Mt Kintoki (1212m), Minami-Ashigara City, Kanagawa Prefecture, Saturday, October 1st, 2022 [Yuhi Waterfall to Otome Pass route]

Hiking in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park

富士箱根伊豆国立公園

I was looking for a hike close to Tokyo, high enough to escape the late summer heat and strenuous enough to maintain my regained form. I decided to revisit a mounatin I climbed ten years ago, which I could traverse north to south via a different route that would include a famous waterfall, as well as views of Mt Fuji. The trail up from Ashigara in Kanagawa, connected by local bus from Matsuda station, had been closed for a while due to typhoon damage; however looking online, it seemed to be in use again. I also saw that the final section was quite steep, a good test of my current physical ability. The trail down ended at a hot spring near Gotemba in Shizuoka, connected to the station by shuttle bus. The weather was supposed to be mostly sunny and warm, with few clouds and little wind, ideal conditions conditions for hiking. I was looking forward to climbing a familiar mountain via a new, challenging route and getting some good views of Mt Fuji in the autumn.

Mt Fuji before it got engulfed in the clouds

Yuhi waterfall, a famous purification spot

A cloudy cover still lingered in the early morning sky, as I rode the Odakyu Romance limited express train to Shin-Matsuda station. There, I boarded a full bus and rode it all the way to Jizodo (地蔵堂), the last stop. I had been there once before on my Yamabushi-daira hike. This time, I continued on foot along a small paved road up a pleasant, green valley. The sun was now shining above, and although it was only 9h30am, it already felt quite warm; despite that, the cosmos flowers were out, a sure sign of autumn.

A 23 meter drop (left) Climbing up the Ashigara Pass trail

Moth spotted near the start of the hike

I was delighted to spot a beautiful yellow moth on a phone booth, possibly a Japanese silk moth. At 10am, I reached the entrance for the short trail to the waterfall, next to a campground. A few minutes later, I was standing in front of the thundering Yuhi waterfall (夕日の滝). The water falls from a height of 23 meters, and apparently it’s a popular place for people to stand under to get purified. At 10h30, I started up the Kintoki trail (金時コース), a gently climbing trail through cedars. After passing an open shelter, the trail went up a shady valley next to a mountain stream.

Easy hiking along the Ashigara Pass trail

The summit of Mt Kintoki, a tough climb via the north side

I was happy to be walking next to a river again, the rushing water like music to my ears. The rocky terrain made it difficult to see the path, but pink ribbons attached to branches, as well as the occasional signpost, led the way. At 11am, the trail left the river and went up a steep ridge. I met no one along this section, adding to the sense of peace and quiet. Half an hour later, after getting a glimpse of today’s summit through a gap in the trees, I reached a level dirt road, also the Ashigara Pass Trail (足柄峠コース). I turned left, and 3o minutes later, arrived at a viewpoint of Mt Fuji.

Mt Fuji slowly disappearing into the clouds

The western part of the Tanzawa mountains

I was lucky that the summit was free of clouds; just a few minutes later some clouds rolled in and refused to budge for the rest of the day. According to my map I was at the remains of the Inohara Fort (猪鼻砦跡 962m), a few stone blocks making a good place to sit and have an early lunch while enjoying the view. Directly ahead loomed the triangular-shaped summit of today’s mountain, looking steep and menacing. I soon set off again, the path now climbing straight up the mountain side, equipped with ropes and ladders for safety.

Lots of ladders to assist the hiker

Mt Hakone at the center of Hakone Volcano

I was surprised to find such a thrilling ascent so close to Tokyo; halfway up, the view through the trees to the northwest made me feel like I was hanging from a cliff. To the left, Mt Fuji was now completely in the clouds, to the right, I could see the green Tanzawa mountain range. I met several people on their way down, and had to find “passing spots” to let them by. At 1pm, I emerged onto the top of Mt Kintoki (金時山 きんときやま kintoki-yama). I had a fantastic view of the entire Hakone area; beyond the outer caldera, I could see Mt Ashitaka, Suruga bay, and a big cloud where Mt Fuji was supposed to be. As on my previous visit, the summit area was fairly crowded so I quickly moved on.

Viewpoint between Mt Kintoki and Mt Nagao

View of Mt Fuji and Gotemba city from Otome Pass

I made my way down a steep path through forest, counter-clockwise along the outer caldera rim, and now inside the Hakone part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. Half an hour later, I passed the flat summit of Mt Nagao (長尾山 1150m), surrounded by trees. After some more descending I arrived at Otome Pass (乙女峠 1004m). From a small wooden observation platform, I could see the lower half of Mt Fuji and Gotemba city spread out around its base. At 3pm, I reached a bus stop next to Otome Tunnel; I hopped on the next bus and got off at the nearby Fuji Hakkei no Yu. After a relaxing hot spring bath, I took the shuttle bus to Gotemba station, where I boarded the Odakyu Fujisan limited express for the 100-minute trip back to Shinjuku.

See and hear the sounds and sights of the Yuhi waterfall and Mt Kintoki hike

Mt Sekison (1667m) & Mt Hanare (1256m), Karuizawa Town, Nagano Prefecture, Tuesday, May 3, 2022

I finally had a chance to use the Tokyo Wide Pass,first time in four years, and in the end I did three hikes in a row. For the first one, I chose a small volcanic protrusion on the south side of Mt Asama (similar to Mt Hoei), which had been on my to-climb list for a while; being a relatively short trip up and down the same trail, it was reserved for a shinkansen jaunt. If I had time and energy after that, I would climb a small peak within Karuizawa Town, apparently the first one climbed by the Japanese Emperor, an enthusiastic hiker. After getting off the high-speed train, a short train ride on a local line, followed by an equally short taxi ride, would bring me to the start of the trail. I could travel to the second mountain by local bus, and at the end, walk half an hour back to the shinkansen station. The weather was supposed to be clear but cool for the season. I was looking forward to visiting Karuizawa after nearly two years and getting some close-up views of Mt Asama.

Hiking in the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park

上信越高原国立公園 

Mt Asama still wearing its winter coat

Karuizawa with Mt Myogi and Nishi-Joshu in the background

I had never seen Tokyo station so crowded: on the platform itself, it was nearly impossible to figure out where the end of the line was, and I was very lucky to snag one of the last unreserved seats. After a comfortable ride, I got off at Karuizawa station just before 10am, and transferred to the much less crowded Shinano railway for the two-stop ride to Shinano-Oiwake. I was pleasantly surprised to see cherry trees still in full bloom, one month after Tokyo. I got on the last taxi waiting outside the station and was at the trail entrance by 10h30. After getting ready and having a late breakfast, I set off at 11am.

Walking under the pine trees at the start of the trail

The surreal Nigori River

The first part of the hike was along an easy to walk trail, slowly rising through a pine forest within the southern reach of the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park (上信越高原国立公園). The altitude was around 1000 meters and spring was in full swing. Just before noon, I reached Nigori River (濁川 meaning “murky river”). I was stunned by its surreal yellow colour, probably due to the volcanic nature of the area. I was lucky to catch this sight on a sunny day, the water surface glittering like gold. After a few more minutes, I reached Chi-no-taki (血の滝), meaning “blood waterfall”, although it was still a muddy yellow.

Following a yellow river through the winter woods

Mt Asama, one of the hundred famous mountains of Japan

I was walking through a forest bare of leaves, since at 1400 meters, winter was back. The path continued to follow the Nigori river, passing “chi-no-ike” (血の池 “blood pond”), before turning away to the left, up a small valley. I soon reached the ridgetop, where I had my first view of Mt Asama, its rocky summit still sprinkled with snow. I walked up a short, steep slope in the opposite direction, and just after 1pm, was standing on the top of Mt Sekison (石尊山 せきそんさん sekison-san), its characters meaning stone and respect.

Yatsugatake, its highest peaks still covered in snow

Mt Asama is also an active volcano

The view was alot better than expected: on the east side, I could see the ridge connecting Mt Hanamagari with Usui Pass; behind Karuizawa was the craggy top of Mt Myogi; south were the mountain ranges of western Gunma; to the west, I could make out the shape of Yatsugatake, its highest peaks still shining white; the opposite side offered a stunning closeup view of Mt Asama. I was the only person on the mountain, so I settled on the grass for a quiet lunch. After half an hour, I started to descend the same way.

Still some snow due to a recent spring storm

It’s still winter above 1500 meters

I saw some puffs of smoke rise from the crater, reminding me that I was on the side of an active volcano. I retraced my steps back to the trail entrance; now and then the wind was blowing quite hard and made the tall pines trees sway above me. I moved quickly, as I wanted to allow enough time for the second climb of the day. I arrived back at my starting point at 3pm, and soon after reached the bus stop of the Chikuma city bus. Karuizawa being a popular resort town, I got stuck in some traffic and only reached the South Entrance of Harareyama Park (離山公園 after 4pm.

A well-maintained walkway along the steeper parts

Nearing the top

It was a relaxing climb through the forest, greener at 1000 meters; the steeper part near the top was along a well-maintained wooden walkway. Frequent signs breaking up the hike into 100 meter segments, were encouraging on the flat bits, less so on the ascending ones. At the end of a long staircase past some cherry trees still in full bloom, I reached the top of Mt Hanare (離山 はなれやま hanare-yama), the name meaning separation. To the west, I had a wider view of Mt Asama, as well as Mt Sekison, where I had been standing three hours earlier; it was against the sun, and would surely look even more impressive in the early morning.

Mt Asama from the top of Mt Hanare

Cherry blossoms, pink in the late afternoon sun

I was enjoying the late afternoon view when the five o’clock chime sounded through the valley. Normally, a call for children to come home for dinner, it also meant I had to hurry down if I wanted to catch my planned Shinkansen, about one hour later. I set off towards the East Entrance, and after some descending, I reached a wide gravel road taking me down to the base of the mountain. The last part was a pleasant walk past summer cottages set within the forest, for which Karuizawa is famous. At 6pm, I was back at the station, where I boarded the high speed train for the one hour ride back to Tokyo.

See the yellow waters of Nigori River and the volcanic fumes of Mt Asama

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

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

Download a map of the Mt Hinata hike

This map was developed for Japanwilds with the Hokkaido Cartographer

Find more Japan hiking maps on Avenza

The white rocks of Mt Hinata

Mt Amagoi, climbed in June 2020

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

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

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

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

Mt Yatsugatake with the first snow of the season

A beautiful but cold day

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

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

The summit has a good view of Mt Fuji

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

The light green colour of Senga Pool

The pool leads into the fast-flowing Ojiragawa river

It was still early so I had time to quickly check out Ojiragawa Keikoku (尾白川渓谷 ojiragawa-keikoku). I went only as far as Sen-ga-buchi (千ヶ淵) and back. I was impressed by the green colour of the pool at its base. The trail continued further up the valley, and I hope one day to hike it in its entirety. On the way back to the bus stop, I dropped by Ojira no yu hot spring at 4pm for a quick hot bath. Once back at Nirasaki station, I boarded the limited express for the two-hour trip back to Tokyo.

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

Mt Koshin (1892m), Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture, Sunday, November 14, 2021

This mountain had been on my to-climb list for the past few years. I needed to go by car and be physically fit to be able to do it it as a daytrip; good weather was also a requirement to justify the expense of the trip and the effort of the climb. The drive from Nikko station and back seemed straightforward, although I would need to skip the after-hike hot spring bath if I wanted to be back before dark. The beautiful autumn weather was supposed to continue for a few more days. However, due to the higher elevation, I had little hope of seeing any autumn leaves. My only concern was about the trail itself, since it went through an extensive rocky area, equipped with ladders and chains; it looked fun but I needed to be careful. Finally, I was looking forward to hiking inside the southern part of the Nikko national park and seeing some great views.

View of Mt Sukai from near the summit of Mt Koshin

Koshin Lodge with the cliffs of Mt Koshin in the background

I arrived in Nikko around 9h30 under a mostly cloudy sky. By the time I reached my car, I noticed a blue patch slowly expanding from the east, and after I arrived at the Ginzan-Daira parking area (銀山平駐車場) a little after 11am, the sky was entirely blue above. At 1130, I was walking a long a flat road closed to traffic and hugging the mountainside above a steep river valley; one hour later I reached the red shinto gate at Ichi-No-Tori (一の鳥居) marking the start of the hiking trail.

The forest road leading to the start of the hiking trail

The first part of the trail was fairly easy to hike

I followed a beautiful mountain stream up a gently sloping path. On the way, I crossed a couple of wooden bridges and passed several huge rocks with various names. A little after 1pm, I reached Koshin lodge (庚申山荘), where most hikers spend the night, and then hike to Mt Sukai and back the next day. Rising dramatically behind it, I could see the cliffs through which somehow a trail led to the summit. I took a short break and set off again, reaching the rocky base about ten minutes later.

The trail followed a lively mountain stream

Climbing steeply from here

I was the only person on the trail so I resolved to be doubly cautious as I made my way up through the rocks. I was amazed that anybody would think of creating a path up what was almost a rocky cliff, and I would only recommend it to surefooted hikers. I moved quickly, soon reaching the cliff top and a view point from where I could see the low mountains of southern Tochigi. I continued through a thick pine forest along a gentler sloping trail. At 2pm, I reached the top of Mt Koshin (庚申山 こうしんざん koshinzan), a hundred famous mountain of Tochigi.

Halfway up the rocky area

Surefootedness is a must here

It was completely in the trees but after walking a few minutes along the ridgeline, I reached a break in the trees and a fantastic view. Directly opposite, I could see Mt Nokogiri and Mt Sukai. To the north was Mt Shirane and Mt Nantai. I was the only person enjoying this glorious panorama on a peaceful windless day. I wanted to stay longer but I needed to head back before it started to get dark. I went down the same way, although now it was mostly in the shade.

Gazing upon the mountains of Tochigi from above the cliffs

View of the Nikko national park from near the summit

It took me an hour a half to get back to the trail entrance. Since I was on schedule, I had a quick look at the nearby 7 waterfalls of Koshin (庚申七滝), although access to some of the falls was currently closed. I reached the parking area just before 4h30 and left soon after. As I drove along the Watarase river valley, I came upon a troop of monkeys crossing the road. I reached Nikko station at 5h20 and then hopped onto the Kegon limited express for the ninety-minute ride back to Tokyo.

Follow the mountain stream to the top of Mt Koshin

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

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

View south from the rocky area

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

Statue near my taxi drop-off point

An easy to walk path at the start of the hike

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

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

Walking between the rocks on the east side of the mountain

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

Kasugai golf course and the Misaka mountains

My lunch view – somewhere to the right is Mt Fuji

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

A rocky narrow ridge near the highest point of the hike

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

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

Looking back at Mt Kabuto

View from the road between the golf course and the vineyards

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

Hiking over “Helmet mountain”

Mt Kozuke (448m) & Nosubari Viewpoint (634m), Ogose Town, Saitama Prefecture

Looking at my hiking map, I found another unexplored corner of “Oku-Musashi”: by connecting various local trails, I could make a loop in a hidden valley beyond the Seibu-Chichibu train line and the “Green Line” road. I would take the Tobu line to Ogose station, from where it was a short bus ride to the start of the hike, and return via the same way. It was a short hike so I could leave Tokyo mid-morning and still catch the last bus back around 5pm. The weather was unseasonably hot, and I was worried how comfortable I would be hiking at a low altitude; however, the skies would be mostly clear of clouds, so I could count on some good views.

Lunch with a view from Moroto no Kuruwa

A peek through the trees below the summit of Mt Kozuke

It was a short ride to Ogose, so I was comfortable even though, for once, I wasn’t on a limited express train. At 11am, I set off under a very hot sun. The first part of the hike was along a road next to a mountain stream. Along the way I stopped at a “Garden Terrace”, a kind of flower garden you can visit for free. It was officially closed at this time of the year, but the owner invited me in for some coffee and a piece of homemade cheesecake on their terrace in the middle of the garden. I was touched by their welcoming attitude, and after a friendly chat, I continued on my way.

View from near the start of the Shiroyama hiking trail

The hills of Tokigawa Town are also rich in hiking possibilities

After an hour of easy road walking, I reached the start of the Shiroyama hiking trail (城山ハイキング). From this point, I started waving a stick in front of me to clear the spiderwebs. Despite this, I still managed to walk into several cobwebs, luckily devoid of spiders each time. After some switchback climbing through thick forest, I reached the top of Mt Kozuke (小築山 こづけやま kozukeyama) around 1pm. The summit was in the trees so I soon moved on. The next section was through mixed forest with occasional views. I stopped for lunch at a place called “Moroto no Kuruwa” (もろとの郭) since I could sit down on a log and enjoy a view of Ogose to the west.

An easy to follow trail through the forest

View towards Saitama from the Nosubari viewpoint

After lunch, I found myself on a gently rising path through dark forest. At 2pm, the trail started to climb steeply and very soon I reached Hananoki pass (花の木峠 683m) on the Odaira ridge (大平尾根), the highest point of the hike and just below the “Green Line”. The hiking path then exited onto a road and twenty minutes later I arrived at the Nosubari observatory (野末張見晴台). I had an excellent view of the Kanto plain and the eastern reaches of the Oku-Musashi hills. In the late afternoon, the sky was hazy so I couldn’t make out the skyscrapers of Tokyo. After a short break, I rejoined the trail just beyond the road and resumed my descent.

Trail *almost* blocked on the way down

The spider Red Spider Lily which flowers in the autumn

It took an another hour of quiet hiking down a peaceful valley shielded from noise to reach a paved road. Half an hour later I was back on the road I had taken in the morning, and soon after I was back at the bus stop. As I had some time before the bus, I decided to explore the nearby Umesono ume no Eki (うめしの 梅の駅) where I bought some craft sour made from local lemons and plums (I had it at home and it was great). Around 5pm, I caught the last bus back to Ogose station and by 5h30 I was sitting on the train for the short ride back to Tokyo.

Watch a video of hiking in Ogose (includes a spider and a caterpillar)

Caterpillar spotted just past the end of the hiking trail

Tanbara Highland (1200m), Numata City, Gunma Prefecture & Bear Sighting

I had been to Tanbara highland in May 2018, so I thought it would be the perfect place for some easy hiking during the rainy season. Since I had already been to the highest point, Mt Kanomata, this time I decided to take a different trail and skip this summit. This would make for a slightly shorter hike which was good, since this time I was driving there and back myself (it’s also possible to get there by bus). My main concern was the temperature – would it already be too hot and humid to hike comfortably?

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Tanbara Lake, seen from ski slope, turned grassy field

I arrived at the Tanbara Center house 玉原センターハウス around 12h30. Contrary to my expectations, the air felt a little chilly and a few raindrops were falling; however, the sun was just coming out from behind the clouds. I set off the along the same trail as my previous hike, heading gently uphill through a beautiful beech forest and following a small bubbling stream. Just before arriving at the Tanbara camping ground, I turned left along the road towards the Lavender Park  in bloom from next month only. Now, however, the flowers were still closed, and the area was deserted.

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Hiking next to a small stream

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The Tanbara Lavender Park

I walked up one of the paths among the flowerbeds to a small observatory. It had a bell that one can ring to scare away any bears that may be lurking nearby. I gave it a good ring. After climbing down, I spotted a black shape out of the corner or my eye. It was about a hundred meters away on the edge of the ski slope (Tanbara is a ski resort in the winter months). Using the zoom of the camera, I was able to ascertain that this was in fact a bear cub. It seemed unperturbed by the noise of the bear bell, but a few seconds later it ran off into the forest. This was my fourth bear sighting, and it had been a while since the previous one, so this made my day.

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Bear cub above the Lavender Park (taken using 10x zoom on my camera)

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Tanbara is mainly known as a ski resort

I headed back down, and continued along the hiking trail up into a forested area between two lavender zones. Unfortunately, after a few minutes, the trail became so overgrown with bamboo grass that I had to give up . Even though it was indicated on the maps, it was obvious that the trail wasn’t much used, most people preferring the direct route to the summit. I decided to make my way back to the start of the hike, and turn right along the the bird-watching route 探鳥ルート so that I could at least reach the beech flats ブナ平, one of the highlights of the hike (I didn’t see any birds though).

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Tanbara Marsh, after descending from the beech flats

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The Iris flowers were in full bloom

Around 4pm, and somewhat behind schedule, I was finally walking on a level path among the beech trees. This is one of the rare places with a mostly flat trail high up in the mountains, so it’s perfect for beginners. Soon, I turned left, down the river source route 水源ルート, ending up at Tanbara Marsh 玉原湿原 around 4h30, another of the highlights of this hike. After crossing the marsh on wooden planks, I emerged onto a road (closed to traffic), and I was back at the parking lot just before 5pm. Even though I couldn’t do the hike exactly as I had planned, I was still able to hike for around 5 hours through beautiful nature in good weather. I was also relieved that the temperature and humidity had turned out to be perfect for hiking!

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Mt Kamakura (216m), Motegi Town, Tochigi Prefecture

This was another hike following the Kanto Fureai no Michi. This time I combined two short segments, so that I could start and end at a train station. The trail went through the countryside and low hills of Eastern Tochigi, near the border with Ibaraki, and about 20 kilometers North of Kasama city. I was hoping that I would be able to walk on forest paths, and that I would be able to enjoy a hike that didn’t take me up a mountain.

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A secret spot in Tochigi Prefecture

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Naka River near Shimono-o Bridge

Although I had planned to hike from train station to station, in the end I took a bus from Utsunomiya (Google Maps insisted it was quicker). I arrived at Motegi station, the last stop on the Moka railway, at 10am. I had never been to this corner of the Kanto area before; even though it was just 100km from the center of Tokyo, it felt like I had traveled to the other side of Japan. It was a beautiful blue sky day, and the temperature was on the warm side. I got ready and started walking around 10h30. I followed the distinctive Fureai no Michi signs to a river, which in turn led me to Shiroyama Park, located on top of a low hill.

 

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View of Motegi town from Shiroyama Park

There was a small watchtower on one side, probably a reconstruction. From the top, I had a good view of Motegi town to the South, cut in two by the Sasaka river. In the distance I could make out the ridgeline of Mt Takamine. On the other side of the park were the foundations of Shiroyama Castle, as well as some weeping cherry blossom trees or “shidarezakura” in full bloom. The trail continued down the other side of the hill and onto a small road. At 11h30, I arrived at Arakashi Shrine. The path from the entrance “torii” and the shrine itself was lined with some impressive giant cedars.

 

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Shidarezakura in full bloom

The next hour was mostly along small back roads. Walking on a road with little traffic is fine. However the longer you do this, the more you feel tired in your legs. There were some wide views, but like with forest roads, fewer surprises. The road took me all the way to the top of Mt Kamakura 鎌倉山, and despite its low elevation, there were good views on both sides of narrow forested valleys. There was a small shelter, so I sat down for lunch.

 

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View North from the the top of Mt Kamakura

Afterwards, I followed a small trail for a few minutes along the top ridge, past a tiny shrine, and arrived at a dramatic viewpoint. It showed a wide bend of the Naka river, famous for being the clearest river in the Kanto area. While I was taking pictures, I noticed a couple of birds of prey, flying in circles and using the air currents to gain altitude once they had drifted too low (see video at the end).

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Mt Kamakura Viewpoint

I couldn’t stay too long since today’s hike was about 25 kilometers. Also, there was a soba restaurant, on the other side of the river, that I wanted to drop by, even though I had just had lunch. I quickly followed a small path down the side of the small mountain. While crossing the bridge, I noticed a group of people kayaking down the river, something I might like to try one day.

 

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Naka River as seen from the bridge

After a delicious meal of cold soba and tempura or “tenmorisoba” at Sobanosato Magino, I continued on my way at about 2h30. The next two hours were again mostly along small roads. They were interrupted by two short sections of lovely forest walking. Occasionally I had some good views of the surrounding hills. There were a couple of observation towers, but the views must have been better decades ago, when the trees weren’t so high.

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One of the nicer sections of the hike

It was getting late, so I decided to skip the last part of the hike to Kaiishi Shrine, and head directly to the train station. I recrossed the Naka river, and followed the road till I reached the Ryumon falls 龍門の滝 just after sunset. After admiring the falls, I made my way to the nearby and appropriately named Taki station (meaning waterfall station) to wait for the local train for Utsunomiya, where I would hop on the shinkansen for Tokyo. In the end there was a little too much road walking for my taste, but I was happy that I was able to summit at least one mountain!

 

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Ryumon falls and Sakura

 

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Sunset on the Naka River

Birds in flight above Tochigi Prefecture

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

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