Hiking the Kiso Valley

Right in the centre of Japan is a very old highway spanning over 500km: Nakasendo. Between bustling villages, the road winds through misty woodlands, farmlands and valleys full of mossy rocks and waterfalls.

Nakasendo used to serve as the main road connecting Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo). In the Edo Period (1603-1867), samurai, government officials, peasants and pilgrims would frequent this route. There were 69 post towns between the two cities – 11 of these in the Kiso Valley. Many of the towns no longer exist, but since WWII a number have been restored to their original state as part of a preservation project. There are many sightseeing/hiking spots, and it’s common to drive the length of the road making pit stops at certain places along the way. My friend and I decided to do an 8 kilometre hiking trail that stretches from Tsumago in Nagano prefecture to Magome in Gifu prefecture. It was a completely spontaneous decision to go but it turned out to be one of my favourite trails in Japan!

P1050853

To hike this part of Nakasendo, you can start at either Tsumago or Magome. Although we started at Tsumago, I believe most people start at Magome because it has easier access from the train station. That, and it has more downhill sections so is a bit easier!

Walking down the streets of Tsumago, you feel like you’ve stepped through a time portal. Everything from the traditional wooden buildings to the lamp posts to the street signs, are a reminder of how things used to be. In restoring this town, they went as far as concealing all electricity wires, TVs and satellite dishes. And although the town looks like an open-air museum, the buildings are actually fully functional. Some are used as inns, souvenir shops and cafés!

Kiso Valley Kiso Valley

After soaking up all that history in Tsumago, it was time to hit the road. Once we passed through the township, we followed a road over the river and towards the forest. The scene changed dramatically once we were outside of the tourist area. The shops disappeared and were quickly replaced by agricultural fields and quaint country houses.

We noticed a few bells along the way. At first I thought they might have been like a shrine where you ring the bell and say a prayer. But actually the sign below them said to ring the bell to scare off bears! I wonder how often a bear is sighted here?! After the bear bell, we came across a rest stop manned by a really nice old guy. We had a chat with him and he gave us some delicious warm soup from this very traditional fire place which you see in old houses. At the Nagano/Gifu border, we stopped at another rest house to try escape the rain that was pouring down. I bought a few sticky rice cakes wrapped in leaves. I’m not the biggest fan of mochi, but I loved how they were presented! I bet travellers back in the Edo period would eat this to give them energy, too.

I imagine this road was once a lively, busy place. There are actually a few famous ukiyo prints that depict farmers herding their ox along the path, or peasants balancing woven baskets on a rod over their shoulders as they make their way between the towns.

But now, it’s a very different story. There are many sections of the trail where you literally feel like you’re the only person in the world (apart from your hiking partner). The woods are so peaceful; all you can hear are birds chirping, trees rustling in the winds, streams bubbling, and the occasional waterfall. The trail twists and turns through the valley. While some parts were steep and slippery in the wet weather, most of the trail was either gravel, bitumen, concrete, grasslands or forest floors.

It was a very do-able and well-marked hike and took us about 3 1/2 hours with a few rest stops due to the rain. The thing I loved most was how the trail passes through so many different types of landscape, rather than just going up and down a mountain. The scenery was always changing, but always beautiful!

Even though the weather wasn’t great, we did see a few other hikers every now and then. The ‘hiking spirit’ in Japan always makes me smile. In the city, nobody pays any attention to anyone else, but as soon as you hit the countryside, we all magically change and greet each other with こんにちは (hello) and sometimes even a 頑張って! (keep going!) during more difficult parts of the trail.

Kiso Valley

Conquering Japan’s Highest Mountain

Can’t believe it’s been over a week since I was clambering up the rocky face of Japan’s highest mountain. Already it feels like a distant memory. My body has fully recovered; all hiking gear has been washed and put away. If it wasn’t for my “Mt Fuji stick” standing in the corner of my apartment, and the 250 odd photos on my camera, I could almost believe it never actually happened! It was a tough hike, I won’t lie. But it was worth it, just to see this:

Mt Fuji
Land of the rising sun

***

Our group of 18 (friends, and friends of friends) took the 2:40pm bus from Shinjuku Station, arriving at the 5th station of Mt Fuji 2.5 hours later. There are actually 4 different 5th stations, each connecting to different trails on Mt Fuji. We decided on Fuji-Subaru 5th Station which is the entrance to the Yoshida Trail, the most popular route.

Mt Fuji
Mt Fuji from the bus

Mt Fuji

A few things surprised me when we got to the 5th station. Firstly, it wasn’t that busy. There were actually two big events on in Tokyo the same night, which may have drawn a lot of people away: the Edogawa Fireworks and the Itabashi Fireworks, which combined is attended by about 1.5 million people! Whatever the reason, it was all good news for us. Mt Fuji is notorious for its super crowded, narrow trails where you have no choice but to follow long lines of slow tour groups.

Secondly, the 5th station is basically a commercialized base camp. There’s a bunch of souvenir shops and everything’s expensive. It’s here that you can pick up the well-known ‘Mt Fuji walking stick’. I ended up getting a medium-sized one for 1,200 yen. The idea is that at every mountain hut on the trail, you get the stick branded (and pay 300-400 yen each time, mind you!). It’s like an achievement memorabilia. It’s also pretty useful too, though there were times when I really needed both hands to climb up the steep rocks.

And thirdly, I guess this one is also due to luck, the weather was amazing! It was about 20°C and not humid. I know we were 2300m above sea level, but it was such a change from Tokyo! We could see the top of the mountain very clearly, although clouds were sweeping by pretty quickly. Down below, all we could see were white puffs. We were literally up in the clouds. Then as the sun set, the sky quickly changed to dark blue with streaks of pink and orange. It was very pretty. How lucky that we would be able to see both the sunset and sunrise from Mt Fuji!

Mt Fuji
5th station, looking up
Mt Fuji
5th station, looking down
Mt Fuji
Sunset from 5th station

So, the idea was to hang around the 5th station for 2 hours, get used to the altitude, relax, and eat dinner. With our headlamps on, backpacks fastened, we started climbing just after 7pm. The first leg, to the 6th station (2390m), took about 25 minutes. It started off with a gradual slope, and then there were a bunch of big stairs before it turned into a steep climb. I was stuffed before we even reached the first hut! Little did I know it would just be a warm up for what was to come. The group didn’t even make it 100 metres before all separating! I’m actually pretty sure we were never together again as a group. That’s the thing with big groups; everyone has their own pace. Catching our breaths at the 6th station, we had a 5-minute break before continuing on. On the way, we were super lucky to see about 3 different fireworks shows going on in the towns below!! The tiny explosions of colour were so cool. We stopped a couple of times just to watch them (it was also a good excuse to have a few sneaky breaks to catch our breath).

About one hour later, we reached the 7th station (2700m)…. or so I thought. I excitedly got the first stamp on my stick, and then we were on our way again. But after just 10 minutes, we were already at the next hut! I realized there was more than one ‘7th station’. The first one was ‘Hana-goya’, and the one we were at was ‘Hinode-kan’. There were another 5 until the 8th station! I’m still not even sure which is the proper 7th station, if there is one!

Between the 6th station and the top (10th station), there are 14 mountain huts. Some are really small, others big. Some cater for people who want to sleep, some are just quick toilet stops. It gets a little confusing figuring out if you’re at the new 7th station or the original 7th station or the 7.5th station or just one of the in-between huts!

Mt Fuji
View of towns below
Mt Fuji
Branding at Hinode-kan 7th station
Mt Fuji
Narrow path past Hinode-kan

The next 1 hour 15 minutes were actually not too bad. The initial shock of how tiring it was had settled, and we were able to get into a steady rhythm. We chatted with each other along the way. It was so nice to hear people call out 頑張って!(You can do it, keep going!). Although everyone was in their own group, all the groups were ‘together’. There was an atmosphere of camaraderie, for sure.

We got to ‘Taishi-kan’, the first of the 8th stations (3100m) at 10:15pm. It was starting to get really cold, especially whenever we stopped for a break. It was time to put on warmer gear: windbreaker, beanie, scarf, and gloves. We stayed for about 10 minutes, enjoying awesome, much-needed cups of coffee and cocoa. I would have liked to sit down for longer, but we just had to keep pushing onwards and upwards!

Mt Fuji
Branding at Taishi-kan 8th station
Mt Fuji
Fire pit
Mt Fuji
Trail of lights in the darkness

 

The next few hours were just a slow, slow, shuffle. Lots of hikers had decided to bunk down on the side of the mountain, using special sheets to cover themselves and protect them from the bitter cold wind. It looked a bit depressing actually, like a mass of dead bodies. It didn’t make me feel any better, passing them, nor did it make me want to join them. We just kept going, only thinking about putting one foot in front of the other. It was pitch black, and we relied heavily on our headlamps to make sure we didn’t trip over any rocks or bump into any guide poles – although I did slam my head into a metal pole at one point which hurt really bad.

It started to get especially tough after midnight. The going was painfully slow, the air was thin, and my body was telling me to stop every five steps. Sometime around 1:00am, I felt like I just couldn’t keep going. Two friends and I slumped down on the side of the path. As we sat there, all we could hear were the heavy footsteps and the deep breathing from the hikers going past. Occasionally, we’d hear the click of a portable oxygen can in use. It made me feel a little better knowing that almost everyone else was struggling, too.

After eating some food and resting our legs, it was time for the final push to the top. We ran into some of our group members who had also been taking a break just up ahead. Our little reunion gave me a boost of energy and before I knew it we were at the next landmark: the 9th station (3600m), a torii gate with two stone lions either side. It was 2:00am. We had more or less reached the top! We were ecstatic!

Mt Fuji
Half of the group! (photo courtesy of a friend)

We reached the summit a short while later. The adrenaline wore off quickly. It very, very freezing cold! The temperature was around 4°C but the wind chill made it feel below 0. Plenty of people warned me about the temperature at the top, but I just never imagined it being that bad. My toes were numb and my neck was cold despite having so many layers wrapped around it. Thankfully, this is Japan, and you can find heated-drink vending machines even at 3776m (or there abouts). I grabbed a can of hot cocoa, which warmed my hands for about two minutes before turning into an ice cold drink!

There were a couple dozen people already at the summit, and more arriving by the minute. We found a place away from the crowd below a small barricade of rocks, and huddled together, using blankets, raincoats, sheets, whatever we could to wrap ourselves up and protect us from the biting winds. We had two hours to try get some rest, but I was shivering so much I couldn’t sleep at all. I told myself, I will never complain of the summer heat ever again!

Daybreak came at 4:00am. Dark clouds covered above us, and beautifully framed a clear horizon. A perfect gradation of blue, orange and red appeared, and we knew the sun was not far away. We moved further around the mountain and found a great place with hardly any people.

Mt Fuji
Dawn

The view down below and off into the distance was sublime! The mountains below were submerged in wisps of clouds. Everything was so still and peaceful. We could see the ocean out to the far right, and three or four lakes below. The clouds above were tinged with pink from the sun just beyond the horizon. I was absolutely filled with awe. A friend gave me the idea to share this wonderful experience with our friends and family via Skype. Technology is pretty awesome! My hands were shaking from being so cold, but I managed to send a few video messages to the family.

Mt Fuji
Dream land
Mt Fuji
Branded, for life

And then, it was sunrise at 4:45am. The moment we’d been waiting for. The reason people climb through the night. The sneaky thing seemed to pop up out of nowhere! But within minutes, the entire sky was lit on fire. It was one of the most spectacular things I’ve seen! The reflection on the mountain face was almost as impressive as the sky. It was such an intense red. A friend commented that it looked like we were on Mars!

Mt Fuji sunrise

 

Mt Fuji
Welcome to Mars!

After basking in the glorious sun, we decided to leave for two reasons. One, it was so cold. And two, we really needed to go to the toilet. Like, really, really badly. There were two toilets at the summit, but the line looked about two hours long. I’m not exaggerating at all. So after a quick look at the big, scary, icy crater, we started back down at 5:15am. We finally were able to release our poor bladders at the 8.5th station!

Mt Fuji
Crater… Diameter is about 490m.
Mt Fuji
A very short rainbow right over a torii shrine!
Mt Fuji
Hikers adding a bit of colour to the scenery
Mt Fuji
One of the many torii gates on Mt Fuji

The journey back to the 6th station consisted of a steep, zigzag, gravel trail. You could take breaks at the corners of the zigzags, but there were no flat areas at all. It started off great! We were flying down, passing all the slow groups. I would even say it was pretty fun. But unfortunately for me, the fun didn’t last long. My toes we being pushed into the front of my shoes, and it felt like my toenails were being pushed back into my feet. With every step it was getting more and more painful. I was forced to put on the brakes and go extremely slow. I ended up walking almost sideways to relieve the pressure on my big toes. This went on for about two hours. Horrible.

Mt Fuji
Overtaking on the outside edge!
Mt Fuji
Steep descent
Mt Fuji
Taking a break to admire the view

By the time I reached the 6th station (at 7:45am), I was in too much pain and had to change my hiking boots to my sandals. Luckily the worst of the hike was over, and the remaining track was fairly flat and easy. My feet definitely appreciated the open air!

At long last, we returned to our starting point at just after 9:00am, 14 hours after having set off. We collapsed on the ground, in a zombie-like state. Everyone was wrecked. As different members of our group arrived back, we were all saying the same thing: ‘never again, never again’.

***

If I had to give advice to someone looking to climb Mt Fuji, I’d say prepare for mid-winter weather at the top (heat packs are a life saver); go at your own pace (it’s important not to race up, otherwise you could get altitude sickness); go to the toilet whenever you can, even if you don’t think you need to go; and remember to eat energy food and drink water, as it’s easy to forget when you’re concentrating on climbing. I only drank about 1 litre of water the whole time, although the recommended amount is 1.5-2 litres.

We actually had a lot of really awesome things go our way which I’m grateful for: the weather was perfect – no rain, a clear sky for sunrise, and no harsh sun on the way down; it wasn’t very crowded; and most importantly, everyone returned safely. But even thinking back to it now, I still don’t think I’ll climb Mt Fuji again! I’m happy with my one-and-only experience.

Autumn Mission: Mt Takao

It’s been a busy past few weeks! Today is the last day of November, and soon autumn will be all over for another year. I’ve managed to get to a bunch of different places to check out the autumn leaves, mostly outside of Tokyo. The higher altitude places have passed their peak, and lower down here in the city, things are starting to look good!

A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I went out to Mt Takao, in Tokyo’s far-west. It was a beautiful, sunny autumn day. Not a cloud in sight. We met at Shinjuku station mid-morning, and could tell already that it was going to be crowded on the mountain. Loads of hikers filled the train, and we were lucky to get seats for the 1 hour journey. Arriving at Takaosanguchi station, we quickly realised just how many other people had had the same idea as us! I have never seen a mountain so packed!!

Crowd outside the station
Crowd outside the station
Crowd at the entrance of Mt Takao
Crowd at the entrance of Mt Takao
Burst of yellow
Burst of yellow ginkgo trees

Wanting to escape the mass of people, we went quickly on our way. Hiking up the trail was a bit slow, because it was basically ‘follow the leader’ most of the way. I was slightly amused at one girl who was hiking in heels… Girls in Japan are crazy, I tell ya!

Mt Takao in autumn

Green green green
Green green green
Mt Takao in autumn
Suspension bridge
Mt Takao in autumn
Never ending stream of hikers!
Starting to see colours as we reach the summit
Starting to see colours as we reach the summit
On top of the world!
On top of the world!

But even then, when we reached the top, it felt like we were back in the middle of the city. There were so many picnics happening under the trees; everyone was taking a million snaps of the leaves from all sort of angles; there were even loooong lines for the ice cream van! It was so strange to be in what felt like the middle of nowhere, on top of a mountain, yet for there to be so many people! 

Picnic central
Picnic central
Beautiful corridor of colours
Beautiful corridor of colours
On fire!
On fire!

Mt Takao in autumn

Mt Takao in autumn
Seeing red

We didn’t end up staying at the top for too long, as you can probably imagine! The hike down was just as crowded as the hike up, but we’d mastered the skill of overtaking, so it didn’t take us long! Back at the bottom, we were greeted by the sounds of taiko drums. There’s always something special about hearing those deep, powerful beats.

Taiko performance
Taiko performance… go girls!
I heart this puppy!
I heart this puppy!
Man hole!
Man hole!
Final snap of the colours
Final snap of the colours

Despite the crowds, I really enjoyed the day trip to Mt Takao. The weather was stunning and the autumn colours were inspiring. Plus, spending time with a friend and getting some exercise… a pretty great way to spend a Sunday if you ask me! :-)

 

 

 

 

A Trip to the Edge of Hell

Deep in the mountains, through the spiderwebs and tangled vines, is an unexpected place… hell. Yep, Hell does really exist, and it turns out it’s not too far from Tokyo! At Mount Nokogiri in Chiba, stone cliff faces on the sides of the mountain soar up into the sky. For hundreds of years, these cliffs were cut into, carved and chiseled, serving as a stone quarry. The quarry was closed in the 1970s, and what remains is pretty remarkable. Standing at the base, you can’t help but look up in awe at the towering stone walls. Some parts are at least 30 metres straight up and down (perfect for abseiling!), others are cut into giant squares like a massive jenga puzzle. It baffles me how they were actually able to get up there and cut the stone, considering modern machinery didn’t exist back then. Another thing that raised my eyebrows was learning that apparently while the men worked at cutting the stone, the women carried the stone down to the nearby port to be shipped up into Tokyo Bay. Not sure how literally to take the word ‘carry’, but regardless, the history of this place reveals some extremely hard workers. At the top of the mountain, there is a unique piece of stone that juts out from the cliff face. This spot is called ‘jigoku nozoki‘ – peeping into hell – and is a huge tourist drawcard. You can walk out onto the extremely narrow stone ledge and look straight down at the tree tops below. It was pretty cool – not as scary as standing on a bungy jumping ledge – but my friends who were scared of heights were literally weak at the knees! It was kind of liberating standing there with the wind washing over my face, looking out to the ocean in the distance. It was a bit like the Titanic scene, standing at the bow of the ship feeling like you’re a carefree bird. Actually, the mountain was quite well known before it even became a quarry. It’s home to Nihon-ji, a Buddhist temple, which has a 1300 year history. A 100-foot-high Daibutsu was created in 1783. It’s the biggest stone-carved Buddha statue in Japan. More recently, a relief image of Kannon was etched into one of the stone walls. There is plenty to see! Although it’s a looong 2.5 hour train ride from Tokyo and is in the middle of rural Chiba, the hiking trails and spectacular views make it all worth it, especially if the weather is nice!

Up up up!
Up up up!

Mt Nokogiri Mt Nokogiri

Mt Nokogiri
That’s where we’re headed!
Mt Nokogiri
Mountain Jenga!
Spot the human
Spot the human
Machinery from another time
Machinery from another time
Mt Nokogiri
100-foot-tall Goddess
Looking up to the 'tooth'
Looking up to the ‘tooth’
Mt Nokogiri
Jigoku-nozomi “Peeping into hell”
Mt Nokogiri
Not for the faint of heart!
Mt Nokogiri
“Nihonji” 31m tall, the largest stone-carved Buddha in Japan

Mt Nokogiri Mt Nokogiri Mt Nokogiri Mt Nokogiri

Coastal Hiking at Miura

I recently joined a volunteer and hiking group by the name of Jambo. The organization focuses on environmental protection and also supports programs in Africa, hence the name jambo  – ‘hello’ in Swahili. They are a great group of people, old and young, Japanese and non-Japanese, and all with a love of the outdoors and meeting people!
Please check out their homepage: http://en.jambointernational.org/

***

We arrived at Arazaki in Miura, about 50km south of Tokyo, mid-morning. The weather was perfect: sunny, breezy, and warm. After a briefing by the group leader, we headed for the coastline. The area is noted for its stunning cliff faces. From a distance, though, it wasn’t the rocks that first caught my eye, but the mass of tents! Families with little kids and big kids alike were camping along the cliffs, BBQ’ing, playing in the water, having a great time! What a great way to spend time with family and friends.

The closer we got to the sea shore, the more extraordinary the rocks became. At a quick glance, the cliffs look messy and dirty, but in fact years and years of wind erosion, water erosion, and faults and folds in the earth have resulted in incredible patterns and carvings. Geologists must go crazy here! The colours in the rocks range from light cream to brown to black. It reminded me of hardened lava pipes. I was so curious that after some research, I discovered it is in fact alternating beds of silt, basaltic gravel, solidified ash and volcanic sand. Could Mt Fuji have been responsible for this??!

Another thing that surprised me was the water… crystal clear, sparkly, cool, refreshing! I could see every little detail on the sea bed, from the tiny fish nibbling on rocks to the bumps on the back of the shells. Although well into spring, it was still a bit too cold to jump in. Perhaps another trip in the summer!?

Well, enough of me describing, take a look yourself…

Arasaki Rock
“Arasaki”
Jambo participants
Jambo participants
Campers
Happy campers
Cave formation
Cave formation. Note the vertical folds!
Rock formations 1
View from the cliffs
Rock formations 3
Looking up at the cliffs
Clear sea waters
Rocks jutting out of the clear sea waters
Rock formations 2
Close up of the folds
Crystal clear
Clear reflections
Rock formations 4
Black and white mounds
Island formation
Island formation
Sea bed formation
Sea bed formation
Hikers
Hikers!