Mt. Odake (大岳)
Mt. Odake, which translates as Big Peak, is a rocky outcrop perched high on the ridge in the Okutama region of Tokyo. The views of Tokyo on a clear winter night from neighboring Mitake are a must-see and the views of Fuji are impressive when the cloud isn’t in.
The hike: From the top of the cable car, head left on the concrete path through an archway that says “御岳山へようこそ”. The route starts out quite flat before arriving at the small village, where it meanders a bit past a thatched-roof house and a youth hostel. Make sure you follow the signs that point towards 御岳山 and you should be ok. A little further on, the road will split in half, with an insanely steep slope branching off to the right. You’ll see a sign posted in English for “Rock Garden”, so kick-step your way up the muscle-burning road to the main gate of the temple. Along the way, you’ll pass by a couple of restaurants and souvenir shops. The udon noodles here are famous for their unique texture and green color, so consider having an early lunch if you’re in the mood. (I had no problems being served at 10:30 in the morning). Climb the stairs, go through the main gate of the shrine, and turn left, following the signs for 長尾平. At the time of writing, the path to the shrine was under construction, so you’ll be detoured to the right up an incredibly steep concrete road, where you’ll pop out just in front of the main shrine building. There’s a statue of a warrior on a white horse here, and that’s the landmark you want to search for. After a quick prayer, descend the staircase just to the right of the statue (if facing the statue that is), and you’ll see a toilet and concrete forest road, as well as a path signposted for 長尾平. The steep path was under repair during the autumn of 2011, but the short drop will connect with the main forest road/path after a couple of minutes. Turn right as soon as you hit this forest road and you’ll soon see a rest area on your left with some drink machines, picnic tables, and a shop selling snacks. If you walk down along this path for about 50 meters you’ll find some toilets and a nice view of Mt. Odake on your right and Tokyo on your left. Anyway, keep walking on the forest road and, for now, ignore the trail that branches off towards the left towards Rock Garden. A little further on you’ll find another trail junction, but instead of turning left, head on the upper path on your right towards Oku-no-in (奥ノ院). The trail will more than likely be deserted if you’re hiking during the week, as the majority of people stick to the gorge at Rock Garden. The cedar trees here are all mysteriously labeled with numbers, but the path is really easy to follow and the ground cover thin, exposing a vast network of tree roots. Keep clambering over the roots, past an exposed area with chains, and soon you’ll reach a trail junction marked 奥ノ院・鍋割山. You can either turn right here past the small shrine, or continue going straight and making a sharp right turn after about 5 meters. Whatever you do, don’t turn left and start descending steeply into the valley! The path is a bit difficult to pick up, so make sure you’re climbing instead of descending. A little past this tricky area you’ll reach another junction, with a trail on your left marked 大岳（巻道）. You can take either path here, as they both meet a little further on. The 巻道 is much easier, as it skirts the base of 鍋割山 before descending back to the main forest road you left earlier in the hike. When you reconnect with this road, turn right and start the steep climb towards the mountain hut. There are a few exposed areas with chains and the path becomes much rockier, so take care of your footing. Eventually you’ll reach a mountain hut on your left and a rustic shrine on your right. There’s a toilet here, and this is a good place for a break before the final push to the summit. Walk up to the shrine and take the path just to the left (marked 大岳山頂) which zigzags its way up to another really rocky area. Take extreme care in rainy or misty weather, as the boulders can become quite slippery. After a tough 10-minute scramble, you’ll pop out on the summit of Mt. Odake, where the conical shape of Mt. Fuji will float above the clouds on the horizon. Or not, depending on what kind of mood she’s in. I caught a glimpse of Japan’s highest peak just before she hid behind the cloud. From the summit, you can continue on the ridge down to Oku-tama, but be warned that it’s a long, 3-4 hour hike. A better option would be to head back to Mitake via the Rock Garden path. Retrace your steps back to where you came, and turn right at the junction marked 御岳・岩石園. The trail will descend to a scenic valley with a couple of spectacular waterfalls. At the first shelter you come to, follow the sign written in English to Ayahiro waterfall. It’s a short, quick drop to an awe-inspiring cove of eerie rock formations and tumbling water. This is a great place to while away a few hours contemplating life (if you haven’t come here on the weekend with half of Tokyo that is). Continue descending through the gorge, taking care on the numerous river crossings. About halfway down you’ll come across a rest area with a toilet. Several minutes past this, the route will climb up towards an immense rock formation called Tengu-Iwa, where you’ll find a junction. Drop the pack here, and prepare for the adrenaline rush. First, take the path marked for Nanayo waterfall. The no-nonsense trail plummets down the valley via a never-ending array of metal stairs. Descend carefully, and after a few minutes you’ll reach the first waterfall. This area is extremely slippery even with a good pair of hiking boots on, and if you’re not careful you could tumble over the waterfall. You’re actually in the middle of a tiered waterfall, but you’ll have a great view of the tumbling water if you make your way over to the right. The path continues down from here (not sure if you’ll get a full view of the falls, however, as I was running out of time and daylight). After a sufficient look, climb the stairs back up to the junction (and your waiting backpack). If you stare up at Tengu rock, you’ll see a metal chain dangling on the left-hand side of the rock. Grab ahold and pull yourself up to the top of the rock formation, where you’ll find 2 different statues of the mythical long-nosed goblin Tengu. If you’re acrophobic then please don’t attempt this ascent. After scaling the rock, return back to the junction and take the path marked for Mitake and the cable car. It’s a gentle climb back up to the main forest road, where you can retrace your steps back to Mitake shrine and the cable car. If you don’t want to shell out the money for the cable car, there’s a road on your right you can take just after you pass through the village. Be warned that it’s another 3km or so until you reach the bottom of the cable car. If you’ve got the time, then I recommend spending the night in the village. There’s plenty of accommodation and you’ll be able to enjoy the hike at a more leisurely pace.
When to go: This hike can be done year round, but you should bring a pair of light crampons in the winter months, as ice/snow tends to linger on the rock faces. Avoid the weekends if you don’t want to share the peak with half of Tokyo. Autumn is impressive with the fall foliage, but winter usually has the best visibility.
Access: From Shinjuku (新宿) station in Tokyo, take a rapid (快速) train on the Chuo line bound for Okutama (奥多摩) and get off at Mitake (御嶽) station. Direct trains are few and far between, so you’re better off taking a train to Tachikawa (立川) or Ome (青梅) and changing to an Okutama train from there. At Mitake station, change to a bus bound for Mitake Cable Car (ケーブル下). The bus is timed with the train arrival, but the bus stop is tricky to find. Go out the ticket gates, down the stairs to the main road, and turn left. You’ll see the bus stop on your left. Click here for the bus website (in Japanese). Get off the bus at the final stop, climb the steep paved road in front of you for about 5 minutes, and you’ll see the cable car station on your right. Taking the cable car saves about an hour of walking on a paved road through a rather uninteresting forest.
Level of difficulty: 3 out of 5 (elevation change 430m)
Distance: 10km (4 to 6 hours)