Fureai Saitama VII: The Path for Learning About Nagatoro’s History and Nature

The day that I visited the Path for Learning About Nagatoro’s History and Nature, I almost didn’t make it past the first few kilometers. This had nothing to do with the difficulty of the path — it’s not difficult by any stretch — and everything to do with the vast wealth of attractions that the town of Nagatoro has to offer.

To start with, there’s the Arakawa River, which is great for swimming, kayaking, taking a traditional wooden pole-boat tour, or even jumping into deep pools or just taking a scenic walk along its banks. I was so enticed that I almost didn’t leave. However, there’s more.

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A kayaker paddles through the canyon near Nagatoro Station

Right near the best swimming hole, not far from Kami-Nagatoro Station, is the Nagatoro Natural History Museum, where you can learn all about the local geology and ecology. From there, walk down the river path while watching the boats laden with tourists pass by until you reach the main Nagatoro Station, where you’ll find a shopping street filled with restaurants and gift shops. Follow the main street up towards the mountain and eventually you’ll arrive at Hodo-san Shrine (寳登山), but don’t forget to stop in at the silk museum on your way up the road.

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The torii gate at Hodo-san Shrine
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The main hall at Hodo-san Shrine
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Painted carvings on the entrance to the main hall at Hodo-san Shrine

If that wasn’t all, once you finally get up to the top of Hodo Mountain (宝登山), you’ll find a sweeping view of the Chichibu Basin. Feast your eyes on pleasant views of the Japanese Alps in the distance. Finally, for those who have grown tired of the hustle and bustle along the trail up to this point, few of the tourists hike further than the summit, so you’re guaranteed a quiet end to your hike.

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A view from the summit of Hodo-san

Given the constraints of the bus schedule at the end of the trail, I was forced to decide whether I would stay to enjoy all of these attractions or hurry on; in the end, I decided to take the trail.

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The trail follows a dirt road on the far side of Hodo-san

 

Up to the Top of Hodo Mountain

The path officially starts right outside Kami-Nagatoro Station. Get off and walk straight down to the road toward the river, then follow the riverside path to is end near the main Nagatoro Station. From there, follow the main road past the restaurants and up to Hodo-san Shrine. From here, getting on the trail up to the top of the mountain is a little confusing as it isn’t well marked, but just look for a road heading up the mountain and you’ll be on the right path — the trail and the road are one and the same, though alternate footpaths do cut straight up the mountain rather than following the switchbacks if that’s more to your taste.

As you climb, you’ll start to get some nice views of the valley below, but the best views are to be found at the top, where you can see sweeping panoramas of the truly high mountains off in the distance, including Ryôkami-yama (両神山), one of Fukuda’s 100 Famous. What’s more, there are quite a lot of nice facilities at the top due to the cable car running up there.  You can grab an ice cream or a bowl of noodles while you enjoy the view.

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Ryokami-yama is faintly visible beyond the ridge on the right

From the summit of Hodosan, the hike follows a rather leisurely and quiet forest path down the mountain to Highway 44, where you can catch the bus to Minano Station, a couple stops down the line from the start at Kami-Nagatoro Station.

 

The Forests of Hodo Mountain

As you climb the mountain, take a look at the forest. You’ll notice primarily four varieties of tree: cedar, cypress, sawtooth oak, and pin oak. These trees reveal the legacy of human activity on the mountain. The cedar and cypress form a man-made forest that has been cultivated over the centuries for building materials. The sawtooth and pin oaks grow wild in the open spaces where the former two varieties have been cut away, but afterwards left to nature. These two varieties do particularly well in such spaces is because they love good sunlight, so they take off well in such open spaces.

The pin oak, in particular, has historically been used to make both charcoal and fertilizer, so it’s ended up spread far and wide all over the Kanto. The forests of Musashino, which the earlier sections of the Fureai Trail in Saitama passed through, often consist of this kind of man-made forest. Though these forests were originally tended by human hands, these days they have been left to grow wild.

 

Wild Mushrooms

As a native of the Missouri Ozarks with its famous morel mushrooms, a rare delicacy that locals love to hunt for both to eat and sell, it comes as no surprise to me that a country such as Japan, home of the famous shiitake mushroom, would have a similar tradition. When the mushrooms are in season, it isn’t at all uncommon to see old villagers walking the hills looking for them and other mountain vegetables to bring to market. The slopes of Hodo-san as well are no stranger to such activities.

As with all edible mushrooms, there’s the danger of misidentification and poisoning. For example, the edible tamago-take (egg mushroom, 卵茸) and poisonous tamago-tengu-take (egg-goblin mushroom, 卵天狗茸) look rather similar, as do the edible urabeni-hotei-shimeji (red-pleated pouch mushroom, 裏紅布袋占地) and the poisonous kusa-urabeni-take (stinky red-pleated mushroom, 臭裏紅茸).

 

One of the challenges of mushroom hunting in Japan, even for natives, is the problem of names. Japan has only had a nationally designated standard dialect for about 150 years, and, as a result, there still remains many local names for these mushrooms that vary from region to region and even from valley to valley. For this reason, even if you learn the names from a guidebook, you might not actually be able to tell which mushrooms are safe and which ones aren’t. The official stance of the Japanese Park Service is to simply not pick mushrooms at all.


Trail Info

Trail Name: The Path for Learning About the History and Nature of Nagatoro (Nagatoro no Shizen to Rekishi wo Manabu Michi, 長瀞の自然と歴史を学ぶみち)
Map:
Click here
Access:
Start: Kami-Nagatoro Station (高原牧場入口バス停)
End: Negoya Bridge Bus Stop (根古屋橋バス停); this stop is not available in google, so check the timetable here
Difficulty: Easy
Natural Beauty: Medium
Ideal Seasons: Summer
Camping Locations:* There’s a nice field on the far side of Hodo-san that’s great for camping; otherwise, consider renting a cabin by the river for 9,000 yen (about $90)
Length (distance): 8.8 km
Length (time): 3 hours and 10 minutes
Food access: Kami-Nagatoro Station, Nagatoro Station, the summit of Hodo-san

 


My Trail Stats

Distance traveled: 170.5 km (9.5%)
Courses completed: 14/160 (8.6%)
Days Spent: 11

Fureai Saitama Intermission: Thoughts on the Shores of the Rough River

A Walk Through Minano Town

Heat waves shimmered over the pavement as I made my way steadily through Minano Town (皆野町), moving steadily across the wide valley that separated Section 6 and Section 7 of Saitama’s portion of the Fureai Trail. As usual, I didn’t pay too much attention to the maps when I set out, but now that I lacked the guidance of trail markers, I took a closer look. I was surprised to find, though, that I would soon be crossing the Arakawa, or Rough River, whose mouth flows into Tokyo Bay not far from where I live. I hadn’t had any idea that this was where it’s upper reaches lay. Nonetheless, at that moment it was just a mere curiosity as I hadn’t found the river particularly interesting being that it was nothing more than a channelized waterway flowing sluggishly out into the ocean. Really, there wasn’t a thing rough about it.

But I walked on. Soon after crossing the train tracks the road descended quickly and suddenly the ground fell away on either side leaving behind just the road, a narrow bridge spanning a shallow gorge. Below a wide river flowed swiftly eastward along a rocky cliff on the south shore, and on the north there lay a long, flat gravel bar where a group of people sat relaxing in the sunshine. A few children were playing in the shallows and great wooden boats laden with tourists launched periodically. I stopped for a moment to enjoy the cool breeze blowing off the water, and the sound and scent of fresh flowing water. Soon, I wandered off in thought.

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The Rough River

Other Rivers

Some 10 years ago I was employed as a van driver in New York City shuttling people back and forth between the Fordham University’s Bronx and Manhattan campuses. This was my first time living so far away from home for such an extended period of time, and naturally as the months passed I gradually began to recognize the things that I had taken for granted in my old life that I was now beginning to sorely miss. One of those things was the sound and smell of fresh riverwater.

My hometown was a rather isolated little place located in the northern half of the Ozark Plateau in Southeast Missouri. The whole area is a dense thicket of forests filled with nearly impassable underbrush and low but steep hills and dry creekbeds, but running through the biggest of the valleys were beautifully clean, pristine rivers flowing with dark green and blue mineral water. It was along these rivers that settlements in the area invariably formed, settlements like Van Buren along the banks of the Current River, my home. As a child I couldn’t imagine letting a summer pass by without spending every moment possible swimming, fishing, bluff jumping, or just relaxing by that cool water while enjoying a sound and smell that words can’t quite capture as well as the experience.

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Owl’s Bend on the Current River, March 2017

“What do you miss most about home?” The passenger sitting next had been moving one by one through those same few questions that just about everyone asks when they find out you weren’t born in the place you happen to be at the moment. At the time we were speeding along next to the Hudson River on the west side of Manhattan, blessedly without any traffic to slow us down. That broad body of salt water stretched out to the Jersey side, a drab grey color wafting forth an unpleasant odor that I was all too glad to be far enough away not to smell. Somewhere down there I knew a fair amount of trash was floating.

I didn’t miss a beat. “I miss having a river.”

She gave me a puzzled look, and then gestured out the window. “But that’s a river, isn’t it?” she said.

I returned her look with one of my own. Of all the wonderful things that the river I grew up with had to offer, this polluted urban monstrosity of a waterway offered not a single one. Up until that moment, I hadn’t realized that didn’t think of it as a river at all.


The Rough River

It’s been years now since I’ve lived on the shores of a fresh mountain river, but the memory of a childhood lived in such a place never really fades away — it just goes dormant until something wakes it up. Something like sights, sounds, and smells of the Rough River in the summer.

Later I walked down to the riverside, where I watched some tourists from southeast Asia jumping off a large rock into a deep pool as kayakers practiced in a nearby rapid. From time to time, those large wooden boats laden with visitors passed by.

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The Rough River

Meanwhile, I sat by the water with my bare feet dangling in, reminiscing about times past, and summers long ago spent with my friends on the Current River. I craved to spend a summer like that again, but these days I don’t have a single friend nearby who appreciates these rivers the way I do and more than a few who can’t understand why I’d want to spend a hot summer day there when I could just stay in with the air conditioner. After some thought, I decided I was just as happy to be here to enjoy it alone.


© Brian Heise, 2018