Soni Kogen (曽爾高原）
Soni Kogen is a huge, open plateau renowned for its vast swaths of Japanese pampas grass, picturesque marshes, and stellar views.
The hike: From the parking lot, head up the windy, paved path behind the toilets. You’ll notice a metal basket and numbers at each switchback. Believe it or not, you’re actually walking up the middle of a frisbee golf course! Follow the path to the 18th hole and you’ll find the huge parking lot and start of the trail. Soni Kogen looks like someone came in with a pair of hedge clippers and never stopped, but really is a wonderful place if you ignore the fact that it was entirely man-made! Follow the trail that heads up to the ridge line, which should take about 20 minutes to reach. Once you hit the bare ridge, turn left and climb up towards Mt. Kuroso (倶留尊山). The trail will climb all the way to the end of the clear cut portion, with awesome views of Mie and Nara Prefectures. This is really as far as you need to go, because it’ll cost you 500 yen to climb to the top of Mt. Kuroso! I couldn’t believe it, either! Mt. Kuroso is one of the 300 famous mountains of Japan, and I thought it was worth the toll required to access it. If you’re keen on climbing it, then head up the trail past the clearing and keep climbing up. You’ll soon reach a small mountain hut which serves as the ticket gate. Once you pay your money, you’ll come to a huge rock outcrop with vertigo-inducing views of the valley below. You’ll also see a huge peak towering over you to the left. That’s the top of Mt. Kuroso, and you’ll have to drop down to a saddle before heading up to the high point. Take some photos when you get to the summit, and head back the way you came. Once you get back to Soni Kogen, you can either continue on the clear cut ridge line and descend via the marshlands, or make a dash for the hot spring, which is a 30-minute walk from the plateau, past the bus stop you came in on. If you decide to climb Mt. Kuroso and hit the hot spring, then you really need to hike quickly, because the last bus back to Nabari station is at 3:27pm! If you’ve come by car then you can have a more leisurely stroll among the grasses. Hitching from the hot spring is also a possibility.
When to go: This hike can be done year round if you don’t mind walking an extra 4km out of season (as there are no direct buses). The area does get a fair amount of snow in the winter, and serious hikers come to practice their ice climbing and self-arrest skills. Autumn is the most popular time to come (because of the pampas grass), but April can be just as rewarding with far fewer hikers.
Access: From Uehommachi (上本町) station in Osaka, take a train bound for either Aoyamacho or Ise, and get off at Nabari station (名張駅). From there, change to a bus bound for Soni Kogen (曽爾高原) and get off at the last stop. The buses only run from October 1 to November 30, from the west exit of Nabari station. The first one departs at 9:35am and the second at 10:35am on weekends. In order to make the 10:35 bus, you should catch the train from Uehommachi at 8:53am. On weekdays there’s only 1 bus, leaving at 9:35am. If you want to go out of season, then take a bus bound for 山粕西 and get off at Tarouji (太郎路). The only convenient buses leave at 8am and 10:05am. From Tarouji you’ve got a 4km walk to Soni Kogen.
Level of difficulty: 2 out of 5 (elevation change ~400m).