By Jessica Ocheltree
Tokyo’s parks are small patches of greenery in an astoundingly huge urban sprawl, and while some of them are incredibly beautiful, they cannot truly be said to be pockets of nature.
They are often for looking at, rather than being in, and visitors may stroll along paved and roped off paths, but not lounge on grassy knolls or get lost in swathes of woodland á la Central Park.
Many Tokyoites therefore find it necessary to get out of the city from time to time to get reacquainted with Mother Nature. Lucky for us, there are many natural areas within a few hours’ train ride from the main transport hubs. Among the most favorite, both for its proximity and its family-friendly appeal is Mount Takao, better known at Takao-san.
At just under 600 meters, Takao-san is hardly a challenging climb. Still, the most popular route to the top is to take a cable car halfway up and avoid the steepest part of the trail. This is a good option if you are bringing along small children or the elderly, but otherwise, you are better off hoofing it, and there are multiple routes to get you to the top.
The main trail is number one, which splits into three different options halfway up the mountain. This path is paved most of the way to the summit, so if you really want to feel like you have left the city, trail number six or the Inariyama Trail are your best bets.
Lucky Number Six
For the ascent, my fellow hikers and I chose route number six, which follows a mountain stream and passes a tiny waterfall called Biwa Falls. In Japanese, “biwa” means loquat, though there wasn’t a fruit tree in sight.
We were lucky enough to see lots of hydrangea bushes in bloom, though. And with the summer equinox having just passed, the canopies of the towering Japanese cedars were full and leafy, filtering the light to a cool and soothing green
Though many Japanese complain about the cedar, whose pollen turns hay fever season into a waking hell for many of them, they are fascinatingly beautiful trees. All except the youngest ones are covered in a lush green moss that almost defies you not to touch it.
Many places where the dirt has worn down on the path, the M.C. Escher-like twisting and folding of their roots has become exposed and now serves as a foothold for the hikers passing each other with a hearty konnichiwa.
Wet Toes and Rumbly Stomachs
For the first half of the ascent, trail number six runs alongside a mountain stream. Then the trail and the stream actually merge and for a while, you are walking down the middle of the stream via strategically placed stones and the occasional wooden bridge.
Particularly when you meet hikers coming down the mountain and have to step aside, this section of the trail can result in wet feet.
If you are anything like me, jumping from rock to rock will fill you with such childlike glee that you won’t be bothered by your sopping sneakers, but you will be a little despondent when the trail and stream finally go their separate ways.
The last portion of the trail is the steepest. Using logs, the forest service has built a series of stairs into the trail. Though it is only about 300 meters to the summit, it is a tough 300 meters.
My companions and I had been planning on having lunch at the summit, but our stomachs were already grumbling by this point. We’d brought a snack of some rice balls and downed them before the last push.
Victory and a Well-Deserved Break
My friends and I opted for noodles to celebrate our summit and we settled into a table on the covered patio, overlooking a ravine.
By this time, it had started to sprinkle, but the pitter-patter of raindrops on the leaves outside was a nice counterpoint to the slurping of noodles inside.
If not for being sticky with sweat, it would have been lovely to put my head down and take a little snooze right there at the table
After a healthy lunch of buckwheat noodles and vegetables, we felt entitled to sample some of the sweets on offer at the shop next door.
I opted for green tea ice cream, but those who want to try a more traditional dessert might want to go with yakidango, grilled rice dumplings covered with a sweet sauce, or kakigori, shaved ice with flavored syrup.
The Cultural Descent
My fellow hikers and I decided to take the main trail down, in order to stop at some of the important sites along the way. No, I’m not talking about the monkey ranch, although there is one of those too. I’m talking about the grounds of the Yakuo-in Temple and the famous Octopus Cedar.
Yakuo-in dates back to 744 and is one of the three main temples of the Shingon-shu Chisan-ha Sect of Buddhism. The first thing I noticed were lots of statues of angry-looking bird men. These are actually icons of Izuna Daigongen, the patron deity of the temple, in the form of a garuda.
There are also many depictions of tengu, or demon-like beings, which have Pinocchio-like long noses if they are full-grown or beaks if they are still in training. Believe it or not, these evil-looking fellows are actually thought to punish evildoers and to sweep away misfortune for the righteous.
The temple is also famous for its purifying fire rituals, which can be seen daily. The priest casts small pieces of wood representing misdeeds and prayer requests into a fire. As they are consumed, the smoke is said to carry the messages up to Izuna Daigongen.
Of course, this daily ritual is nothing compared to the firewalking festival that happens in March, where participants can put themselves directly into the purifying smoke!
The Octopus Cedar, or tako-sugi, was also kind of hard to miss. It sits rights along the trail with its massive roots splayed out, tentacle-like. The tree is about 500 years old and is Japanese national treasure. It is absolutely massive and its size and age were humbling in that way only nature’s creations can be.
Hot Springs, Barbeque and Beer
Given that my friends and I undertook this hike during the most humid part of the year, by the time we reached the bottom, we were pretty sticky and gross. Not to worry, though, because there is a bus from the train station to a nearby onsen, or hot spring.For about $15 a person, you get access to the baths, as well as a relaxation room, game center and other amenities.
You even get some festive polyester pajamas to lounge around in. There are also restaurants and spa treatments available.But be warned: although the baths are gender segregated, they are communal, so those who have problems with public nudity will be highly uncomfortable.
Still, the hot springs are wonderful and relaxing, so try and embrace the au naturel experience.My friends and I hit the baths to soak away the grime and sore muscles from the hike, then planted ourselves at a Korean barbeque restaurant for copious amounts of meat and beer. Gathered round the table in our stylish pajamas, beer mugs in hand, I couldn’t think of a better way to cap off a day getting back in touch with nature.
After all, what’s more natural than cooking your food over an open fire and getting tipsy with your friends?
Getting ThereThere is a direct line run by Keio Railway from Shinjuku Station to Takaosanguchi Station at the foot of the mountain. It takes about 50 minutes.For those coming from further East or using a JR pass, you can take the Chuo Line from Tokyo Station as far as Takao, then change to the Keio line.Further InformationYou can find a map of the hiking trails and other information about Takao-san at the official website.
Jessica Ocheltree is a freelance writer and editor based in Tokyo. Her regular column on NGOs, Global Village, appears in Japan’s number one English magazine. You can find selected clippings from the column and other media on her website.
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