April 13-14, 2017
This trip kicked off at around 6am from Shinjuku, with an Odakyu Line Express train to Shibusawa Station. From there, it was another 15 minutes on a local bus to the tourist centre at Ookura and the start of the walk.
I changed into my hiking boots at Ookura and headed off at around 7:50. Patchy clouds obscured the upper half of the mountain range. By the time I’d got going, the half dozen other day-hikers who’d arrived on the same bus had already left for the mountain.
The first half kilometre follows a quiet road, to a sign pointing the way toward Mt Tonodake (the first of the three main peaks on this range).
The next half hour was a peaceful meander up a narrow road, and onto the path itself. It’s an easy and pleasant walk beneath tall trees. Then comes the haul. A roughly 1000 metre climb in elevation, up to Tonodake 塔ノ岳.
As with all my overnight hikes, the heavy backpack turned what would normally be a steep but simple climb, into something of a slog. Thankfully, the cool weather made it easy to plod on and on, with just a couple of rest stops along the way. Most of the other hikers were elderly, and all Japanese. I walked for a while behind one ancient yet surprisingly fast gent, bent nearly double over his walking pole, but eventually even he pulled away, such was my ploddiness.
Like all popular hikes in Japan, the path up to Mt Tonodake was well maintained and wide. Even on the steep sections toward the top, plenty of wooden steps and planks made for easy going. The weather toward the top was cooler but not cold; two t-shirts were enough to keep me comfortably warm. Everyone else had gloves and jackets, and I wondered if this was because they were genuinely feeling the cold, or if it was more about them being in a hiking frame of mind.
After about three and a bit hours of plodding, I reached the 1490m Mt Tonodake. By then, the peak was completely clouded in, and cold. A few people huddled by themselves or in small groups, backs to the wind. Apart from some signs, a tiny shrine with statues and an alpine hut (Sonbutsu-sansou), the summit was featureless. There was no view to be had through the clouds, so after a quick snack and drink, I continued onward toward Mt Tanzawa.
From the summit of Tonodake, the path drops steeply away behind the hut. It seems that most people who head up this range, only go as far as Mt Tonodake, and within minutes of starting off down the far side of the summit, I began to feel the thrill that comes with being alone in the wilderness. Over the next hour and a half, the path followed the ridge line up and down, and through the clouds.
Along parts of the hike to Mt Tanzawa, and also Mt Tonodake, the ridge is extremely narrow, with just enough width at its top for the path. It’s almost as though the forces of geology had created the mountains with nature lovers in mind. Splendid stuff.
This was one of my favourite parts of the hike. Most of the trees had yet to come into Spring bloom and the black, leafless branches reaching up into the mist gave it all an ethereal quality.
A blanket of snow covered most of the ground at Mt Tanzawa. It’s quite a large summit, with plenty of trees and a huge alpine hut. There was a generator going and a few lights were on inside, but I couldn’t tell if it was open. There were only a couple of other hikers this far out.
I’d read that the views of Tokyo at night from Mt Tanzawa are spectacular. But being day time and cloudy, there wasn’t much to see. I took a few photos, had lunch and a leisurely look around, then decided to continue on to Mt Hirugatake.
As with most of the hike, directional signs on Mt Tanzawa are in Japanese. Without bothering to check the route I’d programmed into my watch, I headed a couple of hundred metres down a snow-covered path before realising I’d gone the wrong way. It was a minor junction, and another sign, this one with “11km” and a name, again in Japanese, written on it. I knew that Hirugatake was nowhere near that far away, so I checked my position against the route on my watch. I’d veered off toward the northeast on another track. I had to double back to Tanzawa, where I found the right path, leading off to the northwest. The sign at this intersection showed that distance as being only 3 and a bit kilometres. Not sure how I missed it the first time, but this was the path to Mt Hirugatake and I wasted no time in getting onto it.
From this point, I was well and truly on my own. It was nearly 3pm, and unlikely that any day hikers taking in Mt Hirugatake would still be out that far. Unless of course, they were a fellow lunatic. Generally speaking, Japanese hikers tend not to be as lunatically-inclined as some of their foreign counterparts, so I felt pretty assured that I was out there alone.
As I began the descent down into the saddle that connected Tanzawa to Hirugatake, the weather suddenly cleared. And I mean, suddenly. Within about five seconds, the scene transformed from uniform greyness, to a spectacular mountain vista. A lone, wind-blown tree, made a lovely and timely photo prop against the valley beyond.
The wind only added to the feeling of isolation. This is my favourite sort of landscape to hike through: windblown and empty. All it needed was a dinosaur or two to complete the primordial effect.
I took a few photos and then continued along the trail, down toward the saddle. There were great views all the way down. Even though I was keen to get up the other side, I found myself continually stopping to take pictures.
Within another half an hour, I’d reached the top of a ridge, about halfway between Mt Tanzawa and Mt Hirugatake. Here I saw two deer grazing near the path. They stopped and stared for a minute, as though trying to decide whether I was a friend or foe, then deciding the latter, casually jumped away down a smaller ridge.
From the top of this ridge, the view extended across to Mt Tanzawa, Mt Tonodake and all the way out across western Tokyo. In the other direction, Mt Hirugatake. It looked like the ideal place to spend the night. I wasn’t sure whether or not camping was allowed in this area. Regardless, I didn’t want to cause damage to the alpine grass, so I carefully followed a deer trail up onto a high point of the ridge, and set up my tent next to a tree, in a small patch where the grass had been flattened more than anywhere else.
Here, I had grandstand views across the valley. With the late afternoon light and clearing sky, the panorama just got better and better as magic hour approached. Just before sunset, I headed up toward the side of the ridge that looked out toward Mt Hirugatake, and was fairly delighted to be able to see Mt Fuji in all its glory, for the first time on the hike.
I was also lucky enough to see a Japanese marten up there. It raced across the track right in front of me, bounding up and down through the grass in graceful furry arcs. Its yellow coat caught the sunlight, giving the creature a brilliant golden hue. That was a special moment and capped off a glorious late afternoon. It was a proper magic hour, with the trees and long grass turning bronze in the last rays.
As the daylight faded, the lights of south-west Tokyo far out on the plain began to flicker to life. They shimmered at first in the twilight, powering up into a blazing sea of amber as the sky darkened. The night was cold, but not windy. I sat on the grass and gazed out across the city and thought about life and pretended I was a wise old mountain hermit for an hour or so, before turning in.
The next morning, I woke up at 5am, just in time to watch the landscape come back to life. By 6, I’d packed up, and begun the walk back to Ookura, via Tanzawa and Tonodake.
It was a warm, sunny day and all the way back to Tonodake, there were smashing views of Mt Fuji.
I passed a few early risers making their way across the ridge to Tanzawa, but like yesterday, the great majority were gathering up on Tonadake. At around 8am, after a break and a snack, I left the summit for Ookura in warm sunshine. It was an uneventful descent. As always, the rocks seemed rockier and the path steeper, with tired legs.
Halfway down, a sika deer walked casually across the trail and lay down under a tree, next to a second deer. They politely looked at the camera while I took a photo.
After another hour of punishing my toes, the rocks turned into a path, easing into the forest and eventually back down the road. It was nice to descend into the cool of the tall trees. The sun was starting to make things pretty warm on the exposed rocks.
I arrived back at the tourist centre just before midday, where a large crowd had come to see a tulip show. The tourist centre kindly provides a free washing bay, so I scrubbed my boots and walking poles and went inside for a coffee while the gear dried in the sun.
Around 12:30 , I jumped back on the bus to Shibusawa Station. Then a quick lunch, and onto the express train. I arrived back at Shinjuku at around 2:30.
This was a very different sort of hike from my last one. Whereas the Mt Asama area was wide open, with a choose-your-own-adventure style possibility of routes, this one was confined to a few narrow, ridge-top paths. The big surprise of the hike, was how peaceful and isolated it immediately felt, once I’d turned off toward Mt Hirugatake. All up, another great climb and just as rewarding as the first two.
Keep an eye on the weather. It’s always the thing that will make or break a hike:
Train timetable from Shinjuku on the Odakyu line. You want the Express (not the Rapid Express or the Limited Express):
Bus timetable between Shibusawa Station and Ookura: