This post teaches you how to search for your own value sushi lunches in Ginza and Tsukiji Fish Market. Sets start at ¥1000 for 8-10 pieces of nigiri, plus rolls and miso soup. Below is a guide of how to use Tabelog (Japan’s Yelp) to search, what to expect for sushi lunches, and my list of personal lunch recommendations (sushi, ramen, and tempura) around the area.
If you’re a seasoned Japan visitor (or an adventurous first-timer), I would recommend trying the two least-known JR Passes: the San’in-Sanyo JR Pass, and the All-Shikoku Pass (for another post). The San’in-Sanyo JR Pass covers a vast area from Kyoto down to Fukuoka and the historical heartland of Japan. My post focuses on the least-visited prefectures of Tottori, Shimane, and Yamaguchi because these local places are where the tourist crowds thin out and the thick layers of history are well settled.
0. Some Tips & resources:
These may make more sense after reading through the explanations below. But in case this piece is too long to read, I’ve listed some resources here first:
- Travel / Getting around: Google Maps app (super accurate for trains), Hyperdia (honestly, I never use this).
- Payments: Bring lots of cash. Even lodgings are sometimes paid for in cash.
- Driving: ORIX, Nippon-Rent-a-Car and Toyota-Rent-a-Car.
- Accommodation: Rakuten Travel, Booking.com, Agoda, Japanican, Trivago, for the adventurous ikyu (Japanese only)
- Communication: Yomiwa and Google Translate (Japanese offline package)
- Local food recommendations: Google Maps, Tabelog (Japan’s Foursquare / Urbanspoon / Yelp, but much better for cities)
1. Business hours are recommendations.
Time has a different meaning in the rural areas. While websites may give specific opening times, sometimes shops close because an owner needs to run an errand or the restaurant has sold out for the day. The words “営業中” is pronounced eigyo-chu, which means they a place is currently serving customers.
2. Use cash.
For a super advanced technology and service country, Japan has some things that remain resolutely analogue. Payments in cash is one of them. Since Japan is a safe place, people regularly carry north of ¥20,000 (US$200) on them. For some years, it was a popular style for men to have long wallets waving out of their back pockets. Of course, use common sense such as splitting up your cash between your wallet and a safe spot in your bag.
When getting Japanese Yen, I suggest you get ¥10,000 (US$100) bills. It will save you a massive pile of money (¥10,000 / US$1000 is only 10 bills!). Then, break your change at a 24/7 convenience store or train station. There is no minimum purchase to break a bill, so you can buy a ¥100 (US$ 1) bottled drink and they will give you ¥9,900 back in bills and coins.
Unless you’ve pre-paid for your accommodations and transportation, I would suggest bringing enough cash to cover both that and your daily food and activity expenses. My Mastercards didn’t work half the time in Japan; AE worked if it was accepted. I was using cash most of my year in Tokyo, too.
3. Local trains and buses are reliably…sparse.
Many local trains wind through mountains and sail along the coast. Unlike the Shinkansen, bullet trains, that race through the urban centres, local trains stop at every sleepy village along their routes. However, many of the most untouched rural areas also have infrequent service. Trains heading from main stations to the countryside may stop at different stations. For example, some will only travel half-way, and some may travel turn at a fork along a different route.
If you are adventurous and want to try reading the signs (which are in Japanese), look up your stop in Japanese first to save the name. Then, check all the stops along the train route to see whether your station is along all the trains passing through.
Tip: Stick to the train you searched on Hyperdia or Google Maps.
For buses: Take buses only if you are prepared. Prepared means knowing your exact bus times and stops, and having the name of your destination printed in Japanese to show the bus driver. Japanese bus drivers are super polite and try earnestly to help, but they also cannot be expected to understand English (written or spoken). They probably cannot answer any questions in English. As long as you can show them your exact bus stop (not just an address of where you want to go, because they may not know which is the closest stop), they will make sure to stop for you and signal to you.
4. Drive…if you can.
The highlight of rural Japan is the scenery, which is easiest to access with a car.
Note that Japan drives on the left side of the road like the British system. Also note that you need an international driver’s license to rent a car.
The great news about driving in Japan is that everything is much slower. In cities, many local roads have a 30 km/hr limit and drivers always yield to cyclists and pedestrians. There’s rarely honking, so you can take your time to figure out where you’re going.
Many of Japan’s most scenic spots are in the rural areas, such as in the mountains or along coastal routes. I would highly recommend driving in places like Hokkaido so that you can maximise enjoying the scenery at the most optimal time rather than trying to catch the one bus that goes somewhere.
5. Use a map.
Reception is sometimes unreliable in rural areas, so having a backup is always good! I recommend the offline Maps.me (available on iOS and Android) and downloading an area map before leaving the city. Google Maps also has ‘geo-tags’ for spots, so you can copy your favourite places into your new app to see the pins.
Offline maps are particularly useful for hiking in remote areas to find trail heads.
6. Eat what you can’t read.
Japan’s local villages may look similar on the surface with their tiled roofs, wooden structures, and tatami mat rooms. However, the real charm is in their hidden specialities, such as katsuo tataki in Kochi Prefecture or Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki with yakisoba. Japanese communities are proud of their traditions and show them off with posters and stores on the main street. If you see a line-up, join in and order whatever everyone else is ordering (most places have one signature food).
7. Take maps with a big grain of salt.
Many of rural Japan’s most scenic spots have no English signage. Famous spots usually have Japanese signs, so be sure to copy the Japanese text onto your phone before heading out so you can recognise them later.
Don’t only look for signage! Stop and you will probably be at a breathtaking vista or look out the train window! Whether you are in the Japanese Alps or facing the Sea of Japan, rural Japan will instantly charm you with its hills, valleys, rushing rivers, rice paddies, and splatter of houses.
8. Use daylight
While Tokyo is known for its city lights and 24-hour life, Japan’s rural areas are known for their harmony with nature. Farmers rise at dawn between 4-6am. Many famous sights are also known for a view at a specific time of the day. Some places are known for their golden sunsets, others for their evening birdsong. Some villages set up community dances and activities in the evening.
The bottom line is, follow what locals normally do to get the fullest experience of the Japanese countryside.
9. Please learn some Japanese
A few Japanese phrases will take you a long way. People are kind and often friendly. In addition to the functional phrases in pocketbook guides, many easy expressions will make locals feel like you understand them a little bit better.
Daijyobu – It’s okay / I’m fine.
Osusume wa? – What would you recommend?
Kaikei onegaishimasu – Bill please.
Arigatou – Thank you.
Artigatogozaimasu – Thank you very much!
Sumimasen – Excuse me. But this phrase is used in many contexts, and often before or as in replacement of thank you. You can use it when someone gives you their seat, offers you a drink, and of course if you need to get attention.
Gochisosama – Thank you for the meal / that was a feast. Personally, I think this makes chefs and restaurant people even more happy than if you tell them oishii (it’s delicious). A common expression when leaving a restaurant.
10. Download a translator
They are invaluable for translating menus and signs. Yomiwa is good for taking screenshots. Google Translate can only take screenshots if you are online. For writing Chinese characters that are often used for signs, you can do a handwritten Chinese input to draw in the character that you see as common Chinese and Japanese characters are mostly interchangeable.
11. The countryside is…not Tokyo, Osaka, or any Japanese city.
In the Japanese countryside, the pace of life is more relaxed and people are friendly because everyone knows each other. Houses are often not locked and neighbours will often stop by to drop off fresh picks from the garden. Shopkeepers may pause to greet someone who walks in even though they’re helping you. In this case, don’t be offended, as they will come back to you!
Strangers will often say ‘ohaiyo‘ (good morning) or ‘konichi wa‘ (hello). Say hello back!
For travellers going off the beaten track, the villages you encounter may not see many (if any) foreign visitors. If you have light skin and hair colour, you may be stared at. The locals do not mean to be rude; they are just a little surprised!
For onsen visitors, note that country onsens may have young boys in the women’s area. As going to the onsen is usually a family outing, grandmothers may bring in their grandsons who could be up to 10 years old. Tattoos are often frowned upon as they are associated with yakuza, Japanese gangs. If you have a small tattoo in a discrete area, use your towel to cover it.
12. Restaurants are houses
Truly rural Japan is basically made up of only houses, traditional or modern. Many shop keepers live right above the shop, just like they have done for generations. お食事 indicate food. Because these restaurants are often traditional houses, they may also have a raised genkan area where guests are expected to take off their shoes.
13. Pretty rice paddies and mountains are homes for bugs, too.
The Japanese countryside means nature, which also means some crawly friends! Whether you are up in the mountains or down in the fields, be prepared for mosquitos! One of the best mosquito repellents is local Japanese incense that looks like a spiral that is called ka-tori-senko. Alternatively, just bring a bottle of bug spray to keep the critters away.
14. Ryokan and minshuku are experiences, not hotels
Ryokan and minshuku are the traditional bed and breakfasts of Japan. Some are large country houses while others have expanded to have more modern amenities like spa and game rooms. The important thing to remember is that ryokan and minshuku offer excellent service, but are not run like hotels for convenience. Many are still traditional and family run. Here are some tips on what to do:
- Pay on arrival
- Cash only: independent, family-run places don’t take credit cards
- Usually one or two meals (usually dinner, and maybe breakfast) are included in the price. Some places accept sudomari (bookings without meals).
- Make same day bookings by noon (after that, the places do not have enough time to prepare your dinner)
- If there is a same-day cancellation, there’s an expectation you will pay the full fare.
- Don’t arrive until after 3pm. Preparations are being made.
- Arrive by 5pm because they need to serve your dinner!
- Take off your shoes in your room and leave them by the door
- Use the provided slippers to walk around the ryokan or minshuku rather than your street shoes
15. Accept generosity by graciously refusing, then accepting
The rule with receiving gifts is first to pretend that you don’t want it. You can gesture this by maybe shaking your head mildly and a gentle “stop” sign. You might also add a smile and say, “dayjoubu” (I’m fine), as a rough explanation. If they stop after your first smile and gentle refusal, don’t feel offended if they don’t offer again.
But, generally the approach is to refuse not once, but a few, times. If they still insist, they probably mean it, so just say “sumimasen” (excuse me) with a slight bow and “arigato-gozaimasu” (thank you very much). It won’t hurt to say it a few times, such as when you’re getting up to leave, putting on your shoes, and as you do your final goodbye (close the door to the restaurant or walk down the block).
People in the rural areas can be mind-bogglingly generous and I’ve gotten everything from free drinks at vending machines, to rides, full day tours, off the menu fresh catches, and even hand-made crafts.
16. Natural, not polished.
Don’t always expect to be wow’d. Rural Japan is quaint more than grand. Ryokan can be quite simple, even rough around the edges. If you want a polished establishment, choose one of the bigger places with English websites on Rakuten Travel. The food likely not dazzle in the same way Osaka does, impress with its delicacy as in Kyoto, or show the same innovation as Tokyo. But your food will be served an honest fare with vegetables that are picked within a day or two and fish that probably comes from the closest river. I say this only to manage expectations because I love rural Japan. I am even more at home in the rice paddies and on mountain lodges than Tokyo. But just bring no expectations and enjoy yourself!
If you are looking for other tips, check out my post Top 10 Apps to Travel in Japan like a Local.
One of my client offices has four cats who roam around wherever they please. Inevitably, things break. One weekend morning, I walked in to discover a colleague’s new cup smashed on the ground. After cleaning up the shards, I left the pieces on her desk. I didn’t have the heart to throw them away.
In my mind, it could be fixed. The missing fragments could be filled with lacquer, lined with gold dust, and polished to become an even more unique cup. It could be a kintsugi piece.
This is a diary entry of my day-hike up Mount Ishizuchi in Saijo City, Ehime Prefecture, Japan. Unlike most of my informational posts, this one is a more personal reflection similar to my Foreword to the Dewa Sanzan and Shikoku Henro diary entries. For hikers wanting to know what the trail is like, I have a separate post with a route description.
My day starts as it used to two years ago, rolling up into a sitting position. The Japanese screen doors of my room emerge with the pale blue light. I am staying with the same host as I had two years ago as well, when a typhoon swept through the Shikoku. Back then, I was walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage in high summer because I figured I could sleep better in the heat than the cold. How little I knew then. How I wouldn’t have come if I had known any better. If I hadn’t come then, I wouldn’t have discovered the mountain I’ve come back to climb: Mount Ishizuchi, the Stone Hammer mountain.
After having breakfast with my host, I take an early train to catch the first bus to the Ishizuchi cable car station. It takes about 2.5 hours from my host’s door to the cable car station on Mount Ishizuchi. The route should seem far, but it doesn’t. The waits should seem long, but they don’t. I should be sleepy with about 6 hours of broken sleep, but the anticipation is keeping me fueled.
Eventually, the bus comes and I sit down to enjoy the modern convenience of being carted by a mobile tin box out of the city.
The road into the mountain that the bus takes is the same one I used to get down from the Shikoku Pilgrimage’s Temple 60, Yokomine-ji. The concrete retaining wall can barely contain the zealous wild bushes and protruding weeds. The road, and even the trees, aren’t much to look at. But they are to me. Every turn is one I took with my own two feet two years ago, accompanied by three little puppies that followed me down from a solitary restaurant. I’m probably one of the many walking strangers they’ve seen walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage. But their memory helps anchor the shady spots that I walked under to avoid the scorching afternoon sun. This morning, the shadows are angled the other way.
I turn my head to the left, where the dam is. The contours make it unmistakable. But the colour of the water — what happened? My memory was the colour of milk tea (to be polite). At the time, it looked sickly, like puke, with a film of dust in the air. This time, the water was a deep, emerald navy, shimmering at the rim where the sun climbing the hills has reached.
I thought I would nap, but the view keeps me staring out the window. Turning in from the dam, the hillsides close in around a tributary river. I read the slopes, noting the patches of younger trees, the wild bamboo drooping over sections, and the rocky riverbed. Though the sky is already a fierce, blazing blue, the trees were still in shadow. Then, comes another turn: a curtain of gold is drawn over the retreating night mist.
Sometimes even in the city, I forget that transit is an option and riding private cars always feels like a novelty. The transit to Ishizuchi adds up, but when I consider the number of days it saves me to get to the trailhead, it’s worth it. I had previously walked Shikoku at a time when I had no income, but plenty of time; now, I was walking the way most people do: with a steady source of income, but a poverty of time.
But time poverty is also just a matter of perception. By waking up early to catch the connections to the first cable car, I am at 1400 metres above sea level by 9:10am. Therefore, I have time for the toilet! A happy bladder is the key to a happy hike.
I don’t stop to look at the town or check out the shrine. I came here to walk, so I figured I could visit both places later. I take some photos to help future hikers, and go through the shinmon (spirit door, 神門). I’ve waited two years for this.
From the trailhead at 1400 metres, it’s a descent until the saddle point of about 1300 metres. That’s the only piece of information I hold in my head. As the forest closes in protectively, my last attachments to work, all my practical life concerns, and even my own thoughts, fall away. Back in April, when I had planned this trip, I had desperately wanted to hike, to camp, to deprive myself until I hit a catharsis as I had on the Kunisaki Penninsula. In April, I thought was giving myself space and time in order to reflect over several days. But now that I am here, barely three months later, I’m reminded of how little I know about myself. Rather, that knowing what I should do is different from knowing why I should do it. My instinct made the right choice to decide to come, but my head made the wrong justification. And that’s okay. What’s important is that I’m here, walking, with a blank mind.
I pass a few hikers here and there as I’m on my own and have nothing to do other than to keep taking steps forward. I pause and take photos, check my time, take a sip of water. My shirt isn’t yet drenched, and my brow isn’t dripping yet. I don’t even need the sedge hat that I had brought. This feels good.
I can relax this time because, for once, I have wi-fi, a fully charged phone, a powerbank, and a camera. The mental space of knowing you have backups — that I can look things up later, capture moments forever on a camera, make a phone call if I need to — is massive. Enjoying this trail makes me realise the true mental weight of fending for myself with far fewer resources back then.
If I had climbed Ishizuchi two years ago, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it like I am now. I would have been carrying twice the weight and wouldn’t have bothered stopping for photos. I would have been worried about my dying phone, where to camp, and how to get off the mountain without a map.
It’s only returning now that I can confirm I made the right decision then. Then, was not the time. Then, I was not ready. Although, I still don’t know how to define what ready means now.
If I lived here, I would go slower and just soak in the view, savour the quiet in the trees. The trees aren’t even rustling. In some parts, there aren’t even the cicadas, the thundering heralds of Japanese summer.
No direct sun is great. I can keep my shaved head uncovered. No cicadas is a bonus. No walking staff is an inconvenience (affects my confidence with weak ankles). No mosquitos and hovering gnats is a godsend. I guess the human mind just works that way — immediate concerns. Grounded concerns. Grounded concerns were also extended to fellow hikers: how on earth do they expect urbanites to not trip through those gaping holes between the wooden planks?!
My first checkpoint is the saddle point, where I stop descending and have to regain all my lost altitude. The next four are the climbing chains that lured me to Ishizuchi. It seems to take forever to climb from the saddle point to the practice chains. My feet keep moving mechanically as my mind grows mildly impatient.
But when I finally see the practice one on a little slope, I can’t be bothered to try in case I have to come back down. Instead I follow the walking path to the same destination as the chains: an open rest area with sitting benches. My reflex is to see them as benches for sleeping. So I really could have camped up here. A mental sigh, and I move on. I want to try those chains!
When I finally get past the relentless ascent, the bugs come. They were lurking at a stony bend that opens out into a breathtaking clearing. Right in front of you is a wall — Ishizuchi’s wall. To the left and right the ridges peel from green into blue. This would be one of those spots to take out a folding chair and just stare. Except I can’t.
Except I can’t. The one or two black dots hovering around my eyes quickly multiply into a dizzying ten. I barely have enough time to take a photo of a sign that marked my distance before racing on. Buzzing and overing dots are the bane of my existance.
As the bushes close in again to offer shade without covering the sky, I begin to hear voices. A group of three guys chat leisurely away and I catch up with them just as the last one starts climbing the first set of chains, called kusari in Japanese.
I study how he climbs and lift one of the links. The humungous chains are stabilised by their own weight. My small hand can just close around around it. Despite the added weight of my backpack, it’s effortless to hoist myself up the first step. The solid rock face is uneven, so everywhere looks like a foothold to jab my toe into the way one does for bouldering. The first few steps are pretty routine for someone who grew up on a mountain slope.
Half-way up, something changes. First, I slip. In the past, it was a point of pride that I could cling on calmly with just my arms and pull myself back up. But after I dislocated my shoulder this February while climbing, I learned how bad the habit was. Since then, I’ve focused more on taking precise, steady steps. I regroup and remind myself to focus on technique.
Was that sweat on my hands? Why is my breathing heavier? Oh, it’s my backpack. This climbing is nothing like the bouldering gyms because it’s not an artificial setting. I’m not able to change into comfy sports clothes and ditch my stuff in a locker. I’m carrying everything. That extra everything on my back is working with gravity to push me forward and pull me back no matter which I lean.
By the second set of chains, the feeling I had earlier comes to full bloom: fear. I finally notice the tingling: my calves are quivering. This second set is forcing me to push myself up and make long reaches. The mountain is beating down my dignity by forcing me to use whatever route I need to haul myself up. No elegant bouldering moves here.
I look out at the view — an unobstructed view of cloudland where an endless stretch of mountains should be. I look down — an unobstructed view of a 40+ metre fall. I finally get why my hands are clenching. But it doesn’t matter that I can’t see much. I like being here. Fear wasn’t quite the right word. It’s another feeling. Finding a wider sitting spot, I stare out for a bit and try to examine it. But it remains as elusive as the view.
By the third set, I watch another hiker disappear into the clouds before starting. To be left behind. To see someone else trail blazing. How different the interpretations could be. I left the group of chatting guys behind at the last rest station while I climbed the second set of chains. The solitary hiker who took the bus with me has set his own steady pace and left me behind. But, watching his steady steps on the smooth granite rock makes me feel a bit better. This was probably his first time too. Maybe I don’t look as silly as I feel.
I proceed to grab the last, and longest, set of chains. My legs are growing numb from trying to contain the adrenaline. I don’t get it. My mind’s game to do this. My heart isn’t racing or stuck in my throat. It’s nothing like the agonizing nervousness I feel in, say, a presentation. My muscles aren’t spasming from fear. But my legs are afraid. Why?
I don’t dwell on it. My body knows what to do when there’s something to climb and I go on autopilot. Look for a foothold, then look for the best corresponding link to grab.
Focus on stepping up with the legs. Use the rock properly. You can’t rely on friction with all the cloud dew on the rock face.
I slip as I’m stepping up. I can feel the slight pop on my left shoulder and do a mental curse. Your runners aren’t your climbing shoes: they have no grip and the toe isn’t so reliable. But I’m sailing up on adrenaline.
I want the internal quaking in my legs to stop. I want them to trust in my ability, in their own ability. I look behind me. There still isn’t anything to look at, except the distance down. But this is the first time I’ve enjoyed a view clinging on to something rather than standing somewhere. That’s what the feeling is — a feeling of firsts. Every first feels different. Sometimes I’m so caught up I don’t notice it. But there it is, another first.
In the end, I don’t savour the moment long. The bugs are climbing right along with me. They had thinned out, but even one or two zipping around your head is enough to keep me in the practical moment of moving forward.
At the top, I come around to face the Ishizuchi summit shrine, Ishizuchi Jinja. It’s small, but it looms above the path. My eyes trace along the sparse architecture: a fence, a small house for Ishizuchi’s spirit, and the torii gate with its sacred rope markers. Within second, the lines point my attention up into the swirling clouds. Just like the holy pile of rocks on top of Gassan that made up a shrine, this landmark is merely a reminder of where you are. The place isn’t much, but it also isn’t a disappointment. How could I be disappointed when I turn around and realise I am on top of Shikoku?
It’s a little house for a venerable spirit, one with centuries of worshippers. I take in the waves of undulating hills, shifting between light and shadow, and conclude that Ishizuchi’s kami, spirit, probably spends most of its time out there.
Then, I walk past the shrine to the summit lookout. This cleared gravel area is where most hikers stop. The ones that walked, rather than climbed, would see this spot first and might entirely miss the shrine hidden behind.
I drop my bag and start to snack. This vista is a view worth walking for any day. And when I stand on the large boulders at one end looking to the true peak of Tengudake, I understand why people come here for koyo, the autumn foliage. The green razor peak would transform into a crimson and golden flame in the Fall.
In the Fall, there are no mosquitos.
Of all things to think about. But the weight of the thought settles in. I chew thoughtfully on my energy bar.
The small chain link down from a pile of large boulders is the obvious clue towards the true peak of Tengudake. I followed that down. I’m this close anyway, may as well. I can see the trickle of hikers heading over and a few standing on the other end. I follow.
After using the small chain to get down the boulders, I follow the upper rock area. I can’t see a path, and the elevation gives me a good view. It’s a pretty straight forward walk at first, even though everything is slanted.
Then, it grew not slanted. And by the time I realize, I am already clinging to the rock on all fours. I went from walking, to a bit of sitting, to a bit of grabbing. Only when I got stuck did it dawn on me this was not the right route.
I poke my head over the edge and watch the clouds shoot up past me. I turn my head to the group of hikers coming down from Tengudake. How can they be walking on the rocks? I stare at them.
As each of the hikers wait for each other in turn, one of them stares at me. We stare at each other. I’m wondering where that invisible path they were clearly following was. I guess they’re wondering why there is a random person sprawled on a 45-degree rock.
After arriving at Tengudake, my legs are still wobbly when I took a 360-panorama. This climb has taught me that I really don’t trust my feet. At such heights, apparently balancing takes all my focus. It didn’t matter that there were a ring of protective rocks. It didn’t matter that rationally there was plenty of space to stand.
But the view. The view I have to my myself is incredible. Actually, my shaking feet made the moment sweeter. I didn’t want this moment to end any faster just because of a strange sensation in my limbs. My heart was steady. My mind was calm. My panicking legs just haven’t grown up yet.
I persevere with the photo taking at every angle and snack some more, completely disregarding the signals coming from my limbs. Funny if I do end up being one of those Instagrammers who fall off a mountain trying to take some vain photo (that isn’t even a selfie!).
In the end, the flies keep me from staying here forever. A holy place is not necessarily a romantic one, so I’ve learned. Two women come up and I head back down. By watching them approach, I found out there was a much easier walking trail over.
Of course. I just didn’t look hard enough. And I don’t regret it. It’s nice having options as I climb along the rock shelf a bit more, reluctant to let go of the incredible view. The draw of the clouds sweeping up the cliff was irresistible. Danger has its beauty. Or perhaps the beautiful are usually dangerous. Can’t tell, but I don’t have time to think about it. I need to watch my time.
The return walk is straight forward. I take the stairs back down and go at an even more brisk pace than I did while coming up. I keep my head down and just kept on watching the next step. Which rock is safe to step on? Should I angle my steps down?
Now, it is just about getting back down the mountain to catch the 3:20 bus back to town.
There are so many things I could have done a little bit better. I could have taken bug spray so I wouldn’t have any buzzing around my ears. I could have done overnight lodging to enjoy the views for longer. I should have checked out the Joju Shrine before entering the trailhead so that I could pick up a free walking stick to help my knees and give myself a bit more confidence. I could have found the trail to Tengudake. But…in the end I’m glad I didn’t. In the end, today was perfect.
Mount Ishizuchi is a dream two years in the making, a dream I didn’t really know I had. My first attempt in 2015 was just a mental exercise. Would I have enough time? Would I be able to camp on the mountain? Would I starve if there’s no food? Two years ago, I sat on a bench at Yokomine-ji and stared at glowing sheets of white above the shingled temple rooftops. After staring temptation in the face, I turned my back on Ishizuchi and finished walking the Shikoku Pilgrimage in 40 days. I vented that frustration by climbing the Dewa Sanzan instead a few weeks later.
My second attempt was in 2016 when I was desperate to walk through high summer again for my birthday. The logistics didn’t work well, I went to the Kunisaki Peninsula instead to do some solitary walking and camping.
After walking Shikoku, I reflected in my afterword that I “think more in terms of seasons: five years would be five chances to climb a mountain in the summer”. At the time, it was just an idea. But being able to climb Mount Ishizuchi this year is a small act that reaffirms that conviction. I have changed and, I think, for the better. Every year, in returning to the same habit, I am laying a small brick towards … who knows what?
Nevermind, I saw, I climbed, and now I’m napping.
And yes, I treated myself to coffee that afternoon. Even better, this unassuming independent cafe, Nakamura Coffee in Imabari City, has an owner who’s so fanatical about bikes he used the wheels as decoration for his ceiling lights!
Thanks for reading!
This is just an informational post with descriptive photos of the Omotesando hiking route from the Ishizuchi Cable Car (1400 metres) and Joju Shrine to the peak of Mount Ishizuchi (1982 metres), the tallest mountain in Western Japan, in Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku. I have a separate post on:
- Transportation / access and accommodation
- History, preparation, and general information
- a personal hiking diary
The Ishizuchi Omotesando Route
For information and photos for train connections, bus times (note, only 4 buses run daily), and lodgings please check my transportation and lodgings post.
Preparation & Etiquette
Please check my general information post on preparation.
A friendly reminder that we are visitors on the mountain and we should take all the rubbish that we have (wrappers, etc.) back down.
Toilets, also, are not flush. You should follow instructions and throw used tissue into the bins provided so they can be taken down the mountain. If they are thrown into the toilet, they will just stay untreated, which is unhygienic.
Ishizuchi Omotesando hiking route
The English and Japanese trail guides suggest about 3 hours going up and 3 hours going down. Below is my time.
This recording is from the cable car station, through the town with the Joju shrine, and up to Mount Ishizuchi’s peak. It doesn’t include the last leg to Tengudake.
Note that many Japanese maps are not to scale. They’re general ideas, but the distances they measure are often pretty accurate. Many signs are also only in Japanese, but I think the toilets have English instructions. Try to keep a translation app on your phone if you need help.
From the ropeway, just follow the route uphill to Jōju Shrine at about 1400m. It’s about a 20-minute walk through a wide, winding path with plenty of shade. This part of the route will have a good number of benches because many local tourists only go to the shrine. On the actual hiking route, benches are usually only at specific rest points.
The 1km approach to the village will end at a cluster of buildings which make up mostly the ryokans for people who stay overnight and the shrine is just behind. The trail begins at the an open wooden gate labelled with the characters “登山口” (tōzanguchi), which means trailhead.
From the trailhead at 1400 metres, it’s a descent until about 1300 metres through a natural and relatively shady path. The path can get muddy after the rains as the water doesn’t drain from the troughs that well.
The good news is it doesn’t have a killer amount of mosquitos, but if you don’t have bug spray, be prepared for a swarm of flies circling your head with the most irritating buzzing.
The torii gate that you encounter is the saddle point of Hacchozaka. From there, it’s a non-stop climb.
Note that many of the stares are oddly spaced as they’re built into the mountains. Also be careful of the planks, which have huge gaps where your feet can get caught if you’re not careful with your step. Finally, take your time with steps as the planks can also be slippery.
The endless stairs can be a bit of a drag. Just look out for a crest with a small trail to the right. That is the set of testing chains, which I do recommend for people who have not climbed or bouldered before.
For people who don’t want to climb, just take the left route and you will arrive at the same rest house.
For me, this would be a suitable rest house to overnight if you have a sleeping bag and plenty of bug spray and mosquito incense. I don’t think there is a toilet, but there might be running water as there used to be a shop here. I would say bring extra water if you plan to overnight, as the trail doesn’t cross any streams.
From that point, I began to notice the bugs. I don’t know why they started hovering around me after I left the shaded area, but anyway they did and it was a pain. They weren’t mosquitos, but the buzzing was about the same.
I didn’t dwell in the clearing as long as I’d have liked as a result. This spot offers a perfect view of the Ishizuchi wall. The mountain right in front of you is what you’ll be scaling. The thought gave me a boost because it looked cool and in the end, I figured that all mountains with designated recreational trails can’t be that killer.
The distance covered by the time you hit this spot is about 1/4 way in from the right of the elevation map. The spot is marked with characters. So you are more or less in your final stretch.
Continuing from the clearing, you will encounter your first set of chains. The chains are called kusari (鎖) in Japanese. The lengths are 33 metres, 65 metres and 68 metres.
The first set of chains is relatively straight forward. If you’re still unsure, but want to try one, this is the one to try. The other two are both longer and more difficult.
A few tips for climbing the chains:
- Safe is better than sorry — no matter how confident you are, use a steady grip until you get the hang of these chains.
- Find a steady foothold first before moving up to avoid slipping as you step
- Use your legs for power rather than your arms because those are bigger muscles
- Suck in your stomach — activating your core helps you balance and eases weight on your arms
- Use the chain links as a foothold if necessary (but I’d suggest keeping the other foot on a rock to stay steady)
After the first flight of chains, you will reach a lookout and last resting point. The lookout has a signpost pointing in different directions. Remember Joju (成就) as the direction you need to return to later. The tsuchigoya is another mountain hut for overnight staying, but it is 4km away.
Above the fork is the last resting facility, which has vending machines and a clean toilet. Note that ¥100 charge for the toilet is for the upkeep of the park grounds and the facilities. I would highly suggest contributing. In addition, this toilet is a manual flush and the toilet paper should be discarded into the bin.
Just a flight or two up from the rest station is another fork. The left route is towards the chains (鎖). The right one is the walking route.
Unfortunately, I was a bit too anxious to take a photo with my camera because I was worried I would drop the cap, so I had to make due with my phone. This second set of chains is twice as long as the first one and has an open view, which probably will give the effect of being higher up.
In addition, this climb heaving yourself up in some parts. Parts of the chain will have additional triangle footholds. Give them a try, but a warning that they swing. The swinging can be unnerving, so I suggest keeping at least one foot on the rockface to help. Also, if you have a backpack, your centre of gravity will be behind you.
This set of chains does have spots to sit and rest if you need to. Lastly, after I got to the top of this set, I didn’t exactly end up on the trail again. I came across another pile of rocks that had I think one link of chain or rope and went up that one too. Don’t be fooled by the short distance or slightly flatter smooth rock because this type of surface is easy to slip on.
The above is the sign to the last set of chains. Ishizuchi’s third set of kusari is the steepest. The crevices are smaller and there are fewer pieces of rock sticking out to use. Whatever shoes you’re using, drive them into crevices to get a better foothold so that you can step up rather than rely only on your arms to drag you up. The third set of chains doesn’t have much space to sit or rest, so take plenty of time to mentally prepare!
If you haven’t already experienced it by the second set of chains, the rock will be slippery because it will be wet. The clouds are driven up the mountainside and precipitate on the rocks even on a clear day.
I’m used to climbing and bouldering, but I’ll be the first to my legs turned to jelly and my fingers clenched. I also began to sweat as I clung on to the gigantic chains, but in retrospect, I think this is also because of the weight in my backpack.
I didn’t climb back down any of the chains. Climbing down, in my opinion, is far more difficult.
The final set of chains carries you face to face with Mount Ishizuchi shrine, which is quite an accomplished feeling since most other trekkers walk up from behind the summit.
The summit has a lodge, which I wrote about in my other post. The open area is also great for taking your lunch and the group of guys I overtook made fresh coffee over a portable stove as well!
But this summit is not the peak. The real peak is the razor-shaped Tengudake. Dake or take (岳) means peak and tengu are the mountain spirits that look like a cross between a dog and a lion.
To get over there, climb over and down the cluster of rocks (where you will see another chain link). You can leave your backpack at the viewpoint, as Japan is quite safe and many other climbers also do.
The trick is after you get to the bottom of that chain link, look to your left (if you are facing the rock). The path towards Tengudake might be slightly covered by the bushes, but the dirt route is entirely free of weeds and well maintained. I suggest following that route.
The walk requires a bit of climbing over some rocks, but within 15 minutes you should reach Tengudake. The outlook is quite narrow, so it can only fit a few people sitting or standing at a time. I suggest you stay sitting to be safe while you enjoy your snack and the beautiful 360-degree view.
I spent an extra hour or so in this area around the peak and I would suggest factoring that in to your total walk time. This is definitely the place to have a picnic. Your coat might also come in handy as your body cools down as well.
At this point, if you are not planning to overnight either on the peak or at the trailhead, then you should watch your time to return. If you’d like a traditional souvenir, you can pay for a stamp at the stamp office.
The last bus leaving Mount Ishizuchi is around 5:20pm. If you took the first and cable car up (to start hiking at around 9:30am), then you should have plenty of time for the return walk. If you took the later bus and started closer to 11:00 or 12:00 noon, then you should definitely watch your time. My non-stop return walk was 1:30, so about 2 hours to the cable car station.
Again, please be careful when you go down the mountain as the path is steep and there are many gaps between the planks.
If you arrive at the Joju Shrine and know you cannot make the 3:15pm bus, then you may as well stop and reward yourself with a meal. You have about two hours to rest and check out the shrine.
I had about 20 minutes to spare at the Joju Shrine, I went to look around. I was told there were a bunch of hammers (as a symbol of the mountain), but didn’t notice them.
The way to pay your respects is to wash your hands, one after another, with the ladels provided at the fountain. Replace the ladel as you found it. Next, proceed to the shrine. Toss a coin (a 5-yen with a circle is best for luck), go back out to ring the bell with the rope, clap your hands twice, bow, and make a prayer. When you are done, clap your hands twice again and bow.
Finally, go back down to the cable car station and have a stretch if you have a few spare minutes!
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