Friday, 20 February 2015

Ogawa-machi (小川町), Saitama: Mountains, Temples, Forests, Farms


The mountains of Chichibu and Oku-Musashi in Saitama, north of Tokyo, recede into clusters of lowland hills around the centre of the prefecture, giving way towards the great Kanto Plain in the east. The settlement of Ogawa-machi (小川町), nestled amidst this transition zone, is a historic Japanese countryside town of about 35,000 people known for its long traditions of washi paper-making and sake brewing, both nourished by the area's high-quality mountain water. In recent decades Ogawa has also emerged as one of Japan's leading organic agriculture centres, with certain farms gaining high national profile for their pursuit of sustainable systems in energy, waste management, and food production.

It was here that I opened my hiking for the year 2015 with this restful walk through Ogawa's surrounding lowlands and neighbourhoods. The first half crosses a couple of low peaks overlooking the town, offering two consecutive 360-degree views for a really not so demanding climb. The second half winds through the outskirts of the town and lets you soak in the flavour of its farms, shrines, temples and peaceful neighbourhoods.


This is an easy walk, about 8km long, and requires only 3 to 4 hours to complete. There is only one significant uphill stretch, to get onto the adjacent peaks of Kannokura-yama (官ノ倉山) and Sekison-san (石尊山), both less than 350m high. Do be prepared though for one or two scrambles down gravelly slopes, including one that involves holding a chain for support.

To get there, go to Ikebukuro and take a Tōbu Tōjō line express train all the way to the end to Ogawamachi station, a ride of about 1 hour. Change onto a local train (on the same line) to go one stop further to bu Takezawa (東部竹沢) station. The walk ends back at Ogawamachi station, in the town centre.

Click the link below for more photos and route guidance.


From the station, go right through the tunnel to come out at the West Exit. Turn left, and follow this road across a railway crossing and the intersection with National Route 299, going straight on all the way. Keep going through a neighbourhood of houses and farms, ignoring any turnoffs.

Something one does not see every day: a car wash in bucolic retirement, perhaps reflecting on its many long years of service.

After about 20 minutes, you reach the Sankō Shrine (三光神社).

Sankō Shrine (三光神社).

Passing the shrine on your right, follow the road a bit further until a sign to Kannokura-yama directs you left onto an unpaved lane. This goes uphill to Ten'ō-ike (天王池), “pond of the heavenly king”, and the start of the trail up the mountain.


Heading up this section, something very strange happened: some kind of loudspeaker system suddenly sent the strains of Edelweiss reverberating up the valley. This was probably one of the more surreal moments in my Japanese hiking experience.

video

From here there is a simple climb of about half an hour through the woods. It is not too steep, and you can take as long as you need. Once at the top, turn left for one more short climb to the top of Kannokura-yama (官ノ倉山).

A purple mystery in the forest...

There is a nice view at the summit almost all the way around. In front of you, north, will be the lowland peaks and towns of this part of Saitama, and in the far distance some more formidable mountains up in Gunma. Deeper Chichibu can be glimpsed behind you.

Two white-capped peaks are just visible in the far murk. Can you see them?
Chichibu, in the other direction.

If you look to the right, you will see that the other little mountain here, Sekison-san (石尊山), is just next door. Descend towards it and bear left; it is only a few minutes away. It offers a similar range of vistas, only here you can look across Ogawa itself. Note the small shrines here too.

Sekison-san (石尊山).
Looking back at Kannokura-yama.
Ogawa-machi (小川町).
The town centre. The high street runs left to right. The train station is just out of view to the left, though you can see the railway itself.

Continuing east, you come to a slightly trickier scramble downhill. It can get steep or gravelly, so take it slow, especially at the part where there is a chain for you to hold onto. Fortunately this is the only real technical challenge of the walk.

Soon after the path evens out again is Kitamuki Fudō (北向不動), a small temple installation in the woods.

Looking back up at the fun chain part.
Kitamuki Fudō (北向不動).

Shortly thereafter the path emerges into the open. There were some major works going on here when I did this walk, but essentially you want to go right off the path, across to the small building in view that is in fact a public toilet. From here you are back on paved road.


With that you complete the mountain part of the walk, and proceed into the outskirts part. At a two-way fork, turn right as signposted for Chōfuku-ji. Soon after another sign directs you right, across a narrow bridge and onto a dirt path again. Follow this through a pleasant bamboo grove, crossing one paved road before emerging onto another. Turn left onto this and follow it around to the right past the aforementioned temple, Chōfuku-ji (長福時).

This looks like an old warehouse, built out of stone for fireproofing like the famous ones in Kawagoe.
Chōfuku-ji (長福時).

Continuing up the same road, go left across a bridge then right at a T-junction. Across to the left will appear a busier road: turn right as you near it to meet it diagonally, then cross right there and continue up the lane opposite, following the larger road parallel for a bit. The lane will curve away up a hill; stay on it but take the left turn just before it starts to descend again. Along here on the left are the grounds of the Hachiman Shrine (八幡神社) – pop in for a look when you reach the entrance.

Hachiman Shrine (八幡神社).

It was around this point that I was approached for investigation by a curious resident.


Finally, exit the grounds to the right of the buildings, at a right-angle from where you entered. There should be a long straight road stretching ahead of you: follow this all the way, through a large torii then curving downhill. Turn right at the bottom and head on till you come to the Seiun Brewery (晴雲酒造) on the left, identifiable from its red brick tower. Turn left after it, heading on through the first traffic lights then turning left afterwards onto Ogawa's main shopping street. There are some nice and interesting shops along here to explore if you wish, but when you are done, Ogawamachi station (小川町駅) awaits at the end.

Seiun Brewery (晴雲酒造).
Ogawamachi station (小川町駅).

For one last bonus, turn left once you come to the station area and go to the left corner. You can enter the shop there and purchase some tasty and relatively nutritious doughnuts made of okara, or lees, the residue from tofu production.

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