Off the Beaten Path, Japan #31: Walking the Ridge

Walking the Ridge

The photo connoisseurs of the internet often disparage the snapshot, but in reality some of the best scenes are those most unplanned.

Off the Beaten Path, Japan #29: Morning Light on Kamegamori

Morning Light on Kamegamori

It was the next morning after 萌 and I watched the sunset over Stonehammer together. I rose early as usual the next day to catch the sunrise. This time I looked not west toward that rocky mallet but rather eastwards that vast field of sasa grass spreading out on the slopes high above sheer cliffs dropping a hundred meters or more to the valley below. As I waited, suddenly the sunlight caught the grass on the mountains shoulder, lighting it brilliant gold.

Off the Beaten Path, Japan #10

White Caps in the Distance

Hiking in mid-March following a relatively warm November, and moreover hiking through the foothills of Gunma on the edge of the Kanto, I didn’t expect many fantastic views. Imagine my surprise then when I crested the ridge to see a line of white-capped mountains stretching across the horizon. Needless to say, I was satisfied.

Fureai VI: The Cedar Shade Path

5:30 am. I wake up 10 minutes before the alarm. That’s normal. As I walk southwards towards Kinshicho Station, I can see the brightness of the rising sun to the east as I pass each cross street.

The train is packed. I’m surprised. I thought this early on a Tuesday there would be fewer people. I guess they, like me, hoped they would beat the morning rush to Tokyo.

As I ride the train, the landscape changes from city to country. The change isn’t immediately noticeable. You see the city, you doze, and then suddenly you notice there’s more foliage than buildings.

I arrive in Five-Days City (五日市). The train station has stained glass windows like a Catholic Church. It makes me think of that new Scorsese movie, Silence, and the persecution of Christian’s in Japan’s past. I wonder whether this town was a historical bastion of Christianity. Maybe I should look into that.

This is my third time here in Five-Days City. Just last weekend Tianyu and I ate at the cafe/bike shop across the street. There isn’t much to see, but but the town is beautiful. It reminds me of my home.

As I wait for the bus, strong gusts of wind blow intermittently, sending piles of fallen leaves into the air and creating fresh showers from those still clinging to the branches of the trees. Winter has come.

I board the bus to Upper Fostermarsh (上養沢). The bus is backed with old people in hiking gear. It seems like hiking on Tuesday didn’t spare me the crowds.

I hardly recognize where I get off despite the fact that Tianyu and I were here just last week. It’s a small collection of houses along the steep slopes; for once, the word “village” doesn’t seem out of place.

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Houses in Upper Fostermarsh (上養沢)

As I walk up the road toward the trailhead, I exchange some light conversation with the crowd of old folks. Their destination is the Venerable Peak as well, but they’re going a different route. I’m thankful. They seem nice but trust me it’s hard to not feel out of place among a group of 10 bantering Japanese geriatrics. It’s fun at first but eventually you reach the limits of your Japanese and their English, and then things get awkward for the rest of the day. Best things end now.

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A pack of elderly climbers marches toward the trailhead.

I reach the trailhead. This is the Cedar Shade Path, so named for the last section of the trail, the slopes of the Venerable Peak, a place famous for mountain worship. The slopes there are covered with sacred cedar trees, and penitents pray to each one as they ascend the mountain. I think I read that somewhere, or maybe it’s just my imagination.

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The trailhead of the Cedar Shade Path might as well be leading off into the Ozarks.

The trail ascends steeply from here towards Sunrise Mountain (日の出山). The path is laid with stone steps, and some of the switchbacks are built against cliff faces with unmortared stonework supporting the trail.

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Stonework along the cliff face.

About halfway up, I reach the site of Fostermarsh Cavern (養沢鍾乳洞), supposedly the largest of the three in the valley. This cave was apparently the first discovered. As I hear, it goes back 50 meters and is 15 meters wide at it’s widest point. It sounds like a fun cave to check out, but according to the signs, it’s closed indefinitely. On top of that, I can’t tell where the entrance is and I’m not in the mood to bushwack my way up the slopes in order to find it.

For those of you interested in geology and caves, it seems that the Tama Interior has many geologic strata dating to the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, among them a layer of limestone that stretches from the Sunfield River Basin (日原川流域) through the Venerable Peak and the Fostermarsh River (which I crossed over at the trailhead) and all the way down to Five Days City. The caves in this area all formed in that stratum.

Beyond the cave site, the trail move through an evergreen forest towards the ridge.

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Towards the ridge, up the stairs.

I hit the ridge and a sweeping view of the Kanto appears. In the distance, I can barely see the Skytree rising above the cityscape of Tokyo, marking how far I’d come today to reach this point.

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The Kanto and Tokyo in the distance.

The view here is afforded partially by the fact that most of the trees on the hillside are tiny — probably, I stumbled upon a tree farm that had its last cutting only a few years before. I continue on to Sunrise Mountain.

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Down the valley.

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Skyline

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The buildings atop the Venerable Peak, viewed from Sunrise Mountain.

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The Kanto from Sunrise Mountain.

From Sunrise Mountain, the trail descends down the side of the ridge into a shadowy pocket, and the temperature drops noticeably — where before I had worn only my hoodie and been more than comfortable, now I begin to consider putting on my coat. Looking closely at a white patch of ground, I realize that I’m looking at last remnants of a recent snowfall.

From this point to the end, the trail gets rather dull. It’s fairly flat and simple walk over to the Venerable Peak and its collection of buildings, including a somewhat famous shrine. Since I’d been through here on my way to Greatpeak just a month or so before, I don’t linger but pass straight through and down the paved pathway to the bottom. Massive cedars line the way, the namesake of this trail.

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Cedars line the path down from the Venerable Peak.

At this point I’m feeling rather annoyed with the path. The Venerable Peak was more or less the halfway point and the rest of the trail is on paved roads down to the train station. On the bright side, though, it’s not even noon, so I consider attempting a second section of the trail, though I’m aware I’d be running the risk of getting caught out after dark as the sun sets about 4:30 this time of year.

Finally I reach the valley and the main highway. The footpath crosses it and descends down steeply to the Tama River, whose shallow blue waters flow noisily over rocks and boulders southward toward Tokyo Bay. A footbridge extends across the flow, and I stop to examine the scene.

To the north, trout fishers dip lines into small man-made pools constructed of large rocks, like the ones my brother and I used to make in the creek when we were kids. To the south, the river flows on. The sun is warm on my face and I hardly notice it’s winter. Down the footpath I go, passing kayakers on the rapids and climbers on the boulders. The environment is perfect. I abandon my plans to continue the hike and instead decide to relax here.

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A bridge across the Tama River

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Trout fishers

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Towards Tokyo Bay

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The bridge

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The trail along the Tama River

A guidemap indicates the presence of a sake brewery further down the river. I walk the path until I find it. I take a free tour of the facilities, where I learn that the place has been in operation for more than 300 years, and the sake cellar where today modern tanks store the fermenting beverage is still the same one that was made when the brewery first opened all of those years ago. I also learn that apparently the process of sake-making is unlike anything I’ve ever read about. Apparently the starches in rice are converted to fermentable sugars by a special fungus before the yeast and process the liquid in alcohol.

Afterwards, I make my way to the tasting room where I sample 17 year old sake. I never imagined that sake could taste this good.

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Aged 17 years

As I sit, and old man strikes up a conversation. He speaks a little English.

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My elderly acquaintance

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The old guy took my picture, but got his finger in it too.

Finished with the sake, I go back out to the river to cook some ramen. As I walk, I find the bent iron frame of an old hiking bridge, testament to the power of water.

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Iron bent by floodwaters

Whenever I see things like this, I’m reminded of a time when I was living in Korea and some other foreigners and I planned a float trip, but a big rainstorm that lasted a few days came up in the middle of the week before we left. As we stood on the bridge looking town on the muddy torrent, the group began to debate whether we should do the trip or not. I, who grew up on a river, was vehemently against it. I knew well, as the above picture illustrates, what floodwater can do. The fact that there was any debate at all shows that this isn’t obvious to people who haven’t spend a lot of time on rivers. In the end, I flat out refused to go regardless of what everyone else decided, and in the end we went up to a waterfall in the mountains. It was nice.

Finally, I seek out the station. The sun has set, leaving power lines as nothing more than silhouettes.

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Sunset in the Tama River Valley

Recommendations

Personally, I found the Cedar Shade Path to be somewhat lackluster. The only good views were of the Kanto, and I don’t really find cityscapes to be that interesting or beautiful, so naturally I can’t say that I enjoyed this section so much. Personally, for those who are more interested in mountainscapes such as I, I recommend rerouting through Greatpeak (大岳) and hiking down the ridge to the Venerable Peak (御岳). This is particularly ideal for those interested in hiking longer distances as it combines the previous section of the trail. In order to take this amended path, follow the Cave and Waterfall Path past Fujiview Point and then, when you reach the split where the trail descends towards Greatpeak Cavern (大岳鍾乳洞), instead take the path along the ridge to Greatpeak. For camping along this path, there’s a nice spot by the ruins of an old mountain hut just below the summit.

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The view from Greatpeak (大岳)

For those of you who do want to take this path, I will say that it is comparatively easy and so makes a good day hike for those who aren’t in a hurry and don’t want to work to hard. Along the way, I encourage you to spend some extra time exploring the village on the Venerable Peak and also the Tama River Valley. The whole hike only took me around 3 hours, so the whole event would make a great day trip any time of the year.

A point of interest not to be missed is the mountain lodge just below the summit of Sunrise Peak. This place features a restaurant and also lodgings for the night, so for anyone interested in getting a view of sunrise over the Kanto, I recommend it. Keep in mind, though, that it isn’t open every day, so please check in advance. Unfortunately, the website isn’t in English nor is it particularly well organized, so if you don’t know Japanese you may need to ask someone to help you out.

Down in the Tama River Valley, please do walk the length of the path along the river as it’s really beautiful and, if you’re there anytime other than the winter, enjoy one of the many tea houses and coffee shops located right along the path. And, last but not least, check out the sake brewery. The tour isn’t in English (it’s free though!), but they will provide you with an English pamphlet so you can get the gist of what’s being discussed at any moment. Tours run one per hour or so from around 11 until 4 or 5. While you’re waiting for the tour to start, drop into the tasting room and sample some of their fine beverages. I’m telling you, if you think you know what sake tastes like but you’ve never been to a craft brewery of this kind, then forget everything you think you know and prepare to have your mind blown.

My Stats:

Distance traveled: 78.8 km (4.4%)
Courses completed: 6/160 (3.8%)
Days Spent: 5


This post is part of an ongoing series on the Fureai Trail. To view the other posts in this series, click here.

Like this post? Want to make sure I can keep on providing you with beautiful mountain picures? Consider supporting this blog on Patreon or sending me a donation direct to Paypal using bnheise@gmail.com.

© 2017 Brian Heise

Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains: Intro

With winter vacation fast approaching, I found myself thinking hard about where I should go  hiking. My first thought, of course, was the Fureai Trail: with two weeks off work I could easily bang out 10 or more sections and get a big boost in my goal of hiking the whole thing all the while providing myself with weeks of material for this blog, but something nagged at me about doing this. That was, how could I spend my whole two weeks hiking trails that I do on a typical day off? In the end I had to abandon that idea.

My second thought was to start hiking one of the other trails that make up the network of paths that connect the whole country, from one tip to the other. Yet again, though, I found myself somewhat dissatisfied with the thought. These trails, like the Fureai Trail, tend to be biased towards making them more accessible, meaning they were more likely to be a day’s hike at the most between bus stops and train stations and to follow courses that even older hikers stand a chance at completing. I, on the other hand, was seeking something with a bit more of a challenge, places where I could spend days without crossing a single paved road. And of course, places with a bit more prestige. Then, just a few weeks ago when I was hiking the Section V of the Fureai Trail that I finally found my answer through a comment by my friend Tianyu, who for the second timed mentioned his dream of someday hiking all of Japan’s “100 Famous Mountains.” I pondered about his comment for about a day before making my decision: I’m going to climb those 100 Famous Mountains, which I have since found are heralded as the premier list of hiking mountains in Japan.

Compiled by the Japanese mountaineer and writer Kyūya Fukada back in 1964, the list of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains is hardly historic, but in the last few decades it attained cultural prominence after its endorsement by a Japanese prince and has since spawned numerous other famous mountain lists, though these are still the gold standard. The mountains included vary widely, but each was selected with scenery, view, and uniqueness in mind and, with just a few exceptions, mountains under 1,500 meters are excluded. Also, some mountains are included more for historical significance than anything else.

Starting in January, I plan to begin writing a series of posts on these mountains, in which I detail my own experiences climbing them as well as providing historical background, photos, and and probably some musings as well. I will post at least one in this series per month, with the other three focusing on my ongoing Fureai Trail project.

Having examined the list of mountains in full, I found that I’ve already climbed five of them. Those are as follows:

  • Mt. Fuji or the “Wealthy Gentleman” (富士山), climbed in July 2012
  • Mt. Tsukuba or “Zhu Wave” (筑波山), climbed multiple times throughout the year 2015-2016 (note: a zhu is a traditional Chinese musical instrument, but the name may have originated from the Ainu language meaning “Head Towering Over”)
  • Mount Nantai or “Man’s Form” (男体山), climbed in May 2016
  • Mount Kumotori or “Cloud-catcher Mountain” (雲取山), climbed in August 2017
  • Mount Mitake, “The Venerable Peak” (御嶽山), climbed November 2017

I’ll give accounts of my experiences on these mountains as well though these will of course be accompanied by much older and lower quality photographs and probably less detail since I’m sure I’ve forgotten some things.

For those of you who have been following my blog up until now, you might remember my experience of Cloud-catcher Mountain from back in August of this year. My plan for this winter vacation is to pick up where I left off at the end of that trip, ascending Goose Hill Pass once more and continuing down the ridge to the Peak of the Fist (甲武信ヶ岳, previously translated as Armored Warrior’s Fidelity), and on to Gold Peak Mountain (金峰山), and finally ending at the Auspicious Wall (瑞牆山), a total distance of around 45 kilometers that will take roughly four days due to the short daylight hours in the winter.

If you’re interested in viewing these future posts, I encourage you to subscribe on Patreon to make sure that I can complete this series. Many of these mountains are quite far from where I live and cost hundreds of dollars for round-trip tickets to them, not to mention the cost of food and other supplies. Any amount that you pledge, even just a single dollar per post, will go a long way towards making this series possible. Even if you don’t want to subscribe, I’d appreciate it if you like this post and share it on your social media so I can reach a wider audience. Thanks in advance for your support!


This post is part of an ongoing series on the Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. To view the other posts in this series, click here.

Like what you just read? Consider supporting this work on Patreon or sending me a donation direct to Paypal using bnheise@gmail.com.

© 2017 Brian Heise