Saturday, 31 May 2014

Rhododendrons on High: Hinokiboramaru (檜洞丸), Tanzawa Mountains

Some mountains draw attention for the marvellous views they give across their surroundings. Others, however, concentrate all that beautiful intensity into themselves, and discharge it in through your boots with every step you take. The mountain featured today falls into the latter category, and is especially popular in the last days of May, or early June, when the way to its summit erupts in white azaleas.

Make no mistake though. Hinokiboramaru (檜洞丸) is no overcrowded, tourist-encumbered Ōyama or Takao-san. Proximity to these flowers is something each of the people in these photos has earned by offering up buckets of sweat and lactic acid. This 1600m peak, whose name denotes a “circle of cypress caves”, lurks deep in the Tanzawa mountains, and an excursion up and over it is less a hike than a swashbuckling, sinew-grinding adventure.

The beauty of the Tanzawa mountains is in their diversity, and here that colourful variegation is on show in all its glory. To demonstrate your worthiness to see it, Hinokiboramaru lays down challenges no less mercurial: the paths and environment transform before your eyes, zone after zone, each time settling into a new configuration for you to negotiate. Expect plenty of this:

And this:

And certainly no shortage of this:

As well as a fair bit of this:

And if you are lucky, perhaps even this:

So while it does not demand specialist equipment or more preparation than other day hikes, Hinokiboramaru is not for the faint of heart. The way up the mountain is somewhat strenuous and often narrow of path, while the ridge that follows presents challenges of an above-average technical difficulty, featuring a rumbling series of ladders, hand-assisted or chain-assisted rock climbs and boardwalks. Injury opportunities are plentiful if you aren't careful, and if you get stuck, the only way out of this remote mountainscape involves misery, expense and a helicopter.

But don't let that put you off. These mountains reward you commensurately for every ounce of courage you put in, and so long as you approach them with respect, a cool head, and even only moderate fitness, you will be able to get from beginning to end of this route and feel better for it. The area is well looked after by the Tanzawa national park authorities, with excellent signposting and trail maintenance. Even dogs and small children do this walk, as encountered on this occasion, on a day when the average age of people on this hike seemed nonetheless well over fifty.

Do, however, plan well. Good hiking shoes are absolutely essential, as is enough food and water to last you the full way. Pay attention to the weather forecast and do not go on a day with a significant chance of rain, which would make this walk's many high and narrow trails too precarious. And avoid trying it in winter unless you have special equipment for the ice and snow, along with past experience with such conditions.

It takes about an hour and a half to get from central Tokyo to Shin-Matsuda (新松田) station on the Odakyu Line, followed by another hour on the Fujikyū Bus (1180 yen either way, regular and runs throughout the day, click here for timetable) to reach the West Tanzawa Nature Classroom (Nishi Tanzawa Shizen Kyōshitsu, 西丹沢自然教室), where the walk begins and ends. As the walk can take a good six to seven hours, an early start is strongly advised.

Phase 1: The Climb
The West Tanzawa visitor centre, where you get off the bus, is a staffed and well-equipped staging post for these mountain adventures. Inside there are good maps of the area's trails, on which sightings of bears or other animals are charted. There are also forms to leave notice of your route in case of emergencies, and friendly mountain police who will advise you on its latest conditions, including the state of the seasonal flowers. There are also vending machines and toilets here.

Notice records of bear sightings and closed-off paths.
“Black bears are THIS big.”

After loosening up and exploring some nice views of the river nearby, begin the walk by heading on (north) up the road. This valley seems popular for getaways, featuring several campsites and holiday cottage resorts. Pass one on your right, and walk on for another five minutes to reach the Hinokiboramaru trailhead. It will be clearly signposted on your right, up through a tight rocky valley.

The trailhead.
The ascent begins with about an hour of narrow trails up this mountainside. The paths are in good condition, but watch your balance.

In good time, you reach the Gōrazawa convergence (ゴーラ沢出会い), a white and gravelly river bed clearing where the Gōrazawa and Hondanazawa rivers merge. The first thing to do here is ford the river. Once across, this is a good place for a breather before the real climb begins.

The water is crystal clear in all the watercourses on this route.
With the introductory section over, you now face two hours of continuous uphill. That said, the gradient is not too merciless. There is only one path, so you cannot get lost, though keep an eye out for a very short signposted detour to a viewpoint about halfway.

The way up.
Red azaleas, a hint of things to come. For more of these striking red flowers, see this article on another couple of mountains in Yamanashi.
Shortly into the ascent, this fellow made an appearance, slithering across the middle of the path with tongue flickering in and out. Then an elderly gentleman randomly came up behind us and chased it, whereupon it hurried away into the undergrowth.

In the late spring and early summer, this route is at peak popularity. While remote enough to not overcrowd, expect delays at points where the narrow path or bouts of hand-assisted climbing create bottlenecks. There are one or two ladders to overcome as well.

An alternating one-way system.

You will know you are making good progress when the rhododendrons begin. And soon they are everywhere: the trees erupt in singing clouds of white shiroyashio (シロヤシオ), interspersed with light purple mitsuba tsutsuji (ミツバツツジ). This is the great seasonal highlight of Hinokiboramaru, so go now in May or June to enjoy them while they are still out, and to avoid the leech infestations of later summer.

Mitsuba tsutsuji (ミツバツツジ).
Shiroyashio (シロヤシオ).

The summit is not far now. The trail levels off for most of the final approach, then suddenly transforms into this Jurassic boardwalk affair.

At the end of this is the summit of Hinokiboramaru. It is an interesting one as far as summits go: a little plateau, broad and well-leafed, enclosed in trees but with a few good views through the gaps.

There is plenty of space to sit down for a well-earned lunch. Make the most of it, because already the mountain contorts to challenge you in creative ways ahead.

This little fellow keeps a solitary watch over the summit.
And here you can get a sense of what comes next.

Phase 2: The Mad Ridge
Now comes the fun part. The ridge from Hinokiboramaru to Inukoeji (犬越路) is a precipitous rough-and-tumble concern, featuring a narrow rocky trail suspended high above the ceiling of sanity, some half-dozen ladders and chain-assisted descents down rock, and passage through surreal landscapes that surely count among the Tanzawa mountains' most outstanding.

Follow the signs from the summit for Inukoeji to be presented with this, noting the signboards which warn that this route is significantly tougher than the ascent.

It is not as terrifying as it sounds, nor necessarily more physically arduous than the way up. The challenge is of a more technical nature, as there is a series of narrow or rocky obstacles to negotiate. Take your time, and watch how you step, exercising special caution in high winds and recognising that you really do not want to get injured up here – but remember to appreciate the exceptional views around you.

Several times you will need to get down small rock faces using a chain.

After a long gauntlet of this stuff, the path leads on into thickets of young bamboo, which grows taller and denser the further you penetrate.

But eventually, you will catch sight of this cabin ahead. This is Inukoeji (犬越路), the junction and shelter cabin which marks the end of the unrelenting obstacle course.

Inukoeji (犬越路).

Phase 3: The Way Down
At last the hard work is done, and all that remains is a gentle descent from the wilderness. Follow the signposts for Yōkizawa Deai (用木沢出会), for which the scenic path – known as the Tokai Nature Footpath (Tōkai Shizen Hodō, 東海自然歩道) – glides down to the Yōkizawa river valley.

Soon enough the path will run parallel to the river, with multiple points of easy access where you can wash your hands in it or admire the water clarity. The path itself will doggedly insist on its narrowness all the way to the end, traversing several small bridges and rocky clearings before reaching a large iron bridge, and thereafter rejoining the road you came in on at the Yōkizawa Convergence (用木沢出会).

The Yōkizawa (用木沢).

From here, you can finish with a short stroll south (left) along the road, passing several holiday cabin resorts, activity sites, and a compound with goats, until you pass the trailhead up Hinokiboramaru on your left, and return, at last, to the West Tanzawa visitor centre and bus stop.

If you made it, then congratulations are very well deserved. Note that it will take you another hour by bus to get back to Shin-Matsuda station – but of course, you factored that in from the beginning.

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