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

Hiking in the Togakushi Highlands 戸隠高原

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

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

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

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

Below: Easy and fun hiking along the crater rim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early winter snow on the way down

IMG_20191109_162409

The name Kurohime translates into English as “Black Princess”

NEXT UP: Mt Minobu (Yamanashi)

Mt Ihai (1458m), Susono City, Shizuoka Prefecture, Sunday, October 27, 2019

Hiking on Mt Ashitaka 愛鷹山

This wasn’t my first visit to Mt Ashitaka – I had already climbed the highest peak, Mt Gozen (1504m), in December 2013. I had taken the most direct route up, then headed Northeast to Mt Kuro (1086m), before ending up on the Eastern side of the mountain. The close-up views of snow-capped Fuji were absolutely stunning. However, Mt Ashitaka, a 200-famous mountain, is quite a huge mountain with more peaks to climb and ridges to hike, and I had been meaning to return for a while. As usual, logistics held me up, but his year I discovered that there was limited express train that runs several times a day between Shinjuku and Gotemba – it’s also a very easy way to get to the Mt Fuji area – so I decided it was time to visit Shizuoka again.

Mt Fuji visible from behind the ridge leading up to Mt Ihai

After arriving at Gotemba station, I hopped onto a mostly empty bus for the short ride to the base of Mt Ashitaka. Despite the good forecast, the weather was pretty horrible, and the top of the mountain was hidden in the clouds. After getting off the bus, I couldn’t find any signs, but thanks to Google Maps, I eventually stumbled on a sign indicating the start of the trail. It pointed to a staircase going down, but no sooner had I stepped on it, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a spiderweb spread right across it…with a massive “jorogumo” (a kind of orb-weaver spider) in the center. Although they aren’t poisonous, I didn’t really want one on myself. There was no way around or under it, and rather than destroy the web, I choose to climb over the railing and lower myself onto the staircase lower down.

Today I got to see Mt Fuji wearing a baseball cap

At the bottom of the short staircase, I crossed a small stream and headed up into the forest on the other side. At 9h30, I was finally hiking. Almost immediately, I walked into another spiderweb – luckily it seemed to be spiderless. However, from that point onwards, I decided to arm myself with a small stick, and wave it in front of me as I marched on. The path followed a gently sloping ridge through cedar forest, with few signs to confirm that I was on the correct path. There was no one else, apart from a couple of deer that escaped into the forest. There was a section with many fallen trees, possibly caused by the recent typhoons. Most of this hike on the Eastern side of Mt Ashitaka is inside the Southern part of the Fuji section of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, although there weren’t any signs indicating this.

Cloudy day yet Mt Fuji was clear

Just before 11am, I got my first views of Mt Fuji on the West side. The weather had cleared up a bit but the top of Mt Fuji was still in the clouds – under a kind of baseball cap. The further I climbed, the more the ridge narrowed, and the more views I got. Soon, Mt Fuji was totally clear and I started to lose a lot of time taking photos. I also had some views of Hakone to the East The ridge went on and on, and after what seemed like a long time, I reached Mt Mae, connecting with a trail coming from the valley – there was no view, and the summit marker was half-broken. Beyond that, the path descended a bit and I was able to make out my target peak – it looked close, but it took me another hour to reach. Occasionally I could hear the roar of lions from the nearby Fuji Safari Park below.

Cloudy ridge on the Northern side of Mt Ashitaka

I arrived at the top of Mt Ihai 位牌 (meaning “mortuary tablet” although there were none at the top) at quarter to one, and very behind schedule. There were 2 other people at the top, about to head down. They kindly offered me some tasty “age-senbei” or fried rice crackers, which I enjoyed on the train ride back. From the top, looking Westwards, I could see Mt Fuji and Mt Gozen – according to the sign, the connecting ridge is quite dangerous. The weather was much better now – blue skies with swirls of mist floating by. Southwards, I could make out an impressive valley, but not much else since there were still a lot of clouds in that direction. Originally, I had been planning to hike towards Mt Ashitaka, the peak that gives the whole mountain its name, but I realised that there was no way I could catch the last bus back – at 3h35 – if I took this longer way. If I missed my bus, I faced another two hours of walking to Mishima station on paved roads. So this time, I took the shorter route down.

Swan cloud passing by

Even with this shorter route, I would barely make it to the bus stop on time. Very soon I reached an amazing viewpoint. Behind me, the top of Mt Fuji was visible from behind the ridge I had just climbed up, with a beautiful blue sky in the background. In front, the Hakone mountain range rose up from the valley in between. I had never seen Hakone from this angle – I was so fascinated that I stepped into some brambles, and I had to spend a few minutes putting bandaids on all the scratches (the weather was warm enough for shorts).

Hakone Panorama

I finally managed to pull myself away from the view and continue down the mountain. I really enjoyed this part of the hike, following a narrow forested ridge, and it was a shame I had to rush it. It took me ninety minutes to reach the viewpoint at Ikenodaira 池ノ平 (846m), where I could get a view of Numazu city, Suruga Bay and the Izu peninsula, although the visibility wasn’t the best at this time of the day. I snapped a few pictures and continued down. Very soon I reached a parking and a road, from where it was another thirty minutes to the bus stop, which I reached with ten minutes to spare. This time the bus was pretty full, but I was able to sit all the way to Mishima station, where I caught the shinkansen back to Tokyo.

Clouds on Mt Ashitaka

NEXT TIME: Mt Tengu (Mt Haruna) in Gunma

Mt Sajiki (1915m), Mt Murakami (1746m) and Mt Kakuma (1980m), Gunma Prefecture, Sunday, September 1st 2019

Continuing my tour of Japan’s National Parks, I next visited the Joshin-Etsu-Kogen National Park in Gunma prefecture. Despite the poor weather forecast, I decided to risk taking the shinkansen to Ueda city. There, I rented a car and drove up the Western part of Mt Asama. I had been there a few years ago to climb Mt Yunomaru and Mt Eboshi, but there were a few more peaks that had remained unclimbed.

The balding top of Mt Yunomaru, climbed in November 2015

From Ueda station, I could see that the mountains were in the clouds, and on the way up I encountered thick mist. Fortunately, I broke through it before I reached Yunomaru Kogen above 1700m, and I even had some sun after I parked my car. I immediately rushed up the hiking trail, since I knew that the blue sky that had opened up overhead wouldn’t last. The path was quite nice, and I reached the top of Mt Sajiki 棧敷山 at exactly 11 o’clock. I had an excellent view of Mt Azuma and Mt Kusatsu-Shirane, hundred famous mountains I had already climbed.

Mt Azuma, climbed at the end of May 2012

I retraced my steps for a few minutes, and turned left to take an alternative path down. I soon reached a lookout point towards Yunomaru Kogen. At this point, the weather had become overcast, but luckily the clouds were quite high, and I could make out the Japanese Alps in the distance. The path then descended quite steeply. After it bottomed out, I was walking in a spooky, dark forest . I soon arrived at an intersection for the small brother of Mt Sajiki – I decided to check it out. I soon reached the top of Mt Kosajiki 小棧敷山 but the views were limited. Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to get back to my car.

The highest point of Mt Asama

I drove on to my next target at Kazawa Kogen 鹿沢高原. This time, I simply had to go up and down the same trail. I walked as fast as I could up the relatively easy path and reached the summit of Mt Murakami 村上山 just before noon. I was greeted by a vast panorama of Western Gunma, centered on Tashiro Lake. The views were wider than the previous summit and it was a good place to enjoy some lunch.

 

Mt Kusatsu-Shirane and Tashiro Lake

I quickly made my way back down and drove back up to Kazawa Onsen 鹿沢温泉. It was 2h30 and I had one more peak to climb, but I had to be back by 4h30 for the last entry at the hot spring. I raced up and reached the top of Mt Kakuma 角間山 a little after 3h30. Nearing 2000m, the vegetation had become alpine. While I was taking pictures of the view, it suddenly started raining, which for once was a good thing, since it forced me to head back down rather quickly. I half ran back the same way, and made it to the onsen with a few minutes to spare.

 

View Westwards from the top of Mt Kakuma

NEXT UP: Hiking from Yanagisawa Pass to Shirasawa Pass (Yamanashi Prefecture)

Mt Higashi-Azuma (1975m), Fukushima City, Fukushima Prefecture, Sunday, August 25 2019

After a one-month break, I’ve resumed my hiking activities, despite an ankle that hadn’t really healed. I needed something easy to allow me to get back into the groove, and also at a high elevation, since it was still quite hot and humid. With the weather forecast looking good, I decided to take the shinkansen all the way to Fukushima city, and then drive up the Eastern side of Mt Azuma, a hyakumeizan inside the Bandai-Asahi National Park about 230 km North of Tokyo.

Technically, the highest point is the Western summit about ten-kilometers away, so summiting the Eastern summit doesn’t really count towards increasing my tally of hundred famous mountains, stuck at 81 since last July. Although there is a bus from Fukushima city, the return is quite early, and doesn’t allow enough time to hike to the top and back.

 

Part I: Usagi-daira – Toriko-daira – Mt Higashi-Azuma

The top of Mt Higashi-Azuma in good weather

After parking my car at the free parking at Usagidaira 兎平, just a few minutes from the huge paying parking in front of the Jododaira visitor center, I set off on a small path that went through the campsite on the other side of the road. Apart from a few nice sections, I didn’t enjoy it very much. The path was tricky to walk, and was in dire need of maintenance. It was a relief when I finally reached Toriko-daira 鳥小平 with its wooden walkways and many dragonflies.

Here I turned right instead of going straight

Instead of heading up Mt Takayama straight ahead, I turned right, crossed the Bandai-Azuma Skyline, and slowly started climbing. Shortly, I reached a kind of plateau where I had great views of the summit, as well as a small lake. I was at the same height as the clouds and it was fascinating to watch them drift by. I soon resumed my climb. As I gained more altitude, the weather started to worsen, and by the time I reached the observation point near the top, I was, to my great despair, in the cloud with almost no visibility.

I continued somewhat dejected towards the highest point, but by now it had started raining. I took refuge under the trees just a few meters short of the summit. I put on my rain gear and proceeded to have some lunch. I was hoping the rain would let up, but it only seemed to pound down harder. The wind was blowing, and it felt cold even though it was still August. Finally I gave up and made a dash for the exposed summit of Higashi-Azuma 東吾妻山. I took a quick summit pic, and immediately headed down the other side.

Blue skies and clouds reflected in a pond

I was glad I had put on my rain clothes, as they soon got soaking wet, partly due to the rain, and partly from brushing against wet vegetation. The rain eventually stopped and the sun came out, but I had already descended too far to return to the summit. I didn’t like the path down very much: lots of roots and rock, making it tricky with my bad ankle.

 

Part 2: Uba-ga-hara – Kama-Numa Pond

A beautiful lake high up in the mountains

Eventually, I emerged at Uba-ga-hara 姥ケ原 where I was faced with a crossroads. I decided to head straight rather than head back straight to Jododaira. Very quickly, I reached Kama-Numa Pond 鎌沼池 which was quite a breath-catching sight. The dark blue water and light sky perfectly complemented the light green grassy rocks near the shore, and the dark green forested hills opposite. Definitely a landscape that would be worth painting.

The path leading down and back to the visitor center

Initially I thought I would walk clockwise around the lake, but my footsteps somehow took me counter-clockwise. I hope to come back some day and climb the remaining peaks on the other side of the lake. Eventually I left the lake behind me, and started to head back towards the visitor center. The weather had completely recovered. Descending in the sunshine, it was hard to believe that only one hour earlier I was sheltering from the wind and the rain near the summit!

 

Part 3: Jododaira – Mt Azuma-Kofuji

Spectacular view of “small Fuji” on the side of Mt Azuma

I was behind schedule, so I started to hurry towards Jododaira 浄土平. Although I had come by car, according to signs I had seen on the way up, the road back to Fukushima city closed at 5pm, so I had to make sure I was gone by them. My pace slowed somewhat after I started getting some jaw-dropping views of Mt Azuma-Kofuji 吾妻小富士, the mini-volcano sprouting from the side of Mt Azuma like a pimple. I definitely wanted to walk around the rim!

Walking above the clouds…

Although some sections had steps and walkways, a lot didn’t, so my ankle suffered some more. To my right, steam was venting out of the side of Mt Issaikyo. It was with great relief that I finally reached the visitor center. I took off my rain gear, and then rushed up the side of the mini-volcano and was standing at the edge of the crater less than five minutes later. I managed to walk around it in less than half an hour, enjoying the stunning views in every direction. It’s a pretty easy walk and anyone can do it. I managed to be back at the car before 4h30 and was happily driving back to the train station by 5pm. On the way, I had a quick bath at the very nice public onsen Attakayu.

Next up: Hiking at Yu no Maru, on Mt Asama (Nagano prefecture)

 

Clouds rolling by at nearly 2000m elevation