[From July Issue 2011]
Located in Tokyo’s Hachioji City, Tokyoites are very familiar with Mount Takao. The train station closest to the base of the mountain is Takaosan-guchi station. A mere 50-minute train ride from Shinjuku Station, central Tokyo plus a five minute walk from the station, brings visitors to the entrance to a mountain carpeted with verdant greenery.
The mountain was rated a “must see” receiving three stars from France’s Michelin Guide because of its rich greenery and proximity to the metropolitan area. The only mountains in Japan that have achieved a three star rating are Mount Takao and Mount Fuji.
Standing at only 599 meters, Mount Takao is not so high. It is a one to two hour climb from the base to the summit on foot. There is a cable car and two-seater lift up the mountain to allow visitors who don’t want to walk long distances to enjoy the mountain with ease. The lift is highly recommended during the summer season for the enjoyable sensation of a refreshing breeze.
It is about 40 minutes on foot from the Takaosan cable car station or the Sanjo lift station to the summit. On a very sunny day Yokohama’s Landmark Tower is visible from the summit. An observation deck is located to the right of the funicular station for visitors who aren’t feeling up to the hike to the top. There, visitors can enjoy the view of dense green foliage and a view of Hachioji City without hiking to the summit.
Seven hiking trails with distances of one to four kilometers are available on Mount Takao. All the trails are equipped with restrooms and rest stops. One of the most popular routes is trail number four, which covers a distance of approximately 1.5 kilometers from Takaosan cable car station to the summit. The gradual uphill climb allows visitors to savor the flourishing greenery which includes beech and fir trees. It is also called the “suspension bridge course.”
Another reason for Mount Takao’s popularity are the various facilities that give pleasure to members of both sexes and people of different ages on a day out, including the Monkey Park, Wildflower Garden and the Takaosan Yakuoin Temple. At the Monkey Park, there are approximately 50 monkeys and the adorable baby monkeys born in the spring bring a smile to the faces of visitors. In the Wildflower Garden there are approximately 300 varieties of native plant species currently growing in their natural habitat.
The highlight of the summer in Mount Takao is the beer garden. Every year on July 1, the mountainside observation point transforms itself into the “Takaosan Beer Mount,” and is bustling with people trying to get away from the city heat (this year it is open until October 2). The nighttime scenery is the perfect accompaniment to a beer, so drinking a beer at Mount Takao after dark has become somewhat of a summer tradition.
Various Japanese and Italian dishes are on Takaosan Beer Mount’s buffet-style menu. The specialty is tororo-soba. Tororo-soba is soba (buckwheat) noodles with grated yamaimo (yam) topping. It is said that this dish was originally served to hikers by locals, giving visitors energy for the climb. These days the dish is valued for its slow release of energy.
Now Mount Takao is popular with the citizens of Tokyo, but formerly, Mount Takao was revered as a spiritual mountain by the local citizens. The Takaosan Yakuoin Temple was built on the mountain in 744 by Gyoki Bosatsu. Izuna Daigongen is enshrined there. Izuna Daigongen, who has a beak and wings, is a Buddhist god that is said to bring wealth to its worshipers.
Protecting the honzon (principal sacred object in the shrine) of this temple is the tengu. A tengu is a creature with a red face, long nose or a crow-like beak, who wears the robes of a monk training in the mountains. Depending on the region, tengu are thought to be either devils or gods, but at Takaosan, they are the protectors of the temple’s honzon. Here, the long-nosed tengu is referred to as daitengu (great tengu), and the beaked tengu as shoutengu (small tengu) or karasu tengu (crow tengu). Statues of these tengu can be found in the temple grounds.
There are many tengu legends in Mount Takao. One of them concerns the Tako Sugi (Octopus Cedar), which is now a popular photo location. This huge cedar attracts attention not because of its size – the tree is 37m high with a trunk circumference of 6m – but because of the shape of its roots. They rise above the ground and resemble octopus legs, thus the name “Tako Sugi.”
Long ago when people were trying to maintain the route to the approach of the temple, this huge cedar was in the way. Legend has it that when the tengu tried to take it down with its special powers, the tree decided that being cut down would be painful and used its roots to move itself, allowing the people to clear the trail. The sight of the thick roots entwined around the trunk makes the legend convincing.
Mount Takao with its verdant wildlife is still home to musasabi (flying squirrels) which visitors can see jumping from tree to tree after dark. Long ago when there was less light after sunset, people may have confused the musasabi with tengu. As a familiar avatar of the gods, the tengu of Mount Takao have watched over the lives of humans with kindness and diligence.
Text: ICHIMURA Masayo