Tokyo's cherry blossom season has come. After the last two weeks the urban sakura has almost run its course, but the blossoms in the mountains lag behind, and now reach their peak.
Many good mountain sakura locations are in easy reach of the capital, and this one coincides with a relatively relaxing hike to its north: up the 305m Mount Hiwada (日和田山), in Hidaka-shi, Saitama Prefecture. Besides its profusion of cherry blossom trees, this route is a lovely blend of scenic views, casual mountain trekking and gorgeous fields of seasonal flowers, with a waterfall thrown in because well why not.
Hiwada-yama overlooks the little town of Koma (高麗), a couple of stations up the Seibu Chichibu Line from Hannō city. There is more to Koma than there appears. Its story begins a millennium and a half ago: not in Musashi, as the region was then, nor in fact in Japan at all, but in Korea.
Koma is the Japanese rendition of Goguryeo (고구려): one of three kingdoms on the Korean peninsula from the first century BCE to 668 CE, and the ultimate source of the name Korea in English. It was by far the largest of the three, and controlled parts of what is now northeast China, and some Siberian Tungusic populations, in addition to most of the Korean peninsula itself. The other two kingdoms, Baekje and Silla, neighboured Goguryeo on the peninsula's southwest and southeast corners respectively.
|Also shown is the Gaya Confederacy, annexed by Silla in 562 CE. Japan is in the lower-right corner, indicated by its ancient name Wa (倭).|
Like the disgraces of too many human societies, these three kingdoms decided, for some unpardonable reason, that they ought to violently compete. Goguryeo ended up in an alliance with Baekje, but Silla developed a relationship with a much more formidable partner. That partner was, of course, China, that ever-present shadow across the long Korean story.
With the help of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, Silla conquered Baekje in 660 CE, then Goguryeo in 668 CE, then turned on the Tang themselves and drove their forces out of the peninsula. This unified Silla would eventually fragment and recombine, becoming superseded by Goryeo; Goryeo in turn lasted until the pressure of Mongol occupation and internal wars broke it down, to be replaced by Joseon. Joseon was what eventually crashed into the twentieth century as the European empires ripped off great chunks of Qing China in their slavering maws, and propelled Japan into a rapid, and ultimately tragic, pursuit of European-style imperialist “modernity”.
In the last hundred years, the Korean destiny has been bound irreparably to the drool of hungering foreign powers; half a century of Japanese occupation was followed by a brutal severing in half by the Cold War blocs. Both halves built themselves up upon cruel and ruthless authoritarianism, but have come to define themselves relative to the world in opposite ways. One half has fully embraced the capitalist madnesses that rampage across humanity. The other has created madnesses of its own by slamming the door on the outside world, and resolving come what may to never rely on anyone else again.
But let's rewind, back to the three kingdoms. When Silla conquered Goguryeo in 668 CE, many of Goguryeo's people fled across the sea to Japan. These immigrants found places to live across what is now the Kantō region, but in 716 the Japanese court established Koma County for them, whereupon almost 2000 of them are recorded as having moved there. One of their royals, by the name of Jakko (잣고), was appointed as Koma's governor, and is celebrated in Koma's heritage as having taken responsibility to construct roads, buildings and industries in what was then mostly wilderness, thereby creating a foundation for Koma's future. Jakko is now enshrined at Koma Shrine, which is overseen, it is claimed, by his direct descendants.
|Koma. The town itself has a pleasant, colourful rural atmosphere.|
This hiking route can be completed within four hours, and starts with a gentle circuit around a beautiful field of flowers and sakura trees. It then leads up to the top of Mt. Hiwada, Koma's centrepiece, where the best views are in evidence. From there it proceeds along the forested ridge to Monomi-yama (物見山), before winding its way down past the Five Virtues Waterfall (Gojō no taki, 五常ノ滝) to come out at Musashi-Yokote (武蔵横手) station. And if you have time and energy to spare, it is worth closing the triangle with a walk back to Koma along the picturesque Yokote Valley.
To get there, take the Seibu Ikebukuro Line to Hannō – or, if coming from further west, the Hachikō Line to Higashi-Hannō. Then change to the Seibu Chichibu Line, on which it is two or one stops respectively to Koma station. This takes about an hour and a half from central Tokyo.
There is a bit of climbing involved, so good shoes are recommended, but none of it is long or backbreaking. There are plenty of convenience stores and facilities on the way, and the mountains themselves are fairly popular, have occasional houses and public toilets, and are easy to get on and off as needed.
Exiting Koma station, turn left out of the plaza, then left again to cross the railway. Go straight across the intersection with National Route 299. Follow this road until you come to one of the many red-faced signposts you will see in these parts. Turn right here, and follow the lane round to the left till you come to the main road. Mt. Hiwada will be right in front of you at this point.
Turn right and cross the Rokudai Bridge (麓台橋). Soon you pass the big red Alishan Café on your right; immediately after it is a small lane on the right, which you should take to come out upon Kinchaku Rice Field (巾着田). There is also a Seven Eleven just ahead on the main road, if you need.
Kinchaku means a pouch, and the field is so named because if you look on the map, the river drops around to enclose it in just the shape of a hanging pouch. This field is one of Koma's highlights. It is ringed all the way round by sakura trees, while farms and flower fields cover the centre. This being April, the field was a carpet of bold gold rapeseed. It is said to be still more beautiful in September or October, when it blooms with hundreds of thousands of red spider lilies (manjushage), for which the locals hold a popular festival.
I suggest turning left when you reach the field, and completing a clockwise circuit at your leisure.
|The “Ai Ai Bridge”.|
|Hiwada-yama overlooking the field.|
When you are back where you started, cut back through to the main road. You now want to go north, up the road opposite the Seven Eleven. Follow this up until you come to a signposted left turn, from where a few minutes' walk will take you to the Mt. Hiwada trailhead.
|This way up the mountain.|
The initial ascent features a network of paths and switchbacks. Take whichever routes you most like the look of, because they always converge in short order. On surmounting the first slope, you come to an impressive stone torii.
The path forks here. Both paths lead to the summit: the right-hand route is easier, while the left is a bit steeper and rockier but features the best views of the day. Once upon a time someone disgracefully got it into their head to name the easier path the onnazaka (woman's slope) and the harder one the otokozaka (man's slope). This nomenclature has no basis in any possible logic and should be condemned, then memorialised as an example of how thoroughly our corrupt gender assumptions infiltrated our lives, saturating even the most banal of trivialities – a lesson, that is, to never repeat those unconscionable mistakes again.
Reflect on this, then take the left path. You will scramble up some rocks, and pass a popular rock face for rock climbing and abseiling, likely encountering people with ropes and helmets. And soon you come to another torii: that of Kotahira Shrine (金刀比羅神社), from where a charming view unfolds over the valley.
|The unmistakable Kinchaku Rice Field, seen from above.|
This is an excellent prospect over which to enjoy your lunch. Otherwise, continue to the right of the shrine for the last five minutes of the climb, to the Hiwada-yama summit and its broad views east.
|Mt. Hiwada summit.|
To continue, go down the opposite, western side of the peak. It is a steep and rocky descent at first, so tread carefully. But soon the path evens out into an easy amble through sugi forests, with trees notably more aged than is common in Tokyo's sugi plantations. Stroll along at a comfortable pace, until you join a mountain road beneath a broadcast tower.
This road winds past a cluster of mountain houses and occasional sakura trees. Follow it until you come to another red-faced post, indicating a divergence on the right to Monomi-yama (物見山). The peak of this mountain is shortly ahead, in plain sight.
Continuing west, you come at length to an X-shaped junction. Take the left path in front of you here, which will gradually start to descend. In this section you should pass the “Horsehead Kannon” stone (馬頭漢音), and thereafter some more buildings and an orchard. Keep going, avoiding small paths that branch off into people's properties. At last you will reach a hairpin road by a little blue structure: turn left, continuing to descend.
|The “Horsehead Kannon” stone.|
From here it is straightforward: proceed down the road, and follow another red-faced sign for Gojō Falls (五常ノ滝). Keep an eye out soon after that for a path off the road, on your left, with a small sign to the waterfall in kanji. The 12-metre falls are named for the five virtues of benevolence, justice, courtesy, wisdom, and sincerity.
To finish, head down the path opposite the waterfall, which soon rejoins the road. The road thereafter comes out at the railway near Musashi-Yokote station, one stop up from Koma.
If you still want more, I recommend turning left here, and keeping an eye out to the right for the way down to the river valley. You can follow this east for a very attractive walk back to Koma station, though the later part will be along the highway. Once you are forced onto it, follow it across a bridge. Continue straight across the major intersection, and beyond until you can turn right through a tunnel under the railway. The station is on your left when you emerge.
|Yokote Valley. The autumn leaves here are meant to be especially impressive.|
|Back to the start.|
So let's finish with the moral of the story, which is applicable to all countries in the world. Be kind to immigrants. Be there for them when they need it. And who knows, you might just end up with some nice long-lasting cultural and narrative enrichment if you do.