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

 

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.

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.

Mt Nango 610m, Mt Maku 626m and Mt Shiro 563m, Hakone area

I felt like it was time to try something different, something more unique to Japan. I wanted to do a hike by the sea. Although the elevation of these three mountains is low, they seem quite impressive when seen from the sea-side town of Yugawara, famous for it’s hot springs and February plum blossoms. It is located in the prefecture of Kanagawa, not so far from the Hakone area. I had heard about Mt Maku before as a good place to do rock climbing near Tokyo, although today’s purpose was purely hiking.

HOW TO GET THERE: From Tokyo or Shinagawa station, catch the Tokaido line to Atami.  Yugawara is one stop before. Depending on the type of train you catch, it takes between one hour and an hour and a half, direct or with changes. This is not a line I take often so it was a pleasant change with lots of views of the sea (sit on the right side when heading out).

From the station there are frequent buses to “Kaiya” which is the last stop. Unfortunately I can’t write this one in Kanji but the last sound is the “ya” from Shop. Yet again I was the sole person on the bus for the last portion of the trip (and for the first part of the hike) – who said Japanese mountains were crowded?

THE ROUTE: The bus actually stops in front of a temple but the hike doesn’t go through it. There really wasn’t anybody around to ask but I found a sign for Mt Nango pointing along the road that continues up the mountain to the left of the temple. At this stage, I’d like to point out that the signposting was particularly bad on this hike and I often had to rely on guesswork to find my way especially since there was never anybody around to ask.

Anyway, by following the main road which curved to the right and then back to the left again with many minor roads bifurcating off it, I eventually reached another way overdue sign pointing right up a very steep slope. I swear this slope had an inclination of 45 degrees and it was paved for cars. I cannot imagine driving up here with ice or snow (although I guess that it practically never happens in this area – it felt pretty balmy for a December day).

Soon I was walking among mikan trees with their bright orange fruit and I was starting to get pretty views of Yugawara, the sea and the surrounding mountains. Again there were really no signs and I had to constantly guess what was the main road since the other roads that branched off seemed to be the same width (which was just wide enough for a small car). Instinct served me well for shortly after entering a forest section, I found another wooden sign for the summit. The problem was that this sign was ambiguously placed a few meters before another bifurcation so I shouted a few curses, hesitated a couple of minutes and continued in the most plausible direction which was straight ahead.

Mountain Mikans

Mountain Mikans

Since I was going up the sides of a steep mountain, taking the wrong way could have big consequences. Fortunately, as the path went around and then crested the top of the ridge, I came upon a third and better made sign at the start of a proper hiking trail.  From now, navigating this hike would be a piece of cake, or so I thought. The surrounding landscape had become quite fascinating, not because of its beauty but because of the sense of abandonment. This area had enjoyed a boom a few decades ago but was now in decline and there were a lot of abandoned houses and shacks that made it a little spooky.

A proper sign at last

A proper sign at last

Now I was following a proper hiking path along the ridge, the views hidden by the surrounding vegetation. This was actually a good thing because since I reached the ridge it had become considerably windy. I was skirting a golf course to the right and it was surrounded by an electric fence to keep trespassers out. After a while I reached a road where there was a group of about half a dozen hikers debating the way, the first hikers I saw since the beginning of the hike.

I swiftly turned right along the road and tried to put as much distance as possible between me and them, After following the road for a few minutes, I reached a path on the left heading up to the top of Mt Nango which was only about ten minutes away. There were some nice views of the coastline a few meters below the summit, better than from the summit itself. Here I met some other hikers, as it usually happens at the tops of mountains, and was easily able to get someone to take my photo.

A cape jutting into Sagami bay

A cape jutting into Sagami bay

Towards Izu

Towards Izu

Mt Maku, I think

Mt Maku, I think

Summit photo

Summit photo

After a short rest I set out again for summit number two and the highest point of the hike, Mt Maku. Here the signposting let me down again. At the first intersection there were no signs for Mt Maku, only a sign going straight to some temple and a sign going left down back to the road that runs between the two mountains. I had to cross the road at one point but not before passing by a small lake according to my map. So I decided to continue straight. I passed by another bifurcation offering me another escape route down to the road but I persevered straight ahead.

This was a mistake as I soon found out. The path started curving to the right and towards the north which was the opposite direction from Mt Maku. I was hoping somehow that the path would self-correct but I had to face reality when the path started descending as well. Fortunately before that it had been mostly flat so I quickly retraced my steps and took the second path down to road (now going right). This was a pretty path zigzagging down through a pine wood before reaching a flat wooded area where I crossed what was presumably the other path that led down from Mt Nango. I really have no idea since all these paths are not on my hiking map.

Mountain scape near the coast

Mountain scape near the coast

Pine forest

Pine forest

Here I turned right and continued walking through some more delightful forest.  Of course it was only seconds after I confirmed the way with a solitary hiking going the opposite direction that I finally spotted the lake that I had been aiming for. It was a small and lonely lake resting peacefully in the middle of the forest. Just beyond it was the road which I crossed in order to re-enter the woods on the other side. This part was really pleasant and made me want to bring other people here. If only there wasn’t that insanely steep slope at the start.

A great forest path

A great forest path

The path to Mt Maku

The path to Mt Maku

After a few minutes I reached the path heading for the summit of Mt Maku which took me another fifteen minutes of gentle climbing. The summit was a little disappointing. I could see the sea and the surrounding mountains but I had to sit on the ground to have lunch and the view was obscured by the vegetation, mainly tall grass. In addition it was terribly windy. I guess the strong wind is due to the proximity of the sea. In any case I decided not to linger. However I needed a summit shot before departing. By pure chance the same people I had met on top of Mt Nango were now arriving at this summit as well so all I needed to do was catch their eye and they knew what to do. Of course I reciprocated the favour.

Nearing the top

Nearing the top

Thank you to the people who took my photo on two different summits

Thank you to the people who took my photo on two different summits

Upon heading down, I took yet another wrong turn, this time along the circular path around the summit. Once I realized my mistake I cut back through the woods to the head of the summit path. I was led into error due to the fact that the path initially goes north instead of south and the sign had another place name I couldn’t find on the map. However very soon the path turned south again and had some nice views of the sea and Mt Shiro opposite. I passed the group who took my photo on the summit which gave them a fright since they saw me leave ahead of them.

Great path going down

Great path going down

Nice ocean views

Nice ocean views

Enjoying the soft autumn sunshine

Enjoying the soft autumn sunshine

The ridge leading to Mt Shiro

The ridge leading to Mt Shiro

Eventually I got to the base of Mt Maku and it’s famous rock climbing cliffs. There were a few people practising their skill in the good weather. It was interesting to note that they place mattresses underneath in case they fall. That’s Japanese safety for you. This is where the famous Yugawara plum trees are located.

The rocky base of Mt Maku

The rocky base of Mt Maku

Rock Climbing part I

Rock Climbing part I

Rock Climbing Part II

Rock Climbing Part II

The plum tree orchard

The plum tree orchard

At the bottom, I reached a road which I followed up the valley between Mt Haku and Mt Shiro. It was starting to get late, that’s 3pm in the winter, and basically I was in a race with the shadows creeping up the valley behind me. I stopped to take photos of the beautiful colours of a maple tree and the shadows nearly overtook me. A little later I crossed a bridge and after going straight another hundred meters, I turned left up another smaller road, reaching small rocky hiking trail ten minutes later. The main path continues around Mt Maku and joins up where I started climbing the mountain on the other side.

The shadows creeping up on me

The shadows creeping up on me

Orange Maple tree

Orange Maple tree

Short but nice river walk

Short but nice river walk

Turn left here

Turn left here

Here the race with the fading sunlight continued but I eventually lost out as the path twisted and turned under thick vegetation. There are a few ropes and chains but nothing challenging. It was tough to climb again after walking all the way down Mt Maku but it was too soon to head back. After about 30 minutes I reached a small shrine under a mini waterfall. Above it, there was a paved path going backwards and forwards up the mountain with stone lanterns along the way that gave it a holy atmosphere. I was the only person using the path.

The shrine

The shrine

The holy path

The holy path

Finally I reached a road that went into a tunnel just under the mountain ridge. What a windy tunnel that was! the other side was very sunny and the wind continued to blow. I followed the road one hundred meters or so to a lookout point and a bus stop. Behind the observation platform, there was again a hiking trail which double backed along the ridge and above the tunnel. This was again a very pleasant path despite the strong wind, going slightly downhill with occasional views of the adjacent ridges and the ocean.

Windy but nice view

Windy but nice view

The Izu peninsula

The Izu peninsula

A short while later I reached the final summit, Mt Shiro, the lowest of the three peaks. This one had by far the best view of the three. It had places to sit down and no obstructing vegetation. In addition there were toilets. The bonus was that there were no people at this late hour (the sun was still up though). You could see the Izu peninsula coastline to the south and the Shonan coastline to the North, as well as the tall building of Yokohama. To the west I had for the first time ever I clear view of Ooshima Island. I’ve been wanted to visit that island for a while but now I want to go more than ever. The most amazing thing about this summit was that it was right at the edge of the sea. I think it’s the first time I have stood about 500 meters above the coastline.

Ocean view

Ocean view

Self portrait

Self portrait

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Ooshima Island

I had to pull myself from this great view only fifteen minutes after arriving since I really wanted to get off the mountain before it got dark. I headed down at a fast pace, the path being relatively easy to walk along. There another good view of Ooshima island on the way. Very soon I reached a winding road. My map showed that there were a couple of shortcuts so that you didn’t to walk so much on the road. However I got tricked on the second one – it led basically nowhere and I had to climb five minutes back to the road. There was a Japanese sign at the entrance which I hadn’t bothered to read which explained exactly that.

Another view of Ooshima

Another view of Ooshima

Mt Maku ridge

Mt Maku ridge

When I got to the real short cut, I didn’t dare to take it so I jogged the wide bend along the road. Soon I started seeing signs of civilisation again (if you don’t count the road): telephone wires, houses and cars. There was again some confusion as to what was the right road down to the station. There were again no signs and more roads than were indicated on the map. Somehow my gut instinct was always right and I ended up at the station at dusk. One more great thing about Yugawara – there is an onsen five minutes down the road on the top floor of the hotel with an outdoor bath. Just ask the tourist office next to the station.

Final view of Ooshima

Final view of Ooshima

Mt Sekirou 694m, Takao area

This was my second visit to Mt Sekirou and the first time with a group – I discovered it last year in the autumn – and so the photos will be a combination of both trips. I feel that this mountain is really exceptional because not only is it close to Tokyo and easy to climb, it has beautiful nature, great views, including Mt Fuji on a clear day, a temple with local legends and the clincher – no crowds since it is not a famous mountain.

Mt Sekirou from Sagamiko Station

Mt Sekirou from Sagamiko Station

HOW TO GET THERE: Hop on the Chuo line to Takao station and switch to the Chuo line again by simply crossing the platform. Get off at Sagamiko station, the next stop. The only tricky part here is catching a bus to the start of the Sekirou trail. Departures normally coincide with some train arrivals but if the wait is too long, I believe it would be possible to take a taxi since it is only ten minutes away.

THE ROUTE: From the bus stop, we crossed the road and headed up the road that leads away from it as a straight angle. There is a sign saying Sekirousan iriguchi 石老山入口 or entrance to Mt Sekirou and also a big rough panel showing the route. Additionally there are toilets and a vending machine. After walking along the road for about twenty minutes we reached the start of the trail behind a hospital. The weather wasn’t great but it didn’t matter so much since we were inside a forest and it was autumn colour season.

Huge map at the trailhead

Huge map at the trailhead

The highlight of the first part of the hike were the ancient massive boulders lying left and right of the path which climbed steadily through the forest of tall cedar trees alongside a small stream. Most of the mossy, vegetation-covered boulders had small signs with Japanese explanations on their legendary origins.

The road to the temple

The road to the temple

Huge moss covered boulders

Huge moss covered boulders

Autumn colours were in full swing

Autumn colours were in full swing

We reached a temple perched on the lower reaches of the mountain in less than half an hour and took a photo break since it had some impressive autumn colours. Since there are no other mountains standing in the way, there was also a view west towards Tokyo but clouds and smog meant that the visibility was limited. On the left we could see the Takao ridge which of all mountains makes the deepest push into the Tokyo area.

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The path continued from behind the temple, winding back and forth until we reached a fork that I couldn’t remember from the previous time and was not marked on the map. We asked a small family on their way down and they confirmed that the paths connected further up and that the right one was easier to walk. We decided to go right and we were rewarded with some more nice westward vistas as the path curved around the side of the mountain.

A nice gentle slope

A nice gentle slope

Barely half an hour later we joined up with the left path. From then on it was a gentle climbing slope through very nice forest till we got to a fantastic viewpoint of Lake Sagami. The weather being as cloudy as it was, we couldn’t really see much of the mountains beyond that form the Tama-Kai national park. We continued to proceed up the mountain at a good pace meeting few people. The path was a series of short steep climbs followed by a flat or slightly downhill section, typical of most ridges in the Japanese mountains.

We reached the summit after two hours. There are a number of tables where you can have a picnic while admiring the view of Mt Fuji. Unfortunately today the weather had steadily been getting worse and there was absolutely no hope of seeing the majestic giant today. We repaired to a table under a tree out of the cold wind that had suddenly started blowing after we reached the summit, and started preparing our ramen lunch.

Cooking lunch in the freezing cold

Cooking lunch in the freezing cold

View from the top last year with Mt Omuro in the centre.

View from the top last year with Mt Omuro in the centre.

Even though it was the first of December the temperature had been warmer than expected   at the base of the mountain and on the way up. However it got seriously cold on the top and the clouds got greyer and more menacing. Suddenly I saw white specks on the table. I couldn’t believe my eyes – it had started snowing! in truth it wasn’t the beautiful snowflake type of snow – this was the hard granular kind that became more like sleet when it got more intense, forcing us to gulp down our lunch, pack and leave as quickly as possible. By that time my fingers were feeling pretty numb.

I decided we should head down the same way since I felt it would be safer in this freak snowstorm. However as soon as we were twenty meters from the summit, the snow stopped falling and it felt noticeably warmer. Ten minutes later we had blue skies above our head and the sun was shining. The storm was over.

At first I felt it was shame to go down the same way but in the end it turned out to be a good thing. It was after all a very pleasant mountain path and it looked quite different going down especially now that the weather was so good. The view of lake Sagami was completely different and we could see the green mountain ranges beyond.

First glimpse of the lake on the way down

First glimpse of the lake on the way down

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The Sagami Lake view point after the storm

The Sagami Lake view point after the storm

Further down we took the other path so as to complete the loop. Just a little below the junction there is a good view of Mt Sekirou as well as a view to the west. The path winds down the mountain through some more huge boulders but wasn’t particularly difficult.

Sunny woods

Sunny woods

View towards Tokyo

View towards Tokyo

The Takao range seen from the temple

The Takao range seen from the temple

We got down in barely an hour and a half, and after a twenty minute wait we were able to hop onto a bus back to the station. My original plan was to take another path from the summit that would have made a loop back to the start of the hike arriving at the bus stop. I guess that will be for another time.

CONCLUSION: Great hike for late autumn early winter because of it’s short length and relatively low altitude. It can be combined with some neighbouring mountains if you are a fast hiker and I shall make a separate post for them in the future.

Mt Myougi, 1104m, Gunma area

Even though the title of this post mentions the height, I didn’t actually summit this mountain (I thought about it though). The reason being that despite its low altitude, this is a dangerous and difficult mountain to climb. I used to think that you could walk up every mountain in Japan (chains and ladders being placed in the more sketchy parts) and that Mt Tsurugi was the most difficult of the peaks. However Mt Myougi has proven me wrong. All the summit paths are marked with dotted lines which means “experts only” with multiple danger signs and worrying comments added into the mix (“50m chimney – a lot of people have died here”).

So I ended up doing the scenic and safe tour along of the base of the mountain – not only were the views fantastic but there were some thrilling parts as well. Let’s not forget to say that Mt Myougi is one of the 3 sacred mountains of Gunma prefecture (the other two being Mt Akagi and Mt Haruna) and belongs to the 200 famous Japanese mountains.

HOW TO GET THERE: I had been putting off going to Mt Myougi for a while, imagining that it was hard to get to. I first saw this mountain while staying overnight with friends in Tomioka and while it seemed exciting to climb because of its ragged peaks it also seemed quite remote. Nothing could be further from the truth. I managed to get there in just over 2 hours from Ikebukuro station. Take a train to Takasaki station (you could go by Shinkansen but the saved time is not really worth the extra money in this case), get on a train for Yokosawa and get off at Matsuida, about 25 minutes away.

The view from the station exit is stunning – there are no surrounding mountains and Mt Myougi is quite close. I could also see a snow covered peak just behind it, maybe Mt Asama. I didn’t take a photo unfortunately hoping to get a better view from the mountain but never did.

Also unfortunate is that there is no bus from the station to the start of the hiking trail. You could walk along the road or take a taxi to Myougijinja (Myougi shrine). It takes about 10 minutes and costs about 1400 yen. I’m not really sure about the exact price since I shared the taxi with 3 other people and we split the fare – I paid only 400 yen. There aren’t that many taxis and although there weren’t many people, we still had to wait for one taxi to do the round-trip. Still I was at the start of the trail just before 10 am – two hours and a half after leaving Ikebukuro station.

There is a bus running from Joshutomioka station on a different line running south of the mountain but not only does it take forty minutes to reach that station by train, the bus also takes forty minutes, basically adding one hour to the travel time so I wouldn’t recommend going this way.

THE ROUTE: From the taxi drop off point, I headed up the street on the right to the Myougi shrine and through to the start of the hiking trail beyond it. In some respects the base of this mountain is similar to Mt Tsukuba – many people visit it to see the shrine and pray. My original plan was to walk the Chukan Michi along the base of the mountain however I wanted to tag along a loop that would take me close to the easternmost summit and which had some good views according to the map. Since I would also return by taxi, for  once I had no concerns about having to hurry to catch a bus at the end of the hike, except maybe getting off the mountain trail before it gets pitch black (after 5pm in this season).

The first part of the route. Note the chains and the danger signs in red.

The first part of the route. Note the chains and the danger signs in red.

The 2nd part of the hike.

The 2nd part of the hike (my path is the upper blue one).

I left the sightseers behind once I exited the Shrine grounds and I soon encountered a beautiful momiji (maple leaf tree) displaying vibrant autumn colours (there were a couple in the shrine as well). Although the Kouyou season has already ended on the top parts of the mountain, it was now it full swing around the base of the mountain. The path soon started climbed and before long I was pulling myself up steep inclines with the aid of chains. Nothing dramatic though – you could easily walk it up but pulling yourself does take make it easier on the legs.

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Shrine surrounded by golden maple trees

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Sugi and Momiji (Cedar tree and Maple tree)

At one point I reached a huge boulder with chains that supposedly had a viewpoint on top. Thanks to my long legs and arms I clambered to the top in a matter of seconds. I was at the “Big” kanji that is on the mountain (the Kanji’s size is big and it is also the kanji for the word big). The view was really good, especially since it a blue skies type of day. In front of me, the Kanto plain. I couldn’t see all the way to Tokyo though since in truth I wasn’t very high, perhaps 800 meters. To the south was a mass of peaks that forms the Northern part of the Chichibu mountains. Apart from My Ryogami, most of this area is virgin territory for me. To the north I could clearly see Mt Haruna and Mt Akagi.  These mountains are so massive, I really must visit them more often. In the far distance I could make out the snow covered peaks of Mt Hotaka, Mt Tanigawa and various other connected peaks. Winter has arrived definitely to that part of Japan. And of course, just behind me, one of the steep and rocky peaks of Mt Myougi, Hakuunsan.

Mt Haruna, lots to explore

Mt Haruna, lots to explore

Mt Hakuun

Mt Hakuun

I had to wait a little to clamber down again since the only route down the boulder was being ascended by a much slower Japanese hiker. Finally I was able to get back onto the hiking trail. Very soon I reached a junction where the top route continued to the summit and the left train looped around down the mountain and connected with the Chuukan path. I decided to continue along the summit trail as far as possible.

Within minutes I was scrambling over rocks again and holding on to chains, but nothing I hadn’t done a hundred times before on other mountains. Finally a reached some steps leading to a ladder leading into a cave. I climbed into the cave which turned out to be a sort of shrine but couldn’t see the next part of the path. It was  a dead end. There was an opening above me but it was for Spiderman only.

I retraced my steps thinking that somehow I had overlooked the trail and found it to the right of the steps just beyond a towering cedar tree. I wasn’t surprised I had missed it since it wasn’t a path but a steep rocky incline with a chains and some footholds. Now I’ve done a few of these before but none quite as long or steep. I pulled myself up halfway but didn’t really feel all that safe – a fall would result in more than a few bruises – so I decided to go down again. I had no intention of completing this route, I was just curious to see what is was like and my curiosity was satisfied.

I went back down to the trail junction and started down the mountain. There were another passage with chains, a few nice sunny view points and I stopped at one of them to have lunch. Eventually I got to the Chuukan michi. It was a very pleasant up and down path (more up than down though) through the autumn foliage  There were some truly fantastic autumn colours along the way and I couldn’t believe how few people there were. I saw later on the web that there were thousands of people at Mount Takao the same day.

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Framed View

The Southern part of the Myougi range

The Southern part of the Myougi range

Autumn Colours galore

Autumn Colours galore

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Believe it or not, there is a ridge route following the top

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Myougi’s craggy peaks

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Sunny day, autumn colours: a great combination

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My destination: beyond those peaks

After a while I got to a series of steps that took me very close to the top of one of Mt Myougi’s peaks. I didn’t expect the trail to go that high, perhaps 1000m but hard to tell from the map. At this point the skies had clouded over a little but the views were still good. I ended walking along the base of a cliff just below a summit. At times the path was carved inside the cliff and I had to walk bent double. Quite a fantastic path and one of the highlights of the hike!

The long staircase

The long staircase

The low overhang

The low overhang

Getting cloudy

The highest point of the hike

Later on I got to a viewpoint that could be reached by a series of rocky up and downs fitted with chains. There were somewhat more people here since this spot is closer to the other end of the Myougi range that has another shrine and a car park. While waiting for my turn to go down the chains I took abundant photos of the mountains stretching away to the south. There was one especially that caught my eye – Mt Arafune. It had a very long flat top like a table, quite an intriguing sight.

The best panorama of the hike

The best panorama of the hike

Lots of hiking possibilities

Lots of hiking possibilities

Endless mountains

Endless mountains

On the right, Mt Arafune or tabletop mountain as I call it

On the right, Mt Arafune or tabletop mountain as I call it

When I reached the end of the path, I was also able to enjoy a great view of Mt Myougi to the North. The sun had come out again and the whole range was bathed in a late afternoon sunlight, perfect for taking pictures. After I while I headed back to the main path, went down some more, under a rocky bridge, through a picnic spot and then up to another viewpoint where I could admire the rocky crags I had clambered over just a few minutes before.

The northern part of the Myougi range

The northern part of the Myougi range

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End of the path

For once posing with a summit I didn't conquer

For once posing with a summit I didn’t conquer

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A great hike nonetheless

Not an easy path

Not an easy path

The view of the 1st viewpoint from the 2nd viewpoint

The view of the 1st viewpoint from the 2nd viewpoint

Typical Myougi landscape

Typical Myougi landscape

Mt Kondou the other main Myougi peak

Mt Kondou the other main Myougi peak

The sun was slowly but surely heading for the horizon so I continued my descent and very quickly reached the other shrine. There is something really nice about starting and ending at  a shrine. It feels like you are combining hiking and sightseeing and the feeling is very similar to the one you get in places like Mt Takao and Mt Tsukuba. However I couldn’t linger and hurriedly left the shrine and got back on to the road for the last part of the hike. I had to return to my starting point but fortunately the return path was more direct and easier, and I expected it to take less than a hour.

Along the road there were excellent views of some of Mt Myougi’s craggy peaks and of the mountains to the south. The blue skies had returned so even though the sun had already set it was still light. Soon I entered a hiking path that went down through a forest. That was really the only way back since the roads going by both shrines did not connect directly  It was slowly getting dark but I could still the see the way clearly. Very soon I was back on the road. At one point there, I took a right along a slowly rising curving road that took me to Momiji no Yu, a very conveniently located onsen. There are no buses going to the station after 5pm so I had to call a taxi afterwards. It was more expensive going back to the station, about 2300 yen but since I had paid peanuts on the way there I didn’t mind at all.

Nearly full moon tonight

Nearly full moon tonight

Great views on the walk back as well

Great views on the walk back as well

Myougi #1

Myougi #1