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Great Escapes Hiking Mt. Kawanori
(Entered Jun. 30, 2009)
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Rainy season may not be ideal for hiking, but sometimes you just have to take what you're given. Kumi and I woke up early Sunday morning to grey skies and imminent rain, but we decided to bite the bullet and just head out anyway.
Mt. Kawanori is located in Okutama, the westernmost area of Tokyo, and getting here requires a bit of time. Even using the special Okutama Holiday express it still takes a good 2 hours from Shinjuku, so an early start is essential if you want to fit this hike into a day. At 7+ hours, it's the longest hike we've done so far, as well as the most grueling.

kawanori hiking map

From Okutama station you'll need to take a bus (crammed full of hikers) headed for Kawanori-bashi. I figured everyone was going the same place as us, but when we got off I was surprised when most of the hundred or so other hikers didn't all get off with us. Not sure where they were headed, but I wasn't complaining. Still, at least 25 people were milling around the starting point, chatting, adjusting gear, streching, not to mention the obligatory few who wanted to power up their hiking lungs with a smoke or two. I resolved to let them all get ahead of Kumi and I. After putting on our boots, checking the bus timetable, our map, etc, they were all long gone, and we began a leisurely pace up the road.
Unfortunately the paved section lasted a long time, about 45 minutes up. Although our pace was pretty relaxed, it was steady and we did pass a few of the stragglers, probably the smokers.

kawanori paved road

Finally the pavement ended and the trail began. Mt. Kawanori is perhaps the first 'true' hike I've done in Japan so far. The trail is well defined, but there is little in the way of man-made contrivances to coddle or annoy you. No concrete, very few of those horrible 'hiking steps' that are always spaced too widely apart, no wooden benches or pavilions for rest stops, no temples or vending machines waiting for you on top.... It was perhaps for these reasons that, with the exception of the crowd at the beginning of the hike, we rarely saw any other people for the rest of the day.

kawanori trail start

Mt. Kawanori is all about water. The trail (up) follows a mountain stream, so small waterfalls, river pools, the sound of water splashing over rocks, etc. are with you almost the whole way up, all of which made this one of the more enjoyable hikes I've done. Not all the waterfalls are small either, Hyakuhiro falls (about 2.5 hours from our starting point) was about 40 meters high. Getting a close up shot was almost impossible as the falls were so high that they generated an impressive amount of wind and mist. Even from a safe vantage point my Tokina lens was getting a bit too fogged up for my comfort.
Of course with so much fresh water around, I had to take a dip. Taking off my boots and removing the leggings of my hiking pants I waded into the small pool in front of the falls, but the water must have just melted yesterday and although I tried four times, it was too icy to enter for more than a few seconds.

kawanori hyakuhiro waterfall

Up until Hyakuhiro falls, the trail had been pretty tame, but as we began our final acsent of Mt. Kawanori, the previous gentle rise turned into the climb of death. With the exception of Mt. Fuji, this was definitely the toughest climb I have yet done. Conversation dried up, photography was forgotten, both of us just concentrated in putting one foot in front of the other in the hopes of making it to the top of this seemingly never ending trail...
But of course it did end eventually. Here we are, finally on the peak of Mt. Kawanori, which translates roughly to 'ride the river' mountain.
To be honest there wasn't much to see from the top. The trees effectively screened out any view except for one small area, maybe about 30 degrees wide.

kawanori peak Kumi

Like we'd sent the clouds some sort of signal, within a couple of minutes of reaching the peak, it started pouring rain. I took the shot below seconds before the downpour hit. Luckily for us though we both had rain gear. Kumi had just bought a new and expensive rain coat last week. Fortuitous timing.
Even without the rain, we realized that we pretty much had to start heading down right now or risk being caught out in the mountains at night, and I hadn't brought my headlamp with me this time. So down we went, after being on the peak for only about 5 minutes....

kawanori peak before rain

On the way down there was a sudden burst of frog/toad activity. I kept a running total and by the time we'd reached the bottom I had counted 17 frogs ranging in size from large to massive. The first one was a surprise, and Kumi and I paused for a while to get a better look. I even took out the D80 in the pouring rain just to get a few pics. However by the time we'd passed the tenth, we barely even glanced anymore. It was good to see so many though, and I can only imagine how many were around that we didn't see. Most were a greyish brown like the one below, but a couple were a brick red colour. They all seemed to react differently to us as well. Some hopped away quickly, some froze in the hopes of going unnoticed, while some didn't seem bothered by us at all. One frog was so scared he hopped straight up in the air as we approached. Another sat challengingly in the middle of the path and only reluctantly moved after a few seconds of standing toe to toe with me, or toe to head I suppose.

kawanori toad

The way back was long, wet and except for the toads, uneventful to the point of being boring. Even with good rain gear, hiking in a downpour is only fun for a few minutes, then it quickly becomes miserable. It took us about 2 hours to reach the bottom but it seemed more like two days. Your whole existence becomes the ache in your knees, shins and toes from constantly decending, something neither of us have gotten used to.
Still, the first half of the hike was exceptional, and even though the decent in the rain was tough, it's the kind of memory that seems much better in retrospect. I'm already looking forward to my next hike!



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