February 13, 2018

Mt. Takao & the Tengu

Found in the westernmost reaches of Tokyo Prefecture, Mt. Takao is a sacred mountaintop enclave that is a popular day trip from Japan's capital.

A statue of a Tengu at Yakuo-in on Tokyo's sacred Mt. Takao

Quick!

Name the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word Tokyo.

If, like most people, you didn’t immediately think of hiking or mountains, well then I have a bit of a surprise for you. You see, within the prefectural bounds of Tokyo, there actually lies an extremely wide variety of diverse locations. Of course included in this smorgasbord of attractions is everyone’s favorite megalopolis. But, the prefecture is also home to many natural wonders in addition to the big city.

On that note, today we’ll be taking a look at Mt. Takao which arguably Tokyo’s best and most famous outdoor retreat. The mountain is located only 50 minutes outside of the city’s center and has long been an important spiritual enclave. Given its proximity, hiking up Mt. Takao is a popular weekend pastime for many Tokyoites. Furthermore, like with many other locations all throughout Tokyo as of late, Mt. Takao is completely covered by Tokyo’s free Wi-Fi service (more on this later).

Though not exactly an “easy” hike per say, the 599 meter high Mt. Takao is suitable for all fitness levels. Indeed on any given weekend, you’re bound to encounter a number of grannies attempting the climb. Still, for those who rather not work up a sweat, Mt. Takao has a number of other ways to reach the summit including an amazing chairlift ride. If you’re in the mood for something “outdoorsy” then I cannot more highly recommend a visit.

Getting to Tokyo’s Mt. Takao

A train line that leads to sacred Mt. Takao in western Tokyo

Mt. Takao is located on the western side of Tokyo Prefecture in the city of Hachioji. As hinted at before, the mountain can be easily reached in under an hour from Shinjuku Station. To get there, you’re going to want to make your way to Takaosanguchi Station via the Keio Line. You can either catch an express train directly from Shinjuku or take the JR Chuo Line out and make a transfer for the final leg.

As always, the optimal route depends entirely on your points of connection. Refer to our friend Hyperdia or a similar service to figure out the best course for you. Those with JR rail passes might consider opting for the JR Chuo Line as they will be able to ride it for free. Nevertheless, the 390 yen fare on the Keio Line to Takaosanguchi Station isn’t all that expensive and it might be worth it to just pay in order to save time.

The chairlift that leads to the top of Tokyo’s Mt. Takao

There are many ways to skin a cat but there are even more ways to reach the summit of Mt. Takao! Between eight hiking trails and two mechanical means, you’re really spoiled for choice. While the outdoor enthusiasts may take issue, I’m going to go ahead and suggest you take either the chairlift or the cable car as far up as they go. This will allow you to save on time while still leaving a good portion of the mountain left to hike.

Both the cable car and the chairlift depart from Kiyotaki Station picture above. This point of embankment is only a few minutes away from the train but here’s a Google Map just in case you get confused. Truth be told though, you can probably get away with just following the crowds. You’ll find both the cable car and chairlift at the end of a small but charming street that offers an assortment of traditional Japanese confections.

To be frank, I vastly prefer the chairlift to the cable car. It offers a much better view of the mountain on the way up and the lack of any safety bars adds a hint of excitement. Still, if you don’t do well with heights or are worried about losing a shoe, opt for the cable car. Note that those with small children should of course also select the cable car for safety reasons. While there are the required nets below, nothing spoils a vacation quite like dropping a toddler!

What to See on Tokyo’s Mt. Takao

The monkey park at the top of Tokyo’s Mt. Takao

Regardless of which option you choose, both the cable car and chair lifts will leave you off at around the same place. From here on out you’ll need to hoof it but don’t worry; modern technology has already taken care of the hardest parts. After gathering your party, proceed to head towards the summit. Thankfully these upper areas of Mt. Takao are extremely straightforward so it’s not really possible to get lost.

One thing to note is that there are a surprising number of eateries on Mt. Takao. As you make your way up the mountain, you’re sure to pass your fair share of delectable looking treats. Of course for purely academic purposes, I took it upon myself to try many of these while researching this article (the things I do for you). We’ll talk about food later but for now, know that the grilled dango on a stick was to die for.

Anyway, as you proceed down the path, the first major attraction that you’ll encounter is the Mt. Takao Monkey Park pictured above. Here you’ll find 40 or so Japanese macaques within the glass walled enclosure. Entry will run you 420 yen and will also grant you access to a wild flower garden with over 500 different types of plants. While the Monkey Park is good for those with kids, feel free to skip it if simians aren’t really your thing.

Once you’ve finished visiting the monkeys, continue on down the path. Soon thereafter you’ll encounter a gnarled and ancient cedar tree. If you look closely at the trunk, you can just barely make out the shape of an octopus. Japanese folktales say that long ago, when the tree was going to be removed, it used its tentacle-shaped roots to avoid an otherwise painful end. These days, it’s a very popular chance for a photo op.

A tengu mask at Yakuo-in on Tokyo’s Mt. Takao

Chances are you seen this winged creature or its likeness before and just didn’t know what they were called. Now you do; they are called Tengu (lit. “heavenly dog”), a title derived from the Chinese word Tiangou. Originally thought to be disruptive demons and harbingers of war, the image of the Tengu has been softened over the years. For the past several hundred years, these winged celestials have come to be associated with the ascetic practices.

Not quite entirely Shinto or Buddhist, the Tengu occupies a liminal space between the two religions that is common for mountain asceticism. Since the 14th century they have been typically depicted as anthropomorphized beings that sport a red face and a long nose. Earlier renditions of Tengu are often kite-like beings with beaks and other avian features. Typically various other strange accessories are associated with the Tengu, such as a type of tall, one-toothed sandal often called Tengu-geta.

What’s all of this got to do with Mt. Takao? Well, as it turns out, the mountain has long been associated with the Tengu. Since about the 14th century, Mt. Takao has had strong ties to the practice of mountain asceticism. Because of this connection, the Tengu are said to keep a close eye on Mt. Takao and chase off any evil doers. Even to this day, you can see Tengu iconography all over Mt. Takao.

The pathway leading to Yakuo-in on Tokyo’s Mt. Takao

OK, where were we? Ah yes. Continue down the path past the octopus-looking tree until you happen upon a gate with a series of vermillion lanterns. This is the beginning of the approach to the consecrated grounds of Mt. Takao’s famous Yakuo-in complex. Though it bears the nomenclature of a temple with the “–in” suffix, those of you who have read my guide to shrines and temples know that it isn’t always clear-cut. Put another way, Yakuo-in is haven of mountain asceticism harmoniously blends some Shinto traditions into an otherwise Buddhist establishment.

Anyway, you’re going to want to make your way towards the point pictured above. From here the path branches off into two directions. Seeing as they converge soon after, it doesn’t really matter which you take. The left hand path will take you up a flight of stairs whereas the right hand one will lead you up a gradual incline. Ultimately it comes down to whether you prefer your pain to be intense but over quickly or mild but drawn out.

Lanterns that line the pathway to Yakuo-in on Tokyo’s Mt. Takao

After the two roads join again, you’ll find yourself at the beginning of a curved road lined with ancient cedar trees. This pathway, pictured above, will take you right up to the entry gate to Yakuo-in. Local folktales hold that Mt. Takao’s Tengu often perch high in the branches of these massive timbers. If you feel like something is watching you as you walk towards the mountain’s spiritual heart, it might just be one of these celestial beings!

Before continuing on, let’s pause to for a quick history lesson about Yakuo-in. The mountain enclave was first established way back in 744 at the order of Emperor Shomu as a base for Buddhism in the east. The temple was founded by a priest named Gyoki who is said to have been closely associated with the erecting of Todai-ji’s giant Buddha in Nara.

Yakuo-in was then later resorted in the late 14th century by another figure from the ancient capital of Kyoto. From what I’ve been able to gather, this monk was the first to bring the type of mountain asceticism that Yakuo-in is known for today. While there’s of course a lot more to this establishment’s historical legacy, in the interest of brevity I’ll direct you a Google search if you’re interested.

Intricate carvings on one of the Yakuo-in temple complex buildings on top of Tokyo’s Mt. Takao

Like with many similar locations, Yakuo-in is more of a collection of various halls than a single attraction. You’ll find many examples of both Shinto and Buddhist iconography throughout the grounds. Rather than ramble on for an eternity though, instead just refer to this map to get a sense of all that’s available. Given that there’s a lot to see at Yakuo-in, I suggest that you take your time and explore.

On that note, two of my favorites that I encourage you to check out are the Izuna Gongen-do Hall pictured above and a tiny cave dedicated to Benzaiten. You’ll find the latter out back of the monk’s living quarters where as the former is located en route to the summit. For Izuna Gongen-do Hall, be sure to look up and check out the amazingly intricate woodwork!

The pathway to the summit of Tokyo’s Mt. Takao

After getting your fill of Yakuo-in, it will be time to continue on towards the summit of Mt. Takao. This last leg of the journey will take about ten more minutes so muster your strength and forge on ahead. Like with the rest of mountain’s upper reaches, there’s not really any chance to deviate from the path. Just put one foot in front of the other and it will soon all be over.

After a few minutes you’ll reach the summit area of Mt. Takao. There are some splendid vistas and you might even be greeted with a magnificent view of Mt. Fuji on clear days. Of course when I visited last, the damn thing was hiding behind the clouds like the shy mountain it is. Rather than bore you with a subpar snap, you’ll just need to take my word here. In addition to Mt. Fuji, you’ll also have a number of other gorgeous views from the summit.

Free Wi-Fi at the top of Tokyo’s sacred Mt. Takao

Moving on, one of the greatest things about the area around the summit is that the Takao Visitor Center has free Wi-Fi. For years, the lack of public Internet connectivity has been a major gripe with foreign tourists. Thankfully though, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has really been stepping up its game lately in the lead up to the 2020 Olympics. With tourism records being smashed left and right, this handy and sorely needed service could not have come at a better time.

In contrast to just a few years ago, these days you can easily find a solid connection just about anywhere, Mt. Takao included. From local train stations to Tokyo’s ubiquitous convenience stores, it’s easy to find a strong signal no matter where you go. You’ll even be able to stay connected while navigating the labyrinthine underground passages of Shinjuku Station. This is great news for those traveling to Mt. Takao as it means you’re able to stay online for all legs of the journey!

For more information about the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s free Wi-Fi as well as a full list of supported sites, be sure to refer to this site for more details.

A bowl of Tengu ramen at a shop on Tokyo’s sacred Mt. Takao

By this point, you are likely going to be feeling famished, especially if you passed on any of the goodies on the way up. Luckily though, Mt. Takao spoils you for choice when it comes to really good food. Where you eat will depend on how much longer you can hold out but thankfully the summit comes equipped with its own soba noodle shop if needed.

On my last visit to Mt. Takao, I opted for the Tengu ramen picture above. If this tickles your fancy, know that you can snag yourself a bowl at the restaurant that sits right at the start of the cedar-lined path previously mentioned. Be sure to grab one of the seats with a view and also keep a lookout for any Tengu that might be eyeing your food!

If you’re in the mood to try Mt. Takao’s meibutsu, know that the mountain is famous for its tororo soba. This dish combines your typical soba with a grated yam topping. It is said that in ancient times, these were thought to provide some much needed calories to pilgrims hiking up to Yakuo-in. Both on and off the mountain you’ll find a number of shops offering tororo soba and some of them have over 150 years of history behind them.

A bus stop outside of Tokyo’s sacred Mt. Takao

Lastly, if you’re in the mood for something a little more upscale, consider the traditional Japanese restaurants Ukai Toriyama and its sister property Ukai Chikutei. The former specializes in charcoal-grilled chicken cuisine whereas the latter offers a killer kaiseki ryori course.

Both joints are located a a fair ways away from Takaosanguchi Station but worry not. As can be seen above, there’s a convenient shuttle bus dedicated to ferrying exhausted patrons. Expect to pay upwards of 7,000 yen or so per person at either Ukai Toriyama or Ukai Chikutei.

Attractions Near Tokyo’s Mt. Takao

The trick art museum at the foot of Tokyo’s Mt. Takao

Hungry for more to do? Though Mt. Takao is definitely the star here, there are a few other things to do in the immediate vicinity. First up, you’ll find the Trick Art Museum pictured above right in front of the train station. This whacky place is full of all sorts of neat optical illusions that are designed to entertain. Nearby, there’s also the free Takao 599 Museum that details the natural, historical and cultural beauty of Mt. Takao.

While these option are interesting, I’d instead encourage you to check out the Keio Takaosan Onsen Gokuraku-yu facility. Located right next to the train station, this natural hot spring is the perfect indulgence after working up a sweat on Mt. Takao. They are open from 8 AM to 11 PM and have a number of outdoor baths to choose from. Especially in the colder months, a good outdoor soak is a not to be missed experience, especially after exerting yourself on the mountain. Entry will run you only 1,000 yen and they have towels to purchase if needed.

One of the buildings at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum in western Tokyo

In addition to these options, there are also a few other interesting spots on the way back from Mt. Takao. Most notably among these is the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum that is pictured above. Though a bit of a mouthful to say, this seven-hectare plot was established in 1993 to preserve the architectural history of Tokyo. The museum harbors many a relocated historical building that would have been otherwise impossible to preserve in their original locations.

Like with the summit of Mt. Takao (and many other locations throughout the prefecture), the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has gone to great lengths to ensure that there’s ample Wi-Fi access here too. This is great news because some of the buildings at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum are absolutely gorgeous and make for great Instagram content. Be sure not to miss the traditional farm houses and their rustic Irori hearths. They really are to die for!

The view of Tokyo from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

While the aforementioned activity should be more than sufficient to fill up a day, I have one final recommendation for you to try. Once you’re back in Shinjuku, make a small detour and hit up the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. As can be seen from the shot above, they have a killer view from the 202 meter-high observatories. What’s more, entry is entirely free of charge and they are open until 11 PM.

As you might expect in light of what I’ve written thus far, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is offering free Wi-Fi service here too. Given that the cellular signal is weak when up so high, this connection will be critical for uploading your shots to Instagram or Facebook. Also, if time allows though, I highly suggest you park yourself in front of one of the floor-to-ceiling window panes and enjoy a majestic sunset over the city. There are few things in this world that compare to watching Tokyo come alive as the sun goes down. Trust me on this. You’ll thank me later…