If you want to feel that you have left the center of Tokyo far behind but don’t fancy the time or cost involved in a long trip, then Mitake in Okutama is a good choice.
Around 1 1/2 hours on the Chuo Line from Shinjuku Station, the real journey to Mitake begins once you’ve changed trains at Ome. On the platform, old movie posters from Ome-born billboard artist Kubo Bankan give the feeling that you have stepped back into the Showa Period, and as you pass the wooden station buildings and the old towns along the Tama River, this feeling that you are heading back in time only deepens. The mountains get higher, the view more panoramic as you approach Mitake, so much so that Japan Rail — not known for letting an opportunity pass — operates a “romance car” service at certain times of the day.
In this case, “romance” refers to pink-painted carriages and seats angled to face the window. Arriving at Mitake Station, cross the road and you will find the bus stop for Mount Mitake. A nice diversion is to go down to the Tama River, turn left and stroll along the bank. An antique shop doubling as a cafe has a garden where you can sit and take in the view of the mountains and the river.
To get to the top of the 929-meter-high Mount Mitake, first take the bus then the cable car (¥570). The cable car delivers you to a huddle of shops at the top of the mountain. The skewered ayu (sweetfish) from the Tama River that you can buy here goes very nicely with the view of central Tokyo in the distance. It may be the last you think of Tokyo as you pass through the large torii (shrine gateway) and head up the path toward Mount Mitake village — a cluster of red-roofed and thatched houses that cling to the top of the mountain.
Mercifully, Mitake itself has escaped the kind of attempts to boost tourism that has blighted some other natural areas near Tokyo — the kind of thinking that creates theme railways and fills lakes with peddle boats disguised as swans. On the contrary, Mitake village feels like it has been relatively untouched over the years and once again the Showa era springs to mind as you walk along the main street, where a 1960s advertisement for Meiji chocolate and Coca Cola can be spotted adorning some of the local shops.
I stopped for the local specialty, the Tororo soba (noodles), at one of these shops on a recent visit and found myself wondering why there was a blanket-covered futon in the corner of the tatami dining room. When the soba arrived, an old woman, who looked about 120-years-old, popped her head out of the covers like a tortoise from its shell. “Okasan” said the waitress. The old woman smiled, and I found myself feeling rather attached to the place.
There are several walks around Mitake and the area below Mitake Shrine is a good starting point. Go through the torii and up the first flight of steps, then take the path to the left. This will take you to Nagao-Daira, a viewpoint from where you can see the surrounding mountains. A signpost points you along the path to Nanayo Falls and the tiny village of Kamiyozawa or, alternatively, you can follow the path to Mount Otake. The former takes about one and a half hours, the latter about two. You can combine both by going to Otake first, which has a great view that may or may not include Mount Fuji, depending on the weather.
On the way back from Otake, turn down the sign-posted path to Ayahiro Falls. There is an old wooden torii in front of the waterfall that indicates its importance as a sacred Shinto place. It is also still used by local monks in ascetic practices that bring a whole new meaning to the idea of a cold shower.
Follow the stream along the rock garden and you will come to the larger and more impressive Nanayo Falls, famed for the spectacular view it provides when it freezes over in winter.
Climbing up a ladder set into the mountainside will bring you to Tengu-Iwa rock. A small shrine and a statue of one of the sinister long-nosed tengu (mystical half-man, half-bird creature) are perched precariously on the top. It is thought that the idea of the tengu may have been derived from the flying squirrel (musasabi), which can glide in the air using its tail to stabilize itself. If so, the location of Tengu-Iwa rock makes perfect sense as the forests around Mitake are famous for flying squirrels. The souvenir shop at the cable-car station shows something about how Japan has changed over the years by its offering of a more modern reinterpretation of these nocturnal creatures: cute, cuddly, furry toy versions that you can hang from your ceiling.
You can avoid retracing your steps to Mitake village by continuing down the mountain to the small village of Kamiyozawa, where still-lived-in, thatched roof houses peep out of over grown gardens surrounded by bamboo forest. Here, you can still see an example of the old store houses (dozou) used by the villagers to keep their valuables safe in case of emergency. Such buildings, like many others in and around Mitake, go a lot further back than the Showa Period (1926-89) and, for many, their rough and ready quality testify to the fact that they are still in use and not merely preserved as tourist attractions. In Kamiyozawa, you can catch a bus that will take you back to Musashi Itsukaichi Station and the 21st century, making it a perfect trip to do in a day.
That said, Mitake is also a great place to spend the night, as there is a wide range of good-value accommodation. By the cable-car station at the top of the mountain, there are apartments to rent from as little as ¥3,150 per person per night. The apartments are clean, well-equipped and although the nearby restaurants are closed at night, you can arrange with the owner of the shop next door to bring dinner to your apartment. In Mitake village itself, one of the prettiest buildings in town is a thatched roof ryokan called Nobori, which offers spacious rooms with views, plus dinner and breakfast for ¥8,000 per person.
Getting there: Trains run from JR Shinjuku Station on the Chuo Line to Tachikawa and then on to Mitake via Ome on the Ome Line. Or you can take a holiday kaisoku (express) train direct from Shinjuku to Mitake on Saturday, Sunday and national holidays. From JR Shinjuku 7.44 a.m., 8.19 a.m. and 8.47 a.m. Mitake Visitors Center: (0428) 78-9363; Nobori ryokan: (0428) 78-8443; Mitake apartments for rent: (0428) 78 9588.