Hikers looking at Mount Hiuchigatake from Ozegahara Marshland

Nikko is often visited as a day trip from Tokyo as it is about two hours from Asakusa. However, most people do not realise that there is a vast back country beyond the city of Nikko. It is here in the Okunikko and Katashina areas that nature and wildlife enthusiasts will find their home, from highlands, mountains and marshlands to extremely clear lakes and waterfalls - a perfect place to take in the negative ions and enjoy a bit of the great outdoors.

Rainbows remind me that things are going to be alright
Indulge in a bit of shinrin yoku (forest therapy) on your way down into the marshland

The Nikko Oze Discount Pass is a four-day bus pass offered at a great price of 5500 yen for those who are looking for an alternative side trip within a side trip. As the name suggests, the pass allows users to take the buses between Tobu Nikko Station and Oze, meaning that one could take a day to visit Nikko before continuing on towards the Okunikko and Katashina regions. Of particular interest is the Nikko Oze Katashina Express, one of the buses covered by the pass. The bus provides a direct connection between Nikko and Oze, a national park and popular hiking destination.

It is said that autumn is near when the Ezo-rindo flower blossoms

The best way to fully utilise the economical pass is to extend the typical Nikko day trip into a three day two night trip, or stretch it out to a four day trip using it for its entire validity. For me, the ideal trip would be to spend the first day exploring Nikko and spend the night in the area. The second day involves taking the Nikko Oze Katashina Express all the way to Hatomachitoge Bus Renrakujo, the closest stop before the entrance to the Oze National Park. Spending the second night in a mountain lodge (yamagoya) at the national park is always a good experience, otherwise, alternative accommodation options are offered at the nearby towns outside of the national park. The third day is about leaving Oze and stopping at the Marunuma and Sugenuma lakes area for a bit of outdoor activities before swinging by Okunikko on the way back to Nikko Station.

Official brochures offer other itinerary suggestions
Map of the Nikko and Oze Katashina area
Bus timetable

I put my ideal trip to the test and found that the pass proved to be economical. A single trip between Tobu Nikko Station and Hatomachitoge Bus Renrakujo costs 3670 yen, which makes the return journey well worth the price of the Nikko-Oze discount bus pass of 5500 yen. The bus pass and the direct Nikko Oze Katashina Express bus are available from May through to October 29, 2017, and there are a variety of activities and sights to be seen during this period.

Discount bus passes sold at the Tobu Nikko Station Information Center
Board the bus from here when taking the Nikko Oze Katashina Express
The Nikko Oze Katashina Express bus looks like this

Starting on the second day, I took the Nikko Oze Katashina Express Bus from Nikko city to Hatomachitoge Bus Renrakujo (which usually requires a single transfer). The one way journey takes around three hours and passes through the Okunikko areas of Chuzenjiko and Yumoto Onsen as well as the Katashina lake areas of Sugenuma and Marunuma. The windy Irohazaka and other tree lined roads display beautiful autumn colors in season, which makes for an extremely scenic bus ride during the autumn color season.

Greenery which will turn to beautiful fall colors in time to come
Huge torii gate marking the entrance to Lake Chuzenji

At Hatomachitoge Bus Renrakujo, I took a connecting shuttle bus (separate charges are required) to the entrance of Oze National Park to start my journey into wilderness. It takes about an hour to walk from the entrance to the start of the marshland from where the trails continue deeper. The seasonal flora is quite popular in the Ozegahara Marshland, including white skunk cabbages in late spring, Japanese wood poppies in early summer and grass coloring yellow to red (kusamomiji) in the autumn. Note that the marshland lies at an elevation of around 1400 meters, and temperatures tend to be cooler compared to the city.

Hatomachitoge Bus Renrakujo, from where the connecting shuttle bus continues to the entrance of Oze National Park
The adventure begins here
This massive rock rolled down from Mount Shibutsu ages ago
The poisonous Tori-kabuto flowers are pretty to look at
Hints of autumn in the marshland
The marshland stretches far and wide, and the grass here will soon be all golden

One of the best ways to fully experience the Ozegahara Marshland is to stay overnight at one of the mountain lodges in the park. Meals are typically provided at the huts, and both private and shared rooms are available. Perks of spending the night in the park include the opportunity to see the unspoiled night sky as well as seeing the morning fog lift over the marshland. It is said that the Ozegahara Marshland contains very similar native flora to those found in Hokkaido. So if you can't make it all the way up north, the next best thing would be to go to Oze!

I stayed at this lodge near the entrance to the marshland
Basic amenities in the room
Starry starry night
Morning fog at dawn
Turned around to this view

The following day, I made the first bus out of the national park and headed to Marunuma Kogen and Sugenuma. Marunuma Kogen is a ski slope in the winter and offers a variety of other activities in the warmer months. I took the Nikko-Mt. Shirane ropeway to the upper station at 2000 meters and was rewarded with views of the Marunuma Lake as well as the surrounding mountains. There are several trails starting from the upper station of the ropeway, some loop around the nearby wooded area while others continue to the top of Mount Shirane.

View of the nearby mountains and Marunuma Kogen Ski Slopes from the ropeway with Lake Marunuma in the back
The upper ropeway station stands at an elevation of 2000 meters; the summit of Mount Shirane looming in the back
Fancy a foot bath at 2000 meters?
Walking trail not far from the ropeway station
Miniature undergrowth
Beware of bears in the wooded area beyond the gate and fence
Foot bath in the sky and pretty views down the mountain

Eager to take advantage of the good weather, I made my way down to Sugenuma, the clearest lake on Honshu, the main island of Japan, rivaling some of the waters in Okinawa. The lake goes as deep as 60 meters in some parts, and visibility typically reaches 10 to 15 meters. I took the opportunity to go stand up paddling (SUP) in the lake to get a closer look. In addition to stand up paddling, canoe and kayak tours are also offered by High Five Mountain Works, the local adventure tour company based out of the Sugenuma Camp Village. My guide brought me to a small private beach in the lake, accessible only by water, where we had some time to enjoy the great outdoors before heading back.

Entry into Lake Sugenuma
Stand up paddling is also suitable for children
Break time at the secluded private beach
Big enough for all of us to enjoy like our private island
Lake Sugenuma
Incredibly clear waters in the lake; you could even see your shadow underwater

Getting back on the bus, I made a last stop at Ryuzu Falls (Ryuzu no Taki), a waterfall in the Okunikko region. The area is a popular spot to see autumn colors and the starting point of a hiking trail that continues on to the Senjogahara Marshlands (another popular fall hiking spot). As the day drew to a close, I made my way back to Nikko Station by bus before making my train connection back to Tokyo.

At the base of waterfall where there is a small restaurant and souvenir shop
The trees along the waterfall turn varying shades of yellow, orange and red in the autumn
Mount Nantai overlooking the town of Yumoto Onsen and Lake Yunoko