MistyNites

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Archive for the month “October, 2020”

Kawaguchiko

Still not content with staying in Tokyo, and with legs still aching from the previous day’s 8hr hike, I had another day of walking ahead of me. But my first challenge struck before I even got out of the city. I’d based myself in Yotsuya, initially because it was near where my conference had been on those first few days in the country, but secondarily because it had turned out to be an easy base for transit around the city to where I wanted to go. I’d arrived at my new hotel in darkness, so waking up that morning I’d finally been able to experience the view from my small balcony. It was hot and stuffy and I was surrounded by a sea of buildings stretching out for miles.

It was by now a familiar saunter to the train station and I headed west a few stops to Shinjuku station, one of the larger transit hubs in the city. Despite having studied station maps online at my hotel, I stepped off the platform and very quickly found myself in a maze of artificially-lit corridors. There were signs everywhere, and a sea of people to sweep you along in the wrong direction if you weren’t careful, and I was also in a hurry, trying to make a connection. I needed to get to the bus terminal, but after following the signs, they sort of petered out and I ended up having to backtrack a bit and experiment a little before eventually I found a sign pointing out onto the street. It turned out I had to cross the road and enter another a building, and as a result of getting lost in the Shinjuku maze, I had missed the bus I had planned on catching.

The bus terminal was crowded, and my next challenge was finding the one I wanted. Unable to speak Japanese beyond basic pleasantries, and always feeling guilty about having to speak English, I chose to use a ticket machine over a person. However, it quickly transpired that I couldn’t pay with my prepaid card and so I had to go to the counter after all. But it turned out my destination was so popular that the next bus was fully booked, and I had to wait for the one after that. It felt like an age before I was finally onboard, and leaving the city behind. Although I’d already been out to a national park, this trip felt different, and from a bus, it felt a bit more immersive, and the scenery a bit more interesting to travel through. It was a 2hr drive into the Fuji Five Lakes, and I was super excited when Mt Fuji, the country’s highest mountain appeared in view with a ring of cloud below its summit. From that point onwards, I couldn’t wait to get off the bus, and finally, after a detour to Fuji-Q Highland theme park, I was deposited at Kawaguchiko bus station.

The walk from the bus station to Lake Kawaguchi led me downhill through winding streets of shops and businesses for about 10 minutes, until finally I found myself staring out at a gorgeous lake with rolling green hills on the far side. Paddle boats shaped like swans lay stacked up in the foreground and just past them, a paddlesteamer was berthed, loading up ready to take day-trippers across the lake to Oishi. It felt so different to Tokyo, and I immediately loved the place. The foreshore was easy to follow, mainly on a separate path away from the road, and in the glaring sun, I started the anti-clockwise walk around the lake. Understandably given the scenery, I became rather snap happy. I couldn’t stop taking photographs. The lake itself had a gentle ripple on the water, and the reflections of the surrounding landscape and the blues of the water and sky against the green of the hills created an amazingly scenic location. Then, after a few curves of the lake had been passed, I looked back and realised that Mt Fuji was poking up in the background, and the smile on my face grew wider.

 

Mt Fuji remained in view as I continued to circle round this end of the lake. The cloud continued to swirl around its top, sometimes obscuring the summit, other times sitting just below it like a collar. When I’d initially booked my trip to Japan, I had thought I would hike up Mt Fuji, but upon researching the hike, I discovered that there was a short official hiking season, outwith which the hiking huts were shut, transport to the hiking routes limited, and indeed it wasn’t recommended to hike it at all because of safety concerns. There was no snow on the summit whilst I was there in October 2019, so in reality I probably could have done it, but I had opted for common sense and following advice as it was over a month past the end of the hiking season. But also in reality, I didn’t actually have time in my two week trip to Japan, and frankly the views of the mountain were probably more appealing to me than the views from the mountain would be.

I neared and then passed under a row of accommodations that would have great views of Mt Fuji from their balconies, and I continued to follow the path round towards the broad expanse of the Kawaguchiko Ohashi bridge that cut across this end of the lake, transecting it. The whole lake is huge, and there was not a hope of covering the full circumference of it, so the circle that was created by the bridge and the eastern foreshore was enough of a taster that day. Before I cut up to the bridge itself, I found myself down at the lakeshore near the legs of the bridge, sitting among some locals who were fishing, eating my lunch as the clouds swirled across my view of Mt Fuji. Looking under the bridge, I could see through not only to the far side of the lake, but I was able to watch the paddlesteamer chug across, peacefully sailing across the calm water.

 

Crossing the bridge, I didn’t know where to look. The view in both directions was divine, and I jogged back and forth across the road as I wandered, taking a ridiculous amount of photographs, and sweating in the incessant heat. To my left was the foreshore I’d just walked round as well as the dominating outline of Mt Fuji. To my right, was the large expanse of lake and the gorgeous rolling mountains that stood tall beyond it. In fact I took so long to cross the bridge that the paddlesteamer was making its return journey from the far side, and I was able to watch it return to the original pier I’d passed it from earlier that day. Reaching the far side of the bridge, there were more locals fishing and the path immediately turned into a park, skirting round to Oike Park where there was a small shrine, and some statues nestled among the trees. Flying overhead a large bird of prey caught my attention which I later discovered was a black kite.

 

The final section of the lake continued to give me views across the lake before it cut back to streets. From this angle I could see the ropeway that went up the nearby mountain, and as I reached the street that would lead me there, I spotted the same black kite perched atop the roof of a nearby building. It was nearing lunchtime by the time I made it to the Mt Fuji Panoramic Ropeway. The queue was frustratingly long and also in direct sunlight making for a slightly unpleasant experience. It was possible to hike up the mountain but I didn’t have time for that, and so the ropeway was going to have to be worth the wait. It was a slightly disorganised affair to buy a ticket from a machine, which was a surprise considering how organised Japan usually comes across for absolutely everything, and when my time finally came to board the ropeway I was incredulous at how many of us they squeezed on there. It was roasting, and despite the open windows, there was little air circulation in the cabin, making it a little unpleasant to breathe. We were crammed in so badly that I couldn’t actually move. For the entire ride up I was stuck in the position I was in, unable to shift my weight or even lift my camera up to my face to take photos. I don’t get claustrophobia but with the lack of personal space, the inability to reposition myself and the stiff, hot air, it was hard not to get a little panicked, and I couldn’t wait for the ride to be over.

 

But it was all soon forgotten once I’d spilled out at the top and saw the view. From the top station I had a gorgeous view across the lake and then once I’d walked round to the entrance of Kawaguchiko Tenjozan Park, I could see across to Fuji-Q Highland theme park and Mt Fuji behind it, albeit now hidden behind some clouds. I treated myself to a matcha float complete with foam rabbit, before swapping my trainers for hiking boots and heading into the trees. The initial track up to Mt Tenjo was packed, with most of the people that had taken the ropeway up heading here, as it was only a 10 minute walk to the summit (1140m/3740ft). I was expecting an awesome view but in actual fact the trees were so tall here, that it was mostly closed in, apart from a gap that allowed Mt Fuji to be seen, framed by the tall trunks of the trees. I could see on my topographical map that a track from here led off across the nearby mountains, and I had my sights set on nearby Mt Shimo (1302m/4272ft).

 

There was little view as I walked deeper into the tall forest, following the ridgeline as it undulated and gradually gained further altitude. I had little respite from the heat and my energy began to wane. It took me longer to reach the road crossing high up the mountainside than I’d anticipated, and after an hour, I found myself at a lookout just shy of 1300m (4265ft). As with my hike the day before, I’d brought some 7Eleven dried squid, a Japanese snack that I ate a lot of whilst out and about. It was just the taste I wanted after all the sweating and it gave such an energy boost. That being said, I spent a lot of time eating whilst studying the topographic map, arguing in my head whether I wanted to push on to Mt Shimo. I’d learned on the hike the day before that a summit doesn’t necessarily equal a view, and where I was sat was specifically marked as a viewpoint. Indeed I had an uninterrupted view of Mt Fuji from where I sat, and I reckoned the summit push would add at least another hour roundtrip. With it already being after 2pm, I made the executive decision to let the summit go, and once I was satiated, I pushed back down the gradual slope, to return to Mt Tenjo.

By the time I reached the gap in the trees at Mt Tenjo it was 3.30pm and the summit of Mt Fuji was visible once more. Back at the cafe I bought a snack that was translated as raccoon balls. In the 5 days I’d been in Japan, I’d eaten a lot of unrecognisable foods in a multitude of new textures that I’d never experienced before. I’m fairly up for trying a variety of cuisine and love to experiment abroad, so I was intrigued to see what raccoon tasted like. I still have no idea what exactly it was that I ate, but it didn’t appear to have any meat in it at all, but it was food and it was edible so I hoovered it down all the same. The sun was lowering towards the mountains at the far side of the lake but still the crowds came up the ropeway.

 

I discovered that you could go up to the roof of the cafe where I could see down towards the lake as well as Mt Fuji, and where I could do a bit of people watching as I ate. I hovered between the rooftop and the viewing area below for a long time, getting my photo taken against the backdrop of Japan’s most famous volcano, and watching as people put prayers on the local prayer wall. A bell hung within a heart-shaped frame that was great for framing Mt Fuji, and again I took a lot of photos as the shadows got longer. I started to realise that the mountains beyond the lake would lead to an earlier sunset, and I still had to hike down the mountain back to the lake. After an hour of soaking up the view, I started the descent through the forest. The track switch-backed downhill, occasionally providing views of the lake. A few side tracks led off through gardens, but I stuck to the main track, by now sore on my feet and tired.

 

I reached the lake at dusk, and I sat watching the lights across the lake twinkle on as I swapped my hiking boots for my trainers once more. When I had bought my return bus ticket, I had had to select a specific bus to catch. I left the lake in plenty of time to slog back up the hill to the bus station, and as I reached the road across from it, in the darkening night I could just see the summit of Mt Fuji looming above the station roof. Locating my bus stop, I waited impatiently for it, tired of being on my feet, and always a little unsure that I was in the right spot. The time came and went and by now there was a crowd of us waiting. Eventually the Tokyo bus arrived and everybody surged forward, ignoring the Japanese rule of queuing. But the driver wouldn’t let us on. The bus that had arrived was the one after ours, and there was no way he was letting us on the bus. His English was broken but his message was clear: our bus was delayed and we just had to wait. Confusion and frustration rose when the same scene played out with the next bus. I was shattered, and just wanted to get back to Tokyo, a nearly 2hr drive away.

When the third bus arrived, I was overjoyed to be let on, but immediately concerned to discover that I was the only person that the driver let onto the bus. There were those that had waited as long as me, by now, nearly an hour, and I was immediately doubting that I was going to end up in Shinjuku. I could see some of the other passengers getting riled up and the language barrier was clearly causing some problems. But all I wanted was to sit down and get to Tokyo, so as much as I couldn’t understand why no-one else was being allowed on, I stayed rooted to my seat and watched the drama unfold. Within 5 minutes, in pitch darkness, we were on our way, leaving Kawaguchiko behind. I followed our route on my GPS until I was satisfied we were heading towards Tokyo and felt I could relax. We pulled into Shinjuku bus station at nearly 8.30pm having made good time back to the city. The city lights were shining bright in what is one of the popular night-time spots in the city. I was tired and hungry, but couldn’t completely ignore all the lights and sounds, so took a detour as I crossed between the bus station and the train station to get a brief view of the goings on. Back at my hotel in Yotsuya, I was excited to discover a vending machine that sold beer, a complete novelty, and another of those oh-so-Japanese things that I loved so much. I loved my choice of fruit beer so much that, like the dried squid, it became a regular consumption on my travels around the country.

The Three Peaks

Despite having barely explored any of the World’s second-largest city, rather than stay in Tokyo for my first proper day of my holiday, I chose instead to head out of the city into the surrounding countryside. I love hiking and think of Japan as a hiking country, so I’d researched some hiking trails that were within my means and geographically attainable. Within easy reach of the city was Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, the location of a full day’s hike. From my hotel in Yotsuya, I train-hopped my way to Mitake station from where I caught the local bus to the base of the Mitake-Tozan Cable. If I’d been really inclined, I could have walked from the station, and I always could have hiked up instead of taking the cableway, but the hike before me was going to be long enough, so it wasn’t hard to put aside the notion that I had ‘cheated’. Although the main forms of public transport in Japan are relatively cheap (especially with the top-up card I possessed), there were plenty of touristy transports around that were a lot more costly. Although there wasn’t much to see aside from forest on the way up, the hillside was so steep that at no point did I regret taking the cable up rather than walking.

 

The views at the top of the cableway were of the surrounding hills rolling off into the distance. There were several people in the immediate vicinity having ridden up together, but we were all quick to spread out and it wasn’t hard to feel like I was far away from city life. In fact there was a series of trails leading through the small village that was nestled among the trees, and my plans for the day were to head beyond and into the mountains. In researching the hikes I would be doing in Japan, I had read that it was important to make note of the lettering for the places that would appear on signs as it couldn’t be relied upon to have English translations. Across the day’s hike there was a mixture of signs that included English and those that didn’t, so I was regularly checking the maps I’d downloaded onto the phone to make sure I was heading in the right direction.

My route for the day was to lead me across three local peaks: Mt Mitake (929m/3048ft), Mt Otake (spelt Ohtake or Odake in some places – 1266.4m/4155ft), and Mt Nokogiri (1109m/3638ft), emerging at Okutama, an anticipated 6hr hike from my research. It was just before 10am as I left the cableway behind and followed the paved pathway that wound through the village on the flanks of Mt Mitake. It was a hot day for a hike, and after the initial flat section, the road began to cut up the remains of the mountainside, past old-fashioned buildings towards the Musashi Mitake Shrine. At the bottom of the steps a large torii gate framed the staircase that led up to a series of buildings. This was the destination for almost everyone else I saw that day, but from here, a bilingual sign pointed me towards the forest and the mountains that they grew from.

It didn’t take long to reach the first of many track junctions. I headed along a short ridge to reach a lookout where the neighbouring mountains appeared hazy. Retracing my steps to the junction, I followed the sign saying Rock Garden, immediately beginning a descent of around 200m (656ft), starting with a long set of stairs and the occasional section of tree roots to negotiate. I was among giants: tall trees that grew far above my head but there was little in the way of bird life to see or hear. I was passed by another solo hiker, but otherwise I was out here on my own. Another junction was reached with a bilingual sign and then it was just a short while later till I found myself at the bottom of Nanayonotaki waterfall which cascaded down a rock face in the middle of the forest.

 

I paused here briefly for a snack, leaving it behind when a couple of people arrived, and having reached the lowest point on the hike, I acknowledged I had to climb back up the hillside again as I was presented firstly with a steep metal staircase, and then a maze of tree roots with a rope to cross. Once back on the main path again, I was following the sign for the Rock Garden once more, arriving at a conglomerate of rocks by 11.30am. Deep within the forest it was a little dull but still hot. I could see the clouds were covering the previously blue sky but the canopy high above me was blocking some of the light too adding to the perceived gloom. Atop a giant boulder there was a shrine and a statue, and it was necessary to use a rope to climb on top to take a look. I had initially thought that this was the rock garden, but actually it was further into the forest, and the trail headed into thicker vegetation that hugged the curve of the mountainside.

 

A few streams trickled through the undergrowth and the path cut across them, large stone steps helping to keep my feet dry. It was peaceful if a little eerie being out in the middle of nowhere on my own. The deeper into the forest the trail went, the more boulders appeared around the trail and I could appreciate why the Rock Garden got its name. I passed several other people at a picnic spot, but I opted to push on to Ayahira waterfall, which I was able to enjoy by myself while taking a snack break. Stone steps led away from here past a giant rockface as I continued to regain the lost altitude up the hillside. Eventually, by 12.20pm I found myself back on the original track that I had left behind near the Mitake Shrine.

I think I had assumed this trail would have been spectacular for views, but actually the forest canopy was so well developed that there was little to see other than the forest itself, so as I continued along the rising ridgeline towards Mt Otake, there was just the trees for company. Other hikers had been few and far between once I’d left Mt Mitake, and the trail became a little uninteresting. I was still very hot and sweating profusely and I was glad for the occasional trail junction to break up the monotony. Eventually I reached a section that involved chains to help negotiate a rough area where the track jumped up suddenly at the side of some large boulders. Beyond that there were some gnarly tree rooted sections as well.

Suddenly I found myself at the bottom of a flight of stairs leading through a torii gate to a shrine. The trail led me up through here and then beyond the buildings the track became quite rough and threatened to trip me up. I have to admit, I was eager to reach the next summit, and was looking forward to getting a view of something other than the forest, so I was glad to finally break out of the trees at 1.30pm to an opening where a group of men were taking a break from their own hike. The sky had become uniformly grey in the time I’d been in the forest but I could still see rows of mountains spanning the view in front of me. I’d brought some dried squid with me, a 7Eleven special, and started a love affair with it at the summit of Mt Otake. It was just what I needed to give me a bit of an energy boost and I ended up making sure I had some with me for every hike I did for the rest of the trip.

 

The topographical map on my phone made it look like Mt Nokogiri was halfway between where I was standing and Okutama. In the blog I’d read when researching this hike, I’d read that this descent from Mt Otake to Okutama would feel never-ending, so I didn’t hang around at the summit for long. Leaving the other hikers behind, I set off into the forest once more, almost immediately losing the view of the landscape again. It was a gradual and undulating slight descent along a ridgeline for 1.5hrs to reach the third peak of the day. This time though, the summit was within the forest and there was only a small sign to announce that you’d made it. By now just past 3pm, and having been hiking for 5hrs, I was starting to appreciate that the 6hr estimate for the hike was rather off. But in my head I had just another 1.5hrs to go, based on my assumption from the map on my phone, and although I was getting tired, it was a time that I could muster up some energy for.

Oh how wrong I was. After an hour of walking across the undulating ridgeline, I was not only aware that I’d barely dropped any altitude, but having been tracing my hike on a tracker app, I was dismayed to see that Okutama was still several kilometres away. Even when a break in the trees offered me the first glimpse of some houses in the valley below, again the map showed I was still some distance away. Suddenly I could appreciate where the comments from the other blogger had come from, but as I stood there mildly miffed with my choice of hike, my attention was grabbed by a sudden screeching sound that shot across the valley. I had no idea what it was and in the middle of a forest up a mountain, it was slightly unnerving but I found out a few days later that it was the call of a bird of prey (possibly a northern goshawk).

 

I got a slight puff of energy again as I started to descend away from that first glimpse of Okutama, but after a brief descent, the track starting heading up again, involving metal stairs and chains, and I have to admit that I started cursing out loud. It was nearly 5pm, and I started to realise that I had just roughly an hour of daylight left. Any second wind I’d gotten quickly dissipated and instead I spent the eventual descent down the mountainside rather deflated. Finally the descent began to be more consistent, remaining in the forest the whole way aside from a brief reprieve where some pylons cut through. By the time I reached the very margin of Okutama at 5.45pm, it was dusk, and the light was fading fast as I cut through what was left of the forest, finally reaching the main road that would lead me into town.

 

I watched the train leave for Tokyo without me, having not quite made it in time, the hike eventuating as an 8hr hike instead of the 6hr trek I’d anticipated. I hadn’t even enjoyed the second half of it, having been frustrated with the length of it, and the lack of views. The forest was pretty, but with little to break up the monotony of it, it had rather detracted from the hike in the end. To top it off, it was now pitch black and I had to wait half an hour for the next train. Okutama is a small settlement, but despite that, I initially couldn’t find the train station platform, somehow ending up on the wrong side of both the track and a fence, and having to back track my weary legs to try a different road. When eventually I could board the train, it was empty, a complete shock compared to all the train rides I’d done so far in Japan. It was after 8pm by the time I reached my hotel in Yotsuya, picking up my luggage from the original hotel, and walking the couple of blocks to my new hotel on the other side of the road. I slumped onto my nice pristine bed just in time to catch the end of one of Scotland’s Rugby World Cup matches. My feet were throbbing and my calves resembled elephant legs from the heat, but I could only hope they’d have settled by the morning as I had another day of walking ahead of me.

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