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Outdoor Japan (January): Walking under Blue Skies

This is part of a series that will look at how to enjoy hiking in Japan at all times of the year

Blue skies in the Yatsugatake mountains. Photo: Alison Beale

 

Winter in Japan can be cold, but the winter months also bring brilliant blue skies and crisp clear air, particularly on the Pacific side of the country. This is a great time of year to get outdoors as the cheery skies really lift your spirits and bring fabulous long views.

 

Below are some ideas for places to go hiking that set off the brilliant blue skies to best effect.

 

Mt Mihara: sea and sky merge in the Izu islands
 

A rewarding trip to do at this time of year is to the largest of the Izu islands - Izu Oshima and its volcanic peak of Mt Mihara. A fun way to do this is to take the overnight Large Passenger Ship from Tokyo Takeshiba Terminal which leaves at about 10pm. As you sail out into Tokyo Bay you get a fantastic view of the lights of Tokyo, and it is worth being on an outside deck for the first 20 minutes of the journey, as this is actually a very impressive little night cruise in itself. After the Ship has pulled away from the city you can settle down to sleep for the night and when you wake up (at about 6am) you will be in Izu Oshima.

 

Sailing out of Tokyo at night and seeing the city lights is part of the fun of this trip. Photo: Alison Beale

 

The climb up Mt Mihara starts from ‘Mihara Sanchoguchi’ bus stop, which is on one of the local bus routes, and it is a 45 minute walk up the volcanic flank of the volcano to the caldera rim. From here there is a stunning view of the Izu islands and Mt Fuji, and on a good day the sky and the sea seem to merge together in one intense shade of blue. This is a great way to see a volcano at close range, and the tranquil view of the blue sky contrasts greatly with the jagged black outlines of the volcanic rock.

 

Looking back at the Honshu mainland and Mt Fuji from Mt Mihara’s dramatic caldera rim. Photo: Alison Beale

 

A shade so intense there’s even a name for it - Yatsugatake Blue

 

Yatsugatake is a volcanic mountain range between Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures which is so famous for its blue skies that it even has its own shade: Yatsugatake Blue. Snow comes quite early to these mountains, and winds can be strong causing beautiful ice formations on the trees. It is perhaps the contrast with the pure white of the snow and frost that makes the blue of the sky so intense. The beauty is quite staggering and it feels like a different world when you are out up there.

 

To get to this area, take a Chuo line train from Shinjuku to JR Chino station, and then a bus from there to Kita-Yatsugatake Ropeway. The trip on the ropeway offers a beautiful view of the snow-covered landscape. At the top there is a flat area called Tsuboniwa where you can have a short walk in the snow and look at some incredible ice formations. Those with adequate snow climbing kit could then attempt the two-hour round trip up the steep slopes of Kita-Yokodake which has stunning views from the summit. This walk to the summit is not recommended in bad weather or without proper equipment.

 

The effect of the wind causes beautiful ice formations on the trees and signs of Tsuboniwa. Photo: Alison Beale

 

Yellow blossom against the sky in Nagatoro

 

A real delight of winter in Japan is the Chimonanthus praecox or wintersweet (‘robai’ in Japanese) which blooms in the cold months from about January. This shrub grows in sunny places and produces beautiful small waxy yellow flowers, some with maroon centres. These look incredible against the blue winter sky, and they also smell absolutely heavenly.

 

The yellow ‘robai’ look stunning against the blue sky, and their delicate fragrance is divine. Photo: Alison Beale

 

One place to see these flowers is Mt Hodo in Saitama prefecture, and it is a very easy and family-friendly walk from Nagatoro station on the Chichibu Railway up the mountain. Alternatively you can start further away from Nogami and walk along the ‘Nagatoro Alps’ - a chain of very low, but pleasant hills. The wintersweet are on the summit of Mt Hodo. As you look over the bright yellow flowers towards the mountains of Chichibu on the horizon, you keep getting wafts of the most sweet, heady fragrance.

 

Blue sky, yellow blossom and views over the Chichibu mountains. Photo: Alison Beale

 

One thing that is so enjoyable about this time of year in Japan is that you can go in one direction and find deep snow and ice, and on the next day you can go in the other direction and find beautiful fragrant wintersweet that makes it feel like spring, and all under clear blue skies! Soon more and more blossom will come out, and that will be the topic of the next article.

 

Next time: discovering early blossom

 

Related Link
Japan Hiking & Trekking

 

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    About the author

    Author: Alison Beale
    Originally from the UK, Alison Beale spends her weekends outdoors exploring the geography, botany and mycology of Japan. Convinced that Tokyo is the foremost outdoor capital of the world, she is a self-professed evangelist about the beauty and richness of the nature of Japan. 

     

     

     

     

     

 

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