Hello folks, it has been almost half-year since the global pandemic of COVID-19. How have you spent your new normal life for these several months in your country? After the cancellation of the emergency declaration by the Japanese Government, the number of infected people has been increasing again especially in big cities, and has reached around 300 – 400 in Tokyo per day in August. This is because of increasing the number of PCR tests now, but it seems the 2nd Wave of the infection has started. In response to the negative impact on sightseeing business which is one of the most important industries in Japan since the pandemic of COVID-19, the Japanese Government started a new natinal campaign called “Go To Travel” nationwide in July in order to revitalize the market by providing some discount packages to Japanese travelers. However, “Trips from and to Tokyo and for Tokyo residents” were excluded from the campaign due to preventing infection spread by massive people moving.
A change of mood is necessary for us even under the difficulty
Although I fully understand the current situation, I have been very frustrated under the situation. I have always been sensitive for my hygiene control and refrained from meeting my friends directly, eating out with people, and of course, going on a trip. Therefore, I boldly decided to go out from the big city to nature for just 2 days with my friend who is also very tired of staying & working at home, even we are not so welcomed to come from Tokyo. Our destination is OZE where locates among the border of Gumma, Fukushima, and Niigata prefecture. The area was registered as the 29th National Park in Japan in 2007 and the wetland of international importance by the Ramsar Convention. The park has complicated weather conditions, topography, and geology, so there are thousands of endemic plants and flowers surrounded by mountains and extremely popular among a wide range of hikers. For your information, OZE area used to be planned to construct a huge dam for hydropower and covering water supply in Tokyo and neighbor cities in the past, however there were many loud voices to preserve the land as nature in terms of environmental conservation among people. Therefore, the plan was never executed, and the great nature has been protected until now. As I had been there for 1 day trip a few years ago because it was already full-booked of the mountain lodges, and we decided to join 2days hiking tour organized by the major outdoor company.
Day 1 (Walking around the marshland)
OZE area has several different access points and different hiking courses. Our hiking course is the most orthodox for beginner hikers, which is starting from Hatomachi-toge and out from Oshimizu (Please refer to the map below). Our meeting point with the tour guide and other members was the OZE-Tokura bus terminal at 11 am, so we got on the express bus at BUSTA Shinjuku to OZE-Tokura at 6:30 am. Due to COVID-19, the capacity of passengers is almost 1/3 of normal and it was arranged that no one sits next to you. Of course, we needed to wear a mask in the car, and hand sanitizer was prepared. (Other than the express bus, you can reach there by train and public bus, or by car.) Our tour members are 8 including the guide and the age is from the ’20s to ’70s. The group size is quite reasonable to walk together. Our guide belongs to the local tour company and he has also certified the specific tour guide of the OZE area and knowledgeable about a wide range of flowers and plants in OZE. While we were heading for Yamanohana, he often explained these rare plants along the boardwalks. (Actually, I could not memorize all of them because it was too many!)
When we reached OZE marshland through Yakanohana, suddenly the wider and flat landscape appeared in front of us. You must also be impressed and breathtaking to see the scenery. Unfortunately, famous flowers there called Mizubasho (skunk cabbage in English?) and Nikko-kisuge has already gone at this time, however other flowers such as thistle in fall have bloomed there. According to the guide, Mizubasho was all cut so as not to bears coming down from the mountains to eat the flowers that have finished blooming. It is too risky for people to encounter them inadvertently. There have already been 2 injures by bears this summer. (I saw lots of flowers when I came there a few years ago in June, so you need to visit there between the mid of June and July if you want to see these flowers. Especially for Nikko-kisuge, they are just full-bloomed for 2 weeks in July. Our visiting is the first part of August, but we could not find any of them.)
Mizubasho (white flowers)is the symbolic flower in OZE. Unfortunately didn’t have a chance to see them. Nikko-kisuge (yellow flowers) had already gone 2 weeks ago of our visiting. You can see the great yellow carpet when you visit there at the mid of July.
(The photo is borrowed from https://www.oze-hiking.com/guide/spot/)
The marshland seemed very calm and quiet because just a small number of hikers visited there. It must be difficult for us even to pass each other on the boardwalk due to the many hikers in the usual summer. I felt it was quite nice to enjoy walking, but a bit sad about the lack of liveliness and recognized it is a very unusual year for us. We kept walking on a well-maintained boardwalk for 3 hours from the edge to the edge of the marshland with taking a rest several times, finally arrived at the mountain lodge called Yashiro Hut, where is our accommodation tonight. All of the tour members except the guide were exhausted due to long walking (approximately 6km) and exercise after a long time. (Some members kept working at home since the spread of COVID-19 and have seldom visited their office for months.)
Staying at the mountain lodge
Yashiro Hut is very neat and keeps good condition as a mountain lodge. The room was comfortable with a very clean futon set and the meals for dinner and breakfast were just right for me (It may be light meals for men), furthermore, I was appreciated we could take a bath after having lots of sweat. However, the management of the lodge seemed not easy due to COVID-19. They opened this summer but just accepted less than half the number of visitors due to avoid crowding. Actually, half of the mountain lodges in OZE were closed this summer. Yashiro Hut was also highly caring for hygiene management such as setting a hand-sanitizer, keeping a certain distance between people at the dining table, and limiting to enter the number of people at the bathes at once. The hikers were also caring for hygiene and safety by wearing a mask in front of people and chatting with each other outside or at the front yard. It was very unusual and we cannot fall out in the situation, but we enjoyed seeing some fireflies near the lodge and conversation among tour members over beer and coffee at night. I also realized how important the actual face to face communication is for my daily life.
Day 2 (Hiking around OZE-Numa: OZE Swamp)
We got up at 5:00 am the next day after sleeping soundly all night. It was a bit foggy, but a fresh atmosphere in the marshland. After having a quick breakfast at the dining room, we left the lodge at 6:30 am. According to the guide, the hiking course of the 2nd day is longer and harder than that of the previous day because there is a height difference with the not-well maintained path. Surely, we started to climb the hill behind the lodge for a while. As we are walking along OZE-Numa, the landscape looks like that in foreign countries. There are more flowers and plants in the autumn season and we found lots of dragon fries here and there. It was quite sure that the path length was a bit tough and tiring for us by carrying a heavy backpack in humid weather, however, all members seemed to enjoy walking in the green world over chatting among the tour group, and greeting other hikers sometimes. One thing I worried a bit was closing half of the public toilets there this year. Especially between the lodge and the OZENUMA visitor center for almost 3-4 hours, we had no toilet available. So, you had better to drop any toilet when you find and/or bring a portable toilet with you just in case. (If you have no opportunity to use it, just keep it for natural disasters or emergency cases:-))
After having lunch at the OZE-Numa visitor center, the hardest point of the day had come. The long steep and severe downhill had continued until Ichinose, moreover, the path was wet very slippery by light rain. When this happens, trekking poles are essential and must item for making easy our walking. Finally, we arrived at Ichinose without any serious trouble, and caught a wagon taxi heading for Oshimizu, where is another access point of the express bus to Tokyo/other cities. Thanks to the knowledgeable guide and nice tour members with diversity in terms of gender, age, and personality, our 2 days hiking tour was very enjoyable even we needed to be very sensitive for measures of the virus.
We are all facing difficulties right now, in particular, the travel industries had a great negative impact on their business. We don’t know exactly when inbound travel guests come back to Japan again in the near future, however people in travel industries such as agency, transportation, and accommodation are making a great effort to invite guests under a safe and clean environment anytime. Although I was anxious about the infection of the virus by moving and traveling, I was confident to travel under the situation with self-defense through the experience this time. We are hoping that the time you will visit Japan is coming in the not too distant future!!