Japan Guides: Dodaira-san, Tokigawa Town, Saitama Prefecture
The Mountain of Lights, (sort of), Dodaira-san 堂平山, ときがわ町
by Johannes Schonherr
When I picked my friend up from the train station, I told him,"We are lucky. Clear sky." But he knew better: "It might look like a clear sky from the city, no clouds. But when I flew into Haneda two hours ago, there was smog all over Tokyo. Couldn't see anything."
With said friend, who had just come to visit from Seoul, I had long planned to find a mountain that would offer a great view all over the night skyline of Tokyo from somewhere in the distance.
Mount Takao would have been the most obvious choice but we were looking for something more off the beaten path.
A picture my friend found on the internet finally convinced me that Mount Dodaira in Chichibu, western Saitama Prefecture might be the place to check out. See the picture below in all its tantalizing glory.
Driving to Dodaira
Mount Dodaira, I had researched, had a drivable road going up all the way to the top. There was a sky observatory on the top, too. But the mountain seemed too far from any settlements that it could possibly offer any sort of accommodation nearby. Should we try to find a secret hiding place for a tent somewhere in the vicinity of the summit?
That's what we opted for. We bought some food and loaded tent, gas cooker and various camping supplies into my car. Then we drove off. We went through Hanno and Hidaka cities in western Saitama Prefecture until we entered Highway 30 leading north.
Already shortly after Hanno, it felt like we had left the Tokyo metropolitan area behind us. There was still heavy traffic at times and the excavation sites for new industrial construction didn't look any prettier here than in the city but still, we now mainly traveled through small villages with large traditional farm houses and carefully kept vegetable fields.
I knew some spots along those roads that provide great views to Fuji-san in very clear weather. This time, Fuji-san didn't show up.
We drove Highway 30 up north to Tanaka Junction, then to the left. The road soon turned into a narrow mountain road. Even more so when we took the turn right when the road sign said 堂平山天文台 (Dodaira Observatory). Out here in the mountains you won't find any road signs in English. The road was steep, curvy and narrow.
Entering the summit area of Mount Dodaira, we began to look for a possible hiding spot to camp for the night.
Instead, we suddenly found ourselves stopping in front of a large official camping area. Families barbecued in front of their tents. Ha! No illegal camping then.
The camp site offered not only spaces for tents but wooden bungalows and Mongolian-style fixed "yurt tents" for rent as well. The latter were the top end of luxury to be found here, they came with air-conditioning and all amenities a well-to-do Tokyo dweller might expect for a little weekend family outing.
We booked a spot for our humble tent, quickly put it up and went exploring. The campsite itself had a sort of viewing area open towards the distant lights of the Kanto Plain. But those were rather the lights of Hanno city and the suburbian areas behind it rather than Tokyo, we figured.
A short walk above the camp ground was the actual summit of the mountain. That's where the observatory is situated. It is open for public star gazing but only on two evenings per month. Usually the second and fourth Friday in the month. We had come on a Saturday.
There was a sort of conference being held inside the observatory and the staff at the door advised us that there were two telescopes out behind the parking lot which were available for free night sky viewing every night.
Those telescopes were fixed onto the best visible stars of the season. In our case, one of them was pointed towards the Saturn. The planet with the ring was clearly visible and quite impressive.
The second telescope was occupied by a dedicated amateur astronomer peering intently through the lens. We didn't want to disturb him.
Looking up into the sky with our plain eyes, we could immediately understand why an observatory had been build on this mountain. The sky was full of stars.
It was not the kind of incredibly bright starry night you might find on Yakushima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture, way down south, to name one remote place where the stars clearly outshine the few lamps of the villages, but it was an impressive array of stars nonetheless.
Close to Tokyo, you probably won't find another spot with such a clear night sky. There was a good reason why they built an observatory on exactly this mountain, after all.
Tokyo City Lights
We headed back to the camp site information / booking office hut. The two elderly gentlemen running it would know for sure, we figured. They lived on the mountain most of the year.
We showed them the picture that inspired us to make the trip up here and asked him what was the best view point. Patiently, one of the elderly men walked us over to a window, opened it and looked out."On a clear winter night, you can look all the way to Yokohama from here," he said. "Then, you can see the Sky Tree and most of Tokyo. But not tonight. It's too hazy down there. Too much smog over the city."
"The furthest thing I can see right now is the Seibu Dome, that's in Tokorozawa, Saitama and right on the border with Tokyo. There is nothing of any recognizable shape beyond it."
Our own untrained eyes couldn't even make out the Seibu Dome, the famous baseball stadium. Not even with the binoculars my friend had brought. We only saw a shimmering stretch of hazy lights.
"Winter is the best time for a view," the old man continued, "clear days in early March might be the most perfect. Forget about today."
We of course didn't give up that quickly and scrambled about the dark mountain for another hour or so in the vain hope that something magical might occur. Like we would find some hidden viewing spot between the trees that would somehow open up the full view to a Tokyo nightscape without smog.
But common sense eventually prevailed and we returned to the campsite to enjoy what we knew we could enjoy that night: sausages fried over the gas cooker, beer from the ice box and the view of the night sky with all its stars.
In the morning, we got up for the sunrise. While the nearby mountain ranges, including Mount Buko, were crisp in the morning light, Tokyo was still under a hazy cover of grayish, yellow smog.
Dodaira Observatory & campsite webpage (in Japanese)
Road access: Highway 30 to Tanaka intersection, turn left onto road 172, follow the signs for 堂平山天文台. Though the road up to the observatory is steep, it is popular with mountain bikers. No bus service.
Camp site: tent with 2 people from about 4,000 yen, bungalow from 10,300 yen, Mongol-style yurt tent from 13,390 yen.
It's best to reserve in advance. Call 080 2373 8682 in Japanese.
The camp site offers showers, rather luxury toilets (you must take your shoes off before entering!), a large common room with TV, a soft drink machine.
Observatory: Open to the public for star viewing from March through December on the 2nd and 4th Friday in the month.
There is a small restaurant in the observatory, open daily. Observatory Tel: 0493 67 0130 (in Japanese)
Dodaira-san on Google maps.