Archives for posts with tag: mountains

Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture
Nikko – a town with a lot of history, winding up a river valley past elaborate shrines to Oku-Nikko National Park and the Japanese Alps.

Lake Yunoko

Lake Yunoko

Transport

At 120km from Tokyo, Nikko can be reached pretty easily by train, even close enough for a day-trip if you’re really pushed for time.

The fastest way from central Tokyo is of course by shinkansen. The  line runs direct from Asakusa to Nikko, takes about 2 hours and costs 1320Y. Another alternative is to use JR line trains, heading from Ikebukuro via Omiya to Utsunomiya, then taking the JR Nikko line – altogether this takes just over 2 hours if you time your connections well, and costs 4820Y, including the seat fee for the shinkansen. Local trains will be about half this, and get you there eventually.

Check out the Tobu Nikko Free Pass available from Asakusa Station, which from 3,600Y  includes a return trip from Tokyo, free travel to the National Park and shrines on buses, and discounts or free entry to various spots.

Decorative detail at Toshogu

Decorative detail at Toshogu

When?

The most popular time to visit Nikko is in autumn to see the leaves changing colour, a tradition known as koyo. Nikko is famous as a koyo viewing area, and expect heavy traffic during those 2 weeks of the year. As a picturesque and convenient escape point from Tokyo, Nikko is often pretty busy at weekends around the shrines. However, since many tourists seem to come for an afternoon, visit the Toshugu Shrine then immediately return to Tokyo, once youre away from the World Heritage area Nikko is suddenly very peaceful. The many hiking trails surrounding the Oku-Niko area are quiet, and at night even the main road or station front is a ghost town (more on this later). A couple of weeks after hanami (cherry blossom viewing) madness withdraws from Tokyo as the petals fall, the trees further north in slightly colder Nikko come into bloom, so expect more poeple around then, but the rush is much less noticeable than during koyo. From mid-November Nikko becomes very cold, shops close at 4pm and heavy snowfall can close the roads leading to the Oku-Nikko park.

Shinkyo Bridge

Shinkyo Bridge

Where to stay

There are ryokan and small hostels dotted liberally around Nikko, but some are much further away from the town than you might imagine. Checking the address on a map or Google to make sure it`s within walking distance of the station if you aren`t driving could be a good move, although some hostels will offer a free pick-up service from the station at certain hours.

Smaller roads are poorly lit at night, so plan your route carefully and carry a torch if your hotel is pretty far out

Things to do

World Heritage area

The Toshogu shrine is the Sistine Chapel of Kanto: breathtakingly intricate, beautifully preserved, and heaving with tourists. The site is pretty vast, entered via a `museum of treasures` (mostly ancient and ornate Buddhist statues) which then leads into a temple courtyard, up a gentle slope to the many-storied pagoda that marks the beginning of the wonders, and follow everyone else through the gates. Tori, the red gateways outside temple entrances, signify you are moving from the normal physical world into a higher and holier plane. The various gates around Toshogu have a similar effect, as though entering a land of fantastic colours and strange beasts.

Toshogu

Toshogu

Not far from here is the Shinkyo Bridge arching over the river, which you can take pictures of from the modern bridge just downstream but sadly can`t go on.

A little out of town to the west is the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, or Narabijizo. Next to a vivid blue alpine river is a line of old, mossy jizo statues, ranging in size and age. Local folklore states that if you walk along counting them one way, then turn back and count them again you will get a different number each time.

Kanmangafuchi Abyss

Kanmangafuchi Abyss

Hiking – Oku-Nikko Park

Irohazaka Winding Road is quite some feat of engineering and would make an ideal setting for a motorbike advert if not for the traffic. A series of hair pin bends lead steeply uphill to the Oku Nikko Park area, turning sharply and offering flashes of views down into the valley and over distant mountains before another lurching 120 degree turn. A separate road goes downhill, and once you see the twists and turns you`ll see why one-way traffic is a must on this thing. Irohazaka refers to a traditional way of writing the Japanese hiragana alphabet, so each turn has a letter – the first bend is “i”, the second “ro”, the third “ha” – looking out for these is one way to offset travel sickness.

Buses all travel to Lake Chuzenji, a high alpine lake with mountains rising from the shores. Mount Nantai towers over the faded town at 2486 metres, and to the north the land lifts to the Yumoto Highlands, passing waterfalls and marshlands. On the southern shore of the lake is Chuzenji Temple, with an ancient Buddhist statue carved from a single tree trunk, a watchtower offering good views over the lake, and a huge ceiling mural of a dragon.

Some buses will take you to Yumoto, an onsen town on the edge of Lake Yunoko. A good walk heads from there past the lake and Yudaki waterfall, back down the valley, over duckboards in the Senjogahara marsh to the Ryuzu Falls. There are several walks around here, and it might be worth buying a copy of the Oku Nikko Hiking Guide from the Tourist Information Office at Nikko Station.

 

Senjogahara

Senjogahara

Cycling around Chuzenji is a good way to take in most of the lake, a few places do cycle rental around there. Hardcore mountain bikers may want to try cycling up the Irohazaka road.. good luck.

Watersports in summer you can get out on the lake for a sightseeing cruise, or take an archaic row boat or swan shaped pedalo. One shop on the western shore had boats shaped like 1950`s style rockets.

Hot springs feel incredible after hiking. There are a few in Nikko itself, but the ones in Yumoto are said to have great curative properties. The smell is stronger than at some other onsen which can put some people off, but once you`re soaking in an outdoor bath you probably wont care.

Nikko has a lot to offer to fans of nature, history and hot springs, but dont expect a vast array of restaurants to be open if youre there mid-week:  on my trip in mid-April only the Gusto and the convenience store had reliable opening times, and the hostel owners told me most shops close at 4 or 6pm.

Links

Train Times – http://www.hyperdia.com

Accommodation – http://www.hostelworld.com

General information – http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3800.html offers detailed information on the history of Nikko and has good recommendations

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Zao Onsen, Yamagata

Transport
Not impossible without a car but whichever way you go it won`t be quick. By shinkansen it’s going to take 6 hours via Omiya and Yamagata, followed by a short ride on a local train. This will take around 3 hours and set you back over 10,000yen.
When I tried to search for local trains I was recommended to fly to Yamagata Airport  instead – not surprising since it would take over 7 hours and cost nearly 6,000.

The easiest way is to take a bus from Shinjuku Bus Station. These are mostly overnight buses, which take about 7 hours and cost 6000yen. An alternative is to join a large organised tour which has hired a private bus – snow sports clubs like Tokyo Snow Club (www.tokyosnowclub.com) or Tokyo Gaijins (www.tokyogaijins.com/ski) run package tours. These are usually done over a weekend, and they will also arrange accommodation, lift passes, and rentals if required. Although it can take away some of your freedom over travel times, going with a big group has advantages like getting discounts on passes or bus fares. 

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When?
Obviously if you’re planning on skiing or snowboarding then winter is best. The peaks are usually open and snow covered from December to late February, but you might get a longer season during cold years.

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Where to stay
Zao Onsen has some ski-in hotels right at the bottom of Uwanodai, one of the main slopes, and these are by far the best places if you want to avoid walking up to the slopes, or waiting around for shuttle buses. They serve meals and have drying rooms or gear storage areas. There aren’t many independent restaurants, so try and get a hotel which does food.

I stayed in Jingisukan Lodge, which had beautiful tatami rooms. It was warm and comfortable, had great service, and the food was mostly good.

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Skiing or snowboarding  are the sports most travellers come for. There`s a range of courses to suit all abilities, ranging from bunny hills to suicidally steep, and lots of ski lifts to take you up. The longest run goes from the peak of Mount Sanpokojin, standing at over 1,600 metres high, but requires using more than 1 lift to get up. The most direct route uses only 2 lifts, but expect waits of over 40 minutes for both of these at peak times. Sanpokojin has a landscape of `Ice Monsters`, trees so thickly covered in snow that they look more like surreal sculptures or bizarre sleeping creatures.  Not much on the slopes themselves except the occasional restaurant tacked onto a ski lift, but on the positive side the slopes look much more wild and natural.

I went during an unexpected warm spell during the peak season, so the lift waits on the most direct route were around an hour. Apparently all the snow on the Ice Monsters had melted off anyway

Lift passes are around 5000yen for an adult 1 day pass during the `regular season`, but cheaper if you go outside this time: either before late December or after late March. 2 day passes are around 9000, 3 days 12,500, and 4 days will set you back around 15,000.  Children under 12 are half adult price. Theres another option, the `Exciting 10 day Pass`, but sadly I couldn’t find out why it was so exciting – although you can use it any time during the season. Lifts are mostly open 8.30am – 4.30pm. Night skiing passes are available from the end of December to the end of March for a few of the slopes which stay open until 9pm.

There`s also a snowboard park for those looking to practise jumps, a family snow park for small children, and the chance to try snow shoeing. Snow shoeing tours run between late January and late March. Zao Wakanjiki offers guided tours conducted in Japanese on 2 routes, both of which cost 4000yen and take up to 5 hours. Zao Chuo Kogen Kanjiki don`t offer guided tours, and cost 2500yen.

The onsen has a reputation for being very hot and acidic, but is rumoured to aid some skin conditions and will probably feel great after a long day out too.

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Events

The Zao Juhyo Festival offers an incredible fireworks display right on the slopes at Uwanodai in early February, as well as the chance to watch jumping (I don’t know if confident bystanders can join in)

Moonlit walking tours are available on late February weekends with a full moon, which cost just over 2000yen. The tour is conducted in Japanese

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There aren’t many shops in Zao. There`s a few restaurants in the village, which are all pretty far apart, and one convenience store near the bus station, and … that’s about it. Take a lot of cash and snack food with you, and don’t expect nightlife

Zao is fantastic for snow sports, but there isn’t a lot more going on here – no museums or things like that. It’s a very small town, so either go out on the slopes or be prepared to make your own fun.

Links

Train Times – http://www.hyperdia.com

Accommodation – http://www.hostelworld.com

General information – http://www.japan-guide.com


Hakuba is a small town popular with skiiers, snowboarders and hikers. There are world famous slopes and can be reached easily from Tokyo – it’s a popular resort for a weekend of snowboarding or skiing. Go with an organised group or mid-week for discounts. Please see the main Hakuba article here for more information

Transport
Shinkansen – 6 hours via Matsumoto on the Azuza Limited Express,  8,000yen.
Local trains – 7 hours, 6,000.
Keio highway bus from Shinjuku Bus Station. They run every couple of hours, the trip takes 4-5 hours with a couple of rest stops along the way, but at least you’re guaranteed a seat and can take a nap.

When?
Obviously if you’re planning on skiing then winter is best. The peaks are usually open and snow covered from mid-November to April, but you might get a longer season during cold years.

Slopes

Hakuba hosted some events when the Winter Olympics were held in Nagano Prefecture in 1998, and you can see the ski jumps and courses laid out from then. There’s tons of slopes ranging from bunny hills to suicidally steep, and lots of ski lifts to take you up.

Hakuba Goryu – Very easy to reach from Hakuba, there’s a shuttle bus every 20-30minutes if you can’t handle the 10 minute walk. Goryu has some easy beginner slopes and steep advanced courses too, most of these are fairly short runs but if you go a bit off course you can get a good long ride in.

Hakuba 47 – Long adventure course – pretty narrow and with some steep drops. From Hakuba I went up in the biggest lift to the top, but the bottom of the adventure course ends on the other side of the mountain so its a long walk home.

About half the courses are intermediate but there’s a range of beginner slopes and longer advanced courses.

One day pass 4,500

Two day pass 8,000

Hakuba – Japanese Alps, Nagano
Hakuba is a small town popular with skiiers, snowboarders and hikers. It is in a wide valley ringed by foothills which rise up to the majestic peaks of the Japanese Alps.

View over Hakuba valley

Transport
Not impossible without a car but whichever way you go it wont be quick. By shinkansen its going to take 6 hours via Matsumoto on the Azuza Limited Express, and set you back over 8,000yen.
When I tried to search for local trains I was recommended to fly instead – not surprising since it would take 7 hours and cost nearly 6,000.

The easiest way is to take a Keio highway bus from Shinjuku Bus Station. They run every couple of hours, the trip takes 4-5 hours with a couple of rest stops along the way, but at least you’re guaranteed a seat and can take a nap

When?
Obviously if you’re planning on skiing then winter is best. The peaks are usually open and snow covered from mid-November to February, but you might get a longer season during cold years. For hiking in the higher mountains be warned that it can start snowing from October, so peaks may be closed to hikers.

Where to stay
Hakuba may be a small town but there are plenty of hotels there and even more within easy reach by public transport. They range from backpacker’s hostels to huge Swiss-style lodges. There are a few mountain huts on the peaks too. There’s a fair few restaurants but these may keep shorter hours outside of the peak skiing season. Amazingly there are only 2 convenience stores there at the time of writing, so stock up.
Outside Hakuba roads are not illuminated, so plan your route carefully if you’re travelling at night

Small alpine lake on the mountain

Things to do
Skiing is the sport most travellers come for. Hakuba hosted some events when the Winter Olympics were held in Nagano Prefecture in 1998, and you can see the ski jumps and courses laid out from then. There’s tons of slopes ranging from bunny hills to suicidally steep, and lots of ski lifts to take you up. Not much on the slopes themselves except the occasional restaurant tacked onto a ski lift, but on the positive side the slopes look much more wild and natural. More information on slopes near Hakuba available here

Hiking in Hakuba is awesome if you cheat and take a ski lift instead of battling up one of the Alps from the ground. Take a lift during the off season to 1,000 or 2,000 metres, and the views are stunning. What appeared from the ground to be a ring of hills around the valley reveal their true identity as foothills to the mountains, that stretch in long blue tinted ridges all the way to the horizon in every direction. In Autumn you can fast-forward through time as you climb up in the lift, seeing green leaves at the bottom of the slopes changing into yellow, orange and red as you ascend.
Mt _____ is a popular hike which goes past 3 large cairns, permafrost and uncountable views before the peak. To do it within a day you’ll need to take all 3 ski lifts in succession, then keep up a fair pace to be back for the last lift at 4.30 (costs 1,500yen). If you can’t manage the full walk in one day, or you want to go further, there’s a mountain hut near the peak open during the summer for hikers planning to walk from the summit along an alpine ridge.
Give yourself some time to adjust to the higher altitude before setting off and take warm clothes – its bloody cold up there!

Mountain shrine

Cycling around the valley can be beautiful. Its not far to Lake Aokiko, called after the still and deep blue of the water, where you can often see clear reflections of hills, forest and peaks. A road goes through the valley, through a long, dark and very echoey tunnel then turn left to go around Lake Aokiko. Although the busy road from Hakuba has a couple of hills along the way, once you’re at the lake its completely flat and very quiet, and on the way back there’s a great downhill.
If you can’t make it all the way to Aokiko, along the road there is a large marsh and a small forest with bike trails, including a boarded walkway that winds through the middle of the swamp. Although the marsh is near the main road it is very peaceful, so look out for dragonflies, butterflies and birds.

Watersports Lake Aokiko has some watersports during the summer, such as canoeing, waterskiing and windsurfing.

Walkway through marsh

Hakuba is a beautiful place with lots to explore but it is an ‘outdoors’ town – there’s a small history museum in Hakuba, a few shops and as far as I’m aware that’s it for indoor attractions, although the onsen are always good for relaxing in when the weather’s bad. Aim for good weather, and get out even if it’s raining.

Links

Train Times – http://www.hyperdia.com

Accommodation – http://www.hostelworld.com

General information – http://www.japan-guide.com

Fujigoko

Fuji in clouds

Fuji 5 Lakes is pretty much how it sounds – a series of lakes, forests and small towns with good views of Mt Fuji. Its a popular place to stay and prepare before climbing Fuji, or for some serious relaxation after.

Transport
This definitely isn’t as expensive or arduous as some other places. Lake Kawaguchiko is the most built up and easy to get to. You can get there by bus, local or express train without spending too much cash or time.

Buses run by Fujikyu go from Shinjuku Station quite frequently, take about 2 hours and cost 1,700yen each way.
Local trains take the Chuo line to Takao and onwards to Otsuki, then switch to the Fujikyu line to Kawaguchiko. It will cost about 2,500yen and take around 2 and a half hours
Express trains go from Shinjuku, cost about 4,000yen each way and takes just over 2 hours.

Getting around the Lakes isn’t too hard as there are regular buses between Kawaguchiko and Saikyo and some less frequent buses to the other lakes. There’s also several places that rent bicycles if youre planning short trips – the prices vary a lot so ask around if it seems expensive.
Check if your hotel or hostel offers discount bike hire, mine was 1,000 yen for a day

When?
For climbing Mt Fuji you’ll have to go when the mountain is open to climbers during the summer months. For general sightseeing and short hikes any time of year should be fine if you remember to wrap up warm in winter. It will get humid in June but is slightly cooler than Tokyo.

Where to stay
There’s tons of hotels and hostels on Lake Kawaguchiko with a wide range of prices. It may be harder to find a room on quieter lakes but there are several campsites in the Fuji 5 Lakes area.

Lake Kawaguchiko

What to do
Lake Kawaguchiko has the most to offer for outdoor activites and sightseeing.
Climbing Mount Fuji has to be the most active of these. Start from the 5th Station, stay overnight in a mountain hut to rest and get used to the higher altitude, then ascend to the peak and come down the next day. The mountain huts are closed except during summer, don’t try to climb Mt Fuji during winter!

If youre not up to climbing the biggest mountain in Japan there are some shorter hikes starting from Kawaguchiko. Mt Tenjo on the south-eastern shore can be climbed in around 2 hours, although the first half is very steep there are some good viewing points for catching a glimpse of Mt Fuji. The exceptionally lazy can even take a ski lift most of the way up between 9am and 5pm.
From Mt Tenjo there is a walk along the hilltops on the eastern shore to Mt Mitsutoge. This can also be climbed from the north-east corner of the lake.

For alternative ways to see the lake itself, hire a pedalo or rowboat if youre feeling active, take a guided tour by boat or jump in a speedboat for a faster ride. The rowboats are about 1,500yen per hour, pedalos 2,000 per hour. The guided tours or speedboats vary in price so try different places before you buy a ticket. There are several leaving from the eastern shore. There’s also rented bikes to go round the lake on the shoreline road
Hire a rowboat, do 10 minutes rowing and you’re away from it all. Take a few cold beers or a picnic and enjoy the quiet

If you love huge coasters and you don’t mind 2 hour queues for 2 minutes of screaming and nausea, try a day trip to Fuji-Q . Fuji-Q has some huge and heart stopping coasters, its one stop away on the Fujikyu line and costs 1,300 yen.
Don’t go at the weekend or during school holidays is you can avoid it. It will be ridiculously painfully busy

entrance to the Bat Cave (no bats)

Lake Saiko is slightly smaller than Kawaguchiko but offers some unusual attractions on the south-western edge. There’s a series of 3 caves formed when Mt Fuji last erupted near the Aokigahara forest, known as Bat Cave (300yen, no bats), Ice Cave (280yen, cold) and Wind Cave (also 280yen, also very cold). Iyashi No Sato , a traditional village of wooden houses, is near these caves.

Aokigahara woods can be explored on well marked paths. This vast forest stretches far to the south and has a dark reputation for travellers getting lost. The trees are growing thickly almost directly out of cooled lava which makes for some creepy protruding roots. The trees grow so close together it is hard to see far ahead and its fairly dark even at midday – this combination can make it easy to get lost and impossible to find the path again.
There’s also canoe hire and jet skiing on Lake Saiko.

Dragon Cave in Aokigahara woods

Lake Yamanako is the largest of the lakes, and there’s a wide range of watersports there. Mt Fuji can be seen from the northern shore, and some of the outdoor baths of the onsen have good views.

Lake Shojiko is the smallest but has excellent views of Fuji from the north shore. You can also see a smaller mountain that mimics its shape, known as Kofuji or “baby Fuji”. Surprisingly the smaller mountain is an extinct volcano and an older vent for the same magma pool that created Mt Fuji, so the ‘baby Fuji’ is actually older.

Lake Motosuko is hard to reach using public transport and isn’t very developed. Sorry for the brief post, I haven’t visited Motosuko as it seemed impossible to get to without a car and there seems to be little information available in English

Food
Hotto is a regional specialty, made of thick fresh noodles in a meaty soup. Flavours range from pork to bear.
That’s not a typo. They really have bear meat

Fuji from top of Kachi Kachi ropeway - for some reason I can`t get it the right way up


Fuji 5 Lakes has so much to offer, whether it’s intensive mountain climbing or cruising in a slow boat. It can get very busy during summer weekends, so book ahead

Links

Buses to Kawaguchiko – http://transportation.fujikyu.co.jp/english/gettinghere/01.html#pgm03

More information on the Lakes – http://www.japan-guide.com

Train times – http://www.hyperdia.com

Fuji-Q English site – http://www.fujiq.jp/en/