As the cooler weather has begun to roll in we were keen to fit in a few more hikes before it starts to snow on the mountains. In searching for new hikes close to Tokyo we came across a few in Gunma Prefecture that we were keen to do so we booked a hotel, a rental car and set off Saturday afternoon after work to Gunma.
Our original plan was to hike the ridge line of Tanigawadake, where you take a cable car and ski lift to reach the ridge line. However, in a completely lucky accident Georgia came across a tiny note on the website of the cable car company saying that it was currently closed due to some rain damage to the cable car and that it wouldn’t be fixed until October. Saddened by this news, but determined to still hike something amazing we decided to hike Mt. Shibutsu in Oze National Park.
As we decided to do this hike quite last minute, we didn’t read up on how to get there as much as we should have and had a few frustrating hiccups on our hike day.
After a quick brekky at the hotel, we set off in our hire car for a 1.5 hr drive to the Hatomachi Pass parking lot where the trail begins. This pass is located at the end of a very skinny, winding road through the wilderness and when we got to the the pass entry we were stopped by an official who said that we couldn’t drive in. Cue frustration. So we turned around and made our way back to the closest town we had just come from to get some phone service and work out what to do. Once we reached service we read that it turns out there are no private transport vehicles allowed into the pass. Everything we read had information about buses and taxis that shuttle everyone to Hatomachi Pass, but there was no information on where this bus/taxi stop was! Thankfully, when we decided to just have a drive around town looking for other hikers Maddy spotted the bus/taxi stop on the other side of the river to the town where there were heaps of cars parked and hikers loading onto buses! We quickly drove over, parked our car in the lot (1000 yen/day), bought a ticket for the taxi/shuttle bus (1000 yen one way) and boarded the next shuttle bus. The buses/taxis don’t really run on a time schedule, the company owns both buses and maxi-taxis and they just fill them up with hikers and set off immediately. There are heaps of vehicles so you’re never waiting for one. So after a frustrating morning, we were finally on our way to the mountain, albeit a little behind schedule.
The bus drops you off at the parking lot and it’s then a short 200m walk to the Hatomachi Pass rest station where there is food, water and toilets. We noted that the last shuttle bus was at 5:20pm, had an obligatory photo taken at the park entry by who we think was a staff member (he was taking photos for everyone) and set off on the first leg of the hike.
From Hatomachi Pass rest station to Yamanohana 山ノ鼻 was approximately 3kms and about an hour’s walk through forest on a boardwalk that protects the vegetation from hikers. Yamanohana is a camp site, mountain hut, visitor’s centre and the last public toilets before you head out into the national park. Most people have lunch there at the cafe before walking the marshlands. We however, went the opposite direction to everyone else and headed for Mt. Shibutsu, but not before we waited for someone else to enter the same trail. It was very quiet and we were concerned that perhaps it was closed, and we wanted to have someone else on the trail too, for safety purposes. Thankfully, a solo hiker came along fairly quickly and so we began our ascent.
As we began our ascent it started to drizzle a little so we kitted up with our rain covers but thankfully it stopped and we didn’t have any more rain for the rest of the day! The initial section of the ascent is through forest with a combination of wooden staircases and rock-lined paths that were a little wet from the constant rain of Japan. After about 45 mins we started to see above the tree line, with the forest becoming more and more sparse, giving way to alpine shrubbery. We stopped for a peanut butter sandwich lunch at a small lookout stop to the side of the path.
After our refuelling at lunch we set off again for what would be another 2hrs 15mins. Above the tree line we couldn’t stop turning around to gaze at the view over the marshlands. Along the way we hiked up more wooden staircases over the alpine vegetation, clambered over rocks, slipped on the notorious serpentine rock and hoisted ourselves up the rock faces with the help of chains bolted into the mountainside.
After a 3 hour ascent, consisting of a lot of stopping to admire the view and take photos, we thankfully reached the summit and boy did it deliver! There were clouds swirling around the mountain, occasionally giving way to glorious views that only got better and more clear as we hiked the ridge-line to the next peak, Mt. Koshibutsu 小至仏山.
From the second peak, it was time to descend back to the bus stop before the final shuttle bus at 5:20pm. We knew it was about 4 kms from the second peak to the car park and we had 2 hours to get there. The descent back to Hatomachi Pass is far less rugged and most people hike up and back on the same trail because it is more maintained and more achievable for all ages and abilities. Most of the descent is either on wooden stairs or a wooden boardwalk, with the final section on a dirt track. We made it to the car park just before 5pm with about 25mins to spare. We jumped on the next shuttle bus and headed back to town where our car was waiting.
Unfortunately due to traffic on the way back to Tokyo we didn’t make it to the rental place in time to return the car before it closed (8pm cut off) but it was no big deal as we just called Toyota rent-a-car and they said it would only cost us 550yen extra to return the car the following morning at 8am. So we found a paid parking lot near our apartment, popped into our favourite Indian place for dinner and headed home for a well-deserved sleep.