March 16-17, 2018
Just like the Mt Ryokami adventure, this trip kicked off with the 6:50am limited express train from Ikebukero, to Seibu Chichibu.
At Seibu-Chichibu station, I had a wait of around an hour, for the first bus (9:10am) to Mitsumine Shrine and the start of the hike. It was a grey morning and the gloomy sky made Mt Buko look every bit like the tomb of some ancient pharaoh. If you’ve never been to Chichibu, one entire face of this pyramidal mountain has been sculpted into terraces by limestone mining operations. It’s striking, imposing; both ugly and beautiful at the same time.
As I waited at bus stop 5 for the bus to Mitsumine Shrine, an elderly Japanese gent pulled up in his Prius. He spoke excitedly and I had a tricky time understanding. After about five minutes of back and forth, I realised he was offering a ride up to the shrine, for the same price of the bus (around 900¥). He said he had a delivery to make at the shrine, and that by car, the trip took only half the time of the bus. I wasn’t sure if he really had a delivery, or if it was his way of making a bit of extra money, but cutting half an hour from the journey meant half an hour more daylight for hiking. Together with two elderly tourists who had also arrived at the bus stop while we were talking, I jumped in.
He wasn’t joking about the trip time. He pushed that Prius harder around the mountain road than I’ve seen race cars pushed on the Suzuka circuit, much of the time facing backward to chat to the guys behind. We had some nice views of Mt Kumotori along the way, which appeared as a pointy bump along a ridge.
By 9:30 we were at the shrine. And a lovely shrine it is. I spent around 20 minutes exploring and taking photos, then walked back down toward the car park and the start of the hike.
There’s a souvenir shop / cafe here, and I stopped for a coffee before heading into the forest. From this spot, there’s a clear view across the valley to the north, and in the distance I could see the ridge I’d pushed along on the Mt Ryokami hike.
By the time I was ready to get going, there were lots of people walking up toward the shrine from the car park. At around 10:30, I crossed the road, took a photo of the signs marking the start of the trail, and headed into the trees.
The concrete path made for a nice segue into the hike proper, and the first few minutes were an easy meander through pine trees. Not long after the the track turns to dirt, you come to a white torii gate that marks the beginning of the ascent to Kumotori and the long but easy climb. The gate looks lovely surrounded by the pine trees, and the dozen or so other plastic signs stuck up all around it were barely enough to diminish the sight.
For the next few hours, the hike was fairly easy. The path headed generally uphill as it meandered along the ridge. The terrain was very similar to that on the ridge to Ryokami, only this time I had a path to follow. Without having to scramble, navigate, slide and backtrack, even when the path climbed over hills and dropped into saddles only to climb again, I enjoyed the relative ease of it. Once the clouds came in, there wasn’t much to see, so I fell into a steady plod and just aimed to get to the summit by nightfall.
The path followed the ridge, passing over Mt Nagasawayama and Mt Imokinodokke. In the mid afternoon I passed an old shack that looked beautiful in the mist.
One thing I’ve noticed on hikes in Japan, is that actual distances are often greater than those marked on signs, and Kumotori is no exception. Whenever I saw a distance marker, I’d calculate the rough amount of time it should take to get to the summit, based on my walking speeds and number of rest stops. Mostly just because it gave me something to think about while churning through the miles.
From about 1850 meters in altitude, the path turned to ice. The clear, solid, super slippery stuff. It would have made sense to change to my boots and crampons, but with a bit of care, I was able to use rocks as stepping stones, as well as hop from side to side as I went, and continue upward without mishaps. The going was slower, but not so slow that I needed to change shoes.
Not long before dark, I reached the lodge. I think it was just after 5:30. It was snowing lightly and I felt re-energised at the sight of the building appearing through clouds like some looming grey, fortress. I knew I was close to the summit. The track lead around to the left side of the building, and I greeted the caretaker as he washed a piece of equipment in the doorway. My hello startled him, and he only stared silently as I continued up the path and into the trees.
I guessed that there was around half an hour of light left after I left the lodge. Whatever distance I couldn’t cover by then, I’d planned to finish using the headlamp. The track became steeper and icier after the lodge, and the going was slower. I didn’t want to slip on the ice in the dark, so each step required just a little more caution than before.
I reached the open area of the summit in the dark. I think it was a little before 6:30. Icy snow was blowing in, but the wind was fairly light, so even in the open area, I didn’t feel overly cold. There was no view and visibility was at around 10 meters with clouds consuming the mountain top. I immediately began looking for somewhere to pitch the tent. I didn’t want to be too close to the summit markers, as there might be other hikers coming up early to see the sunrise, so I proceeded farther along the summit area. Just off the eastern side and a little below the top, was what looked like an emergency shelter. The ground around it wasn’t level though, so I backtracked up to a small spot about halfway between the shelter and the summit. There was one small flat spot with just enough room for the tent and it was a few meters above the trail. Perfect. If the weather cleared overnight, it looked like I’d wake up with top views in the early morning.
By around 7:15, I was snug inside the tent and layered up to get warm. By 8 I was in the sleeping bag and set for a toasty sleep. A light to moderate wind had picked up and sleety snow began falling. The sound of it on the tent was therapeutic and I lay in the sleeping bag for a couple of hours just enjoying it all.
I don’t normally go to sleep until much later, so I always find it difficult to nod off when I’m camping out. It turned into a bit of a rough night, with condensation turning into ice and dropping onto the sleeping bag whenever the wind gusted. It made the sleeping bag damp and cold, and I spent most of the night swiping at the ice to keep it from completely saturating the bag. I didn’t sleep, and eventually gave up trying and just waited for the first dawn light.
Sometime around 4ish, I did doze off and slept for an hour or so. I woke to the sound of crampons crunching through the snow on the track below the tent, and a short while later, some talking over at the summit area. It must have been people who had stayed at the cabin and come up to take in the dawn view. It was still dark when a couple of hikers passed by, off toward the east, crunching away through the fresh snow. I wondered why they’d hiked all that way and got out of bed early, only to leave the summit while it was almost completely still dark.
One or two other hikers came and went before sunrise. I dragged myself out of the tent and into the cold around 6, curious about what sort of views, if any, there might be. I was instantly gobsmacked. It was a perfect Spring morning – brilliant blue sky all around, crisp air, and the only clouds were far below, forming a beautiful blanket of white and grey all the way out to Mt Fuji, which stood resplendent against a clear blue background. It was spectacular. And completely silent. When you have a view that grand, the silence only makes it all surreal and a bit profound.
I spent almost an hour walking around the summit area and taking photos. Every angle, every gap through the trees. I took way too many photos. But when the view is that good, it’s difficult to not want to try and get that perfect shot, even if it’s only with a phone. I finally put the thing back in my pocket and just sat on the round, landmark-identifier block to quietly take in the view for a little while. That’s a lie. I used the timer on my phone to take a photo of that too.
At around 7:30 I’d packed up the tent and was ready to head off toward the east and Okutama. I put on my snow boots just in case it was icy heading off the summit, but the east side had no ice at all. There were just a few centimetres of nice powder from the night’s snowfall. I took a few more photos of Fuji and the sea of clouds from near the emergency shelter, then headed down.
The views out to the east for the next few kilometres were outstanding – unbroken views of the clouds below, and Fuji beyond. The path runs right along the edge of a steep drop, making for one of the most picturesque walks I’ve done so far in Japan. I had to strip down and take off all the layers around half an hour into the walk. The sun and still air made it too hot for all but my thermal shirt and a t-shirt over the top, and my thick hiking pants. Even with just these on, I was sweating hard.
The first hour after leaving the summit was the most populous part of the hike. I passed around 30 Japanese hikers of all ages, ascending the mountain from the east. Everyone was in great spirits, not surprisingly, with views like that to hike to. The track heading east to Okutama is surprisingly level, and the going was a lot faster than I expected. Instead of going up and over every bump on the ridge, it skirted around most of them, and by lunchtime I was well over half way. I’d planned for two nights in the tent, but the way I was crunching through the miles, I started to wonder if I’d be back at Okutama Station by mid-afternoon.
I was in two minds about whether or not to push for the station, or take it easy and spend another night in the mountains. The weather was good, and I would have loved to wake up to more views like that morning. But the sleeping bag was a bit wet, and I didn’t want another sleepless night. Also, the last quarter of the path to Okutama looked like a steady downhill, and I wanted the hike on the third day, if there was to be a third day, to be a shortish one. So if I descended too far down the ridge on day two, I might find myself sleeping in the clouds and get no view, or if the ridge was steep and narrow, there might not even be anywhere I could pitch the tent. I decided to push on for Okutama.
From about halfway between Kumotori and Okutama, the path became all but deserted. In one or two sections it was covered in snow and the scene took on all the appearance of an enchanted forest, but for the most part, the terrain was dominated by leaf litter and bamboo grass (I think this is called Sasa).
I made the most of the unexpected miles of level track and walked fast. I knew the last big downhill stretch would make for slow going, so I took advantage of the easy stuff. The clouds had moved in not long after midday, so there wasn’t a view to continually stop and gawk at like there had been for most of the morning.
At around 1pm, I reached the start of the big descent toward Okutama. According to my watch, I had a drop of around 1100 meters in altitude from Mt Mutsuishi, which was the last mountain along the range, down to Okutama. This was over a distance of 3-4 kilometres. That’s a lot of altitude to lose in a fairly short distance, and I suspected the going would be steep and slow. The kind of stuff that makes your knee caps feel like they’re going to pop off, especially when you’ve already done a couple of days of solid hiking.
The descent was steep in parts, but not too difficult. The slowest sections were where the snow had melted and dozens of boots had turned the track into a muddy soup. Thankfully though, the ground was generally even, and only the very steepest bits involved a little scrambling down roots and rocks. For the most part, it was a steady plod down through the forest, using my poles, quads and knees as brakes.
Lower down, the track re-entered pine forest, which was lovely and cool. I always enjoy the atmosphere within pine forests. They have a bit of an old world Hansel and Gretel feel to them, even if those trees aren’t really a part of the natural history of the place.
At 3pm, I popped out of the forest and onto the road that winds its way up from Okutama. This should have made the going easier, but at just the right angle to push my toes into the front of my shoes, it was actually a little slower to walk on than the track had been.
After passing a couple of houses and a wood mill, the track reappeared, dropping down into another section of forest and a peaceful little shrine. Here, I stripped out of the muddy, sweaty clothes I’d been wearing for two days, and changed into slightly less muddy, stinky ones for the trip home. I got going again around 3:30. Shortly after I was back on the road, just above Okutama, I met a friendly Japanese hiker who was finishing his own day hike up and down Mt Mutsuishiyama. We walked together as we covered the last half kilometre down to Okutama Station, arriving at 4pm.
I jumped onto the 4:19pm train, which turned out to be a holiday express. It travelled all the way to Shinjuku Station with no changes and only made around ten or so stops. For the first quarter of an hour, the mountain scenery was quite spectacular, made more so by the late afternoon sun cutting through the valley. After that, I dozed off, and didn’t really fully awaken until we were nearing Shinjuku. I’ve never fallen asleep on a local train before, and I hoped that I hadn’t been drooling or talking in my sleep.
This was a long hike, but not an overly difficult one. Apart from the icy path on day one and some scrambling in the dark, it was technically straightforward. With the summit of Mt Kumotori being only a little higher than the ridge it pokes up from, this was more of a hike than a climb. The sheer length of the route though (around 30km) means it’s not easy either. But the spectacular views from the summit and the ridge to the east, make the long trudge very worthwhile.
Mt Kumotori Forecast:
Mitsumine Shrine Bus Timetable: