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Japan Is Kind to Walkers (Except When It Isn't)

Japan Is Kind to Walkers (Except When It Isn't)

Postby aaquater » Thu Nov 23, 2023 10:07 pm

Date walked: 02/11/2023

Time taken: 8

Distance: 15.6 km

Ascent: 1672m

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So, I was to attend a conference held in Japan. Others from my group were staying for at least a week longer to explore Japan a little bit; unfortunately, I couldn't afford that, as I had to leave some ongoing things for other people to take care of while I was away, and it wouldn't have been fair to burden them for any longer. But I still left for Japan one day earlier than absolutely necessary, praying the weather would behave for that one day I gave myself to explore Japan the best way I could: on foot, in the mountains.

Fortunately, the forecast seemed reasonable, so I hopped on the first morning train, heading for Omoshiroyama-Kogen, a small station tucked at the end of the valley. Armed with the offline map of the area I'd downloaded, I'd identified a route I wanted to take - but as the route planner seemed to predict a really slow pace for some reason, I made sure there'd be plenty of opportunities to cut the walk short. If in the UK, I always try to finish the walk before it gets dark, you can multiply that tenfold on the other side of the planet...

Just above the station, I was going through a ski resort

Although it seemed to be abandoned (And indeed, Snow Park Omoshiroyama had been closed since 2009)

Beyond the ski resort, the asphalt road was soon meant to turn into a path that should wind its way slowly up the first hill.

But the path, too, looked like it hadn't been walked in years

Fortunately, I came across a much better one a few minutes later

The overgrown path I'd taken was definitely the one shown on the map, but since the better path also continued down into the valley, I guessed it was a new one, built since the map had last been updated. Perhaps I should've taken the right turn down by the Ski Rental, instead of continuing left. But no matter; the path was good for the moment, and I was going to make the most of it.

Going up alongside the chairlift

Before the path turned left and entered the woods

In the forest, the path was a little less obvious - of course, you can cut or trample a path through grasses, it's a bit more difficult to do with full-grown trees - but with the freshly-fallen leaves on the ground, I could follow it as the line of yellowish-brown leaves snaking its way through the undergrowth.

Plus, the Japanese way of marking paths seems to be tying a strip of coloured paper to tree branches along the way; the same colour for the same section of the path. The sight of those made me feel like I was back at primary school, having a field day. :D

It had rained a bit the previous night, so the fallen leaves were a bit slippery, especially on the steeper sections, which were a lot steeper than my map had me believe. But I was gaining elevation, and after a zig-zag, reached the ridge.

There, even in the absence of any junction, there was a sign confirming that I was, indeed, heading the right way

But it was still useful as a few minutes later, I was plunged into the clouds

According to the forecast, the low clouds were meant to disappear by noon. It was still just 9 am, so I was hoping they'd be gone by the time I reached the summits - and that the summits wouldn't be covered in trees anyway, disabling any views.

It was still a bit unnerving, though, to be stuck in the clag, with low visibility. Just like it had been further below, when I had to fight my way through the grasses. I thought back on the Japanese wildlife I'd seen mentioned in anime that might pose a threat. Boars, bears, beers, any other word I could form by changing just one vowel? But so far, I hadn't heard a sound coming from anyone but me. And I hoped it would stay that way.

A bit further, the ascent picked up again. At first, it seemed like the path was avoiding the ridge, veering too far right - but on second thought, the map did suggest something like that. And the path turned left and uphill eventually, so I had my hands full dealing with that. Literally, as the terrain was - well, not quite scrambly, but with the damp, wilting leaves on the ground, I still felt safer gripping onto branches as I went up. Sometimes branches with ribbons tied around them. :D

Eventually, the forest gave way to grasses once again, and I reached... maybe a trig, maybe not, but either way, the summit of Mt Minami-Omoshiroyama

Name confirmed by the marker, as the summit was a junction; my map only had the Japanese characters. (Though I'd worked out the name beforehand and felt proud of myself. :D ) Unfortunately, the clag hadn't left yet

I wasn't looking forward to the descent, as the leaves, as well as the grasses, could be quite slippery. But while the ground wasn't steep, the going was okay

Maybe 150 m had to be descended, then almost all the altitude regained, as the next hill topped 1200 m, too. An unnamed hill, both on my map, and by the absence of a marker on the summit. But the clouds were starting to lift.

Looking back to Mt Minami-Omoshiroyama

And ahead towards the next named hill (though perhaps it isn't even in this picture... I remember trying to work out which hills were the ones in front of me at that moment, and not being able to put any names to the peaks)

But while the path was clear - and I could have the map on my phone show my location and confirm I was on the correct one - it was all good.

One more ~150 m descent, sometimes through the woods, sometimes grasses

And I was on the second named hill of the day. With the clag now mostly gone, the opportunities to take pictures had increased in number

Although certain hills hadn't cleared yet

But my next steps would lead down this valley

I keep calling it the second named hill, because... My map called it Mt Kozazuma. But the marker post on the junction below it (the hill itself had none) said Mt Shotodake. The Japanese characters were the same, so it wasn't like I ended up on a different hill by accident. I drew the characters on a translator app, and came up with Shotodake. I asked a Japanese guy to read the name - Shotodake. But there's this other website that calls it Koazuma, as does an article describing the geology of NE Honshu in a scientific journal...

But it was time to leave the aliased hill and go down the valley

According to the walk planner, getting to the summit of Mt "Kozazuma" was meant to take 3.5 hours. I was back at the junction in less than 3. So I was a bit faster, but not by as much as I hoped. And there was another descent awaiting. At least I had all those shortcut possibilities, right?

This descent was really okay, though. Not too steep or slippery, and I made it down quickly

At the bottom of the valley, I was meant to cross a stream - called Onamesawa? No latin name on my map again - and was apprehensive about what I could expect, but it ended up being no issue whatsoever

Toyonosawa, a tourist shelter by the stream. No sounds from the inside, but I wasn't about to peep through the windows to check if it really was empty

Next: another climb, to Mt Daito. Also known as Daitodake

This was a longer ascent, but not that different from going up Mt Minami-Omoshiroyama. Or to be more precise, like the section after I'd joined the ridge. Except this path seemed to be in better condition, more maintained.

Ropes were strung between trees at places where the slope was more dangerous to walk, i.e. where a landslip had occurred just below the path

And indeed, the slope on my left was quite steep

I checked my location on the phone, only to find out I was a few dozen metres away from where the path was drawn on the map. But IRL, I was definitely on the path, so I went on.

There was a zig-zag up the steep slope before I reached a ridge of sorts. After that, a seemingly-endless final pull up a more vegetation-heavy slope got me to the spacious summit plateau.

And once again, the forest didn't go all the way up, so views were offered

Though some distance still had to be covered to reach the summit itself

Higher than Ben Nevis :D

But don't ask me which hill that one is

And... that's the last picture I took for 2.5 hours. I was meant to be on Mt Daito after 6 hours of walking. It took me 5, but that was still too much to carry on all the way to Mt Omoshiro, descend W, and reach the station from the N on the road, as was the original, ideal plan. So I had to take one of the shortcuts to the station. But the first descent from Mt Daito would have been the same for all of them.

And the first descent was bad. In stark contrast to the path I'd taken up Mt Daito from the W, this N path was unkempt and overgrown. Combined with the slippery foliage underfoot, all of my limbs had to be in use constantly. Eventually, the path went down a valley with a stream not shown on the map - but one that was definitely there, and taking care not to end up in it made progress slow. It was with a relief that I reached the junction in the col - or just under the col, to be more exact - and came to the decision that I wasn't going to go over any more hills, but would continue directly down towards the station.

The path was in better shape below the junction. I appreciated that, and moved fast. Until I reached another valley with a stream.

The path came in from the right, downhill, and into the gorge. And... I didn't see signs, ribbons, or the path itself on the other side. I suppose I didn't look hard enough. But I thought this was just like what had happened above, and I was to follow the valley. So I started to.

It was slippery. The stream occupied most of the gorge floor, and moving ahead was slow and difficult if I didn't want to discard my boots and wade. I still slipped and fell into the stream a couple times, and it was no thermal spring. I had plenty of daylight, but the time was ticking, and I was almost stuck in one place.

Then it dawned on me that, gorge or not, I hadn't seen the ribbons for quite some time. So before I could gain enough resolve to tackle a particularly challenging part of the valley, I checked my position, even though after the ascent of Mt Daito, I was aware the path may not be marked accurately...

"Why the Foel-fras am I in the wrong valley?!"

The path was meant to cross the valley I was in swiftly and continue down the shoulder on my left - on my left and far up. In theory, I could've kept following down the gorge and eventually meet it, but a single look was enough to make me back far away from such a plan. And I wasn't going to go back upstream, either. Uphill it was, then, until I'd come across the path.

To reiterate, the map had little regard for how steep those slopes actually were. I was climbing through dense vegetation, fighting my way through leaves and branches - but actually welcomed it then, as it meant I had something to grip and hold onto. Sometimes, that handhold plant ended up being spiky, but as that was still better than plummeting back down, I had to endure it. Metre by metre, I went up. My limbs were starting to feel the weight of what I was putting them through, the first day after jumping across 9 time zones, but I couldn't afford to stop.

It was scary. I had reception, but could I just give up on everything and call the Japanese rescue services? How would I tell them where I was, and when would they get there? I couldn't overestimate my own abilities either, as I'd've had an even lesser chance of being found. Slowly, steadily, but trembling, I Went Ape up the shoulder, and then around it, as the path seemed to pick that very moment to head left and down into the other valley. But eventually, I found it. And felt like sobbing.

The path was good. As it had looked above. And as it probably was everywhere, aside from that one moment of crossing the first valley. There was the occasional steeper bit, but like before, it had rope to help me hold on. Sure, that rope was old and worn and sharp, but it was still better than spiky branches.

I'm not letting go of you again

I reached a junction, turning left onto a more major kind of path. The change (mostly the lack of rope-requiring sections) was still appreciated, although I was too tired and shaky and couldn't pick up the speed. I had lots of time until the next train came, anyway.

Saw a waterfall and several caves on the other side of the valley, too

Speaking of trains, there are no return tickets in Japan. Every time you get on and off a train, you need a separate ticket. (Unless you have a rail pass.) So I went to look for a ticket machine to get back to Sendai, where I was staying. Vending machines are everywhere in Japan, right? Turns out, as I found out from another person I met at the station, Omoshiroyama-Kogen was so far in the sticks that it didn't even have a ticket vending machine, and the ticket had to be bought from the conductor!

But anyway... hillwalking in Japan. No, overall, I'd say Japan is a very walker-friendly country. The paths are well-signed. Most of them are good. Some even have English signs. But one thing signs can't do is to make the walker think. Planning ahead is one thing, but to start thinking on the spot, I often need quite a lot of prompting. Such as finding out I'm deep in a dangerous gorge I clearly shouldn't have gone down. Sasuga ore.
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Re: Japan Is Kind to Walkers (Except When It Isn't)

Postby Mal Grey » Thu Nov 23, 2023 11:59 pm

Thanks for this, fascinating. I do enjoy report from hills across the world that I know little or nothing about.

One thing we don't have in the UK is forest covered proper mountains, so its an unusual landscape for a Brit.

Just spent a happy 20 minutes exploring maps, and found that the OS Maps app told me the most, as the standard mapping and aerial photos can be dropped into 3D for a better look at the landshapes. Complex terrain!
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Re: Japan Is Kind to Walkers (Except When It Isn't)

Postby WildAboutWalking » Sun Nov 26, 2023 10:01 am

A fascinating account - thanks for posting.
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Re: Japan Is Kind to Walkers (Except When It Isn't)

Postby prog99 » Sun Nov 26, 2023 11:02 pm

Mal Grey wrote:One thing we don't have in the UK is forest covered proper mountains, so its an unusual landscape for a Brit.

You could of course cross the channel where there are plenty of tree covered summits.

I have been to Japan, the street maps in Osaka are not (as I discovered later) orientated with north at the top but rather where you are looking. Cue getting very lost looking for a hotel and only rescued by a very friendly local who took us to it.
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Re: Japan Is Kind to Walkers (Except When It Isn't)

Postby matt_outandabout » Mon Nov 27, 2023 1:24 pm

That is interesting - thank you for sharing.

My youngest spent a good few days wandering the Japanese alps (see the https://www.hikemasterjapan.com/daikiretto-yarigatake-hotaka for a taster...), Shikotsu-Toya National Park, Mount Fuji and Minami Alps. He had a brilliant time - Japan is well set up for hikers it seems. There is, as you discovered, a different approach/attitude around risk and challenge in the hills and he had a few 'the route goes WHERE?' moments, particularly on the Daikartto round.

More information on Japanese hills:


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Re: Japan Is Kind to Walkers (Except When It Isn't)

Postby aaquater » Fri Dec 01, 2023 5:17 pm

Thank you. I've only been able to find a handful of walk reports from Japan on here, that's why I put mine up too. Of course, I'm aware the most popular destinations are NW/W of Tokyo or in Hokkaido, so the route I've described probably won't be followed by anyone, but I was very limited in terms of where I could afford to go. The report is meant to be more about the general state of paths and signage in Japan, as I think those would be similar wherever you go.

Mal Grey wrote:One thing we don't have in the UK is forest covered proper mountains, so its an unusual landscape for a Brit.
For me, not that much. Honestly, the steep, wooded part just below the summit of Minami Omoshiroyama was quote similar to the hills within half an hour from home. (Of course, then I reached the summit that only had those tall grasses, and it was more than obvious I was somewhere completely different.) On the other hand, the summit of Daito felt reasonably UK-like, the way it was covered in, well maybe not exactly heather, but something reasonably similar visually.

prog99 wrote:I have been to Japan, the street maps in Osaka are not (as I discovered later) orientated with north at the top but rather where you are looking. Cue getting very lost looking for a hotel and only rescued by a very friendly local who took us to it.
Funnily enough, that's exactly what happened my first day in Scotland, when I looked at a 'you are here' map on the street, went off in the wrong direction, and ended up dragging my suitcase to the Lidl I'd marked down as a point of interest instead of directly to my accommodation. :lol:
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