Fancy a day trip out of Tokyo to commune with nature? Consider a visit to Mt Takao, on the far western edge of the Tokyo Metropolitan District.
Elevation 599 meters, Mt Takao has been regarded as a sacred mountain for over a thousand years. These days it’s both a popular hiking spot and a religious destination. The peak, often a couple of degrees cooler than the foot of the mountain (especially welcome in the summer months!), affords amazing views of the city as well as westward. Needless to say, the views are best in the winter months, when the air is drier and clearer.
You can hike to the top on one of half a dozen trails, or take a cable car or a chairlift most of the way, so that you only have about a 30-minute walk to the summit.
The trails are well groomed and well sign posted, including signs of the flora and fauna to watch for along the way. None of the trails are particularly long — the ascent can usually be completed in one to two hours. My personal favorite of the trails is #6, which takes you past the Biwa Waterfall, where ascetic Buddhists worship while sitting under the falls. You can observe this rite on the first Saturday of every month, as well as on the 18th and 28th of the month. Alas, this is also one of the steeper trails to the top of the mountain.
The Inariyama Trail is one of the most scenic, especially when the lilies and hydrangeas are in bloom in June and July, although it can be slippery and so might be better for the ascent than the descent. Trail #1 is paved the entire distance, and is better for descending than ascending.
If you come out here just to look and don’t feel like exerting yourself, take the cable car or the chairlift rather than one of the trails. The stations for the two are only a short distance from each other, both at the foot of the mountain and on the mountain itself. From either station on the mountain, the walk to the peak takes you past a monkey park, along centuries’ old cedar trees and through the grounds of Yakuo-in, before making a last push to the peak.
Just above the cable car station is “Beer Mount,” a restaurant/beer garden with an expansive outdoor seating area and a particularly fine view. During the summer months, the beer garden stays open until 9 p.m. and has an all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet.
The monkey park sits together with a botanical garden featuring native plans of the area and is worth a little time if you want to imagine yourself a naturalist.
Just beyond the monkey park is a 450-year-old cedar tree known as the “octopus cedar” because of the way its roots about grown around the rocks. This is only the first of several massive cedar trees you pass as you proceed along the trail to Yakuo-in. Shortly after the octopus cedar, the trail splits. The left-hand trail (male trail) is steeper with lots of stairs, the right-hand trail (female trail) is a longer but more gradual ascent. They both lead to the same place.
Yakuo-in, founded in the 8th century, is dedicated to Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of medicine and healing. It is a large complex of several temples — and their guardian shrines — and is always busy with worshipers undertaking various activities to secure good health and long life.
As with many mountain temples where ascetism is practiced, Tengu features heavily. Tengu is a Pinnocchio-nosed and mischievous mountain creature who can also be a guardian of humanity when he chooses to be. Some say he is a messenger of the gods.
Once you’ve reached the summit, there’s usually a vendor selling beer and other refreshments. You can go back down the way you came, or on another of the trails. Trail #4 is particular fun for the return to the cable car/chair lift stations, as it takes you across a suspension bridge. Or, if you’re feeling energetic, from the peak continue on an 18 kilometer adventure to Mt Jimba. The trail is marked.
Mt Takao is a fun day trip from Tokyo any time of the year (except perhaps in the rain). Spring, with its budding green and flowers, and autumn, with the colors of the changing leaves, are especially good seasons. There are a number of interesting annual events too, although they also usually attract large crowds. The fire-walking festival held at the foot of the mountain on the second Sunday of March is particularly amazing to experience. Also connected to Buddhist ascetism, it begins with religious rites and a bonfire as big as a house and once the bonfire has burned down to coals, the worshippers commence their chant and cross the coals. After that, it’s audience participation time — everyone peels off their shoes and socks and lines up to make the crossing. Don’t worry, if you’re toward the back on the line, you’re only walking over stone cold ashes.
Mt Takao is easy to reach and therefore very popular (2.5 million visitors a year, according to one source). Take the Keio line express train from Shinjuku to Takao-san Guchi station, the end of the line. Or, take the JR Chuo line from Shinjuku to Takao Station and then change to the Keio line one more stop to Takao-san Guchi station. On the express, the trip is less than an hour. From Takao-san Guchi, it’s only about a 5 minute walk to the cable car, the chair lift and the trail heads.
A couple of other activities to think about doing while you’re in the area – try a lunch of soba noodles and ground yam, the local specialty. For something really different, cross the highway in front of the station and visit the Takao Trick Art Museum, chock full of optical illusions.
If you’re determined to have a full day (after all, you’ve gone all that way), try this route: Plan to arrive in mid-morning and start your visit with the Takao Trick Art Museum. Then have a soba lunch and make your carb-charged climb to the summit. Explore thoroughly (including an electrolyte-replacing beer), returning to the foot of the mountain by late afternoon. (Remember, the last chair lift is 4 p.m. or 4:30, depending on the season, and the last cable car is between 5:30 and 6:30, depending on the season and the day of the week — extended hours on weekends.) Then, for a very special dinner treat, catch the free shuttle bus to Ukai Toriyama, a restaurant made up of traditional-looking farmhouses situated around a stream and carp ponds, which features charcoal braziers at your table where you can grill beef or chicken, complemented by soup, vegetables and rice.
Mt Takao official website (in English): http://www.takaotozan.co.jp/takaotozan_eng1/index.htm
Yakuo-in (in English): http://www.takaosan.or.jp/english/about.html
Takao Trick Art Museum (in English): http://www.trickart.jp/en/
Ukai Toriyama (in English): http://www.ukai.co.jp/english/toriyama/