Hiking up the Limestone Mountain 武甲山, 秩父市
by Johannes Schonherr
Mount Buko is certainly one of the strangest looking mountains in Japan. Towering over Chichibu city in western Saitama Prefecture, the 1304m high Buko looks as if the Chichibu side of the mountain had been gnawed at by a giant animal. Framed by the fresh green of cedar forests, naked gray stone terraces are stacked on top of each other up to the very top of the vast mountain front.
The giant animal feeding on the mountain has been the Tokyo construction industry. Mount Buko consists almost entirely of limestone, a vital ingredient to the millions of tons of cement that have been needed to build all the skyscrapers and urban infrastructure of modern Tokyo.
This intensive mining left its scars on the mountain, in fact absolutely dominating the face of the mountain today.
Large fleets of quarry trucks are still busy today taking the limestone down to the cement factories at the foot of the mountain.
I've been fascinated by the brutal, desert-like mountain surface for a long time. It's been my dream to hitchhike up to the top in quarry trucks. Well, that's still my dream.
I did eventually make it to the summit of Mount Buko on a sunny October day but not via the quarry terraces.
From the other, the forested side of the mountain, various hiking paths lead up. They are the official trails to reach the summit.
With a friend, I drove Highway 299 from Hanno city towards Chichibu, all along the Koma River, then we turned left when the sign came up for the Mount Buko entrance in the small town of Yokoze, a suburb of Chichibu.
We passed a good number of active cement plants along that road, bizarrely shaped industrial sites deeply covered in gray dust.
After the last factory, the road became narrow and went straight into the woods. It ended at a shrine gate. Behind the gate was the parking lot for the mountain hikers. In front of the gate sat sculptures of wolves, a long extinct species in the area.
But the bears are still said to be thriving there. There were numerous warning signs telling of the danger of encountering them further up the mountain. Many hikers had small bells attached to their backpacks whose ringing was supposed to scare the bears away.
The hiking path was rather popular on that sunny autumn weekend. We had arrived a little after noon, late by Japanese hiking standards. So, we met plenty of people walking down while hardly anyone followed us on our way up.
The path went along a small river, past a few buildings. After about 30 or 40 minutes we arrived at a waterfall. By then, the river had become narrow but how high the waterfall actually was was hard to make out through the colorful autumn foliage. Behind the leaves, it seemed to come up from very high above.
Plastic cups were placed next to the noisily descending water. The fresh water, filtered through the limestone, tasted wonderful.
The waterfall marked about the first third of the way to the summit. From here on, the trail became steep. It meandered up the mountain slope, turning from serpentine curve to serpentine curve.
The forest was rather young. Perhaps 30 to 40 years old straight up cedar trees as far as one could see. It was not a primal forest but an industrial cedar plantation. While the construction industry had the other side of the mountain in its grip with its quarries, the timber industry ruled this side of the mountain.
I began to wonder about all those bear warnings down below. I had hiked through this kind of cedar plantation forests elsewhere before and hardly ever encountered an animal bigger than a spider in any of them. Animals don't like those artificial forests.
But who knows, when food is scarce, bears probably venture into these regions as well.
The 1000m mark offered a few benches underneath a centuries-old giant cedar tree. Well, that was a real tree, finally! In the past, Mount Buko was most likely covered by them - before they all were turned into Tokyo temples, shrines and housing.
Summit of Buko-san
Up here, we were almost alone. The morning hikers had already descended the slopes back to their cars - late lunchtime hiking like we did it is simply not the style of Japanese hikers.
A sign next to the big cedar said that it would take another hour for the last 300 elevation meters to the top. Even for me, however, and I'm certainly far from being a trained hiker, it took only about 40 minutes to get to the few buildings on top.
The main building being an unattended shrine, dedicated to the mountain wolves. Somebody had left a large and almost full sake bottle at its entrance as a drink for the mountain gods.
Right behind the shrine is the summit viewpoint. It is seriously fenced in and only a small entrance leads into it. Looking out into the distance you get a full view of Chichibu city and the surrounding mountains.
Looking down below you immediately understand the reason for the fencing in that direction. The quarries start right below the summit. It's a long way down towards the trucks parked on the next terrace below.
But what about the even stronger fencing in the other direction? Is it supposed to be a protection of the summit itself from being swept down the quarry by typhoons? It looks like it.
Walking the few meters to the other side of the summit, we arrived at another viewpoint adjoined by a low iron gate. From there, we could gaze over the mountain ranges towards Tokyo. The observatory on nearby Mount Dodaira was in clear view.
Behind the gate, steps lead down to the uppermost reaches of the closest quarry road.
No other hikers were around. My friend and I quickly jumped the gate and went down to the quarry road. Alas, Tokyo was under heavy smog.
It was Sunday, the quarries below were perfectly quiet, the trucks neatly parked far below. Should we walk down through the quarry desert landscape? It would certainly be quite an adventure - but it would also be absolutely illegal trespassing and we would have to expect unpredictable troubles with the quarry guards further down below.
Would it be worth it? The sun was slowly turning west. If we would indeed walk down through the quarries, we realized, we would in any case arrive at the opposite foot of the mountain, leaving us to walk all around the base of the mountain to get back to the car.
That thought brought us back to our senses. By now probably being the last hikers on the mountain, we hurried back the way we came. Through the quiet cedar forest. Not even a bird could be heard. Needless to say, no bear crossed our path.
By train from Tokyo: take the Seibu Express train from Ikebukuro Station to Hanno, change there to the local Seibu Chichibu line, get off at Yokoze Station. Walk from there.
By car: travel route 299 towards Chichibu, turn left at Ubugawa Junction (生川入口) in Yokoze, shortly before Chichibu.
There are no stores after Ubugawa Junction. Make sure to buy supplies at one of the many convenience stores along Highway 299.
From the parking lot, it takes about 1 1/2 - 2 hours to hike up the mountain. Count on about 1 to 1 1/2 hours for the return trip.
Staying on the top of the mountain overnight: A shelter hut with benches is available for free. Probably not the most comfortable place to stay but if you bring a sleeping bag, food and a gas cooker, it will be decent place to camp out for the night.
The faucets at the public toilet near the summit provide fresh mountain water.
Mount Buko on Google maps.