Zao and The Fukushima Mountains – Hiking in Freezing Fog, Coloured Lakes and Encounters with Bears

When people tell you to do something every day that scares you, they don’t expect you to go and nearly kill yourself twice in one day.

I am on a hiking quest up in the North of Mainland Japan, my main mission was to hike Mt Kumanodake and view Zao’s “big green eye”, Okama Crater.

However after yesterdays attempt and only being met with mountain-top cloud, I decided to go again at 7am, for the 2 hour window of sunshine the weather forecast promised.

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Spectacular view of Okama Crater

I was met with a less than ideal sight…

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This picture is a huge underestimation of how cold it is here

However! My tenacity got the better of me (or maybe just stubborn stupidity) and I decided there was enough visibility to at least go for “a little hike” up Mt Kumanodake in the howling ice storm.

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Shrine Guardian Statue wrapped up to protect it from the cold

Hikers were wrapped up to the extreme with face-masks, ice-picks and spikes. Weekender’s children were running back to the shelter hut bright red in the face from windburn from 5 minutes outside. The ground was frozen solid and cracked underfoot and my fully charged phone battery went dead after 10 minutes. I hiked for an hour.

Now and again I saw the odd hiker appear through the freezing fog. I commend them for continuing on to the top of Mt Kumanodake and then across to the top of Zao Ropeway, which I recommend as a good hike in the summer when the visibility is good.

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Tatsuzawafudo Falls

I was recommended by a fellow traveller to go an see Tatsuzawafudo Falls in Inawashiro just south-west of Fukushima.

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Tempted by the promise of hiking to some stunning waterfalls, I set off for my 2.5 hours drive to the Fukushima mountain range. You can take the Tokaido Expressway down to here from Zao for about 1,400yen. A breathtaking drive in Sakura season.

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Tatsuzawafudo Falls

There is a little gravel parking area about 15 minutes walk from the waterfall hiking course. The hiking course itself is quite short – about 10 minutes along a flowing river with mini waterfalls to the Tatsuzawafudo Shrine at the end.

There was another narrow hiking pathway leading up the side of a valley into the forest, however I don’t recommend this in Spring unless you are prepared to come into contact with a bear…

I found about 4 large round bear-sized caves along the valley. As I continued, the forest was silent and I was straining to hear any indication of movement. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears.

I decided to turn back after finding a large paw print.

It was only until afterwards I saw a yellow sign with クマ (kuma) written on it, a warning about bears.

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Goshiki-numa Walk at Urabandai

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View of Mt Bandai from Bishamon-numa

Goshiki-numa literally means “five coloured pond”. About 30 ponds of different colours are spattered across Urabandai, the Bandai Highlands. From some, you can see Mt Bandai, an attractive peak, still covered in snow in April.

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Goshiki-numa Hiking Course Map

This was my favourite hiking course which was about 4km long over wooden walkways, steps and easy trails. It takes about an hour to walk and finishes in different locations (so be prepared to walk an hour back or bus).

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Bishamon-numa (Lake Bishamon)

You can also rent a boat here for under 1000¥ if you want to take a closer look at the bright turquoise water of Bishamon-numa.

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Aka-numa (“Red Pond”)

The further along the hiking course I walked, the more colourful the lakes were.

Aka-numa is a bright red and lime green colour. The red colour comes from a high iron  content in the water seeping into the roots of the reeds, tinting them red.

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Midoro-numa (“Deep Mud Lake”)

Midoro-numa is a butterfly- shaped pond that had at least 4 different colours.

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Tatsu-numa (“Dragon Lake”)

Tatsu-numa was a deep blue black colour with cascading waterfalls flowing into it. Tatsu-numa is said to change colour depending on the season.

Sadly the light was fading fast and I could not complete the walk before dark. I will definitely be back here to visit the other lakes; Benten-numa, Ruri-numa, Ao-numa, and Yanagi-numa.

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I came back exhausted but really full of life. I learned that the most awesome experiences you have are on the other side of your comfort zone.

I can’t explain enough how much a picture doesn’t tell the entire story, though. The experience of being there was the most valuable to me.

Go out and explore!

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