Ozegahara is Japan’s largest highland marsh, located at 1,400-1,700 metres above sea level. It was apparently formed a very, very long time ago by the gushing lava of the nearby Mt. Hiuchigatake. The Oze National Park is so large that it covers parts of Gunma, Fukushima, Niigata and Tochigi prefecture. It is very popular among hikers, trekkers, mountain climbers, photographers… but even though you might not classify yourself as one of these, no matter what – Oze is just breathtaking!
The 4 Seasons
Oze National Park beautifully portrays the seasonal changes in the surrounding landscapes of marshes, lakes, mountains, rivers and forests.
In spring around mid-May to June the Asian skunk cabbages (Mizubasho) start to bloom in the remaining layer of snow. The name might not be very appealing but these ‘white fairies of Oze’ and the majestic mountain range create a priceless view. The skunk cabbage is actually an important symbol of the Oze area, signaling the arrival of spring.
However, the diversity and intensity of the plants and the vivid colours reach their peak during the summer season. Many alpine flowers can be found from July to early August. A very famous vista is the marshland coloured with bright yellow broad dwarf day-lilies (Nikko-kisuge), with the mountains & grasses adding a fresh green hue.
From mid-August to October autumn flowers start to bloom and many plants change their colour, this event is called “kusamomiji”. The marsh grasses and shrubs bring a gold and brown to the colour palette of the Oze National Park. Then, in late autumn the first snow begins to fall, which covers the landscape in a soft white blanket during winter.
You can wander or trek through the national park on the wooden walkways. These cover a distance of more than 57km. The National Park is quite strict about staying on the walkway to ensure safety and to protect the wildlife.
The wooden planks are exchanged every 10 years. If you have a closer look you will see that each plank is marked with a number. This number shows the year the plank was added. However, do not be confused as the Japanese calendar is used, which refers to the reigns of the emperors. Currently, we are in Heisei 26 (2014), as seen in the photo of the new wooden plank.
The Start of our Journey
Together with my colleagues and friends I made a trip to Oze. We parked our car at Tokura – you can also take a bus that takes you here. Then we stepped onto a small shuttle bus that brought us to the Hatomachitoge Pass (930 yen for 1 way).
At first we walked downwards to reach the Ozegahara marsh. We wandered through the thick virgin forest; this means that it is a forest in its natural state with a mature ecosystem. Fresh streams pass through the woodland, birds chirp their melodies and the sun-rays glimpse through the leaves of the beech trees.
On the way you may catch up with or be overtaken by the so called ‘shoikos’. These are men that have a very heavy load strapped to their backs that they carry to the lodges in the national park. It is very impressive to the see them carry more than 70kg on their backs in the hot Japanese weather. At one point I even witnessed a shoiko slipping on a wet wooden plank. He struggled to get up but he claimed that he was alright: “daijoubu, daijoubu!” And with the help of his colleague he started to fix the boxes into place again.
Along the path you will find bells, you might be wandering what they are for. Actually, Oze is a habitat for Asiatic black bears. The bells serve to alert the bears to your presence and ‘scare’ them away, as they naturally avoid human encounters. So please make use of the bells and ring! Several trekkers also have a small bell attached to their backpacks, these have the same purpose.
Oze Yamanohana Visitor Centre
3.3km later we reached the first lodge and the Oze Yamanohana Visitor Centre. I would recommend you to have a quick look inside – check out the treasures of Oze. Along with various bird species, foxes and bears, Oze also houses stoats/short tailed weasels/ermines. These short tailed weasels are very rare, so if you are lucky enough to spot one, let the visitor centre know and you will receive a certificate!
At the lodges you can rest and eat your packed lunch (obento) or buy something noodles & ice cream (usually a little overpriced due to the troublesome transportation of the goods – shoikos). There are also public bathrooms available, they used to be free of charge, however now there is a fee of 100 yen. This is because the maintenance of mountain bathrooms requires a lot of work. People build up their tents at the lodge but you can also stay in a bunk-bed in the guesthouse.
Ozegahara – Oze’s Marshland
After a quick break we continued our journey and entered the stunning marshland of Oze. The view is just priceless! At this time of year, early July, we were already able to see some broad dwarf day-lilies (Nikko-kisuge) and their vivid yellow colour. Furthermore, the purple Japanese iris (Kakitsubata) and the tussock cotton-grass (Watasuge) are growing in between the fresh green grasses. The cherry on top is the view of the 2 mountains Shibutsusan and Hiuchigatake emerging on the horizon – just completing the whole panorama.
Our route took as to the ‘Ushikubibunki fork’ which can be translated as ‘Cattle’s neck’. Along the way we spotted many different coloured dragonflies in between the grasses – I saw some red and blue ones!
We took a left and reached our goal – ‘Naka Tashiro’: a perfect photo spot to capture the magnificent scene of the marshland and Mt. Shibutsu. We stopped at one of the resting areas and unpacked our lunch – typical Japanese: delicious o-nigiri, tsukemono (Japanese pickles), edamamae (soybeans) and blueberries.
Fully rested, we starting heading back following the same route that we had come from. The part after the lodge and the visitor centre goes up to the Hatomachitoge pass. This may be a little tiresome due to several steps and the heat. Yet, it’s fun to have a bit more of a physical challenge if you are a ‘keen bean’ and go up quickly!
After having reached the top and wiping away the sweat droplets on our foreheads we bought ourselves Hanamame ice cream. Hanamame, directly translated as flower bean, is a very typical agricultural product from Katashina – Oishii! I would say that it is a must try when you come for a visit!
The last back to the car park leaves at 17:10 – so make sure you are back in time.
I hope to return to the Oze National Park very soon – maybe with a tent and for a 2 day trip? I hope you enjoyed reading my post and the photos – but it always looks better in real! So go and discover for yourself!
Here is the 2nd time visit at Oze National Park Ozegahara & Ozenuma (No. 2)
Additional photos taken from Kumi & Sachiko! Arigato Gozaimasu!