- From Skyscrapers to Summits
- An Abundance of Nature
- Two Day Hikes from Tokyo
- River Gorges & Shinto Shrines
- Protecting and Enjoying Nature
From Skyscrapers to Summits
There is currently a total of 34 National Parks in Japan, covering about 6% of the country area. Compare that with 60 in the US, covering 3%, and 15 in the UK, covering 8%. However, since Japan is an elongated archipelago 3000 km long, distances between parks, and from Tokyo, can be huge. For example:
- – The Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park in Hokkaido, is 1000 km North of Tokyo (but only a 100km from Russia),
- – The Iriomote-Ishigaki National Park located in Okinawa, is 2000 km South-West of Tokyo (but only 200 km from Taiwan)
- – The Ogasawara National Park in the Eastern Tokyo islands, is 1000 km South from Tokyo (close to nowhere).
Fortunately, there is one park that sits within the boundaries of the Tokyo metropolis: the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park (“Chichibu-Tama-Kai Kokuritsu Koen” 秩父多摩甲斐国立公園). Its Eastern edge is less than 50km away from Shinjuku. One can get to Ikusabata 軍畑 station at the border of the park, in about 80 minutes, from where there is a hiking trail up Mt Takamizu (759m), the Easternmost peak inside the park. On a clear day, it’s possible to see the city skyscrapers, as well as the Tokyo Sky Tree from some of the summits like Mt Mitake (929m); it’s truly a wonderful feeling to leave the big city early in the morning, and by noon, to be gazing down at the urban sprawl from high above.
The biggest town located within the park is Okutama Town with a population of about 5000. It is the last stop on the Okutama railway line, making it by far the easiest way to get inside the National Park (there are direct trains from Shinjuku on the weekend). There is a visitor center just outside the station: a good place to get information on hiking trails and bus timetables. From the station there are buses that can take you to places further into the park like the Okutama dam and the Nippara limestone caves.
An Abundance of Nature
Although it isn’t considered one of the most beautiful national parks in Japan, Chichibu-Tama-Kai is one of the largest in size: 1250 km². In addition to the Western part of Tokyo prefecture, it also covers parts of Saitama, Yamanashi, Nagano prefectures. As for the park’s name, “Tama” is a river flowing through the Tokyo part, “Chichibu” is a city in Saitama, and “Kai” is the old name of Yamanashi.
The park’s elevation ranges from only 200m on the Tokyo side, to 2601m in the Yamanashi part. The entire terrain is mountainous and includes a series of peaks above 2000m, six of which belong to the hundred famous mountains of Japan: Mt Kumotori (2017m), Mt Daibosatsu (2057m), Mt Kobushi (2475m), Mt Kinpu (2599m), Mt Mizugaki (2230m) and Mt Ryokami (1723m). Up to 2000m, the mountain sides are covered with a mix of deciduous and coniferous trees. Above, the vegetation becomes subalpine, then alpine, and dominantly coniferous.
Although the treeline is around 2500m, there are enough open spaces to allow for fantastic panoramic views. Mt Fuji can be seen to the South from many peaks inside the park, especially on the Yamanashi side. Mt Asama, and the peaks of Mt Yatsugatake, can be seen from certain spots in the Saitama part of the park. It’s important to note that there are no volcanoes inside the park, somewhat of a rarity in Japan.
Several well-known rivers have their sources within the boundaries of the park. The Tamagawa 多摩川, which runs along the Southern border of Tokyo, has its source near Mt Kasatori 笠取山 (1953m). The Arakawa river 荒川 which flows through Northern Tokyo, and the Chikuma river 千曲川, which flows through Nagano prefecture all the way to the Sea of Japan, both start near Mt Kobushi. The latter is the longest river in Japan (367 km).
Two Day Hikes from Tokyo
Naturally, the main activity is hiking, and there are hundreds of kilometers of trails as well as several manned and unmanned lodges and huts; the one near the top of Mt Kumotori can lodge up to 200 people. With so many mountains and trails to choose from, there are a couple that stand out in terms of accessibility and beautiful scenery.
Mt Mito 三頭山 (1531m) in Tokyo prefecture can be reached by bus (March to November) from Musashi itsukaichi station 武蔵五日市 (direct trains run from Shinjuku on the Weekends). The name means “Three Heads”, since there are 3 summits. It takes a couple of hours to reach the highest point from the bus stop from where there is a good view of Mt Fuji. The area is known as the “Tokyo citizen’s forest” 都民の森 and there is a museum and basic restaurant on the way up.
Mt Daibosatsu 大菩薩嶺 (2057m) in Yamanashi prefecture can be reached by minibus (April to early December) from Kaiyamato 甲斐大和 station on the Chuo line, about 90mn from Shinjuku station (change in Otsuki). It’s a dramatic ride along a narrow mountain road that takes you to 1500m, especially exciting if there is snow early in the season. From the bus stop it’s a fairly easy hike to the Daibosatsu pass, part of the Edo era road that used to connect Tokyo with Yamanashi. The ridge above the huts has beautiful views of Mt Fuji and the South Alps. However, the view from the highest point is obstructed by trees.
River Gorges & Shinto Shrines
Not all trails lead up a mountain: the parks includes beautiful river valleys and extensive shrine complexes that make for more relaxing hiking. Nishizawa gorge 西沢渓谷 in Yamanashi can be reached by bus from Enzan station on the Chuo line (90 min from Shinjuku by express train). A 90mn hiking trail will take you to “Nanatsugama Godan no Taki” where you can view an impressive series of small falls. You can make a loop back to the starting point (another 90mn) along the side of the valley, and at one point following abandoned railway tracks.
Shosenkyo 昇仙峡 also in Yamanashi can be reached by bus from Kofu station (90 min from Shinjuku by express train). The paved path along the river gorge is shorter and easier to walk than Nishizawa, but also more crowded. The Shosenkyo ropeway will lift you up to the top of the ridge where there are great views of Mt Fuji and Mt Kinpu.
Mitake shrine 御岳神社 in Tokyo prefecture sits near the top of Mt Mitake, and is accessible by bus and funicular from Mitake station. Mitsumine shrine 三峯神社 sits on the lower section of Mt Kumotori at 1102m, and is accessible by bus from the Mitsumine-guchi station on the Chichibu line (there used to be a funicular but it is now defunct). Both shrines were apparently founded about 2000 years ago, and draw numerous visitors all year round. Both places have visitor centers.
Protecting and Enjoying Nature
I’ve been to the area myself many times, mainly for the purpose of hiking, and the East-West central mountain ridge from Mt Kumotori to Mt Kinpu definitely has that national park feel. Glorious views, deep forests, and rocky mountains faces are plentiful. However, the areas surrounding the Tama and Arakawa river valleys are slightly more developed than you’d expect to find inside a National Park. In fact, there are few reminders that you are inside a National Park.
In addition to small towns and villages, there are busy roads, hot spring facilities, Japanese-style inns, souvenir shops, soba restaurants and farms. Fields are fenced, sometimes electrically and a certain amount of hunting, animal trapping and fishing is allowed. Many rivers have a dam at one point. In general, the trails are well maintained and signposted, but you won’t find a system of wooden walkways like in the National Parks of Nikko and Oze.
In the end, it’s important to remind oneself that the purpose of the National Park is to protect and conserve areas of natural beauty, but at the same time enable people to visit, so that they can enjoy and learn more about nature. In such a populous and mountainous country such as Japan, it’s truly amazing that so much of the country’s area has been set aside for this purpose. I’ve had some amazing encounters with deer with fully-grown antlers, and Japanese macaques, and I have to constantly pinch myself that I am only a handful of hours from home in the center of Tokyo.