We had one spare day on our JR East Travel Pass in Japan. After having roamed in Tokyo for the past couple of days, we decided to use the spare day and travel somewhere nearby. I remembered my previous visit to an active volcano in Indonesia (Link). We started googling and found out there was an active volcano along the JR East line – Mt. Asama.
Mt. Asama is a famous volcano in Japan. The most recent eruption of the volcano was in 2009 (Link). The last major eruption was in 1783 which killed more than 1000 people. Recordings suggest it has erupted more than 50 times in the past. Even today, we could see smoke coming out of the volcanic crater continuously.
There were couple of options to get there from Tokyo. The nearest stations along the JR line are either Sakudaira or Karuizawa. There was not much recent information to travel to Mt. Asama on the web. One blog we followed was on the Japan Travel Blog – here. On the day of the journey, we decided to go to Karuizawa first.
We took the JR East Line from Tokyo Station to Karuizawa. At Karuizawa, we had to take a special train: Shinano Tetsudo Line towards Komoro. The train runs regularly and it is just a couple of minutes walk in the Karuizawa station. The journey to Komoro is about 20 minutes. The cost of the ticket was 480¥ (3.7 Euros) per person. Check the timings of the train here: Link.
Along the journey, we had the first glimpse of the mountain. It initially appeared on the right side of the train. We could see the smoke coming out of the sides of the mountain.
We had the first of the many mishaps at Komoro station. After getting down at Komoro station at about 11 am, we visited a tourist centre right outside the station. As per the blog we followed, the initial idea was to take the bus to Takamine Kogen Onsen. The blog forgot to mention the most important aspect of the trip: the buses are not so regular! The link that blog referred to was invalid, but we had decided to take the chance. Bad idea! Turns out that the earliest bus we could take was at 3pm.
The only other option was to take a Taxi which according to the nice lady at the reception of the tourist centre, it would cost approx. 6000¥ (45 Euros) per one way. We had to decide. Either go back the same way to Tokyo or pay for the taxi. Our traveller instinct pushed us to take the taxi even though we only had 10000¥ in cash. We calculated that the return bus cost was 1200¥ per person per trip. So it was 2400¥ for both of us. Moreover, there were no ATM’s nearby. We took the risk!
Remember, Japan is a cash only country!
So, we took the taxi. Not taking cash out of the ATM turned out to be a dumb idea. After travelling for about half hour, I realised that we were barely halfway to our final destination and the meter already showed it was 5500 ¥. We were stressed as we would barely have cash to cover the taxi costs and we still had to consider the return trip. Moreover, the taxi driver couldn’t speak English and we didn’t know Japanese. Using Google translate, I informed him that we were struggling with low cash and asked for any ATM’s nearby. Turned out that there were none. But, the driver turned out to be the nicest guy in the whole planet. Half way through, when the meter read 6000¥, he stopped the meter. 🙂 That was a welcome relief!
Anyway, troubles aside. These cash issues stopped and then we were able to enjoy one of the most beautiful scenery ever. The road trip from Komoro to Takamine Kogen Onsen was just fantastic. The pictures speak for themselves! We passed through paddy fields for a while before starting the uphill climb to the Onsen. As we were nearing the Onsen, we passed along the edges of the mountains. The path barely fit one car, while the other side had a drop of hundreds of feet into the valley. I would highly recommend everyone to take this trip, albeit try for the cheaper version of the bus : )
We finally reached Takamine Kogen Onsen, but our troubles continued. Turns out that the hike to Mt. Asama was stopped due to increasing volcanic activity. The best option would be to go instead to Mt. Furuyama from where you can see the volcanic crater. However, the hike itself would take 4 – 5 hrs. Unfortunately, we barely had 3 hrs before the last bus to Komoro station departed. As we had already made up our mind to do some hiking, we decided to hike for Mt. Takamine. It was right behind the Onsen and the total hike was about couple of kilometres. We had our backpack ready with food, water etc. and started the hike.
The first part of the hike involved a steep uphill climb. Once we reached the top, it was a leisurely walk along the ride of the mountain. We encountered few other fellow hikers along the way. One important point to note is to have bear bells along with you.
The scenes along the walking route were splendid.
There were signs at regular intervals although it took some effort in following the path. It was not so clear at some stages. As we didn’t have our bear bells with us, any rustling along the path scared us a bit :). After a hike of about 1.5 hour, we finally reached the top of Mt. Takamine.
Our efforts finally paid off – a bit. From the top, we could make out the smoke coming out of Mt. Asama. It was probably a couple of kilometres away, but it had good vantage points for photos.
We stayed at the top for about half hour and had our lunch before starting our decent. The return was relatively easy and we could make it to the Onsen in about 40 minutes. We made it in time for our return bus back to Komoro.
There were few other passengers along with us. The journey took about half hour. We did manage to see our taxi driver again at the station who recognised us.
On our return, we took the train to Sakudaira. It turned out that we didn’t have to pay to go from Komoro to Sakudaira as it was covered by the JR East line. From Sakudaira, we took the Shinkansen back to Tokyo.