Tag Archives: Gunma

An Unfinished Petra?

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A couple of years ago, there was a TV commercial in Japan for Google with a group of traveling friends who ask Google to locate the “Japanese Machu Pichu”. Google gives them the Takeda Castle in Hyogo Prefecture. Certainly there are some similarities – the stone remains of a mountaintop construction – but of course the scale of the Takeda Castle is much smaller, the mountain much lower, and the purpose of the initial construction quite different. It brings to mind how the highest ranges in Japan were christened the Japan Alps after the loftier and more extensive ranges of Europe.

Are these misnomers or do they bring false expectations? Are they exaggerations or blatant “wannabes”? Take them as you like. But I found the Petra of Japan last weekend.

I had originally planned to drive up Mt. Akagi to the crater lake and shrine for the national holiday on the 11th, but a road condition update stated that snow tires or chains would be necessary after last Thursday’s snow. Being aware that I may require a backup plan, I began searching the Web for places of interest around Mt. Akagi. That’s when I stumbled across a photo of the Yabuzuka Quarry in Ota City, just near the border to Kiryu in Gunma Prefecture.

The photo depicted towering stone walls cut into volcanic tuff. There seemed to be openings with chambers beyond. Trees and vegetation hung over the sheer cliffs. It immediately made me think of Petra in Jordan even though there were no ornate carvings and the rock type was not sandstone. What was the story behind this place? Upon first glance, I did not know it was a quarry. Further investigation revealed it to be so. Regardless of it not being an abode of ancient peoples, I wanted to go there, and it became the first stop for my companion and me early that holiday morning.

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There was no large parking lot and no tourist centre. No one and no structure was present to indicate that we were entering a historic site. A narrow road led into the hills and to the side there was a small graveled clearing capacious enough to accommodate at the best three economy-sized vehicles. A well-aged sign indicated that this was the entrance to the Yabuzuka Ishikiriba, or stone-cutting place. A simple path lead through the forest and into a gap cut into the hillside. Once through a narrow opening we stood in the centre of the old quarry, cliffs rising straight up all around us and an amphitheater leading off to the left to some dark chambers with a second open chamber before us. Steps appeared cut into the rock here and there but none ever reached ground level. Holes had been bored into the rock in places and in the one open chamber some wooden poles and platforms remained in place several metres above the ground. If this was Petra, it had only just been started before becoming abandoned.

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This, however, was not a Japanese Petra. The Yabuzuka Quarry was first opened in the middle Meiji Period. Around 1903 the quarry officially opened with up to 350 workers at its peak. The tuff – a rock made of compacted and consolidated volcanic ash from 20 million years ago – was easy to cut and was used as foundation stone in buildings. It was discovered though that tuff is very porous and easily absorbs water (it makes a great water filter as I learned in Miyagi two years ago). The rock here also contains small stones so that it was not the best quality for construction use, cheap though it was. By the Showa year 30 (1955) the quarry was closed. High up on the ceiling in the open chamber one can see some Kanji written in red and the year 1959.

The Yabuzuka Quarry makes for an interesting visit, and nearby there is the Yabuzuka hot spring spa, a country club, and a reptile centre.

It’s no Petra but we easily passed a couple of hours photographing the quarry ruins.

To see more photos, please visit my album on Flickr.

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A Day at Harunasan

Harunasan from Panorama Park in Konosu, Saitama

Harunasan from Panorama Park in Konosu, Saitama

I will admit that I never felt much of an inclination to visit Harunasan. Though it is one of the mountains visible from my area, one of the three Jomo Sanzan (上毛三山) mountains of Gunma Prefecture (along with Akagiyama and Myogisan) and a Nihyakumeizan (二百名山), there was nothing in particular about Haruna that called to me. So I finally had an excuse to visit the mountain when Wes (Tozan Tales and Hiking in Japan), who joined the discussion for Yama-to-Keikoku’s September issue last year, notified me of his winter holiday plan to visit Haruna with his wife and asked if I could join them for a day. Certainly I was pleased at the thought of a hike with good company and a day in the mountains is still a day of exercise, fresh air, and photography for fun. So there it was: I was going to visit Harunasan for a hike at last.

Harunafuji and Lake Haruna at dawn

Harunafuji and Lake Haruna at dawn

Wes’s plan included three full days of hiking around Haruna, from December 25th to the 27th. I chose to meet up with him and his wife on the 26th because the 25th was a family day for me and the 27th was his wife’s birthday and I didn’t want to intrude on her special day. As it turned out, in spite of fine weather lasting all three days, the 26th was the least favourable day to visit. First, there was a terrific cold Siberian wind blowing through that day and second, the visibility was poorest that day as many clouds obscured the mountain views. Wes and his wife had much more luck mountain spotting on the 25th and 27th and there was no bone-rattling wind howling through.

Ice on Lake Haruna

Ice on Lake Haruna

I drove up to Lake Haruna just around sunrise. The peaks were turning orange and I thought of where I could get a good photograph; however, once I passed the frozen side of the lake I was arrested by the orange reflections in the blue ice and stopped the car. I had brought my DSLR and just in case, my Pentax 6×7. I first grabbed just the digital and tripod and dashed across the street to capture some icy scenes. The wind quickly punished my foolishness of not having brought gloves. Before the first exposure I had to dig in my pockets and pull out a pair of mitts I had stuffed in there quite some time ago. The lure of the ice was too strong and before long I was down along the shore shooting ice abstracts and icy views across the lake.

300mm ice abstract

300mm ice abstract

At last, the call of nature sent me back to the car and driving to a public restroom that I had passed just a little down the road.
Back at the lakeshore, the sun had come up and was shining on the ice. I took my whole camera bag, thinking I was going to take out the 6×7. But the sunlit ice didn’t inspire as the shaded ice had and soon I decided it was time to go back to the car, eat something, and then find Wes’s hotel.

Ice detail on Lake Haruna

Ice detail on Lake Haruna

His description of the location was very good and it was easy to find. I tidied up my small car and put my son’s junior seat in the hatchback. I needed room for two adults and I couldn’t count on Wes’s wife, Kanako, being small enough for a child seat. I went into the hotel lobby and looked at a book about mountains of Gunma while I waited for the couple to come down. Soon we were ready to find the trailhead for our first hike.

The target was Haruna’s second highest peak, Soumasan – 1,411 metres (yes, I was a bit sad about no doing the highest peak but Wes and Kanako had done it the day before and Haruna is not far from my house with only just over two hours of driving between here and there). We passed Haruna Fuji and left the lakeside, driving past a moor and up a slope to reach the parking lot. We all bundled up in preparation for the wind, especially me as I had already shared some chill-inducing, blustery moments in it.

Wes begins hiking on the trail to Soumasan

Wes begins hiking on the trail to Soumasan

The hike was not to be long. With 1.6 km to the summit it was hardly a stroll to the corner store. The peak looked steep, rising up like a camel’s hump, but we only encountered one part with rusty iron ladders and chains.

Wes on the ladder section up Soumasan

Wes on the ladder section up Soumasan

The rest was rather easy, though the wind howled through like a bullet train at times. On the summit we were quite comfortable. A small structure for a shrine and several jizou kept the wind clear of us. The sun shone down and Wes checked the air temperature and found it was a balmy five degrees Celsius. We could see Fuji across the Chichibu Mountains and Asamayama’s white skirts hung below a gathering of clouds. Akagi was also being shy and the mountains of Nikko and Oze were not to be seen. In spots here and there, far and farther away, we were able to make out snowy flanks of mountains but no grand view presented itself other than the haze-enveloped Kanto Plains and the blue Chichibu Mountains.

Wes on Soumasan

Wes on Soumasan

The Kanto Plains from Soumasan - 1,411m

The Kanto Plains from Soumasan – 1,411m

Wes and Kanako with Soumasan in the background

Wes and Kanako with Soumasan in the background

From Soumasan we headed over to a large volcanic rock tower known as Surusu Iwa. Though it looked imposing – like a rotten molar jutting up from an otherwise toothless jaw bone – there was a steep gully on one side with a ladder near the top that we scaled. Surusu Iwa afforded up an inspiring view of Haruna Fuji and some lesser neighbouring mounds.

Surusu Iwa

Surusu Iwa

Me on Surusu Iwa with Harunafuji and Lake Haruna behind

Me on Surusu Iwa with Harunafuji and Lake Haruna behind

After some fun photos we descended and returned to the road to hike back to the car. Interestingly, we came back to the road right along the Melody Route. Parallel grooves have been etched into the asphalt with different groove spacing so that when a car drives over the grooves at a steady speed, the tune to “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” can be heard. We played the tune ourselves as we drove back to the lake.

We stopped for a lunch of noodles near the Haruna Fuji cable car entrance. This was also where a great display had been set up for night time illumination. Wes showed me a photo he had taken the night before and also a snippet of a video he had captured of fireworks over the lake.

The Haruna Story: Hundreds of thousands of years ago, Haruna was a conically shaped strato volcano. Explosive eruptions destroyed the cone and normal eruption activity restored it at least twice. The most recent eruption was about 1,400 years ago.

The Haruna Story: Hundreds of thousands of years ago, Haruna was a conically shaped strato volcano. Explosive eruptions destroyed the cone and normal eruption activity restored it at least twice. The most recent eruption was about 1,400 years ago.

There was one more stop planned and that was at Haruna Shrine. For this we had to drive back down the mountain a couple of kilometres. Maps both new and old showed an exciting walk to various shrine structures through what appeared to be a forest of rock towers. Earlier at Surusu Iwa I had noticed that the rock was similar to the breccia that composes Myogisan, a mountain famous for its rock towers and pinnacles. Unbeknownst to me, Haruna apparently also had a rock tower area. I went up the trail with high hopes and soon we came across our first natural feature, a stone arch up on the cliff side opposite us.

The arch near Haruna Shrine

The arch near Haruna Shrine

We were in the late afternoon light as we stopped here and there to photograph the temples and occasional natural scenes as well. There were some very impressive cedars of noteworthy girth and ice in the ravine below. The rock towers, however, were not easy to appreciate because they loomed over the trees immediately behind the temples and at least one was cloaked in wire fence to prevent rocks from tumbling down. In the shade of the deep ravine there was no sunlit to illuminate the rock towers and against the bright blue sky they did not make for good photographs. At the end of the temple area there was a wall of concrete in the ravine serving to control the erosion of the ravine, and just beyond that I spied a pillar of rock reaching into the sunlight. This was the Rock of Nine Folds (九折岩), and indeed from a certain angle it looked as though it had been folded in zigzag fashion like origami. I managed a few shots before I had to dash to catch up with Wes and Kanako who were already on the way down the path that followed the water’s edge back to the entrance.

The Rock of Nine Folds - 九折岩

The Rock of Nine Folds – 九折岩

The final stops for the day were at a frozen waterfall and then at the arch again. There was a hasty pullover on the way back up to the lake as the moon rose up behind two peaks. After dropping off Wes and Kanako at their accommodation, I made another quick stop at the lakeside to shoot the twilight glow over the water. And then it was time to go back home.

Moon over a hotel at Lake Haruna

Moon over a hotel at Lake Haruna

Now that I know a little about Harunasan I think I will likely return sometime in the near future. I would like to see those rock towers in different light and hike up past the Rock of Nine Folds. I’d also like to get up to the highest summit. For now, I think it might be a nice place to visit with the kids when things warm up a bit.

Harunafuji and Soumasan viewed from Panorama Park in Konosu, Saitama

Harunafuji and Soumasan viewed from Panorama Park in Konosu, Saitama