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Friday, Oct. 20, 2006

OKUTAMA

On a trail out of the real world


Staff writer

The fellow passengers on the weekend "holiday special express" from Shinjuku to Okutama or Musashi-Itsukaichi -- an hour northwest of Tokyo -- are a strange melange: There are lots of young men -- often much the worse for wear -- going home after a night of heavy drinking; there are young girls heading home after dancing the night away; early risers off to work; and clear-headed kids heading off to school sporting events.

News photo
A detail of a shrine at Mount Mitake.

And then there are the hikers.

They are a part of the weekend scenery at any large rail station across Japan: generally middle-aged or older, with small, colorful day packs (often with an irritatingly noisy bell clanging ting-ting-ting with every step to frighten away all those imagined man-eating black bears in the hills) and decked out in just the right gear: colorful waterproof gaiters, heavy boots, hiking pants, multipocketed vests, the right head wear (a baseball cap or floppy all-round sun hat) and collapsible hiking sticks.

So, having sorted out which end of the train to sit in (it splits at Haijima, with the front portion going to Okutama, and the rear carriages to Musashi-Itsukaichi) it's off to the "mountains" for the day.

One of my favorite day hikes (you're talking about 25 km) takes in both of these destinations: Hop off at Musashi-Itsukaichi, hike for five or six hours over the ridges -- by way of Mount Kompirayama, stop for lunch somewhere close to Mount Hinode or Mount Mitake -- then head down, following the trail which hugs the sides of the mountains, through the woodland, to Okutama Station.

News photo
A bank of sake barrels in front of the treasure house of the shrine.

The trail from Musashi-Itsuka-ichi begins some distance from the station -- turn right on Route 33 (Hinohara Kaido) at the west end of the bus terminal, go up the slope to the Mobil gas stand, and turn in there (past the small fire station, past Itsukaichi Junior School) and turn right at the cylindrical mail box at the crossroads just past the gateball ground (on your left).

There are signposts for Mount Kompirayama / Hinode-yama / Mitake-san (in kanji) here and there at the intersections of narrow lanes, before the trail begins -- but bring a map (the illustrated Okutama nature map, available -- in Japanese -- for 300 yen at the Okutama and Mitake visitor centers, is recommended).

This particular trail is fairly easy, with relatively gentle slopes all the way except in a couple of places where there are steeper climbs. Unlike along some of the higher mountain courses -- Hodaka, Kitadake, Yarigatake or Hakuba in the Japan Alps, for instance -- there are no ropes or chains or ladders to negotiate, but steps have been installed in some of the steeper or badly eroded sections.

News photo
The roof of an old village house.

For the most part, the route is remarkably free of other hikers, and even on the weekends, you're unlikely to meet more than a few hikers between Musashi-Itsuka-ichi and Hinode-yama. Between Mitake village and Okutama, there are a few more hikers, but not enough to knock you off your stride.

By the time I approach the area of Hinode-yama and Mitake-san -- home to Musashi-Mitake shrine -- I'm halfway to Okutama and my stomach is telling me its time to stop for lunch.

Atop Hinode-yama, seating opportunities are limited and the benches are often full, but there's a covered shelter to sit under in case of inclement weather or a hot midday sun.

Another place to stop is Nagaodaira, just below Mitake-san. From the picnic tables of this open space, you can look across to Mount Ootake to the southwest or across to Hinode-yama to the east.

News photo
Another view of the shrine at Mount Mitake.

During the winter-time -- when the view is not obscured by haze -- from the top of Hinode-yama (902 meters) across to 940-meter-high Mitake-san gives me an image of the hill stations of northern India: Red or blue roofs peek out from between leafless trees and tall cedars surround the shrine atop the peak.

Beyond Mitake-san are the ridges of other ranges that make up Okutama and, in the distance, the Chichibu area.

A major standout in the clear winter air is Japan's highest mountain, picturesque and snow-capped Mount Fuji, which rises an impressive 3,776 meters skyward away to the southwest.

Mitake has a well-known shrine, said to have been established in 90 B.C. There, stern-looking deities -- one on either side, armed with bows and quivers full of arrows -- guard the main gate, and from here a short, sharp hike up the many steps brings you to the main building.

The shrine was reconstructed toward the end of the 18th century and its adjacent treasure house contains ancient armor and swords. There is a small fee to enter the exhibition, payable at the shrine's gift shop, where good luck charms and ema (wooden tablets) are on sale.

Mitake village, which holds an annual festival on May 8, is an attractive place with numerous lodging houses for pilgrims, old shingle-roofed houses, a youth hostel, and a cable car which brings visitors up from below (the nearest rail station is Mitake, on the Ome Line up to Okutama).

The tall cedar trees that grow around the temple and in the village itself are where giant flying squirrels (musasabi) can be seen during the late evening or at night when they come out to feed.

For weary hikers or pilgrims there are tea houses and restaurants serving delicious homemade soba in the small shotengai (shopping arcade) before the entrance to the shrine, but unfortunately any sense of solitude or communing with the spirits is destroyed by the loud pop music that too often emanates from one of the shops.

To get back to the "real world" from Mitake, there are a number of options. The quickest is to take the cable car down and then the connecting bus to Mitake Station. You can hike down the same way, or you can consult your map and take another route back to Kori Station, or you can take the long way home, and hike for another two or three hours to Okutama Station.

From there, depending on timing, you can catch a return "holiday special express" (Holiday Kaisoku) directly back to Shinjuku, or you can hop on an Ome Line train to Ome and change there for Tachikawa, where you'll need to transfer again for the Chuo Line back to Shinjuku or Tokyo stations.

Getting there: Holiday Kaisoku trains run Saturday, Sunday and national holidays only from JR Shinjuku Station to Okutama/Musashi-Itsukaichi at 7:44 a.m. (Platform 9), 8:19 a.m. and 8:47 a.m. (both from Platform 7). Return direct trains for Shinjuku leave Okutama at 3:26 p.m., 4:23 p.m. and 4:52 p.m., and from Musashi-Itsukaichi at 3:55 p.m., 4:47 p.m. and 5:21 p.m. The first, second and third return trains, respectively, join together at Haijima and travel to Shinjuku Station as one.
From both Musashi-Itsukaichi and Okutama stations, local buses run to various places, including Tama Lake, a well known picnic and recreation spot. For more information contact Okutama Tourist Association at (0428) 22-2525 or visit www.ohtama.or.jp
Okutama Visitor Center (0428) 83-2037
Mitake Visitor Center (0428) 78-9363
There are two onsen along the way: Moeginoyu (0428-82-7770), and Tsurutsuru Onsen (0425-97-1126).
Moeginoyu is about a 15-minute walk from Okutama Station, but it tends to become crowded at the weekend as hikers, day-trippers and locals zero in for a hot bath.
Tsurutsuru can be accessed either by the Disneyesque "train bus" -- complete with funnel and whistle -- from Musashi-Itsukaichi station or by dropping down from the west side of Hinode-yama.


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