Posted tagged ‘japan’

Mt. Shokanbetsu (暑寒別岳)

July 5, 2016

Mt. Shokanbetsu is one of Hokkaido’s best kept secrets. The long approach turns off all but the most hardcore of hikers, and the alpine scenery and panoramic views make the effort worthwhile.

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Note: There are three different routes up the mountain. The most popular route is called the Uryū route (雨竜ルート) which traverses through the Uryū marshlands and over Mt. Minami Shokanbetsu before reaching the summit. It’s a one-way 12km hike that isn’t too steep but really long. There’s a great description here if you’re interested. The second most popular route is called the Shokan route (署寒ルート) and it starts from a forest road that is well-signposted in Mashike town (you’ll see a signpost at the 7-11 along the main road through town). This route is an 11km hike to the top that follows the northern ridge of the peak. The third route (and the one described here) is called the Hashibetsu route (箸別ルート) and it traverses the northeastern ridge through an area teeming with alpine wildflowers. It’s the shortest trail up the mountain (9km one-way) and offers a taste of alpine scenery without the crowds of the marshlands to the south. There is a free emergency hut each trailhead, which means you could easily traverse up and over the mountain, staying at one of the huts at either end. This is a long but relatively easy way to experience the beauty that the Shokanbetsu range has to offer.

The hike: From the parking lot, take the trail that starts next to the emergency hut. There’s a box here where you can register your hiking intentions. The path immediately dives into a beautiful pristine forest alive with insects and the sounds of nature. Bring some insect repellent if you don’t want to get eaten alive by mosquitos. Also, keep an eye out for bears, as the animals like to use the hiking trails to travel. The first few kilometers of the hike are relatively flat, and the route, like most big hikes in Japan, is divided into 10 stage points which can help you with the pacing. It should take about 30 minutes or so to reach the first stage point (一合目), which will likely have you gazing in disbelief that the hiking has only just begun. After an hour or so you should reach the 3rd stage point (三合目), where the real climb begins. It’s a gentle climb at first, which become steeper the higher you go. Once you reach the 5th stage point (五合目) the views will start to open up a bit and the path will become much rockier. In rainy weather the route will turn into a creek, so make sure you bring some rain protection or a change of clothes to help keep you dry. At the 7th stage point (七合目), the trail will finally break out of the treeline and will traverse through an area of splendid wildflowers. The views towards the Uryū marshlands will also open up, and you can see Mt. Minami Shokanbetsu off in the distance, a deep valley between your present position and the mountain. In good weather the path is easy to pick up, but in fog make sure you stick to the paint marks on the rocks. Just past the 8th stage point (八合目) you’ll top out on your first summit, and the path will drop steeply to a saddle at the 9th stage point before climbing a long peak directly in front of you. At the top of this long rise you’ll reach a junction where the Shokan route meets up with this route. The two paths will merge into one, so turn left at this junction and follow the signs to the summit (署寒別岳山頂). It should take about 15 minutes from this point to reach the high point, which is marked by several signposts. If the weather is good you’ll be staring down at the Sea of Japan directly below you, and behind you the Daisetsuzan mountain will soar off in the distance. From here a decision will have to be made. If you came by car, simply retrace your steps all the way back to the trailhead. If you want to do the full traverse, then follow the signs to Mt. Minami Shokanbetsu (南署寒別岳). It’s a long drop to a broad saddle, followed by a long climb to the summit. From there, follow the signs to Uryū numa (雨竜沼), which will take several more hours of long but easy hiking to reach. Allow around 10 hours to complete the full traverse, and bring enough gear and food to overnight at the emergency hut at the trailhead. If you need a place to stay in Mashike, I recommend the guesthouse Bochibochi Ikouka Mashikekan (ぼちぼちいこか増毛館), run by a friendly family from Osaka. It costs 4900 yen with two meals and the traditional structure dates from 1933. The owner can give you climbing advice and also has a free map of the mountain.

When to go: This hike can be done from July to early October, when most of the snow is gone. The peak is popular with cross-country skiers in late spring. A winter ascent is for experts only, as the deep snow drifts and unforgiving weather cause a few fatalities every year.

Access: You really do need your own transport to complete this hike. From Mashike town, take route 231 out of town to the north. Just before crossing Hashibetsu Overbridge (箸別跨線橋) turn right (you’ll see an old folks home on your right). There’s no signpost here so it’s really easy to miss. If you reach Hashibetsu station then you’ve gone too far. As soon as you turn right you’ll see a signpost pointing to the right for the Hashibetsu route of Shokanbetsu (署寒別岳箸別ルート). Turn right here and follow the signs to the trailhead. The road will climb via a few switchbacks before reaching the terminus, which is marked by a free emergency hut and small parking lot. You could take a taxi there from Mashike station if you don’t have your own transport, traversing down the other side of the mountain through Uryū marshlands (雨竜沼湿原), where you could possibly hitch a ride from there. Be warned that it’s a grueling 25km hike, so get an early start if you want to do the full traverse.

Level of difficulty: 4 out of 5 (elevation change ~1000m)

Total round-trip distance: 18km (6 to 8 hours)

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Mt. Tenjō (天上山)

April 4, 2016

Mt. Tenjō is the highest mountain on Kōzu island in the Izu island chain south of Tokyo. Even though it’s only 570 meters above sea level, the peak offers alpine scenery, volcanic lakes, and an abundance of wild flowers throughout the year.

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Getting to the trailhead: There are two different ferry ports on the island, so your ferry will usually dock at Maehama port (前浜港) unless the waves are high. If that’s the case, then it’ll dock at Takō port (多幸港) on the other side of the island.  Be careful when leaving the island as well, because sometimes they change the ferry departure location (but will announce over the town loudspeakers at 8am or you can check the ferry site on-line).

From Maehama port: Exit the ferry and turn left, walking along the pier. On your right is the ferry terminal building. There’s a tourist information center here which has a free hiking map that is well worth picking up. (It’s the same map that you can find in the .pdf file in the map section below). Behind the ferry terminal there’s an open grassy area with a restaurant on your left. Walk through this small park and turn right on the main street. Take an immediate left at the traffic light, following the road as it climbs towards the mountains. Just after turning on the street you’ll see a souvenir shop on your left and another small store a little further up. This is one of the only places to pick up snacks for the hike, though they don’t have a big selection. You’re better off bringing food from Tokyo. Keep climbing on the road, with the river bed on your right. After about 10 minutes you’ll reach a concrete bridge called Tenjinbashi (てんじんばし). You’ll also see a signpost here for the mountain. Turn right here and cross the bridge over the (concrete) river and turn left at the top of the hill. You’ll see a sign that says “1.2km 黒島登山口” (1.2km kuroshima tozanguchi). Follow the narrow road for about 200 meters and then turn left, once again following the signs to “天上山”. You’ll soon pass by an inn on your left called Syuso, which is the closest accommodation to the hike. They have clean rooms, good food, and a great bath on the roof overlooking the ocean. Advance reservations are required, but they’ll pick you up at the ferry terminal and give you a ride to the trailhead as well. Anyway, keep climbing up the road and you will soon reach another road with a brand-new concrete bridge over the river. Veer right here, past the new concrete embankment and continue following the paved road. You will soon find a small cave on your left, signposted as the “bank of chilly wind”. Cold air blows out from this opening, so feel free to crouch down to access the free breeze. Just past this cave, you will reach a junction. Turn left on the road and just after passing by a toilet building on your right you will see the trailhead on your left.

From Takō port: Exit the ferry and walk along the pier to the ferry terminal. You can pick up a paper map of the hike at the information counter. Just behind the ferry building there is a 4-way intersection. Turn right here and walk along the concrete boardwalk to reach a water source (if you need to pick up fresh water for the hike). Otherwise, take the unmarked road that climbs diagonally from the intersection. You can see the kanji 止まれ written on the asphalt indicating for descending cars to stop. Walk up this road and you’ll soon reach a concrete staircase. Turn right here, following the signs to Himukai shrine (日向神社). The road soon terminates at a concrete water storage tank. Climb the stairs to the left of this building and cross the wooden bridge behind the building. The trail climbs up a series of stairs with handrails made out of metal piping. The trail will flatten out soon and you will pass through a stone torii gate and reach the small shrine. Go past the shrine and turn right at the junction, following the signs to 天上山黒島遊歩道.  The path enters a really nice forest, so keep walking and turn right at the next junction, which is where the path enters the mountain. The route climbs via a series of switchbacks, with views down to the port. You can see the rocky summit ridge of the volcano above you as well. It should take about 30 minutes to reach a viewpoint, with two metal tubes affixed on either side of the trail. The tube on the mountain side is meant for you to look inside to view a rock formation on the ridge that apparently resembles a buddhist deity. The one on the downhill side is supposedly built so you can hear the sound of the wind. Anyway, after this viewpoint the trail drops down a long gentle slope until reaching a paved road. Walk down the road for about 400 meters and you’ll see the trailhead on your right.

The hike:   At the trailhead, there should be plenty of wooden trekking poles here that you can use on your hike. The trail climbs through a row of ferns and you will soon reach the 1st stage point (1合目). There are a total of 10 stagepoints until reaching the summit ridge, and they’re spaced pretty evenly up the slope. The map says to allow 50 minutes to the top of the ridge, but you can easily do it in half that time if you don’t take breaks. The views will open up towards the ocean behind you, so feel free to stop and enjoy the scenery as you climb towards the ridge. Once you do reach the ridge, you’ll be presented with an abundance of hiking options. I recommend taking a right at the second junction you see, with a signpost marked for Sendai ike (千代池). It takes just a few minutes to drop to the shores of the pond, which should be filled with water if it’s been raining recently. If not, then it’s probably nothing more than a puddle. Take a break here on the picnic benches to enjoy the tranquil scenery. From the pond, the trail ducks back into the forest on your left and traverses back up to the main trail. Turn right here and follow the signs towards Omote Sabaku (表砂漠). The path will climb out of the forest and enter a rocky area that looks very alpine in nature. You’ll soon see a trail on your left marked for Kuroshima Tenbo chi (黒島展望地). It’s a 10-minute climb to the top of Mt. Kuroshima, which has incredible views back down to Maihama port. You’ll also get amazing views from the summit itself, so you can skip this side trip if short of time or if the cloud is in. Continue straight on and it’ll take about 15 minutes of gentle climbing to reach Omote Sabaku,  the “Front Desert.” The trail is covered with white volcanic sand and it sort of  resembles a tiny desert. Ignore the first junction you see (with a trail on your right) as well as the fork on your left (that leads directly to the summit) and you’ll reach the desert area, which is marked by a row of picnic tables. Just past this, you will find a junction on your right marked for Ura Sabaku (裏砂漠), or the “Back Desert”. It is a loop trail that takes about 30 to 40 minutes to complete. Again, if the cloud is in then you can skip this part, as the scenery is the same as the rest of the mountain. If you ignore this trail and continue straight on, you’ll reach a junction that marks the end of the Ura Sabaku loop. To be honest, I skipped this loop trail because I wanted to spend more time around the summit crater, which is the best part of the mountain. Turn left at this junction and follow the signs towards Fudo-ike (不動池). The path climbs quite steeply at first, reaching a lookout point which is apparently one of “Tokyo’s 100 Best New Views.” It looks straight down into a heavily eroded valley and had great views out towards some of Izu’s other islands. After this the trail drops down to the pond, where you’ll find some picnic benches. There’s also a small red hut hidden in the bushes which houses a “bio toilet.” Even if you don’t have to go, it’s worth ducking your head in to see the flushing mechanism via stationary bicycle. Just to the left of the toilets there’s a trail that leads to a stone statue of Fudo Myō-ō. It’s a small statue built into the hillside and worth a visit to check out the moss-covered lantern. From the pond, there are two trails that both form a loop. I recommend going counter-clockwise, so take the path marked for Tenku no oka (天空の丘). The path climbs briefly before reaching a junction. Turn left here for the short hike up to Tenku no oka, which has vistas of Mt. Fuji and the Japan Alps if the air and weather are clear. This trail loops back down to the lake, but retrace your steps back to the junction and turn left. The path climbs for a bit before dropping to a vast meadow. There are three different ponds here (the first one is just down an unmarked trail on your left), and the second pond does not have a path to it. The final pond, called Babaa-ike (ババア池) is another nice puddle of water if there have been recent rains. From here, the trail climbs back up to the crater rim, where it reaches a junction for the trail down to Shiroshima (白島登山口). Ignore this junction for now and head straight on, following the fence posts on your right that have been lined with rope. There’s an old dried crater called Hairanai-ga-sawa lined with white sand. Follow the trail around this and climb past some erosion works on your right and you will soon reach a junction for the summit (最高地点). Turn left for the steep climb to the highest point of the mountain. In clear weather you’ll have panoramic 360-degree views of the Pacific Ocean all around. If the cloud is in then you’ll just have to use your imagination. After enjoying the views. retrace your steps back to the junction and turn right, retracing your steps back to the Shirajima junction. Turn left here, following the concrete path lined with steps. It’s a steep drop but it should only take about 10 minutes to reach the 5th stage point (5合目), which is at the end of a forest road. There’s a toilet here as well as a couple of picnic tables. Just in front of the toilet, you’ll see a trail on your left that ducks into the forest. It’s marked as 下山口 and has a signpost for 村落2.2km. The trail enters a lush forest with lots of shade cover and beautiful trees. Just before the 3rd stage point (3合目), you’ll pass under a stone torii gate and reach a junction for Nachidō (那智堂) temple. Turn right here and walk 5 meters to the temple, which is nothing more than an corrugated metal shack. There are some interesting Buddhist statues inside of the shack though. Retrace your steps and keep climbing down the path. It really starts to steepen here, with plenty of stone steps built in place and a liberal use of climbing ropes lining both sides of the trail.  At the 2nd stage point (2合目) you’ll find a water tank. Turn left here and descend through a cedar forest until reaching a paved road. Follow the road down past a few greenhouses (and a junkyard of abandoned vehicles). On your left you can catch vistas of the mountain you just came down. Soon you will reach a new paved road. If you turn left here and cross the bridge, you’ll arrive back at Kuroshima trailhead. Turn right here and continue down the paved road. Take the small road on your left marked for 村落 and it’ll connect with the main road that will lead back to the ferry terminal. All it all, it can take anywhere from 3 to 7 hours for the hike, depending on how many breaks you take.

 When to go: This hike can easily be done year-round, but try to avoid the summer heat of July and August, as the lack of shade on the mountain will likely turn you into a dried prune. Also, in rainy/foggy weather it can be a bit of a depressing slog, with no places to escape the elements. June is the peak season for wildflowers, and winter offers your best chance of seeing Mt. Fuji and the Minami Alps.

Access: From Takeshiba ferry terminal (竹芝客船ターミナル) in Tokyo, take a ferry bound for Kōzushima (神津島) and get off at the last stop. During the high season in summer, an advance reservation is highly recommended. The ferry leaves nightly at 10:00pm, arriving on Kōzu island at 10am the following day. The ferry also stops en route on Oshima, Toshima, Niijima, and Shikinejima islands, so you could do some islands hopping on the way if you like.  Click here for some English information about the ferry company. There’s also a ferry from Shimoda (下田) port in Izu that takes either 2-1/2 hours or 7 hours, depending on the day of the week.

Live web cam: Click here and select “神津島 前浜南東”

Map: Click here for a full-color map of the island, and here for a detailed map of the summit plateau. You can also pick up paper copies of these maps at the ferry terminal.The map has numbers written in blue from 1 to 29 that correspond with numbered signposts along the trail, so you can cross reference the number on the map with the signposts you see along the way.

Level of difficulty:  2 out of 5 (elevation change 572 meters)

Total round-trip distance: 10km (3 to 7 hours)

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Mt. Ashitaka (愛鷹山)

February 27, 2016

The Ashitaka mountain range sits on the edge of Fuji city just a short distance south of Mt. Fuji itself. The route described here offers the best unobstructed southernly views of Mt. Fuji from any mountain in Japan, as well as allows hikers to experience a taste of the deciduous hardwood forests that once covered the entire land.

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The hike: The bus stop is just off route 469, so after exiting the bus, walk out to the main road and turn right (in the opposite direction from which you just came). You’ll soon see a soba noodle shop on your left (on the opposite side of the road). Walk down the paved, 2-lane road for about 10 minutes and you’ll reach the trailhead on the left side of the road. It’s marked by a large parking lot and wooden shelter housing the toilets. There’s a large grassy area here as well, which is a good landmark that you’ve reached the right place. Just to the right of the toilets you’ll see the trailhead marked by a wide trail with wooden log steps built into the hillside. The trail pretty much goes straight up, with very few switchbacks in sight. You’ll see a large TV antenna at the top of the hill in front of you. The trail will go right past that, so you can use that as a visual indicator (though it’s nearly impossible to get lost, as there’s only one way to go, and that’s up!) If the weather is good you’ll have an amazing view of Mt. Fuji directly behind you. At the top of the hill just below the antenna you’ll find a small observation deck which makes a great place for a short break. The grassy area just below this lookout point makes for a great picnic area. In fact, if you’re nursing a hangover or just don’t feel up for a big hike, it’d be a great place to kick back and relax for the afternoon before descending back the way you came in time for the last bus. Anyway, if you’re still keen on hiking then continue up the trail past the antenna and helipad and you’ll pass through an area of bamboo grass with excellent views of the Minami Alps if the weather is good. A few minutes on, you’ll pass by another antenna (this one sits on top of a green building) before entering the forest and commencing the steep climb towards the ridgline. It should take about 10 minutes to reach Umanose Miharashidai (馬ノ背見晴台), which is the halfway point in terms of horizontal distance. You’ve still got quite a lot of vertical elevation change ahead of you though. There are a couple of picnic benches here if you feel inclined to take a break. Just don’t rest too long, as the last bus back to Gotemba is at 6:09pm. From here, you’ll enter a root-infested trail that is suffering from a nasty bout of overuse. There are several different paths to follow, each in varying states of erosion. Take your pick and enjoy the moss-covered volcanic scenery of the hardwood forest. If the winds are blowing from the north, then don’t be alarmed if you hear the sound of elephants and lions. No, your mind isn’t playing tricks on you: there is a safari park located at the base of the mountain. Likewise, if you hear artillery fire, then rest assured that you’re not under attack, as there’s a military firing range also at the foot of the mountain. Anyway, the trail really starts to steepen here, and it should take about 40 minutes of continuous climbing before reaching another small viewpoint called Heitanchi (平坦地). This is your last chance for unobstructed views of Mt. Fuji, so be sure to take plenty of photos (or use your imagination if the cloud is in). The final part of the climb is ahead, so brace yourself for the relentless 200-vertical meter push to the summit. The path steepens once again, as the forest grows thicker and more beautiful with each advancing step. In the winter you can get nice views of Mt. Fuji between the bare tree branches, which can make for some really artistic shots. Once again there are two or three different heavily-eroded paths to choose from, so take your pick and keep up the vertical elevation gains. After a heavy rain the trail will likely be one giant mud pit, so bring gaiters if you want to keep your hiking pants from getting muddy. It should take around a half an hour to reach a trail junction for Sekotsuji (勢子辻). Ignore this trail and push on to the summit of Mt. Echizen (越前岳), the highest point of the Ashitaka range. Although the views of Mt. Fuji are obscured by tree cover, you’ll have mouth-watering vistas of Tsuruga bay and Fuji city directly below you. Take a break here on one of the picnic benches dotted on the summit plateau.  You’ve got a couple of choices from here. If you’re running short of time, then consider retracing your steps back to the bus stop, as it’s the fastest and shortest way off the mountain. If you’ve still got the time and energy, however, you can traverse over to Kuro-dake and down to Yama Jinja Shrine, which will take about 2 hours to reach. Keep in mind that the last bus is 6:09pm from Ashitaka tozanguchi bus stop, which is a 10-minute walk from Yama Jinja. To reach this trail, find the small red-bibbed Jizo statue on the far side of the summit (just behind the picnic tables) and follow the path that leads away from the top (with Mt. Fuji on your left).  Don’t take the trail marked for Yobiko Dake, as it’s in the wrong direction. The path to Kurodake a lovely ridge walk with a relatively gentle descent through a tranquil forest. The route is signposted in a couple of places with the kanji for  黒岳・大沢, so just stick to the ridge with Mt. Fuji on your left. Your first landmark will be Fujimidai (富士見台), which has a nice view of Mt. Fuji. There’s a strange 2-meter tall aluminum tripod here that is incredibly unstable. Apparently it has been set up so that photographers can climb up and set their cameras there to capture the view above the trees. This spot was is known as the location for the photo that once graced the back of the 5000 yen bill in the pre-war years of the Taisho era. The trail continues to the left of this tripod and will traverse along the ridge past a couple of precarious drops on your right that are marked with Caution signs. Stay away from the edge of the crumbly ridge on your right, as at least one person has tumbled from there. Push on for another half hour or so until reaching Nokogiri Dake Tenboudai Viewpoint (鋸岳展望台) on your right just off the main trail. There’s a wonderful vista of a jagged, insanely-precarious sabertooth ridge that is currently off-limits to hikers, and for good reason, as parts of the ridge have completely eroded away. From here, the trail will drop through some bamboo grass and reach a deep trench that also doubles as the hiking trail. A detour route has recently been created that parallels the gully, so take your pick as they both meet up further down the ridge. There’s one tricky point at the end of the gully where the path appears to verge to the right on a wide path that appears to be a road. Stay left here and keep following whichever trail has the most erosion and you’ll be ok. You’ll really start to lose altitude now, and the native hardwoods will give way to a farmed cedar plantation that will block out most of the natural light. It’ll take another 15 to 20 minutes to reach a junction called Fujimi Touge Path (富士見峠), where a decision will have to be made. There’s a bus leaving at 4:49pm and the last bus is a 6:09pm. You can make it to the bus stop in about 45 minutes from here if you really push it (and ignore the side trip to Kurodake). If you have the time and energy, however, and want to get one final look at Mt. Fuji, drop your pack here and head up to the summit of Mt. Kuro, which reputedly has a pleasant vista of everyone’s favorite stratovolcano. Allow yourself about one hour for the return trip. I did not have time for this side trip, so if anyone does venture up there please let me know about the trail conditions and if the vistas make it worth it. From Fujimi Touge , the trail finally leaves the ridge for the steep descent to the bus stop. The path drops steeply for a couple of minutes before reaching a free, unstaffed mountain hut that looks more like an abandoned shack than a place to stay. There’s a small water source in the gully just below the shelter that was little more than a trickle in the winter. The hut has room for about 3 people comfortably, but it would make for a nice place to stay if you wanted to climb up for the sunrise from Mt. Kuro. Cross over the gully to the toilet shack on the other side, where the path continues its traverse. After a gentle climb you’ll reach the base of two short ladders that can be slippery in wet weather, so use caution. From here, the trail traverses through an area of rockfall (marked with a sign in Japanese reading 落石) before descending into a moss-covered cedar forest that wouldn’t look too out of place on Yakushima. Continue climbing down until reaching a moss-covered concrete dam. Cross the gully below the dam and the trail will continue on the other side and after a few more minutes you’ll reach a small shrine and a paved forest road with a small parking lot. Turn left here and it’s a 10-minute, 1km walk along the road to the bus stop. When you reach the main road, you’ll see the bus stop on your right but be careful – this is the bus stop in the opposite direction. Cross the road and walk down a little towards your right and you’ll see a sign with a cute little “Q” in white letters on top of a red illustration of Mt. Fuji. You can either take a bus back to Gotemba or Mishima station (though there’s only one bus to Mishima in the afternoons, leaving at 4:59pm). You could also try your luck hitching, as the road gets steady traffic on weekends. The entire hike should take between 4 to 6 hours, depending on your speed. If Mt. Fuji is visible then it’ll probably take closer to 6 hours for the hike, as you’ll be stopping every 50 meters or so to snap another photo of the iconic cone.

 When to go: This hike can be done year-round, but you’ll need crampons anytime there is snow on the mountain, as it can get quite icy. Winter provides your best chance of seeing snow-capped Mt. Fuji. The autumn colors are also splendid on the mountain, so aim to go in late October if you can. Summer can be incredibly humid and downright miserable, so it’s better to do it before June when the humidity really starts to settle.

Access: From Tokyo, take a train on the Tokaido line to Kozu (国府津) and change to the Gotemba line. Get off at Gotemba (御殿場) station. Go out the ticket gates and turn left, going down the stairs on the “Mt. Fuji side” of the station. The stairway splits at the landing halfway down, so turn left and go to the bus rotary in front of you. The bus for the trailhead leaves from bus stop #4 (it’s the bus stop on the island in the middle of the rotary). Take a bus bound for Jūrigi (十里木) and get off at the final stop. It takes several hours to reach Gotemba station by train, so make sure you’re in time for the 10:50am bus or you won’t have time to do the hike before nightfall. You could also get to Gotemba by bus from Tokyo or by the Odakyu line from Shinjuku (get off at Shin-matsuda station and then walk to Matsuda station on the Gotemba line and continue by train to Gotemba). Alternatively, you could take the Shinkansen to Odawara station and then a local train to Kozu and then to Gotemba.  Click here for the bus schedule.

Level of difficulty:  3 out of 5 (elevation change ~700 meters)

Total round-trip distance: 7.6km (4 to 6 hours)

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Mt. Yōrō (養老山)

November 6, 2015

While best known for its iconic waterfall at the base of the mountain, Mt. Yōrō is a pleasant day hike affording wonderful panoramic views and offering a quick escape from the chaos of nearby Nagoya.

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The hike: If you want to save some time, consider taking a taxi to the start of the hike. Otherwise, go out the ticket gate of the train station and out to the street running in front of the station. Turn left and then immediately right, following the road as it heads towards the mountains. You’ll soon pass by a post office on your right. Keep going straight and cross the main street, where you’ll see a sign that says 養老ランド. Continue on straight and you’ll enter Yōrō park. Go through the park (past Yōrō land) and you’ll soon see a parking lot on your left. Cross the bridge over the river and immediately turn left, following the path that parallels the river. You’ll follow this river all the way up to Yōrō waterfall, which should take about an hour to reach. The path will pass through a row of souvenir stalls before crossing the river and following a rather boring concrete path all the way to the waterfall. The falls themselves are very impressive and this is considered a ‘power spot’ (hence the insane crowds during the weekends). Just beyond the waterfall the broad path turns to the right and climbs up to a small shrine. Climb the steps to your left at the shrine and at the top you’ll reach a parking lot and the top of the chairlift. (There’s a chairlift you can take from the parking lot to here, but not worth it considering it’s barely a hundred meter vertical elevation change). Anyway, walk to the end of the parking lot and you’ll see a parking attendant there. He’s in charge of registering hikers, so tell him you are climbing Mt. Yōrō and he’ll write down your climbing details. Continue walking on the road as it leaves the parking lot and soon you’ll meet another forest road on your left with a sign that says 登山道入口. Turn left here and walk up the road a short distance where you’ll come to a signposted junction. Turn left and follow the hand-painted sign pointing towards 三方山. The forest road is closed off a bit further on, but there’s a sign that says you should turn left again. Drop down to the small creek and cross over to the other side. The trail immediately starts climbing through a wonderful deciduous forest with a fair number of switchbacks to make things easier. It’s a relentless, sweat-inducing climb for the better part of a hour, where you’ll finally reach the ridge line. There’s a junction here, with a trail pointing off to the left to the summit of Mikata (三方山). Turn left here for the short climb to the top, where you’ll have outstanding views out towards Ontake and the Chuo Alps if the weather is nice. You can also see Nagoya city and the flatlands of Mie spreading out before you. After soaking up the views, retrace your steps to the junction and continue along the ridge towards Sasahara-tōge (笹原峠). It’ll take about 10 minutes to reach the pass, where you’ll find another junction. Turn left here at the sign pointing towards Mt. Kogura (小倉山頂). The views will open up as you navigate a series of wooden steps built into the hills. The scenery is reminiscent of the Suzuka mountains a bit further to the west. You’ll reach the crest of a hill, where a small sign points to the left for Mt. Yōrō (養老山). If you turn right here and walk a short distance, you’ll reach a large open area with a gazebo and several picnic benches. This makes an excellent place for a lunch break. After admiring the views, you can retrace your steps to that junction and head to the high point of Mt. Yōrō if you like but be warned: there is absolutely no view to speak of. It’ll take about 10 minutes to reach the summit: you have to cross a forest road between here and the summit where you can see some susuki grass in the autumn. From here, you can simply retrace your steps all the way to the waterfall. If you’ve got extra time or want more of a challenge, then you can make this hike much longer by climbing Mt. Shō (笙ヶ岳). To do this, retrace your steps to Sasahara-tōge (笹原峠) and instead of turning right to head back to the waterfall, continue straight on towards the old dairy pasture (旧牧場). You’ll climb a bit through the forest before reaching Asebi-tōge (アセビ峠). Turn left here for the steep climb to the summit of Shō-ga-take. Supposedly the views are supposed to be really good but I must confess that I didn’t go to the top myself. Retrace your steps back to Asebi-tōge and from there you can simply follow the long forest road back to the start of the hike. If you’ve got extra time, then consider visiting The Site of Reversible Destiny, a park blending modern art and nature.

When to go: This hike can be done year round, but you need to watch out for snow and ice during the winter months. Bring a pair of 4-point crampons just to play it safe. Winter does bring clear air which means your chances of seeing the Japan Alps are much greater than in other seasons. Fall brings wonderful foliage but also immense crowds who flock to the waterfall.

Access: From Nagoya station, take a train on the JR Tokai line towards Maibara and Ogaki, and get off at Ogaki (大垣) station. From there, change to the Yoro tetsudo (railway) bound for Kuwana and get off at Yoro (養老) station. It should take a little over an hour if you research the train timetable and time your connections properly.

Live web cam: Click here

Map: Click here. You can download a simple illustrated map at the bottom of the page. Click on 登山道 -ダウンロード. You can also find a map on this blog.

Level of difficulty:  3 out of 5 (elevation change ~800 meters)

Total round-trip distance: 12km (4 to 6 hours)

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Mt. Saihō (西方ヶ岳)

September 1, 2015

Mt. Saiho is a majestic mountain located on the western shores of Tsuruga Bay in western Fukui Prefecture. The natural forests and panoramic views make for an outstanding day hike for those based in Hokuriku. Just make sure you go before the nuclear power plants are restarted.

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The hike: From the bus stop, turn left and walk back along the main road (with the sea on your left). You’ll see a large shrine in the forest on your right. Just before this shrine, you’ll see a road on your right that heads into the village and up into the hills. Turn right on this road and you will immediately see a signpost that reads 西方ヶ岳登山口 (Saihō-ga-take tozanguchi). If you’ve driven to the trailhead then you can park at the shrine (just in front of the toilet), and continue past the shrine and take your first left. Anyway, continue walking on that road through the quaint village towards the hills. After passing a cemetery and a couple of rice fields, the road dead ends and you’ll see a concrete path towards the right that heads into the forest. Take this trail and follow it all the way to the top. It’s a pretty easy trail to follow and pretty much impossible to get lost. Your first landmark will be a rock formation with a signpost that reads Oku-no-in tenbōsho (奥の院展望所), which can be reached in about 20 minutes. The views down into the village from here are lovely, so take in the vistas and rest up, because you’ve still got a lot of climbing before reaching the summit. After a break, continue on the trail and you’ll soon see a spur trail on your right marked from Oku-no-in (奥の院). You can ignore this and just continue the climb. The shrine itself is situated on the underside of a steep cliff, but it isn’t much to look at honestly. The grotto is fenced off so you can’t enter it, and it’s a treacherous descent to get there. If you’re curious, you can always explore it on the descent. The trail continues to meander through the forest, gaining steady elevation as it makes its way towards the ridge line. Your next landmark is a water source marked Ginmeisui (銀命水). The water trickles out of an underground spring inside of a small cave. The water is dubious to say the least, so I’d bring a filter if you plan on drinking from it. Just under the signpost you’ll notice a sign that says 西方ヶ岳1.8km. You’re pretty much at the halfway point in the climb, so hang in there because the best is about to come. The angle steepens abruptly past the water source, with steps built in place to aid in the ascent. A bit further up (400 horizontal meters from the water source to be exact), you’ll reach a rock formation called オーム岩 (also オウム岩) which makes a great place for a lunch break. Again, the views from here are stellar, and if the weather is clear then you can see north towards Mt. Nosaka. The angle will start to ease a bit as you enter the beech forests near the ridge. The woods here are home to a surprising variety of wildlife, surprising indeed when you consider you’re only 10km from a nuclear power plant. Keep your eyes out for woodpeckers, hares, wild boar, and perhaps a black bear if you’re lucky. The forest continues to impress the higher you climb, and eventually you’ll pop out directly on the summit of the mountain, which is marked by a wooden signpost and small emergency hut. It will take about 2 to 3 hours from the bus stop to the top, depending on your speed and the number of breaks. Regrettably, there is no view from the top but don’t fear: just to the right of the summit signpost you’ll find a trail that continues to the north. Follow it for about 30 seconds and you’ll see a rock formation on your right which affords mind-boggling panoramic views. On a clear day you can see the Kita Alps and Hakusan floating on the horizon. In May the entire horizon will glow white with the brilliant line of snow-capped peaks as far as the eye can see. If you follow the coast line to your left, you’ll see a stunning aquamarine cove jutting out from the forest – that is where the nuclear power plant is located. If you’ve got time, then you can continue along this ridge towards the plant. The trail drops to a saddle followed by a long gentle climb to the summit of Mt. Sazae (蠑螺ヶ岳), which you can see on the far side on the mountain range. It’ll take about an hour to reach the summit, where you can descend to the main road (just inches from the nuclear power plant) and Urasoko (浦底) bus stop. If you’re short on time (like I was), then just retrace your steps back to the shrine and Jōgū bus stop.

When to go: This hike can be done from April to late November when the peak is free from snow. A winter hike is also possible, but you’ll need snowshoes and a GPS to help you navigate through the thick forest. The mountain is also uncomfortably close to Tsuruga Nuclear Power Plant, so you should definitely do this hike before the nuclear reactors are restarted.

Access: From bus stop #2 at Tsuruga (敦賀) station, take a bus bound for Tateishi (立石) and get off at Jōgū (常宮) bus stop. The journey takes about 25 minutes and there are only 3 buses a day. Click here for the bus schedule.

Map: Click here

Level of difficulty: 2 out of 5 (elevation change 764 meters)

Total round-trip distance: 7km (4 to 5 hours)

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Mt. Furano-nishi (富良野西岳)

July 19, 2015

Mt. Furano-nishi is a lovely peak situated on the southwestern edge of the idyllic ski town of Furano in central Hokkaido. The mountain affords outstanding panoramic views and offers a taste of the terrain found in the deeper mountains of the region.

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The hike: If you don’t take the gondola, then head up the ski slopes just to the left of the gondola (behind the tennis courts). The first part of the trail follows a mountain bike path, but you can pretty much make your own trail through the open grass slopes. As long as you keep heading up you’ll be ok. It should take about an hour or so to reach the top of the gondola, where you’ll find some restrooms and some vending machines! From here you’ve got two choices. You can either take the trail directly in front of the gondola exit (it starts at the beginning of the forest) or head left up the black diamond slope to the ridgeline. The ski slope is incredibly steep but offers fantastic views of Furano city below. There are also a plethora of wildflowers in bloom to make the sweat worthwhile. It’ll take about 20 minutes of slogging to reach the top of the final ski lift. Take a break here because you’ve done most of the legwork and it’ll be on the ridge the rest of the way. The path dives into the forest here, and you’ll want to make some noise or carry your bell in order not to startle any bears. Meeting a bear on the narrow path here would be a death wish, since there’s no place to escape if the bear should come knocking. While easy to follow, the route is overgrown in some places, so wear pants that you don’t mind getting dirty as the morning dew or recent rains will leave the foliage soaked. There are a few ups and downs as you make your way over to Furano-nishi, which you should see directly in front of you. The views towards the valley below will start to open up a bit, as will the scenery of the other side of the ridge between the dense foliage. Your next landmark will be crossing a small stream and climbing up a short eroded section of the trail with a fixed rope in place to assist in the ascent. This is where the real climb begins, and it’s a steady 20 to 30 minute slog up a rapidly steepening trail towards the summit. If it’s been raining then parts of the trail will resemble a small river, so take care in the muddy sections. Once you reach the final summit ridge, turn left for the short climb to Furano-nishi’s rocky perch. The views on a clear day are out-of-this-world, with uninterrupted panoramic views of most of Hokkaido’s taller peaks. The Tokachi mountains dominate the horizon across the vast valley that plays host to Furano city, while Ashibetsu-dake looks on from an adjacent ridge directly behind you. Between those peaks you’ll find a vast expanse of dozens of mountain ridges folding back on each other. After soaking up the views you can either retrace your steps (like I did), or continue along the ridge for an alternative way off the mountain. The path is considered for experienced hikers only, and drops sharply off the back side of the mountain until reaching a stream, which must be crossed several dozen times. I’m told that the there are tape marks in place to help with navigation, and that the route should not be attempted after heavy rains (hence my choice for not doing the route). In addition, the area is crawling with bears, so you’ll need a whistle to help keep them away. (Bear bells are useless because the noise of the rapids will drown them out. You’ll need to use something that makes a lot more noise). When you reach a junction, turn left and descend back towards the gondola and hot spring (if you’d like a bath). Otherwise you can stay on the trail and it will dump you out on a road that will lead to Gosen bus stop (5線), which is on the same bus route that you used to get to the trailhead. All in all you’re looking at 4 to 6 hours of hard hiking to complete the route.

When to go: This hike can be done from June to October, when the trail is free of snow. Additionally, the peak is a popular place for backcountry skiers, but you’ll need some snowshoes to complete the hike (and don’t attempt on days with poor visibility or blizzard conditions). Budget some time to soak your bones in the hot spring at the Prince hotel. It’s a nice place for a bath if you get over the fact that it costs 1500 yen to enter!

Access: From Furano station, take a bus from bus stop #3 bound for Goryou Kyuu Sen (御料9線) and get off at the Yon sen (4線) stop. From there, walk up the road towards the ski resort until you arrive at the Prince Hotel. The gondola is next to the hotel. Please note that there are only 3 buses per day. The morning bus leaves at 8:10am and the next bus isn’t until 2:55pm, so you might be better off taking a taxi. Click here for the bus schedule. Another alternative is to base yourself at Goryo Guesthouse, which is on the same bus line as the trailhead. You can either walk from the guesthouse to the gondola (about 45 minutes brisk walk) or catch the bus from near there to the Yon sen bus stop.

Map: You can find a free map in the English publication called the “Furano Area Guide” available at the Tourist Information Offices in Asahikawa or Furano. There’s a good map on page 14 of  the book (the 2015-2016 edition). Here’s an online version of the book.

Level of difficulty: 2.5 out of 5 (elevation change ~500m if you use the ropeway, ~900m if you don’t)

Distance: 9km ( 4 to 6 hours, depending on whether you take the ropeway or not)

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Hachijō-fuji (八丈富士山)

March 21, 2015

Hachijō-fuji is a dormant conical volcano that towers over Hachijō island in the southern part of the Izu island chain. The peak offers a rare chance to circumnavigate a volcanic crater while admiring the crystal clear waters of the Pacific Ocean.

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Special Note: Although the trailhead starts at 500 vertical meters above the sea, the recommended way to do this hike is a ‘sea to summit’ traverse, from the ferry terminal to the top. That is the route described below.

The hike: From the ferry, walk up the main road and on your right you’ll see the ferry terminal in a nondescript concrete building. There’s a small tourist information counter there if you want some information about the island. Otherwise, keep walking away from the boat and you’ll soon see a diving shop called SEADIVE. Directly next to this shop is a cheap hostel called Hotchy Joes. It’s owned and managed by the people in the diving shop, so if you’ve booked a bed then you can drop your luggage off at the hostel first to lighten your load. Otherwise, continue on the main road away from the ferry terminal that starts slowly climbing towards the interior of the island. Believe it or not, this road will actually take you all the way to the trailhead of the mountain if you just continue to walk straight. At the first main intersection there is a small shop that sells basic supplies, but ignore this as there’s a bigger and better supermarket further up the road, near the airport and across the street from the baseball field. The supermarket is a low, one-story building with a bright orange roof. You can see Hachijō-fuji’s cone sticking up behind the building. Despite being a popular place for shopping, there is no sign indicating what the building is. Buy your lunch and water here, as there are no other facilities beyond this. Just past the supermarket, you’ll see an orange pachinko hall (パチンコ) and the island’s equivalent of the Hilton (in name only- it’s really just a tiny minshuku that has stolen the name of the successful hotel chain). Take the road between these two buildings (just continue straight on). Soon you’ll pass by a small concrete factory and reach an intersection marked Fujisando iriguchi (富士山道入口). Continue straight on and this road will start climbing up towards the trailhead. If you’re bored of walking on the concrete or just want to save some extra energy for the hike, then it’s pretty simple to hitch a lift on this road, since all cars are going the same place. Your first landmark will be a shrine gate on the right side of the road marked as 一の鳥居. A bit further up, you’ll see a sign pointing to the second gate (二の鳥居) but you can just skip that and continue on the asphalt. A few minutes later you’ll see a road branching off to the left marked for the airport (空港). You can consider descending via this route on the way down as it’s an alternative way off the mountain. Anyway, about half an hour later you’ll reach the top of the road and find a junction. Turn right here, following the sign that says Hachijō-fuji Tozanguchi (八丈富士登山口). You’ll reach the trailhead in about five minutes. Look for the parked cars if you’ve come on the weekend. The trail starts on the left side of the paved road, marked by a stone with the words 富士山頂への路 engraved in white letters. Turn left here on a paved road that soon turns into volcanic gravel. You’ll immediately see a green gate fastened across the path. Don’t worry, the trail isn’t closed: the gate is there to keep the cows inside (you’ll be passing through a cow pasture). Unlatch the gate and don’t forget to lock it again once you pass through. You’ll see a series of stone steps built out of the volcanic rock, with an easier (but narrow) concrete path that runs parallel. There are a total of 1285 steps between here and the crater rim, so make sure you pace yourself. I recommend alternating between the concrete path and the steps in order to give your legs a rest and to work out some different muscles. There are handrails in place in some of the steeper sections, but it really is easy hiking for the most part. Eventually you’ll reach another green gate, so pass through it by unlatching the lock and locking it again once you’re through. From here there are only 530 steps to go, so hang in there and enjoy the ride. Fortunately (or unfortunately if you’re a purist), the concrete continues over 190 of those steps, so once the concrete ends you’ve only got 340 steps to the crater rim. The angle will start to ease a bit the closer to the top you get, and at the top of the last step you’ll be on the edge of the crater rim, where the real fun (and the real hike) begins. You can go either direction, but I recommend going clockwise (just like the buddhists). At this junction, you’ll see a path that continues straight and drops into the crater floor. Ignore this trail for now and wait until you’ve done the full circumnavigation. Turn left on the ridge, following whatever path seems most logical. It’s a heavily eroded area with two or three different paths to choose from. In clear weather it’s easy to see where you need to go, but be careful in foggy weather because it can be easy to fall off a cliff if you’re not careful. Near the top of the first peak, you’ll pass by a small cave opening on your left. This was used during World War II for Japanese troops to spy the enemy aircraft (Hachijō island was a battleground apparently). Continue on for another 10 minutes or so and you’ll reach the summit of the mountain, marked by a concrete post. From here, it’s a matter of following the crater rim as best you can. It’s overgrown in places and can be incredibly muddy if it’s been raining recently. As you head north, you’ll soon start to see a conical island floating just off shore. This is called Hachijō kojima (little Hachijō island). The uninhabited island is only accessible by chartered boat, unless you want to swim 7.5km across the sea. Anyway, continue traversing around the crater, which has some amazing views in clear weather. It should take about an hour or so to circle the crater, so when you return back where you started take a break because things are about to become interesting. Instead of turning left and following the stone steps you ascended, turn right here and drop down into the crater itself. At first the trail is a heavily-eroded channel of scree but soon you’ll come to a junction. Turn right for the time being and follow the well-maintained path to Sengen Shrine, which sits on the edge of a smaller crater. There are colorful stones here in which visitors have written their wishes. After admiring the views, retrace your steps back to the stone marker, and this time continue to the right (instead of left up the trail that will take you back to the crater rim). This path will take you to the center of the crater itself, but be warned – it’s incredibly narrow and not well maintained. The path passes through some breathtaking jungle greenery. The trail can be hard to pick up, so when in doubt follow the route that has the most wear (and backtrack if you’ve made a mistake). After climbing a bit through a really dense area of brush (where you’ll likely be bending over like an old lady to fight your way through), you’ll see a concrete signpost that reads 中央火口丘. Turn right here and force your way through the overgrown trail and you’ll eventually reach an idyllic lake that makes the perfect place to contemplate life. Very few hikers actually make it this far, so consider the a solitude a justified reward for all of the hard work. After this, it’s simply a matter of retracing your steps all the way back to the ferry terminal. Again, if you’re exhausted, you can simply stick out your thumb and try to catch a ride.

When to go: This hike can be done year round, but bring plenty of water if hiking in the warmer summer months. Late March is a great time to enjoy the cherry blossoms and more stable weather. Late autumn is also a splendid time, but make sure there are no typhoons passing through.

Access: From Takeshiba ferry terminal (竹芝客船ターミナ) in Tokyo, take a ferry bound for Hachijōjima (八丈島) and get off at the last stop. During the high season in summer, an advance reservation is highly recommended. The ferry leaves nightly at 10:30pm, arriving on Hachijō island at 8:50am the following day. Click here for some English information about the ferry company.

Map: Click here

Level of difficulty: 3 out of 5 (elevation change 854 meters) (4 out of 5 if you descend into the crater floor)

Total round-trip distance: 14km (6 to 8 hours)

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Konze Alps (金勝アルプス)

September 9, 2014

Located near the shores of Lake Biwa in southern Shiga Prefecture, the Konze Alps offers a refreshing escape from the urban sprawl of Kansai. The hike features not only gigantic sandstone formations and ancient Buddhist carvings, but also a chance to experience a forest relatively untouched by human encroachment.

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The hike: From the bus stop, walk up the narrow paved road that runs upstream parallel to the river. The road will soon branch, so turn left and follow the sign to Mt. Tosaka (鶏冠山) and Tengu-iwa (天狗岩). Walk through the parking lot, past the toilets, and up the paved forest road that may or may not have a chain over it. You’ll soon pass by a small pond on your left, followed by another pond a little further along. The trailhead starts just after the second pond and is marked with a white sign reading  落ヶ滝線 1900m 50分. Turn right here and follow the gravel road. You’ll pass by a small lake and log cabin shack before entering the woods. You’ll soon see a small trail branching off to the right, marked by a corroding signpost. Ignore this trail and stay on the main path which will veer towards the left. The route runs next to a small stream that you will follow most of the way up. There are numerous crossings marked by colored tape on the trees. After about 10 minutes or so you’ll cross over a paved forest road, with a trail crossing a bridge on your left. Instead of crossing the bridge, continue straight on, following the sign to 落ヶ滝. After crossing the creek you’ll come to another junction with an trail branching off to your left for Mt. Tosaka (鶏冠山) and 北谷林道. Ignore this trail and follow the trail to 落ヶ滝 which crosses the creek straight ahead. The entire route is marked systematically with yellow metal signs bolted to the trees that read コールポイント. These signs are coded with a numerical system that is used to help with helicopter rescues. Every year, some hikers take a tumble and need to be airlifted out of the mountains, and these signs indicate places where rescuers can safely abseil from the helicopter. Anyway, the route continues weaving back and forth along both banks of the creek for about 15 more minutes until reaching another junction with a trail branching off to the right for 落ヶ滝. Drop your gear here and cross the creek for the short climb up to the waterfall. While the waterfall itself isn’t particularly big, the rock formations and peace of the narrow valley make it a good place to contemplate life. After enjoying the scenery, retrace your steps back to the junction and continue heading up the mountain. After passing by a couple of more rescue points, the views will start to open up towards lake Biwa and Hieizan as you climb towards the ridge. The route starts to flatten out, traversing through a large plateau flanked by massive undergrowth all around. It can be a bit tricky to find the trail in places, so make sure you follow the tape marks on the trees and any signage pointing towards 落ヶ谷 and for 天狗岩. There are several places with ropes to help you up the steeper sections of rock. Eventually you’ll pop out on the main ridge (rescue point #K-7), where a decision will have to be made. If you’re fit and energetic, then I recommend stashing your gear in the woods and turning left for the 20 minute climb to the summit of Mt. Tosaka. The trail is steep and will pass over three false summits before reaching the peak. While the summit is covered with trees, there are a couple of places along the way where you can get views down into the valley below. If that’s not your cup of tea, then you can skip the climb because the best part of the hike lies ahead. Turn right here and follow the signs towards Tengu-iwa (天狗岩), which will take anywhere between 45 minutes and 1 hour to reach. En route you’ll pass by several fascinating rock formations that offer splendid views into the valley below. Watch your footing in dry weather, as the sandstone offers little traction. Just before reaching Tengu, the path will drop down into the forest before climbing steeply up to the base of the rocks. Drop your pack here and follow the red arrows painted on the rocks to climb to the top. It’s an adrenaline-inducing climb with incredible panoramic views and most likely the highlight of the entire hike. When you’ve had enough fun, retrace your steps to the ridge and continue straight along, following the sign for Mimi-iwa 耳岩. You’ll soon find a junction on your left for 十九道ダム, but ignore this and continue straight on. You’ll start to get views back towards Tengu and you’ll also see a rock formation that looks like a giant ear (hence the name, Mimi-iwa). When you reach this rock formation you’ll find yet another junction (there are no shortage of trails in this area). Here another decision will have to be made. If you’re tired, then take the trail to the right marked for Kami-Kiryuu (上桐生). Otherwise, continue on the ridge towards 白石峰 for the climb to Mt. Ryuuou (竜王山), which will take about another half an hour to reach. The path will climb up a series of steps before reaching a junction marked by a giant brown signboard. There is also a box here for hikers to register their hiking plans. Usually these are found at the trailheads, so I have no idea why there is a box sitting here on the top of a mountain. Anyway, turn left here and follow the rolling ridge through an area of pine trees. Soon you’ll reach an ancient Kannon statue carved into a rock called 茶沸観音. After this the route strolls along a relatively flat ridge with nice views out to your right. After 10 minutes or so you’ll reach a clearing with a large flat rock and small shrine, as well as a spur trail to the right for the summit of Mt. Ryuuou (竜王山頂). The top itself has no views to speak of, so it’s better to take a break at this clearing. After this retrace your steps back to the big junction with the brown signboard. Here another decision will have to be made. If you turn left here you’ll follow a route on the spiny ridge that will take you past an ancient Buddhist rock carving. The route is marked as 狛坂線 and it should take you about 90 minutes to loop back to the bus stop. I haven’t done this route to be honest (I was torn between this one and the earlier escape route from Mimi-iwa), so I can’t give you a trail description at this time. What I did was to retrace my steps back to Mimi-iwa and turn left, following the signs to 上桐生. The trail drops steeply off the ridge, with ropes in place to help you down the slippery sandstone scree. After scurrying through the limestone maze, you’ll reach another junction marked 水晶谷 on your left. Ignore this and drop steeply to the right, following the tape marks and signs through yet more boulders. At rescue point T-3 the trail will drop off the ridge to the right and pass through an area of ferns before eventually dropping down to a creek bed. Follow the route as it crisscrosses the creek about a dozen times. Keep your eyes peeled for the tape marks when you’re not sure where the path goes. At rescue point T-6 you’ll reach a campground and then a gravel road. Turn left and cross the wooden bridge that will take you to a paved road. Follow this road for a few minutes until reaching a fork in the road marked by a bust of Johannis de Rijke, the guy who designed the aqueduct from Lake Biwa to Kyoto. The stone dam behind his statue was also designed by him in the Meiji era. Anyway, to get to the bus stop turn right, but if you’ve still got time and energy there’s still one little detour to make. Turn left, following the signs to さかさ観音. After walking about 5-minutes, you’ll see a paved trail on your left that crosses a bridge to a gazebo. Take this and you’ll find the rock carving next to the resthouse. This is unique because the statues were carved upside down. From here, retrace your steps back to the statue and turn left, where you’ll reach the bus stop in about 10 minutes. As you can see, the hike offers a number of different option and there are enough trails in the area to keep you occupied for a while.

When to go: This hike can be done year round, but you need to be wary of ice in the winter months, as the rock formations are slippery enough without the added challenge of frozen water. Summer is hot and humid with a lot of hornets, but the small river makes a good place to cool off the body. Parts of the trail are closed in early autumn (Sept. 19 to Nov. 10 to be exact) to prevent people from stealing matsutake mushrooms, a highly-prized delicacy. The locals are strict with trespassers, so please pay attention to the Do Not Enter signs reading 入山禁止. This is a very popular weekend destination, so try to go on a weekday if you want to photograph the wonderful rock formations without people in the way.

Access: From Osaka or Kyoto stations, take the JR Shinkaisoku (新快速) either bound for Maibara (米原) or Nagahama (長浜) and get off at Kusatsu (草津) station. Go out the ticket gates and turn left towards the East Exit (東口). Go down the stairs on your left and you’ll find bus stop #4 directly in front of you. Take bus #153 bound for Kami-Kiryuu (上桐生) and get off at the final stop. Click here for the schedule.

Map: Click here

Level of difficulty: 4 out of 5 (elevation change ~500 meters)

Total round-trip distance: 12km (5 to 7 hours)

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Anmon Falls (暗門の滝)

July 11, 2014

Anmon falls is part of Shirakami Sanchi, a World Heritage beech forest located in western Aomori Prefecture. The 3-tiered waterfall is well worth a visit if you’re looking for a quick half-day escape from the crowds in nearby Hirosaki city.

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The hike: From the bus stop, the trailhead is a bit tricky to find. Walk out to the main road and turn left, crossing the metal bridge that spans the river. Just after crossing, you’ll see signs pointing the way to 暗門の滝歩道 (Anmon no taki hodou) Turn right and follow the asphalt past a toilet and a concrete dam to the start of the trail. There’s a water source here, so fill up your water for the walk. You’ll see a trail leading into the forest directly to the left of the water source. Ignore this trail, as you’ll use it to complete your hike. Follow the concrete trail along the river instead, which will lead directly to the waterfalls. The initial part of the path climbs past a concrete dam, but don’t fret: the rest of the way, though on a concrete trail most of the time, follows a natural river. The route is incredibly easy to follow but can be incredibly slippery in wet weather, so use extra caution in the areas with metal staircases and wooden planks. The trail has been washed out in several places, so boardwalks have been installed, which make the area look like one big construction zone in parts. After a couple of minutes, you’ll cross the river a couple of times and see a junction with a trail leading off to the left. Ignore this trail for the time being and head to the right, following the sign reading 暗門の滝へ. The path alternates between the left and right banks of the river, with some areas that can become real traffic jams if hiking on the weekend. Follow the 順路 signs as much as you can, as they can help alleviate some of the tight spots. After about 40 minutes or so, you’ll reach the first of the 3 waterfalls. When you reach the junction, turn left and descend to the base of the falls (the sign says 第3の滝はこちら). The first fall makes a great place to take your first break and soak up the scenery. Once satisfied, retrace your steps and continue climbing towards the remaining two waterfalls. The path actually climbs up to the left and over the first fall before ascending to the second fall, which should take about 10 minutes or so. Just before reaching the second fall you’ll see a trail branching off on the left that climbs to a small shrine. The shrine itself isn’t much to look at but it might be worth a visit to pray to the mountain kami for good weather. Between the second and first falls you’ll pass through a tunnel burrowed into the rock before reaching the final fall and the end of the trail. After sufficient photography time, retrace your steps all the way back to that first junction. At the junction, instead of turning left to cross the river, head straight on the trail marked 散策道へ. The trail climbs into a wonderful virgin beech forest, which, unfortunately, has been victim to people scrawling graffiti in the bark of some of the trees. Regardless, it’s still a nice place for a stroll and a great way to end the hike. The route is very well-marked and about halfway on you’ll see a junction on your right that follows a small stream. Take this trail as it meanders through the forest. Eventually it’ll meet back up with the main trail. When it does, take a right and continue towards the start of the trail. A short while later, you’ll see another trail branching off to the right. This loop is shorter and somewhat diminished by the cedar trees planted along the route! You can take this trail if you’d like, or simply ignore it and continue on the trail back to the parking lot. At the parking lot you’ll find a restaurant, as well as a hot spring bath. Both make a great place to kill some time if you find yourself with extra time before the next bus.

When to go: This hike can be done between early July and early November, when the buses to the trailhead are running. If you have your own transport, then you can consider going a little earlier in the season. Just confirm that the road is open before you go, as the road is closed in the winter.

Access: From bus stop #6 at Hirosaki (弘前) station, take a bus bound for Tsugaru touge (津軽峠) and get off at Aqua Green Village Anmon (アクアグリーンビレッジANMON) bus stop. The buses only run from July 1 to November 4, and there are only two buses per day for the 70 minute journey to the trailhead. Click here for the bus schedule. The tourist information centers at both Aomori and Hirosaki stations have a flyer with the bus schedule and a simple map. Pick it up before getting on the bus, as it has the return bus times as well.

Map: Click here

Level of difficulty: 2 out of 5 (elevation change ~200m)

Total round-trip distance: 8km (2 to 3 hours)

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Mt. Ōe (大江山)

June 7, 2014

Mention Mt. Ōe to any Japanese person, and they’ll likely start indulging you in the legends of the many oni (demons) that roam the ridges of the hallowed peak. Despite the less than stellar image, a traverse along the entire mountain range in good weather is one of the best hikes in Kansai for panoramic views.

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The hike: There’s a water source at the shrine so fill up your bottles before setting out and take a couple of minutes to admire the wonderful view of the valley below. The trail starts just to the left of this water fountain (on the right side of the road), but if you look across the road you’ll see a trail marked for the Oni’s cave (鬼の洞窟). You could consider taking this 10-minute detour to check out the cave (I didn’t have time when I went so I’d be curious to know what’s down there). Anyway, take the trail marked for Senjogatake (千丈ヶ嶽) which meanders through a beautiful forest on a series of wooden steps built into the hillside. It’s a steep climb at first but the grade flattens out a bit as you approach the ridge. After about 15-minutes you’ll reach a trail junction where you’ll turn right for the final climb up to the first of three summits. Shortly before the junction you’ll see a clearing on your left that has good views of the surrounding mountains. Continue the gentle ascent for another 10 minutes until arriving on a broad summit plateau. This is the official high point of Mt. Ōe, so pat yourself on the back and take a few minutes to take in the superb scenery. On a clear day you can see every mountain in Kyoto Prefecture as well as most of the peaks of Hyogo Prefecture. If the cloud is in (as it often is) then you’ll just have to use your imagination. The trail continues on the far side of the summit, so walk past the tall signpost and drop into the forest to the northwest. You’ll soon see signposts indicating a 500 meter horizontal distance to Hatogamine (鳩ヶ峰). Once you bottom out it’s a short but somewhat steep climb above the trees again to the top of the second peak, where there are even better panoramic views. This time you’ll be able to see the Sea of Japan and also see a mountain in front of your that resembles an inverted cooking pot. This is the final peak in the Ōe trilogy, aptly named Nabezuka (鍋塚 – Nabe pot mound). It’ll take about an hour to reach the summit of that mountain, so continue traversing along the trail directly in front of you. Again you’ll drop back down into the forest and descend to a saddle, where you’ll find a parking lot and toilet. This is an escape route if you don’t have the time or energy for the final peak. All you need to do is follow the forest road back down into the valley and you’ll arrive at the bus stop. Otherwise, continue on the trail just above the parking lot. It’s a long, gentle climb with views that open up the higher you go. After about 15 minutes you’ll reach a junction with a path shooting off to the right. The signpost is hand-written and hard to read, but this is the trail you want to take on the way down after visiting the summit of Nabezuka. It’s 500 horizontal meters to the top and it should take you about 10 minutes to reach it. There are a couple of benches you can use to take a rest and admire the scenery. Once satisfied, retrace your steps back to the junction and turn left, dropping through an area of ankle-turning rocks before reaching a forest road with a signpost that says Oeyama Green Lodge 3.5km. Turn left and walk on the flat gravel road, following the signs to the lodge as you wind your way though an area with blue netting set up to keep the deer from eating the tree bark. At the end of the road the trail will fork to the left, so follow the steep switchbacks for about 20 minutes until reaching a paved road. Walk down the road and turn left when you see the signpost that reads Viewpoint of the Senjougataki 150m. If you have extra time you could walk that extra 150 meters to see the waterfall, but keep the (limited) bus times in mind. From here it’s about a brisk 10-minute walk to the bus stop. Turn left when the road merges with the main road (there are a couple of colorful Oni statues here). The bus stop is just down from the entrance to the Oni museum, which makes for a great place to kill time if you’re stuck waiting for the 6:10pm bus.

When to go: This hike is best done from mid-April to late November, when the trails are clear from snow. The peak is also popular for snowshoeing from the ski resort, but you will need a lot of stamina and time to traverse all the way over to the high point.

Access:  Although best approached by car, relying on public transport, though inconvenient, allows you a chance to traverse the entire ridge without having to retrace your steps back to the car. From either Osaka or Kyoto, take a JR train to Fukuchiyama (福知山) station and change to a local train bound for Miyazu (宮津) on the Kita Kinki Tango Railway (北近畿タンゴ鉄道). Get off at Ōeyamaguchi-Naiku (大江山口内宮) station. The railway platform is actually inside of the JR station, so go downstairs and then up to the second floor and buy a separate ticket there. It costs 380 yen one-way from Fukuchiyama station. You might find it faster to take a limited express JR train to Fukuchiyama if you don’t want to leave at the crack of dawn. The first limited express train leaves Kyoto at 9:25am (9:10am from Osaka) on weekends, which allows you plenty of time to connect to the 11:07am train bound for Miyazu. That’ll get you to Ōeyamaguchi-Naiku at 11:36am. Go out the exit, down the stairs, and turn left on the main road when you get outside. Walk 100 meters down the road to the Tourist Information Center, marked by the colorful oni statue outside. The staff there will call a taxi for you (tell them you want to go to Oni-take Inari Jinja (鬼岳稲荷神社). The local taxi company is now bankrupt, so you’ll need to wait about 30 minutes for the taxi to come from Fukuchiyama to fetch you. The taxi will cost about 2500 yen for the 15-minute journey to the trailhead.

From the end of the hike at Ōeyama-no-ie, there is a cheap bus back to Ōe station, where you can take the train back to Fukuchiyama and transfer back to a JR train for Kyoto or Osaka. There are only 2 buses in the afternoon, so aim for the 3:50pm bus if you’re a fast hiker or the more leisurely 6:10pm bus. There’s a great museum at the bus stop dedicated to the Oni culture if you’ve got extra time to kill before the bus. The bus, if you can call it that, is nothing more than a minivan that seats 7 people. It only costs 200 yen to ride and the driver is friendly. Click here for the bus schedule.

Map: Click here

Level of difficulty: 2 out of 5 (elevation change ~200 meters)

Total Round-trip Distance: 10km (4 to 6 hours)

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