From the moment I opened my eyes on the morning that I walked the Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park, I was in a sour mood. Eyes squinting and brow furrowed, I got my bag packed and shuffled off towards the train station with rough thoughts bouncing around my mind. And it wasn’t just that day — I my mood had been off for more than a week, which was exactly why I set out to hit the trail on that day.
There’s no better cure for a bad mood than spending hours traipsing through the hills by yourself. With nothing to distract you, no phones or computers or internet, you have all the time you need to untie that knot in your mind. And, on top of that, once you get it undone, then you find yourself surrounded by beautiful scenery and fresh air, which is good prevention from settling on something new to be mad about. For me, I was already in a humming good mood before I even reached the halfway point of the trail.
The Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park starts right where the last section ended, at the Highland Ranch Bus Stop (高原牧場バス停) and can be reached by bus either from Seibu Chichibu Station (西部秩父駅) or from Oyahana Station (親鼻駅). The path follows the gentle slopes rising over a low ridge-line leading over to Oyahana Station and the Arakawa River Valley.
The main attraction of this trail is Bi-no-Yama Park, literally meaning “The Mountain of Beauty.” As one might guess from the name, the park is indeed quite beautiful on several levels. In the first place, it provides outstanding views of the Inner Musashi Mountain Range, along which the Fureai Trail has been travelling all the way through Saitama so far, but further off you can also get clear views of the towering mountains of Inner Chichibu and even the distant Nikkô Range in Tochigi Prefecture.
On the park grounds itself, however, visitors can also enjoy a wide range of flowers most of the year, though the most famous are the 8,000 or so cherry trees that make the mountain a perfect destination in April. The place has so many trees that it has even earned the “The Kanto’s Yoshino Mountain,” a comparison to the most historic site of Japanese cherry viewing located in Nara Prefecture, not far from Kyoto.
In addition to the park, the trail includes several other attractions, including ancient stone road signs from the Edo Period, traditional houses, two of the area’s most important holy grounds, and also a historic silk textile production site. In all, it’s an easy and quick trail with good historical appeal as well.
Though far enough off from Tokyo to be a fairly independent area in the days before railroads, the Chichibu region was nonetheless close enough to benefit from the demand for products generated by that metropolis, which even a few hundred years ago was still one of the largest cities in the world. It is not surprising, then, that multiple byways connected this isolated mountain basin with that city on the bay.
According to The Revised Musashi Atlas (新編風土記稿), published in 1825, a total of three highways led from here to Edo: the Kumagaya Way (熊谷みち), the Kawagoe Way (川越みち), and the Agano Way (吾野みち). Those familiar with the Kanto will recognize the first two as important urban centers on the plain, which these two routes pass through respectively; the third is a more mountainous route that passes over Shômaru Pass (正丸峠) before moving through Agano on the way to the Tokyo. Longtime readers of this blog will remember that the Fureai Trail also passes along this way, although it sticks to the ridge-line whereas the old road follows valleys everywhere except the passes.
The main divergence of these three routes is located near the start of the Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park in an area called Misawa, which is a historical site for silk production (see below). Seeing as silk was such a lucrative industry and in high demand in the capital, it’s likely that the crossroads were located here to facilitate transport of this product.
The Temple of Common Comfort
The first part of the trail leads gently up a paved road through the Misawa, a scenic hillside village.
Not long after departing the bus stop, you’ll arrive at a small temple known as the Jôraku-ji, the Temple of Common Comfort, which is affiliated with the New Shingon Sect. They say that the temple was founded some 300 years ago, though apparently it was lost to fire during the Tempo Period (天保年間, 1830-1844) along with all of its artifacts. The current main hall was rebuilt in 1852.
Unfortunately, it proved difficult to photograph as it was built so close to the edge of a steep hillside that only a small portion could be caught in a single frame. Hanging above the entrance, however, was the following piece of calligraphy.
The principal deity of worship at the temple is Fudô Myô-ô (不動明王), the Immovable Shining King, whose wrathful visage is depicted wrapped in flames that burn away the impediments defilement that block the path to enlightenment. The main hall of the temple is dedicated to him, but next to it is located a smaller hall where the Amida Buddha, the Buddha of infinite life, is worshiped.
The Flowers of Misawa Village
Though not noted as particularly famous in the area, many of the locals have cultivated a wide variety of flowers in front of their houses. As you travel along the road through the village, take the time to enjoy their beauty.
The Weavers of Kami-Misawa
Past the Temple of Common Comfort the trail continues along paved roads through the village. Though many of the buildings are showing their age today, in the past this place was once a area of vibrant economic activity due to local silk production. According to the information signs along the trail, the lack of land flat enough to grow rice in the Chichibu area led farmers to supplement their income with silk production, which could be carried out even on steep mountainsides. According to The Revised Atlas of Musashi, women were those principally in charge of this industry, both raising the silkworms and weaving silk textiles.
At the end of the Edo period in the mid 1800s, the number of villages exporting raw silk in the area expanded greatly, and even out of the way places like Misawa became prosperous. Chichibu is still famous today for its meisen (銘仙) silk, which is popularly used as kimono fabric owing to its durable thick weave. A signboard along the path here states that the sound of weaving machines can still be heard here, but I didn’t notice anything as I passed through.
The Temple of the 23rd Night
At some point the trail plunges into dense vegetation honing in on the trail such that it nearly forms a tunnel, but not long after it comes out again on pavement, and shortly thereafter you arrive at yet another temple — this time, it’s the Temple of the 23rd Night (Nijûsanya-ji, 二十三夜寺), an affiliate of the Shingon Sect.
Perhaps it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that “the 23rd Night” is a reference to a specific cultural something that can’t be grasped just by the name alone. I was at a loss at first, but after some digging I found that “The 23rd Night” is a monthly religious ceremony that was once widely celebrated in Japan, though today I suppose few participate. The ceremony was apparently held on the 23rd day of each month by the old lunar calendar. On that day the congregation (that is, the men of the congregation most likely) would gather together to watch the moonrise while partaking in much food and drink, believing that a spirit would manifest itself.
This temple, it seems, has a long history. The temple records hold that one of the most important figures in early Japanese history, Prince Shôtoku, founded the temple. This man is not only remembered as the statesmen who promulgated the first written Japanese legal code but who also the first major proponent of Buddhism who worked to spread it far and wide across the land. They say that Shôtoku himself carved a statue of the Yakushi Nyorai (薬師如来), one of the principal Buddhist deities, and also built a thatched roof hut within which to enshrine it.
After that, Gyôki (行基), a 7th century monk, carved and enshrined a statue of the bodhisattva Seishi (勢至菩薩), who is now the principal deity of worship at the temple. Seishi is a god of wisdom, and his many followers believe that those who suffer hardship on account of their ignorance can be saved by the light of his wisdom.
I wasn’t able to determine the age of the current structures, but it seems unlikely that they’re very old since most temples make a point of promoting that and this temple didn’t make any reference to it. Nonetheless, it is a charming temple built in traditional style, and given the wear and tear on the exterior, it definitely has been around for at least some decades if not a century.
The signage on the trail is a little unclear at the temple, but to find the path again climb up to the front of the main hall and then turn left. The path will continue of the mountainside from there.
Among the various types of flora to be found along the Fureai Trail, one to look for on this section is the Cape Lilac, or sendan (センダン) in Japanese. This deciduous tree grows wild along the seashores and mountains of Kyushu and Shikoku, but is also often grown domestically in towns and villages. In May and June clumps of light purple flowers form at the tips of their branches, and in extremely rare cases, you can even find varieties sporting white flowers. They also produce elliptical fruits that turn yellow when ripe and often remain in large numbers even after the tree has shed its leaves for the fall, a good tell for identifying the plant. These fruits are called kurenshi (苦棟子) and are used as medicine, which I assume means they don’t taste so good. You can spot a specimen in the parking lot of the Temple of the 23rd Night.
In Japan, there is a variety of forest known as a “mixed grove” (雑木林), which is comprised of several varieties of trees rather than a more pure, single-species forest. Much of this section of trail passes through such a forest, though their are a few predominant species, such as the sawtooth oak (kunugi) and pin oak (konara). The forest floor in this area is also rich, not just in low growing plants but also in birds and insects.
Forests like this have had a close connection with Japanese society over the centuries. For example, villages have historically used sawtooth oak, chestnut, and pin oak to make firewood and charcoal, and even to grow mushrooms. On top of that, fallen leaves were used as fertilizer.
The Flowers of Bi-No-Yama Park
Less than 30 minutes after departing the Temple of the 23rd Night you will reach the main attraction of this section of trail: Bi-no-Yama, or the Mountain of Beauty. This mountaintop park provides not just gorgeous views of the high mountains all around from Chichibu to Nikko, but also sports a wide array of flowers that bloom all through the Spring, Summer, and Fall. The mountain is probably most famous for its 8000 or more cherry trees, which make the mountain a perfect destination for the Cherry Blossom Season in April, but you can also see various species of iris blossoms in from April to July, and also hostas and lilies in July and August. There are even some flowers still in bloom as late as mid December.
Outside of the cherries, however, two of the mountains most famous attractions are it’s fields of hydrangea (ajisai, 紫陽花) and azalea (tsutsuji, 躑躅). The hydrangea field is located on the east side of the park and contains more than 3,500 specimens over a space of 7.5 square kilometers. On the west side of the mountain, growing with a shady forest, is the field of bright red azaleas. I wasn’t able to find much info on the scale of the field and the flowers weren’t in bloom when I passed through so I couldn’t see for myself, but the pictures in the visitor center suggest that this is also quite a sight to see. Be sure to take your time to explore all the corners of the park to make sure you don’t miss anything interesting.
The Temple of 10,000 Blessings
Following Bi-no-Yama Park, the path descends downward more or less directly towards Oyahana Station, the end of the trail. However, once you reach the town below be sure not to miss the last attraction on this path, the Temple of 10,000 Blessings (万福寺). The temple is located fairly close to Route 140, the main highway passing near the station, but it’s easy to miss as the signage isn’t the best at that point. As you follow the road through town after getting off the mountain, keep your eyes on the right.
They say that the Temple of 10,000 Blessings was first founded in 1023 AD by the monk Kango Hôin (看鑁法印), but I couldn’t find much more information than that regarding it’s origins. As seems to be all too common with Japanese temples, the original structures and most of the temple’s artifacts were lost to fire in 1882, but miraculously the statue of the Amida Buddha, the principle deity of the temple, survived. The current structures date to 1932.
Personally, I didn’t find the temple to be that impressive, but if you’re passing by you might as well stop in to have a look before you catch the train from Oyahana back to Tokyo.
Trail Name: The Path Visiting Bi-no-Yama Park (Bi-no-Yama Kôen wo Tazuneru Michi, 美の山公園を訪ねるみち)
Map: Click here
Start: Highland Ranch Entrance Bus Stop (高原牧場入口バス停)
End: Oyahana Station (Oyahana Eki, 親鼻駅)
Natural Beauty: Medium
Ideal Seasons: Spring-Fall
Camping Locations:* None
Length (distance): 8.2 km
Length (time): 2 hours and 40 minutes
Food access: Bi-no-Yama Park (seasonal only), Oyahana
*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: 161.7 km (9%)
Courses completed: 13/160 (8.1%)
Days Spent: 10.5
© Brian Heise 2018