The First Warm Day
There probably isn’t a person living in a temperate climate who doesn’t appreciate the first warm day of spring. When I was studying at Fordham University, it was a kind of a holiday among students. On that day, if you were to visit a classroom, you’d find the number of people there to be conspicuously few. If, on the other hand, you were to pass by Eddy’s Parade or Martyr’s Lawn, you’d see it bursting at the seams with students spread out on blankets enjoying the sunshine and warmth after a long, cold New York City winter. The day that Tianyu and I hiked the Path Crossing Over the Peak of Izu (伊豆ヶ岳を超える道) was just such a day.
The two of us stepped off the train into crisp, cool morning air, but the bright morning sun was full of promise, and it didn’t take much walking before we were shedding our warm outer layers. I remember considering that morning whether or not to make a T-shirt my bottom layer, but thought better of it because it was only March after all and being too cold is worse than being too warm. Later I regretted the decision, craving to feel the sun on more than just my face.
The Path Crossing Over the Peak of Izu starts at Agano Station (吾野駅), which sits at the southernmost point of a large looping portion of the Fureai Trail that comprises of four sections of trail. Heading east from the station is section 11, the Path with a Waterfall and a Yoshitsune Legend (義経伝説と滝がある道). To the west two sections of trail overlap each other: the end of the Path Visiting Inner Musashi’s Historic Temples (奥武蔵の古刹を訪ねる道) and the beginning of the Path Crossing Over the Peak of Izu. The latter of these two is the topic of today’s post.
This trail backtracks up the valley past the Hôkôji Temple (法光寺) and Chichibu’s Ondake Shrine (秩父御嶽神社) before finally diverging towards the Peak of Izu just after passing the Ne-no-Gongen (子の権現) temple. From there it crosses Amame-zasu Pass (天目指峠), then winds through a pine and cypress forest where West River lumber (西川材) is harvested before crossing over a series of steep and rugged peaks, the tallest of which is the Peak of Izu (Izu-ga-Take, 伊豆ヶ岳). From the summit of the peak you can see the mountains of Arima (有間), Inner Musashi (奥武蔵) and Chichibu (秩父) as well as the Kanto Plain (関東平野) to the east. Finally, the trail descends back to the valley from Shômaru Pass (正丸峠) and ends at Shômaru Station (正丸駅), covering a total of 14.5 kilometers.
Although the view from the Peak of Izu is fairly good, it doesn’t offer the wide, sweeping views found in other parts of the Fureai Trail, but it does have numerous other draws for travelers to enjoy, ranging from the religious and historical to the botanical and geological. Those connected to religion and history have been discussed at length in earlier posts; for now, read on to learn about the rest.
Folklore and Etymology in Amame-zasu Pass
A short distance after departing the Ne-no-Gongen, the Path Crossing Over the Peak of Izu diverges from the Path Visiting Inner Musashi’s Historic Temples. First ascending a steep hill, the trail then follows the ridge for about a kilometer before dropping down into a saddle with a narrow paved road passing through it and a small pavilion on the side for resting hikers. This is Amame-zasu Pass (天目指峠).
According to legend, a mountain god once lived here. This god was kin to eels, so eel hunting was strictly forbidden in the nearby streams. One day, though, a woodcutter from Anazawa Village (穴沢村) caught and ate an eel, broking the restriction. Naturally, the dragon god was fiercely angry and raised up a great storm that caused a landslide to wash away the village. I suppose the village must have been rebuilt since it’s still to be found nearby, about halfway between the crest of the pass and Upper Famous Chestnut (Kami-Naguri, 上名栗), which readers may recall is where Saitama Section II started.
Aside from this legend, the etymology of this place’s name is also worthy of interest. The characters used to write it are 天 (ama), 目 (me), and 指 (sasu), which mean “heaven,” “eye,” and “indicate” respectively. From this we might guess that the name translates as “Indicating Heaven’s Eye,” and indeed at first glance even a native Japanese person might be apt to give it this interpretation. However, these characters are not in fact intended to represent meaning as is typical but are rather ateji (当て字), or characters used as phonetic symbols irrespective of their meaning. The amame part of the name refers to a type of persimmon, known commonly in Japanese as the “bean persimmon” (mame-gaki, 豆柿), but which is called a-mame in the old dialect of this region. The zasu part, on the other hand, refers to slash-and-burn agriculture, a primitive farming technique in which the land is burned off and then spread with seeds. It’s difficult to render the name elegantly in English, but basically the name appears to indicate that slash-and-burn agriculture was used to plant persimmons here sometime in the distant past.
West River Lumber
Beyond Amame-zasu Pass the path a comparatively broad and level ridge covered in a forest of cypress (hinoki, 檜) and cedar (sugi, 杉). In this area the signs of logging are plainly visible: rough dirt roads pass through the forest, tree stumps abound, and there is even one relatively recently clear-cut spot that the trail passes through. The nature enthusiast will probably wince at the sight of it, but one may be able to relax a bit upon learning that this area has been used for harvesting these trees for hundreds years, so any damage to the historical forest has long been done and the work carried out today is simply part of regular forest maintenance.
The wood harvested from this area is known as West River Lumber (Nishi-kawa-zai, 西川材) and has quite a famous reputation, having been used to build houses in Tokyo for hundreds of years; legend even has it that the timber for building Edo Castle, the present-day home of the imperial family, came from here. The name West River comes from the fact that the cut timber would be sent to Tokyo by floating it down one of three rivers that lay to the west of the city: the Naguri River (名栗川), the Koma River (高麗川), or the Nariki River (成木川). These days, the trees are carried out by train or truck.
The Peak of Izu
Continuing on through the forest, the trail eventually ascends to the summit of Highfield Mountain (Takabata Yama, 高畑山), where hikers can get their first glimpses of the Peak of Izu and the neighboring Komi Peak (古御岳). The view is rather obscured through the trees, but one can see well enough to notice that these two mountains are exceedingly steep, much more so than has been typical of the path so far.
The origin of such rugged forms is not, as one might expect in Japan, strictly volcanic but rather organic. These two mountains, it turns out, are made from a form of sedimentary rock called chert, which is formed from the remains of living things. Long ago, when the land that makes up Japan was submerged under the ocean, millennia of ocean creatures died, forming a great pile that eventually solidified into stone. Later, tectonic activity lifted the land into the open air, and eventually the process of erosion removed other sediments and soils, leaving behind these steep mountains. Apparently, the chert making up these mountains is particularly dense, allowing it to form even steeper slopes than are typical from this material. Other areas in the region are also formed from similar material, including Two-Gods Mountain (Ryôgami-Yama, 両神山), Castle Peak (Jômine, 城峰), and Bay-Mountain Gorge (Urayama Keikoku, 裏山渓谷) on the south side of Ko-bu Mountain (Ko-Bu Yama, 甲武山).
Like countless other mountains in Japan, the original meaning of the name Izu-ga-Take has been lost. Certainly, when the mountain was first named the reason was so obvious that no one needed to explain it. However, after generations passed circumstances changed, dialects changed, the people living there changed, but all the while the name of the mountain remained constant until no one remembered why precisely anyone had called it Izu-ga-Take in the first place. Nonetheless, there are many theories about it.
It has been suggested that the name Izu originated from the word izu in the Ainu language, a word that refers to a mountain with a steep and rugged peak. Another theory is that on a clear, sunny day one can see as far as the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture, south of Mt. Fuji. Others suggest that izu could be a corruption of the word yuzu, a type of citrus plant that grows commonly on the mountain. Still others have suggested that the name comes from the fact that there is a hot spring valley located at the foot of the mountain. Since one word for hot spring is yu 湯 and a common suffix attached to place names in Japan is the character 津 (pronounced tsu, or sometimes zu), combining the two would yield yuzu, which could then be corrupted to izu. We’ll probably never know which one is right, but isn’t speculating half the fun anyway?
To Shômaru Station
On the day that Tianyu and I climbed the Peak of Izu, the remnants of the last big snow were still visible on the slopes, melting profusely in the warm spring air and turning the whole path into a slog through mud for the last several kilometers. We struggled through it up to the top of Komi Peak, then back down a deep saddle before rising up yet again to the top of Izu.
At the top, we found the view to be not the best, with lots of trees in the way. At least, that is until we moved a little further down the ridge and found a sign saying not to go further on account of the danger. If there’s one thing I’ve learned as I hiker over the years it’s that danger often makes for good views, so we climbed over the ropes and went to check it out. Lo’ and behold, we did find the best views on the mountain there. They still weren’t so much to write home about, but it was worth it anyway. After that, we dropped down from the peak and continued along the ridge, passing over a few small peaks before catching a path down towards Shômaru Station.
As it turned out, we dropped off the ridge a turn too soon and ended up going down a route that wasn’t part of the Fureai Trail at all. It didn’t matter since it still led us to Shômaru Station, and on the bright side it saved me from having to backtrack along the same path the next time I hit the trail, so I call it a win. On top of that, the path led down a valley filled with distinctive massive boulders, each bearing names connected with there shape. There was Turtle Rock (亀岩), Twin Rocks (双子岩), and Long Rock (長岩).
Once we hit the bottom of the ravine, the path followed along a quietly whispering mountain stream before eventually dropping us off on the paved mountain road leading down to the station. It was, as usual, another great hiking day.
Flora and Fauna in the Mountains of West Saitama
Although the Path Crossing Over the Peak of Izu is light on magnificent mountain views, there’s are plenty of other things to put your attention toward, including a wide range of flowering mountain plants and, if you come in the right year, cicadas as well. Below is some info about what you might find.
The Oil Locust
If you hear the sound of cicadas on the Kanto Fureai Trail, what you’re hearing is likely the abura zemi or Oil Cicada (油蝉), a species of locust found all over East Asia and even in New Zealand as well. These spend the first year of their life as eggs laid on trees in the summer, but after hatching as larvae they burrow into the ground at the base of the tree and leach sap from its roots. They spend the next six years or like this, shedding their skin once per year as they grow to adulthood. Finally, a total of seven years after they began their lives as eggs, they emerge from the ground as adult locusts.
The Flower Calendar of the Ne-no-Yama
The mountain atop which sits the Ne-no-Gongen temple — Ne-no-Yama — boasts a wide array of flowering plants, each of which appears at a different time of year. Calendar begins with the plum flowers of early spring, which typically bloom in mid-March. Once spring is in full force, the flowers of mountain cherries (yamazakura, 山桜), the azaleas (tsutsuji, 躑躅), and the yellow roses (yamabuki, 山吹) bloom one after the other. Amid the greens of summer, mountain lilies (yama-yuri, 山百合) color the mountain, and in the fall the slopes are blanketed in the silver ears of pampas grass (susuki, 薄) and the vivid reds of the bright red maples. Finally, in the winter the flowers of wild ginger (kan-aoi, 寒葵) appear amid the blanket of snow.
The cherry tree has been one of the most quintessential elements of Japanese culture throughout the centuries, appearing in the country’s earliest extant literature from more than 1000 years ago; even today the practice of hanami or “flower-viewing” is synonymous with cherries. The common ornamental variety, the Yoshino cherry (somei-yoshino, 染井吉野), can be found in gardens and parks all around the world today, but to find the mountain cherry, or yama-zakura (山桜), expect to do some walking. The mountain cherry is easiest to recognize when it gets its first growth of leaves for the year: the leaves appear at the same time as the flowers, rather than after, and they appear dark red in color before turning green a few weeks later. Apparently the tree is popularly used to make furniture.
The Painted Maple
Commonly known as the painted maple in English, it’s Japanese name, itaya-kaede (板屋楓), literally means shingle-roof maple and grows wild in various mountainous regions in Japan. Another name for it is the enkô kaede or the “gibbon maple,” which comes from the shape of its leaves, which extend out on a long stem and divide into 5-7 separate portions that call to mind the fingers of a gibbon. The back of the leaves are smooth and glossy, and in the fall they change to bright yellow rather than the red color typically found in Japanese maples. This variety’s leaves are a bit firmer than others and many of them have sparse fur growing on the main vein running down the back of the leaf. This is referred to as “fleece” (urake).
Clethra, or Ryôbu (令法) or in Japanese, is a small deciduous shrub with a smooth, dark reddish-brown or grey-brown speckles that grows wild in mountain forests around Japan. Curiously, in some parts of the country the tree is called “salsberry” (サルスベリ), a term of foreign import though I’m not sure from where it originates. In the summer, it produces a racemes that are about 6 to 15 cm in length that display small white flowers. In the old days, this plant was called “hata-tsumori” which could be translated literally though somewhat inelegantly as “flag-pile.” This, they say, is because when these flowers are in peak bloom they look as though they were unfurling a multitude of flags.
Japanese Andromeda or Asebi (馬酔木) is a species of broadleaf evergreen shrub that grows in the wild in mountainous areas all over Japan and has a variety of common names depending on the locality, including asebu, ashibi, asebo. It’s a poisonous plant, and since horses and cattle act as though they’re intoxicated when they eat it, it’s name is written with the kanji 馬, 酔, and 木, which together render a meaning something like, “horse-inebriating tree.” In the early spring the tips of the branches, which will later develop into flowers, hang low. The white, cup-shaped flowers resemble those of lily-of-the-valley (suzuran, 鈴蘭)
Trail Name: The Path Crossing Over the Peak of Izu (Izu-ga-Take o Koeru Michi, 伊豆ヶ岳を超えるみち)
Map: Click here
Start: Agano Station on the Seibu Chichibu Line (西武秩父線吾野駅)
End: Shomaru Station on the Seibu Chichibu Line (西武秩父線正丸駅)
Natural Beauty: Medium
Ideal Seasons: All
Camping Locations:* Highfield Mountain (高畑山), Five Rings Mountain (五輪山)
Length (distance): 14.5 km
Length (time): 4 hours and 30 minutes
Food access: Togo Park, Ne-no-Gongen Temple, Shomaru Pass, Shomaru Station
*Note that these are not officially designated camping locations but simply places that I judge would be nice to put down a tent. Camp at your own risk.
My Trail Stats
Distance traveled: 124.8 km (6.9%)
Courses completed: 10/160 (6.3%)
Days Spent: 8
© Brian Heise 2018