December 21, 2018

Tokyo's Mt. Mitake

Situated in the westernmost reaches of Tokyo, Mt. Mitake has long been a sacred pilgrimage site. These days, it makes for a great day trip.

One of the komainu lion dogs that protect Mitake Musashi Shrine's main hall on Tokyo's Mt. Mitake

It really grinds my gears when people associate “old Japan” only with the likes of Kyoto and Nara. Yes, I get that that area of the country has developed a brand for itself as the bastion of all things traditional. My only wish though is that more people would realize they don’t HAVE to head out west to sample ancient ground. In fact, as you’ll see in the topic of today’s post, you don’t even need to leave the confines of Tokyo to find yourself a good old mountain top spiritual enclave. That’s right folks, you need not head all the way out to Wakayama’s Mt. Koya to experience solemn tranquility. In fact, the world’s largest metropolis is actually home to not one, but two ancient pilgrimage sites on top of Mt. Takao and Mt. Mitake. I visited the former location at the end of 2017 so it only seems fitting that I completed the duo this year.

So, what makes Mt. Mitake so special? Well, for starters, the 929 meter-high mountain has been home to some sort of mountaintop sepulcher for well over 2,000 years. Several hundred years after its initial founding, the current establishment, Musashi Mitake Shrine, was erected and it has continued to serve as a haven of religious austerity through to the present day. Moreover, later on during the Edo period (1693–1868), Mt. Mitake garnered the reputation for being a pilgrimage site and lodgings soon followed catering to weary travelers. Known in Japanese as shukubo, many of these lodging operations are surprisingly still in business today.

Spiritual significance aside, Mt. Mitake is also home to a number of splendid hiking trails. The peak sits within the massive Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park which contains more than 1,250 square meters of deeply forested mountains, hills, and gorges. In fact, it’s hard to believe that a site of such virtually unsoiled nature exists within the confines of the Tokyo metropolis. Regardless of whether you’re a history buff like me who likes to explore antediluvian wonders or a rugged outdoorsman, Mt. Mitake is certain to not disappoint.

Getting to Tokyo’s Mt. Mitake

The JR Mitake Station near Mt. Mitake in western Tokyo

Let’s pause for a second to discuss some travel logistics. As mentioned, Mt. Mitake is technically located within the confines of the Tokyo metropolitan region; however, that doesn’t mean that it is mere minutes away from the famed Shibuya crossing. In fact, those looking to make the trek to Mt. Mitake will have a two hour adventure ahead of them. To get there, you’ll need to first make your way out to the city of Ome in the westernmost extremes of Tokyo. The entire process will likely require making multiple transfers so just plug Mitake Station into Hyperdia or a similar service and let it calculate the best route from your point of origin.

Once you arrive at Mitake Station, you’ll want to exit the facility and head left. Soon thereafter you’ll stumble upon a shockingly orange-colored sign. Here you’ll need to wait for a bus that will take you to the next leg of the journey, the cable car to the top of the mountain. Hey, no one said this would be easy! Remember, people made this journey back in the Edo period (1603–1868) without the assist of modern transportation conveniences so quit your complaining. Note that the bus ride will cost you 280 yen.

After a short but scenic route through the Tamagawa valley, the bus will let you out near the Takimoto cable car station. Here you’ll want to go and purchase a round trip ticket for 1.110 yen. Both the cable car and the bus can be paid for with IC cards like Suica and PASMO so be sure to top your’s off at the beginning of the day. While it is possible to hike your way to the top, I’d advise against this as there are plenty of trails awaiting at the summit. What’s more, Mt. Mitake isn’t exactly a walk in the park with the cable car being the steepest funicular line in the Greater Tokyo area.

Ascending Tokyo’s Mt. Mitake

The view from Mt. Mitake’s Mitake Musashi Shrine in western Tokyo

Once you’ve made your way up the mountain via the cable car, you’ll need to find the hiking path leading to Musashi Mitake Shrine. While about a twenty minute trek in total, the trail is not all that challenging. In fact, after a few minutes you’ll enter a quasi-village of sorts. As evidenced by the large number of mopeds and micro-sized trucks, people actually live up here. In fact, these stalwart individuals have been catering to pilgrims journeying to the holy mountain since ancient time and provide the necessary infrastructure for temporary accommodations. Should you have the leisure to spend a night on Mt. Mitake, I highly suggest that you do so. Due to the cable car schedules, there are a number of events and other experiences (like meditation under the cascading flows of a waterfall) that are only really possible when overnighting on the mountain.

If you continue past the multiple lodging options, you’ll soon come across a collection of mountainside restaurants in the final stretch just before Musashi Mitake Shrine. These venues offer a range of traditional Japanese cuisine. Of course, I was partial to the handmade soba restaurant but there are options for udon and other favorites as well. Moreover, in addition to offering hearty fare for weary pilgrims, some of these shops hawk a collection of local products and other souvenirs. Keep an eye out for the stuffed flying squirrels called musasabi. As with Mt. Takao, the real version of these critters actually inhabit the trees of Mt. Mitake though you’ll be extremely luckily if you see one in the flesh.

After passing through the restaurant lined street, you’ll soon come upon the entrance to the shrine. If you look to your left, you’ll find a staircase that will take you up past the shrine’s Zuishinmon gate. If you’re wondering what the hell a Buddhist gate is doing at a Shinto shrine, know that you’ve just stumbled across an example of the syncretic union between Buddhism and Shinto. I’ve written at length about this before so I won’t beat a dead horse but just know that it wasn’t until an imperial decree in 1868 that the two faiths became distinctly separated. Historically, the systems of belief shared such a symbiotic relationship that it was hard to tell them apart.

Anyway, continue along for a few more minutes walking past the Zuishinmon until you reach a very steep stairway. This daunting flight leads directly up to Musashi Mitake Shrine. Should you not be feeling up to par for the arduous ascent, you’ll find a gentler slope along the right hand side. This route is less intense but will draw your milder suffering out over a longer stretch. Regardless of how you make you way up these last bits though, you’ll find the magnificent Musashi Mitake Shrine waiting for you at the top.

As mentioned previously, Musashi Mitake Shrine has roots dating back over 2,000 years. The design of the present day honden (main hall) dates back to around the 1300’s. Though the shrine has been rebuilt several times over the years, the honden is considered to be a classic example of the period’s architecture. In front of the honden, you’ll also find Musashi Mitake Shrine’s ornately decorated haiden (prayer hall). While this structure only dates back to the year 1877, it is an exact replica of the preceding buildings.

Be sure to check out the area behind the shrine too. Here you’ll find a collection of ancient sub-shrines as well as a viewpoint that offers a stunning view of the surrounding mountains.

Tokyo’s Mt. Mitake & Mythology

A pair of wolven komainu guardians at Mt. Mitake’s Mitake Musashi Shrine in western Tokyo

According to legend, Musashi Mitake shrine was founded during the reign of Emperor Sujin. This mythical ruler was said to have resigned from his position around the year 30 BCE, thereby placing the founding of Musashi Mitake shrine at over 2,000 years ago. So far so good but here’s where things get complicated. As can be seen by the multiple statues that adorn the grounds, Musashi Mitake Shrine is dedicated to wolves. Like with Mitsumine Shrine in Chichibu, this connection has ties with Yamato Takeru, a hotheaded Imperial prince who migrated to the Tokyo region around the year 150 CE.

As the story goes, one day, Takeru encountered an evil spirit in the woods that took the form of a deer. Sensing the deer was not an authentic forest creature, the warrior prince slew the animal yet this did little to vanquish the malevolent apparition. The spirit is said to have taken on the form of a thick fog, thereby causing Takeru to lose his way. As he groped about in the mist, a large white wolf appeared and safely guided him along. It is said that the wolf is the incarnation of Inu-sama and Takeru requested the deity to remain in the area and protect it. Since then, many area shrines have popped paying homage to the tale.

While Musashi Mitake Shrine is indeed dedicated to wolves, its founding allegedly dates back before Takeru’s heroic exploits. Because of this, the shrine’s connection with the lupine creatures is shrouded in mystery. Perhaps they were an add on later down the road as word of Takeru spread across the region. Honestly speaking, I do not know where the shrine’s connection with wolves comes from. What I can tell you is that you definitely need to peek through the fence that marks off the honden. There you’ll find the a pair of wolf statues that are pictured above.

Note that the word “inu” in Inu-sama is the same as the current Japanese word for dog. Because of this, Musashi Mitake Shrine is very popular with dog lovers. Expect to see pooches of all sizes on your way to and from the shrine. The cable car even features a special section for pet owners who are looking to bring their beloved companions to the top of the mountain. What’s more, you’ll also find a treasure hall adjacent to Musashi Mitake Shrine that houses a number of wolf statues. Entry will run you 500 yen.

There’s Still More to Mt. Mitake

A chain that is used to climb up to Mt. Mitake’s Tengu Rock in western Tokyo

As alluded to throughout this piece, Mt. Mitake is home to some really extraordinary landscapes. Because of this, you outdoorsy types would do well to budget some extra time to explore everything that the mountain has to offer. While there are a plethora of trails to explore, two particularly charming spots that I suggest you check out are as follows:

  • Tengu Rock
    Located only about 20 minutes hike away from the Musashi Mitake Shrine complex, this giant boulder sticks out like the nose of a Tengu. There’s a small shrine atop the the rock that you can check out but just know that you’ll need to haul yourself up the gnarled roots pictured above with the assistance of a chain.
  • Rock Garden
    This is among one of the most beautiful attractions on Mt. Mitake. The so-called “rock garden” is in fact a narrow valley in the forest with a picturesque stream and many moss covered stones. There’s even two waterfalls to further explore nearby. Reaching the rock garden will take you approximately 30 to 40 minutes from Musashi Mitake Shrine.
  • Mt. Otake
    If you’re up for a good hike, the summit of this 1,267 meter-high peak can be reached in about an hour’s start from the Rock Garden. The summit affords impressively breathtaking views of the surrounding country.

Before wrapping this piece up, allow me to end with a gentle reminder to be weary of the final cable car down. Unless you’re staying over at one of the shukubo lodgings, you definitely don’t want to find yourself stranded on the top of Mt. Mitake. Be sure to check when the last cable car down is at the station before starting your adventure.