Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Autumn Colours 1 - Sengenrei

In Japan, where coherent seasons are culturally meaningful and still in fact exist, kōyō (autumn colours) are to this time of year what sakura are to spring. Temperatures fall, and a cooling wave sweeps the green of the trees into reds and golds, progressing south as winter approaches.

It is a fine time to hike. The summer inferno has passed while the freezing bite of winter is yet to come, and clear skies are frequent. Here is the first of several examples: the Sengen Ridge, out west of Tokyo in the Akiruno (Akigawa/Itsukaichi) area. Another, the South Takao Ridge, will follow on here shortly, with likely more to come after that.

Sengen Ridge
Length: Approx. 10km
Hiking Time: 4-5 hours
Height: Up to 890m, starting from 255m. Early ascent (occasionally steep) is followed by relatively level and gentle paths along the ridge until a steep descent at the end.
1) Go to Haijima Station (Ōme Line from Tachikawa, or Hachikō Line from Hachiōji, both short distance), then change to the Itsukaichi Line to MUSASHI-ITSUKAICHI STATION (also short).
2) From Bus Stop 1 outside the station, take bus No.10 to Hossawa no Taki Iriguchi (Hossawa Falls entrance) – 22 minutes, 460 yen. The walk begins from that bus stop.

Note that the buses on this route (which you come back by afterwards too) come about once an hour. I recommend an early start, given that broad daylight starts around 6am at this time of year, and sunset already approaches after 4pm. Plan and time your hike well, and as with all adventures, bring a map and a compass.

Musashi-Itsukaichi station. The bus departs from this stop.
The ridge is in grey: the hike goes from east to west. If at any point you start dying, there are plenty of retreat options down to the bus routes, in blue.
This is a pleasant walk up and along a ridge through forests and plantations. There are good views across valleys and slopes, sometimes panoramic over surrounding mountain ranges. Though it can get steep at the beginning, it is smooth for the most part, and not too challenging at a reasonable level of fitness. It is less crowded, and more peaceful, than some of the more popular hiking spots in the region.

Though quiet, it is a populated area, with houses and a few eateries or tea houses near the beginning and end. Bear in mind that there are few toilets – though unlike the crowded hikes near Tokyo, there are plenty of places you can get away with making your donations to the foliage.

'This office must request that all FOREIGNERS obey these rules'!
For autumn hiking I recommend going flexibly dressed, with layers that are easy to put on or take off. Temperature can range from chilly on the high ridges or exposed slopes, to warmer and sweat-inducing in sheltered forest paths or prolonged ascents. The ground is relatively easy to walk on, especially now when carpeted with soft fallen leaves.

There is a short (30 minutes) and worthwhile detour at the start: to and from Hossawa Falls (払沢の滝). The path there and back is easy and well signposted: look out for those kanji.

Hossakwa no Taki Iriguchi: the start point. Go left!

The route proper begins from the bus stop. In all, there are three general phases.

1) The ascent from the waterfall entrance bus stop to Sengenrei (浅間嶺). Follow the signs there, via Tokisawa Pass (時坂峠). This is mostly uphill for about 2 hours, alternating between roads and paths. There are houses dispersed around the route until you get up around halfway. This is the most physically demanding part of the walk, but offers impressive views across the valleys.

The actual peak of Sengenrei itself is not accessible: but you will know you are near when the signage gets a bit confusing. What you are looking for is a shelter (with benches, maps etc.) next to a small clearing, from where you get this lovely panorama to the north. This is a good place to stop for lunch.

2) The next (and main) portion goes along relatively level paths through the trees. Some of these are narrow or slightly obscured by fallen leaves, but with a modicum of sense and caution ought not to be a problem. From Sengenrei, look for a very short and steep ascent just past the shelter up to a little peak with a shrine. There is a path to the left (which may be hard to spot) that goes around behind it. From there, follow the ridge and signs to Henbori (人里 ) Junction, then Kazuma (数馬) Junction.

The spiritual installation at Sengenrei. A path beyond is hidden on the left.

This section takes around another couple of hours. You will know you're on the right track when you see this fine patchwork in the distance, where evergreen plantations jostle with deciduous woods.

Along the way there are numerous junctions, offering paths down to the road at the bottom of the ridge and its bus stops. Any of these lets you get on a bus back to the train station, if circumstances require you to finish sooner than planned. Look out for this statue shortly before Kazuma junction.

3) At the Kazuma fork you have two options. Either take the left path, which soon begins to descend; after 30 minutes or so you pass a tea house and make it back to the road. A few metres to the right, next to the noisy logging facility, is the Sengen onetozan guchi bus stop, from where you can take the bus back east (parallel to the way you've hiked) to Musashi-Itsukaichi station. From this stop it takes 48 minutes and costs 870 yen.
Alternatively, if time and energy suffice, you can take the right path and continue along the ridge. The next junction is 15 minutes on, from where another path goes down to the same bus stop. Or you can go an hour or two further, and come down at subsequent junctions to bus stops further along the same route, if you so wish. Eventually the ridge curves north into Okutama; just be sure to get down before it gets dark.

Watch this space for information and photos for the South Takao Ridge in due course.

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