Tokyo's cherry blossom season has come. After the last two weeks the urban sakura has almost run its course, but the blossoms in the mountains lag behind, and now reach their peak.
Many good mountain sakura locations are in easy reach of the capital, and this one coincides with a relatively relaxing hike to its north: up the 305m Mount Hiwada (日和田山), in Hidaka-shi, Saitama Prefecture. Besides its profusion of cherry blossom trees, this route is a lovely blend of scenic views, casual mountain trekking and gorgeous fields of seasonal flowers, with a waterfall thrown in because well why not.
Hiwada-yama overlooks the little town of Koma (高麗), a couple of stations up the Seibu Chichibu Line from Hannō city. There is more to Koma than there appears. Its story begins a millennium and a half ago: not in Musashi, as the region was then, nor in fact in Japan at all, but in Korea.
Koma is the Japanese rendition of Goguryeo (고구려): one of three kingdoms on the Korean peninsula from the first century BCE to 668 CE, and the ultimate source of the name Korea in English. It was by far the largest of the three, and controlled parts of what is now northeast China, and some Siberian Tungusic populations, in addition to most of the Korean peninsula itself. The other two kingdoms, Baekje and Silla, neighboured Goguryeo on the peninsula's southwest and southeast corners respectively.
|Also shown is the Gaya Confederacy, annexed by Silla in 562 CE. Japan is in the lower-right corner, indicated by its ancient name Wa (倭).|
Like the disgraces of too many human societies, these three kingdoms decided, for some unpardonable reason, that they ought to violently compete. Goguryeo ended up in an alliance with Baekje, but Silla developed a relationship with a much more formidable partner. That partner was, of course, China, that ever-present shadow across the long Korean story.
With the help of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, Silla conquered Baekje in 660 CE, then Goguryeo in 668 CE, then turned on the Tang themselves and drove their forces out of the peninsula. This unified Silla would eventually fragment and recombine, becoming superseded by Goryeo; Goryeo in turn lasted until the pressure of Mongol occupation and internal wars broke it down, to be replaced by Joseon. Joseon was what eventually crashed into the twentieth century as the European empires ripped off great chunks of Qing China in their slavering maws, and propelled Japan into a rapid, and ultimately tragic, pursuit of European-style imperialist “modernity”.
In the last hundred years, the Korean destiny has been bound irreparably to the drool of hungering foreign powers; half a century of Japanese occupation was followed by a brutal severing in half by the Cold War blocs. Both halves built themselves up upon cruel and ruthless authoritarianism, but have come to define themselves relative to the world in opposite ways. One half has fully embraced the capitalist madnesses that rampage across humanity. The other has created madnesses of its own by slamming the door on the outside world, and resolving come what may to never rely on anyone else again.
But let's rewind, back to the three kingdoms. When Silla conquered Goguryeo in 668 CE, many of Goguryeo's people fled across the sea to Japan. These immigrants found places to live across what is now the Kantō region, but in 716 the Japanese court established Koma County for them, whereupon almost 2000 of them are recorded as having moved there. One of their royals, by the name of Jakko (잣고), was appointed as Koma's governor, and is celebrated in Koma's heritage as having taken responsibility to construct roads, buildings and industries in what was then mostly wilderness, thereby creating a foundation for Koma's future. Jakko is now enshrined at Koma Shrine, which is overseen, it is claimed, by his direct descendants.
|Koma. The town itself has a pleasant, colourful rural atmosphere.|
This hiking route can be completed within four hours, and starts with a gentle circuit around a beautiful field of flowers and sakura trees. It then leads up to the top of Mt. Hiwada, Koma's centrepiece, where the best views are in evidence. From there it proceeds along the forested ridge to Monomi-yama (物見山), before winding its way down past the Five Virtues Waterfall (Gojō no taki, 五常ノ滝) to come out at Musashi-Yokote (武蔵横手) station. And if you have time and energy to spare, it is worth closing the triangle with a walk back to Koma along the picturesque Yokote Valley.
To get there, take the Seibu Ikebukuro Line to Hannō – or, if coming from further west, the Hachikō Line to Higashi-Hannō. Then change to the Seibu Chichibu Line, on which it is two or one stops respectively to Koma station. This takes about an hour and a half from central Tokyo.
There is a bit of climbing involved, so good shoes are recommended, but none of it is long or backbreaking. There are plenty of convenience stores and facilities on the way, and the mountains themselves are fairly popular, have occasional houses and public toilets, and are easy to get on and off as needed.