Hiking the Chichibu-Tama National Park
This past week Tomoe and I got back on the trail again, hiking four days from Tokyo to Nagano - a trip with special significance because on the second day of the hike we exited Tokyo, after officially moving out the day before, via its highest point - the 2017m Kumotori Yama, and ended the fourth day in Nagano prefecture, our new home. I should be honest though, pointing out that we did not walk from our old apartment to our new (temporary) home, rather we walked from the outskirts of Tokyo to just inside the Nagano-prefecture border. We still ended up taking a 5 hour train ride to get up to the North of Nagano where we are currently living.
We got off to a late start on day 1 as Tomoe put on her boots noticing that they were extremely loose. It took a few minutes to realize that she had somehow managed to pack her in-soles and send them off with the mover the previous day. Our only option was to head to the nearest ICI Outdoor shop and buy new ones. So with sole-less boots and full backpacks we bid farewell to our apartment and headed off to Okubo only to find that the Okubo branch had recently closed. We then walked another 45 minutes to the Shinjyuku branch, spent 20 minutes trying different in-soles, and another 20 to get back to the train. we didn't get on trail until after 2pm, so our first day was cut short. A decision that would effect the plans for every subsequent day and eventually causing the hike to be a day shorter than planned.
Still, it was a beautiful hike. If you are looking for a great hike on not so crowded trails (on the last two days we encountered no other hikers), with a lot of routes and free huts huts or cheap camp-sites to choose from, I recommend the Chichibu-okutama National Park.
Getting back to day 1... Starting from Okutama station, the short hike up to about 1,400 meters was through pretty familiar territory. The big difference, however, was that this time there was green on the trees - and lots of flies. We set up tent outside the Takanosu hut where water was once again flowing (earlier in the year the water was nowhere to be found, so this time we carried an extra two liters with us. It came in handy though to douse the fire we had made to keep the bugs away)
As soon as we opened the food bag, we were surrounded by a flock of deer, slowly closing in until we were forced to chase them off with wildly waving sticks. That night I could here them sneaking around from inside the tent and was a bit worried they might carry my backpack, where we had stashed the food as best we could, away. Lucky for us, the stupid neighbors had left all their food spread out in their camp so the deer all but ignored us.
Day two started off beautifully. Clear skies and a beautiful sunrise, not too hot, not too cold. The highlight of the morning was Kumotori mountain where we said our official goodbye to Tokyo (see the high-five photo - and note the black specs above Tomoe's head... those flies were evil.), passing into Saitama prefecture. The afternoon deteriorated into rain, which makes for some great fog and misty mountain scenery with deeply colored forests. Unfortunately, it also made for a couple of cold hikers. We reached our back-up hut around 3 pm, took a short break and opted to keep going. Along the way we passed a couple of National Park rangers who warned us to be careful, while at the same time telling us "the lower route is officially closed, and we don't recommend it - but we just came that way with not problems". We opted for the higher route only to turn around an hour later when the path turned into a river, I almost got caught in a landslide, and we got colder and wetter.
It was all for the best though, because when we got back to the back-up hut we found the rangers already there with the wood stove all stoked and ready for us to dry our clothes and get warm. The only thing that was a little difficult to warm up to was the 4,500 yen / night (about $45/person) for "su-domari", which means you get to use the roof and fire, but no food and no futon. We considered setting up tent, but figured that a cold night tonight would lead to a miserable day tomorrow. We opted to shell out the cash and slept well in the warm soft tatami room.
When we woke up at 5am on day three I was thrilled to find (Tomoe was not) a thick fog blanketing the area, creating amazing photo opportunities. Unfortunately, the fog lifted by 6:00 and blue skies abounded. We took off on the same ridge-route that we quit the previous evening. After about an hour we were incredibly glad that we had turned back. Surely we would have found ourselves with broken bones at the bottom of a gorge having slid off of one of the many narrow, steep rocks.
The fog returned on and off throughout the day as we passed through some higher elevations, making it up to about 2,200 meters. Once again it was beautiful. The trail we were on is a very historic trail, dating back hundreds of years when regional lords would use it to travel back and forth to Edo (Tokyo). Its hard to imagine them traveling on these paths, through these mountains with all their their horses, staff, and servants - and no synthetic clothing.
We spend the third night at a small unmanned emergency shelter at Sasa-no-Daira. The hut had a wood burning stove, which is good to know in the event we take a winter hike there, but it was quite warm this night so we didn't need it. I desperately wanted to sleep outside in the tent, but Tomoe vetoed that plan and we had to stay in the dark musty decapitated hut. It was quite a different experience from staying at the beautifully maintained emergency huts of Okutama.
Day four presented us with some decisions to make. I had to be back in Hakuba for work in two days meaning that if we continue with the original plan we could make it, but it would be pushing it and require at least one 13 hour day (until now the longest day was 11 hrs). The original plan would also take us over two more of Japan's Hyakumesan - 100 famous mountains. The only short-cut would mean that we get home a day earlier than planned. There was no in-between. After a break nearby Kobushi-ga-dake (a hyakumesan itself) we decided to cut the trip short and hike down through the source of the Chikuma River. To make me feel better about it, I force some symbolism into the act by pointing out that the Chikuma River is the same river that passes through the area where we will eventually move to (first photo below), just before it empties into the Japan Sea.
All in all it was another amazing hike. Hakuba, the Japan Alps, and Yatsugatake have heights (3000m), but I have really grown to love the Okutama / Chichibu area. While the mountains are a bit smaller, it is more than made up for with the abundance of trail options and free huts, and the likelyhood that you will be camping alone - compared to places like this (via Laughing Knees).