Archive for May 5, 2017

a hike up takaosan: a buddhist temple, mountain views & an onsen   2 comments

Friday, May 5:  I get an early start today, in hopes of beating the crowds to Mt. Takao, or Takaosan, on this Friday of Golden Week.  Little do I know that there is NO beating the crowds on Golden Week.

On the train ride of 11 stops, a young man wearing a blue shirt, a tie and wire-rimmed glasses, around 30-something, primps and preens while looking at himself in his cell phone camera.  He meticulously messes with gelled strands of his hair, never taking his eyes off himself in the phone. His hair already seems perfectly coiffed, yet he continues to push and pull at a couple of strands of hair, smiling coyly at himself.  He does this on the entire train ride, perfectly oblivious to people like me who are looking at him wondering how long he can keep this up!

I don’t live that far from the mountain, but I’m proud of myself for arriving at the Takaosanguchi Station by 9:15 a.m. I try to make some sense of the huge map posted by the station, but I honestly can’t figure out what’s what, so I just follow the crowds up the road to the right.

Map of Mount Takao

The first order of business is to get on the cable car that will take me halfway up the mountain. I buy the 2-way ticket for 930 yen (~$8.18) round trip, then stand in a line where I wait 10 minutes to board. It’s quite a jubilee at this station, with the ride operators and the organizers in their cute uniforms hollering Japanese instructions in sing-song voices.

Entrance to the cable car

When I see how far the cable car takes us up the mountain, I’m glad I paid the ticket price.  It’s a long way up!  We’re packed like engine pistons into the cable car as it grinds and squeals up the steep incline. Finally, we’re released onto the platform like a burst of fireworks on 4th of July.

Mt. Takao Cable Car

Immediately, I can see the view of the Tokyo suburbs, although I can’t identify any landmarks.

view of Tokyo metro area from Mt. Takao (near the cable car)

view of Tokyo

I can also see some mountains in the distance.

View of the mountains around Mt. Takao

I continue up a path, Trail #1, that leads to the top of the mountain. There are other more secluded trails, but I figure I’ll do the main one today to assure I don’t get lost. Maybe I can make it back another time to do one of the more quiet trails.

I’ll pass through the grounds of Takaosan Yakuōin Yūkiji, a Buddhist temple, on the way up.  Mount Takao is said to be a sacred mountain and has been a center of mountain worship for more than 1,000 years. Visitors to Yakuōin stop to pray to Shinto-Buddhist mountain gods (tengu) for good fortune.

markers along the path

In Japan, I often find myself taking pictures of strange things I see. I never know what these things are when I take the pictures.  I find what some of them are by searching on Google, but other things I don’t know about unless one of my readers comments and educates me.  I always appreciate the knowledge.

The round smooth creature that looks like an octopus, shown below, has people lining up to rub it.

something to rub for good luck

People also line up to rub this smooth bowling ball-looking thing.  I also find people rolling prayer wheels and pulling the ropes of gongs.

another thing to rub

The Jizo statues are everywhere on Mt. Takao; they are protectors of travelers, unborn children or children who die at an early age. They are often decked out in small red bibs. The red bibs represent safety and protection, and help to earn merit for the afterlife, a common theme in Buddhism (The Japan Times: A guide to Jizo, guardian of travelers and the weak).

bibbed beings

I approach the first gate leading to Takaosan Yakuōin Yūkijim. This Buddhist temple was established in 744 on the orders of Emperor Shomu as a base for Buddhism in eastern Japan. Its founder was Gyoki, a charismatic priest closely associated with erecting the Great Buddha at Todai-ji Temple in Nara.

gate to Yakuoin

The path is lined with pretty red lanterns.

lanterns on the path to Yakuōin

small shrine on the way to Yakuōin

kitty in the grass

the path to Yakuōin

stone markers

I pass a statue of Kukai (Kobo Daishi), famous for establishing the Shingon Sect of Buddhism in Japan during the 8th century ( Mount Takao’s Religious Statues).

Kukai (Kobo Daishi)

passageway to a shrine

After climbing a steep hill, I find a pretty Relics Stupa.  It is quiet here; most of the crowds don’t bother to climb the steps, so I’m lucky to have it almost to myself.

Relics Stupa on a hill

pretty Relics Stupa

relief carvings

Buddhist beings

a Buddhist statue

some kind of marker


Jizo statues?

I’m hesitant to leave this quiet spot, but I must go on, back to join the crowds on Trail #1.

the path to Yakuōin

A row of ten cedar trees is planted along the approach to Yakuōin, with a giant cedar at the beginning. Although the 26th typhoon ravaged this area on September 24, 1966, these giant trees survived. This giant cedar is 47 meters high and its trunk is 5.6 in circumference. As the cedars are already old, some of their trunks are hollow near the roots.

famous tree

The fence-like planks on the pathway to Yakuōin indicate the people’s names who dedicated the young cedar trees to the temple. People originally started to dedicate them when they were thankful that their wishes came true. The smallest unit of donation is ¥3,000. Only those who donate at least ¥10,000 by December will be indicated on the plates next year.

path to Yakuōin

path to Yakuōin

Finally, I reach the first gate of Yakuōin.  Similar to many Chinese temples I saw when I lived in China, there are some fierce looking guardians at the gate.

At Yakuōin, I find interesting writings, but of course I don’t know the meaning of any of them.

interesting things at Yakuōin

crazy man at Yakuōin

Every temple must have its purification spot.

water purification

Inside the gate of Yakuōin are some scary looking figures of Tengu (long-nosed goblins), which are said to chastise evil doers but protect the good ( Mount Takao’s Religious Statues).

another fierce character at Yakuōin

Below is the crow-beaked little Tengu, said to still be undergoing religious training.


The golden dragon enshrined in the structure called Kurikaradō is said to grant wishes involving enmusubi, which are charms or prayers believed to aid in matchmaking or relationships.

small shrine

another small shrine

Nio-Mon Gate

Main Hall

Up the hill, at the Nio-mon Gate, are more fierce guardians.

more fierce guardians

fierce guardians

The Main Hall, or hondō, is a building for Buddhist deities.

Main Hall

Nio-mon Gate

On the side of the Main Hall is the Daishidō building. The Japanese monk, Kōbō Daishi is worshiped here.

Daishidō building

Daishidō building

The ema of course have the tengu pictured on them.

ema at Nio-mon Gate

Nio-mon Gate

small shrine

stone figure

inside view

Buddha line-up

markers and lanterns

More steps beckon, and of course I climb, as the goal is to get to the top.

the red torii at Izuna Gongen-do Hall

At the top of this set of stairs is the Izuna Gongen-do Hall, with its beautiful carvings and colors.

Izuna Gongen-do Hall

I offer to take a Japanese couple’s picture, and they take one of me in return.  It does prove I am in Japan!

me at Izuna Gongen-do Hall

Izuna Gongen-do Hall

Mount Takao is devoted to tengu, the long-nosed demon-like beings who are believed to dwell on sacred mountains acting as the messengers of the deities and buddhas to reprimand evildoers and reward benevolence. They are often depicted holding a uchiwa (Japanese fan), that sweeps away misfortune and brings about good fortune.

Two figures standing in front of the Izuna Gongen-do Hall exemplify the two types of tengu. The larger one, shown below, has a big nose. The small tengu, which has the beak of a crow, is considered to be still undergoing religious training, while the large tengu is often likened to an experienced yamabushi, a Japanese mountain ascetic hermit believed to be endowed with supernatural powers, who has attained spiritual power through religious training at Mount Takao (Head Temple Takao-san Yakuo-in: About).

Izuna Gongen-do Hall

lesser shrines around Izuna Gongen-do Hall

lesser shrines around Izuna Gongen-do Hall


Izuna Gongen-do Hall

relief-carved painting on the wall of Izuna Gongen-do Hall

lesser shrines around Izuna Gongen-do Hall

I finally reach the top viewing platform at Mount Takao, and it’s packed with people.  There’s a long line of people waiting to get photos of themselves with the monument at the top.

the top of Mt. Takao

Though it’s only 11:30 a.m., not even lunchtime, people are picnicking like there’s no tomorrow.

revelers at the top of Mt. Takao

picnicking at the top of Mt. Takao for Golden Week

I enjoy the views, such as they are – over the heads of all the people – and try to wrangle my way to the fence where I can get an unobstructed view.

the view over the heads of the crowds

view over the heads of the crowds

view from the top of Mt. Takao

After enjoying all the views, I find a small corner of a bench where I eat onigiri, or o-musubi, white rice formed into a triangular shape and wrapped in nori (seaweed).  Yum!  I love these things and snack on them quite frequently.  My favorite is katsuobushi (dried fermented and smoked skipjack tuna).

After a short rest, I’m on my way back to the bottom.

another small shrine

hidden gem

more tough characters

the path back down

Partway down the mountain, I find some dango for sale. Dango is a sweet Japanese dumpling made from mochiko (rice flour), related to mochi, a glutinous rice cake, and often served with green teaDango is eaten year-round, but the different varieties are traditionally eaten in given seasons. Mitarashi dango is skewered onto sticks in groups of 3–5 (traditionally 5) and covered with a sweet soy sauce glaze and burnt fragrance (Wikipedia: Dango).

I bypass these as anything described by the word “glutinous” would not be to my liking.

sweet gooey treats for sale

There are also some iced cucumbers for sale. I continue down the mountain without sampling any of these offerings.

iced cucumbers

lanterns along the path down

view toward Tokyo

view towards Tokyo

another Tokyo afternoon

On my way down, rather than taking the cable car, I take the chair lift.  This is kind of scary as there is no strap or belt to attach you to the seat!  This would never happen in the USA because of the legal liabilities if someone should fall!

taking the chair lift down

Back at the bottom of the mountain, I pass a couple of shrines and head down the street, looking for a place to eat.

a shrine at the bottom of the chair lift

I find a bold and colorful hotel on the street, the Hotel Vanilla Sweet.  All the restaurants have lines at them;  I’m hungry and don’t want to wait.  I keep going.  Finally, I end up at the big modern Fumotoya, where I order a small omelet with bacon and cheese and a beer.

a bright hotel near Takaosanguchi Station

I have been looking forward to this all day.  My goal was to enjoy a beer, which I did, and then go to the onsen near the train station. An onsen is a Japanese natural hot spring; this one is Keio Takaosan Onsen Gokurakuyu.

Keio Takaosan Onsen Gokurakuyu

Of course I can’t take any pictures once inside the onsen, but I can certainly tell you about it.  First, I pay the Golden Week holiday fee of 1,200 yen (it’s 1,000 yen on non-holidays) plus 150 for a big towel.  They ask if I’d like a hand towel, but I say no thanks, I don’t need one.  Only later do I realize that I should have gotten one of these small towels, which are known as modesty towels. This is what I get for not reading about things before I go.

I take my large towel and stop in an outer area near the check-in to put my shoes into a locker.  Then I take my bag and towel into the women’s locker room, where I lock my bag, all my clothes, and the towel into a locker.  I take the locker key, which has a slinky-like band, and put it around my wrist.  Then I go naked into the wash room.

Keio Takaosan Onsen Gokurakuyu

I take my cue from the other women.  They are all sitting on plastic stools at wash stations, scrubbing themselves vigorously from top to bottom.  I do the same.  I didn’t really want to wash my hair, but I see they’re all shampooing, so I do too. After I’m spic and span, I shower another time at a larger shower, and then I look for the first hot bath I can find.  The first one I step into is cold!  I immediately withdraw my foot and seek warmer waters.

Now, too late of course, I see the women using their “modesty towels.”  They hold them either over their crotch or their breasts as they walk from bath to bath.  I guess whatever body part they feel needs modesty is where they place the towel.  I hear you’re not supposed to get the modesty towel wet, and I see many women putting the neatly folded hand towels on their heads when they’re in the tubs.

The first tub is nice and warm, maybe 38C, with bunches of palm leaves floating around in it. I stay there for a bit, enjoying the water and the after-effects of my beer. After I’ve had enough of that, I go outside, where I find four more tubs in a pretty setting.   The temperatures are shown above each tub; the first outdoor one is 40,4C.  That one is quite nice, with sides made of boulders and a trellis with greenery hanging over it.  This is my favorite.  The next one is 41C, but I can’t stay there long; it’s too warm.  The others are 42.4C and 44C.  I really can’t take those higher temperatures.  There are four lounge chairs partially immersed in another tub, but they are all occupied and some of the occupants are asleep.  I don’t think I will get a chance at one of those today.

I could have paid extra for a massage, but I don’t.  Maybe next time.  I see one door attached to the women’s shower room that goes to a dry sauna, but when I look through the glass door, there’s a man sitting in it!  I’m surprised at that, as I thought this place was segregated by male and female.  I opt out of going into the sauna with the man, although he can see all of me as I look through the glass!  Crazy!

After my first onsen experience, I shower and get dressed, use the hair dryer, and then head back to the train station.  I’m so relaxed now, I don’t know how I’ll make it home without falling asleep on the train.  At least I don’t have to watch a young man primping and preening the whole way back.  🙂

Here’s some more information you can read about a Japanese onsen: Taking a Japanese Bath.

Total steps today: 16,543 (7.01 miles).


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