The second of the Three Famous Mountains of Okutama is Mt Mito – pronounced with a long “oh” sound. The most westerly of the three peaks, Mitoh san rises to 1531m. The summit actually has three peaks, and the name “mitoh” refers to the three “heads” of the mountain. The west peak is perhaps the most popular with hikers and offers stunning views of Fuji san on a good day.
Like all of the peaks close to the Okutama lake, the route to Mitoh san gains elevation very quickly from the lake side and the nearly 1000m of elevation gain will get the lungs working. But this is not the only way up to the peak. Lying to the south, the Tokyo Citizens Forest park (東京都民の森 –Tokyo to min no mori) offers a much gentler option, presenting only around 500m of elevation gain. As well as being an easier route there’s another very compelling reason for attacking Mitoh san from this direction. The mountain lies between the two main rail access routes into the area – the Ome line which terminates at Okutama and the Musashi itsukaiichi line which terminates at Akiruno. While the train and bus links to the trailhead at the Okutama end are reasonably good, the last bus from Tokyo Citizens forest leaves at an astonishingly early 4.30pm. Miss this, and you are faced with a hike of around 30km to the station! So for this reason more than any other, I decided to begin my assault on Mitoh san from the south.
Arriving at Akiruno station, and before joining the massive queue for the bus, I delivered my route plan to the koban office, much to the surprise of the officer on duty, clearly unaccustomed to gaijin depositing a climbing plan! The Tozan Kaikakusho (登山計画書) details who you are, where you are planning to hike and what time you are expected back. There’s also space to record emergency contact details and a brief record of what you have with you by way of equipment and provisions. There’s no legal requirement to post a plan, and considering the massive queue for busses that had built up outside the station, with so many people heading to the hills, leaving a written route plan may seem slightly absurd. But it is not. The vast area of mountains and forests that lay just a short bus ride from the crowded station means that the crowds are soon diluted by an ocean of deep mysterious woodland and little-trod mountain paths. Even in these benign forest trails, things can go wrong so making sure there is a record of your plans is an insurance policy that it would be foolish to ignore. And talking of insurance, not leaving a route plan will often invalidate your leisure insurance. If you have an accident and they have to send a helicopter for you, you are looking at an eye-watering bill of several thousand pounds.
Duty done I climbed aboard the packed “Iwashi Basu” bus to the Tokyo Citizens Forest park for the one hour journey to the trailhead. The road winds along the Akiruno valley – amazingly beautiful in its own right in Spring and Autumn – before beginning the climb towards the pass the skirts Mito before heading down towards Okutama lake. As the incline takes hold, the bus driver is forced to downshift repeatedly as the bus struggles around hairpin bends with precipitous drops at every turn, before eventually depositing its passengers at a remote and facility-light terminus. A few minutes later the shuttle bus from the Forest Park arrived to carry the few remaining passengers the last couple of km. The timings of the bus are sporadic and vary with the season, so as always, do your homework as you do not want to be stuck here.
The Tokyo Citizens Forest Park is an area of managed mountainous woodland. Well maintained trails wind through woodland and present visitors with a pleasant selection of vistas and forest eye-candy such as waterfalls and picturesque bridges over wooden ravines. But I saw these only in passing as I contoured around the ridge that juts out to the south east of Mitoh san. Originally I’d intended to hit the trail that headed straight up to the top of the ridge, which would have rewarded me with views straight down to Okutama on the other side and the opportunity to climb the east and central peaks of Mitoh san’s three heads. As it happened, I completely missed the junction and ended up climbing a steep rocky gully before swinging around the head of another gully to arrive at a point just below the west peak, not far from the Mitoh san refuge hut. A further 20 minutes slog took me to the top of the west peak and fantastic views of Fuji san. I was actually really glad that I had made a mistake earlier, because if I’d followed my original plan of hitting the central and eastern peaks only I would have missed this great view.
People who have never been to Japan, or perhaps haven’t yet ventured out of the city, the Japanese fixation with Mt Fuji might seem a little over the top at times. But when she grants you an audience out in the wild, the majesty and presence of the mountain is simply awesome and you will completely understand why she is venerated so.
I paused briefly on the already crowded summit, but did not dally long as I wanted to get a little bit more distance under my belt before lunch. Heading off the peak, I quickly found the trail heading down to Okutama lake, which could be seen 1000m below. The path below the west peak of Mitoh san hugs the head of a steep gully an is extremely narrow – no more than 60cm in places – and covered in treacherous dry fallen leaves from the mountain’s famous beech trees. These dry remnants of summer glory were to prove one of the biggest challenges of the day…more on this later.
Once the narrow semi-circular path is behind you, the straight trail snakes out in front of you, threading its way through beech groves. Many of the peaks around Okutama were “off limits” to common people during the Edo period, the ruling classes claiming the area for their hunting – a bit like the New Forest. One consequence of this for the modern visitor is that the area still retains its indigenous beech woodland, rather than the ubiquitous high-density, fast growing crops of Japanese cedar which clad many of surrounding hills.
Beech trees, being deciduous, drop their leaves once the first chill hand of winter brushes the peaks of Okutama. Falling to the forest floor, the dry mountain air quickly dries them out to form deep blankets and drifts of rustling cover. But forget any childhood memories of kicking care-free through piles of dry leaves: unlike your local park, these drifts conceal all sorts of hazards. Loose rocks and twisted tree roots make every step a game of Russian roulette on the steep descents which become an increasingly common feature of this trail. At one point along this increasingly challenging descent my luck ran out and I ended up stepping badly on a concealed rock or muddy slope and my feet skidded from under me. I landed awkwardly on my side, trapping the end of my hiking pole underneath my body as I fell. An immediate and sharp pain told me I had broken a rib. Suddenly the enchanted forest lost its charm and the day started to become a little less fun.
I still had a long way to go. But now cursing my luck and trying to protect my sore side I treated every descent with a little more respect, using my hiking pole to probe beneath the leaf litter to gauge the stability of the ground beneath before gingerly planting my boot. The ridge path presented numerous challenges. Steep descents down leaf-blown chutes; steep drops into the one-way street of deeply wooden valleys on both sides. In some places ropes had been slung from trees. But while these would no doubt be a great boon to the climbing hiker, coming down they were of limited usefulness.
The throbbing in my ribs kind of detracted from the enjoyment of my surroundings. But the trail certainly provided an intriguing mixture of challenge and beauty as it snaked down precipitous slopes and then threaded its way back up over rocky outcrops meshed in the gnarled embrace of ancient tree roots. Eventually I arrived at Nukazasuyama. It was here that I had originally planned to stop for lunch. But now with a throbbing rib and feeling somewhat dejected, I opted for a quick water break and to jam down a Snickers bar. Ten minutes later I was back on my way to Mt Iyo. The trail began to level off in sections making the going easier, and along some sections the wind had swept the trail clean of leaves so the going was pretty easy. A final small scramble takes you over the summit of Iyo, and onto your final descent to the lake, 500m or so below. The trail is noticeably less steep here, but sections were knee deep where leaves had accumulated in the eroded trail so I opted to weave between the trees where the ground was clearer of obstacles.
After a seemingly endless series of interminable sharp descents, I eventually spied the road through the trees below. A frustrating series of muddy switchbacks eventually deposited me at a concrete staircase and a few steps later my feet hit tarmac. Maybe because of my throbbing ribs, and the fact that I’d skipped lunch and so was low on energy, I had had enough by this point. My task now was to find my way across Okutama lake that now spread before me to the bus stop, Okutama and the train home. I trudged unenthusiastically around the perimeter of the lake before spying the famous floating bridge that stretches across the lake. The bridge was still quite a way below me, and I had to walk quite a long way to find the path down to the south side of the bridge. But eventually I found myself bobbing across the depths of Okutama on a rather fun pontoon bridge. A short while and a final staircase later I found myself at the bus stop to catch the bus back to Okutama station.
I collapsed spent into the cramped bus seat for the ten minute journey back to Okutama. On exiting the bus, I headed for my special little reward for the hard miles and muddy ordeals – Cafe Vertere, Tucked away in a tiny alley that would easily evade the casual visitor, Cafe Vertere is an old Japanese house that has been converted into a craft beer restaurant. Not cheap; but a finer end to a difficult day is hard to imagine. After a couple of pints of 8% Hoptimus Prime, I was ready to put the trials and tribulations of the day into their context. It had been a difficult day at times but rewarding. I had learned a lot. The chief lesson was that elevation gain is not the only challenge a hiker can face. Elevation loss in difficult conditions can actually be more challenging as it is a thousand times easier to lose footing on the way down than on the way up. The best way to mitigate this risk is good planning; changing your route to take your timing and prevailing conditions into account.
Suitably mellowed by the excellent beer and some tasty chicken, I wandered across the road to that station to await the train back. I recalled the time I sat in this place after my trip to Otake, watching little clouds playing among the trees above the town. Once more I thanked my lucky stars for the experience of touching the good earth, the trees and rocks of my beloved Japan.
Next up – Gozenyama: the final of the Three Famous Peaks of Okutama.