Getting high with ease

Discover the wild — but natural — side of Tokyo on your doorstep

by Chris Cook

The goal was a lofty one, figuratively: To climb the highest peak within the Tokyo metropolitan area.

But those two words — highest peak — are relative: We’re not looking at an 8-person, 12-day expedition to a remote snow-capped region, equipped with oxygen tanks, ropes, carabiners and crampons.

Instead, just a couple of days off, a well-worn pair of hiking boots, a trail map and a backpack containing a small gas stove to boil water for my cup noodles and hot coffee at lunchtime.

Over the years, I’ve slogged up and down 600-meter Mount Takao, close to Takaosanguchi Station at the western Tokyo terminal of the Keio train line, more times than I care to remember. I’ve hiked up densely forested Mount Mihara and picnicked in the hot sunshine on Hachijo-Fuji on Hachijo Island, in the Izu Islands chain. I’ve eaten lunch in the driving wind and rain atop Oyama in the Tanzawa mountains of Kanagawa Prefecture, and I’ve been up and over several of the 2,000-or-so-meter peaks in the Oku Tama area of Tokyo.

But, until recently, I’d never conquered Mount Kumotori (“cloud-catching mountain”).

Several times, while cooking up a storm in a polystyrene noodle container atop nearby Mount Nanatsuishi (Seven Stones), denuded of vegetation by thousands of hiking boots over many years, I’ve watched other hikers as they struggle up the final slope of Kumotori in this truly wild corner of Tokyo. The 2,017-meter mountain straddles the undulating border of Tokyo and Saitama Prefecture and lies within the Tama-Chichibu National Park, way out to the northwest and far from the hustle and bustle of downtown.

However, the proximity of Mount Kumotori — and indeed the whole Okutama/Chichibu area — to the capital, together with an excellent network of transportation links, make for an easy getaway.

A typical itinerary might be as follows: Leave Tokyo or Yokohama early, arriving at Okutama station by 9 a.m. Take a Tabayama-bound bus from outside the station to one of the main starting points (Kamozawa or Omatsuri), hike up through the valleys to Ishi-one ridge and then strike out, under the open sky, to the west.

Just last weekend, when I hiked from Nanatsuishi to Okutama Station, the ridge was ablaze with mauve azaleas (tsutsuji), and the scarlet buds of Japanese azalea (renge-tsutsuji) were about to burst open against a background of fresh greenery.

This weekend will be the perfect time to see these flowering shrubs along the generally level trail, especially around Senbontsutsuji (“1,000 azaleas”), just east of Mount Nanatsuishi.

As you walk along the trail, especially during the very early morning or late in the afternoon, keep your eyes open as now is the time to see sika deer mothers and their fawns — or, during the winter, a buck carrying a fine rack of antlers.

Stop for lunch at Takanosu or Nanatsuishi peaks — which, on clear winter days, command grand views across to Mount Fuji to the southwest — then continue hiking the wide ridgeway between the trees to the peak of Kumotori.

When you arrive it’s decision-making time: Stay for free at the log cabin perched atop the peak, or drop down on the north side and check in at Kumotori-sanso (“lodge”), where you can spend the night in relative luxury — i.e., eat dinner and sleep on a futon on a tatami mat.

The refuge cabin has enough room in its Spartan confines — a dusty concrete floor, low wooden platforms to sleep on, and not one light bulb in sight — for maybe 50 people at a squeeze.

If you stay at the cabin, it is strictly self-catering: Bring your own sleeping bag, food, gas stove, light — in a nutshell, everything.

An alternative, if you are adventurous (and don’t mind carrying a few extra kilograms in your pack), is to take your own tent and strike camp.

There’s a small camping area on the eastern approach to Mount Kumotori, located next to Okutamagoya lodge, and there’s also a place to pitch tents next to Mount Kumotori’s lodge. If you do take a tent, it costs ¥300 to pitch it at the lodge.

“This lodge was established in Showa 3,” — 80 years ago — lodge operator Shintaro Arai, sporting a white tenugui (hand towel) wrapped around his head, told me as he held court and regaled a band of fellow hikers, huddled around a kerosene stove during a postdinner get-together, with tales about the comings and goings at the lodge.

“We are open all year, but in the peak seasons — like Golden Week (in early May), and the Obon holiday, (in mid-August), we get very busy.”

Surrounded by postcards, maps and the bear bells people wear to warn the animals of their approach, Arai shifted his position behind the “reception desk” and added, “At those times we can accommodate about 400 people each night,” which means squeezing people sardinelike into the rooms of the two-story elongated log cabin.

Being just below the summit, the lodge’s comforts are understandably basic: There is no shower or bath, the clean, well-ventilated toilets are outside, and eating is communal-style in the dining room.

Prices at the lodge are ¥5,000 to stay, plus ¥1,500 if you require dinner, and another ¥1,000 for breakfast.

On the morning that I left, I stepped into the dining room at 5 a.m. sharp, the appointed breakfasting time, and the waiter-cum-sweeper-cum-general assistant directed me to a spare seat at a sturdy table already three-quarters filled with eager hikers munching through raw eggs, slices of grilled salmon, bowls of rice, seaweed, miso (bean paste) soup and ubiquitous multicolored pickles.

Wherever you stay, early the next day you can make the short climb back to the peak again to celebrate the splendor of Mount Fuji in the clear early-morning air, then turn back northward and hike for about four hours along the trail to Mitsumine-jinja (shrine) parking area, hop on a bus to Chichibu rail line and then return to Ikebukuro in Tokyo.

But there is also an alternative option, one which you should definitely consider if the weather is good.

The route down to Mitsumine-jinja, although the quickest, includes a lot of hiking through enclosed, slightly claustrophobic forest. But by retracing your steps part of the way along Ishi-one, much of it along the open top of the ridge, you’ll get fantastic sights of the nearby ranges.

Admittedly, the 23-km hike from Kumotori back to Okutama Station seems somewhat daunting but, on a sunny early summer morning, it’s a great way to get in some exercise and also clear the cobwebs from your mind.

Kumotori-sanso: (0494) 23-3338 or 090-9011-3780. Okutama Visitor Center (0428) 83-2037. Nishi-Tokyo Bus (0428) 83-2126. (www.nisitokyobus.co.jp) Chichibu Railway (www.chichibu-railway.co.jp) Mitsumine-jinja to Seibu-Chichibu station bus timetable (www.city.chichibu.lg)