Archive for the ‘Archive’ category

A closer look at Best Day Walks Japan

March 1, 2021

My time in Japan coincides directly with the history of Lonely Planet’s Hiking in Japan guidebook. I arrived on these shores in March of 2001, just one month after the release of the first edition of the guide. I soon picked up a copy of the teal and black cover and immediately set out to climb as many of the mountains as I could. My focus soon shifted upon turning to page 21 and finding a side bar about the Hyakumeizan, and I set my sights on climbing all of the hundred mountains on Fukada Kyūya’s seminal list. Using the guide as a reference, I worked my way through the mountains until reaching my goal in late 2008, just as the authors were doing research for the second edition of the book. I picked up a copy of this new version after its release in 2009 and published a closer look , which details the changes between the two editions along with my thoughts on the update. Both editions eventually went out of print, leaving a void in the market for a comprehensive in-print guide to Japan’s mountains. Fast forward to 2021, and the long-awaited third installment in the series, entitled Best Day Walks Japan (US edition: Best Day Hikes Japan). Here’s a closer look:

The positives: First of all, the latest guide is visually pleasing, with 130 full-color photographs laid out through 210 pages of content. This certainly marks a big departure from the previous two books, which were done in 2 color offset with a full-color photo insert. The Japan book is among the first in a new series called Lonely Planet Best Day Walks, which is an interesting concept in this need for social distancing during the pandemic. Casual browsers in bookshops can simply open the book and immediately get an idea of the natural beauty of Japan. The designers have done an excellent job of presenting the materials in an easy-to-follow layout organized by region, and users will be able to flip through and find a hike that suits their travel needs.

Speaking of hikes, the new guide features what are simply billed as “60 walks with maps”, ranging in difficulty from flat strolls through Oze National Park to strenuous ascents of proper mountains such as Miyanoura-dake on the island of Yakushima. Regional content allocation is fairly balanced, with each region covering between 5 and 10 unique hikes, which gives readers enough variety to satisfy their outdoor thirst and match their travel itinerary. The first two Hiking in Japan guidebooks feature 71 and 69 hikes respectively, but in double the page content as the latest Best Walks Japan book.

Curating a guidebook is no easy task, but the authors have done well here for the most part. Lead author Craig Mclachlan has struck a good balance of bringing not only some of the best hikes from his previous two Hiking in Japan guides, but has also included a few new hikes that have not yet appeared in print, such as Sanbe-san in Shimane and Tanesashi Kaigan in Aomori. Also worthy of praise is the addition of experienced writer Rebecca Milner to the team – this  long-overdue female prospective is a welcome change from the all-male leadership of the previous two books.

Furthermore, the full-color English maps for each hike provide enough detail for hikers to follow, while the hike descriptions themselves  feature the kanji readings and symbols for each waypoint along the walk, which will help walkers to decipher the Japanese language signposts proliferating the mountain trails nationwide. The information is practical, and in many cases the URLs are included next to the items mentioned in-text such as transport companies and mountain huts.

Most of the hikes feature a ‘Take a Break’ sidebar with personal recommendations for places to eat and rest near each hike, including nearby hot spring baths. Each regional overview also includes a sidebar of practical resources for planning, featuring mostly government tourism websites and official promotional literature.

Room for improvement: While the book looks great upon first glance, there are a few things that could clearly make this book even better. The first issue is cosmetic. 90% of the photos are stock images, which is a huge departure from the Lonely Planet of bygone days with their 100% author-sourced photographs. Stock images do look nice, but they lack any kind of personal touch and perspective that the authors can give, especially since they are the ones who were there on the trails themselves doing the research. Among the 130 photographs, I have counted around 10 that are credited to the authors themselves. The notable exception is Ray’s photo of the higuma bear in Hokkaidō, which is a thing of beauty.

Two of the stock images chosen actually don’t refer to places on the actual hike: the stock photo for the Rokku Gaaden in Kobe is of the Suma Alps, which is further west in the Rokkō range but nowhere near the hike and the stock image of the Kujū hike is actually Amagaike marsh looking towards Mt Hiji, which again is in the Kujū range but not on the actual trail described in the book. These kind of issues are happening more and more in publications that rely too much on stock images, especially if the contributing stock photographer does not caption or tag their photos properly.

Another issue with the guide is with inconsistency between sections. A good editor should be able to take a guidebook written by three authors and make each section seem indistinguishable from the other in terms of detail and flow. However, with this guidebook some of the walk descriptions feel rushed and lack the appropriate amount of detail, while others are very well-written and presented. These descriptions can mean the difference between an amazing hike and one bordering on disaster. For example, the Ōtake-san hike in the Tokyo section is excellent: it gives you all the practical information you need (how to get to the hike, how long it will take to get there, cost of train fare) and the trail description includes estimated hiking times between each waypoint in the hike. Every hike in this guide should include exactly the same amount of detail. I think the problem is with word limitations – they simply reached their word count limits and ran out of space. One possible way to free up space is to axe the 4-page Shikoku Pilgrimage, which is definitely not a ‘day hike’ and instead do a shorter text box description of the 1400km route. That would free up more space to add more details to other hikes that lack transport information such as Norikura-dake.

Thirdly, some of the information in the latest guide is simply out of date, which is quite a shame considering the publication of the book has been delayed by a year from its original slated publication date of spring 2020. For instance, at the time of writing the Aso-san volcano in Kyūshū was off limits to hikers, but the mountain reopened in September 2020, which should have given the authors plenty of time to update the trail description to reflect the most current conditions. As it stands, the information about the Sensui-kyo Ropeway is simply incorrect, considering the ropeway ceased operations in 2010 and is now in a state of complete ruin. Perhaps this guidebook was printed in early 2020 and has simply been sitting in a warehouse collecting dust all this time?

Next, each hike lacks a ‘when to go’ box. Information about the best season to visit is handled in the introduction to each region, but these particulars should be clearly presented within the individual hike overviews themselves. The authors tout Fushimi Inari as one of “most impressive and memorable sights in all Japan”, but perhaps they should warn people about the immense number of tourists that jostle elbows with others to get a selfie for their Instagram, and instead recommend a pre-dawn or early dusk ascent.

One final item is with the difficulty rating system, which ranges from ‘easy’ to ‘hard’. These ratings are explained on the insider cover page of the book, but they really should include vertical elevation gain and distance recommendations. The book lacks vertical elevation loss and gain, so it’s difficult for experienced hikers to evaluate a hike without this valuable data. Any hike that includes an elevation gain of 1000 meters is going to be a hard hike for anyone who is not fit. In addition, any hike over 20 kilometers in length is going to be tough on the feet. The Sandan-kyō hike in Hiroshima Prefecture is listed as ‘easy’, yet the total round-trip distance is 32 kilometers – that’s three-quarters of a marathon!

The verdict: This guidebook will definitely appeal to first-time visitors to Japan, especially those interested in the variety of beautiful walks and hikes that Japan has on offer. Repeat tourists may also find the information invaluable for making informed choices about where to go and what to climb. However, be warned that some of the walks include only ‘bare bones’ information, requiring readers to do their own research about bus and train timetables. Or they can simply enlist the assistance of a travel consultant to supply the logistics.

Long-time residents who are not fluent in Japanese will also find a great deal of valuable content in the latest guidebook. However, anyone who is fluent in the language could easily find better Japanese-language sources for hikes in their region.

That being said, I will definitely pick up a copy of Best Walks Japan to add to my collection. My philosophy has always been: the more published content about Japan’s mountains the better, and while the latest guide is far from perfect, it is a step in the right direction and, with a few improvements, could easily be a go-to resource for both tourists and residents alike.

Best Day Walks Japan is now available for purchase on Amazon Japan and other retailers in the Asia/Pacific region. The US release date is scheduled for the end of March.

 

Kumano Kodo Guidebook Review

July 16, 2019

It’s the winter of 2007, and I’m hiking along an isolated track called the Kogumotori-goe in southern Wakayama Prefecture with my newlywed wife Kanako. The faint, poorly-marked trail leads up to a viewpoint flanked by a large weather-beaten jizō statue. Armed with a Japanese magazine about the Kumano Kodō, we scan the kanji text and barebones descriptions to find that we’ve reached the Hyakken-gura tenbōdai. We pause here, admiring the splendid views while poring over the limited knowledge in our less-than-ideal information source.

Had we been armed with Cicerone’s latest guide to the Kumano Kodo, Kanako and I would have been in much better hands and definitely would have taken a bus to Yunomine Onsen instead of opting for the extra 6km uphill walk on a paved roadway at dusk.

The Kumano Kodō has come a long way since our fateful walk a dozen years ago. Since becoming a World Heritage site in 2004, Wakayama Prefecture has invested an immense amount of money into both promoting and maintaining the Nakahechi route, adopting the ‘if you build it he will come‘ philosophy that would make Kevin Costner proud. Indeed, the Field of Kumano Dreams has not only brought in the tourists, but has put the Kumano Kodō on the world stage by teaming up with the Camino de Santaigo to form a dual pilgrim program and creating an English-language support network connecting visitors to the many inns and facilities along the way. This has resulted in a 40-fold increase in overseas visitors compared to just a decade ago.

But I really don’t need to tell you all that. One quick net search will reveal a wealth of information about the riches of Wakayama Prefecture, and it’s one reason why I haven’t devoted much of my server space to the Kumano Kodō on this website. Indeed, with the diligent work of their bi-lingual employees, the Kumano Tourism Bureau has created an on-line guide like no other available in Japan, all for free of charge. There’s enough on that website alone to help you plan and walk the Kumano Kodō. So why buy a guidebook at all?

The answer lies within the 230 pages that Kat Davis has devoted to her informative guidebook, a well-researched gem of a publication filled with nearly a hundred spendid full-color photographs. Rather than clicking through web pages and trying to collate all of the information into a notebook, you have everything you need in this guide, and you won’t need a wi-fi connection to enjoy it.

The guide features full descriptions of the Nakahechi and Kohechi routes, each of them 4-day treks through an interesting part of the Kii Peninsula. Part nature walk, part history lesson, the 6 routes outlined in the guidebook offer visitors a chance to experience an ancient pilgrimage route steeped in history. It is the informative explanations of the various Buddhist statues, teahouse ruins, and hidden shrines that sets this guide apart from others, as the author adds context to the historical markers along the way, many of which do not have English explanations.

Additionally, the full-color maps give just the right amount of detail without being too overbearing, and the elevation profiles for each route, marked in a myriad of symbols, provide vital distance and elevation gains that are essential for trip planning. While at first the symbols can be a bit difficult to decipher, a quick study of the map legend at the front of the book, along with a bit of practical use will surely have walkers praising their inclusion. She even goes as far as to include the location of vending machines on the maps, something that even I have come to appreciate during my exploration of Japan’s hidden backroads. The only thing missing from the maps themselves are kanji characters, which Kat makes up for by providing the kanji within each hike description, which will surely be helpful for those unable to read the language.

Besides the concise descriptions of the walks themselves, the book contains recommendation for places to stay and eat for each hike, along with information about soothing hot spring baths and local specialties. Vegetarian hikers will want to bookmark the Japanese phrases on page 45 of the introduction so they can use at the various inns and restaurants they encounter along the way. Indeed, the guide seems to have all of the bases covered, offering a handy arsenal of practical and up-to-date information that both first-time visitors and long-term residents can appreciate.

If there is one thing I would like to see added to the guidebook, it would be at least one walk on the Okugakemichi, which is by far the most beautiful section of the Kumano Kodo. The tough route connects Kumano Hongu Taisha with Yoshino in Nara Prefecture 100km to the north, and features towering old-growth forests, precipitous cliffs, and spectacular views from some of the highest mountains in western Japan. Regrettably, one section of the route is still off-limits to women, and much of the terrain is hardly tourist-friendly, requiring a head for heights and route-finding ability. Still, the final section between Tamaki Shrine and Hongu via Mt. Godaison would be the icing on the cake for this Kumano Kodo guidebook. Perhaps the publisher will allow a slight expansion of routes for the second edition of the guide, if the book proves to be popular. Do your part now to ensure that such valuable resources continue to remain in print by purchasing this excellent guidebook.

 

Wall Calendars

November 5, 2017

The wall calendars are now all sold out. 

The 2018 wall calendars are now here. 1500 yen each or 3 for 4000 yen. Overseas orders please add 500 yen.   The calendars are free of charge since 2018 is already halfway over. I do have a few extra copies, so please contact me if interested in obtaining one.

Contact me to place an order and for more information.

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. Watamuki (綿向山)

January 11, 2016

Mt. Watamuki is an 1100-meter tall peak on the western edge of the Suzuka mountains in Shiga Prefecture. The mountain offers outstanding panoramic views and the fresh snowfall in the winter draws large crowds hoping to witness the serene beauty of the rime ice on the trees.

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Special Note: Due to the popularity and narrow width of the path, trail running is currently prohibited on this hike. Signs are posted regularly along the route, so expect to be met with resistance if you ignore the rules and decide to run the peak.

The hike: At the bus stop, you’ll find a row of vending machines and not much else. Cross the main road and head up the paved road that runs perpendicular to the bus stop. You’ll immediately see a sign pointing towards Mt. Watamuki (綿向山) and you’ll see another bus stop on your left. This is for a small community bus that will take you to the trailhead. However, this bus is infrequent, so it’s faster to just walk the 3km up the paved road to the trailhead. It’s a straightforward walk, and you’ll see the mountain come into view on your right. Just keep following the signs towards 綿向山 and after about an hour of walking on the paved road, you’ll reach the trailhead at Saimyōjiguchi (西明口) bus stop. Here you will find a restroom (the only one on the hike) and at the toilet entrance there will be a stack of pamphlets with a simple trail map. Turn off the main road and follow this smaller forest road for about 5 minutes until reaching a large parking lot that marks the official start of the hike. If coming by car then you can drive all the way to this point, saving you a bit of walking on the road. The path initially follows the river up a set of steps to a paved forest road, which you will need to follow to its terminus to reach the trailhead, which is marked by a small wooden mountain hut and a large boulder with the kanji characters for 綿向山 carved into it. Head up this path and cross the metal bridge across the river. The path will soon climb steeply, via a series of long switchbacks through a dense cedar forest. After about 10 minutes you’ll reach the first stage point (一合目). There are a total of 10 stage points to the summit but luckily they are spaced a bit closer together further up the mountain. Keep climbing for the better part of an hour until reaching the 3rd stage point (三合目), where you’ll reach a dirt forest road. Turn right here and follow the road for about 50 meters, where the trail will duck back into the forest on your left. You’ll soon reach an open-walled shelter that makes for a good place to escape the elements if you’ve come on a bad weather day. The angle will start to ease a bit as you work your way towards the ridge line, and after about 30 minutes you’ll arrive at a wooden mountain hut with a red roof at the 5th stage point (五合目). Ring the bell in front of the hut and take a minute or two to admire the wonderful views back down towards the valley and Lake Biwa. From here, the trail flattens out a bit and finally leaves the cedar forest behind and enters a wonderful area of old-growth beech trees. If you’ve come in the winter after a fresh dusting of snow, then the tree branches will be alive with wintry crystals. Keep climbing for about 10 more minutes and you’ll reach the 7th stage point (七合目), which is marked by a small wooden alter flanked on either end by a statue of En no Gyojā and Fudō Myō-ō. In ancient times, Mt Watamuki was a training ground for Shugendō monks and there used to be a larger temple in this area. From here, you’ve only got about 200 more vertical meters to go until reaching the summit. If you’ve come in the green season, then continue straight on, following the easy switchbacks (ignoring the junction at the 8th stage point) to the summit. In the winter, however, the summer trail is barricaded off and you’ll see a trail on your left marked at the winter climbing route (冬期ルート). You’ll definitely need crampons on the descent, so it’s a good idea to strap them on now to give you a little extra purchase, especially if the trail is well-compacted and temperatures are below freezing. The path climbs steeply up the spine of the ridge, forgoing switchbacks for a straight-ahead push to the summit. It’ll take about 20 minutes of tough climbing on a wind-swept ridge to reach the high point, which is marked by a large shrine and giant cairn. The views of the Suzuka mountains to the north here are impressive, as you can see the entire range stretched out in front of you. If the weather is clear, you should also be able to see the blue waters of Ise bay, especially in the mountain gap between Mt. Amagoi (the large massif directly in front of you) and Mt. Kama (the pointy peak just to the right on the ridge behind). If you look to the left of Mt. Amagoi, then you can hopefully catch a glimpse of Hakusan, Ontake, and the Japan Alps beyond. The Suzuka mountains are often covered in cloud, however, so views that far to the west are generally limited. You should be able to see the closer peaks of Mt. Ryozen and Mt. Ibuki if the cloud is not in. If you turn towards the right, then you’ll see layer upon endless layer of mountain ridges stretching out to the horizon. These are the mountains of Mie and Nara Prefectures. It’s hard to distinguish one peak from another without some kind of smartphone app that will help you identify the mountains. Anyway, take a well-deserved break on one of the many benches lining the summit plateau (or hide behind a bush if the winds are strong). Apparently, you can keep traversing the ridge to your left for an alternative loop up and over Mt. Ryūō (竜王山), but it’s marked as an expert route and you’ll need plenty of time to make sure you don’t run out of daylight. The path is hard to pick up in the winter, so it’s much better to just simply retrace your steps all the way back to the trailhead.

 When to go: This hike can be done year round, but you’ll definitely want to bring some 6-point crampons if climbing between December and March when there is snow on the ground. The summer months can be unbearably hot and humid as well, so the walk is best suited for the shoulders seasons of spring and autumn.

Access: From Osaka or Kyoto stations, take the JR Shin-kaisoku train bound for either Nagahama (長浜) or Maibara (米原) station and get off at Omihachiman (近江八幡) station. From there, go out the Southern exit of the station (南口) and take a bus bound for Kitabatake Guchi (北畑口) and get off at the final stop of the same name. The bus stop is on the right side of the bus rotary and a bus leaves roughly once an hour. Click here for the bus schedule.

Map: Click here. You can also find a paper copy of this same map at the public toilet at the trailhead.

Level of difficulty:  3 out of 5 (elevation change ~1000 meters)

Total round-trip distance: 14km (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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