Mt Tennyo (1528m), Hokuto City, Yamanashi Prefecture

Hiking on Yatsugatake 八ヶ岳

I found out about the Yatsugatake “ondanhodo (八ヶ岳横断歩道 meaning “crossing path”) hiking down Mt Gongen. Looking at my hiking map it seemed like a mostly level path following the contour of the mountain. However, I wasn’t sure how well-maintained the hiking path would be, seeing that it didn’t lead to one of the popular summits in the area. Also, I was curious whether there would be any good views along the way. I decided to start from Kiyosato 清里 station, and finish at Kai-Koizumi 甲斐小泉 station, not to be confused with Kai-Oizumi 甲斐大泉, one station away. According to my map, the hike would take over 8 hours, but hopefully it could be done in less.

Hiking through the cow pastures

I left Tokyo under grey skies, but I wasn’t worried, since sunny weather was forecasted for Yamanashi; indeed, as soon as I reached Kofu city, the clouds parted and the sun appeared. I was more concerned about the train back being full as well, and I made sure to book my return seat as soon as I got off at Kobuchizawa. I was using the Tokyo Wide Pass which had gone through an upgrade since the last time I had used it. The fancy card format was out, replaced by a ticket similar to a shinkansen ticket, that could be put through the automatic ticket gates. I could also use it to reserve my seat in a ticket machine (I had one of the station staff show me how).

Hiking on the slopes of Yatsugatake

The Kawamata river valley

The Koumi line was also full so I had to stand for the short but exciting ride; the train went up the side of the valley, reaching Kiyosato – altitude 1274 meters – where I got off at 10am; the next stop on the line is Nobeyama 野辺山, the highest train station in Japan at 1345 meters. The air was definitely cooler here, and the village reminded me of Switzerland. To get to the start of the “ondanhodo” trail, I had to walk alongside a busy road for 45 minutes. Then, it was another half an hour of gentle climbing through forest before a short descent led me to Kawamata River. I took a short break here and had a late breakfast, enjoying the warm sun and the sound of the water.

The Oku-Chichibu mountains, in the clouds

Dragonfly taking a break on the top of a signpost

Setting off again, I soon reached wide pastures with a sweeping view of the Oku-Chichibu Mountains, and cows – it’s not often I get to see cows while hiking in Japan. It took me another hour to reach the top of Mt Tennyo (天女山 tennyosan meaning heavenly woman). The view, on the other hand, wasn’t so heavenly and didn’t detain me long. Since there is a bus route and a number of facilities in the area, there were many hikers. However, from then on I had the trail mostly to myself. After a few minutes of climbing I reached a sign for a viewpoint off the main trail. I decided to check it out, but ended up disappointed since trees blocked the view. Probably at one time in the past, it must have been quite spectacular. I retraced my steps, having lost five valuable minutes. The path continued to climb steadily with no end in sight. Since I wasn’t aiming to summit a peak, any meters gained would eventually have to be walked down. It was around this point, that the surrounding forest, a mix of coniferous and deciduous trees, started to get really beautiful.

The Kofu valley with on the left Mt Mizugaki

The “ondanhodo” trail, a pleasant walk through the forest

Eventually I reached the highest point of today’s hike, 1791 meters according to my map, and after a short level bit, I started descending again. This pattern continued for the rest of the hike, although on a smaller scale, as the trail made its way along the natural folds of the mountain. It was tougher than I had imagined but the trail was well-maintained and enjoyable; there were frequent numbered signposts; It made me appreciate the size and complexity of the massive ancient volcano I was walking on. I saw no other hikers and it was very peaceful. There were few viewpoints; I passed another sign of an observatory up a path heading straight up, but decided to skip it since I was still behind (I found out later that there was indeed a view). 

The Minami Alps

Looking back at Yatsugatake

At 2h30, I reached a break in the trees with a nice view Eastwards of Kofu valley. I sat down on the side of the trail and had a late lunch. Mt Fuji was in the clouds with only a part of the summit – still free of snow – visible. Soon after lunch, I reached a detour sign; the trail had collapsed lower down. However, I was grateful for it, as it allowed to avoid one of the many “dips” in the path. At 4pm I reached Samisen Waterfall 三味線滝 (1550m). Here, I turned left, leaving the Yatsugatake “ondanhodo” path, and headed down. The trail soon turned into a narrow paved road with nice views of the South Alps in front, and (part of) Yatsugatake behind. After a good hour of road walking, I reached Kai-Koizumi station a little after 5pm, just in time for the local train back to Kobuchizawa, one stop away. After admiring the dusk view from the the top of Kobuchizawa station, I hopped on the limited express for the two-hour ride back to Tokyo.

Listen to the sounds of Yatsugatake

This section of the path across Yatsugatake turned out to be a beautiful and peaceful hike, even though all the ups and down made it tougher and longer than I had imagined. The second half of the hike had few views, but that’s to be expected when walking the side of the mountain. The trail continues all the way round Yatsugatake – I think this may have been one of the better bits, and the only one that can be done from station to station; I’ll find out by hiking more of it in the future! 

 

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

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

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


Halfway point of the jagged Jogasaki Coast

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

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Oshima Island from Jogasaki-Kaigan station

Kadowaki Suspension Bridge with Oshima island in the background

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

Spectacular rocks near the Kadowaki Suspension Bridge

Grey cliffs and blue sea

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

The sparkling sea in the morning

Dark clouds got the upperhand in the afternoon

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

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

Climber nearing the top of the cliff

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

Most of the time, the trail was easy to walk

Fallen trees have been removed from the trail

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

Pink cherry blossoms with a background of blue sky

The rock bridge surrounded by frothy waves

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

Many pine trees along the trail

Walking among the tall pine trees

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

The Hashidate Suspension Bridge

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

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

Mt Omuro (580m) Crater Walk

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

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

Mt Fuji, Hakone, Tanzawa

Mt Fuji, clear of clouds in the late afternoon

Watch the crashing waves along the Jogasaki Coast

NEXT UP: Mt Sengen in Hakone, Kanagawa

Mt Kamimine (598m), Mt Oiwa (530m), Mt Takasuzu (632m), and Mt Sukegawa (328m), Hitachi City, Ibaraki Prefecture, Sunday, February 9, 2020

Hiking in the Hitachi Alps 日立アルプス

This was my first time hiking in the Hitachi Alps 日立アルプス, but traversing the entire range in one day seemed too long, so I decided to go up the West side, do a round trip to a peak on the North end, then head to another peak on the South end, and finally walk down the East side. This was a combination of two hikes from my Mountains of Ibaraki hiking book.

View of the Pacific Ocean near the end of the hike

Using the Tokyo Wide Pass, it took me less than 2 hours to reach Hitachi City from Ueno station. I was impressed by the view of the blue sparkling sea through the wide station windows, but I had to hurry since I only had a few minutes to catch the bus for Oiwa Shrine 御岩神社. It took about half an hour on a nearly empty bus to reach the shrine, known in the area as a power spot. I was fascinated by the many tall cedar trees within the shrine grounds, especially the group of three towering up to 50 meters near the entrance gate.  Apparently it’s one of the one hundred forests of giant trees in Japan. I definitely felt like I was inside some enchanted world!

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Walking among the tall cedar trees inside Oiwa shrine

I found the entrance to the hiking trail behind the main shrine building. For once, I wasn’t hiking alone, since most visitors to the shrine continue up to the mountain directly above. The straightest route to the summit was closed due to typhoon damage (predating 2019), but the detour path is clearly indicated. I reached the top ridge before 10h30, and turned left along a mostly level path. There were a couple of ups and downs, but each can be avoided by taking an alternate path on the right (something I confirmed on the return). I reached the top of Mt Kamimine 神峰山 just after 11pm. The view of the coast stretching Southwards and the Pacific Ocean was stunning.

View of the sea from the top of Mt Kamimine

I enjoyed a late breakfast sitting on the ground under a tree, since the bench was taken by another hiker. It’s possible to continue beyond Mt Kamimine, and back down to Ogitsu station (one stop from Hitachi station), but today I retraced my steps to where I had reached the top of the ridge one hour earlier. I continued up a short rocky path to Mt Oiwa 御岩山. It wasn’t the highest point of the ridge, and it didn’t feel like a mountain top, but there was a wide view to the West of the forested hills of Ibaraki, including Mt Nantai and Mt Yamizo, as well as the snowy mountains of Tochigi in the distance, so who am I to complain?

Panoramic view from Mt Oiwa

Unsurprisingly, there were quite a few people, and there was even an interesting sign forbidding people to eat rice balls (see below), so after checking out the views, I moved on quickly since it was nearly 1pm. There were multiple paths, but they all joined up eventually. The next part was easy to walk, and quite peaceful as there were few hikers.

Pleasant winter hiking after Mt Oiwa

I soon reached the top of Mt Takasuzu 高鈴山, the highest point of the hike. There was a sixty meter high white tower for measuring rainfall on the Eastern side (no view), and a wooden observation platform on the West side, with similar views as before, plus Mt Kamimine to the North.

Observation platform at the top of Mt Takasuzu

I had my lunch, and set off again at 1h30. The path continued Southwards, but I backtracked a few minutes till a road signposted for the ruins of Sukegawa castle 助川城跡 which I had crossed a little earlier. After a few turns, it joined up with a hiking path on the right. This section was very enjoyable. I saw no one while I made my way down the mountain, and it felt like a secret path. I sometimes wondered if I was on the right trail, and was relieved everytime I spotted a signpost!

Hiking down from Mt Takasuzu along a narrow path

I reached Omusubi pond おむすび池 before 3pm. It was part of a wide park, nearly completely deserted in the middle of winter. Fifteen minutes later I reached the top of Mt Sukegawa 助川山 with a superb 360 degree view.

Arbour and lookout point at the top of Mt Sukegawa

I could see the entire range of the Hitachi Alps, Iwaki to the North, Chosi to the South, and the Pacific Ocean. It was hard to believe that San Francisco lay 8000 km straight ahead with nothing in between but the ocean.

In clear weather, one can see all the way to Choshi

It was windy and cold, and already past 3h30, so I took off again for the last part of the hike. At the edge of the park the signposting was a little confusing, but thanks to Google Maps, I managed to find my way to the ruins of Sukegawa castle, and the edge of Hitachi city. There I caught a bus back to the station, and the comfortable limited express train back to Ueno and Tokyo.

Looking back at Mt Kamimine

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NEXT UP: Jogasaki in Coast Shizuoka

Mt Kongogaya (788m) & Mt Ozawa (1089m), Nanmoku Village, Gunma Prefecture, Saturday, January 11, 2020

I hadn’t been to Shimonita for a whole year so it was time to visit again. Since it was a 3-day weekend, I bought the Tokyo Wide Pass, and used the shinkansen to get an early start. My target mountain wasn’t enough for a whole day hike, so I decided to climb another small peak on the way. I had to walk thirty minutes to the start of the trail since I wasn’t there early enough to get the bus connection – it’s also possible to go by taxi.

Ridge trail leading to the summit

I started climbing around 10am along a forest road that went back and forth up the mountain. Along the way, I had some nice views of Mt Myogi to the North. I soon reached the summit ridgeline, turned right, and followed the narrowest of trails to the highest point of Mt Kongogaya 金剛萱. The summit was crowded with buddhist statues, but since I was the only person there, I had enough space for myself.

The summit was pretty crowded

I had an excellent view of the mountains of Western Gunma or the “Nishijoshu” 西上州. In the background, Mt Asama was flirting with the clouds. To the South, against the sun, loomed the Oku-chichibu mountains, and deep dramatic valleys. I had reached the summit after 11am, later than I had planned, so after a late breakfast, I hurried down the other side.

Southwards are the Oku-chichibu mountains

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Panoramic view from the top of Kongogaya

The path was steep and at times hard to follow – my map sensibly recommended to only use it for descending. I finally reached a level forest road, which, after a lot of switchbacking, got me back to the road at the base of the mountain, but too late to catch the bus to my next destination.

I walked one hour to reach a smaller road, along a beautiful river valley, with towering cliffs on the opposite side. It took me another 45 minutes to reach the actual start of the trail, another forest road. Here there was some damage caused by last year’s powerful typhoons, and for a short section, the trail was difficult to walk.

Some of the trail was damaged due to last year’s typhoons

The forest road started to climb, and soon I reached a pass. To the right, was the start of a proper hiking path that headed South along a ridge. There were good views of the valley I had just walked up. To the right, I could also make out the summit of Mt Inafukumi, climbed just one year ago. The path went up and down along several minor peaks, and as I slowly gained elevation, I started to feel the freezing cold of January. After one last uphill scramble, I finally emerged onto the summit of Mt Ozawa 小沢岳 just after 2pm.

On the right, Mt Inafukumi, one of the highest mountains in the area

The view South near the summit marker was a little obstructed by the top of the trees, but once I moved, with extreme caution, close to the edge of a cliff on the West side, I could clearly see the many ridges and valleys of Western Gunma. Nestled deep below was the small village of Nanmoku. Mt Asamaya was now totally clear of clouds. I could also see the summit of Yatsugatake to the West. I could even see the North Alps through a gap of the mountains. Although it felt chilly while climbing through the shady forest, it was nice and warm in the sun. There was almost no wind and It was very silent. I sat down, laid back, and enjoyed the peace and quiet for a short while.

Mt Asama, a magnificent volcano straddling Gunma and Nagano prefectures

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Some of the views from the top of Mt Ozawa

It was nearly 3pm, and it was time to head down. I had given up on catching the last bus back, and I would have to walk one hour back to the station along the road. I started to jog back down the same way, since there was no other path on the mountain. However, there was a forest road running parallel to the ridge trail, so I decided to follow that for some variety. The road had partially collapsed at one point, and some parts were covered with brambles, so I couldn’t go as fast as I wanted.

Nice view of Mt Asama from the alternate return via the neglected forest road

Most parts of the forest road were quite walkable

The return was uneventful, and I was back on the main road by 4pm. This was one of those rare hikes where I met no other hikers. I didn’t even encounter any animals. Thirty minutes later I passed in front of a factory that looked like something out of Ghibli animation. Shortly after, I got picked up by a passing car. The driver kindly offered to drive me to the train station, even though it was a small detour for him – not the first time I have encountered the kindness of the people of Gunma Prefecture. The driver was employed at the factory, so we had an interesting chat about that. Thanks to him, I was back on a train bound for Takasaki by 5pm.

Dramatic view of Mt Asama the top of Mt Ozawa

NEXT UP: Mt Sekison in Tochigi Prefecture

Mt Suzu (1564m), Maebashi City, Gunma Prefecture, Monday, November 4, 2019

This was my third hike on Mt Akagi, also a dormant volcano and one of the three famous mountains of Gunma (the third one is Mt Myogi). Since it’s a hundred famous mountains of Japan, I knew that the bus from Maebashi station would be packed. Thankfully, they had an extra bus prepared, so everybody was able to sit during the one-hour trip – a good thing considering that the road had many sharp curves. I got off a few stops before the Akagi Visitor Center, at Shinzakadaira 新坂平, and took refuge at the nearby Akagi Tourist Information Center. It was cold and windy – a big change from the warm weather just 2 days ago.

Hiking on Mt Akagi 赤城山

 

Easy hiking among white birch trees

I had a quick look at the displays, which included a mounted bear, then had some coffee and toast for breakfast at the small cafeteria. At 10h30, I was ready to brave the near freezing conditions. The first part of the hike was on an easy path along a forested ridge. An hour later, I reached the highest point, Mt Kuwagara 鍬柄山 (1562m), where I had a fantastic view of the whole area. To the East, I could see the ancient caldera of Mt Akagi with Ono Lake at the center, and the highest point, Mt Kurobi, above. To the North, I could make out Mt Nikko-Shirane and Mt Sukai. To the West, was Mt Haruna, with Mt Asama looming behind. To the South was the round top of Mt Jizo with its TV antennas, another of Akagi’s peaks.

View of Mt Akagi’s main peak Mt Kurobi and Ono Lake

The next part was a steep but short slope bringing me to a saddle at the base of my target peak. The next part was an easy short scramble up a rocky path, aided by chains in a couple of sections. The trees were small and already completely leafless, so I was mostly in the sun. Those same trees blocked most of the view from the top of Mt Suzugatake 鈴ヶ岳, but they kept out the wind during lunch. By standing on a rock, I could make out Mt Kusatsu-Shirane between the trees, although the summit was hidden in the clouds.

The rounded forested summit of Mt Suzu

It was already past 1pm, so I quickly went back down to the same way to the base of Mt Suzu. My guidebook suggested continuing back the same way to my starting point, but since I had time, I decided to take a detour around Mt Suzu. It involved descending about 400 meters on one side, and then ascending the same amount on the other side, but I was feeling fit from all the recent hiking so I didn’t mind. On top of that, I was hoping to see some beautiful autumn colours and enjoy the solitude of a path few people hiked. The path was a bit hard to follow – I had to look out for the “yellow strips” – but from time to time a helpful signpost appeared in the middle of the forest.

The autumn colours were at their peak

As I had hoped, the autumn colours were amazing, especially beautiful in the early afternoon sun – I felt like I was walking down an enchanted valley. To my left was a mischievous mountain stream, sometimes running above ground and sometimes under, the noise of rushing water alternating with silence. Thirty minutes later I reached the other end of Mt Suzu, where huge moss-covered boulders were mysteriously strewn throughout the forest, having apparently rolled down from above. Just beyond, I entered a larch forest, forming a wonderful orange ceiling above my head. I emerged onto a road half an hour later, and a little later I reached the lowest point of the hike, as well as the entrance of another section of the “Kanto fureai no michi” 関東ふれないの道, heading up a forested valley on the other side of Mt Suzu.

Mountain stream and autumn colours

Although the trail was now easier to follow, it was also in the shade, so it was harder to appreciate the autumn colours – it was much colder as well! At one point, the path met up with another stream. Apparently there were some waterfalls further up, but I didn’t have time to investigate. Soon I was climbing back up the side of the mountain. It was hard to make out where I was heading among the multiple folds of the mountain side, and for a while I wasn’t exactly sure where I was on the map. However, according to the ever useful signposts, I was on the right path.

The name “Akagi” can be translated at “Red Castle”

After going up what seemed like a never-ending wooden staircase, it was with relief that I arrived at Depari Pass, joining up with a path I had hiked previously on Akagi. It was nearly four o’clock and the sun was quickly dipping behind the side of the mountain. It took me another thirty minutes to reach the shore of Ono Lake and the bus stop just after sunset. Fortunately the bus back to Maebashi station was fairly empty, most people having taken an earlier bus back.

Mt Akagi mountain stream and crater lake

NEXT UP – Mt Kurohime (Togakushi Kogen) in Nagano

 

 

Mt Tengu (1179m), Takasaki City, Gunma Prefecture, Saturday November 2, 2019

Hiking on Mt Haruna 榛名山

This was my third hike on this dormant volcano, and one of the three famous mountains of Gunma. It’s also a popular sightseeing spot – there was a long line at the bus stop, opposite the West exit of Takasaki station. I got the very last seat, which was lucky since the ride takes one hour (halfway there, they added a second bus for those standing). It turned out that most people were visiting Haruna Jinja, a 1400-year old shrine located on the Southern side of the volcano. Most people got off at the shrine – however I continued all the way to the last stop at the shore of Haruna lake. Once off the bus, I was stunned by the reflection of Mt Haruna-Fuji on the blue surface of the lake.


This was my first time to see this Haruna lake under blue skies

The first part of the hike was down the side of the mountain along the “Kanto Furenai no Michi” (関東ふれないの道). The path had suffered a bit from the recent typhoons, but was still walkable. The autumn leaves were still at their peak, and looked great in the clear autumn weather. At one point I passed an interesting rock formation, that looked to me like a kind of giant monster. Less than an hour after setting out I reached Haruna Shrine which I had passed earlier by bus. I decided to follow the masses of people and check out the shrine. Although it seemed like your typical Japanese shrine, I was impressed by the massive cedar trees. After reaching the main building, I retraced my steps and located the start of the trail, up a road closed to cars near the massive gate marking the entrance to the shrine.

I happened to be at this strange rock just when the sun was shining from behind

The road soon narrowed; for a short while a stream passed over it – its passage underneath having been blocked by stones, no doubt due to the recent typhoons. The start of the hiking trail was marked by a small red “torii”. A few minutes later, I lost the trail. I backtracked a bit, and after scanning the surrounding forest, I managed to pick it up again (a signpost would be good here). A little further, there was a steep, but short slope that brought to the top of a ridge, and a fork. I first headed right to the top of Mt Kyodai (1079m) 鏡台山, completely surrounded by trees. I retraced my steps, and followed the left fork, which brought me to a rocky outcrop and a great panoramic view of Mt Asama and Mt Myogi to the West. After a short break, I headed back, and continued along a very enjoyable and mostly level path with few people.

Beautiful autumn colours on the side of Mt Haruna

Eventually I got to another fork. To the right, was a peak with no view. To the left, the path, running alongside a series of miniature “torii”, led to the true summit of Mt Tengu 天狗山, which I reached around 2pm. There was an excellent view of the Kanto plain to the South, a few meters past the summit. Unfortunately, as with the previous viewpoint, it was against the sun so it didn’t photograph well. I enjoyed the rest of my lunch, perched on top of one of the huge boulders at the viewpoint. My guidebook suggested going back the same way, but I decided to make a loop hike along a slightly longer, less traveled way, following the ridge above the trail I had come on.

Kissing rocks near the top of Mt Tengu

The entrance to this trail was hard to spot – there was a very small sign pointing the way through the bamboo grass, and the trail was very faint. I had to constantly search for “yellow strips” attached to trees. It was an exciting path with great occasional glimpses of the higher peaks of Mt Haruna to the East. However, it was also nerve-wracking, since I was alone on the trail, and I had to be careful not to lose my way. It was starting to get late, and I wanted to be sure to complete the hike before nightfall. On the way, I passed the minor peaks (but also highest peaks of the day) of Mt Kokanehara (1225m) 小鐘原ヶ岳 and Mt Okanehara (1252m) 大鐘原ヶ岳. After the second summit, the path descended quickly, and I was even more careful checking for the yellow strips – I didn’t want to have to climb back up like I had done the previous month in the Tanzawa mountains!

Late afternoon view of Mt Haruna in full autumn splendor

I was relieved to finally reach Jizo pass, where I turned left off the ridge and down into the valley. However the path remained difficult to follow with few signposts. Thanks to some judicious pathfinding, I got on to a good path next to a pretty stream and finally managed to rejoin the road I had walked up a few hours earlier. I was back at Haruna Shrine a little after 4pm, and I had ample time to catch the now mostly empty bus back to Takasaki station.

The birds of Mt Haruna – Swan gliding over the lake and Falcon flying in the sky above

NEXT UP – Mt Suzu (Mt Akagi) in Gunma

Mt Daigenta (1764m) & Mt Mikuni (1636m), Yuzawa & Minakami Towns, Niigata & Gunma Prefectures, Saturday, September 14, 2019

Hiking in the Mikuni Mountains 三国山脈

This update should belong to the Tokyo Wide Pass update for Silver week 2019, but since the second hike of that holiday fell through due to a combination of bad weather and a poorly-marked trail, I only managed one hike (a repeat of this year’s Golden Week). I was excited about this hike since it connects two prefectures, and two consecutive stations on the Joetsu Shinkansen. The staff at the ticket window were good enough to confirm that I wanted a return on the same day from a different shinkansen station! It’s also entirely within the Joshin’etsukogen National Park.

Gunma view from the top of the ridge connecting Mt Daigenta and Mt Mikuni

After arriving at Echigo-Yuzawa station in Niigata prefecture, I hopped on the bus headed for Naeba Prince Hotel, getting off at Asakai, a few minutes past the stop for Mt Sennokura. My plan was to hike up the ridge leading South from Mt Tairapyo, so that I could pick up my hike from 2017, about half an hour past the Tairapyo Mountain Hut. My map indicated that the hike went up through the ski resort but that the start of the trail was hard to find. I found something that seemed like a trail and headed up it, but after climbing for nearly thirty minutes, it turned out to be a deadend.

A hint of autumn, looking Westwards to Niigata

I was now faced with two options. Either head back down, and follow the road to the start of the trail of Mt Mikuni (where I had expected to end up) and go and back down from there. Or, cut across the hillside in the hope of coming across the actual trail. I chose the second one, following a very faint overgrown track through thick bushes at the edge of the forest covering the mountainside, thinking all the time that if this doesn’t work out, I’ll have to walk back the same way. Finally I gave up on the bushwacking, and started to climb directly up through the forest. It was pretty steep, but there was less vegetation to slow me down.

The ridgeline I was hiking up

After about ten minutes of climbing straight up the side of the mountain, using the thin trees as handholds, I spotted some rope to the right. I moved towards it, and discovered the path. My joy at finding the path, was tempered by the fact that it headed straight up the mountainside at roughly the same gradient I had been doing just before – the rope was there to help pull yourself up. The path continued for what seemed like forever. I finally reached a minor summit with a view of the remaining way to the top ridge. I had just started out, and I was already exhausted!

The instantly recognizable shape of Mt Naeba, as seen halfway up the ridge

After a short descent, the path continued to climb relentlessly. At precisely noon, I emerged at the high point, more than two hours after setting out, and completely knackered. This was after all my first big ascent since the start of the summer. I admired the great 360 degree view – Niigata to the West and Gunma to the East – then dropped my pack, and headed towards Mt Daigenta 大源太山 about 15 minutes away.

In the foreground Mt Azumaya (climbed May 2017) and in the background Mt Mitsumine (climbed May 2019).

From the top there were good views of Mt Sennokura playing hide and seek in the clouds. Further to the right, Mt Tanigawa was stubbornly sitting inside a big cloud. After a quick bite, I headed back to pick up my pack and started southwards along the ridgeline towards Mt Mikuni visible in the distance. Since I lost time finding the start of the trail, it was now impossible to catch the earlier bus which would have given me some time to use the hot spring at Sarugakyo Onsen. I had been there once before after descending from Mt Azumaya two years earlier and was looking forward to visiting again. Now I had to race to catch the last bus back.

Around 2000m, Autumn has arrived…

After some ups and downs, with spectacular views, especially towards Gunma prefecture, I reached the flat top of Mt Mikuni 三国山 just after 2pm. The name translates as “three country mountain”. In modern times, it sits on the border of two prefectures, but during the Edo period, it probably sat at the junction of three areas. From the top, I was able to see for the first time Mt Inatsutsumi, although Mt Shirasuna beyond was lost in the clouds. I could also see the end of the hike, straight down the side of the mountain to Mikuni Pass, and then further down the valley to Hoshi onsen 法師温泉, a secret hot spring.

Mt Ono (left) and Mt Haruna (right)

The path down to Mikuni pass consisted mostly of wooden steps – perfect for running down since I still wasn’t 100% sure I would be able to catch my bus. In no time, I reached the pass, where I turned left into the forest. Soon I reached a road, beyond which was the path to Hoshi Onsen, the last part of which followed a river. I reached the end of the hike with ten minutes to spare. Since there was no time for a bath, I used the Tokyo Wide Pass to go from Jomo Kogen back to Echigo-Yuzawa (just ten minutes), where there is a hot spring in the station.

Hoshi Onsen, a place I would like to stay at someday

NEXT UP: Mt Konara in Yamanashi Prefecture

Mt Mitsumine (1122m), Minakami Town, Gunma Prefecture, Monday April 29, 2019

A Kanto hundred famous mountain, this one has been on my list for a long time. For some odd reason, this hike isn’t featured in any of my hiking books, nor on any of my hiking maps. Fortunately I was able to find access information, and a basic hiking map online. It’s possible to do this as a station to station hike starting from Gokan station but the connection to the Joetsu line isn’t very good in the early morning hours. Since the return is via the Jomo Kogen shinkansen station, I decided instead to use the Tokyo wide pass during golden week, and start and finish there.

A good view of Mt Akagi from the North

Mt Mitsumine 三峰山 is a rectangular shaped mountain bordered by cliffs on the Eastern side. From Jomo Kogen station it looks like a ship. The official start of the trail is the parking area near Kawachi Shrine. I was surprised to see crowds of people at the shrine – they seemed to be celebrating some event. Just above is a jump-off point for paragliding. I’ve seen quite of few of these in Japan, but for the first time I got there while people were actually jumping off!

The jump-off spot for paragliders

I sat down for an early lunch and watched while these brave people jumped off one after the other, with Mt Akagi, Mt Komochi, Mt Onoko and Mt Haruna in the background. I was joined by a group of children. They weren’t as patient as me, and one of them yelled “hurry up” (hayaku) while the paraglider was waiting to jump! Finally the last one had jumped and I continued on my way. I was now on top part of the “rectangle” so it was mostly pleasant forest walking on a level path.

Some nice and easy flat-walking

At one point I reached a fork in the road and I had to make a choice: continue straight or make a detour via a couple of lakes or “numa”. I decided to check out the lakes since I wasn’t pressed for time. I wasn’t disappointed since the lakes were quite pretty. I was surprised to see some quite large fish swimming in the second one.

After returning to the main path, I found myself walking quite close to steep cliffs on my right side. There were occasional views of Mt Hotaka still covered in snow. The path bent left, then right, and after short climb a reached the highest point with a great view of the snow-covered Tanigawa range directly to the North. My map showed a path leading from the summit down to Jomo Kogen station.  This was Kanto hundred best #90.

Mt Hotaka still wearing its winter coat

Unfortunately it wasn’t a real path, and soon I was walking down the mountainside from yellow bit of rope to yellow bit of rope (used here instead of the usual pink ribbons). It was fairly hard to follow and I can’t recommend this to inexperienced hikers in Japan (if you don’t get the pink ribbon reference…) It seems most people do this hike by car and do a round trip to the summit. Plus, the weather had changed from sunny to overcast and I started to worry that it would soon start to rain.

It was still sakura season in Gunma

Eventually I emerged onto a forest road which soon turned into a road. On the way, I heard loud croaking noises coming from some water puddles – it was full of rather large-sized frogs. Unfortunately they were very shy and quickly hid under the mud. The end of the hike followed the road all the way back to Jomo Kogen station. Before heading back to Tokyo, I made a brief detour to Echigo-Yuzawa station where I could take advantage of the hot spring bath inside the station.

Watch a paraglider jump into the void!

 

Toad or frog? I couldn’t tell

The Tokyo Wide Pass – Why use it?

The JR Tokyo wide pass is arguably the best deal for hikers living in the Tokyo area. Unless you don’t mind shelling out a small fortune to ride the shinkansen or spending more time travelling to and from your destination than hiking there, the majority of your hikes will be limited to the Okutama, Tanzawa and Chichibu areas. That in itself is not such a bad thing – there are dozens and dozens  of excellent hikes in those areas and if you are just starting out you may not feel the urge to travel much further. However if you’ve been in Tokyo for several years and are yearning for something new, this pass will put dozens of new hikes in Gunma, Tochigi and even Niigata within striking distance.

View of Haruna lake - one example of a destination that can be reached as a daytrip using the Tokyo wide pass.
View of Haruna lake – one example of a destination that can be reached as a daytrip using the Tokyo wide pass.

 

BACKGROUND

The pass, first introduced in 2014, was originally called the Kanto 3 day pass and cost 8300 yen. However in December 2015 it was renamed the JR Tokyo wide pass and the price was increased to 10000 yen (a nice round figure for once) but now includes the Echigo-Yuzawa shinkansen station which gives access to multiple Niigata hikes – definitely worth the extra 1300 yen (also good for skiing in the winter).

THE PROS

You can get all the details on the pass on the website but the main attraction for hikers is  3 consecutive days of unlimited use of the shinkansen in the Kanto area. Even non-Japanese residing in in Japan can purchase it, unlike the JR Pass which is for tourists only – don’t forget to bring your passport when buying it. Japanese citizens can’t buy the pass (even if they live abroad) so unfortunately there is no affordable way for Japanese friends / family members to join you on this high-speed train binge. On the plus side, it includes reserved seating, a perk that won’t go unappreciated by tired hikers on the return leg. 

The original intent of the pass is the promotion of tourism in the Kanto area by having people go out there for 2 or 3-day trips using a variety of train lines. However I recommend hikers use it for two or three 1-day trips using the shinkansen every time – it is such a great deal that even if you only use it for 2 days you will be getting your money’s worth. Using other trains even limited express doesn’t really make sense in terms of time, money, comfort and convenience.  For example, a shinkansen round-trip from Tokyo to Karuizawa  costs about 10000 yen which is the cost of the pass so two 1-day trips is equivalent to a 50% discount and if you get lucky with the weather and can go all 3 days, you would only pay one third of the price – I’ve done this more than once. 

THE CONS

As much as I love the pass and rave about it to friends and acquaintances on every occasion there are a few points for improvement. First, the Tokaido line isn’t included. I hope they can make a deal with JR West since it’s only one hour away from Tokyo and there is a lot of great hiking in Shizuoka – Izu peninsula, Gotemba area near Mt Fuji, Minami Alps. The pass includes Shimoda at the tip of the Izu peninsula in Shizuoka  and also includes a ride on a private railway company to get you there so it wouldn’t be anything radical.

Next, buses aren’t included which is a shame since a lot of popular tourist destinations (such as Ikaho and Kusatsu hot springs) require a bus connection. A round-trip bus ride can tag on about 2000 to 4000 yen onto the total price. Since some buses are operated by JR that shouldn’t be a stretch. Finally you have to choose the start date when purchasing the pass. Since hiking is weather dependent I often buy the pass at the very last minute (the day before since the most sales locations don’t open till 10am) in order to get the latest weather forecast. If you can’t go on the chosen date for whatever reason (typhoon, sudden illness) you can’t get your money back.

Overall, I believe that the pros far outweigh the cons and in the next post I’ll give some suggestions on where to hike using the Tokyo wide pass.