Tokyo Wide Pass – Where to go? Part I: Takasaki

So let’s see what can be done exactly with the Tokyo Wide pass. As I mentioned in the previous post, riding the shinkansen is the best way to go and first I’ll tackle Takasaki station since it’s a stop on both the Nagano and Niigata Shinkansen lines and has a myriad of hiking options. Just to be clear, the purpose here isn’t to give details on hikes for each place but simply to show all the different areas that can be reached within a day using the pass and inspire you to go and hike there.

Takasaki, the biggest city of Gunma prefecture, sits at the edge of the Kanto plain and is surrounded by mountains on nearly all sides which makes it an attractive hub for hiking. Since it takes less than 50 minutes to reach by shinkansen from Tokyo station this is ideal if you want a late start / early finish or the weather is dodgy. The main drawback is that you’ll need to take a local line to get to the mountains and some of them run infrequently.

Here is an incomplete list of hiking suggestions:

Mt Akagi 1828m (train to Maebashi, then a 90-minute bus to the visitor centre)

Mt Haruna 1449m (train to Shibukawa, then two buses to the lake, change at Ikaho)

Mt Myougi 1104m (train to Matsuida on the Dentetsu main line 電鉄本線)

These are the three famous mountains of Gunma, and should be a priority if you haven’t visited the area before. The first two are dormant volcanoes with easy hiking on numerous small peaks around a beautiful crater lake. Most hiking is between 1000 and 1500 meters, and late spring and early autumn are the best times to visit. Both areas get a lot of snow in winter and many visitors in the summer. A hike I did on Mt Akagi can be found here. More details for Akagi and Haruna hikes can also be found on hiking in Japan, a blog by Wes.

Mt Myougi is the lowest mountain of the three but also the most dangerous, and its craggy peak is best enjoyed when viewed from below, by doing this hike. You can access Ura Myougi on foot or by taxi from Yokokawa, the next and final station on the line. Less dangerous than the top ridge, it also has its “exciting” bits (I have climbed neither).  More information on things to see and do in these 3 places can be had here.

All 3 would require long day trips or overnight stays if it weren’t for the Tokyo wide pass.

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Mt Kurobi, the highest point of Akagi and lake Ono.


Nishi joushuu area (one-hour train to Shimonita, then continue by bus or taxi)

Joushuu is the old name of Gunma prefecture so nishi joushuu (西上州) refers to it’s western area. After the pass made this area fairly easy to access from Tokyo, it has quickly become one of my favourite hiking spots. A fairly remote place with mountain ranges extending in all directions, most of the peaks are on the low side between 500 and 1500m which makes it suitable for Spring and autumn hiking. This site has a list of hikes. 

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Panorama from the top of Mt Mitsuiwa in the Nishi Joushuu area.

Agatsuma line (吾妻線)

I’ve only just started exploring the possibilities of this line. So far I have been as far as Onogami 小野上 station, 3 stops beyond Shibukawa, in order to climb Onokoyama 小野子山. Nakanojo 中之条 station a further 3 stops seems to have some potential which I plan to investigate in the future. So far I haven’t been able to find a hiking map for the area which is good or bad depending on how adventurous you are. This is also the usual way to access the famous Kusatsu hot spring (a bus connection exists further down the line), but it’s faster to go there through Karuizawa when using the pass. .

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Perfect weather from the top of Mt Junigadake, the peak next to Mt Onoko


There are a bunch of other local lines heading East towards Tochigi but I haven’t explored those yet so I’ll leave them for a future update. If you have any good hiking suggestions please let me know. Renting a car in Takasaki is also another option if you have a driver’s license that’s valid in Japan. In the next posts I will talk other hiking options on the Nagano and Niigata Shinkansen lines as well as the Tohoku line.

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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.