The mountains lining the banks of the Kiso River as it passes through Inuyama offer a plethora of pathways for both the serious and the casual hiker. My favourite is strenuous without being difficult, and matches exercise with rewarding views and easy accessibility. Beginning at Zenjino station on the Meitetsu Hiromi line, two stops from Inuyama, turn right from the station and follow the road through this hamlet. The first point of interest, about ten minutes into the walk, is a tiny shrine atop a steep mound. There is little else here, and for a brief moment you feel out of time. Like a Kurosawa set it stands, a spiritual centre those who have made these streets and the surrounding land their home. Turn left here. The road climbs gently through rice fields and bamboo forests, passed overhanging branches and good mornings from the farmers. Buildings dwindle; cultivated fields give way to natural chaos. The paving finally breaks down altogether at an otherworldly-blue pond popular with the local fishermen. Its colour is the result of copper in the ground, or so an old man told me.
View Larger Map A sharp right at the half-feral public toilets takes the walker into an overgrown world of greens and browns, light blocked by a dense canopy and every available space strewn with cobwebs. The arachnophobic should be on their guard as the types, colours and, above all sizes of these creatures are astounding and often alarming, particularly when encountered at the heart of a web mere inches from your face. The forest opens out again onto wide, well-kept paths, and much of the climbing is now done with the aid of stairs built into the brittle, crumbing geology. The way is well signposted, Inuyama Castle being the general direction to head in.
photo credit: Chris 73 You reach the first peak after about 40 minutes walking, but the view can only be seen in tantalizing glances through the thick forest. Perhaps because of this the road doesn’t pause, instead dropping off to begin the climb to the next height. It’s a comforting aspect of Japanese geology for the casual hiker – once you’ve reached the top of one hill, you don’t have to descend far to reach the next one. Each is joined at the shoulders, and the path follows these like a chain linking everything together. The terrain is craggy but densely forested, with summits of around 500m jutting in chains clear to the horizon.
The valleys between are pristine, untouched: deep green in summer, fire-red in autumn, barren though not bereft in winter. I slow my pace during this section, not because or tiredness, or to conserve energy, but to savour the nourishing delight of peace and simplicity surrounded by nature. It’s a cliché that a trip into the wild rejuvenates, yet like all clichés it is based in fact, and it’s a truth that is obvious out here. The path rises and falls, each time a little higher than the last until finally it turns, the brush clears and you’ve reached the lookout point on the final peak. Benches, a foul-weather shelter and the obligatory map explaining the view. Invariably I come across a group of pensioners, kitted out for Everest base camp, cooking cup ramen on gas stoves. The way forks here, and the right branch is the one to follow. Though descending, the going is a touch tougher – steep inclines, sharp rocks, loose scree and steps that are higher than ideal. The world narrows; the undergrowth is overgrown. Into the forest proper, and the view finally disappears behind impenetrable foliage. Suddenly, from through the trees, civilisation ambushes. The stone torii and statues which dotted the descent were outliers of something bigger: Jakkoin shrine. The road we’ve taken has brought us to the back of the shrine, which marks the end of the rough paths. It is an impressive, and worth taking some time over. The main shrine building and its annex are currently undergoing their vicennial rebuilding, so some parts may be shrouded in scaffold and white sheet. The buildings already completed however shine in their new, fresh wood, polished metals and rich paint. Looming over the buildings is a statue on a viewing platform. The view from here is stunning; particularly in autumn as the vast majority of trees are Japanese maple. Below runs the River Kiso, and the eye naturally follows its snaking course to Inuyama castle, standing proud and beautiful, but unfortunately dwarfed by the hideous Ferris wheel of the Nihon Monkey Park in the foreground.
However the cries and screeches from the park’s residents do add a certain wild flavour to the environment. There are more paths leading from the shrine, most winding back into the hills, but the main route is down the vast stone staircase lined with gold statues, relics and religious paraphernalia. Go through the car park and follow the road straight down to the river. A left turn and a short walk returns you to Inuyamayuen station, one stop from the main Inuyama hub. In the vicinity are Inuyama castle, Naritasan temple and the Ukai cormorant fishing, about which there are further detailed articles on these In japan Blogs.