Leaf Peeping at Pigeon’s Nest

Japan’s autumn leaves are at least as spectacular as its springtime blossoms, but are more widespread and last longer, giving us more time to enjoy them. While cherry blossoms are mostly enjoyed in urban settings, the autumn leaves are at their most spectacular when viewed across a mountainside or other natural expanse.

Many people think of Tokyo as a sprawling urban center that contains only humanity. They don’t realize that the Tokyo Metropolitan District, which extends some 90 kilometers east to west, also has beautiful mountain wilderness in its western reaches.

Okutama, the western-most district of Tokyo, is a scenic mountainous area perfect for enjoying fresh air and autumn leaves. One of the most spectacular areas for this is Hatonosu (literally “Pigeon’s Nest”), a deep gorge on the upper reaches of the Tama River that is surprisingly easy to reach. Pack a picnic lunch and linger by the river while enjoying the views.

From Hatonosu Station on the JR Ome line, head downhill to the left, cross the highway and continue heading downward to Unzen Bridge for your first views of the bottom of the gorge far below.

Then double back and head upstream. You’ll see one or two minshuku accommodations, and then, staying on the small laneways, you’ll pass through what looks like it was once a bustling district of onsen hotels, now all derelict. They look like relics of the 1960s, when domestic travel was booming. Sadly, there is no legal requirement that abandoned buildings be torn down, so there they stand, a bit of a blight on the landscape. Fortunately, it only takes a few minutes to pass them by as you make your way down into the gorge.

Just below the derelict hotels, is Suijin Falls, a small waterfall on a stream flowing toward the river, with a small red footbridge beckoning. On the other side of the bridge are stairs leading to a small shrine to Suijin-sama, the god of the waters.

Be sure to climb up to the shrine, perhaps to pay homage to the god, but definitely for the view!

Follow the trail past the little teahouse at one end of the suspension bridge. This is a good place to grab some lunch if you didn’t bring a picnic, or coffee and cake if you just fancy a break. The kind folks at the tea house usually have trail maps available, too. This easy walk through the gorge is part of the 8.3 km. O-tama Walking Trail that begins near Kori Station (one stop before Hatonosu), but about 1.5 km. of the trail near Kori was badly damaged by a typhoon in summer 2020 and is currently closed, so for now, it’s better to start from Hatonosu. The suspension bridge marks the real beginning of your Hatonosu Gorge adventure.

The trail goes along the right bank of the river for about 2 km. and is cobblestoned most of the way, with a couple of small bridges where the natural boulders prevent a trail.

The gorge is quite narrow in places, with sheer granite walls. In other places, massive boulders rest where the river has dropped them during flood times.

At one popular spot, visitors have made small stone cairns, a popular form of Japanese devotional.

Here and there, where stones have formed nature weirs, quiet pools form, showing off the aquamarine color of the water, a color created by the minerals suspended in the water.

Between the autumn leaves, the color of the water, and the beautiful clear autumn sky, you will be treated to a festival of color on your walk. (Note: the leaves were still turning when we did this walk; the colors–especially the red maples–will be better in the last couple of weeks of November and even the first week of December.)

Photo courtesy of Jenifer Rogers. Note the angular lines on the gorge wall; that is the fish ladder viewed from below.

Shiromaru Dam sits at the top of the gorge, so to continue, you’ll need to climb the stone stairs out of the gorge and past the man-made cedar forest to cross the small hydroelectric dam. Looking down into the gorge from the top of the dam is quite a sight, too. One thing you can’t miss is the long fish ladder built to allow trout, ayu (sweetfish) and other species to continue upstream above the dam to their traditional spawning areas.

This fish ladder is 330 meters long, the longest in Japan. It rises from the river level in a downstream direction and doubles back on itself as it continues to rise. Eventually, it enters a tunnel where it rounds a bend and eventually emerges in Lake Shiromaru, 27 meters above where it started below the dam. Some trout species spawn in autumn, but most spawn in late spring and early summer, another beautiful season to visit the gorge in any event. From April through November, visitors are allowed to enter the tunnel portion of the ladder via a massive spiral staircase. It’s quite an engineering feat, all so that fish can have sex.

From the Shiromaru dam, the trail is supposed to continue another 3 km. along the right bank of the river to Okutama Station (the end of the JR Ome line), but that trail was also closed when we visited. Shiromaru station is just 10 minutes walk upstream from the dam, so visitors could head back to Tokyo or head toward Okutama station to check out the scenery there. Or you could do as we did, re-enter the gorge and return to Hatonosu station that way.

At both the top and bottom of the gorge, large signboards announce the pattern of the warning siren in the event water is being released from the dam, alternating long and short blasts. If you hear this, seek higher ground. Needless to say, this is more of a concern in spring and summer, when there is snow melt and heavier rains.

Back at the bottom of the gorge, when you reach Suijin Falls again, take the stairs to the left of the waterfall, past more derelict hotels and bear left when reaching a fork in the path. This will lead you to Soryu Falls, a ribbon of water plunging 18 meters to form the stream above Suijin Falls. Back in the 60s when these hotels were new, staying here must have been a magical escape from the city.

Before crossing the footbridge leading to the stairs that will take you back to “street level”, look for the small stone shrine covered in five yen coins. Offerings from others who’ve successfully emerged from the gorge, perhaps?

If you’re looking for some refreshment before catching your train back to the city, Kikori, at the top of the stairs, serves excellent coffee and a chance to mingle with friendly locals.

Hatonosu can be reached from JR Shinjuku in less than 2 hours. Take a Chuo line express to Ome and change there to the Ome line.

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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