The Okutama region in far western Tokyo is a playground for outdoor adventurers. The pristine waters of the Tama River that flow through the middle of Okutama is one of the most popular spots in Japan for canyoning and white water rafting. The mountains are covered in dense forest and dotted with limestone caves, waterfalls and onsens. Continue reading “Autumn Hiking in Western Tokyo”
Happy Earth Day! On Sunday, the hiking/charity group I’ve joined for the past five years, went on a 15km hike along the South Takao Ridge. It’s been a while since I did a solid hike, and what better time to get back into it than a day dedicated to spreading awareness of the need to protect and preserve the world we live in. Continue reading “Spring Hiking at South Takao”
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.” – John Muir, American naturalist (1838-1914)
Coincidentally, just last week I was looking back at a photo taken of me in Hakuba (which I wrote about in my last post) – I had the biggest smile and it made me think, this is definitely where I’m most content. Warm sunshine and fresh air. Beautiful flowers of all colours. Lots of trees and possibly even a waterfall… Yep, my happy place is being in the great outdoors, the wilderness. Whether it’s while hiking through the mountains or strolling around a city garden, I always feel a boost in energy as soon as I’m immersed in nature. Problems and stress dissolve and I’m left in a peaceful state.
For this week’s Photo Challenge, I’ve selected pics from different locations in and around Tokyo.
Thank you Krista for this week’s Photo Challenge theme.
From when I locked the front door of my apartment behind me, to when I returned back home, was roughly a massive 17 hours!! What an insane adventure Saturday was.
I’d been to Hakuba before to go snowboarding, and had always wanted to go back in the summer to go mountain climbing/hiking but just never really got the chance. Then last week, I was scrolling through Instagram and came across a beautiful picture of a misty lake surrounded by the most beautiful autumn colours – and it just happened to be located in Hakuba! The photographer said the colours would last just another few days up in the mountains. I already had a busy weekend planned, but could I squeeze this in?! I sat at a restaurant with my iPhone and researched the details of the trip and the cost, scribbling down notes on a napkin. It was going to be a hectic and expensive day. But I was so keen to see the lake and who knows when my next chance would be. To go or not to go?! Like most decisions in my life, I based it on the saying “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count, but the life in your years”. And that was that!
The train ride from Shinjuku to Hakuba Station was direct, but 4 hours long. It was a rapid express train that runs only once a day, departing at 7:30am. Being a sunny Saturday, it was packed! The entire reserved-seat section was booked out, and the non-reserved section where I got on, was even more intense. I had to stand in the aisle for the first hour! As we got further into the countryside, people started getting off, and I eventually found a window seat to call my home for the next couple of hours.
The train pulled into Hakuba at 11:30am. The place was of course unrecognisable compared to winter when it’s covered in snow. I stood in awe at the bare, towering mountains forming a backdrop to the town. I desparately wanted to get up there as soon as I could! From the station, it was a short bus ride and then a 10 minute walk to the Gondola, the first of 3 lifts. It was fascinating seeing the foliage becoming more and more colourful the higher I went. It’s amazing what difference just a few hundreds metres in altitude makes!
The final lift took us up to 1830m above sea level. I felt like I was up in the clouds. The air was cool and fresh, and the sun warm and welcoming. And those autumn colours!! And that beautiful blue sky! It was all insanely spectacular! I felt so lucky to be there, and was happy I’d decided to go even just to see this.
After taking in the exceptional view, both up the mountain and back down over the valley, it was time to start hiking. It would take about 45 minutes to climb another 230m. The path alternated between loose stones, wooden stairways and boardwalks. It was fairly tiring – though nothing like the gruelling Mt Fuji. It probably didn’t help that I was holding an ice cream in one hand and my camera in the other!
And then, there it was. My destination. From a distance, the lake looked like a puddle amongst the gigantic mountains! The autumn colours were just past the peak viewing time, so it wasn’t as bright and amazing as it had been lower on the mountain, but it was still so pretty! There were dozens of people around the lake, having lunch and taking photos. A light breeze meant it was hard to get that perfect mirror reflection, but as soon as the wind died down, you could hear all the camera shutters going off! We’d get about a 2-second window before the reflection was completely erased! I was fascinated by the tree-less mountains in the background. They literally could have been a painting; it hardly looked real. The evidence of snow left from last winter is a sign of how chilly it was. After hanging out at the lake for about 45 minutes, I had to start moving again to warm up. So, I bid farewell to this special corner of the world and made my way back to the chairlifts.
I took my time going back to Hakuba, stopping to eat a delicious locally-caught salmon croissant, as well as admire the pretty sunset. I had planned to catch the 4:36pm train, but missed it. Like a lot of rural towns, trains run very infrequently through Hakuba. The next one wasn’t until 6:14pm, which meant it was past 11pm when I finally got home.
It was an epic day, a little crazy even for me perhaps, but what’s life if you don’t do things like this every now and then? The journey there and back was just as much a part of the adventure as seeing the lake was, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat!
I arrived in Nikko well after sun down. A stunning, pink-washed sunset had been quickly replaced by the black night sky. As I got off the train, I breathed in the cool, fresh air. It was good to be back!
The township looked pretty deserted. There was no music blaring from bars, nor people eating in busy restaurants, as you would usually expect on a Saturday night. It was very calm and quiet. The only shop that was open was a convenience store, so I picked up a few things to eat for dinner and headed up the road to my lodgings for the night. My accommodation was a hostel right by the rushing Daiya River. It was so loud it sounded like rain was pounding on the roof. After getting some local knowledge from the owner of the place, I knew I had to be up early to make the most of my one-day to explore. I went to sleep to the sound of the river, excited for the following day.
I’m never one to get up early, so not surprisingly, it was already 8:30am before I was up and on my way. It was probably a blessing in disguise as I had a big day ahead of me and needed all the rest I could get. After picking up a Bus Pass, I jumped on a bus that snaked its way up into Oku-nikko, the hinterland of Nikko. In about 45 minutes, we had ascended roughly 700 metres. My first stop was Lake Chuzenji and Kegon Falls, the most famous waterfall in Japan.
For the massive waterfall that it is, Kegon Falls was surprisingly easy to get to. From the bus stop, it was a quick 5 minute walk. The upper (free) platform gives you a teasing peak at the top half of the waterfall. It really is worth it to pay for the elevator ride down through the rock to the lower platform where you get a magnificent view of the whole waterfall, plus a few others in the vicinity. With gusts of cold water spraying over us, we stood in awe of the amount of water that was tumbling off the cliff from Lake Chuzenji and smashing on the rocks 97 metres below. Kegon Falls itself has such a grand, powerful presence, yet with all the greenery around it, it also had a softer feel. There’s no doubting its status as one of Japan’s most beautiful waterfalls.
After tearing myself away from Kegon Falls, I had a quick look around Lake Chuzenji, before jumping back on the bus and climbing higher up into the mountains. The next stop was Ryuzu Falls. In Japanese, this double waterfall is called ‘dragon’s head’. Ryuzu Falls is most famous in autumn when the deciduous trees change to red and yellow. Being summertime, the trees were full of green leaves which made for a pretty scene, but at the same time, covered up a lot of the water. A souvenir shop and restaurant sit basically at the edge of the bank, which kind of ruins the atmosphere. In the photo below, I’m standing on the balcony. I was so close I felt like I could have almost touched the waterfall. I would have moved on straight away, but my stomach was telling me it was lunchtime. At least the view from the restaurant encouraged us to slow down and admire the beauty in front of us!
After slurping down a delicious bowl of soba, I was eager to keep going. Above Ryuzu Falls was an intriguing staircase of rocks, the ‘tail’ of the dragon. The water looked like it was flying past on a magic carpet. My immediate thought was that this would make a fun waterslide! This slope was actually created from the powerful force of lava, and you can easily imagine the burning hot liquid crashing down through the trees.
From the top of the falls, a hiking trail follows the river upstream, through the woods and on into the Sanjogahara Marshlands. This area was so unexpectedly gorgeous that it was probably my favourite part of the whole trip. There was waterfall upon waterfall breaking up the cool, crystal clear river. Some waterfalls were like a washing machine, vigorously churning bucketloads of water. Others were gentle and calm, sweeping over the moss-covered rocks.
Above, the trees rustled in the breeze and birds continually called to each other. A few carefree ducks swam by every now and then. There were just a few other hikers that I passed, and each time we greeted each other warmly.
It was just a beautiful place!
After wandering through the marshlands, I decided to catch the bus again, but not before indulging in an ice cream! I bought what was probably the most delicious strawberry ice cream I’ve ever eaten! I’m not sure what ingredients were used, but it was advertised as available for a limited-time only. It could have been the best 300yen I’ve ever spent!
With a satisfied stomach, I hopped on the bus and made my way to Yudaki Falls. Like most of the waterfalls in Nikko, Yudaki flows down a rock cliff created from the lava flow of a nearby volcano. From the top of the waterfall, the Yugawa River seems to just drop off the earth and vanish! It was a little scary. The waterfall surges down at a steep 45 degree angle. As you walk down the zigzag stairs along the side of the waterfall, you can really feel its strength and force. Nothing can get in its way!
From Yudaki Falls, Yumoto Onsen was a 15 minute hike away. The final stop for me. Yumoto Onsen sits on the northern shore of Lake Yuno where there were many fishermen in boats and families playing at the water’s edge. It’s almost 1,500 metres above sea level, so a little breezy and chilly. There were numerous times when I thought I should get my jacket out of my backpack, but managed to get by without it. In winter, this town actually turns into a ski resort!
The town is made up of 22 hot springs and had that distinct smell of sulphur, although it wasn’t as strong as places like Beppu in Oita. The milky-white water is believed to have healing powers as well as being good for beauty (skin). There’s only one thing to do in an onsen town: get in the water! I found a ryokan that had an outdoor hot spring bath and soaked for an hour so, giving my body the relaxation it desperately needed. It was the best way to wrap up an incredible day.
I’d spent 5 hours getting from Nikko town to Yumoto Onsen. The return trip, past Lake Yunoko, Yudaki Falls, the marshlands, Ryuzu Falls, Lake Chuzenji, down the mountain and back to reality, was just 75 minutes. An unusually talkative young Japanese guy sat next to me on the bus, and I had a great 3-hour conversation with him, all the way back to Tokyo in fact!
The final descent on the winding Irohazaka Road gave us a spectacular send-off. A little Bambi even came out to greet us. She dashed onto the road, and the bus slowed down to avoid hitting her! Then she proceeded to prance up the road, past 3 or 4 other cars, before realising it was not a good idea to be there.
Oku-Nikko is a waterfall paradise; a treasure for nature lovers; a wilderness escape up in the clouds; and in my opinion, one of the prettiest places in the world!
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!
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!
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.