Overcoming travel trouble in Okutama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hiking stomping grounds near Tokyo

 

As the Autumn season gets into full swing and with winter just around the corner, it’s a good time to look at hiking options closer to Tokyo. In this article I will briefly introduce 3 main areas in the Tokyo area with their highlights.

 

OKUTAMA 奥多摩

First up in terms of popularity is Okutama, the mountainous area straddling the Western part of the Tokyo prefecture. The Chuo and Ome lines will take you into the heart of the mountains to Okutama city at the end of the line, from where buses can whisk you further into the mountains. Notable peaks include Mt Kumotori, Mt Mito, Mt Odake, Mt Gozen, Mt Kawanori, the 3 peaks of Mt Takamizu and Mt Mitake. Less strenuous hiking options include visits to Okutama lake followed by a walk along the old Okutama road, exploring the Nippara limestone caves, and walking along the Tama river ending with a visit to the the Ozawa sake brewery in Sawai. There is an information office outside the train station but note that most buses leaves shortly after the train arrives so planning ahead is recommended.

TRAVEL TIP: There are daily direct trains from Shinjuku to Okutama leaving fairly early in the morning but make sure to confirm with the conductor which carriage to board since the train splits mid-way, with one half going on to Musashi-Itsukaichi. There are also direct trains back in the mid-afternoon. If you miss those, expect to change trains at least twice on the way back so check the times in advance.

Okutama as seen from Mt Keikan

 

TANZAWA 丹沢

Next, in terms of the volume of hikers, would be the Tanzawa range in Kanagawa prefecture. In this case, access is via the Odakyu line which hugs the Southern side of the range before heading  towards Hakone. One can get off at a number of stations on the way and catch frequent buses to various entry points into the mountains. The most notable ones are Isehara for Mt Oyama (which has a ropeway to take you halfway up this “big” mountain), Shibusawa for Mt Tonodake (popular with school children) and Matsuda for the Nishi-Tanzawa area and Mt Oomuro. What makes this area particularly attractive are the views of Sagami bay to the South, Mt Fuji to the West and the extensive Tokyo metropolis to the East. A word of caution though: most hikes have steep slopes and can be quite strenuous and are thus not really suited for beginners.

TRAVEL TIP: The Odakyu line runs a limited express train between Hakone and Shinjuku, “the Romance car”, which stops at Matsuda station and can provide a faster and more comfortable (but more expensive) trip there or back. An option worth considering after a tiring hike.

Mt Fuji as seen from Mt Nabewari

 

CHICHIBU 秩父

Finally, my personal favourite, the Chichibu area, which despite having the most hiking options seems to be the least popular of the three. The Seibu-Chichibu line ends at Chichibu city in the center of a wide valley surrounded by mountains. A few minutes away on foot is Ohanabatake station on the Chichibu railway (which sometimes runs an authentic steam locomotive) that can take you either East towards Nagatoro, famous for its rapids, or West towards Mitsumine Guchi, 40 minutes away by bus from the famous Mitsumine shrine. The Nagatoro side has lower peaks and gentler slopes that are suitable for beginners such as Mt Mino and Mt Hodo. The area beyond the Mistune Guchi is higher and has more difficult terrain. The main peak is Mt Ryokami but there are a number of other interesting peaks to climb in the area such as Mt Chichibu-Mitake, Mt Azuma and Mt Myouhou.

TRAVEL TIP: The Seibu line runs regular Limited express trains “the Red arrow”, which can get you from Ikebukuro to Chichibu city quickly and comfortably. Alternatively, for those on a budget, there are 2 local trains departing Ikebukuro station fairly early in the morning that take you directly to either Mitsumine Guchi or Nagatoro. The train splits before Chichibu city so confirm with the conductor where to get on. There are also 2 direct trains for the return in the mid-afternoon.

Mt Ryokami as seen from near Mitsumine Shrine

 

Where to hike in the winter? Part II Tokyo & Saitama Prefectures

Next up is a list of low-altitude snow-free winter hikes in the areas to the West of Tokyo, mostly in the foothills of the Okutama and Chichibu mountains. Saitama especially has a multitude of short hikes that are suitable for the short cold winter days and this list is by no means complete.

Mt Takao 高尾山, Tokyo Prefecture

No need to introduce Mt Takao 599m – if you haven’t climbed it, head there first. You can go up one of the several direct routes, or one of the longer hikes circling North or South around the top of Mt Takao. The adventurous can continue West from the summit to Mt Kagenobu and even Mt Jimba (be prepared for some snow in that case).

PROS: Lots of trails to choose from, station to station hiking,  lots of temples to check out

CONS: Crowds (especially school children), path erosion, somewhat cliche

Ome hills hiking trail 青梅丘陵 ハイキングコース, Tokyo Prefecture

These unassuming hills on the Eastern fringes of the Okutama moutain range follow the Ome line between Ome 青梅 and Ikusabata 軍畑 stations, climbing gradually to the highest point, Mt Raiden 雷電 at 494 meters. Since most of the trail is in the forest it can be a bit boring but it does make for a great workout and it is good for trail running if that is your thing (just make sure to give priority to the hikers!).  There is a trail to the South of Ome station that would enable one to do a loop but I haven’t tried it yet.

PROS: Station to station hiking, well-worn and relatively easy trail to follow, Karakai castle ruins on the way (just the foundations though)

CONS: Lots of ups and downs, few views (although it’s possible to see the tip of Mt Fuji at one point), sometimes used by trail runners

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View North towards Hanno and Okumusashi

Mt Hiwada 日和田山, Saitama Prefecture

Mt Hiwada 305m can be reached on foot from Koma station 高麗 on the Seibu Ikebukuro line (a couple of stops afte Hanno) and belongs to the Okumusashi area 奥武蔵 which is a kind of prelude to the Chichibu area 秩父. There are several paths going up and down and a small shrine on the top. It’s possible to follow the trail beyond the summit which leads to other minor peaks and a lake. My recommendation is to head to Mt Monomi 物見山 and then back the same way

PROS: Station to station hiking, good views of the Kanto plain and Mt Fuji from the top, length can be adjusted

CONS: Some road walking from the station, hike is on the short side unless one extends to Mt Monomi, Hiwada part can be a little crowded

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Mt Fuji from the shrine near the top of Mt Hiwada

Yugate ユガテ and Mt Ogami 越上山, Saitama Prefecture

Yugate 290m, less than an hour from higashi agano station 東吾野, consists of 2-3 houses and some fields in the Okumusashi hills. There are a couple of benches and it makes a nice spot to stop for a break. Continuing further along a relatively wide and flat path, one eventually reaches Mt Ogami, 566m high. The return is done by heading down the opposite side to the Kuroyama bus stop 黒山 (to Ogose station 越生).

PROS: Easy path to hike, good picnic spot at Yugate, waterfall near Kuroyama

CONS: Some road walking, few views

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Yugate in the spring

The 5 peaks of Kamanosawa 釜の沢五峰, Saitama Prefecture

This is a hike that I have discovered recently in the low hills that cross the wide valley containing Chichibu city, close to Ogano village  小鹿野. The highest point is 590 meters but lying quite a bit inland, a little snow is always a possibility (it was totally snow-free when I did it it January). There are some steep rocky bits (with chains to assist you) so it isn’t recommended for beginners. The views of the surrounding Chichibu mountains are fantastic and there is an interesting rock formation on the way called kamegadake 亀ヶ岳.

PROS: few people, some “exciting bits”, lots of panoramic views

CONS: bus required both ways, somewhat far from Tokyo, caution required along various steep drops along the way

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Kamegadake

The Nagatoro Alps 長瀞アルプス, Saitama Prefecture

Another “Alps”, this time West of Nagatoro station 長瀞 on the Chichibu line, the highest point being Mt Hodo 357m. There is a ropeway, a small zoo and flower gardens (including cherry blossoms). The start point is actually the next stop, Nogami station 野上 but one can also start the hike further North as the there is a path that follows the ridge as it curves to the east following the railway line all the way to Mt Kanetsukido 鐘撞堂山 (incidentally a Kanto hundred famous mountain).

PROS: Station to station hiking, good views of Chichibu, hike can be lengthened or shortened

CONS: Crowds since the top is accessible via cable car, somewhat far from Tokyo, lots of the steps near the top of Mt Hodo

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Stairs leading up to the highest point of the Nagatoro Alps

Where to hike in the winter? Part I Shizuoka & Kanagawa Prefectures

Winter is in full-swing and for those who are averse to hiking in freezing temperatures or snowy conditions, it’s good to know a few low-altitude spots for hiking. So without further ado, here is a list of hikes that I have done during the winter months (December to March) starting with areas South of Tokyo:

Numazu Alps 沼津アルプス, Shizuoka prefecture

With the highest point being 392m and located right next to Suruga bay, it’s safe to say that snow on the Numazu Alps is a rare affair. However the name “Alps” is well-deserved as there are lots of ups and down, some of which are surprisingly steep (nothing technical though).

PROS: Shinkansen Access, Mt Fuji and sea views, hike can be shortened or lengthened

CONS: Transport cost, Crowds (especially closer to Numazu city), lots of ups and downs.

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Looking back at the highest point of the Numazu Alps, Mt Washizu

Mt Higane 日金山, Shizuoka Prefecture

Mt Higane starts at sea-level from Yugawara station and heads inland all the way up to 771m. The latter portions of the trail can have snow but this shouldn’t really be a concern since there are few steep sections. However caution is required when negotiating the icy steps when heading back down to Izuyugawara Onsen 伊豆湯河原温泉, a short bus ride from the station. There is a short cable car near the top of Mt Higane at Jukokkutoge 十国峠 at the bottom of which it is possible to catch a bus.

PROS: Nice Onsen at the end, great views of Mt Fuji,  photogenic stone buddhas

CONS: Start of the trail is not well signposted, some portions are on the road, some snow on the higher portions

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Miniature statues at Toukouji temple near Mt Higane

Mt Nango 南郷山, Mt Maku 幕山 and Mt Shiro 城山, Kanagawa Prefecture

This hike is described in this blog post

These 3 small mountains are located a little North of Mt Higane (described above) in the vicinity of Yugawara station 湯河原. The first 2 are best reached via a short bus ride but Mt Shiro is walkable from the station. They can be done separately or in combination. The highest point is Mt Nango at 610m but since they sit right on Sagami bay, snow is rare.

PROS: Multitude of paths, plum blossoms in February and March, good lunch / break spots at the top of Mt Maku (usually lots of people) and Mt Shiro (less people)

CONS: Crowded bus to the start of the trail during plum blossom season, trail up Mt Nango a little difficult to find, some road-walking when doing Mt Shiroyama

Mt Ogusu 大楠山, Kanagawa Prefecture

Mt Oogusu’s is known as the highest point of the Miura Peninsula 三浦半島 (due South of Yokohama) at 241m. It also happens to be a Kanto hundred famous mountain. So that’s already two good reasons to climb it!

PROS: Obersvation tower on the top, the lower part is along a river, can be done as a loop hike or a traverse from Kinugasa Station 衣笠 on the Yokosuka line

CONS: Not a full day hike (but possible to combine with other peaks on the peninsula), some road walking necessary, closeness to civilisation

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Maeda River promenade at the base of Mt Ogusu

Tenen Hiking Trail 天園ハイキングコース, Kanagawa Prefecture

Topping out at 159m, Mt Oohirayama is the highest point of this trail just East of Kamakura City, and is virtually guaranteed to be snow free throughout winter. The trail is well trodden and most parts are fairly easy making it suitable for beginners. The hike starts and finishes at different temples in the area, accessible from Kita-Kamakura and Kamakura stations.

PROS: Station to station hiking, possible to combine with sightseeing (temples and Daibutsu), views of Mt Fuji and the sea

CONS: Can get crowded, not a full-day hike, surrounded by residential areas

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View of Kamakura city and Sagami bay from near the top of Mt Ohira

Mt Zukkou 頭高山 and Mt Koubou 弘法山, Kanagawa Prefecture

Located right between Mt Oyama and the Shonan coast, these low hills make up the southern extremities of the Tanzawa mountain range. The highest point is Mt Zukkou at 303m and the entire trail is should be snow free throughout most of the winter.  The hike starts from Shibuzawa station and ends at Tsurumaki onsen station, both on the Odakyu line. The hike can be split in two at Hadano station.

PROS: Station to station hiking, panoramic views of the Tanzawa mountain range on Zukkou part of the hike, observation tower on the top of Mt Koubou

CONS: Some road walking at the start, poor signposting on the Zukkou side, crowds around Mt Koubou

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The Tanzawa mountain range – Mt Nabewari on the left, Mt Tono in the middle and Mt Oyama on the right

Mt Sekirou, or the other Takao

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

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

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

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View of Mt Takao from the Sakura path

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

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The empty summit

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

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View from the observation platform

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

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

Snow hiking in November

With last week’s early freak snowstorm, mountains in the Kanto area received up to 20 cm of fresh snow. I did a short reconnaissance up Mt Hiwada 日和田山 (305m) near Hanno station on Friday. Unfortunately snow and November temperatures don’t really mix, and everything was melting as if Mother Nature was trying to cover up some big mistake in a hurry.

Big lumps of snow were falling from the branches making walking under the trees quite perilous. In other places snow melt was coming down in streams of water just as if it were raining, except that it was a beautiful sunny day. Overall the muddy and wet conditions were starting to make me despair that I would be able to find a good place to go hiking on Saturday. Too low, I would encounter similar slushy conditions. Too high and there was a risk of losing the trail or worse, running into trouble on a steep section.

I finally hit upon an interesting idea which I was able to confirm after a quick search on internet. Buses for Daibosatsurei (2047m) 大菩薩嶺, one of the hundred famous mountains, usually run till about mid-December, after which the service is stopped till the spring because of snow. Daibosatsurei is a relatively easy mountain to hike, a place I was familiar with, and that would also make a good snow hike, except that in the in the winter months you would have to hike up (and down) from a much lower point, the entrance of the Daibosatsu mountain trail at 900m. However, despite the unusual snowfall the buses were still running on Saturday November 25th and thus it was possible to get all the way up to Kamihikawatouge 上日川峠, nearly 600m higher, and a very good convenient starting point for a stroll in the snow.

After getting off at Kaiyamato 甲斐大和 station, I rushed to get in line at the bus stop. Daibosatsurei is a highly popular place to hike, not only because it’s a hyakumeizan but it’s also relatively close to Tokyo and easy to hike. However this time, we were only a handful of people waiting for the bus. Perhaps most people were dissuaded by the snowy conditions or maybe less people go there after the Koyo (autumn leaves) season.
Whatever the reason, I almost thought they were right when the bus failed to turn up on time. We were informed by the bus driver of another bus that ours was running late because of the icy roads. Our ride finally rolled in 30 minutes late making a loud rattling noise because of the snow chains. For once this was a good thing, since the hike I had planned, a simple loop of the top part of the mountain was a tad too short. With half an hour shaved off, the timing was perfect. There are few mountain roads in the Tokyo area that are open through winter and thus it was quite a unique experience riding up the mountain with snow banks on either side and, ice and snow underneath on the higher parts of the road.

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Icy conditions on the road to Kamihikawa Pass

I was finally able to start hiking just after 11am. At 1600m the snow was already getting heavy and wet, and any hiking below that point was bound to be unpleasant. I took the ridge trail leading straight up to the summit. Under the trees, it was enjoyable to hike on the snow, made compact and firm by the footsteps of previous hikers, and on the rocky sections higher up, the snow had completely disappeared from anything in direct sunlight. There was no ice, and crampons weren’t necessary on the ascent although I had light ones in my pack, and several people were using them, mainly for going down. The views of Mt Fuji and the entire range of the South Alps were stunning. I had been to Daibosatsurei before but the views hadn’t been anywhere as great.

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Mt Fuji in a sea of clouds

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The South Alps with their winter caps on

The top ridge at around 2000m was freezing and the snow was 20cm deep and practically powdery.  From the highest point, you can walk down along the ridge enjoying the beautiful winter scenery. At the emergency hut on the Daibosatsu Pass I turned right and walked down along the gently sloping wide path that meanders through the forest at the base of the top ridge back to the bus stop. Being somewhat sure-footed and having heavy solid hiking boots, I never had to resort to my crampons.

All in all a satisfying if somewhat short hike (under 4 hours) in a snowy setting and a good choice after a late autumn / early winter snowstorm. Most likely the bulk of the snow under 2000m will have melted by next weekend making this a one-off.

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The Daibosatsu Ridge

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The famous Daibosastu Pass

The River Museum (Saitama)

This is a short blog post to draw attention to the River museum 川博物館 that is located near Yorii station 寄居 (1h40 min from Ikebukuro by train) on the Arakawa river.  It’s a must-visit for Japanese mountain fanatics! There are 2 main reasons to visit.

First it has a pretty good 4D movie of the Arakawa river, from its source in the heart of the Chichibu-Tama-Kai national park to the sea. You have to put on a pair of 3D glasses and buckle up in your seat because there is some shaking involved.

Second there is a mind-blowing replica of the Arakawa river with the surrounding mountains (Mt Kobushi, Mt Sanpo, Mt Buko…) just outside the main museum building. Anyone who likes to understand the layout of an area like like myself, this is a truly an amazing piece of work.

The website is: http://www.river-museum.jp/

 

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Chichibusakura lake with Mt Buko and Mt Omochi on the left

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View from the highest point of Saitama, Mt Sanpo

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Nagatoro, where Chichibu starts

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The area surrounding Chichibu city

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