GW 2017: Chichibu

It’s the first week of May, and once again there are several public holidays in a row to form what is known as Golden Week, the time where almost everyone except the poor souls in sales jobs can have five days off in a row, or take a couple of days paid leave to extend their time off to a whopping 9 consecutive days.

This year, I decided to take a trip an hour and a half north of Tokyo to take a look at the shibazakura, or as they’re apparently called in English moss phlox. A 10 minute walk from Chichibu station in Saitama prefecture is Hitsujiyama Park, home to more than 400,000 moss phlox plants of nine different colours (but mainly pink).

An easy day trip from Tokyo, you can reach Chichibu by limited express train from Ikebukuro in 70 minutes, or as I found out when arriving at the station to find all the express tickets sold out (bloody Golden Week!) about 110 minutes by local train. 

In the park, there were plenty of stalls for food and drink, selling traditional festival fayre like yakisoba (fried noodles), takoyaki (octopus balls), and udon (noodles).  However, as you can see in the park shade was a little scarce, and although there was a small shaded area to eat there wasn’t much out the back either, so be careful with the sun!

Nokogiri-yama

Nokogiri-yama, or the saw-tooth mountain, is a two-hour train ride from central Tokyo in Chiba prefecture, located by the coast of Tokyo Bay near the Kanaya ferry terminal. Perhaps best- (or only known) in the UK as the end point of Top Gear’s race across Japan a few years ago, we had originally planned to visit when our friend Dakes came to visit in 2015. Indeed, we actually made the two hour journey but had to back out at the last minute when we found the cable car to the top of the mountain was closed due to high winds. Due to our typical bad planning, we didn’t know about the hiking routes, and hadn’t had any lunch by the time we arrived, so changed our plans to take a ferry trip across Tokyo Bay for an all-you-can-eat Chinese at Yokohama’s Chinatown instead.

Two years later, however, with slightly better planning, we made a return trip fully intending to hike to the top, a walk expected to take about an hour. After arriving at Hama-Kanaya station, we had a quick fish lunch before embarking. Faced with a choice of 3 routes, we selected the middle one, not knowing that it seemed to be predominantly steep steps rather than the gentle slopes the others appeared from above. It was an unusually jolly spring day, and with the sun beating  down on us as we climbed, we worked up quite a sweat and needed a few water and coat and then jumper de-clothing breaks. Occasionally passing an envious glance at people coming down the other way, we soon gained commanding views of the bay.

The final set of steps took us out at a little hut, the entrance to the top of the mountain where we had to pay 600 yen to see any of the good stuff. Remarking how pissed you must be to get to the top only to realise you didn’t have any change, we happily paid up and could gaze upon the Buddha which was the end point to the Top Gear race. At the time, we hadn’t actually seen that particular episode, and were surprised when we watched it afterwards as there’s a much more impressive Buddha just round the corner which would have been a much better ending point.

Top Gear’s finish Buddha

We decided that the slightly less impressive Buddha must have been chosen due to the much better camera angles afforded by being overlooked by the saw tooth itself. A further 5 minute climb took us there, and after a 15 minute queue we were able to take a photo ourselves. After dropping in on the bigger and more impressive Buddha, we took a leisurely stroll down the other side of the mountain before collapsing on the train journey back to Tokyo.

The bigger, better Buddha just down the hill

Mito and Kairaku-en

One of the most famous times of year in Japan is the cherry blossom season, which starts around the end of March and the beginning of April each year. Signalling the start of spring, cherry trees all over the country fleetingly bloom in beautiful pink blossom; the blossom tends to only last for a week or two before the wind or rain drives it away, so it’s important to take advantage and go and have a look while you have the opportunity.

Less well-known is the plum blossom, which blooms a week or two earlier in mid-March. A famous place to look at the plum blossom is Kairaku-en park in the town of Mito, Ibaraki, about an hour northwest of Toyko. Kairaku-en is considered one of the three Great Gardens of Japan (along with Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, which we visited last May, and Koraku-en in Okayama, which he haven’t been to), and hosts a plum blossom festival throughout March.

Due to the ephemeral nature of nature, it’s always difficult to judge exactly  when the best time to visit might be. We went to Mito towards the end of March, hoping to catch either the end of the plum blossom or the beginning of the cherry blossom. Unfortunately, we ended up missing them both!

In the end, we still had a wander around the garden but couldn’t help noticing how bare all the trees were; with a little imagination we could imagine how it must have looked either the week before or a week after, but alas we couldn’t appreciate what it had to offer.

It must look great with blossom on all the trees!

The locals taking pictures of the one tree with any blossom on it

Back in Ueno Park in Tokyo, we actually saw some cherry blossom the week after!

Chuzenji-ko and Kegon Waterfall

Around this time two years ago we had a weekend trip away in Nikko, where some of our plans were hindered by typhoon which we didn’t know was coming. Striking overnight, our rickety hostel out in the woods felt like it was about to blow down at any minute, and the morning after we had to scale back our plans as many of the roads were inaccessible due to fallen trees.

With the impending typhoon season on us again, we returned to the same rickety hostel to try to complete our previous itinerary and visit some of the waterfalls around Nikko which were said to be beautiful.

Around 40 minutes by bus from Nikko station, we headed along winding roads up into the surrounding mountains. Our destination was Chuzenji Lake, from which a five minute walk would take us to the tallest waterfall in the area, Kegon-no-taki. Ascending into the clouds, we noticed halfway up the mountain a ropeway cable car; we didn’t know it existed, where it went or what was at the top, but we felt that it was probably worth a shot and alighted.

This was the Akechidaira Ropeway, which took us to a beautiful observation deck giving sensational views of the lake and the waterfall.

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Descending back to take the bus again, after another 10 minutes we reached the waterfall. I don’t know how many waterfalls around the world require access by lift, but this was definitely the first one I’d been to! A free viewing platform was provided at the top for the skinflints, but if you wanted to get a view from the bottom up you needed to pay the entry fee and descend 100m below ground level.

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Being all waterfalled out, we spent a gorgeous afternoon by the similarly beautiful Chuzenji Lake. Picked as a place to have summer houses by many European ambassadors in the 19th Century, the lake was set against a backdrop of mountains (I found it very reminiscent of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala). These days, you can rent a swan pedalo to admire the view from the middle (we didn’t) or wander around the outside to find a place to have an ice cream (we did). A most beautiful place.

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