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Travels: Kirifuri Kougen: Tochigi Prefecture, Japan

Noon at the Kirifuri Highland
When you look at the map of Nikko, there are 3 major attractions. There’s Nikko town proper, with all its UNESCO temples where the majority of tourists are dropped, then to the west there’s Lake Chuzenji and the Onsen at the end of the road, including Senjogahara, which I did in the last trip… and finally there’s the east with Kirifuri highlands. And a visit is not over till I’ve gone to Kirifuri, which is the destination this week. Mountains, forests, valleys & cows!

Its a similar early morning sight. I am having a McGriddles at the McDonalds at Asakusa in the alley near to the Tobu railway station, waiting for the Tobu Sightseeing Center to open its doors at 7:45am to buy the 4400yen All Nikko Pass. The current expectation is that this will not be as impressive as the latter but the only way to find out would be to go and have a look.

Tobu-Nikko Train Stationmaster's office (Leica M6, 50mm Summicron)

While having my McGriddles, it looks as though the bus ride to Kirifuri Kogen will be cheaper to go a-la-carte rather than a full All Nikko pass. A bus ride to Kirifuri cost just about 650 yen according to the web. Making the quick decision to jump on the next available train to Nikko without waiting for the sightseeing centre to open. Looks like I don’t need the All-Nikko pass this time.  Again, cheapest ticket is the 2hr train to Tobu Nikko at 1320yen. The limited express trains costs double as they have reserved seats and possibly half an hour quicker. They seem to call these limited express and the services have names like Kegon and Kinu. For me, I can spend 30 minutes extra. Everything is routine now for me with the Tobu station at Asakusa. This is my third time here. Buy ticket, go to platform 5 and board the first 2 trains away from the station entrance. Remember, the other train cars get left behind on the way to Tobu Nikko.

Going without a map. I don’t have a map anyway, and the online sites are not that great for information on Kirifuri. I just know that I eventually will have to find a bus to get to Kirifuri Kogen. The Tobu-Nikko station has a very good tourist centre with maps and information and especially bus timetables. What is not lacking is the cameras that I am bringing to survey the place. Still wished I had my GPS with me, but have my standard issue Ricoh GRD, Leica M6 with 50mm Summicron and borrowed a Hasselblad 503CX with a Carl Zeiss 80mm T* lens, just to test out the square 6×6 format for landscape photography. Weather forecast is cloudy and possibility of rain in the afternoon. No risk for me, lugging around a japanese transparent umbrella as getting drenched is not fun when hiking. Kirifuri highlands is supposed to be named after something to do with foggy mountains. Thinking about it, I’m hoping very much for a break in the weather and not for it to be too misty.

0924hrs on the Tobu-Nikko Rapid train: This train is very different from the last train I took to Nikko. It seems to be made up primarily of normal looking folks, rather than the previous 6:20am first train that I took before which was full of hikers. On this train, we have girls with bug-eyed shades (hardly the type that spends times outdoors), salary men (in japan-speak, those are people dressed in formal business suits, allowing for the summer cool-biz tieless style) and old people going shopping. There are many stops on the way to Nikko, so probably they will drop out on the way. No obvious tourists on this train, save for this Pinoy looking girl asking to borrow my blackberry to make a call. Too bad it just does emails, which is all I need for this trip. Of course she didn’t know I have this Nokia E61 tucked away in the dark recesses of my bag.

Ricoh GR Digital: On the Tobu-Nikko train

Zipping past the Japanese country side, I don’t spend too much time looking out anymore since this is getting rather routine. Farms, small towns, farms, small towns. Time to load the Leica with my favourite Kodak 160NC film. The Hasselblad will be loaded much later as I have 4 types of films (if you are interested, provia 400x, provia 100f, fuji pro160C, kodak 400tx) depending on the weather nearer to Nikko.

Resting Taxi Drivers (Leica M6, 50mm Summicron)

1006hrs Shimo-Imaichi station: watching the Tobu station masters cut loose the first 2 cars of this train which will go all the way to the last station at Tobu-Nikko. Nothing special, some conductor closes the door, and probably manually or automatically cuts loose something. I did not bothered to look. Now I am in a short 2 car train, that does not seem to be moving any faster despite the lighter weight. Oh well. Hurtling along, not many more stops to Nikko.

3 Chairs (Ricoh GR Digital)

1029hrs Tobu Nikko Station: I just love Japan. The bus schedules are accurate to the minute. And it is planning time now. I have with me the bus schedules and a hiking map that I just obtained from the tourist centre. The next bus that goes to Kirifuri Kogen is at 1056hrs and arrives at 1122hrs at Kirifuri Kogen. Compared to Senjogahara, this is a quick ride. Bus stop is 2D starts on the right of the Tobu station. Last bus back is around 1619hrs at Kirifuri Kogen, so according to the hiking map (with times between waypoints) I will only have time for the summit and no time to walk back to the station. The plan then would be to spend a couple of hours circling the peak of Mount Maruyama and then catch the last bus back from Kirifuri Kogen to Kirifuri-no-taki-iriguchi (my japanese is improving, means entrance to the popular Kirifuri waterfall) and then trek down 2km to the station. Since the last train is around 6 pm I will have time aplenty. All these information are from 2 pieces of paper I obtained from the tourist info booth at the Tobu station. All hail Japanese efficiency. Now for the 20 mins wait for the bus 2D. Looks like Kirifuri Kogen is also sometimes spelled Kirifuri Kougen.

1205hrs Mount Maruyama (probably): Moms always teach their kids not to be stupid. Arrived at the Kirifuri Kogen bus stop, which happens to be the last stop for this bus, and after the obligatory photo with the GR, and after helping 2 girls take their photos complete with the victory sign, decided to walk up the first stage of the mountain instead of taking the 500 yen ski lift. Mistake Number 1. The hill climb is not more than 300m, but it is quite steep and by the time I get to the top of the first ski lift (out of 3)  I was already sweating profusely. It is just brutal. And by the time I got up there, the mist starts to come in, and the views are just white… nothing in the horizon but just white. This is a hard decision, chances are by the time I get to the top of Maruyama, I will just see white. Hardly the ideal place to be with a Hasselblad. Quick decisions, on the hiking map, it seems as though there’s another option. Instead of going uphill, this will be mainly downhill.

So, the plan goes like this: downhill across the main road, down to a valley (on the map, there’s a danger logo, ah well), then up towards Mount Ohyama (Big Mountain!) with the logo of a cow, probably means Ohsasa Pastures according to the Nikko tourist website. Then it swings downhill along a valley and along a river down to Kirifuri waterfall. Sounds like a plan.

Hiking path with thick undergrowth (Ricoh GR Digital)

The route from foot of Maruyama downhill to the main road is simple and pleasing. This way is probably a downhill ski path during winter. There’s a large swath of clearing and a path along one side of it. Easy downhill in summer. But this is where it is misleading. Once I reach the road, the path goes under the main road, and suddenly I’m in a forest with heavy undergrowth and forest canopy. Along with the fog that is not clearing, its quite a peaceful and worrying surrounding. Can’t see too far in front of me, and the path is sometimes obscured by the knee height undergrowth. My umbrella doubles as a bushwacker. All along this goes down hill. I try to be careful since I’m on my jogging shoes and not my usual trekking shoes. This ones on for a little more than half and hour, and the interesting thing is that if I changed my mind, I probably cannot turn back since its quite steep uphill and its not that easy to spot the path! So its a one way route. Downhill.

Forest canopy in Kirifuri (Ricoh GR Digital)

After a while I reach a river crossing. It is more of a valley with a dried up river, but the moss on the rocks are making the crossing quite tedious, if not dangerous. Since I’m still halfway up the hill, a slip and I tumble downhill. Not an option for sure. Takes some balls to go thru heavy undergrowth in a pair of bermudas! After the river crossing, its almost a full hour in the forest and under heavy tree cover, with the haze still there. Its dark for noon, and occasional drizzle (lucky I brought the umbrella! even though it didn’t look too stylish). After the uneventful trek in the forest, I come across a barbed wire fence with a platform to get across. Quite obvious this is a anti-cow barrier. Means that I should be quite close to Ohyama.

Ohsasa Pasture minus the cows (Ricoh GR Digital)

1412hrs On the Ohsasa Pasture: After a while, I come to a clearing. I’m guessing this is the pasture, and I start to smell some cow dung. Bull shit. Its not that bad a smell, quite obvious the cows here eat good stuff! The problem is that I know that I am going uphill on a cleared pasture dotted with lone trees but I cannot see the horizon because of the fog. I can see the fog moving, but never get a good view of the whole place.  I don’t see no cows neither, although I can seem to hear them “coughing”, whatever that is. The scene is quite surreal, I’m on a large field but I cannot see the end of it, and after some time walking uphill, I cannot even see where I came from. The trail is not that clear, meaning that there are not that many hikers that tread through this path, so at some areas, the path seems to disappear. And I am the only person here, and that adds to the experience.

Cow-proof gates (Ricoh GR Digital)

After a while I am jumping over fences, and following signs and diving deep into forests with thick undergrowths, going away from the cows which I have not seen so yet, and suddenly I come across what looks like private farms. There are gates, and sometimes they are chained shut. Strangely those are the routes I want to take, so there were at least 2 gates where I had to follow my instinct and jump over or under the gates. The maps could be a little more accurate, I have no idea where I am, but I think this is the right way. Dodging bullshit on the road, and improvising my trek to get back to the main road.

Three trees (Leica M6, 50mm Summicron)

So this went on for at least 1 hour till I reached the valley floor. The trees start to get denser and sound of waterfalls are everywhere. Eventually after some switchbacks on the road, I reached alongside a river. Saw some monkeys there, seemingly unafraid of me. There are entrances to the trail, but I don’t think I have time for another shot at it. So I keep to the bitumen, and after another climb uphill, I’m out of the hike onto the main road.

Fog lifting at Kirifuri Highlands (Leica M6, 50mm Summicron)

Wanted dead or alive? (Ricoh GR Digital)

1504hrs Kakuresantaki Iriguchi: Exited onto the main road where the buses run. Still have power in my legs after all those uphill and downhills and bushwacking, and in the comfort zone while twiddling my thumbs on my blackberry. I am probably the only guy on the hiking trail that is using a blackberry in the forest! While I was typing an email just a while ago, passed 2 hikers waiting for the bus clearly surprised to see someone walking out of the forest and typing on a bb, a Hasselblad swung across my chest and a Leica M6 from the neck. Nice to see civilization after 4 hours in the woods and pastures! Since the bus is coming only in 20 mins, I will walk all the way to the Kirifuri waterfall, which should be about 1km downhill. Easy.

Barrier at Kakuresantaki entrance (Leica M6, 50mm Summicron)

Abandoned guardhouse (Leica M6, 50mm Summicron)

1405hrs Kirifuri-no-taki: When you see the entrance to the waterfall, you know that this is a major tourist attraction. Large parking lots, restaurants, vending machines and all that. There is a path that leads to the waterfall viewing platform and it runs about 300-400m. The waterfall itself is on the other side of the valley, and is quite a big one so it is probably not that easy to lead the masses to the bottom itself to view it. Anyway, Kegon is a much larger one. Took a couple of shots on the 6×6 and on the M6 and its time to run out to the main road to catch the 1429hrs last bus to Tobu Nikko Station.

Crowds at Kirifuri Waterfall viewing platform (Leica M6, 50mm Summicron)

Kirifuri Waterfall (Hasselblad 503CX, 80mm f2.8 T*)

1656hrs Tobu Nikko station platform 4: back in the train bound for Asakusa, sitting in my usual seat next to the entrance. Had to loosen my Asics as its soaked. The forest undergrowth were mostly wet and I’m glad I got back to the train on time. Caught the last bus to return from the Kirifuri Kougen (that would be 4:26pm japanese precise timing) and then the next standard train leaving at 4:58pm. The weather is not getting better, in fact, here in Nikko the view of the mountains are starting to be veiled in a heavy coat of cloud. Probably won’t rain but reminds me of the cow pasture just now!

Nice car! (Leica M6, 50mm Summicron)

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