Saturday, October 26, 2013

Descent into Omoshiroyama-Kogen - The Definitive Guide

I am intrigued by the name "Omoshiroyama".

The "kogen" suffix usually indicates a park or nature reserve.

I had understood "omoshiro" to mean "interesting". "Yama" means "mountain" if I am not wrong.

So I am planning to hike from "Interesting Mountain Park" to Yamadera.

"Yamadera" means Mountain Temple, if I am not mistaken.

The Chinese characters for Omoshiroyama reads as "Face/facade"-"White"-"Mountain/Hill" (Mien Bai Shan), or "white face mountain".

Omoshiroyama trail is not exactly difficult,but it poses some challenges. So if you just want a casual trek with no mess and no fuss, this trail is probably not for you.

But if you like a little challenge, this could be interesting.

Firstly some expectations.

Expect to get your feet and possilbly other parts wet. This may also mean your footwear, and socks.

Expect to take a little more time.

Expect your experience to be quite different from mine.

Expect the unexpected.


We trekked through the trail on 21 Oct 2013. It was a Monday, the day after a very wet day in Sendai, which may also have meant a wet day over Omoshiroyama. We were prepared to cancel the trek and try the next day if necessary, if the trail was too "bad". 

For example if the river had overflowed it's banks and the trail was washed out.

It didn't seem so when we looked over the start of the trail, so we decided to carry on.

The pictures are in this post.


Based on other blogs, we had expected the trail to present some  challenges, so I wanted to be prepared with proper footwear.

I was planning to bring running shoes, and a spare, but in the end, decided to tough it out with just the running shoes. 

My eventual advice would be to use a trekking sandal, with socks as an options. The socks are to keep your feet warm when they get wet. There's a good chance they will get wet.

Also advisable to bring a change of clothes, including footwear.

And of course the usual trekking/hiking gear you take along.

Overview of the trek.

The trek route will take you down to the river approximately parallel to the road and railway track, before rising back up to the road. The river route is about 2 km of footpaths, sometimes wandering into the river bed, followed by an easy 5 km walk along a single lane road which is mostly downhill to Yamadera.

At the Omoshiroyama-kogen train station (no staff on duty, so don't expect to ask for directions there), cross the bridge over the tracks, and the river) and you will see the river (left of the bridge) and a path down to the river.

Another blog had mentioned that this station is so secluded, it doesn't even have vending machines! Which is true. So if you were planning to stock up on drinks just before the trek, do it before you get to Omoshiroyamakogen.

The First Bridge

You will come to the first bridge across the river. It is a simple bridge about 3 feet/1m wide. No railing. It may be one of the better bridges you will cross. Keep that in mind.

There is a steep metal stairs leading down to that first bridge. If it looks unsafe to you, turn back NOW.

The rest of the trail may be even more scary or worrying. Even if it looks safe to you -barely safe - understand that it will get worse. Or it will look worse, but it is still safe enough. 

Well, I survived.

But this first bridge will help you decide to go on, or go back. 

The Third Bridge

There should be a waterfall after the third bridge. Or not. Like I said, we trekked the route the day after steady rain in Sendai. The rain may have extended to Omoshiroyamakogen. So when we stood on the third bridge, we could see a waterfall - rolling down the rock face right next to the path we were to cross. I do not know if the waterfall is a permanent feature, or a temporary one. If it were a temporary waterfall, maybe in drier weather, it would not be there, and you can cross that rock face (there's a footpath/ledge carved into side of the rock, with railings.) without any concerns.

But on that Monday in October, there was water cascading down the near vertical face, and washing over the footpath. We discussed if we should go through that waterfall-washed footpath, or turn back.

Well, you know we went on. 

But with some preparations. 

Walking on (well, through) water

I decided to do it barefoot. Taking off my shoes and socks, walking briskly through the water-washed ledge, and on to the other side, where I put on my shoes again (sans socks).

The rushing water sprayed from the uneven rock face, splashing against us (our clothes got wet on one side) as we made our way through, but surprisingly the path was not slippery (to my bare feet).

This was not the only time I went barefoot to keep my shoes dry. Prescient or just practical, I re-shod my feet after the walk thru the waterfall, sans socks. My consideration was purely practical. There were no suitable place to put on my socks properly, and my feet were wet. I figured no point getting socks and shoes damp, as I put my damp feet in my shoes. I saved my socks for later (dry socks in damp shoes wouldn't be all that bad.

I would go barefoot several more times. Once was when a small waterfall/rapids washed over our path (again!). (We saw a fish -about 20 cm long- trying to swim against the current but being washed down the small shallow, rocky rapids.)

I believe in "normal" times (not after a day of rain), the "rapids" would have just been a small stream. And Trekkers might just have needed to step over the stream.

But instead our path was "overrun" by the rapids. I crossed that stream barefoot as well.

PL's shoes were wet by now, and she decided there was nothing to be gained from going barefoot. So she crossed in her light running shoes. 

We found ourselves wading into ankle deep water a few more times. The trail at times would run into the river bed. Maybe in drier times, the water would not run as high, and the edge of the river would be dry. But that day, we waded through the river at 4 or more points.

It was disconcerting at times to find the path trailing off, until we saw that the path pick up again for the  river bank a few metres forward. And we realized that the trail dipped onto the river bed. Which meant getting our feet wet again.

Most of the time this was a short wade thru ankle-deep water. The water was cold, but not so cold that 10-15 seconds of immersion would be painful. But after a while, it could get very uncomfortable. And at the last few points where I had to wade thru the river bed, the path consisted of small stones and pebbles which were painful to walk on. It would have been good to have footwear.

PL fared better in her shod feet. Even if her shoes and socks got wet. The wet socks warmed up and the shoes drained off rather quickly.

What? Me, worry? Safety precautions

In my opinion, the trek is not unsafe (I made it through ok), though it may be a little disconcerting, and it requires some "courage" to take to some of the bridges. (If you have a fear of heights or other phobias, this may not be for you).

But I am not particularly brave, and I take calculated risks. So while there are some risks of falling and slipping, death or serious injuries are unlikely, but discomfort, distress, and loss of dignity may ensue. 

Still some precautions are prudent.

The bridges are sometimes just planks across the water with no handrails. This can be scary, but it is relatively safe. Some are suspension-type bridges which sways quite a bit. Again, disconcerting and maybe even scary, but safe.

Some of the wooden planks on the bridges look worn, rotted, and even unsafe. They are fine. (Or were when I went through the trail.) The gaps in the planks where the wood has worn/rotted away are disconcerting but you will need to have the feet of a 4 year old to step through those gaps. Again, scary, but looks worse than it is.

One of the bridges near the end had a warning, and some notice in Japanese which we could only partially read (we could read the words for 'Danger' in Chinese, but not the rest). But at that point, what were we going to do? We had trekked for an hour. We weren't turning back so close to the end!

We crossed that bridge, and we were fine.

I would advise taking the bridges one person at a time. I don't believe it is absolutely necessary, but why tempt fate? Also leave your infantile friends at home. You know, the ones who will jump on shaky bridges, sway the bridge to scare their friends, and generally feel the need to scare everyone so they can feel good about themselves. Yeah. Him.

At the end

At the end of the river trail, the river goes on, but the trail climbs up, through a drainage tunnel (metal mesh footpath provides good traction, and a dry path), and continues on up to the road. You may feel the need for a torch in the tunnel as it could get quite dark. I used the one in my Nokia. But PL plowed on ahead without one. 

At the top you will find a one lane road with no road markings. Head to the right, downhill towards Yamadera. You are about 2 km from your starting point (Omoshiroyamakogen), and about 5 km from Yamadera. (You will see a few signs along the way marking your progress.)

We took a little over an hour to cover the 2 km River Trail. And about another hour and a bit to cover the walk on the road to Yamadera.

So less than 3 hours, more than 2. About 2.5 hours. 

Was it worth it? And how difficult was it?

Let me answer the second question first. 

I'm not athletic or fit. I'm overweight (about 20 kg over weight), and no one will describe me as skinny. I had a mild heart attack in 2006, and all the medical problems of modern times - diabetes, high cholesterol, hypertension. I have them all. I don't exercise regularly except for a lot of walking (to and from my workplace every working day). 

And I made that trek.

On the plus side, other than weak knees, I'm otherwise in good physical shape (round is a shape). Not much stamina - enough for steady walking, but not running or jogging.

So physically, the trail was not difficult. 

No need for upper body strength (e.g. rock climbing).

Was it worth it? 

From my pre-set objective, no. I wanted to see and photograph autumn colours on that trail, which was to have been beautiful at that time of the year (late Oct). But the trees were mostly still in their greenery, with only spotty changes in foliage colours. So I didn't get what I wanted.

But no trek is ever a loss. 

We saw waterfalls. The scenery was still beautiful. There is a sense of victory in challenging and surviving every difficulty along the trek. And we got some exercise. 

So there's always that. 

If you wanna try it...

If after reading the above you are still game to try, good for you!

But here are some suggestions.

The best footwear would be sandals. You may want to use socks but that's optional. But do bring a change of footwear, and clothes. 

A towel to dry yourself off may be good, but that really depends on the water situation - high water level in the river, waterfalls in your path - or in a worse case scenario, someone falls into the river, or otherwise gets soaking wet. Then again, preparations are always for the worse, not for the best.

Sunset was around 5 pm or earlier during our trek. Find out and plan accordingly for your trek. It was cool during our trek - about 16°C I believe. So we had light jackets. I do not know if flash floods, or rising waters after a storm are hazards, but you should probably not trek during a rain.

If you are used to "safe" parks and walks, these may be new considerations for you. Japan's approach to these "adventures" seems to be that, if you want to take these risks, you should look out for yourself. The West (US & Canada?) approach is more protective, more paternalistic, almost a nanny state. If the wooden planks on the bridge is a little worn, the place would be closed for maintenance. 

While on the trail, we saw no other Trekkers or other people. So the trail is rather secluded. So one more precaution - tell someone where you are going, and what time you intend to be back.

Give yourself more time. If you rush and the conditions are good, you could probably make the 2 km trek in 45 minutes, and the road walk in less than an hour, but give yourself ample time. But 3 hours should be quite comfortable and the pace quite leisurely.

(Making the river trek in an hour would mean an average traveling speed of 2km/hr. This is quite slow for a road walk, but reasonable for dirt trail or uneven paths. Once on the road, a 5 km/hr speed is faster than leisurely.

So 2 hours is doable, but it is anything but leisurely and assumes no incidents or other delays. Three hours is more reasonable.)

[this post still subject to edits and alterations. ]

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