Hiking in Nara Prefecture: Azalea Forest of Mt. Katsuragi
Every spring around early to mid-May, a huge forest of red azalea flowers bloom near the peak of Mt. Katsuragi. This special event draws in many visitors, as it is easy to access due the existence of a ropeway which operates at the base of the mountain in Gose City, Nara Prefecture. For those who want to get some good exercise, there are 2 interesting hiking courses available that start from just above the ropeway station.
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Mt. Katsuragi is located on the border between Nara and Osaka Prefectures, though it is much more popular to ascend from the Nara side due to the existence of a ropeway station. It is part of the the Kongo Range, which runs from Mt. Myojin and the Yamato River in the north, all the way to Mt. Kongo and the Yoshino River in the south. These mountains are historically famous for their links to Shugendo and nature / mountain worshiping traditions, including being the once home of En no Gyoja, a highly influential mountain ascetic who was active here around 1,300 years ago.
There are a variety of trails which access the various peaks along this mountain range, as well as one that follows the ridgeline, north to south, known as the “Diamond Trail,” which makes for a fun way to spend a day (or a few days) for those who enjoy long-distance trekking.
Probably the most popular attraction of the entire range, the azalea bloom of Mt. Katsuragi, typically occurs from early to mid May, lasting only a couple weeks at the most before the striking red blossoms fade and wilt away. On a clear day, the view from the peak of mountain, near the azaleas, offers panoramic views over both Nara and Osaka, with both downtown Osaka and the ocean visible on a clear day. There are also a surprising number of facilities for tourists located around the top of the mountain, including toilets, a restaurant, and a small hotel.
It is actually quite convenient to ascend Mt. Katsuragi from Gose City in Nara Prefecture, where you have the option to hike via 2 courses or even take a ropeway tram to the top for a fee for an easy experience. Buses also run regularly between JR Gose Station and the Katsuragi ropeway station, making it an easily accessible gateway to the mountain. For those not wanting to bother with the bus, walking to the base of Mt. Katsuragi can also be done from Gose Station, but it will add another 40-50 minutes of uphill along paved roads to the hike, depending on your pace.
The hike from the base of Mt. Katsuragi can be done via 2 possible routes, one that follows a northern ridgeline up, or one that is more direct which roughly follows the line of the ropeway to the peak. The direct route can be quite challenging even experienced hikers, as it is very steep with long sections of wooden steps, covering the elevation gain of roughly 400 meters in just a couple of kilometers, whereas the northern route is a bit more gradual.
Whatever route you take to the peak, when you arrive you will find a pretty well developed area, with a paved walkway and various facilities, including vending machines and toilets. The actual peak itself lies in a wide open grassy plain which overlooks Osaka to the west and glimpses of the Nara Basin to the east. Just to the south of the peak is the azalea forest, which you walk around and through on various dirt paths.
There are various suitable spots for setting up a picnic around the peak, and if you decide to ride the tram up, you certainly could take a bunch of food and drink up with you to make for a fun day of lounging about, immersed in one of the best views in all of the Kansai region.
For those interested, just below the peak (on the east side) there is a special nature preserve trail that can be accessed on the way up (or down) from the northern ridgeline route. In this special protected area, visitors can see all kinds of wildlife that are native to this area, and there are signs with detailed info on the topic (only in Japanese as of this writing) posted intermittently along the route.
Although the azalea is the biggest draw of Mt. Katsuragi, any season is a good season for doing this beautiful hike. There may be no azalea outside of the busy season, but the enormous crowds should all so be gone as well, and you can still experience the stunning views overlooking the region from the peak.
From Kintetsu Gose Station, take a bus bound for the Katsuragi-san Ropeway (“Katsuragi Tozan-guchi Station”). From Katsuragi-san Ropeway, you can take a tram up to the peak, or hike the mountain by the two possible routes discussed above. For updated time schedules on the bus and tram, check Kintetsu’s website here.
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