Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Tokyo hiking - Mitake-san and Ōdake-san

The Chichibu-Tama National Park is a 1250-km2 expanse of mountains, forests, river sources and rural towns and villages, around the convergence of Tokyo's western extent with Saitama, Yamanashi and Nagano prefectures. These mountains offer many of the more serious hiking experiences within easy reach of Tokyo proper.

Mt. Mitake (Mitake-san, 御岳山) is a popular 929m peak at the edge of this region, in Tokyo's outer district of Ōme. A cable car provides access to the mountain village and prominent shrine, from where paths into forested ridges and gorges connect to surrounding peaks. One of these, Mt. Ōdake (Odake-san,大岳), lies across the district border between Oku-Tama, Tokyo's largest and westermost district, and Hinohara immediately south, and at 1267m commands a view spanning from Kanagawa, via Mt. Fuji, to the heart of the Kanto region's formidable mountainous hinterland.

The area's paths are well-signposted throughout and easy to follow. There are several routes between these two peaks, of varying difficulties, but the one detailed here proceeds through the Mitake-san "Rock Garden", a forested ravine of splendid moss-covered rock formations and waterfalls. Gradients are fair, though there are a number of steep, sustained ups and downs, especially in that ravine and just before the Ōdake summit. While not nearly as murderous as the likes of North Takao, the basic hiking essentials (enough water/food, good footwear, a map and compass, good timing and awareness, and a reasonable level of fitness) are highly recommended.

Maps are available at the Mitake Station information centre (especially of the happy-Japanese-cartoons variety; though closed on Mondays), but obtaining a survey map of the Oku-Tama area in advance (e.g. No.23 in the Mapple series) is suggested too.

Mitake-san – Ōdake-san
Length: Approx. 11km (for the Rock Garden route; shorter paths available)
Hiking Time: Approx. 6 hours
Height: Begins at Mitake upper cable car station, approx. 915m. Rock Garden route requires a descent of approx 1-200m, followed by a climb back up. The summit of Ōdake is at 1267m, its approach posing the steepest climb.
Access (from central Tokyo):
1) Go to Mitake Station (御岳) (Chuo Line or alternatives to Tachikawa Station, then JR Ōme Line to Mitake – make sure your train is on the main line for Oku-Tama, and not the branch-off to Musashi-Itsukaichi!). Depending on where you start, this will take approx. 1h30-2hrs and cost approx. 1000 yen (one-way).
2) A bus just outside the station goes to Ke-buru Shita (bottom of cable car, ケーブル下) in 10 minutes for 270 yen (one-way). Timetable here (out from Mitake) and here (back to Mitake) – from left to right, columns are weekdays, Saturdays, and Sundays/public holidays.
3) The cable car runs approx. every 15 minutes: a ride either way is 6 mins. and costs 570 yen (two-way ticket for 1090 yen). The hike starts and ends at the top.

1) Mitake-san Village and Shrine
2) Rock Garden
3) Ōdake-san
4) Return

1) Mitake-san Village and Shrine
It can take a couple of hours to get to Mitake Station (JR Ōme Line) from central Tokyo, so an early start is worthwhile. Mitake station itself is small, and its easily-navigable vicinity has an information centre, toilets, and a 7-Eleven convenience store. The bus to the cable car station, by the orange sign, is literally one minute's walk away.

Once there, a short stroll uphill leads to the cable car, which you should take to the top of Mitake-san (6 mins.).

There is a quiet little village around the peak, with souvenir shops and eateries, and already some good vantage points over northern Tokyo and into Saitama. When ready, take the path to the left out of the cable car station.

The village is centred around the Musashi-Mitake Shrine (武蔵御嶽神社) at the summit, supposedly established in 90 BCE and one of Japan's oldest. Follow the signs there through snaking alleyways, promenades and slopes.
The main approach to the shrine is lined with souvenir shops and small restaurants.

20-30 minutes and a series of stairs later, the shrine is worth an exploration. For more information, see its website here.

2) Rock Garden
The real trek begins with the path southwest, through plantation forests. Look for signs to the Rock Garden (ロックガーデン). You can either go back down the stairs to the main route, or take a shortcut down a narrow zigzagging path just on your right as you turn around from the shrine.

Shortcut path.
You will soon come to a fork. There are now multiple ways to proceed, with the fastest being an easy path along the ridge (30-40 mins.) - go right for this, and skip to part 3. However, the scenic route is left, down into the ravine, which is more strenuous and takes a little bit longer but passes a stream, two picturesque waterfalls and the Rock Garden. This presents you with a sustained descent straight away, that eventually takes you to the Nanayo (“Seven Generations”) Waterfall.

Nanayo no Taki.
From there the path climbs back up through a sequence of narrow metal stairs and tree roots.

Tengu Rock (Tengu no ishi) at the top, after which the path becomes level again.
Here you are still in the ravine, but the way becomes much easier for a time as it weaves through the Rock Garden's mossy stone formations and waterways. Before long you reach Ayahiro Waterfall.

Ayahiro no Taki.

Now you have to climb back up to the ridge. The passage is steep, but for the most part comfortable and in good condition.

Within minutes you will rejoin the main ridge path from Mitake-san.

3) Ōdake-san
Keep progressing upwards, and soon the way is level once more. In around 15 minutes you reach a fork at Akutaba Pass – here and wherever not otherwise indicated, keep following the signs to Ōdake-san.
At this time of April, spring had yet to flourish at these heights.
At this point you are within an hour of the top of Ōdake, and the trek to the top represents the most intensive climb of the hike. Getting there requires negotiating a path that narrows, twists, and at times calls for hand-assisted climbing. On the other hand, it is safe enough in good weather, the rocks being solid and the path easy to follow. Don't forget to look up as well as down for some of the best perspectives over Tokyo yet.

When you see a clump of large cabins, you are almost there. There is a small clearing here with a torii gate, a small shrine installation, and toilets just down the stairs if needed. Just 15-20 more minutes' scrambling up rock gets you to the summit.

At last you reach the peak, at 1266.5m altitude. This was the first day of clear weather for any hike so far this season, though the sky was slightly obscured in the distance.
The breadth of the view is impressive. To the left is southwest Tokyo and northwest Kanagawa Prefecture, including the Tanzawa mountains. Spanning right are the mountains of east Yamanashi Prefecture, and behind them on a clearer day, Mt. Fuji. Most impressive of all are the looming blue enormities to the right: the deeper peaks of Oku-Tama and beyond.
Hinohara, Tanzawa and Kanagawa.
Keep an eye out for the local wildlife! Flying squirrels are a common motif in the local signs and artwork, but none made themselves apparent on this occasion.
Japanese Tit.

4) Return
You now have a number of options for heading back.
-Completing a circuit back to Mitake-san requires first returning down the path you just climbed to the fork at Akutaba Pass. There are three ways from here: the easy middle route; the strenuous low path all the way back down through the Rock Garden then up again; or the high-but-still-relatively-forgiving path left, which returns via another peak, Nabewari-Yama (1084m). The last of these was my original intent, but circumstances compelled a diversion down the middle path, so unfortunately I cannot provide details of the Nabewari route. From the Akutaba fork, either this or the middle route should see you back to the village at Mitake-san in about 1 hour.
-For the really adventurous, it is very feasible to keep going off the opposite (northwest) side of Ōdake-san and on to Oku-Tama, the terminal of the Ōme Line by Oku-Tama Lake, the source of much of Tokyo's drinking water. I do not have experience of this route to advise on it, but one should allow at least three hours for it, and ensure one still has time and energy to complete it.

Sights from the ridge back to Mitake-san:

Shortly before reaching Mitake-san there is a branch-off beside a small drinks stall, signposted to a viewing point and toilets. A short detour that way is well worth it for the views, especially in the late afternoon sun.

Mitake-san in sight again.
The final cable car down is usually around 6:30pm, but make sure you check in advance at the cable car station. In addition, the final cable car on weekdays does not make it down in time for the last bus to Mitake Station, so be sure to plan enough time to get down earlier!

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