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.