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Friday, April 27, 2007

OKUTAMA

Under the lonesome trees


Staff writer

Picnic areas. Fishing holes. Camp grounds. Onsen. Hiking trails galore. The Okutama area, with all that it has to offer, might be called the playground of Tokyo, and a weekend visit proves that the great outdoors on the capital's doorstep is a crowd-puller.

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Okutama Lake with Mount Kumotori, the highest peak in the Tokyo metropolitan area, in the far distance on the right side. CHRIS COOK PHOTOS
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A snakelike pontoon bridge floating on the lake surface near Ogochi Shrine

Only 90 minutes or so from central Tokyo by express train, the destination is Okutama station, at the end of the Ome line.

From bus stop No. 2 across the road from the station, buses head off in the direction of Lake Okutama and as far as Taba, an hour away. They stop at the lake, which was formed in 1957 when Ogochi dam was constructed.

It's from this dam that one of my favorite day hikes begins.

It takes in 1,406-meter-high Mount Gozen, moves across to Mount Tsukiyomi and, 7 hours or so later, ends near Ogochi-jinja Shrine on the northwest side of the lake.

The main entrance to the trail to Mount Gozen is signposted on the south side of the dam. It's a hard slog for the first hour or so, but once on the main trail it becomes a little easier, although there are steep sections, especially on the northern approach to Mount Sogaku.

The trail rises abruptly -- something like 60 degrees -- and finally it breaks out onto Obuna-one ridge. On the way up, you'll pass through stands of Japanese cedar (sugi) and cypress (hinoki) and you can also see some impressive specimens of Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora akamatsu) making the most of their struggle to live on almost bare rock.

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White fungus growing on an old tree near Mount Tsukiyomi
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A hillside under concrete to stabilize it

Approximately an hour after leaving the dam area you'll find a fenced-in transmitting tower doing its best to hide among the trees at Mount Sasuzawa. This is a good place to sit awhile and when I rest there, regaining my breath, I try -- with the aid of a map -- to put a name to all the peaks and ridges spread out in front of me.

Below, the blue-colored lake cuts an irregular shape into the forested hills, and far away to the northwest Mount Kumotori -- on my list of "things to do" this summer -- rises to 2,017 meters. It's the highest peak in the Okutama region -- indeed, the highest point within the Tokyo Metropolitan area -- and it straddles the borders of Yamanashi and Saitama prefectures too.

In another hour -- and more huffing and puffing -- you'll finally make it through the broadleaf forest to the benches at Mount Sogaku.

This peak, about half a kilometer shy of Mount Gozen's summit, is the junction for heading off to the west: The signpost points in the direction of Mount Tsukiyomi and Mount Mito.

Another sign points you toward Mount Gozen, and half way along -- 0.3 km to be exact -- is a fine lunch-cum-lookout point where fantastic views across to the distant ridges can be obtained on a clear day. Looking directly north you can see the ridge that includes Mount Takanosu, the peaks of Nanatsuishi and Mutsuishi, and beyond this the ranges of the Chichibu region.

A little further on, and just meters before Mount Gozen's peak, is yet another good lunch spot -- a bench which allows unhindered views across to Mount Fuji.

From the peak of Mount Gozen, where a detailed map has been installed, there are trails spinning off in four directions.

If, by the time you reach the top of Mount Gozen you've had enough of hiking for the day, you can take one of them, via Mount Kuronoo and Mount Nokogiri, and follow the Nokogiri ridge back to Okutama Station.

Between the tops of Mount Sogaku and Mount Gozen is a signposted junction which heads down to Okutama Taiken Forest.

An option from here is to hike down to the Ome Kaido road and pick up the bus at Sakaibashi bus stop to get back to Okutama Station.

As you head west along the ridge toward Ogochi Pass and Mount Tsukiyomi, you'll soon come upon another superb rest venue -- a bare peak which again offers uninterrupted views of the lake and all the mountains to the north and to the west.

It's here, on a clear day in the winter, that you can make out the snow-covered peaks of the Southern Alps on the skyline way to the west.

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Cedar tree trunks materializing out of the mist above the lake
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A view of the lake near Ogochi dam in the early morning stillness.

As you head west, caution is required where the narrow path clings precariously to the side of the steep ridge: A couple of times I've almost gone head over heels and tumbled down among the tree trunks after slipping on loose rocks.

The pathway eventually emerges at Tsukiyomi parking area No. 2, beside a hairpin bend on the road which comes up from the west side of Lake Okutama and continues on to Hinohara town.

Favored by youngsters racing their cars and motorcycles at high speed up and down the mountain, this stretch of tarmac turns into a very noisy race circuit at weekends and on holidays.

To return to the lake from this parking area, you can either follow the road (passing the lookout at Tsukiyomi parking area No. 1), or you can take another trail through the forest in the direction of Yamano Furusato Village.

The trail head is signposted off to the left a few meters down the road from the No. 2 parking area, but when I followed it there were places where it was hard to see where the path actually went -- not a situation you want in fading light like when I recently hiked in the area.

At Yamano Furusato Village, which boasts a visitor center and a craft center as well as a barbecue area, camp site and log cabins for overnight stays, the well-marked pathway carries on around the lake to the wobbly and serpentine Ukihashi pontoon bridge, resting on the surface of the lake, which completes the trail and comes out close to the bus stop near Ogochi-jinja Shrine -- it's from here you can take the bus back to Okutama Station.

Getting there: Three convenient express trains (Holiday Kaisoku) run on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays from JR Shinjuku Station directly to Okutama Station. Otherwise, take the JR Chuo line train from Tokyo or Shinjuku to Tachikawa and change to the Ome line. From Ome Station transfer to another train which will take you to Okutama Station. From No. 2 bus stop, catch the bus with the destination Okutamako or Tanabe (340 yen), and hop off across the road from the visitor center at Lake Okutama (right next to Ogochi dam). Bus times to Lake Okutama and from Ogochi-jinja Shrine can be obtained from Nishi-Tokyo Bus (www.nisitokyobus.co.jp) at (0428) 83-2126. The last bus from Ogochi-jinja Shrine is around 7:30 p.m. Yamano Furusato Village (www.yamafuru.com) (in Japanese) Tel. (0428) 86-2551.


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