In the countryside east of Tokyo lies the quiet town of Prosperity (Sakae). Take a short walk away from the buildings that make up the town proper to find miles of farmland stretching out as far as the eye can see. And, if you wait until sundown, you might see something like this.
I knew it was supposed to rain when I went out last weekend, but I couldn’t let that stop me from going out. Though the approaching rain clouds blocked out the tall white-capped mountains in the distance, they produced a mysterious red light as the sun dipped towards the horizon.
On my first visit Kanna Lake was veiled in mist, such that I never saw it. Rain fell hard, leaving the summer verdure glistening. It seemed like an incredibly beautiful place and I was eager to return again to see it on a clear day. But that day turned out to be in February, and the beautiful green landscape that I remembered was stripped of its color and left seeming drab and dull. And yet, as I climbed up the ridge to cross over into the next valley on my journey along the Kanto Fureai Trail, one of my last clear views of the lack still managed to capture a bit of what I was looking for.
This post is a continuation of last week’s post on Section 9 of the Kanto Fureai Trail in Saitama. Be sure to check out last week’s post for general information, bus timetables, and additional points of interest.
More Points of Interest
A Mountain with a Class-1 Triangulation Point
In 1888 the Department of Land Survey (陸地測量部) set out to produce the first modern survey of the country and so installed a network of triangulation points across the country to serve as a standard of measurement for this endeavor. The 1/50,000 scale maps that were produced from this survey became the gold standards for Japan’s first generation of recreational hikers. Today these original markers are known as Class-1 Triangulation Points and can be found spaced at roughly 40 km intervals all across the country, one of which can be found at the summit of Castle Peak.
In Saitama Prefecture alone there are eleven Class-1 triangulation points. Five of these are located on top of mountains: Three Jewels Mountain (Sanpōzan, 三宝山, 2,483m), Cloud-Catcher Mountain (Kumotori-yama, 雲取山), Mt. Dōdaira (堂平山, 876m), Lookout Mountain (Monomi-yama, 物見山, 375m), and Castle Peak Mountain (1038m). From the summit of Castle Peak, the first three of these are visible. In addition, many other Class-1 points outside of Saitama are also visible from the summit, including Mt. Nantai (男体山), Kesamaru Mountain (袈裟丸山), Jizo Peak (地蔵岳) at Akagi Mountain (赤城山), Hotaka Mountain (武尊山), Komochi Mountain (子持山), Tanigawa Peak (谷川岳), Mt. Haruna (榛名山), and Akakuna Mountain (赤久縄山).
Castle Peak’s Legendary Tragedy
In the first half of the 10th century, the warlord Taira no Masakado, a rebel against the central Japanese state based in Kyoto, subjugated the Eight Kanto States, or Kanhasshū (関八州), which once occupied the broad plain where Tokyo now lies. Shortly after he captured the state of Shimōsa (下総) Masakado established a castle on the top of a mountain far to the east, which was then known as the Peak of Ishima (石間ヶ岳). From then on, the local villagers began to call the mountain “Castle Peak.” At least, this is according to tradition.
In those days, the Kanto area was on the hinterlands of state authority and could have been considered particularly valuable in and of itself, but Masakado’s subjugation could not be left unchallenged. Therefore, Fujiwara no Hidesato (藤原秀郷) was dispatched to bring the Eight States back under imperial control. According to legend, the two faced off in Chichibu, with Masakado occupying the high ground at Castle Peak.
Staying in the fort with him at the time was his beloved wife, Bellflower (Kikyō, 桔梗). Unbeknownst to him, however, she would at times disappear from the fort, but for what reason is unclear. Some stories say that she was betraying him, reporting secret information to Hidesato, while other stories say that Masakado, upon discovering her absences, merely assumed this to be the case. Regardless, all accounts agree that Masakado had her executed for this offence. Shortly thereafter, Masakado himself was defeated and executed. Thereafter, bell-flowers ceased to bloom on the mountain.
Taira no Masakado and Mt. Castle Peak
The above legend notwithstanding, there actually isn’t any hard evidence that Taira no Masakado ever personally set foot in Chichibu, let alone Mt. Castle Peak, and yet a great number of Masakado legends have been passed down through the ages all over the region. This appears to be due to the fact that the area became a stronghold of the Bandō branch of the Taira family (坂東平氏). Since Masakado became such a famous figure, the Bandō Tairas likely spread these rumors in order to secure an association with their more famous family member.
That said, there are many signs of military activity times past. For example, great many military-sounding place names can be found all over the mountain, including “Horse-Washing Pool” (Uma-arai Fuchi, 馬洗い渕), “The Estate Grounds (O-Yashiki Ba , お屋敷場), Bellclad Castle (Kamekake-jō, 鐘掛城), King’s Castle (Ōjō, 王城), Castle Valley (Shiro-no-Sawa, 城の沢), and Castle Flat (Jōdaira, 城平). On top of those places, an excavation survey carried out by prefectural government discovered a flat area on Castle Peak that is thought to be the remains of a lookout site. Despite this, experts believe that these all date to the Warring States Period rather than to Masakado’s time.
Castle Peak Shrine
Shortly after descending from the summit of Castle Peak, the trail visits Castle Peak Shrine, whose founder is said to be Yamato Takeru no Mikoto, the same figure who founded Hodo-san Shrine in the same area. According to legend, he climbed to this point during his famous Eastern Expedition to subjugate western Honshu to the central government in Kyoto in the 1st century CE. According to legend, when he reached the area, he deemed that it would be an excellent place to worship the gods, and so he enshrined an arrow there. Even today there remains a place on the north side of the ridge known as Yanō (矢納), or “Arrow-Offering.”
One of the interesting points about this shrine is the fact that it has a campground attached to it. This provides a rare experience for hikers spend the night sleeping on temple grounds. For this reason, I recommend anyone hiking this section to plan an overnight stay so you can take advantage of this chance.
Taira no Masakado in Japanese Culture
As a member of the Taira Clan, Taira no Masakado belonged to one of Japan’s oldest and most distinguished samurai clans, whose pedigree extends back to the earliest recorded history of the country. Thus, though in actual terms he was hardly more than a minor rebel who only briefly defied central authorities, he has nonetheless become an incredibly well-known figure, and has even become the subject of religious worship. This worship has typically taken two forms.
The first of these is the formal worship of his spirit at Shinto shrines dedicated specifically to him. Two prominent examples of these are Kanda Shrine (Kanda Myojin, 神田明神) and Torigoe Shrine (Torigoe Jinja, 鳥越神社), both in Tokyo. The second of these is the worship of Masakado’s severed head. After Fujiwara no Hidesato ended the rebellion and decapitated the rebel leader, he sent the head back to Kyoto to be put on display. Various stories have circulated about mysterious events connected to the head, including that it would laugh and passerby and also that it actually flew away back to Masakado’s hometown. The common people, hearing these stories and believing in the power of Masakado’s spirit, build kubizuka, or “Head Mounds,” to worship this mysterious power. Today you can still find some of these mounds in the Kanto area, for example at Enpuku Temple (円福寺) in Minano Town and another in Ōtemachi (大手町) in Tokyo.
Photos from the Trail
Trail at a Glance
The Path for Seeking Masakado Legends (Masakado Densetsu wo Saguru Michi, 将門伝説を探るみち)
On a day in November of 2018 I stood on the mountainside to the east of Nagatoro, overlooking a long arm of the Chichibu Basin stretching out towards the Kanto to the east. Below, the town spread out along the blue line that was the Rough River (Arakawa, 荒川), and past that the wall of mountains beyond which lay Gunma Prefecture, the next stage of the Fureai Trail. For nearly a year now, I had been making my way steadily to this point. And along that ridge, the highest peak rose up, towering over the basin, a perfect vantage point. I had stood there myself some months before. Then it was a peak wrapped in mist so thick that I could hardly see more than a few kilometers. At that time, I had no idea what view was hidden from me, nor how important that view has been in the past.
What I was looking at was Mt. Castle Peak (Jōmine-san, 城峰山), the focus of Section 9 of the Kanto Fureai Trail in Saitama Prefecture. At 1037.7 meters tall, the mountain is the tallest within Chichibu’s Jōbu Nature Park (上武自然公園) and commands a sweeping view of the mountains of Inner Chichibu (奥秩父), the Chichibu Basin (秩父盆地), Nikko (日光), and also the mountains of Jōshinetsu (上信越). It’s a shame that on the day I passed through it was too misty to see any of that, but such is a common experience for hikers in Japan.
Given that the peak makes for such an excellent lookout position, it comes as no surprise that over the centuries it has been associated with prominent military figures, in particular the Heian Period (794 – 1185) rebel Taira no Masakado and also the Warring States Period (1467 – c. 1600) general Takeda Shingen. Even today there are numerous place names on and near the mountain that reflect this history: King’s Castle (Ōjō, 王城), Castle Mountain (Shiro-yama, 城山), Bellclad Castle (Kamekake-jō, 鐘掛城), and Castle Valley (Shiro-no-Sawa, 城の沢). As such, this section of trail makes an excellent stop not just for nature enthusiasts but also for fans of history as well.
At 14.3 km long, this section is the longest course on the trail since Section IV, all of which have been less than 10 km. As such, those who are more interested in hiking than simply strolling will definitely get their fill on this trip. The trail picks up some distance up the road from the end of Section VIII and is accessible by bus from Minano Station (皆野駅), but Google doesn’t have the bus line in its system yet, you’ll have to rely on this timetable. You should get off at Nishi Montaira (西門平). From the bus stop, walk further up the road a short distance until you see your first Fureai Trail marker.
The first half of the trail sticks to footpaths all the way to the summit of Castle Peak, but shortly after descending down to Castle Peak Shrine, the trail begins to follow predominantly roadways, though there are still some sections of actual trail. Towards the end, this section meets up with Section X before ending at Tosen Bridge (登仙橋). Google can carry you home from there.
Points of Interest
“The Bugs’ Farewell” of Montaira
If you’re planning on hiking this section in mid-August, consider planning your trip for the 16th so that you can witness a distinct local celebration: Montaira Village’s Mushi Okuri or “The Bugs’ Farewell.” In this event, the villagers perform a sort of exorcism to remove evil spirits from the village who were once believed to cause disease, pestilence, natural disasters, and all sorts of other misfortunes. The event features a parade of people in traditional dress marching to the edge of town while playing musical instruments such as taiko drums and flutes or carrying special flags, called segaki hata (施餓鬼旗), all the while chanting a special prayer.
This parade occurs on the last day of the Bon festival, a Buddhist celebration for honoring deceased ancestors celebrated all over Japan and is often compared to the Thanksgiving holiday in North America. The last day of the festival, on which Montaira’s Bugs’ Farewell occurs, is known as Okuribon (送り盆), or “Farewell Bon,” because on this day people would traditionally hold a ceremony in which they bid the spirits of their ancestors farewell.
What sets the Bugs’ Farewell apart from the more typical version of the festival is that in Montaira the focus of this ceremony is not to see off the spirits of their own ancestors, but rather to do so for the spirits of those who don’t have families to tend their graves. According to tradition, people who die childless or whose family line dies off are left in a deeply unsatisfied state and therefore cause all sorts of trouble for those of us in the human world. To appease these ghosts, the people of Montaira began holding this special ceremony just for them, bringing them to the edge of the town like honored guests on the point of departure. The festival acquired its name because, once these spirits were satisfied, they would quit sending bugs to lay pestilence upon the crops.
Mountain Forts of the Warring States Period
The period from 1467 to roughly 1600 is typical referred to as the Warring States Period, or Sengoku Jidai (戦国) and is marked by a collapse of central authority and the rise of autonomous military states across the country who constantly vied with each other for territorial control. A number of great generals are remembered from this time, among them one Takeda Shingen (武田信玄), who became active in the area around Castle Peak towards the end of this period. For those of you who have followed this blog, you might be interested to know that he was the ruler of the old state of Kai (甲斐), where a certain Peak of the Colt (甲斐駒ヶ岳) is located.
By 1569 Takeda had established control of western Jōshū (上州), whose southern border happened to be the mountain range on which Castle Peak sits. During that same year he pushed further south, crossing the Kanna River (神流川) into that range (which was then part of Musashi (武蔵) province), where he established a line of forts to secure his frontier. Among the many that he built, the best remembered today are Bellclad Castle (Kamekake-jō, 鐘掛城) and the lookout on Mt. Castle Peak, both of which are located along Section IX; Kanasana Mitake Castle (金鑚御嶽城) Kamikawa Village (神川村); Tiger Hill Castle (Tora-ga-Oka Jō, 虎が丘城) and Kanao Stronghold (Kanao Yōgai Sanjō, 金尾要害山城) in Yorii Town (寄居町); Highpine Castle (Takamatsu Jō, 高松城) and Dragon Valley Castle (Ryū-ga-Tani Jō, 竜ヶ谷) in Minano Town (皆野町).
Near the end of the Warring States Period, rival daimyo managed to capture one of the castles in Takeda’s line, and after Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s unification of the country their reason for existence was lost, so they fell into ruin. Today, only their earthwork portions remain.
More to come!
There was quite a lot of information about this section, more than could fit in a single post. Stay tuned for next week’s post, where we discuss more about the history of the area. Until then, please enjoy some of photos from my visit!
Trail at a Glance
The Path for Seeking Masakado Legends (Masakado Densetsu wo Saguru Michi, 将門伝説を探るみち)
I’ve been sitting at the bus stop in a small village called Upriver Mount (上川乗) for a while now, but it’s time to begin the next stage of the Fureai Trail: The History Path, so named for its role as a trade route between Tokyo and Koshu during the Edo Period. I follow the trail markers off the highway and up a steep paved path that passes narrowly between the houses a short distance before turning to dirt and disappearing into the trees. An old man is sweeping the path in front of his house.
“Good morning!” I call out smiling.
“The bears are out,” he replied.
“Is that so?” I said and continued on without a beat.
The trail ascends gradually and easily towards Shallowgap Ridge (浅間尾根), less than an hour. As I crest the ridge I see a meadow ahead of me and a panoramic view beyond. The landscape is clearly maintained here with all the fallen sticks neatly piled under trees, the brush between which has all been entirely cleared. What’s more, the trees are cherries. I’m disappointed that I’m not passing through in the Spring.
From here the trail descends gradually and gently. Later I’ll learn that this is the reason why the ridge is called Shallowgap.
After about an hour I pass a traditional style tea house. It looks like a great place to end a hike, but it’s closed today. I take a moment to rest before continuing on. Not long after, the trail meets the road and for the next 40 minutes or so I descend the winding mountain road.
Finally I arrive at Clearmarsh Falls (払沢滝), the end of the journey. No bears.
This section of trail makes a great day-hike. It’s pretty short and the slopes are easy, so you could finish it in just a few hours, maybe only three. This actually works out pretty well once you reach the far side since Cypress Moor Village (檜原村) is a decent tourist destination in its own right, featuring quite a few waterfalls and cultural activities to participate in. I won’t list them all here, but check it out if you’re near Tokyo and you want to take a weekend trip. After all, they recently commissioned an English guide map and they’re so proud of it that they force me to take one every time I come despite my protests that I can read the Japanese one.
If you plan an overnight trip, definitely definitely definitely camp at the shelter on Shallowgap Ridge (浅間尾根). The view is great (it’s the featured image at the top of this article), the ground is flat and soft with grass, and there’s even a small pavilion. It might be frowned upon to make a fire, but I will say there’s tons of branches pruned from the cherry trees that are piled up at their bases. Would anyone notice if a few went missing?
It’s mid-morning at Little Buddha Pass. The fall air in the mountains is crisp and cool. It feels good. Frost is visible in the shadows, a warning for the coming night. My pack is heavy, but my knees feel stronger. Ahead the path is pavement. I’m not sure how far until I reach the trail.
It’s late. Later than I planned to be on the trail, but I’m not worried that I won’t finish. Tonight is an overnighter and I don’t care where I stop because I don’t care too much where I’ll finish tomorrow. Loose plans will tighten up as circumstances become more clear.
There are several old people walking with me. I always keep such company when I hike in Japan. Hiking is a sport for the old here; people my age are seldom seen. Later, some distance up the trail to Mt. Kagenobu, one them will speak to me, ask me where I’m from, where I’m going. I tell I’m from the states. She tells me her son lives in Washington, tells me how beautiful the flowers are there in the summer. I tell her I’ve heard of their beauty, but I actually haven’t. Isn’t it all too often that fictions are more pleasing to the ear that the truth?
I reach the summit of Mt. Kagenobu. At some point on the ascent I realized I forgot to bring chopsticks. I approach the mountain hut only to find it closed. No chopsticks. I resolve to carve my own, silently praising myself for my grit, perhaps also to distract myself from acknowledging having forgotten to bring them in the first place.
My mind wanders as I walk. Thinking about carving leads to thoughts of knives and takes me back to a conversation from a year or two back. Sitting in some cafeteria at Washu, my friend has a package that she can’t open. I say not to worry and take my knife out of my bag and cut it open. She seemed appalled that I was carrying a weapon, to which I protested that a knife is a tool, not a weapon. I don’t remember her retort, only that I added that hammers are dangerous too, but if I happened to have been carrying a hammer in my bag she wouldn’t have had anything to say about it. Different cultures. She was a city girl and I was a country boy. Better than a decade living in cities can’t erase my comfort with knives.
The trail up until now far hasn’t been the Bird Path. The trail starts at the foot of Hightail Mountain and continues some 10 km or so to this point at Kagenobu. I walked that path some weeks ago and I prefer to not waste time walking the same trail twice. Every foot I step on the same path is one foot I’ll never place somewhere new. I have no time for repeats. But you? What do you find if you hike the whole path?
Imagine yourself on the train to Hightail Mountain. At some point you notice the large number of people wearing hiking gear. The train arrives and all the cars empty, even of those who aren’t dressed for hiking. The platform is packed and you realize these people are all going to climb the mountain. You take to the trail. It’s crowded. It feels like a theme park. The trail is even paved. Cable cars carry passengers up the mountainside, but it doesn’t seem to effect the number of people walking. You’re irritated. This isn’t what you came all the way out here fore. You could have stayed home and relaxed. Now you’re stuck on a mountain with thousands of chattering people, screaming kids. You resolve to climb to the top and then go straight home.
Multiple trails go to the top. You get off onto a side trail and the crowds thin a bit. This isn’t so bad, you think. But once you reach the top, the crowds reach their maximum. It’s liking walking through a rock concert. But you spot a map. The map shows the trail goes on. The map shows the kilometers of trail spreading on. You think, maybe if you go further the crowds will thin out and the day will turn out alright. So you go on. And you’re right. You might even notice trail markers for the Fureai Trail. You saw those same markers before in a place far away from here. It catches your interest. You decide to look into it when you get home. Maybe you’ll try to hike the whole trail.
You reach Castle Mountain. The view of the Kanto is spectacular. Far off in the distance you can see the Skytree, and below it you know is your home. And if you keep walking you’ll be where I now stand at the summit of Kagenobu, enjoying a view of Mt. Fuji on one side, the Kanto on the other. It’s refreshing. But it’s time to move on.
The trail is uneventful. I don’t take any pictures. One good picture is worth a thousand mediocre, and one perfect picture gets lost in a crowd of the average. I wait. As I walk, I scan the trail for good places to put a tent. Though I’m more than five hours away from where I will eventually camp, I’ve cultivated this habit from long experience. Determine the frequency with which you see good camp sites and you can estimate how long before sundown that you should start looking for your night’s abode.
Birds. This is the bird path. Why? Parus birds. They say that if you walk among the winter groves of this area, you’ll hear soft fluttering and of flocks of birds moving slowly about. If you look closely, you can see all kinds — mixed flocks of Parus birds. These birds live separately in the spring and summer breeding season and flock together in the winter. I guess I saw some these birds. I did see some birds anyway. Whether they were Parus birds or not I don’t know. Birdwatching was never an interest of mine.
After some hours, I arrive at Camp-horse Mountain and the end of the Bird path. This is what I was waiting for. The view at the top offers 360 degrees of view. I stay for a while taking shots.
Off across the Kanto, more than 100km away, I see the pale silhouette of Mt. Tsukuba through the haze and I think of someone I know there. I wonder what she’s doing right now.
Looking at the view, I know that I could get magnificent shots of Fuji at sunset and sunrise here, but I resolve to move on. The trail is steep down from the summit. The bird path comes to an end, but I still have three hours of daylight.
The bird path is a really great hiking course. It’s long enough to really be refreshing (almost 20km) and it has plenty of stunning views. It starts rough at Mt. Takao with all of it’s carnival-like attractions and crowds of people, but that makes the overall effect of the hike even better because you get to transition from that to the more beautiful and less crowded sections. The contrast it what does it.
As far as camping goes, this is a fairly popular section of trail, so again it’s not the best for camping, but there are many fairly good places to set up a tent. I personally recommend a spot between Shiroyama (Castle Mountain) and Jimba Mountain (Camp-horse Mountain), where there’s an abandoned mountain hut. The ground there is flat and soft and there isn’t anyone aren’t to complain about people setting up tents. The downside, though, is that the views aren’t that great. If you’re into mountain photography, do try to see the sunset from the summit of Jimba.