April 16, 2020

Spiritual Mt. Oyama

Nestled on the western border of Kanagawa, Mt. Oyama has long been a spiritual peak to which many wayward pilgrims have flock for years.

A Buddhist stone effigy on the way to the top of Mt. Oyama in Kanagawa Prefecture

For the longest time, I thought that I had already explored all the treasures Kanagawa has to offer. Conveniently situated just to the south of Tokyo, my trips to the prefecture over the years are too numerous to count. So, you can imagine my surprise one day when I stumbled across a hidden gem that I had somehow completely missed. Known as Mt. Oyama (lit. “big mountain”), this 1,252-meter-high peak is the perfect #DonnyThings place. The sacred enclave that resides on Mt. Oyama has long been a pilgrimage site for those unable to make the trek out to Mt. Fuji.

In all honesty, it’s alarming that I found out about Mt. Oyama just recently. After all, the craig is a destination that has been well reviewed by the world famous Michelin Green Guide. Moreover, Mt. Oyama holds a long history as a hotspot for practitioners of mountain asceticism. While it’s not the Dewa Sanzan of Yamagata Prefecture, Mt. Oyama offers plenty of challenges for those looking to undergo spiritual training. Frankly, the more I think about it, the more ashamed I am that it took me so long to catch on to this spot. I guess that’s one of the best parts about Japan though. The more I travel, the more I realize this country’s endless possibilities for attractions.

Getting to Mt. Oyama

The sign for Isehara Station in Kanagawa Prefecture

Given that Mt. Oyama is located amidst the Tanzawa-Oyama Quasi-National Park, access is a bit of a challenge. To begin with, you’ll need to make your way from Shinjuku station to Isehara station. The easiest way to do this is to take one of the direct trains on the Odakyu Odawara line that run to Katase-Enoshima station. As always, just let Hyperdia or a similar service do all the heavy lifting for you when it comes to finding the best route. Just note there are a variety of different trains running on this line so be sure whichever train you board actually stops at Isehara.

Once you’re in Isehara, you’ll need to take a bus from the station to the base of Mt. Oyama. Here, you’ll want to exit the station and make your way to bus stop number four. You’ll find it directly adjacent to the taxi stop. Thankfully, these buses allow you to use an IC card to cover your fare so those who have one should opt for this payment method. If you need to pay in cash, I think I remember the fare being approximately 300 yen. Be sure to grab one of the tickets that note the stop where you boarded when getting on the bus. Your destination will be the final stop so there’s no need to fret about where to get off.

After disembarking from the bus, you’ll have a choice to make. Those interested in making a climb from this experience can opt to hoof it up Mt. Oyama. Alternatively, for a little over 1,000 yen, you can purchase a ticket that will afford you roundtrip access to the ropeway. For reasons that will become apparent soon, I suggest that you skip hiking the mountain as you’ll need your stamina. While you’ll need to pass on the so-called seven mysteries of Mt. Oyama, electing not to use the ropeway will certainly zap the physical strength you’ll need later down the road. Nevertheless, if you’re a stickler for seeing it all, consider visiting these seven sites on the way down.

Note that the ropeway is actually quite removed from the bus stop. For starters, you’ll need to walk up over three-hundred steps. Luckily, the stairs are spread across nearly thirty separate landings. What’s more, the steps snake through a number of vendors and traditional pilgrimage lodgings. This gives the ascent the vibe of stepping back in time to a bygone era. In essence, the ascent to the ropeway is quite picturesque. Note that Mt. Oyama is well known for both its tofu and its spinning tops. Consider dropping some coin on either to help support the local vendors.

Scaling Mt. Oyama

The lower half of Afuri Oyama Shrine on Mt. Oyama in Kanagawa Prefecture

Much like all other mountaintop centers of spirituality, Mt. Oyama was traditionally a syncretic hybrid of Shinto and Buddhism. WIth that said, you’ll find both a shrine and a temple here. Oyama-dera, Mt. Oyama’s temple is located halfway up the ropeway and maintains its own dedicated station. Because of this, I recommend that you save this stopover for the way down. This means that you’ll want to take the ropeway all the way up to the final station (assuming you’re not hiking the whole of Mt. Oyama). The logistics simply work out better this way and allow you to make the most efficient use of your time.

After disembarking from the ropeway, you’ll come across the lower half of Afuri Oyama Shrine. Allegedly, this holy sepulcher dates back to the reign of Emperor Sujin. Seeing as he sat on the throne from the years 97–30 BCE, this makes Afuri Oyama Shrine well over 2,000 years old. Of course, the present-day buildings aren’t that ancient as they have been reconstructed over the years. Still, recognizing that Mt. Oyama has been honored since the height of the Roman Empire is undoubtedly humbling. Additional references and accounts indicate the mountain has been considered consecrated ground for nearly four milenia.

Now, if you’re wondering what this bit about a “lower shrine” is all about, know that Afuri Oyama Shrine is actually split into two parts. You’ll find the lower shrine near where the cable car lets you off. As for the upper shrine, well… how do I put this? Prepare to climb? You see, the upper shrine is located on the mountain’s summit. The path there is by no means simple. You’ll need to traverse an endless set of haphazardly placed rocks that collectively somewhat amount to stairs. All in all, the climb clocks in at a whopping ninety minutes of brute pain and suffering.

The amazing view from the top of Mt. Oyama in Kanagawa Prefecture

Although the trek to the top of Mt. Oyama is indeed arduous, the views make up for the buckets of sweat you’ll put out en route. From the summit, you’ll be able to visually scope all of the lowland down below as well as the Sagami bay. It’s truly a breathtaking vista that is easily worth the effort of the climb. Strangely, there’s a food vendor up here that sells some delectables which are a much needed reward after scaling the mountainside. How the hell they stock their kitchen is beyond me though. All I can say is that if they make that trek everyday with provisions on their backs, they are better humans than I.

As alluded to before, Mt. Oyama has long been a pilgrimage site. Back during the Edo period (1603–1868) residents of Edo were not allowed to travel to Mt. Fuji without a permit. Regardless, they were able to go as far as Mt. Oyama and because of this, the crag became an alternative climb to Japan’s most iconic mountain. Though I did Mt. Oyama as a solo trip, apparently there’s a whole process to properly doing the peak. If you’re interested in following the religious protocol, consider staying in one of the traditional pilgrim lodgings at the base of Mt. Oyama.

Anyway, getting back to where we left off, know that Mt. Oyama is unquestionably a challenging mountain climb. If you’re not up to it, don’t risk trying. There were several spots on the way down especially where I almost lost my footing. This is not an area where you want to accidentally fall and possibly break something. Not only is this a great way to ruin your vacation, it’s going to literally take a few hours before paramedics can reach your location. Though only a meager 1,252 meters-tall, one should not underestimate Mt. Oyama’s terrain. Heed my warning here folks and do your due diligence when preparing to tackle this mountain.

Oyama-dera, the Buddhist half of the religious facilities on Mt. Oyama

Once you’ve paid your respects at Afuri Oyama Shrine, it will be time to go and check out Oyama-dera. This temple was founded by a monk named Roben in the mid 700’s. Though impressive in its own right, know that Oyama-dera is in possession of an incredible iron statue of the Immovable King, Fudo Myoo. Of course, what really sets Oyama-dera apart from other temples was that the location served as a center for Shugendo training. In the days of yore, mountain ascetics would gather here to train. Today, this legacy remains apparent in Oyama-dera’s many depictions of Tengu (a mythological creature that is often associated with Shugendo and mountain asceticism).

After you visit Oyama-dera, you can either walk down to where the pilgrim lodgings and shops are located or opt to wait for the next ropeway. In either case, you’ll likely be famished from all the climbing so pop into one of the handful of restaurants for a local treat. I ended up having a wild boar hotpot that was absolutely to die for. If you’re a fan of tofu though, remember that the Mt. Oyama area is famous for the curd and as I always say, eat the f@$#ing meibutsu! You’ll thank me for it later.

Attractions Near Mt. Oyama

A dragon-shaped temizuya fountain near Enoshima in Kanagawa Prefecture

Mt. Oyama is on the Odakyu Odawara line. A different branch of this railway services the recently renovated Katase-Enoshima station. As such, it’s logistically easy to head out there from Mt. Oyama. That said, you’ll likely be too exhausted after climbing the peak to also consider venturing to Enoshima. While you could spend the night down near the island and do this region the following day, there are limited decent accommodations to choose from in the vicinity of Enoshima and Kamakura. Since you’ll need to do Enoshima on the following day anyway, it might make better sense to go back to Tokyo.

Lastly, one additional stop you could consider on the way back is the urban center of Machida. Despite nothing to really write home about, this Tokyo suburb promotes a variety of interesting shopping options and venues. What’s more, most of these specialty shops are clustered around the station meaning that it’s quite convenient for those looking to make a purchase. Though I’d certainly never suggest someone go all the way out to Machida solely for the shopping experience, it does make for a nearby and easy add-on to a trip to Mt. Oyama.