Who says there isn’t any nature to be found in Tokyo? Just 2-3 hours drive away from Tokyo, lies a rough diamond called Okutama. This is a place for nature lovers, for hikers, for adventure seekers.
It isn’t easy to get here by car, one has to be skilled in navigating the rough terrains of a steep mountain in a winding long road that can be so narrow at times that there is only space for one car to pass through. Luckily for me, my bae is such a man. For tourists perhaps it would be safer, easier and likely even faster (we got caught in a terrible jam on our way out of the city and back) to get to Okutama by train.
The Kaleidoscopic Wonder of Nippara Limestone Cave
Our first stop is at Nippara Limestone Cave (日原鍾乳洞), the longest cave in the Kanto region at 800 metres long. I studied Geography back in my JC days, and Physical Geography is my forte and interest. I had always wanted to visit a cave, and I’m more than contented to have ticked this off my bucket list finally, and it’s not just any cave, it’s a limestone cave! I got to see beautiful stalactites and stalagmites to my heart’s content, my soul just died a little upon leaving the cave, I couldn’t bear to leave it. It was everything I imagined, and more. Shidenoyama, the chamber with the largest limestone formation is flooded with psychedelic lights dancing on the walls, creating a sense of surrealism within the cave.
Escape Summer Heat in this Cool Limestone Cave
The temperature here is a constant 11 degree celcius all year round, and I was more than happy to escape the dreaded Japan summer heat, but instantly stunned by the cold the moment I entered the cave. But once my body adjusted to the cold, I was a happy explorer, running my hands along the cold, wet limestone surfaces gave me a thrill, my textbook graphics have finally come to life. One has to be extremely cautious in the cave though, for not only is it wet and slippery, there are many places where the ceiling is low.
Let your mind be at Peace in the Holy Grounds of the Cave
Initially, I’d thought the cave would be just like any other cave, a geographical marvel with ancient stalagmites and stalactites that almost touch. But upon exploring the cave further, I stumbled upon many underground shrines and kannon statues. Within Shidenoyama chamber, when you climb up the flight of stairs on the left, you will find the Enmusubi-Kannon (Goddess of match-making). Eventually I found out that the cave used to be a sacred place for Buddhist monks from as early as 774 A.D. There is a particular spot that requires you to really be in the cave to experience the wonder, for it is not a visual sense, but an auditory one. When you reach the Suikinkutsu site, be very still. You will hear the hypnotic rhythm of water droplets striking a pot, much like the trance-inducing repetitive drumming of a wooden fish drum by a chanting monk.
Lunch in Okutama – Kamameshi
After exploring the cave, we got a little peckish, and had lunch at this random restaurant we found, called Hatonosu Kamameshi (鳩の巣釜めし). Kamameshi (釜飯) literally translates to “Kettle rice” , that is, rice cooked in an individual size pot and served directly in it, which is what we Chinese call shaguofan (砂锅饭) or claypot rice. To be able to eat this reminded me of home, and made me realise just how similar Japanese and Chinese culture really is. And while it may look just like a simple clear vegetable soup, I particularly loved the soup for it tasted just like my mom’s cooking, very Chinese and comforting.
Hike in Hatonosu Valley by the Tama River
Then we went for a hike along the Hatonosu Valley by the Tama River which flows to Lake Okutama. Hatonosu Valley is known for its gigantic and odd-shaped rocks and crags and of course its beautiful waters. Supposedly the trail is easy to walk, but I guess my weak physique really needs some working at. I was huffing and puffing throughout the whole trail. While it may have been arduous for me, the captivating sight of the flowing river cutting through the rocks was a great motivation for me to press on.
And I was glad that I pushed on, for I was rewarded with a most magnificent sight of nature’s powers and beauty. Once you reach the Hatonosu Bridge (鳩ノ巣橋) which hangs from a cliff about 40 metres high you will be able to witness to this riveting scene before you, a bird’s eye view of the Hatonosu Ravine.
On a side note, when I was taking a breather on a boulder along the calmer part of the river, I noticed how beautifully jade green the waters looked. Then it dawned on me. When hiking, never focus on the goal, but rather enjoy the process and appreciate the beauty around you, and you will find it a lot easier to brave through the journey. Pretty much like life, huh.
Finally, if you are thinking of bringing home some memento, while it is certainly not advisable to pluck a leaf or grass (please protect Mother Earth), there is a piece of nature you can take. And eat. As Okutama is a mountainous region with fresh spring waters, wasabi is a local specialty here. Those who followed me on Find The Wasabi show would know that wasabi is grown is spring waters up the mountains. So it is a must to get some wasabi souvenirs back home! I bought some wasabi crackers at only 450 yen, and they did not disappoint, the crackers were generously flavoured with the sharp tang of wasabi.
Hatonosu Kamameshi (鳩の巣釜めし)