Saturday, January 12, 2008

Hikes outside Tokyo

Major train stations in Tokyo are surrounded by a cluster of hotels, office buildings and department stores, with sometimes an elevated motorway in the middle. Board in the early morning a commuter train in Tokyo, and, after a few minutes, you are in the endless Japanese suburbs: small houses built shoulder to shoulder, gardens, parking lots, commercial streets surrounding the train stations, and, a larger number of high-rise apartments. The first 30 minutes of the train are the daily commutes of the million people living in Tokyo suburbs, but it would be a shame to stop there. Stay in the train a little longer, and you reach the mountains which surround the Kanto plain. Far from the hustle and bustle of the city, small villages dot narrow valleys surrounded by forest: old houses, sometimes a small store, aged farmers who plant crops in the smallest fields gained on the mountains.
The hike often starts with a short walk in the valley through fields and rice paddies, and the crossing of a creek. Then, after entering the forest, the path becomes stiffer. Sometimes, the forest starts with a thicket of bamboo whispering in the wind. You may find a wasabi field (Japanese horse-radish) with water running through, an isolated temple or a small house. After an intense climb, the path reaches the peak of the mountain, from where you often enjoy a clear view on the nearby valleys. During the colder months, you may see snow-covered Mount-Fuji on the horizon.
You then walk on the crest of the mountain during a few minutes or hours on a flat path. At the most beautiful places, a group of over-equipped aged hikers eat a hot meal. At some point, you go down again in the valley by another stiff path to reach another train station. Trains may be infrequent, so you may wait for half an hour the next train. It is wise to bring a book with you.
The pleasures of hiking vary with the season. In Spring, plum and cherry blossoms are dotting the mountains. Japanese forest is also spectacular in autumn. In winter, surrounding mountains are often snow-covered. You may see Mount-Fuji in all three seasons by clear weather. In summer, the atmosphere is wet, but the mist often makes for superb shades of green.
Here is the closest hike from downtown Tokyo. Starting from Shunjuku (新宿) station on the Keio line (京王) , a “Jun-Tokkyu" (準特急) train brings you in 53 minutes to Takaosanguchi (高尾山口) station . It is also possible to board a train heading for Hachioji (八王子) and to transfer at Kitano (八王子). The station is located in a small outmoded tourist village, Mount Takao (高尾山) is not anymore the popular destination it was thirty years ago. After the station exit, you will turn right to reach the departure of the cable car. The small path called "Inari Course" (稲荷山コース) starting on the left before the cable car is the most pleasant. It climbs by a crest in the forest, and offers good sights on the surrounding valleys. Climb the path to the top, always following the direction of Mount Takao (高尾山). The 90 minutes climb in the forest ends with a long staircase. Numerous hikers are resting in the clearing of the top of the mountain. If time is clear, you can have beautiful sights of Mount-Fuji at a terrace just below the summit.

The descent by the road (path number 1 -1号路) is more comfortable. After a few minutes, you may take the pleasant path on the right in direction of Mount Takao temple (高尾山楽王院). The small path starting just below the temple will bring you back to the valley. The road there (path No 6 -6号路) will lead you back to the departure of the cable car through a very narrow valley. After Three or four hours in the forest, you are back to civilization.
Mount Takao is the most accessible hike in the surroundings of Tokyo, and undoubtedly the only one possible in a half day, but there are countless other wilder and more interesting walks. An English book will provide you with numerous daily hikes in the Kanto region. It is probably the most useful investment when you move in Tokyo.
Day Walks near Tokyo par Walters, Gary D. ISBN 4770016204, published by Kodansha International
You must wear hiking shoes, which are compulsory in the stiff paths on the sides of the mountains. The author of this page is familiar with the Alps and Canadian Rocky Mountains, but was surprised by the stiffness of the Japanese paths, even on the side of mountains not exceeding 1000m. You should also buy drinks and food before leaving, because you may find no shops in mountain villages. A bottle of green tea and some "O Nigiri" rice balls will give a Japanese flavour to your hike. It is also advisable to consult the weather forecast before leaving, and stay home in the event of rain, snow or thunderstorm. A map, even a basic one, is essential. The services offered by Yahoo Japan can be sufficient in both cases. It is important to know both the pronunciation and the Japanese writing (kanjis) of the major landmarks in your hike. The signposts are generally written only in Japanese, and you may wish to ask Japanese hikers for your way. It is better not to go alone, or at least to tell a friend about your itinerary, so that he can call emergency services if you got wounded and did not come back. However, there are hikers on the paths in any season, and it is very uncommon to be alone.

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