Forest Adventure (Otsuki, Uenohara and Tsuru)

By Kendra Evans

About two weeks ago, we were given a rare opportunity by Mr Amemiya and Mr Suzuki from the Fuji-Tobu Branch Office for Forestry and Environment to go and see hidden, rarely visited areas within the forests of Yamanashi Prefecture. This department is looking to encourage more people, particularly foreign tourists, to come and experience both nature and history through our prefecture’s ancient forests, and we were invited to visit so we can share all about the experience on this blog. Read on and learn more about the nature of Yamanashi!

Stop 1: The Old Koshu Road (Otsuki City)

Otsuki and Uenohara, our first two stops, are located on the east side of Yamanashi Prefecture, close to Kanagawa and Tokyo. While not as mountainous as the western border of the prefecture around Minami Alps, or the northern Yatsugatake mountain range, this area is certainly still rugged and covered in high altitude forests. The Old Koshu Road, one of the five main routes for travel during the Edo and Meiji period, ran through both Otsuki and Uenohara, linking Old Tokyo to Kai no Kuni (Yamanashi Prefecture) and continuing as far up as modern-day Nagano Prefecture. We took a walk down the old road, to see the sights it has to offer.

Our first stop on the Koshu Road was a particularly important spot: the Yatate Japanese Cedar on the Sasagotoge Pass. This tree is 28 metres high, its trunk is 9 metres around, and it is over a thousand years old. The tree was very well known during the Edo Period, and once you see it in real life, you can understand its importance.

Something interesting about this tree is that it is broken at the base. You can see right inside the tree, the bark snapped away leaving a space large enough for someone to climb inside. And yet, the tree is still standing. The path of the roots on the surface spreads far along the forest ground, and one can only imagine the distance they travel underground.

The Japanese cedar is actually the national tree of Japan, famous for growing to an impressive height. This particular cedar, particularly thanks to its location on the Koshu Road, attracted a lot of attention. It featured in many books, travel guides and Japanese paintings. Now it is designated a Yamanashi Prefecture Natural Cultural Monument, and hopefully in the future more hiking tours will feature this area and this tree, so people can learn about it and the history of Yamanashi.

After seeing the tree, we continued along the Old Koshu Road. I myself have a strong interest in the history of travel during the Edo period. The country was closed off during this time, but domestic tourism, usually under the pretense of pilgrimage, was incredibly popular. It was during the Edo period that meibutsu or “local specialties” began to appear, as people left their hometowns and saw the different food or products available in different regions in Japan. Guidebooks were produced teaching people about travel etiquette and tips for the road, and ryokan (traditional hotels) popped up all along the routes, providing rooms and local cuisine for travellers.

Ryokan are particularly important when talking about this portion of the Koshu Road. A short walk further down from the Yatate Cedar, there is a large clearing, overlooking the drop down to the stream below. This is the original site of a ryokan where the Meiji Emperor stayed when travelling along the Koshu Road. The Emperor came in a palanquin, carried by footservants, and his retinue would have stopped at this location for the evening.

It is interesting to imagine the Emperor travelling along a path which is now considered a hiking trail. The road bends and twists sharply, and the ground is very uneven. It shows just how much things can change in only two hundred or so years; either the environment of the road has changed, or our image of important people making a cross country journey during this time is vastly different from what the reality would have been.

The winter air was cool but refreshing, and we continued along this path for a while, following the old road until it merged with the new. Some parts of the Koshu Road now make up the motorway, but parts like these are still relatively hidden from people’s daily lives. I would definitely recommend a visit along the walking trail for anyone who enjoys history, hiking or Japanese nature.

Stop 2: the Hinoki Ridge (Uenohara City)

Our next stop wasn’t far so much as it was high up. We drove for a long while, going around and around the mountains like a snake until we reached close enough to the summit. The spot is close to the Wami Pass, and it is a popular spot for hiking and cycling, or in some places, mountain biking. However, while the hinoki trees are common all the way up the mountain, the Hinoki Ridge is right at the top, at a spot most aren’t even able to enter. We were lucky enough to be allowed beyond the barrier, and see the stretch of hinoki trees lining the peak above our heads.

Hinoki is a tree commonly used in Japan for its timber. From tables and chairs, to temples and houses, hinoki is the wood of choice for building in Japan. It has a light fragrance, which is as noticeable in wooden products as it is in the forest.

The scenery was beautiful to be sure. It was winter time, and so many of the trees were bare – but the combination of evergreens and bare branches created a rare mix of shades along the mountains in the distance.

Wrapped around many of the branches were red and white ribbons. When I asked about it, I was told that bears are quite common in the forests of Yamanashi, and such strings ward them away from the paths and therefore from hikers. We thankfully did not see any, so it’s probably safe to say they are effective!

Parts of the forest around this area are known as the Onshi Woods. Onshi means Imperial gift. They are so called because a large portion of forested lands - 56,000 hectares - were bestowed upon Yamanashi Prefecture by the Meiji Emperor in the 44th year of his reign, as a blessing to ward off future natural disasters. This shows how nature is a significant part of Yamanashi Prefecture’s culture and identity, and I was very grateful to be able to see some of the rarer places up close.

Break: Sakamanju! (Uenohara City)

Before our third stop, we stopped for sakamanju, a local specialty of the Uenohara area. Manju are buns made from rice flour, usually with a red bean paste filling. Sakamanju are made with Japanese sake in the mix, giving them a distinctive and slightly salty flavour. The store we went to for sakamanju took this local specialty one step further; while miso, red bean paste and salty red bean paste were options for fillings, so was fish, making it a sakana sakamanju.

We were very surprised at the idea of fish in a manju, as they are usually a dessert. But we decided to give it a try. We went to the shop and managed to buy the last one left – and it turned out to be the most delicious of all the fillings! The sake and the salmon matched very well, and we understood why they were almost sold out. In fact,we ate it so fast we couldn't take a picture! Sorry!

Spot 3: Shishidome Riverbank (Tsuru City)

Our last stop was in Tsuru, further south than Otsuki and Uenohara, to a stream connected to the Shishidome River. The river itself is well known for fishing – a popular pastime in Yamanashi, many spots along this river are perfect for spending an afternoon catching different fish. The rocky riverside we visited is very peaceful and picturesque, and might be a quieter place to pass the time in the spring or late summer, the best times for fishing.

The forest along the sides of the stream, even in winter, was an eye-catching mix of colors. The leafless branches looked almost purple against the oranges of plants still in autumn, and the evergreens higher up the slopes. What would this area look like in the height of summer, or even spring, as the new plants come in? I’m very tempted to visit again and find out. 

The water was so clean, you could see right to the bottom of the stream. One of the amazing things about nature in Yamanashi Prefecture is just how clean the water is, even a small stream like this one.  This was a wonderful end to our busy tour, and we truly enjoyed our day out among the forests of Yamanashi.

If you are visiting Yamanashi Prefecture and are interested in visiting any of these locations, please contact the Fuji-Tobu Branch Office for Forestry and Environment for more information on how to travel and when to go. You can call them at 0554-45-7814, or if you would rather use English, you can contact us at the Global Tourism and Exchange Division at 055-223-1435 or Thanks to Mr Amemiya and Mr Suzuki for showing us around!

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