On October 24, I headed north to Nikkō, in Tochigi Prefecture, to hike a new-to-me trail that included Nakimushiyama (鳴虫山), an 1,103-meter mountain not far from Nikkō station. The route went up and over three smaller peaks, too, and though much of the trail is surrounded by trees, there were a few spots with beautiful views as well.
For many of my friends in the States, October 24 sounds far too late to be hoping for a “first glimpse” of autumn foliage, but the leaves change later on Honshu than they do in many parts of the U.S., and my friends who own the beautiful GABLEVIEW Forest Inn in Nikkō said the leaves hadn’t changed much yet. Even so, I held out hope that I might find a few “overachievers” in the forest and catch some early koyo (紅葉 – colorful autumn leaves) on the trail.
I caught the 6:49 a.m. express from Kita-Senju (which meant leaving home at 5:15, because it takes over an hour to reach Kita-Senju from my house) to Tobu-Nikkō Station. As the train rolled north into Tochigi Prefecture, I saw a bunch of hot air balloons–something I’d seen quite a bit in the skies over Sacramento, but hadn’t seen since moving to Japan:
The train reached Nikkō at 9 a.m., and I headed off for the ten-minute walk to the trailhead. Lower Nikkō was quiet that early on a Sunday, especially since Japan’s borders remain closed to foreign tourism. (While I’m looking forward to the borders opening again from the perspective of getting to visit with friends and family, I have to admit there’s a part of me that’s enjoyed the chance to see places like Nikkō without the crowds.)
The route to the trailhead wound through the streets, past a cemetery, and along the course of a river before reaching the official trailhead sign, which showed the same route I’d plotted in my app. Japan has great trailhead signs – many of which (like the one below) include a description of the most popular flowers (or sometimes birds) hikers might see along the trail–along with the months in which you’re able to see them. None of the flowers were blooming in October, but it might be worth heading up again next spring to see the wildflowers bloom.
The trailhead sits behind a couple of private homes, and would have been easy to miss if not for the large red and white sign with massive characters (which read “NAKIMUSHIYAMA TRAILHEAD”) and arrow pointing the way.
The trail begins in a natural, mixed forest, which shifts to a logging forest about fifteen minutes up the trail. I have mixed views about these farmed forests from an ecological perspective, but I do enjoy hiking in them. They have an entirely different character from natural forests, but they still feel enough like wilderness to make my spirit unfurl and relax from life in the city.
The forest on Nakimushiyama and the surrounding mountains alternates between sections of natural forest and logging forest, so it’s a nice “combined hike” from that perspective.
About 40 minutes of steady climbing brought me to the summit of Konosuyama (Mt. Konosu – 842 m) the first mountain of the day. Every mountaintop I stand on “counts” toward my ongoing summit list, and Konosu was #143 since my arrival in Japan in 2018. I’d hoped to be over 200 by now, but given that it’s been almost two years since I could do any real hiking, I was happy just to be back out on the trail.
Konosuyama is heavily forested, so the summit “view” is a gap between a pair of trees–which seems to be maintained by the forest service, because it would almost certainly be overgrown and nonexistent if the trees were left to their own devices.
Beyond the summit marker, the trail descends briefly before continuing along a forested ridge that separates Konosuyama from neighboring Nakimushiyama. Nakimushi is quite a bit taller than Konosu, so on the far side of the ridge, the trail begins a series of fairly steep ascents separated by short stretches of flattened ridge. The photo below doesn’t really do the angles justice; while the slope isn’t dangerous, it would definitely be a challenge for novice hikers, and hiking poles made the climb a whole lot easier.
About ten minutes below the summit of Nakimushiyama, I finally found my overachieving maples–a little grove that had turned bright orange and red, even though the surrounding trees hadn’t gotten the memo about autumn dress.
The trees on the summit of Nakimushiyama had begun to turn too, but hadn’t yet started to show the truly vibrant reds and flaming oranges that characterize autumn maples in Japan.
Fun fact: in English, Nakimushiyama (鳴虫山) means “singing bug” or “crying bug” mountain–there’s a story in that name, for sure, and although I wasn’t able to figure out exactly why the mountain has this unusual name, anyone who’s spent a summer in Japan can deduce more or less where the appellation came from. I’m guessing the cicadas are loud up here in the summer months.
Once again, the summit is mostly forested, but there is a gap in the trees that offers a nice view of Nikko and the surrounding mountains.
On the far side of the summit, the trail made a steep descent–so steep that the route included both a section of fixed ropes and a set of wooden stairs–both of which made me appreciate the amount of care that goes into planning and maintaining trails in Japan. While the route would have been possible without these aids, having them was the difference between “possible” and “fun.”
Beyond the ropes and stairs, the trail followed a ridge with periodic glimpses of Nikko’s mountains (including Mt. Nantai) through the trees.
Half an hour’s steady hiking down, across, and up again brought me to the heavily forested summit of Mt. Gappo (1,084 m), which offered no views whatsoever. I hadn’t come up for the views, though, and the trees kept the temperature on the trail delightfully cool and not at all windy, which was a definite plus.
After leaving Gappo, I caught a few more glimpses of the mountains through the trees while descending and hiking along the ridge that separates Mt. Gappo from neighboring Doppyo (925 m).
From the summit of Doppyo, the trail descends fairly steadily–and in some places, steeply–through the forest. A lot of the trail appears to have suffered from damage and erosion in or following recent typhoons, as you can see in the photo below. Mentally, I dubbed it “the trail that time forgot”–because in spots it looks as if no one has passed that way in a decade, even though I passed a few hikers on the trail (both ascending and descending) and I did see new-looking trail flashes on the trees periodically. Erosion has made the reinforced “steps” essentially useless, but there’s a beaten path beside them now, and I’d guess the stairs will get repaired as soon as time and finances permit. (This isn’t one of Nikkō’s better-known trails, so I’m sure the resources are being used to repair and maintain the more popular trails first, which makes good sense from many perspectives.)
The shot below shows an example of this hike’s only real drawback: in half a dozen places, it’s easy to get lost and go off course if you don’t have YAMAP or a similar trail map/compass/map to keep you oriented. The trail is marked by logging symbols and pink flashes, but the flashes are few and far between, and in several spots you have to be eagle-eyed to find them. From the tree with the yellow circle, the trail winds downward toward the tree (middle-right) with the pink trail flash, and then curves left again as it heads down through the forest.
The trail eventually ends at an underpass, which leads beneath the road and onto a paved path that passes a set of Jizō statues before arriving at the river and a bus stop. I missed the bus by five minutes, so I ended up continuing down the street to the main road, where I met my friend (one of the owners of Gableview) for coffee.
This was a great, relaxing hike on a lesser-known trail; not the best in terms of views, but after months in Tokyo I was really looking for a chance to stretch my legs and breathe some fresh forest air–and this hike delivered, with a some early autumn leaves as an excellent bonus. All in all, pretty much a perfect day-long getaway from the city.
Access/Trailhead: Tobu Nikkō Station (but it would only take five minutes longer if you leave from JR Nikkō).
Elevation Gain/Loss: 698 m ascent / 661 m descent (the discrepancy results from the fact that the “end” of the trail is at a slightly higher elevation than the station – I met a friend with a car when I got off the trail; it would take about 45 minutes–mostly downhill–to hike from the end of the trail back to Nikkō Station.)
Distance: 8.0 km
Time Spent: 5 hours (Including a coffee/lunch break. YMMV)
Note to the wise: This is a great hike, but it’s steep in places, and there are several spots where the trail can be difficult to find if you’re not hiking with a map. The hike is charted on the YAMAP app (search for Nakimushiyama), which made it much easier to stay on course.