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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Tokyo Wide pass – Where to go? Part V: Nikko and Nasu

 

Here I will take a look at some hikes that can be done on the Tohoku Shinkansen. The main stops of interest are Utsunomiya and Nasu-Shiobara.

 

NIKKO

Nikko is known as a world heritage site but it also sits at the edge of the mountains ranges of northern Kanto and offers lots of fantastic hiking. I used to feel guilty that I didn’t visit Nikko often enough because it was just a little far and expensive to do as a day-trip. Fortunately the Tokyo wide pass has fixed this since Utsunomiya is only 50 minutes away  by Shinkansen. Nikko is another 40 minutes by local line.

There are a number of minor peaks accessible from Utsunomiya, the JR Nikko line and Nikko city which I haven’t explored yet. However, since there are many other exciting mountains to climb in the area, I won’t cover them here.

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The 1445 steps of Kirifuri highland with Mt Takahara in the background

  • Kirifuri Kogen 霧降高原 1200m

Most people visiting Nikko tend to go to lake Chuzenji and Yumoto Onsen. However this is great place to visit on a day trip since it is less than 30 minutes by bus. The views are spectacular since there is nothing obstructing the panorama to the south.

Mt Maruyama 丸山 1698m, Mt Akanagi 赤薙山 2010m and Mt Daisen 大山 1158m can be combined in one long day, finishing at Kirifuri waterfall, a 100 famous waterfall in Japan, a short bus ride from Nikko. There are nice views of Mt Nyoho, a 200 famous mountain.

  • Akechidaira Ropeway 明知平ロープウェイ 1373m

Another to-do hike on my list, Akechidaira is the stop just before Lake Chuzenji. The ropeway will take you to the top of the ridge at 1395m which is on the far side of the lake. From there it’s possible to follow this ridge west and then return along the lake.

  • Mt Nantai 男体山 2484m, 100 famous moutain

This Fuji lookalike is doable as a day-trip and offers out-of-this-world views from the top. It’s straight up and down via the same route. The path starts behind a temple that is accessed from the lake Chuzenji bus stop.

  • Senjogahara 戦場ヶ原 1405m

This plain pinned between Mt Nantai and Mt Shirane, offers easy flat hiking for the most part on an elevated walkway from Yumoto-onsen past a couple of waterfalls to Lake Chuzenji. Beware of crowds during Golden week and the autumn season. You can also do cross-country skiing and show shoeing here in the winter.

  • Mt Shirane 白根山 2577m, 100 famous mountain

The highest peak in the area, this is a tough day hike up and down from Yumoto-Onsen. There are several paths but the one I did from the top of the ski lifts is one of the steepest, most slippery and most covered with tree roots that I have ever done in Japan.

An alternative which I haven’t done is to go up or down from the other side where there is a ropeway which connects by bus with Jomo-kogen on the Niigata Shinkansen

  • Mt Nyotai 女峰山 2483m, 200 hundred mountain

I have yet to climb this one but it promises to be a tough one day hike. There are multiple routes up and down this peak.

 

NASU AND BEYOND

Nasu is mostly famous for its hot springs but it is also a spectacular active volcano with numerous smoking vents, as well as a 100 famous mountain. It is actually accessed from Kuroiso which is one stop away from the Shinkansen station by local train and is covered by the pass (total time 90m).  From there it is a 1 hour bus ride to the ropeway which will take you up to to  1690m.

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The volcanic landscape of Mt Nasu

  • Sanbonyaridake 三本槍岳 1917m

This is the highest point of the Mt Nasu mountain range and can be reached by heading north from the crater (40-minutes from the ropeway). I did it in the clouds so I can’t comment on the views.

  • Mt Minamigatsu 南月山 1775m

This is an easier hike to the south. It also requires going up to the crater and then going down on the north side before doubling back around the base of the crater passing several steam vents in the process. There are great views in all directions – the day I was there I could see all the way to Mt Iide

  • Mt Bandai 磐梯山 1819m

If you are motivated you can continue with the shinkansen on to Koriyama in Fukushima prefecture. This is outside the area covered by the pass so you’ll have to pay extra. A local train will take you close to Mt Bandai which is feasible in a day from Tokyo.

 

 

Tokyo Wide Pass – Where to go? Part IV : Jomo-Kogen, Echigo-Yuzawa & beyond

Here I will explore the stations on the Niigata/Joetsu line that are accessible with the pass.

JOMO-KOGEN 上毛高原

First up, a place I had never heard of till I first started using the pass: Jomo-Kogen.

A shinkansen only stop at the lowly altitude of 450 meters and 70 minutes from Tokyo station, it sits within striking distance of a number of mountains on the northern edge of the Kanto plain that are accessible thanks to the bus terminal just outside the station.

A word of caution: there is little in the way of restaurants and shops, the Newdays inside the station closes early and there usually isn’t a food cart on this line, so make sure you don’t come back hungry, and forget about that after-hike beer.

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Top of Mt Tanigawa

  • Mt Tanigawa 谷川岳 1977m (hundred famous mountain)

You can catch a bus to the ropeway (change at Minakami) and even do an onsen in Minakami if you come back early enough. Even if you don’t go all the way to the summit, the views from Mt Tenjin 天神山 just above the top of the ropeway are fantastic in clear weather.  

  • Mt Hotaka 武尊山 2158m (hundred famous mountain)

This is a tough one to do in a day trip without public transport. Unless you are a very fast walker, try to hitchhike while walking the road up to the campsite and make sure to bring a headlight for the descent – thankfully the last bus is relatively late. The famous Takaragawa onsen 宝川温泉 lies further down the valley.  

  • Mt Oku-Shirane 奥白根山 2578m (hundred famous mountain)

In theory it’s possible to reach the Nikko-Shiranesan ropeway with one bus change and that in turn will whisk you up to 2000m (still 3h from the summit though). I have climbed Mt Shirane but I haven’t done it yet with the pass from that side. The return could be done via the Nikko side.  

  • Mt Azumaya 吾妻耶山 1341m, Mt Mistumine 三峰山 1123m

I haven’t attempted these 2 yet as access is troublesome. Perhaps the easiest and fastest option is to take a taxi from Jomo-Kogen (15min) and return via Minakami or Kamikoku stations on the Joetsu line, or by bus from Sarugakyo Onsen (see below).

  • Mt Mikuni 三国山 1636m and Mt Inazutsumi 稲包山 1598m

More mountains I haven’t climbed yet. There is a bus heading east for Sarugakyo Onsen 猿ヶ京温泉 where you can change buses for Houshi Onsen 法師温泉. Combining both peaks in a one-day hike seems doable but tough and requires favourable bus times. Another option would be to start or end on the Niigata side and going through Echigo-Yuzawa (see below). 

 

ECHIGO-YUZAWA (and beyond)

A new addition since 2015 which I have yet to try out with the pass, Echigo-Yuzawa is well and truly beyond the mountains of northern Kanto, and sits in a pleasant valley firmly inside Niigata prefecture. Weather is notoriously bad here so check the forecast thoroughly and come prepared.

  • Mt Naeba 苗場山 2145m (hundred famous mountain)

Another tough day-trip since there is no bus to the trailhead. The bus for the Prince Hotel will get you to the access road and then try to hitchhike and make sure to have a headlight for the return. I went there in June and there was a lot of snow left (crampons weren’t required though).

There is also the option of using the Dragon Gondola from the Prince Hotel but it only runs for a short time in the autumn.  

  • Mt Sennokura 仙ノ倉山 2026m (two hundred famous mountain / not done)

The start of this hike also requires taking the bus for the Prince Hotel.

  • Mt Mikuni 三国山 1636m and Mt Inazutsumi 稲包山 1598m (not done yet)

This hike starts from the Prince hotel and can be done as a loop but can also finish or start from the Gunma side (see Jomon-Kogen above).

  • Mt Daigenta 大源太山 1598m (not done yet)

A bus going the opposite direction will take you to Daigenta Canyon where you can attempt to climb this non-famous matterhorn lookalike.

  • Mt Makihata 巻機山 1967m (hundred famous mountain)

A local train to Muikamachi (25min) will get you close enough to attempt this beautiful mountain. Totally doable in one day if you are motivated enough but bring a headlight for the return.

From Muikamachi one can also take a bus for the start of the trails for Mt Hakkai 八海山 1778m (200 hundred famous mountain) and Mt Kinjou 金城山 1369m but this is uncharted territory even for myself.

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Walking the top ridge of Mt Makihata


Tokyo Wide Pass – Where to go? Part III : Saku-Daira

This is the final post on hiking possibilities on the Nagano shinkansen line using the pass. The next stop after Karuizawa is the much smaller and less touristic town of Saku-daira. The main reason to come here is to catch a bus for Mt Asama which in addition to the main volcanic cone has a number of minor peaks stretching west.

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Yunodaira Kogen nestled between Mt Asama and Mt Kurofu

Takamine Highland

A one-hour bus ride will get you to Takamine Kougen 高峰高原 at 1973m. There is a hotel, a hot spring open for day visitors and also a ski resort open in the winter. The bus runs year round. There are 3 hikes you can do from Takamine:

  • Mt Asamayama 浅間山 2568m, hundred famous mountain

Even though you can’t go right up to the crater because of the recent increase in volcanic activity, the views from the top area are beautiful in clear weather. An alternative way back is through Tengu onsen and get the bus back to Saku-daira lower down the mountain.

  • Mt Kurofuyama 黒斑山 2404m

This is a difficult but exciting loop hike along an outer crater rim, with great views of the volcanic peak and back through the hidden valley of Yunodaira Kogen 湯の平高原, between the crater and the slopes of Mt Asama. The climb back up the rim is steep and tough.  

  • Mt Kagonoto 篭ノ登山 2227m Mt Miharashi 見晴岳 2095m

These small peaks make for relatively easy high-altitude hiking through some beautiful nature and are also a chance to see the elusive Kamoshika or Japanese serow. The return to Takamine is along a slightly sloping dirt road along the base of Mt Kagonoto. You could also start or finish in Yunomaru (see below) depending on the season and bus times.

 

Yunomaru Highland

A second bus, also taking one hour, will take you to Yunomaru Kougen 湯の丸高原 1732m on the western edge of the Mt Asama range. The bus only runs weekends and holidays from June to August. If you are a member of Times car sharing, they have 2 cars at Saku-Daira station which is handy for driving up there during the low season. So far I’ve only done one hike but hope to return in the future to hike the other small peaks in the area:

  • Mt Yunomaru 湯の丸山 2101m Mt Eboshi 烏帽子山 2066m.

This a relatively easy hike with fantastic views of the North Alps to the west , Mt Azumaya and Kusatsu-Shirane to the north and Mt Fuji to the South. 

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North Alps panorama from the top of Mt Yunomaru

Beyond Saku-daira

Although Mt Asama has the potential to keep the average hiker busy, for those who want more, there are some additional options although the high travel time make them less attractive. I’ve listed them below but I haven’t tried any of these yet:

  • Kirigamine 霧ヶ峰 / Kurumayama 車山 1925m, hundred famous mountain

In theory it’s possible to get there by bus from Saku-daira, using Chikuma bus 千曲 but it requires a couple of transfers. Alternatively you could use Times car sharing and drive there in an hour. This is the northern part of the Yatsugatake range near lake Suwa.

  • Mt Ogura 御座山 2112m, two hundred famous mountain

The pass also includes the Koumi line 小海線 which connects Saku-daira with Kobuchizawa on the Chuo line. From Koumi station (50 min), a couple of buses (total travel time 30 min) will get you to the start of the trail. There seems to be another bus back on the other side.

  • Mt Arafune 荒船山1422m, 200 famous mountain

Getting off at Nakagomi 中込 station, only 14 minutes away, a 30-minute Chikuma bus can get you close to Mt Arafune and some other mountains in the area. Access from Shimonita may be easier though.

  • Mt Azumayasan 四阿山 2354m, hundred famous mountain

Here you’d have to pay extra to continue one stop further on the shinkansen line, to Ueda and from there take a  bus to the start of the trail. Using the local train takes too long.

Tokyo Wide Pass – Where to go? Part II : Karuizawa

In this post we shall explore the Karuizawa area on the Nagano shinkansen line beyond Takasaki. Unfortunately, since the start of the Hokuriku shinkansen in 2015, reserved seats tend to sell out quickly during holidays due to the continuing Kanazawa boom.

Karuizawa (around 70 minutes from Tokyo station) has 3 things going for it:

1) It sits at the foot of the active volcano Mt Asamayama (current status: smoking)

2) John Lennon used to live there for a while with Yoko Ono

3) Situated at 940m above sea level, its a pleasant place to visit in the summer months.

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Asamayama from the Hanamagariyama hike

Below are some hiking suggestions (for Mt Asama see the post on Saku-Daira): 

 

  • Karuizawa station to Yokokawa station (Dentetstu main line, return via Takasaki)

This is a great hike on the old Nakasendo route connecting Takasaki to Karuizawa with great views of  Mt Asama, Mt Myougi and the Nishijoshuu area. There is an abandoned station and railway line at the end and monkeys can be seen in the warmer months. 

  • Mt Hanamagari 鼻曲山 1655m, Kanto 100 famous mountain

Access is by bus but you can walk back to the station. This hike is on the ridge opposite Mt Asama and has good views of Mt Asamakakushiyama (North) and the Kirizumi onsen area (East). It was a rather dull walk in the winter but should be nicer when greener. 

  • Mt Asamakakushi 浅間隠山 1756m, 200 famous mountain (not climbed yet)

It’s a long walk along a road from the closest bus stop in Kita-Karuizawa unless you can hitch a ride. There is an option to descend to Asamakakushi onsen and ride a bus to Nakanojo on the Agatsuma line (return via Takasaki) but buses only run on weekdays.  

  • Mt Happu ハ風山 1315m to Mt Arafune 荒船山 1423m, 200 famous mountain

This is a long hike for fast walkers connecting Minami-Karuizawa with the Nishijoushuu area. Access is by bus and ends at Arafune onsen (last bus to bus to Shimonita is at 15:46). The hike can be shortened by descending from the farm near Monomiyama 物見山 1375m.

  • Kirizumi onsen area 霧積温泉

I haven’t explored this area yet since access is only via car or taxi but it seems to have some interesting and exciting mountains.

  • Mt Kusatsu-Shirane 草津白根山 2171m, a hundred famous mountain

There is a bus from Karuizawa station which (with one change) will take you all the way to the pass below Mt Shirane (2010m) and beyond to Shiga kogen 志賀高原. I haven’t done this yet with the pass. Mt Shirane is currently active and some parts may be off-limits. 

  • Shiroito waterfall 白糸の滝

The waterfall is less than 30 minutes away by bus and you can walk back to the station in around 4 hours through beautiful woods. This is a relatively easy hike and beautiful in the autumn months.

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View of Nishijoushuu from the Nakasendo route