Fureai Trail Saitama Section IX: The Path Seeking Masakado Legends (Part 1)


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.

Castle Peak at sunset

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.

From the summit of Castle Peak; below, you can see Castle Peak Shrine

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.

The trail were Bellclad Castle once stood; now it’s just a flat spot atop a hill

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.

bus timetable
The timetable from Minano Station to the bus stop at Nishi Montaira.

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.

The Bugs’ Farewell
Photo credit: https://paruruharu.blog.so-net.ne.jp/2013-08-16

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.

Takeda Shingen by Utagawa Kuniyoshi [Public domain or Public domain]

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

Trail NameThe Path for Seeking Masakado Legends (Masakado Densetsu wo Saguru Michi, 将門伝説を探るみち)
MapClick here
Access:Start: Nishikado-daira Bus Stop (西門平バス停)*
End: Tosenkyo Bus Stop (登仙橋バス停)
Difficulty: Moderate
Natural Beauty:Average (good views of distant mountains)
Ideal SeasonsSpring and Fall
Camping LocationsJomine-yama Campground (城峰山キャンプ場)
Length (distance)14.3 km
Length (time)4 hours and 50 minutes
Food accessnone

*No transit information available from Google. The bus that goes there departs from Minano Station in Saitama.

Haiji’s Trail Stats

Distance traveled189.1 km 10.5%
Courses completed16/16010%
Days Spent: 12

© Brian Heise, 2018

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Fureai Saitama Intermission: The Legends and History at Hôdô-san Shrine (1 of 2)

Out in the mountains northwest of Tokyo in a region known as Chichibu, Section VII of the Saitama’s portion of the Fureai Trail winds through the quaint riverside town of Nagatoro (長瀞). Given it’s rural location, one would hardly expect such a place to have much to recommend it, but in fact the area boasts one of the most beautiful and historic shrines that I’ve ever found in such a place: ancient Hôdô-san Shrine (寳登山神社), which according to legend has been operating in some capacity for nearly 2,000 years. Put together with the many other nearby attractions, this certainly makes Nagatoro a must-see destination for anyone looking for a day-trip out of Tokyo.

The entrance to Hodo-san Shrine

The Founding Legend

According to legend, Hôdô-san was established more than 1,900 years ago by the imperial prince Yamato Takeru no Mikoto (日本武尊), a child of the 12th emperor of Japan. Takeru arrived in the Chichibu area while on a military expedition to subjugate the locals, who had not yet bowed to his father’s rule. Upon reaching present-day Nagatoro, his heart was taken by the mysterious atmosphere and beautiful shape a mountain on the west side of the river, so he ritually purified himself in springwater and attempted to climb to the top. Not long after setting out, however, a wildfire suddenly broke out on the mountain and in no time he was surrounded by flames. Takeru and company fought the flames and it seemed like they might not survive, but then a group of large wolves appeared who helped him quell the rampant flames. After that, they accompanied him to the summit, but disappeared once he arrived there. Takeru considered these animals to have been the divine messengers of the wolf god Ôkuchima-kami (大口真神).

After the event, Takeru decided to call the mountain Hôdô-san (火止山), meaning “fire quelling mountain.” Looking out at the magnificent view of the mountains of Chichibu, he deemed it a place befitting the worship of the gods, so he established three shrines on the summit: one to the spirit of Emperor Jimmu, the legendary first emperor of Japan; one to Ôyamatsumi-no-Mikoto (大山祇命), the spirit who made the mountains; and one to Homusubi-no-Kami (火産霊神), the spirit of fire. In later years, the place became a prosperous holy site, and so an inner shrine (okumiya, 奥宮) at the summit and the main shrine (honden, 本殿) at the foot of the mountain were established to venerate Takeru’s spirit.

The view from the top of Hodo Mountain

In the early 9th century, a mystical orb was seen soaring over the mountaintop, which was taken as an auspicious sign from the gods. Consequently, the shrine and mountain were renamed Hôdô-san (寳登山), which possessed a similar pronunciation to the original but was written with the characters meaning Jewel-Ascending Mountain. From then to this day, the shrine has been an important place of worship.

Ascending to the Inner Shrine at the summit

The Inner Shrine at Hodo-san Shrine

Shops near the Inner Shrine

Hôdô-san Today

Today Hôdô-san Shrine can be found at the end of a long, wide thoroughfare marked by a large white torii gate that runs straight from Nagatoro Station to the foot of the foot of the mountain. The distance is easily walk-able, but taxis and buses are also available to suit the elderly and those with small children.

The main shrine complex features a main hall surrounded by a series of minor shrines dedicated to various gods and spirits and is located at the foot of the mountain. An inner shrine can be found at the summit and is accessible by either on foot or by cable car.

The Main Hall

Easily the most recognizable building at the Hôdô-san, the Main Hall is located at the top of a steep flight of stone steps at the end of the main approach, or omote-sando (表参道). In contrast to the typical Shinto Shrines found in the area, which tend to be either unpainted wood or painted plain red, this one is covered in a variety of bright colors and designs reminiscent of more famous shrines like the Toshogu in Nikko.

The Main Hall

The point that really sets this building apart from other shrines in Japan, however, are the scenes carved on its exterior. Each of these are drawn from classics of Chinese literature, namely four from The 24 Filial Exemplars (13th century) by the scholar Guo Jujing and a fifth from the Record of the Three Kingdoms (4th century) by Chen Shou. Their presence here at a holy place for Japan’s native religion shows the strong effect that Chinese culture had on Japan over the centuries, and the deep respect afforded to its wisdom.

The Main Hall up close

The Filial Exemplars

The 24 Filial Exemplars is a collection of parables intended to illustrate the proper application of the Confucian moral principal of filial piety, or loyalty to one’s parents. Although in the West we tend to learn of Confucius and his teachings as a distinct system of thought, these principles were in fact widely accepted as a basic philosophy of life all across Asia and were thus followed in tandem with the teachings of other religions, hence their appearance here at a Shinto shrine. The four scenes depicted here can be found high on left wall towards the front of the main hall, above the sliding wooden windows and below the eaves. Each scene progresses from right to left in the order that they are presented below.

He Fed His Parents with Doe’s Milk
Enshi’s (郯子) parents were losing their eyesight, so for their sake tried to obtain doe’s milk for medicine. He therefore donned the skin of a deer approached the herd, but a hunter mistakenly shot him. Nonetheless, Enshi obtained the milk and thus fulfilled his filial duty.

He fed his parents with doe’s milk

He Carried Rice for His Parents
Shiro (子路), one of Confucius’ 10 disciples, lived a life of poverty, but though he himself ate meager meals, he spent his daily earnings on rice which he delivered to his parents without begrudging the long road. Thus, he fulfilled his filial duty. Confucius greatly lamented Shiro’s passing.

He Fought a Tiger to Save His Father
Yôkô (陽香) and his father were working in the mountains when a tiger appeared before them. In an attempt to sacrifice himself for his father, Yôkô leaped out in front of the tiger though might have eaten him at any moment. Even the tiger could sense the depth of his filial devotion in risking one’s life for his parent, and so both father and son were saved.

He fought a tiger to save his father

He Cried and Bamboo Sprouted
Môsô’s (孟宗) mother was deathly ill during a brutally cold winter, but she desired to eat bamboo shoots in spite of their being out of season. In order to grant her request, Môsô went out into the cold bamboo forest to look for shoots even though he knew he could not possibly find one. However even the heavens were moved by this display of filial devotion, and so the gods made shoots grow up through the snow.

Interestingly, the story as presented at the shrine differs from the original telling. In that story, Môsô was told by a physician that his sick mother needed a soup made of bamboo shoots to be healed, but since it was winter and they were unavailable he simply went to the forest and cried. Suddenly, he heard a loud noise and, going to the source, he found bamboo shoots growing.

The Record of the Three Kingdoms

The Record of the Three Kingdoms might be the most famous work of early Chinese scholarship and chronicles the history of the country from the end of the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 CE) through the Three Kingdoms Period (220–280), from whence the book derives its name. The work was so monumental that it became widely read throughout east Asia, including in Korea and Japan, hence why a depiction from the book can be found on Hôdô-san’s Main Shrine. The carving here is of General Zhao Yun (趙雲) at the Battle of Changban Dike (長坂坡の戦い) in 208 CE.

Zhao Yun is counted among the many beloved characters of the book along with his beloved horse White Dragon (白龍) and his spear Yajiao (涯角). At the Battle of Changban Dike, which preceded the even more famous Battle of Red Cliff (the subject of Jon Woo’s movie), Zhao Yun was tasked with defending Liu Shan (阿斗), the son of his leader Liu Bei (劉備). Zhao Yun fought hard to protect the boy, who would later go on to rule the kingdom of Shu. For this reason, he was often called “The Pillar of Shu” (蜀の柱石).

This post started getting a little long, so the second half will appear next week. If you enjoyed reading about this shrine, be sure to like and comment below! And, of course, click subscribe on the bar on the right to make sure you get to see next week’s post.

© Brian Heise, 2018


Fureai Saitama V: The Path Climbing Great Mist Mountain

Mountain Watching

Identifying far off mountains one by one from the window of a train is a great pleasure of mine. While going down through the fields of Uonuma in Echigo after parting from Kiyomizu Tunnel on the Joetsu Line, again and again the mountains that delight my eyes come into view, one after another.
—Fukuda Kyuya

The pages of Fukuda’s 100 Famous Mountains are filled with such descriptions of those prominent peaks viewed from afar. When I read his words, I feel the man’s deep affinity for them, an affinity that allows him to recognize them at a glance. To the common eye they look so similar. But, just as any loving parent instantly distinguishes between even twins regardless of how similar they appear, Fukuda too picks out the shapes of his beloved mountains as they rise in the distance, peering over the shoulders of their siblings cloaked in mist and cloud.

As I began my journey through the mountains of Japan, I could hardly connect with Fukuda’s deep familiarity with the landscape, though I envied his ability. When I climbed a mountain and looked out at the sea of rippling ridgelines rolling down under a sea of blue, I could well appreciate their beauty though I couldn’t even tell you in what prefecture the mountain was located, let alone it’s name.

As I stood at the top of Great Mist Mountain, however, I gazed out on a broad panorama of ridges sweeping wide and far from distant Yamanashi and Nagano on one extreme to far off Tochigi and Ibaraki on the other. In that one broad sweep, no less than 5 of Fukuda’s famous mountains were visible, among them more than half of those I’ve already climbed. I looked out on them — on Kobushi-ga-Take and Kumotori Yama to the west and Nantai-san and Tsukuba-san to the east and felt that sense of familiarity and nostalgia that always arises when the memories of my own footsteps on those slopes rises alongside the places themselves, right before my eyes. At that time, I began to grasp the depth Fukuda’s knowledge, recognizing after this one year how many decades of walking these hills that he must have spent to develop that level of familiarity.

From Great Mist Mountain

The Grandmother on the Mountain

On the day that Tianyu and I climbed Great Mist Mountain we were blessed with a beautifully clear sky whose sunshine illuminated a sea of flowers in full bloom applying the landscape with a wash of color. We arrive by bus at Whitestone in eastern Chichibu and spent more than a little time dallying around the beautiful display of flowers in the village, carefully managed by the watchful locals for centuries. We couldn’t help but feel that whatever sacrifice we might make to our salaries, living in a place like this would pay for the difference in full.

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Atop the ridge an hour or so later, we found ourselves at a busy mountain intersection buzzing with cyclists and hikers, and not a few people visiting by car as well. There we found a weathered old wooden guide map, which we puzzled over through the cracks and flecking paint to make sure we caught the right path. As we looked, a diminutive old woman with a wizened old face approached us and asked, in English, where we were going. We told her, Ôgiriyama.


“That’s so far,” she said, but we assured her that we could make it and she agreed, noting our youth. Then she hesitated a moment, unsure perhaps of how to express her next words. Then she said in Japanese, “You know, you can see 5 or 6 of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains from there.” We hadn’t mentioned our quest for those 100 eminent peaks, but perhaps a wise old mountain lover such as herself could sense a kindred spirit in us. We thanked her and departed, eager for the view.

The Path Climbing Great Mist Mountain

Of all the sections of the Fureai Trail running through Saitama that I’ve hiked so far, this one is undoubtedly the most spectacular. Starting at Whitestone Garage Bus Stop, the path leads through a small mountain village overflowing with flowering trees of all kinds. Once you reach the ridge, though, the path winds along a series of pastures cleared off the hillsides that create sweeping views of the valley below. Along this first section is also Sadamine Pass, which is a popular location for cherry blossom viewing.

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The central point, though, is Great Mist Mountain. Standing at 761 meters above sea level, it’s not a mountain that would immediately catch the eye of a mountain climber, but what it lacks in altitude it more than makes up for in view: as mentioned above, the view from the top is beyond panoramic, offering a broad view that encompasses a huge swath of the Japanese alps, including more than a few of Fukuda’s 100 Famous Mountains. Tianyu and I, who are not usually the types to sit around, ended up resting their for almost a full hour, drinking in the view.

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Just below the peak on the far side, the trail splits into one of the two big loops in Saitama; this path takes the left fork, descending down past even more fields, these ones offering views of the Chichibu Basin and the larger mountains of Inner Chichibu beyond. The trail finally ends in the small village of Mitsuzawa; from there it’s a long bus ride to Chichibu Station and the train back to Tokyo.


Sights Along the Path

The Horsehead Kannon

In old the days when the main form of transportation was by horseback, there were of course instances where, in the rugged and steep mountains of Japan, horses toppled over from the weight of their baggage. At such times, the handlers of the horses would build a memorial stupa for the Horsehead Kannon, the god who protects horses on the road. Aside from the religious connection, these markers served the very practical purpose of warning future travelers of the dangerous spot ahead.

These markers became common around the middle of the Tokugawa Period, and today many still remain in the old mountain passes; even along this path you can find some if you look carefully. If you see a large flat stone set vertically with the inscription 馬頭尊 carved into it’s surface, then you’ve found one. Of course these days the Horeshead Kannon has lost much of it’s importance due to the invention of the automobile.

A memorial to the Horsehead Kannon

Seeing off the Gods in Whitestone Village

If you happen to be making this trip in May, try to come by on the first Day of the Ox for the Kami Okuri (神送り) Festival, a yearly celebration in which the villagers escort evil spirits from the settlement. Once a widely observed holiday, these days Shiroishi Village is the only place in the Chichibu area still holds the celebration.

A house in Whitestone Village

During the festival, the villagers engage in a variety of symbolic activities meant not to drive out the evil spirits by show of force, but to create the impression of being sent off heartily on a long, perhaps hopefully permanent trip. First, the villagers write farewell messages to troublesome spirits such as the thunder god and the god of wind, who would probably have been cause for much strife for these farming peoples. After that, they clean their bodies of demons using offerings of fried beans wrapped in calligraphy paper, likely a custom meant to cure diseases as sickness was often associated with demonic possession. Finally, they fashion palanquin from pine needles and green bamboo and give the spirits a kingly procession to the former boundary of the village in nearby Karasawa Valley (唐沢). Having thus coaxed the spirits out of the village, they set up a giant sandal with a hole in the middle as a talisman against their return.


As I hike through the mountains of Japan, I take it upon myself to learn the Japanese names of the various flora and fauna, and often I’m downright enchanted by the literal meaning of their Japanese names, and the badger is a perfect example of this. In Japanese, this animal is called anaguma (穴熊), which means “hole-bear.” Can you think of a more endearing name? I think even the most creative fantasy author couldn’t invent a better name.

Holebear, the Japanese badger 
By Nzrst1jxOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The badgers of Japan are found from the low lying plains of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu up to altitudes of 1700 meters, so you might be able to spot on as you hike through Saitama. Active at night, they walk through the mountains, valleys, and fields looking for food, which consists of rats, freshwater crabs, insects, nuts and fruit, and even tree roots. Very much lovers of cleanliness, before entering their burrows they clean the mud off their claws with sticks. From about the middle of November these animals change the grass lining of their burrows with fresh grass and then hibernate until about the middle of March.

The Legend of Daidara-bottchi

There’s an interesting legend about the formation of the landscape in this area. According to the legend, there once was a giant named Daidabo (大太坊), whose name, if I were to render it in English, would come out roughly as “Big Fat Billy.” Apparently, while on his way to Mt. Haguro (羽黒山) far in the north, he had to pass through the mountains of Chichibu. Stopping for a break, he sat down in Sadamine Pass (定峰峠) and placed his hat, one of those iconic conical Asian farmers hats (called kasa in Japanese) on a nearby mountain; that mountain is today called Kasa Mountain. He then spread out his two feet near the Tsuki River and set about cooking a pot of rice porridge, called kayu (粥), in what is today called Kayu Nita Pass (粥仁田峠). After eating, he turned his kettle (kama, 釜) over to drain over what is now called Kama-fuse Mountain (釜伏山), and stuck his two giant chopsticks the size of trees into the ground in a place now called Two Trees Pass (Nihon-ki Tôge, 二本木山峠). Finally, the depressions and small marshes located around the Tsuki River in Shiroishi are said to be the remains of his footprints.

Sadamine Pass, where Big Fat Billy sat his rump

 Bridal Wreath

A deciduous shrub that grows wild in the mountains of Japan, bridal wreath is known as both utsugi (空木) and unohana (卯花) in Japanese. The former of these names literally means “hollow tree” and derives from the fact that the plant’s stem is hollow. In May and June, they sprout clusters of conical white flowers. You can spot this plant along the ridges of the path.

Bridal wreath 
By Σ64投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示 3.0, Link

Serpentine Rock

In Japan, there is a belt of serpentinite running along the Sanbagawa (三波川) and Kamui Kotan (神居古潭) Metamorphic Belts. Serpentinite is an intriguing light green rock that has, as the name implies, a pattern resembling a snake’s body. The stone quarried from this area is called “Chichibu Serpentine” (秩父蛇紋) and is polished and used for interior decoration. Aside from Misawa (三沢), outcrops of serpentinite can also be seen in Kamafuse Pass (釜伏峠) and near Kuriyaze Bridge (栗谷瀬橋) in Minna-no Village (皆野町) on the Arakawa River (荒川), all of which fall within the Sanbagawa Metamorphic Belt.

Raw serpentine

When we passed through, we found the ruins of an old quarry, which we assume was used to produce serpentinite products. It’s currently shut down, but the remains of some leftover materials lay just outside the gate, including a large pile of sand, likely the chaff produced when polishing the stone.

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Trail Info

Trail Name: The Path Climbing Great Mist Mountain (Ogiri-yama wo Noboru Michi, 大霧山)
Click here
Start: Shiroishi Garage Bus Stop (白石車庫バス停)
End: Highland Ranch Entrance Bus Stop (高原牧場入口バス停)
Difficulty: Medium
Natural Beauty: High
Ideal Seasons: Spring (for flower viewing), Winter (for low haze)
Camping Locations:* Ôgiri-yama
Length (distance): 13.1 km
Length (time): 4 hours and 40 minutes
Food access: Shiroishi Shako Bus Stop, Chichibu City

*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: 153.5 km (8.5%)
Courses completed: 12/160 (7.5%)
Days Spent: 10

© Brian Heise 2018


Fureai Saitama IV: The Path Where the History of the Passes Endures

An Unfolding Leaf

The changing of the seasons was something I hardly noticed when I was younger. It just seemed as though we’d jump from grey winter to green summer and back with hardly a beat, and there didn’t seem to be that much to notice anyway. I mean, sure, there were the flowers in spring and the fall colors too, and I did enjoy them, but they were just a blip on my radar, gone again and not to be thought about again until the next year, and then only because they were there right in front of my face.

And why should I have noticed? Why should I have paid attention? I was busy. I had a social life, friends, part-time job, and of course school. If I wasn’t at school with my nose buried in books, or bustling around the yard at Doc and Cindy’s old house keeping their estate in order, or sneaking off to some weekend party down by the river, I was sitting inside with my nose buried in a book or my eyes glued to the TV screen. I don’t think I ever lingered in one place long enough to truly appreciate the process that was unfolding before my eyes.

Fast forward to my first year after graduating from college. Then I was teaching English at a high school in South Korea, where every morning I found myself sitting at the same bus stop for about fifteen minutes every day for an entire year. Not having much to do then, I would just look around absently while my mind wandered. That is, until one morning in early spring when I noticed without any intention the very first sliver of green on a bush nearby: the very first leaf of spring. I was quite struck by the fact that I had never once in my life prior to that noticed that singular moment.

These days I wait eagerly for that first sign of foliage, and week by week as I walk along the Kanto Fureai Trail, I often looked at the tips of the branches searching for that speck of emerald, waiting for that superior green landscape that far outstrips the colorless winter slopes. On the day that I hiked section 4 in Saitama, I had the chance to experience this in a whole new way. You see, down in the valley, spring was already in full swing, with flowers blooming everywhere and leaves nearly reaching full mast, but on the ridgeline not a single leaf had even started to grow. On my way up the slope, then, I had the chance to watch Spring happen in reverse as the leaves slowly folded and shrank the higher I went until eventually there weren’t any left at all.

The Path Where the History of the Passes Endures

Up to this point, the Kanto Fureai Trail in Saitama has been winding through the ancient state of Musashi (武蔵), present day Hanno City (飯能市) on a more or less northward trajectory towards Chichibu (秩父), who longtime readers might recognize as the starting point of my summer trip from last year. Here on Section 4, the Path Where the History of the Passes Endures, the trail finally crosses over the border into Chichibu after a trek along a ridgeline filled with old passes that once served as the highways for pre-industrial Japan. The number totals seven in all, bearing such names as Perfect Circle (Shômaru, 正丸), Former Perfect Circle (Kyû-Shômaru, 旧正丸), Kokuzo (虚空蔵), Shearing-point Hill (Kariba-zaka, 刈場坂), Greatfield (Ôno, 大野), Highgrass (Takashino, 高篠), and Whitestone (Shiro-ishi, 白石).

A roadside teahouse; the owner is a sweet old lady, so drop in and spend some money if you pass by.

Personally, I found the walk to be a relatively easy, leisurely trot through the woods, but it has to deficiencies. First, much of the path follows directly on or very near paved mountain roads, making the sound of passing cars and cyclists pretty constant. Secondly, outside of Circle Mountain (Maru-yama, 丸山), there really isn’t much by way of sweeping views either. But, if you’re looking for a relaxing walk that doesn’t require too much effort, this section is definitely worth taking up.


Encircled by mountains as it is, the Chichibu area is typically thought of as being cut-off from the surrounding areas, but in reality Chichibu has always been closely connected to the outside world by a great many mountain roads. The number of passes connecting Ogose Town (越生町) with the Musashi Plateau is particularly great, suggesting that long ago Ogose was central to the economy of the area. Old milestones can still be found along these routes today, and the carvings etched into them that reveal something of those old times. For example, the markers along Highgrass Pass (Takashino Tôge, 高篠峠) indicate that the road was also used as a pilgrimage route. Accordingly, we can say that the road, which was constructed for economic purposes, also enhanced cultural exchange.

Worn by centuries of traffic, a deep trough has been worn in this mountain pass.

One might surmise travelling over the mountains is harder, and building a road over them is harder still; this being the case, one might also wonder why more of the old roads didn’t follow the rivers instead. Aside from the fact that crossing the mountains is far more direct, it may also be the case that these mountain routes were preferred because they didn’t get washed away in floods as easily as those following rivers.

Geography and Geology

Circle Mountain

Standing at 960.3 meters above sea level, Circle Mountain, or Maruyama (丸山), is easily the tallest point on the trail and, as it turns out, the tallest point in the whole Musashi Plateau. Located just beyond the halfway point on the route, this mountain has a clear grassy patch right at the summit where paragliders like to take off; on the day I passed through I just happened to see one take off right in front of me. The lack of trees here provides quite a nice view of the valley below and Kanto Plain beyond.

A paraglider recently departed from the summit of Maruyama

In Japan, it’s fairly common for mountains to bear multiple names, and Maruyama is no different. One other name it bears is Highgrass Mountain (Takashino-yama, 高篠), though this name refers not just to the peak known as Circle Mountain but to all the mountains over 900 meters high in the nearby area as well. Another name it bears is Great Circle Mountain (Ômaru-yama, 大丸山), a name used to help distinguish it from Perfect Circle (Shômaru).

The view from Circle Mountain

Paleozoic Fossils

Those who read the last post will remember that the Peak of Izu and others in this region are made from chert, an ancient sedimentary rock formed from the remains of prehistoric organisms from the Paleozoic Era. The representative fossil found in this layer of rock, known to geologists as the Chichibu Paleozoic Stratum, is that of organisms from the Fusulinida order, called bôsuichû (紡錘虫) in Japanese. Typically ranging from the size of a grain of rice to a black bean, these protozoa once made calcium shells shaped like miniature footballs, which fused together to form limestone rock. If you look carefully, you can probably find some. I’m no geologist, but I think maybe the picture below might show some.

Possible fusilinda fossils


The Jizô of Safe Childbirth

Not long after departing Shômaru Station, you will see a small red-roofed shrine building on the side of the road. Not attached directly to a larger complex, it hardly looks important at all, but it actually houses a rather famous statue of a bodhisattva, the Jizô of Safe Childbirth (Anzan Jizo-son, 安産地蔵尊). Many such images located at larger temples are difficult to view as they are only put on display for a limited time every year, this one appears to be easily visible right through the front door anytime.

The shrine Housing the Jizo of Safe Childbirth.

Originally the principal object of worship at the former Wealth-Spring Temple (Kyû-Hôsenji, 宝泉寺) located in valley below, this small Buddhist image contains a tainaibutsu (胎内仏), a smaller statue housed within a larger statue. It came to be housed in it’s current location after the promulgation of the Kami and Buddha Separation order in 1868, which was intended to extricate the heavily entwined foreign Buddhist religion from the native Shinto faith. Legend has it that, when the authorities came to remove the statue to the neighboring Righteous Treasury Temple (Shôzôin, 正蔵院), it miraculously increased its weight, becoming unmovable. After that, it was decided to move it to this small Kannon Hall that venerates the Kannon of Child-rearing. I guess the gods approved, because here it stands today.

Even before this miraculous event, the statue had earned a number of devotees due to its miraculous ability to prevent miscarriages. According to tradition, when a woman found that she was pregnant, she would come and take a sash from in front of the statue (see the picture below), tie it around her midriff, and wear it until the date of the birth. They say that women in the valley don’t ever miscarry because of this practice.

The interior of the Kannon Hall housing the Jizo of Safe Childbirth statue

Each year on April 24th a festival for childbirth and child-rearing is held at the shrine. Be sure to stop in if you’re hiking through.


Another holiday to look forward to in this area is O-sarukô, a Shinto celebration that takes place every year on the first Day of the Monkey in February by the lunar calendar. Roughly translated as “Monkey Mass,” this festival is for venerating the gods of the mountains, who are said to protect the hills and forests as well as the men who work there.

Though perhaps not as widely celebrated as it once was, here in the mountain western part of Saitama Prefecture, it is still particularly well observed. If you want to participate, you could drop into one of the major shrine complexes in the area, but for a more a closer connection to the soil, hike the trail in search of roadside shrines or large old trees and boulders, which represent mountain spirits.

A collection of hokora, small roadside Shinto shrines

Given that this holiday is not part of a centrally organized religion, the exact target of worship varies from place to place, and could venerate anything from major deities such as Ôyama-Tsumi-no-Kami (The God Who Piled up the Great Mountains, 大山祇神) and Ki-no-Hana-Saku-Ya-Hime (The Princess of Blooming Tree Flowers, 木花咲耶姫) to more generic spirits such as saruta-hiko (monkey-boys, 猿田彦), tengu (goblins, 天狗), and even actual monkeys.


The celebration itself is a rather simple affair: all you need to do is wrap a shime (注連), a special rope used in Shinto for consecrating a pace, around a big old rock or tree to pay your respects to its spirit. As Shinto is not an organized religion but rather a loose collection of religious practices, anyone can do this. If you’ve got a particularly noteworthy old tree or rock in your neighborhood, why not put up a shime and pay your respects?


Flora and Fauna


Yama-buki (山吹), or Kerria in English, is a deciduous shrub that grows wild in wet places along valley streams in the mountains of Japan and produces bright yellow flowers. It’s name means “mountain-breeze,” which is believed to derive from the fact that it’s slender branches wave easily when the wind blows even slightly. The outer surface of it’s egg-shaped leaves is a brilliant green with concave veins branching out forming channels. These are useful for easily shedding water during the plentiful spring rains, maximizing the efficiency of the leave’s photosynthesis.


Eizan Violets (叡山菫)

A perennial flower that grows wild in forests and groves, the Eizan Violet has leaves that grow not from the stalk above ground but directly from the root underground. The leaves are “hairless” on both sides and in the flowering season they divide into three sections. Around April, the flower stem grows up among the leaves and sprouts somewhat large horizontal-facing scented flowers of pale purple or white color with faint purple streaks on the petals.

By 柑橘類 (talk) – 投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示-継承 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7081656

The name Eizan Violet comes from the famous center of Buddhist worship on Mount Hiei. The mountain’s full name in Japanese is Hi-ei-zan (比叡山). Dropping the first syllable yields Eizan, the name of the flower. Though I’ve never been, I suppose this flower must be common there. They are also sometimes called Ezo Violets (蝦夷菫), Ezo being the old name of Hokkaido before it was formally incorporated into the Japanese empire. Perhaps these are also commonly found there.

The Tanuki

Possibly the cutest of animals native to Japan, the tanuki is known commonly in English as the Japanese raccoon dog, which can be found just about anywhere in Japan including the mountains of western Saitama. As the name suggests, this member of the canidae family appears to be somewhat of a cross between a dog and a raccoon. And, like raccoons back in the US, you can find them just about anywhere in Japan, from remote mountains to relatively urban areas. In the more than two cumulative years that I’ve lived in Japan, however, I’ve only seen one. That was in the farmlands of northern Kyushu.

By 663highland – 投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1162806

In Japanese, there is an expression called “Tanuki Sleep” or tanuki nehairi (狸寝入り), which refers to a feigned sleep. This comes from the fact that, apparently, if you surprise a tanuki, they have a tendency to faint.

Trail Info

Trail Name: The Path Where the History of the Passes Endures
Click here
Start: Shomaru Stationon the Seibu Chichibu Line (西武秩父線正丸駅)
End: Shiroishi Garage Bus Stop (Shiroishi Shako Basu-tei, 白石車庫バス停)
Difficulty: Easy
Natural Beauty: Low
Ideal Seasons: Spring (for flower viewing)
Camping Locations:* Between Kokuzo (虚空蔵) and Shearing-point Hill (Kariba-zaka, 刈場坂)
Length (distance): 15.6 km
Length (time): 4 hours and 50 minutes
Food access: A small refreshment stand not far up the road from Shômaru Station; a restaurant and gift shop in Shômaru Pass

*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: 140.4 km (7.8%)
Courses completed: 11/160 (6.9%)
Days Spent: 9

© Brian Heise 2018

Fureai Trail Saitama Section III: The Path Crossing Over the Peak of Izu

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.

Sunshine at Agano Station

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.

A friendly village cat

Trail Overview

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.

The view from the Ne-no-Gongen

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.

A single candle at the Ne-no-Gongen burns for the success of a student.

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.

A view of mountains further up the ridge from Amame-zasu Pass

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.

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A bean persimmon (photo credit: By Σ64 – 投稿者自身による作品, CC 表示-継承 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3011969)

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.

Signs of logging

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.

Ascending towards Highfield Mountain

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).

IMG_7317 cut
At the summit of Highfield Mountain; Tianyu (left) gazes at Komi Peak while a couple rests and checks their maps (right)

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.

At the summit of Komi Peak

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.

Trees obscure the view on the Peak 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.

Good views from the dangerous spot

A rare photo of myself

A small statue to what I presume is a local deity, with money left in offering.

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).

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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.

Oil Locust (photo credit: By KENPEI – KENPEI’s photo, CC 表示-継承 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=229299)

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.

Mountain Cherries

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.

Mountain cherry blossoms (Photo credit: By Taisyo – photo taken by Taisyo, CC 表示 3.0, https://ja.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1741482)

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 Info

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)
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)
Difficulty: Medium
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

Fureai Trail Saitama Section II: The Path Visiting Inner-Musashi’s Famous Temples (Bonus)

In the last post I wrote that I was finally finished with my series on The Path Visiting Inner Musashi’s Famous Temples, but I was wrong. Sure, I was well aware of the fact that there was one more old temple at the end of the trail next to Agano Station, but I had thought I only had a single paragraph’s worth of information to write about it so I planned to just tack it on to the beginning of the post on Section III of the Saitama’s Fureai Trail. However, when I sat down to write it, the one paragraph turned into two, then three, then before I knew it I had a whole post’s worth of material, so I’m presenting that to you here today. Read on to learn about the fourth temple on the path: The Law and Light Temple.

The gateway to the Law and Light Temple


Background and General Info

Founded in the 3rd year of the reign of Emperor Shitoku (至徳三年, 1386 CE), the Law and Light Temple or Hôkôji in Japanese (法光寺) is affiliated with the Sôtô Sect (曹洞宗) of Zen Buddhism, the most popular form of Zen in Japan today with around 14,000 temples. At the Law and Light Temple, the principal deity of worship is the Life-Extending Earth-Womb Bodhisattva (Enmei Jizô Bosatu, 延命地蔵菩薩), the patron deity of children in the Japanese pantheon (see part 2 in this series for more information about Jizô).

The teachings of Japan’s Sôtô Zen have their roots in the teachings of the great Buddhist patriarch Bodhidharma, who brought the earliest form of Zen to East Asia in the 5th or 6th century. Zen then flowered into a major branch of Buddhism in China, spawning multiple new interpretations. One of these made its way to Japan when, in the 13th century, a student of the faith named Dôgen (道元) returned to the archipelago after years of study on the mainland, adding his own ideas and thus initiating the Sôtô Sect, though it would be Master Keizan (瑩山) who spread the religion far and wide across the archipelago.

A signboard at the temple announced the creed of the Sôtô Sect is as follows. All mankind are children of Buddha, so we are all imbued with his essence at birth. However, if we are ignorant of this fact, we sow the seeds of pain and hardship. But, as long as we just once repent to Buddha and become a true believer, our hearts will calm, our lives will fall into order and brighten, we will gladly contribute to the betterment of our society, and we will be able to endure any hardship. We can find our personal happiness and our reason for existing through this practice.

Personally, I find this creed’s resemblance to Christianity rather striking. Though there does seem to be an absence of the concept of original sin, the idea that one need only repent once and become a true believer to receive the benefits of the faith certainly does warrant comparison. It could be a coincidence, but I have to wonder whether or not word of Christian teachings had reached Asia by this time. It certainly isn’t implausible as the Japanese Soto Sect was founded more than 1000 years after that of Christianity.


Festivals and Pilgrimages

If you’re going to make a trip to the Law and Light Temple, be sure to keep in mind the principal yearly events held there. First, there is the Kanon Festival’s Great Perfection of Wisdom Prayer Gathering (観音祭大般若祈祷会). This gathering centers around the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sutra, one of the principal religious texts of this temple.

The other event to look out for is held twice each year — on the second Sunday in July and on August 10 is the Great Sejiki-e (大施食会), a memorial service for the spirits of those who have fallen into the Gaki Realm (餓鬼道), or the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. This realm is one of six in the world of Buddhist teaching, each representing a different level of reincarnation depending upon one’s virtue from one’s previous life. The Realm of Hungry Ghosts is second from the bottom, placing it just above Hell (Jigoku-dô, 地獄) and just below the Beast Realm (Chikushô-dô, 畜生道). As you can guess from the above, the Realm of Hungry Ghosts isn’t exactly the most pleasant place to be. In a nutshell, its inhabitants are trapped in a state of permanent starvation, but without dying. If you drop in on one of the two dates, maybe you can send some prayers for these unhappy souls.

As for pilgrimages, this temple falls along the 313 Musashino Kannon Pilgrimage route and the 108 Kanto Jizô Pilgrimage, which I describe in greater detail parts one and two of this series. This temple is #311 and #11 on the two routes, respectively.

A statue of Kannon


Ancient Treasures

If religion in and of itself isn’t your thing, at least be sure to get a view of the ancient treasures of the temple: the wood-carved Jizo Bodhisattva and the “Stone-Palace” Kannon Grotto (Iwadono Kanon Iwaya, 岩殿観音窟), both dating to the 14th century CE. I unfortunately didn’t get to see either one as I passed through at the end of a days hike and was a bit too tired and lazy to poke around and figure out what was there. Don’t make my mistake!

Noted as one of Saitama’s tangible cultural properties, the Seated Wood-carved Image of the Bodhisattva Jizô is the main object of worship at the temple. Produced by the Takuma School of artists in 1386 AD, the piece stands at a height of about 40.5 cm and was made using the yosegi-zukuri technique in which the statue is carved from several separate pieces of wood and later assembled. This particular statue also exhibits the hôe-suika (法衣垂下) or “hanging-robes” style, in which the hems of the figure’s robes hang down low below it’s pedestal, appearing somewhat like bird’s wings, suggesting influence from China’s Song Dynasty. The statue is currently housed in the Main Hall of the temple.

The Kanon Grotto, located about a half a kilometer up the mountain next to the temple, is a natural limestone cave transformed into a place of worship. Finding the place might be a bit of a trick since there aren’t any signs in English, but if you follow the path under the train tracks and up towards the large graveyard, then you might just accidentally get on the right way. If you see a red structure built right up against a cliff face, then you’ve found it. Housed within are several relics of the fourteenth century, including a depiction of Fudô Myô-ô carved into the cliff face.

The graveyard connected to the temple


Trail Info

Trail Name: The Path Visiting Musashi’s Historic Temples (Oku-Musashi no Kosatsu o Tazuneru Michi, 奥武蔵の古刹を訪ねる道)
Click here
  Start: Kodono Bus Stop (Little Palace Bus Stop, 小殿バス停)
End: Agano Station (Ourfield Station, 吾野駅)
Difficulty: Easy
Natural Beauty: Low
Ideal Seasons: Spring (for flower viewing)
Camping Locations:* Mamekuchi Pass (豆口峠)
Length (distance): 9.5 km
Length (time): 2 hours and 40 minutes
Food access: Ne-no-Gongen Temple (子の権現), Asami Teahouse (浅見茶屋), Tôgô Park (東郷公園)

*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: 110.3 km (6.1%)
Courses completed: 9/160 (5.6%)
Days Spent: 7

© Brian Heise 2018

Fureai Saitama II Part 3 of 3: Chichibu’s Ondake Shrine

This post is part 3 in a 3-part series on the shrines and temples on the second section of the Fureai Trail in Saitama Prefecture. Be sure to check out the first and second posts in this series as well!


Down from the Ne-no-Gongen

After the Ne-no-Gongen temple, the path turns downward on a steady descent to the valley floor and Agano Station, the end of the Path Visiting Inner Musashi’s Historic Temples. Shortly past the parking lot for the temple, the trail drops of the pavement and passes through a pine forest, but afterwards meets with a narrow road and from then on the dirt path turns to pavement for the rest of the way. The serious hiker may be disappointed by this, but I encourage such people to take the time and absorb the environment of rural Japanese life. Once you learn to appreciate that, the appeal of the paved sections improves.

As you travel down the road, keep your eyes open for Asami Teahouse (Asami Chaya, 浅見茶屋) on the right. It’s a large, traditional-style old wooden building with a real country-time feel to it. The place has a reputation as an excellent place to rest and eat (and maybe have some sake or a beer) at the end of a day’s hike. Unfortunately, the place was closed for the day when I passed through, so I can’t offer my own review, but definitely stop in for yourself if you get the chance and leave a comment below.

Hikers taking a break at Asami Teahouse

If you do happen to pass by on an off-day for the teahouse, all is not lost for refreshment. Just continue onwards until you hit the valley floor and you’ll arrive at Tôgô Park (東郷公園), where you’ll find a couple options, though none with quite the flair that the teahouse has. I ended up getting some curry and a coffee at one of these places. I can’t remember the name, but it was right by the road and had a nice atmosphere, though the refreshments were fairly average.

An old, rough cut stone lantern, probably a few hundred years old at least.

The real point of interest near Tôgô Park, though, is not the restaurants but the nearby Ondake Shrine, a large-scale religious complex covering the side of a mountain with its sanctuary at the summit. Most noteworthy about the shrine is it’s numerous memorials to one Marshal Tôgô, the most famous admiral of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). Though not particularly well remembered today, at the time this war was significant on both a regional and world level, in the former because it settled the question of which country would dominate the Korean peninsula in the first half of the 20th century and in the latter because it was the first time that a non-European nation had bested a European one in the modern era, forcing the world to take note of the Japan’s growing power and authority.

Such places occupy a complicated space in contemporary Japanese culture. As a memorial to successful war for domination over part of the Asian mainland, this place without question calls to mind the country’s ignominious imperial past, one that many Japanese would like to forget but which their continental counterparts tend to be unwilling to allow. At the same time, just as there is still a fair amount of nostalgia for the antebellum days of the American south, yearnings for the Empire of the Rising Sun to this day attract a certain disgruntled subsection of the population. I’m left to wonder how the locals feel about the shrine though, as the place was completely deserted both times I visited it, so I couldn’t ask anyone.


The Attractions at Ondake Shrine

Enter Ondake Shrine through the massive stone torii gate, passing by the newly constructed Village Shrine (sato-miya, 里宮) with it’s shining roof of freshly minted brass shingles. According to the accompanying sign, the 80-year-old original shrine had aged to a state where it was becoming difficult to perform religious rites, so it was rebuilt thanks to the donations of the congregation.

Not long after passing the shrine, the road leads into the forest. On the right is a statue of a robed samurai, though I’m not sure who the person was. Beyond that, we reach the base of the mountain and the first flight of stairs rising steeply upwards. These continue one after the other all the way to the top. Though it isn’t so high, it’s a rather strenuous climb.

Statue of a samurai

Naval Munitions

Shortly, we reach the first of the memorials of the Russo-Japanese War: two examples of ordinance utilized in the conflict, each sitting atop high stone pedestals. One is a specimen of the principal shell in the arsenal of the Russian Baltic Fleet, whose superior numbers and firepower proved a major obstacle for Japan’s fledgling modern navy. The other example is a Russian sea mine. These were deployed in large numbers at Port Arthur, which is located in northern China and was an important point in the conflict. The Russians prevented the Japanese fleet from approaching by using these devices.

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The Statue of Marshal Tôgô

One of the greatest heroes of modern Japanese military history is Marshal Tôgô, supreme commander of the Japanese navy during the Russo Japanese War. Outnumbered and outgunned by Russia’s veteran Baltic Fleet, the odds were far against him. However, since the Japanese couldn’t easily resupply their troops in China and Korea if the Russians were able to prevent their cargo ships from landing, defeating the Russians at sea was critical for the troops fighting on the continent. For this reason Marshal Tôgô took the initiative and engaged the Russians in spite of his disadvantages and won a resounding victory, earning him lasting fame as a war hero.

The founder of Ondake Shrine, Kamoshita Seihachi (鴨下清八), thought that the exploits, virtue, and influence of Marshal Tôgô ought to be passed on to future generations, so he sought to have a bronze statue of the general commissioned. Such a statue, however, would not be cheap, so to raise the money he created a slogan based on Tôgô’s most famous utterance. On the day that he destroyed the Russian fleet, Tôgô had sent a message to his superiors, saying “[today is] the battle for the fate of the Empire.” Kamoshita switched the word “one battle” or issen (一戦) with the homonym issen (一銭) meaning one hundredth of a yen, and yielded the saying, “one hundredth of a yen for the destiny of the Japanese Empire.” Using this slogan, he collected donations for the statue.

Kamoshita, however, couldn’t have the statue commissioned without the permision of the marshal himself, a task that proved to be easier said than done. Time and again Kamoshita visited the Marshal’s residence, but Tôgô staunchly refused, saying that no such bronze statue would be made of him while he was still alive. Nonetheless Kamoshita persisted and, after something like 80 visits, the Marshal was finally moved by his sincerity and in the end he consented. On April 17th of Taishô 14 (1925), a bronze statue of the Marshal was erected in full dress uniform.

A photo of the installment ceremony accompanies the statue today. I remember being struck by the stern faces of those photographed, most especially Kamoshita’s severe expression, accentuated by his shaven scalp. I would have thought that the event would have been a happier occasion.

The statue of Marshal Tôgô


The Deck Plate of the Battleship Mikasa

The moment that decided the Russo-Japanese War was the Battle of the Sea of Japan, which occurred on May 27th, 1905. The Russian fleet was on the move, headed for Vladivostok; meanwhile Tôgô and the navy were on high alert. Tôgô sent the following message to his superiors: “Having received a report that enemy ships were sighted, the combined fleet will set sail immediately. We shall attempt to annihilate them. Although the weather is clear today, the waves are high.” He then uttered the words that would later become famous: “This is the battle for the fate of the Empire. Each of us will give out utmost efforts,” (皇国興廃在此一戦 各員一層奮励努力).

The result of the battle was decisive. Under Togo’s command, the outnumbered and outgunned Japanese navy wiped out the Baltic Fleet, letting only three of the 38 ships escape; six were captured and the rest were sunk. Togo’s own flagship, the Mikasa (三笠), was hit during the battle, leaving massive holes torn into the thick metal plating. Today, on the slopes of Chichibu’s Ondake Shrine, visitors can view a section of this plating and imagine what it must have been like to be there on that day.

Damage to the hull of Tôgô’s flagship, the Mikasa.

Tôgô Shrine

Marshal Tôgô passed away in May, Shôwa 9 (1935); just under a year later Ondake’s Tôgô Shrine was erected in his memory. Kamoshita Seihachi chose this location deep in a green forest in accordance with the marshal’s wishes. This shrine both extols his achievements as well as venerates his spirit as a kami of peace. The annual celebration associated with the shrine is held on May 27th, the date of his victory over the Russian fleet. At the celebration, participants pray for world peace and the safety of Japan.

The shrine itself proved difficult to photograph, located as it was atop a steep stone staircase. Inside are several watercolor paintings of marshal and his fleet, wrinkled and faded from water damage over the years.

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A Russian-made 3-inch Field Artillery

The Russo-Japanese War was far more than just the naval war that we’ve discussed so far: there was also a land-based campaign in Manchuria, the northeastern area of China adjacent to North Korea. In this conflict, the Russians gave the Japanese a rough fight due to their state-of-the-art field artillery like the one pictured below. At the time, Japan’s artillery used older technology: upon firing, the cannon’s carriage recoiled, causing a loss of accuracy. In contrast, the Russian artillery had a body designed to absorb the recoil shock so that the carriage didn’t move so much, resulting in a much better accuracy rate on top of being easier to use.

Russian field artillery


The Sanctuary of Chichibu’s Ondake Shrine

If you visit Kiso (木層) in the Shinshu (信州) area, you might chance to pass another Ondake Shrine. This, in fact, is the original. Kamoshita Seihachi founded the shrine in Chichibu in the 28th year of the reign of Emperor Meiji, performing a special Shinto ritual known as “dividing the spirit” (bunrei, 分霊) in which he divided the spirits worshipped at the Ondake Shrine in Kiso so that it could be worshipped at both locations. The sanctuary at the top of the mountain at Chichibu’s Ondake Shrine was constructed for worshipping the spirits of Kiso’s Ondake from afar, so that when one offers prayers here, the spirits in Kiso will receive them. Every year on July 9 a festival is held for world peace and for the safety of the temple’s patrons. The original structure was rebuilt in the year Heisei 10 (1998) to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the temple’s founding.

The Sanctuary (Honden) of Chichibu’s Ondake Shrine


Some Art

A samurai stands on the beach holding an arquebus rifle.

Sitting astride a horse swimming in the sea, a warrior takes aim at approaching ships.


To Agano Station

Having concluded my visit to Ondake Shrine, I hiked out the last few kilometers to Agano Station. The path followed along a small stream running through the village, past a small village shrine and eventually arriving at the station. When I passed through, it was in mid February, so the sun was already getting low even though it wasn’t much later than 4:00. While waiting for the train, I drank a beer and chatted with some other hikers.

The village of Agano


A Japanese graveyard in Agano Village


Trail Info

Trail Name: The Path Visiting Musashi’s Historic Temples (Oku-Musashi no Kosatsu o Tazuneru Michi, 奥武蔵の古刹を訪ねる道)
Click here
Start: Kodono Bus Stop (Little Palace Bus Stop, 小殿バス停)
End: Agano Station (Ourfield Station, 吾野駅)
Difficulty: Easy
Natural Beauty: Low
Ideal Seasons: Spring (for flower viewing)
Camping Locations:* Mamekuchi Pass (豆口峠)
Length (distance): 9.5 km
Length (time): 2 hours and 40 minutes
Food access: Ne-no-Gongen Temple (子の権現), Asami Teahouse (浅見茶屋), Tôgô Park (東郷公園)

*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: 110.3 km (6.1%)
Courses completed: 9/160 (5.6%)
Days Spent: 7

© Brian Heise 2018