One of the best aspects of hiking in Japan is that you can enjoy it all year round. The distinctness of the seasons lends the trees different colors throughout the year; crimson in fall, fresh green in summer, sugar pink in spring and sparkling with frost in winter. Another attraction is the beautiful temples and shrines, which stand out like hidden treasures amongst the foliage. Mitake, in the Ōme area is a recommended hike for anyone who wants to enjoy the natural beauty of Japan, and sample some local products along the way.
A gentle hike to Sawai station.
On arriving at Mitake station, you’ll start to notice the real ‘rural’ feel of the place. The station building is tiny and quaint and the landscape is a lush green. You’ll also be amazed at the scale of the scenery; the towering bridges and mountains will make you feel very small! From here there are a number of routes you can take. If you’re feeling intrepid, you can take the Mitake Tozan Railway funicular or hike up to the peak of Mt. Mitake, which affords some wonderful views. Hiking to the top of Mt. Mitake is challenging, so allow yourself plenty of time if you pick this option. If you would rather have a more leisurely walk, the trail to Sawai station is recommended as it is relaxed and suitable for children. You’ll also be able to follow the picturesque Tama River and see the yuzu trees, restaurants, and a sake brewery along the way.
The charming Gyokudo Art Museum
The best route to take to Sawai station is to cross over the road from the station and head left and down the slope toward the river. From there, you’ll be able to take the path to the right or left. The path to the right will take you on a charming walk up to and across a huge bridge. After crossing the bridge, double back and you will walk past the Gyokudo Art Museum, one of the many art galleries in the area. Here you’ll be able to find the works of Gyokudo Kawai, whose intricate monochrome and color landscape paintings are well worth seeing. Entrance to the museum costs 500 JPY (approximately 4 USD) for adults and 200 JPY (approximately 1 USD) for children.
Brilliant maples and crystal clear water
If you visit Mitake in fall (late November, depending on the temperature), you’ll be struck by the wonderful contrast in colors between the vivid red maple leaves and the turquoise waters of the river. The trees are also gorgeous in late summer, as you will be able to see a wonderful range of colors from green through yellow to red as the leaves change. Make sure you have a camera handy!
You’ll also be impressed by the sheer size of the Tama River. The river’s crystal clear waters support a variety of wildlife including sweetfish, herons and kingfishers. Kayakers also come to enjoy the benefits of the fast flowing waters and can be seen racing each other downstream.
Yuzu, tofu and sake
After crossing the second bridge, which offers some fantastic photo opportunities, turn right to get back onto the path to Sawai station. The route is very simple- just follow the river! Along the way, you’ll notice a proliferation of yuzu trees. These small, Japanese citrus fruits are a popular ingredient of both sweet and savory dishes and are similar to both oranges and lemons in appearance and flavor. You’ll be able to purchase a bag of yuzu using the honesty boxes next to the path. The fragrant peel of the fruits is perfect for boiling to make delicious yuzu tea.
If you’re feeling hungry, The Mamagotoya restaurant specializes in tofu and yuba. Yuba, or “tofu skin” is skimmed off boiling soy milk during the production of tofu. Although it may sound unusual, it’s rich in protein and considered an expensive delicacy. Eating at Mamagotoya is a little pricey for around 4,400 JPY (35 USD) upwards per person, but you will have the opportunity to try a variety of delicately prepared traditional dishes while enjoying the beautiful wooden décor and river view. If you are hiking on a budget, the Sawanoien Seiryū café just opposite serves more reasonably priced favorites such as curry udon. You can even enjoy your meal with some of the local Sawanoi sake!
Kanzanji, a hidden jewel
Just across from the café and restaurant, you will come across yet another bridge. This will take you across to the tiny Kanzanji temple. Apparently this temple was built in honor of the Hanshan temple in China, after which it takes its name. The view from the top of the staircase is amazing, and the temple itself is richly decorated with beautiful pictures on the ceiling. At the bottom, you’ll be able to strike a metal bell to announce your visit. Children will love making a lot of noise!
On the way back across the bridge, follow the path up the hill to the station. You’ll pass the Sawanoi Sake brewery on the way. Tours of the brewery are available, although they are in Japanese only and need to be booked in advance. You will receive a free sample of sake after the tour though!
Getting to Either Mitake or Sawai station takes around 1.5-2 hours from Tokyo. Change at Ōme station and take the Ōme line towards Okutama. On your return journey, remember that the trains run fairly infrequently and can be crowded on weekends.
Enjoy a pleasant walk with some unexpected delights
Mitake is a fantastic place to take photographs, experience Japan’s seasons and culture, or simply to relax in the fresh air. You’ll be amazed that it’s so close to Tokyo and will want to visit again and again.
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