Pulpit of the Devil, Mt Komochi 子持山 1296m

In 2010 I made a trip to Colombia and visited El Cocuy a mountain that is famous for a huge oblong sized boulder sitting near the summit called “Pulpito del Diablo” or the Devil’s Pulpit in English. Last week, I finally found its Japanese version, sitting near the top of Mt Komochi 1296, a Kanto 100 famous mountain about 30km North of Takasaki in Gunma prefecture.

I saw the photos when doing my research, the taxi driver pointed it out to me on the drive from Shibukawa station, but nobody had ever told me that such a thing existed in Japan so I took no notice. Yet Shishiiwa or Shishi Rock 獅子岩 deserves to know as one of the wonders of Japan, at least among hikers. Not along can you gaze at it as you climb up and down, from below, above and from the side, you can climb to its top via a combination of chains and ladders and gaze down into the void below.

I had a taxi driver drop me off near the start of the trail since the price was affordable and it saved me a great deal of time. Unfortunately you can’t go to the start of the trail anymore because the last part of the road was severely damaged by a recent typhoon. This seems to happen quite a bit – I saw another example at the base of Mt Kogashi – and I doubt whether these roads will ever be fixed one day.

A sunny day had turned to clouds when I reached the official trail entrance, looking a bit despondent devoid of people perhaps because I was there on a Friday or because autumn season was over. The path soon me below a massive cliff, Byoubuiwa or Byoubu Rock 屛風岩, the top parts of which were literally hanging over the path. I hurried along nervously let a loose piece of rock fall upon my head. What did fall upon my head just moments later were some snowflakes – winter had come to my surprise since the forecast had called for clear weather. Fortunately no snowstorm followed and the flakes stopped and started again before disappearing altogether.

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The overhanging cliff, Byoubu Rock

In the meanwhile I was making my way up the back of the cliff and then onto the top of it. This was actually quite frightening because as I mentioned before the upper parts were hanging over the valley below. To the left and the right there was just void. I am not afraid of heights but when the ridge narrowed suddenly before the final part I gave up and retraced my steps. In any case this was just a short aside – the main path continued straight up the ridgeline in the opposite direction.

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First glimpse of the “pulpit”

It’s around this point that I was getting my first glimpses of Shishi Rock. I was amazed at how long it took me to finally get to the base. This just goes to show how big it is and how deceptively small it looks from a distance. The front side is pure cliff so you need to make your way around the back in order to climb it. It’s pretty straightforward until you get to the ladder. Its metal, vertical, goes up a ten meter long chimney but not rigid so it moves slightly when you climb it, which will totally freak you out when you are nearing the top and the whole thing suddenly shifts.

Finally standing at the top felt fantastic especially after you had been staring at this marvel of nature during most of the climb up. I was especially careful not to get too close to the sides lest a gust of wind made me lose balance. It was surprising that there were no warning signs but then those who made it so far would be careful. The views of the surrounding peaks was amazing.

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Tanigawa Ridgeline from the summit

After climbing down, carefully, I made my way to the true summit another hour or so away. There I could take in all the peaks of the Joushin-Etsu Kogen National Park, already covered in snow.  The view is not quite as good as from the top of neighbouring Mt Onoko but breathtaking all the same. After a quick lunch I quickly descended via another route that offered occasional glimpses of Shishi rock through the trees, arriving finally back at my starting point with about an hour of daylight left, just enough time to walk back to the nearest train station Shikishima.

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One last look at Shishi Rock

 

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The furthest mountain, Mt Nanten 南天山 1483m

Less than 100km away from the capital as the bird flies and smack in the middle of the Okuchichibu mountains of Saitama prefecture, lies Mt Nanten 南天山 1483m. Despite its relative closeness, accessing the start of the trail requires patience and a desire to explore new places.

Last Saturday, I rose at 6h30, got a seat on the Seibu line Red arrow limited express leaving around 7h30 from Ikebukuro station, hurried to catch the transfer to the Chichibu railway in the Seibu-chichibu station and got off at the last station, Mitsumineguchi at about 9h15.

Unfortunately the bus connection wasn’t ideal and I had to potter around for 45 minutes for the bus for Nakatsugawa 中津川, also the last stop and one hour away, making my arrival time a little past 11am. However I wasn’t there yet. I still needed to walk 30 minutes along a road which eventually turned into a dirt road, till I finally got to the entrance of the mountain trail, leading up a small river valley cleaved into the side of the mountain.

After removing my inner layer, fixing my bear bell onto my bag and having a quick bite, I was officially ready to start up the mountain, a little before noon or nearly six hours after getting up. Fortunately, unlike my previous trip the week to Okutama the week before, the further I progressed the less people there were – just one other passenger on the bus who got off before the end. This was probably because the autumn leaves season was already over.

The valley I walked up following a small stream was one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. I could only imagine what it must look like in the spring or the autumn. There was a fair amount of stream crossing along fairly new wooden bridges and the path goes up and down the side of the valley, making for a good warmup. Halfway up the valley, I came upon the spectacular Hojirushi waterfall 法印の滝. Even if you don’t climb to the top, it is well worth walking 20 minutes to check it out.

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The Hojirushi waterfall along the Kamakura River

Twenty minutes further upstream, a zigzagging easy to walk path on the left takes you up to the top ridge where you progressively make your way to the highest point. The last part gets rather rocky and feels rather wild – hard to believe that you are in Saitama, especially when you reach the top and see nothing but mountains in all directions. Directly opposite one could see the massive bulk of Mt Ryokami and in the background Mt Asama already covered in snow,

I headed down a little after 2pm down another zig-zagging path and then joined up with the previous stream valley and legged it back to the road. I was able to take a quick bath before getting on the return bus a little after 4pm. This bus, the last one of the day, took me directly to Seibu Chichibu station in about 90 minutes where after a thirty minute wait, I got the next Red arrow limited express back to Ikebukuro, arriving at 8pm, taking me only a little less time than on the way there.

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The summit marker of Mt Nanten with Mt Ryokami in the background

 

Where to hike in the winter? Part III Gunma & Tochigi Prefectures

Winter is around the corner – I saw snowflakes fall on my hike last week – so it’s time to introduce more low-altitude destinations for the colder months, this time on the Northern edges of the Kanto plain. Admittedly there are fewer all-year round snow-free options but the adventurous hiker will be rewarded with beautiful vistas of the snow-capped peaks of the Joushin-Etsu that ranges from Mt Asama to Tanigawa, and the peaks of Oku-Nikko. The hikes presented below are in clockwise order from West to East.

Mt Kuwagara 鍬柄岳 and Mt Oogeta 大桁山, Gunma prefecture

These 2 peaks, 598m and 836m respectively, are located North of Sendaira 千平 Station the stop before Shimonita on the Joushin Dentetsu line running from Takasaki station. Mt Kuwagawara is the highlight and can be done by itself for a shorter hike. The last part requires some scrambling up a rocky face – nothing technical since there are set chains in place to assist but a good sense of balance and agility are required, and you’ll also need to come back the same way in order to continue the hike. However the view from the top is quite rewarding.

PROS: Roundtrip with station access, an exciting bit with chains, good views

CONS: Some road walking, not recommended for beginners

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View towards Nishi Joushuu with the flat-topped Mt Arafune on the right

Mt Okono 小野小山 and Mt Juuni 十二ヶ岳, Gunma prefecture

Mt Okono 1208m and Mt Juuni 1201m are part of the same mountain – just 2 peaks on the same ridge that sits between Mt Haruna in the West and Mt Akagi in the East. Despite their relatively high altitude, I did them without snow in January but this may not always be the case so check beforehand. Access is from Onogami 小野上 station on the Agatsuma line, North of Takasaki, and return is one station further down, Onogamionsen 小野上温泉 station. There are some ups and downs along the ridge but your efforts will be rewarded with a breathtaking 360° panorama at the top of Mt Juuni.

PROS: Station access, great views, onsen at the end

CONS: Some road-walking, risk of snow, longish hike

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The Tanigawa Ridgeline from the top of Mt Juuni

Mt Daishou 大小山 and Mt Daibou 大坊山, Tochigi Prefecture

Mt Daishou 314m and Mt Daibou 286m are lowish peaks sitting on a semi-circular ridge East of Ashikaga city, accessible from Tomita station on the Ryoma line which connects Ooyama and Maebashi stations. From the top of Mt Daishou, and other viewpoints along the way, there are sweeping views to the South of the Kanto plain. Looking Northwards, there are mountains as far as the eye can see, with the Mt Fuji look-alike, Nikko’s Mt Nantai at the very back. This is a popular trail especially in the winter so expect to meet many hikers along the way.

PROS: Roundtrip with station access, very good views, relatively easy hiking

CONS: Some parts pass through the town, lots of people

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Mt Daibou as seen from near Mt Daishou

Mt Kogashi 古賀志山, Tochigi Prefecture

This low-lying but rocky mountain cuts quite an impressive figure when seen from below.  At any only 583m it will surprise you with its rocky but roped steep bits and plunging views to the plain below – agility and surefootedness are necessary. Placed somewhat East off the JR Nikko line connecting Utsunomiya and JR Nikko stations, you’ll need to take a bus or a taxi from Kanuma 鹿沼 station to get closer to the start of the hiking trail. There are plenty of trails up and down but the best, and most exciting route is to follow the ridge all the way to Mt Akaiwa 赤岩山 553m.

PROS: Roundtrip, great views, onsen at the end

CONS: Bus there and back, some tricky parts

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Mt Kogashi with Akagawa Lake in the foreground

 

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 のめこい湯 hot spring.

However it isn’t about the hike itself that I wish to write but rather about getting to and back from 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 to confirm where I should line up for my bus (the one for Kosuge no Yu 小菅の湯). 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 (or you have good bladder control).

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 good wide path for most of the descent. I only crossed a small group of 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.

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.

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Mt Fuji as seen from the top of Mt Hiru on the 1st of January

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