Tag Archives: Saitama scenery

Walking to Gunma

Once there was a time when I traveled around Japan and even around the world to photograph and explore landscapes. These days, I am restricted to wherever I can go for a few hours in the early mornings. That means I spend my photography time fairly locally, and for the last few years I have been concentrating on exploring the mountain roads in western Saitama Prefecture. After moving to Kumagaya City, I am now within a half-hour’s drive of the local mountains, and there’s a convenient toll road that gets me way out into the heart of the mountain region in less than another half hour.

During the beginning of May there’s a holiday period known as Golden Week. I took advantage of one morning to wake up very early – at 2 am – and drive out to a road that was closed to public traffic. From the gate, I have always wondered what lay beyond as sheer cliffs of rock jutted upward from the steep green mountain slopes. So, at 4:20 am, I parked my car by the gate, shouldered my camera bag, and slung my tripod over my shoulder and proceeded to hike up the road. For the first 20 minutes or so, the road was pretty rugged. In one section I would have been pretty wary of driving my car over the rocks and dips. But after exiting a short tunnel, the road was nicely paved all the rest of the way. I mean, it looked to have been paved within the last year as there were only a few scratch marks where a fallen stone may have been scraped over the asphalt under the wheel of a truck. Mountain roads such as this one usually bear the scars and wounds of falling rock impacts or the spreading of cracks due to the slumping of the earth beneath the road. So this was fresh work here!

At the start of the hike, it was still pretty dim, and the scenery was not revealed in full colour glory yet. I passed some of those verticle climbs, a steep gorge, and dry runoff chutes cut into the rocks of the slopes. My plan was to keep hiking until I hopefully had some views in time for the sunrise, but it soon seemed that such views were not about to present themselves at any time soon if there even were any. So I relented to my desire to start photographing.

The road climbed gently and serpentine-like for a while before hitting a switchback and there it began climbing more steeply. I found chunks of limestone on the road but saw no sign of the parent rock until I rounded a bend and found a large limestone outcropping with a few caves facing out to the road. These caves were not deep and the usual cave formations such as stalactites, flowstones, and soda straws did not exist here. There were still some modest formations to discover and many broken pieces littered the ground outside the caves. I discovered several hooks attached to the cave walls and recognized this as a rock climbing practice site.

After exploring the cave area, I continued up the road until I finally came to the road closure at the other end. It was just after the exit of a long tunnel whose other end was in Gunma Prefecture. Two young men had driven up by car and were apparently disappointed that the road was closed. I continued into the tunnel, which became so dark that I could not see a piece of wood on the road and I kicked it accidentally.

After reaching the Gunma side, I turned around and made the trek back to my car. In the light of the morning now, I found many beautiful spots where the river ran through gorges and ravines of diorite. I again made a few stops for photography.

I finally reached my car at 11:30 and began the drive back but stopped when I saw more limestone outcroppings with boulders of marble in the river. My next plan will be to ascend another road that I am sure I drove up some 18 years ago to a pass called Mikuni Touge. This crosses over to Nagano. I went to this road a couple of years ago but it was closed after a point. I may have to walk to Nagano when I visit there again.

Aside from photos, I also made a video of the excursion. It can be viewed here.

More photos are at Flickr here.

Inspection of the Arima Gorge and the Shiraiwa Ravine

January 2nd, 2020. My first outing of the year. Even with the completion of my book of Saitama scenic photographs, I continue my exploration of the mountains of my prefecture of residence. The plan was to find a viewpoint of some mountains I visited two years ago and be there before sunrise. However, I accidentally entered the wrong location into the navigation computer and ended up arriving an full 30 minutes after sunrise at an insignificant mountain pass with no view, the road sloping downward before me toward the Tokyo border.

I decided to go on free exploratory mode and simply go where I thought I might find something to study and possibly photograph. My first stop was the dam at Lake Naguri in Hanno City. After a brief view from the dam, I started up the engine and drove fifty metres to a road block. It seems that Typhoon Hagibis (a.k.a. Typhoon #19 because it was the nineteenth typhoon of 2019) had caused a landslide right behind the dam administration office and effectively cut off the road around the north side of the lake.

IMG_3578 I had to drive across the dam and up the road on the south side. I had decided to drive up a small forestry road that twisted and turned across the upper mountain ridges cutting very close to the 800m high peaks before slithering back down to Route 53, which was the way I had come up before turning off to the dam in the first place. It looked promising until I hit a chained off road on the right and was forced to turn left. Well, we would see where this route led.

As I drove, I spied some layers of sediments alongside the Arima River. They were rather pronounced and I stopped to grab a few snaps.

As I drove more, the sediments continued to catch my attention. In all my explorations of ravines and gorges in Japan, I have never seen such pronounced and persistent sedimentary deposits. What was especially puzzling was that trees seemed to be growing up through these sediments as though the mix of rocks, gravel and sand had been deposited recently. I also noticed that some black hoses that snaked along the ravine also sprouted from the sediments as much as a metre or more below the surface. These had to be very young sedimentary deposits. But how young?

My travels up the road soon came to an end. Typhoon 19 had wreaked havoc on a section of the road. It seemed that water had traveled beneath the asphalt causing the road to sink in trenches and finally collapse at a bend in the road where the water could empty out into the ravine. A hundred metres or so up the road, the stream had wiped out a section of road.

On the way back down, further inspection of the mysterious sediments revealed a possible explanation. Green grass-like blades were sprouting from under roughly 50 cms of sediment. The grass was still alive but clearly had been buried. Nearby sat a large boulder with a cap of sedimentary deposits. That boulder could in no way keep a cap of sand and gravel on through a full summer/autumn season of thunderstorms and typhoons. The torrential rains would have washed it away. However, since Typhoon 19 there had been no heavy rainfalls of any significance, only usual rainy weather.

It was my deduction that either the dammed waters of the lake had flooded right back up the ravine or a clog of fallen logs had dammed the ravine. In either case, the ravine had filled up with raging muddy water charging down the mountainside causing an excessive amount of sediments to be deposited rapidly, covering hoses, grasses, and boulders. The river quickly cut through the layers since the typhoon but the sediments remained at the river banks, crumbling away little by little in the dry air even as I stood and examined them.

With that plan of exploration ended, I drove up into Kami Naguri, a small hamlet along the Iruma River, and stopped for a brief visit at a waterfall with no sign, only steps leading up to a Kanon statue overlooking the falls. For my final effort to find a place to set up my tripod, I went to the Shiraiwa Ravine to see how far I could get. I soon spotted a lovely gorge in a tributary stream. Red chert was exposed with alternating layers of light grey chert, and large boulders of limestone had fallen into the gorge from somewhere above. This place occupied me for the next hour or so.

At last I drove on to see how far the road went, but soon I came to yet another dead end. This time the reason was that a mine had formerly operated here. The concrete foundations of the structures were all the remained. In the distance, a bluff of limestone protruded from the tree-covered mountains. This was Shiraiwa – White Rock, the namesake of the ravine with its white boulders of limestone.

At last it was time to head back, but not before crossing over on more pass to see if there were any mountain views to be seen, which had thus far eluded me. I had a slight glimpse between the trees at Amamezasu Pass.

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More photos from the chert gorge can be seen at Flickr.

Holy Schist, Batman!

If Saitama has a popular natural tourist attraction, it’s the gorge at Nagatoro. Nagatoro Town, situated along the Ara River and enclosed in the Chichibu Basin, has done all it can to benefit from this natural wonder. There are river rafting and “line” boating (these are long wooden boats that carry many passengers) trips down through the gorge; there are shops selling kakigori (shaved ice) using natural ice from the mountains; there are numerous souvenir shops including a Gibli store; there’s Mt. Hodo with its blossoming tree gardens and cable car that goes up to a monkey park at the top, and a natural history museum. Because of Nagatoro’s abundance of exposed metamorphic rocks, it also holds claim to being the birthplace of geology in Japan.

The rocks at Nagatoro form part of a belt of metamorphic rock known as the Sanbagawa Metamorphic Belt. It is named after the Sanba River in Gunma Prefecture where those rocks are also exposed. This particular belt is quite long, extending from Kyushu and roughly following the Chuo (Median) Tectonic Line. The belt is gently curved with the curve of the Japanese Pacific coastline, but near the Izu Peninsular, it takes a sharp turn inland. This is because the Izu Penunsula is acting like a miniature India and pushing its way into Honshu, bending the Sanbagawa Metamorphic Belt inland in the process.

The metamorphic belt was formed long ago during the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous as coastal sedimentary deposits, largely mudstones, which were later subducted by forces of plate tectonics, heated and pressed deep below the surface, and then uplifted by the same tectonic forces. The rocks are exposed anywhere that rivers have cut through or the rocks have been uplifted. Though I’m unfamiliar with this rock belt in other parts of Japan, there is a Sanbagawa Gorge between Gunma and Saitama Prefectures not far from Nagatoro and a smaller Sanbagawa Gorge park in Tokigawa Town, also in Saitama.

The rocks have different appearances depending on the type of mud stones, varying in colour from blues and greens to browns and dark, ash greys. In many places, quartz veins can be seen in the rocks, and indeed much of the belt is comprised of schists.

Though Nagatoro’s “iwadatami” (rock tatami) is the most prominently recognized formation, a trip to the riverside from Kami Nagatoro Station offer views of many more varieties of schist. In fact, it is possible to follow the river from Kami Nagatoro Station to Nagatoro Station, a delightful walk with beautiful riverside scenery and a natural exhibit of fascinating rocks.

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Kegon Falls of Chichibu and a Highland Farm

With the Golden Week holidays beginning at the end of April and continuing through the first few days of May (May 1st and 2nd being regular work and school days), I had planned two early morning outings into the Chichibu Mountains of western Saitama. Unfortunately, unanticipated car trouble has for the moment kept me from making a second trip (a visit by train is still possible but I can’t be out there before sunrise); however the first trip was very successful.

Chichibu Highland Farm 秩父高原牧場

Coming down from Yorii via R294 and turning onto R11, then slipping onto R361, I followed the road up to the Chichibu Highland Farm area. Divided into several parts, the farm appears this time of year as patches of green grass broken by stands of trees and surrounded by forest. Farm houses and barns can be spotted here and there, and there are places for families to park and visit. At 5:00 am, though, I was more concerned about capturing the dawn scenery. Apparently, by the end of May, the fields should break out in colorful reds and pinks as poppies bloom.

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Nihongi Pass 二本木峠

The route reaches Nihongi Pass, and there is a small place to pull over and park. Here is a short trail leading up a small peak and a campground nearby. What got me to pull over was the explosions of varying shades of pink mountain azaleas amidst the trees. There was more pink than green below the tree canopy and it was certainly a stop worthy of the Scenic Saitama photo project.

08 Pink Eruption

A Secret Cave

My next stop was a small cave that I had discovered while driving back down R284 in April. At that time it was just a reconnaissance visit, but this time I returned and made a good time of examining the rocks. The cave is easily missed as it is down a steep slope and at the creekside, and grasses along the road partially obscure the view. Even while I was down there visiting, at least four vehicles passed on the road and not one driver looked down at me. The cave is yet another example of the many limestone formations in the mountains of Saitama.

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Kegon Falls of Chichibu 秩父華厳の滝

One of Japan’s most famous waterfalls is the punchbowl falls of Nikko in Tochigi: Kegon Falls. Draining from Lake Chuzenji, the water plummets over a lava rock precipice into a bowl-shaped cavity known as a punchbowl. Coming from British Columbia, I know at least two other excellent examples of such falls.

In Chichibu there is no lava rock, and no grand punchbowl. But there is a quaint little cascade that slips down a chert rock face and drops into a pleasant, shallow green plunge pool. This waterfall bears the appellation Kegon Falls of Chichibu. Though only a minnow in comparison to its namesake, the cascade itself is very lovely. The draining water tumbles through a gorge of striated rocks – the strata all crumpled and crooked – and flows down into a typical mountain ravine. There is parking, a small structure advertising soft ice cream for sale, and a path leading to view points below the gorge, below the falls, and above the falls next to a road. The road leads on to two more waterfalls, roughly 600 metres and 1,000 metres away.

Soft green crowns of flowing maple leaves surround the falls and plunge pool when viewed from the path leading to the road above, and I know that I will have to return in autumn when the maple leaves are turning colour!

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Nenokami Falls

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Excited about my new project, which I have tentatively decided to call “Scenic Saitama”, I bought a map book of the prefecture and a guide book for hiking. A long list compiled of waterfalls, gorges, and mountains of interest was checked and locations were marked in the map book. Then on Sunday, April 15th, the first target was visited: Nenokami Falls.

The falls looked to be one of the more impressive cascades in Saitama, based on Internet research; however, they were not so easy to actually find. Turning north on R284 from R37 in Chichibu City, the falls’ location is soon reached, but there is no sign on R284. A short distance up the road, there is an illustrated map that shows the falls are just back down the road. Nothing gave away the secret location though, and I decided to cross a small bridge. From there I could see the gorge. Once across, however, there was still no signage until I decided to turn the car around near a rock and soil yard and an old summer cottage type of place that looked unused. Up on a slope behind this place was a tower with a ladder, which I later found out was a rocket launching site for a local festival.

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It was here when I turned around that I spied a weathered sign and a wooden footpath leading to the trees. The sign explained that the falls tumbled over an uplifted bed of sandy mudstone from the middle to upper Triassic Period. The falls measure roughly 13 metres across and 13 metres high. I followed the boardwalk to the trees where it made a left turn. And there ended the public access. A moss-covered picnic table sat on a viewing deck with part of the wood beam railing collapsed, and from this hazardous-looking vantage point, I could see the twin cascade below. But behind me, where the boardwalk made a 180-degree turn and transformed into steps leading down the steep slope, yellow tape marked with the Kanji for “Entry Not Permitted” blocked off access.

Judging by the current condition of things, I wondered if the steps down were rotting. The boardwalk was sagging in places. I decided to chance it and go carefully. I stepped over the yellow tape and cautiously made my way down to the stream below.

Without incident!

IMG_4322Once down by the water’s edge, it was easy to go about photographing. The one big disappointment was that I often had to remove plastic garbage from the scene. I also found plenty of litter had been dropped from the road above down a washed out chute in the steep slope. A propane tank and a paint can also sat among the rocks. Once again, human beings prove their great love, care, and respect towards nature. I later found a large sign proclaiming, “Nature is everyone’s treasure. Please don’t litter!” But sure enough, the next place I scrambled down to the river, there were many cans and other rubbish.

Evidence of human idiocy aside, the rocks of the falls captured my attention. Facing the cascade, I noticed that the cliff to my left and the largest of the boulders in the stream were a light grey colour and very fine-grained. To my right, however, the rock was a pale but warm sand colour and without clearly marked edges or strata. The stream appeared to have cut a gorge where these two rock types meet. The falls though, tumbled over a precipice of mudstone.

If you should try to visit Nenokami Falls, look for the rocket launching tower and soil and stone yard. There you can park at the side of the road and go down the sagging boardwalk, look over the collapsed railing of the mossy viewing deck and possibly ignore the “keep out” tape and venture on down to view the falls from below. I did!

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