station. The best thing is not to fret about the bus and just focus on getting to Sagamiko station at a reasonable time for hiking. Additionally, the bus ride to the entrance of the trail – the bus stop is conveniently called 石老山入口  entrance to Mt Sekirou – takes only about ten minutes so standing is not an issue.

The trail is fairly well marked – there is also a big board with a map at the start – so you don’t really need to bring your own map although I always recommend getting one   At one point (just after the temple) the trail splits in two but this isn’t an issue since both trails join up again 30 minutes later. I recommend the right branch since the views are better (sakura michi さくら道 on the signs). If you decide to descend via the same route, rather than the loop trail as described below, you could take the other branch on the way down.

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View of Mt Takao from the Sakura path

There are several wooden seating platforms where you can eat lunch on the summit and a good view of Mt Fuji as well as Mt Omuro in the Tanzawa range. We had a late start on Saturday so we only got there at 1h30 and we had the summit to ourselves. The path for descending is to the right. This is the one I opted not to take last time because of the weather. After a hundred meters or so there is a split and in order to complete the loop hike, you need to go right again.

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The empty summit

The path is very pleasant, generally wide and not too steep. There are however a couple of steep rocky parts which should be descended cautiously. After an hour or so, and a few up and downs, there is an observation platform. It has a nice view of the long ridge that includes Mt Takao and Mt Jimba. After that it’s about 30 minutes of downhill to get back to the road. The path follows a valley with a small stream that can be pretty dark and gloomy towards the end of the day. At times the trail is fairly rocky and difficult to walk, not unlike the part leading to the temple when going up.

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View from the observation platform

After reaching the road it takes another 20 minutes or so to get back to the bus stop. Overall, including a one-hour lunch break and walking at an average pace, the entire hike shouldn’t take more than 5 hours. During that time we saw less than two dozen hikers. Before heading back, I would recommend taking advantage of the very nice Ururi hot spring that is just across the road inside the Pleasure Forest amusement park.

The only two areas where Mt Takao wins against Mt Sekirou is 1) the number of attractions – Takao has several temples, a beer garden, a funicular, a chairlift and a monkey park 2) the numbers of trails up and down the mountain.

As of October 2020, the trail around Kenkyoji Temple (顕鏡寺) is still closed due to trail damage due to last year’s Typhoon 19 / Hagibis – it’s not possible to reach the summit of Mt Sekiro via this route. No reopening date has been set yet. Please check the Sagamiko Tourist Association website for future updates. 

Mt Kurami (1256m), Tsuru City, Yamanashi Prefecture

This was my first day hike of 2015, and since it was during the Japanese New Year or “shogatsu“, I wanted to have some good views of Mt Fuji, do a station to station hike (buses run on special schedules during that time), and, if it wasn’t too much to ask, end the hike at a nice onsen. I want all hikes to be good hikes, but the first one of the year should be special.

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The city of Kawaguchiko at the base of Mt Fuji

I took a train to Mitsutoge station: I hadn’t been there since I first climbed Mt Mitsutoge several years before, and I had completely forgotten that there was a fantastic view of Mt Fuji from just outside the station. This time, however, I was climbing a mountain on the other side of the railway line. The trail started next to Yaku Shrine, 15 minutes from the station. However, I accidentally went down another trail that was level instead of going up. Once I realised my mistake, I cut through the forest up the side of the mountain to reconnect with the correct trail.

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The Kawaguchi toll road snaking down the valley

I soon started getting some good views up and down the valley connecting Kawaguchiko and Otsuki cities. It was a fairly relaxing climb, the only steep bit came at the end, going up the small pyramidal summit. I reached the top of Mt Kurami  (Kuramiyama 倉見山) after about 90 minutes, around noon. There was an excellent view of Mt Fuji, resplendissant in its winter coat. I could also see Mt Mitsutoge, the cliffs below the summit area making it look like an impregnable fortress. Looking North, I could spot the peaks of the Oku-Chichibu mountains. Looking South, I could gaze on the vast urban sprawl of Kawaguchiko City. On this clear sunny day, the snowy peaks of the Minami Alps were clearly visible.

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Easy hiking on the way down

The descent, through a beautiful pine forest, took another ninety minutes. The trail was very easy to walk, and offered many good views along the way. It often felt like I was flying above the small houses in the valley below. The sun was now slightly behind Mt Fuji, so the side facing me was in the shadows, less good for taking photos. I reached the bottom of the valley just past 3pm. I then walked another 30 minutes to Yoshinoike Onsen 葭之池温泉 for a quick hot spring bath, before taking the train from the nearby station back to Tokyo.

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 Mt Fuji view from Mitsutoge station (using camera zoom)

Mt Nango (610m), Mt Maku (626m) and Mt Shiro (563m), Yugawara Town, Kanagawa Prefecture

I felt like it was time to try something different, something special to Japan; I wanted to do a hike next to the ocean. I found one such hike in my hiking book, but it seemed a bit short, so I combined it with a couple of nearby peaks. Although the elevation of these three mountains was relatively low, they seemed quite impressive when seen from the sea-side town of Yugawara, famous for its plum blossoms and hot springs. The area is also known for rock climbing, although today’s purpose was purely hiking.

HOW TO GET THERE: From Tokyo or Shinagawa station, catch the Tokaido line to Atami;  Yugawara is the stop before. Depending on the type of train you catch, it takes between 60 and 90 minutes, direct or with changes. This is not a line I take often so it was a pleasant change with lots of views of the sea (sit on the left when heading out). From the station there are frequent buses to “Kaiya” which is the last stop. I was the sole person on the bus for the last portion of the trip, and on the first part of the hike.

Ask for a hiking plan for Mt Nango, Mt Maku, Mt Shiro

THE ROUTE: The bus stops in front of a temple, but the hiking trail doesn’t go through it. There wasn’t anybody around to ask, but I found a sign for the hiking trail along the road that continues up the mountain to the left of the temple. The signposting was particularly poor on this hike, and some route-finding was needed (this was nearly ten years ago so things may have changed). I followed the road as it curved to the right and then back to the left again, with many minor roads branching off it. I eventually reached a sign pointing straight up a very steep slope; it must of had an inclination of 45 degrees; I cannot imagine driving up here with ice or snow, although I guess that it rarely happens in this area (it felt pretty balmy for December).

Mountain Mikans

Japanese citrus fruit or mikan

A cape jutting into Sagami bay

Manazuru peninsula jutting into Sagami bay

Soon I was walking among the mikan trees with their bright orange fruit. I was getting pretty views of Yugawara town, Sagami bay and the surrounding mountains. I couldn’t see any more signs, but I decided to stick to the main road, a tough proposition since the other roads that branched off seemed to be the same width (wide enough for a small car). Instinct served me well, for shortly after entering a forest section, I found another wooden signpost for the summit. Unfortunately this sign was placed a few meters before another junction. I hesitated for a couple of minutes, and then continued in the most plausible direction which was straight ahead.

Towards Izu

Looking South to Izu

Mt Maku, I think

Near the top of Mt Nango

Since I was going up the side of a steep mountain, taking the wrong way could have big consequences. Fortunately, as I reached the top of the ridge, I came upon a third and better sign marking the start of a proper hiking trail. The surrounding landscape had become quite fascinating, not because of its beauty, but because of the sense of abandonment. This area had enjoyed a boom a few decades ago, but was now in decline, and there were a lot of ruined buildings making it a little spooky.

Now I was following a proper hiking path along the ridge. The views were hidden by the surrounding vegetation, lucky in a way, since it had become considerably windy. I was skirting a golf course, surrounded by an electric fence to keep trespassers (or hikers) out. I then reached a road, and after following it for a few minutes, I came to a hiking path on the left heading to the top of Mt Nango (南郷山 nangosan)about ten minutes away. There were some nice views of the coastline a few meters below the summit, better than from the summit itself. Here I met some other hikers, as it usually happens at the tops of mountains, and was easily able to get someone to take my photo.

Mountain scape near the coast

Mountain scenery near the coast

A great forest path

Easy walking through the forest

After a short rest, I set out again for summit number two and the highest point of the hike. Here the signposting let me down again. At the first intersection, there were no signs for my mountain, only a sign going straight to a temple, and a one pointing for the road that running between the two mountains. I had to cross the road at one point, but according to my map, not before passing by a small lake. So I decided to continue straight ahead. This turned out to be wrong, and I was soon forced to retrace my steps. Back at the junction, I took the second path towards the road (now going right). This was a pretty trail, zigzagging down through a pine wood before reaching a flat wooded area, where I crossed what must have been the other path leading down from Mt Nango.

The path to Mt Maku

The path to Mt Maku

Nearing the top

Getting close to the top of Mt Maku

Here I turned right and continued walking through some more delightful forest. I finally spotted the lake that I had been aiming for. It was a small and lonely lake hidden in the middle of the forest. Just beyond it was the road which I crossed in order to re-enter the woods on the other side. This part was really pleasant and made me want to bring other people here.

After a few minutes I reached the path heading for the summit. It took me another fifteen minutes of gentle climbing to reach Mt Maku (幕山 makuyama). From there I could see the ocean and the surrounding mountains. There weren’t any benches so I sat on the ground to have lunch. Since my view while sitting was obscured by bamboo grass, and the wind was terribly strong, probably due to the proximity of the sea, I decided not to linger.

Nice ocean views

Nice ocean views

Enjoying the soft autumn sunshine

Enjoying the soft autumn sunshine

Heading down, I mistakenly turned onto a path circling the summit. Once I realized this, I cut back through the woods and got back on the correct path. I was soon facing south and had some nice views of Sagami bay. I passed a group who had taken my photo on the summit, and left them behind me scratching their heads, since I had left ahead of them.

Eventually I got to the base of the mountain and got to see its famous rock climbing cliffs. There were a few people practising their skill in the good weather. It was interesting to note that they place mattresses underneath in case they fall. That’s Japanese safety for you. This is where the famous Yugawara plum trees are located (just bare branches at this time of the year).

The rocky base of Mt Maku

The rocky base of Mt Maku

Rock Climbing part I

The rock climbing area

I was now following a paved road along the bottom of a valley. It was only 3pm, but the winter sun was already starting to dip below the surrounding ridges. I stopped to take photos of the beautiful colours of a maple tree and the shadows nearly overtook me. A little later I crossed a bridge, went straight another hundred meters,  turned left up another smaller road, and ten minutes later reached a small hiking trail. The paved road continues around Mt Maku, and joins up with the path I went up on the other side.

Orange Maple tree

Orange Maple tree

Short but nice river walk

Short but nice river walk

Here darkness overtook me as the path twisted and turned through thick forest. There were a few ropes and chains, but nothing challenging. It was tough to climb up a mountain again, but it was too soon to head back. After about 30 minutes I reached a small shrine under a small waterfall. Above it, there was a paved path lined with stone lanterns switching back and forth; it felt rather sacred. At this time, there was nobody else around.

Turn left here

Walking along the valley before climbing again

The holy path

The path to the shrine

I reached another road which I followed through a windy tunnel under the highest section of the ridge. On the other side, I emerged back into the sun. I followed the road one hundred meters to a lookout point and a bus stop. Behind the observation platform, I found the hiking trail again. It double backed towards the ridge and passed above the tunnel. This was an enjoyable section despite the strong wind, heading slightly downhill with occasional views of the adjacent ridges and the ocean.

Windy but nice view

In the sun again…

The Izu peninsula

The Izu peninsula

A short while later I reached the final summit of the day, Mt Shiro (城山 shiroyama). It was the lowest of the three peaks, but it had by far the best view, with places to sit down and no vegetation in the way (and toilets as well!). At this late hour, I had the summit to myself. To the South was the Izu peninsula, to the North was the Shonan coastline, and beyond, the Landmark Tower in Yokohama, to the west was Oshima Island. The most amazing thing about this summit was that it was right at the edge of the sea. I think it’s the first time I have stood about 500 meters directly above the coastline.

Ocean view

The coveted ocean view

Mt Maku ridge

Looking back at Mt Maku

I had to pull myself away from this great view only fifteen minutes after arriving, since I really needed to get down before dark. I headed down at a fast pace, the path being relatively easy to walk. There another good view of Oshima island on the way. Very soon I reached a paved road. My map showed that there were a couple of shortcuts so that you didn’t to walk so much on the road. However I got tricked on the second one, it led basically nowhere, and I had to climb five minutes back to the road.

When I got to the real short cut, I didn’t dare to take it so I jogged the wide bend of the road. Soon I started seeing signs of civilisation again: telephone wires, houses and cars. There were again no signs and more roads than were indicated on the map, but following my instinct I ended back at the station by dusk. I celebrated by taking a hot bath at an onsen with outdoor bath just five minutes down the road, on the top floor of the hotel.

Ask for a hiking plan for Mt Nango, Mt Maku, Mt Shiro

Final view of Ooshima

Final view of Ooshima

Mt Sekirou (694m), Sagamihara City, Kanagawa Prefecture

This was my second visit to Mt Sekiro (石老山 sekirouzan) and the first time taking other people; the photos will be a combination of both trips. I feel that this mountain is really exceptional: it’s close to Tokyo, easy to climb, it has great views (including Mt Fuji), there is a temple at the base, and finally there are few hikers since it’s not a famous mountain.

Mt Sekirou from Sagamiko Station

Mt Sekiro from Sagamiko Station

As of October 2020, the trail around Kenkyoji Temple (顕鏡寺) is still closed due to trail damage due to last year’s Typhoon 19 / Hagibis – it’s not possible to reach the summit of Mt Sekiro via this route. No reopening date has been set yet. Please check the Sagamiko Tourist Association website for future updates. 

HOW TO GET THERE: Get on the Chuo line for Takao station, ride to the end of the line, and switch to the Chuo line again by simply crossing the platform. Get off at Sagamiko station, the next stop. The only tricky part here is catching a bus to the start of the hiking trail. Departures normally coincide with most train arrivals, but if the wait is too long, it’s possible to take a taxi since it is only ten minutes away.

THE ROUTE: From the bus stop, we crossed the road and headed up the road that lead away from it as a straight angle. There is a sign saying Sekirosan iriguchi (石老山入口 meaning entrance to Mt Sekiro) as well as a big sign showing the route. There are also toilets and a vending machine. After walking along the road for about twenty minutes we reached the start of the trail, behind a hospital. The weather wasn’t great, but it didn’t matter so much since the hike was mostly in the forest during autumn.

Ask for a hiking plan for Mt Sekiro

The first part of the hike climbed steadily through a forest of tall cedar trees next to a stream. Massive moss-covered boulders lay strewn on both sides of the path. Some had small signs with Japanese explanations on their legendary origins.

The road to the temple

The road to the temple

Huge moss covered boulders

Huge moss covered boulders

In less than half an hour, we reached Kenkyoji temple (顕鏡寺) perched on the lower reaches of the mountain; we took a photo break since it had some impressive autumn colours. Since there are no other mountains standing in the way, there was also a view west towards Tokyo, but clouds and smog meant that visibility was limited. Northwards, we could see Mt Takao, the closest mountain to Tokyo.

The trail continued behind the temple, winding back and forth, eventually a fork, unmarked on the map. We asked a small family on their way down who confirmed that the paths connected further up and that the right one was easier to walk. We took the right branch and were rewarded with some more nice westward vistas, as the path curved around the side of the mountain.

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Autumn colours were in full swing

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Orange and yellow fighting for dominance behind a stone lantern

Before we knew it, the paths joined up. From that point, the path climbed gently through the forest till a fantastic viewpoint of Lake Sagami. We couldn’t really see much of the view, since the weather was still cloudy. We continued up the mountain at a good pace and meeting few people. The path was a series of short steep climbs followed by flat or slightly downhill sections.

We reached the summit two hours after starting out. There were two or three tables where you can have a picnic while admiring the view of Mt Fuji. Unfortunately today the weather had steadily been getting worse, and there was no hope of seeing the majestic volcano today. We repaired to a table under a tree out of the cold wind that had suddenly started blowing, and prepared our ramen lunch.

View from the top last year with Mt Omuro in the centre.

View from the with Mt Omuro in the center (taken the previous year)

First glimpse of the lake on the way down

First glimpse of Sagami lake on the way down

Even though it was the first of December, the temperature had been warmer than expected. However it suddenly turned freezing and the clouds got greyer. I noticed some white specks on the table; amazingly, it had just started snowing! it wasn’t even the beautiful snowflake type of snow; it was the hard granular kind, that was more like sleet, forcing us to gulp down our lunch, and leave as quickly as possible. By that time, my fingers were feeling pretty numb from the cold.

I had originally planned a loop hike but decided on the spot, that we should head down the same way; it would be safer to down a familiar way in a freak snowstorm. However, as soon as we got a few meters from the summit, the snow stopped falling and it felt noticeably warmer. Ten minutes later we had blue skies above our head and the sun was shining. The storm was over just as quickly as it had started. The path looked quite different going down especially now that the weather was so good. The view of lake Sagami was completely different and we could see the mountain ranges beyond.

Sunny woods

Sunny woods

View towards Tokyo

View towards Tokyo

At the junction, we took the other path so as to complete the loop. Just below, there is a good view of Mt Sekiro, as well as the mountains to the west. The path passes through some more huge boulders, but it wasn’t particularly difficult. We got down ninety minutes, and after a twenty minute wait, we were able to hop onto a bus back to the station. In good weather, it’s possible to continue beyond the summit and make a loop back to the start of the hike.

CONCLUSION: Great hike for the late autumn / early winter period, because of its short length and relatively low altitude. It can be combined with some neighbouring mountains if you are a fast hiker.

As of October 2020, the trail around Kenkyoji Temple (顕鏡寺) is still closed due to trail damage due to last year’s Typhoon 19 / Hagibis – it’s not possible to reach the summit of Mt Sekiro via this route. No reopening date has been set yet. Please check the Sagamiko Tourist Association website for future updates. 

Ask for a hiking plan for Mt Sekiro

The Takao range seen from the temple

The Takao range seen from the temple

Mt Myogi Chukan Path, Annaka City, Gunma Prefecture

Even though Mt Myogi 1104m (妙義山 myougisan) is a two hundred famous mountain , I didn’t actually climb to the top (I thought about it though). The reason being that despite its relatively low altitude, this is a dangerous and difficult mountain to climb. I used to think that you could walk up every mountain in Japan, chains and ladders being placed in the dangerous parts, and also Mt Tsurugi (in the Northern Alps) was the most difficult mountain to climb in Japan. However, this title probably belongs to Mt Myogi. All the trails to the summit are marked with dotted lines, meaning “experts only” with multiple danger signs and worrying comments added into the mix (“50m chimney – a lot of people have died here”).

I ended up doing the scenic and safe tour along of the base of the mountain – not only were the views fantastic, but it also included some exciting parts that weren’t dangerous – as long as you’re sure-footed. Finally, Mt Myogi is one of the 3 sacred mountains of Gunma prefecture (the other two being Mt Akagi and Mt Haruna). There are shrines at the start, Myogi Jinja, and at the end of the hike, Nakanotake Jinja.

Hiking in Western Gunma 西上州

As of October 2020, the section of the Chukan trail between Azumaya 四阿 and Nakanotake Shrine 中之嶽神社 is closed due to rockfall and trail damage that occurred in April 2020 (the section starting just before the staircase described in this post). No reopening date has been set yet. Please check the Gunma prefecture website for future updates. 

HOW TO GET THERE: I had been putting off going to Mt Myogi for years, since I had always thought it was hard to get to. I first saw this mountain while staying overnight with friends in Tomioka; it seemed an exciting climb because of its rugged peaks, but at the same time it seemed really remote. So I was surprised when it took around 2 hours from Ikebukuro station to get to the closest station, Matsuida, on the Shin-Etsu line, a couple of stop before Yokokawa (transfer in Takasaki). The view from the station exit was stunning – there were no surrounding mountains and Mt Myougi seemed quite close. I could also see a snow covered Mt Asama just behind it. Unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo, thinking I would get a better view on the hike, but never did.

There is no bus from the station to the start of the hiking trail. You could walk along the road or take a taxi to Myougi shrine (one hour / 4 km). On the other hand, a taxi takes about 10 minutes and costs about 1400 yen. I’m not really sure about the exact price, since I was able to share the taxi with 3 other hikers, and we split the fare – I paid only 400 yen. One thing I can say for sure is that demand exceeds supply; there were more hikers than available taxis, and I had to wait for a taxi to complete the round-trip before I could get a ride. I still managed to be at the start of the trail just before 10 am – two hours and a half after leaving Ikebukuro station.

There is a bus running from Joshu-tomioka station on the Joshin Dentetsu line, south of Mt Myogi, but not only does it take longer to reach that station by train, the bus also takes forty minutes, basically adding one hour to the travel time, so I wouldn’t recommend going this way.

Ask for a hiking plan for the Mt Myogi Chukan path

THE ROUTE: From the taxi drop off point, I headed up the street on the right to the Myogi shrine and to the start of the hiking trail beyond it. In some respects the base of this mountain is similar to Mt Tsukuba – many people visit it to see the shrine and pray. My original plan was to walk the Chukan path (中間道 meaning the middle path) along the base of the mountain. However I wanted to add on a loop that would take me close to the easternmost summit and where I could get some good views (according to my map). Since I had planned to return by taxi, for once I had no concerns about having to hurry to catch a bus at the end of the hike, except maybe getting off the mountain trail before it gets pitch black (after 5pm in this season).

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Sugi and Momiji (Cedar tree and Maple tree)

Mt Haruna, lots to explore

Mt Haruna, one of Gunma’s sacred mountains

Once I was past the Shrine grounds, I left the bulk of the sightseers behind me. I soon saw beautiful momiji (maple leaf tree) showing off beautiful autumn colours. Although the “Koyo” season had already ended on the higher parts of the mountain, it was now in full swing around the base. The path soon started to climb. I propelled myself up the steeper inclines with the aid of the chains lining the path. At this stage, it wasn’t really dangerous, one could easily walk up, but using the chains made it easier on the legs (as long as one has gloves).

Mt Hakuun

Mt Hakuun, so close yet inaccessible

The Southern part of the Myougi range

The Southern part of the Myogi range

At one point I reached a huge boulder with chains that supposedly had a viewpoint on top. Thanks to my long legs and arms, I clambered to the top in a matter of seconds. I was standing next to a big-sized “big” Chinese character. The view was great, since it was a blue sky day. In front of me stretched the Kanto plain. To the south was a mass of peaks forming the Northern part of the Chichibu mountains. To the north, I could clearly see the massive bulks of Mt Haruna and Mt Akagi. In the far distance I could make out the snow covered peaks of Mt Hotaka, Mt Tanigawa and various other peaks of the Joshinetsu-Kogen National Park. Winter had definitely arrived to that part of Japan. And of course, just behind me, was one of the steep and rocky peaks of Mt Myogi, Mt Hakuun.

Autumn Colours galore

Autumn Colours galore

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Believe it or not, there is a ridge route following the top

I had to wait a little to clamber down again since the the rock was currently being tackled by a rather cautious hiker. Finally, I was able to get back onto the hiking trail. Very soon I reached a junction where one route continued straight to the summit, and the other, heading left, went down again, and connected with the Chuukan path. I decided to check out the summit trail before taking it.

Within minutes I was scrambling over rocks again and holding on to chains, but nothing I hadn’t done a hundred times before on other mountains. Finally a reached some steps leading to a ladder, at the top of which was a cave. I ventured inside and discovered a small shrine. On the other hand, there was no more path, just a wall of vertical rock. I retraced my steps, and managed to pick up the trail again to the right of the steps, beyond a towering cedar tree. I wasn’t surprised I had missed it since it wasn’t a path but a steep rocky incline with a chains and some footholds. Now I’ve done a few of these before but none quite as long or as steep. I pulled myself up halfway, but I didn’t feel all that safe – a fall would result in more than a few bruises – so I decided end my little reconnaissance there, and get on with the main hike.

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The craggy peaks of Mt Myogi

Past the trail junction, there was another passage with chains, as well as some sunny viewpoints. I stopped at one of them to have lunch. Eventually I joined up with the Chuukan path. It was a very pleasant up and down path (more up than down). There were some truly fantastic autumn colours along the way, and I couldn’t believe how few people there were. Later on, I read on the internet that thousands of people were on Mount Takao the same day.

After a while I reached a series of steps taking me very close to the top of one of Mt Myogi’s peaks. I didn’t expect the trail to go that high, perhaps 1000m, but it was hard to tell from the map. At this point the skies had clouded over a little, but the views were still above average. I was now walking along the base of a cliff. At times the path was carved inside the cliff, like a cave, forcing to walk bent over. This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the hike!

The long staircase

The long staircase

The low overhang

The low overhang

Later on, I arrived at a viewpoint, reached by a series of rocky up and downs fitted with chains. There were more people here since this spot is closer to the other end of the Myogi range, where there is a shrine and a car park. While waiting for my turn to go down the chains, I took lots of photos of the mountains stretching away to the south. There was one especially that caught my eye – Mt Arafune. It had a very long flat top like a table, quite an intriguing sight.

Lots of hiking possibilities

Lots of hiking possibilities

On the right, Mt Arafune or tabletop mountain as I call it

On the right, the flat top of Mt Arafune 

At the end of the path, I was also able to enjoy a great view of Mt Myogi to the North. The sun had come out again, and the whole range was bathed in a late afternoon sunlight, perfect for taking pictures. Once I was satisfied, I headed back to the main path, went down some more, under a rocky bridge, through a picnic spot and then up to another viewpoint, where I could check out the rocky crags I had clambered over just a few minutes before.

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The northern part of the Myougi range

Not an easy path

Not an easy path

The sun was slowly, but surely, heading for the horizon. I continued my descent, and quickly reached Nakanotake shrine. It was nice to start and end the hike at a shrine. I passed through quickly and got back on the road for the last part of the hike. It took me another hour to get back to my morning starting point. Along the road there were excellent views of some of Mt Myogi and surrounding mountains. The blue skies had returned, so even though the sun had already set it was still light.

Typical Myougi landscape

Typical Myougi landscape

Mt Kondou the other main Myougi peak

Mt Kondou the other main Myogi peak

Soon I entered a hiking path going down through a forest, a shortcut since the road make a big loop Eastwards. Very soon I was back on the road. I finally arrived at the turn-off for Momiji no Yu, a very conveniently located hot spring. After a nice hot bath, I called for a taxi; the return leg was more expensive, about 2300 yen, but since it had me almost nothing on the way there, I didn’t mind at all.

CONCLUSION: A medium-level hike with some thrills and great views,  suitable for non-experienced hikers, and especially beautiful in the autumn. If it weren’t for the taxi ride there and back, and some road-walking, it would be the perfect hike!

As of October 2020, the section of the Chukan trail between Azumaya 四阿 and Nakanotake Shrine 中之嶽神社 is closed due to rockfall and trail damage that occurred in April 2020 (the section starting just before the staircase described in this post). No reopening date has been set yet. Please check the Gunma prefecture website for future updates. 

Ask for a hiking plan for the Mt Myogi Chukan path

Nearly full moon tonight

Nearly full moon tonight

Great views on the walk back as well

Great views on the walk back as well

Myougi #1

Mt Takanosu (1736m), Okutama town, Tokyo Prefecture

This isn’t a very famous mountain, but many people climb it since it’s one of the ways up Mt Kumotori, a hyakumeizan, as well as the highest summit in the Tokyo prefecture. It’s also inside the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park. I left Tokyo (the city) under the sun, but arrived under clouds and drizzle – how the weather can change fast!

HOW TO GET THERE: The best way is to hop on the early morning direct train to Okutama from Shinjuku station, otherwise you will need to change trains at least twice. If possible, sit in the front carriage, since this will put you close to the station exit; then make sure be at the front of the line for the bus, since this will guarantee you a seat. The bus for Nippara, also the stop for this hike, departs right in front of the train station.

The bus stopped running all the way after the strong typhoons in 2019, so best to check beforehand whether service has been fully restored. 

Ask for a hiking plan for Mt Takanosu

 

THE ROUTE: After getting off the bus, I quickly continued walking along the road through the village. I knew the way since I had been here earlier this year to visit the Nippara caves. Also I was on a tight schedule and I didn’t have time to dawdle. Since the mountains were shrouded in mist, for once I didn’t lose any time taking photos. I arrived at a sign pointing to a footpath going down to the left, leading into the forest, over the river at the bottom of the valley and up the other side. It was pretty, but also slightly spooky, since there was no one else.

The path led me to a river bed through a ravine – it was remarkably beautiful (but difficult to take in photo). The approaching sound of bells told me that some other hikers were right behind me, but I lost them quickly on a steep slope. It took me away from the riverbed, and to the start of a rocky outcrop jutting above the ravine I had just climbed. Another group of hikers returning from the top of this outcrop told me it took 15 minutes to reach.

Despite my tight schedule I decided to attempt it since I was making good time. The rocky outcrop was somewhat slippery because of the recent rain, and turned into a bit of a scramble at the end. However it was worth it – even though the surrounding peaks were hidden in the clouds, I could see down the valley and the Nippara village below. Trees were showing their autumn colours here and there. It was hard to believe I was still in Tokyo prefecture.

View from the rocky outcrop – yes this is Tokyo prefecture.

Fifteen minutes later I was back on the main trail, and set off at a fast pace to make up for the lost time. Soon I was surrounded by mist. This made the climb doubly hard because it was impossible to see the summit – every time I thought I was about to arrive, the mist gave way to more forest and more climbing. Everything around me was silent and it felt a bit gloomy.

Finally I reached the top of Mt Takanosu (鷹ノ巣山 takanosuyama). There were a lot of people, but still plenty of space to sit down and have lunch. As expected there was no view to reward my efforts – just a lot of uniform whiteness. I headed down at once after lunch. There was really no point in hanging around, and I wanted to get back on schedule so that I would have time to take a hot bath at the end, and catch the direct train back to Shinjuku.

I thought that the way down was much nicer than the way up – a nice wide grassy ridge similar to a fire barrier. The mist went from spooky to mysterious. Suddenly I came to a point where the ridge turned right and went steeply downhill. The hiking trail seemed to be heading the same way. I was afraid of going down the mountain too soon, so I started to consul my map. Another hiker who had also been checking his map at the same place, told me this must be the right way. He was quite convincing so I started to follow him, anxious not to lose any more time. The path levelled and all seemed well; it started climbing again, became faint and  then disappeared. We both stopped to look for it through the mist. Eventually I found it twenty meters to our right. We were on a minor summit and the main trail had gone round it. I said goodbye to the other hiker, and continued ahead at at a fast pace. Funny things like this happen all the time.

Soon I came close to another minor summit, Mt Mutsuishi 1478m (六ツ石山 mutsuishiyama). The name means six rock mountain. It was only 5 minutes to the top so I went up. The top was grassy with some trees but looking back I could see Mt Takanosu. Since the elevation of Okutama station is only 350m, I knew I still had a long way down, and I quickly set off again. Soon the weather cleared up a little, allowing some sun through. I slipped on some rocks on a steep slope, somehow spinning around 180 degrees and landing with my chest on a rock. It knocked the wind out of me, but otherwise no damage done. Lower down, I had to navigate a slippery muddy path through thick forest. At one point I slipped again. After that, I decided to leave the path and walk through the forest alongside it. This is one reason not to go hiking after a period of rain.

Eventually I reached gentler slopes, an easier to walk path and finally a paved road. I was probably just above the old Okutama road which I had walked this year in May. At the entrance of the hiking path, there was a sign that a bear had been spotted at this location a few weeks ago. For one’s state of mind, I find it better to know this after the hike, rather than before. After another 30 minutes I was back inside Okutama town. From past experience, I called the hot spring Moegi no yu, but they told me it was very crowded at the moment and I would have to wait to get inside. I decided to skip my hot bath so that I could catch the last direct train for Shinjuku. As a consolation, I treated myself to some local sake on the ride back.

CONCLUSION: A surprisingly good hike with some pleasant ridge walking ending at the station. Definitely worth another shot in better weather. The official name for the hike from the summit down to Okutama is the Ishione Ridge Walk (石尾根縦走路 ishione jusoro).

Ask for a hiking plan for Mt Takanosu

Beware of bears

Mt Shakushi (1597m), Fujiyoshida City, Yamanashi Prefecture

The main reason to climb Mt Shakushi, a Yamanashi 100 famous mountain, is to enjoy the fantastic view of Mt Fuji from the summit; there are no mountains in-between, just fields and forest surrounding Oshino village below. The hike is mostly along a ridgeline, with several smaller peaks along the way. Although I was hiking in the middle of November, there were few autumn colours.

HOW TO GET THERE: Take the limited express for Kawaguchiko station, and get off one stop before the end at Mt Fuji / Fujisan station (used to be Fujiyoshida station till 2010). This convenient but pricey train will get you to Fujiyama in time for the bus for Oshino village. It’s also possible to take a combination of local trains, but the connection won’t be as good. I was the only person on the bus – I guess everyone else had gone to see the autumn colours around Kawaguchiko lake.

Ask for a hiking plan for Mt Shakushi

 

THE ROUTE: From the bus stop, I headed along a road with Mt Fuji to my back. After crossing a couple of small streams I started seeing signs for the entrance to the hiking  trail. Very soon I walking along a dirt road surrounded by beautiful forest; it felt very different from hiking trails closer to Tokyo, especially since there was no-one else around. Eventually I overtook a family of five who had come by car.

 

The sun was perfectly aligned above Mt Fuji

After climbing steadily for a while, I reached a pass where I turned left up the main ridge. I soon reached a rocky roped section, with a nice view of Mt Fuji to the side. After the obligatory snapshots, I continued towards the summit. After a while, I arrived at a junction, from where it was a short round-trip to another summit called Mt Shishidome 1632m 鹿留山 (shishidome-yama). Since there was no view, I decided to skip it and continue on my way. The path was now slightly downhill.

A good day for paragliding

Suddenly I came upon the perfect lunch spot – a lonely rock with a stunning view of Mt Fuji. Even though I was a short way from the summit, I decided to stop for lunch; the final part was mostly flat, and peaks can be surprisingly crowded even when there seems to be no one else on the mountain. Occasionally other hikers would stopped behind me to admire the view, but overall it was a very enjoyable lunch. Not only could I see Mt Fuji in front of me, but also the South Alps  (some of the highest peaks were already covered in snow) and lake Yamanaka. Eventually I managed to pull myself away from the view and reach the summit.

Mt Mitsutoge to the West

The top of Mt Shyakushi (杓子山 shakushi-yama) has a couple of benches, and interestingly enough, a bell to scare away bears. I was so busy taking photos of Mt Fuji, I completely forgot to ring it! I was glad I had already taken my lunch break – the sun was moving behind Mt Fuji, and the side facing me was slowly becoming a dark outline. It looked like the sun would set exactly behind the cone, a phenomenon called Diamond Fuji. Unfortunately, there was no way I could stay till sunset, even though it was nice and warm in the autumn sun.

View of Mt Fuji while descending

There wasn’t really any rush to go down, since I could walk to the onsen at the base of the mountain without having to catch a bus. After I started to head down, I passed a couple on the way to the top, showing that this mountain is small enough for a late afternoon hike. The descent was uneventful, except that at one point it got really steep and I slipped and fell. Luckily the trail was just dirt, no rocks, so no harm done. There were many open spaces where I could observe the dramatic outline of Mt Fuji with the sun behind it. There were also some fine views of Mt Mitsutoge to the right. I also passed a launching pad for paragliding that included a mini funicular to haul the material up. After a final switchback trail, I reached a paved road at the bottom of the mountain, and made my way to Fudoyu onsen. After a nice hot spring bath, I caught the empty bus back to Fujisan station.

CONCLUSION: A short hike that I recommend doing in autumn or winter when the weather is sunny in order to enjoy the views of Mt Fuji. An onsen within walking distance of the base of the mountain is a definite plus.

Ask for a hiking plan for Mt Shakushi