Mt. Takao: A Charming Place Built by Nature and Culture

Japan Heritage

When worshipers pass through Yakuoin’s Shitennomon Gate, they are greeted by intensely powerful tengu statues of various sizes.

Its charms are multifaceted, consisting not just of nature and not just of culture. It offers satisfaction for all kinds of people, from the elderly and the very young to experienced mountain hikers. Its environment is protected through a variety of systems and entities. The combined power of all these facts is what makes Mt. Takao, which gets three million visitors a year, so attractive.

Photos by Naoya Furuta

A Michelin-Featured Natural Holy Site in The Suburbs of a Big City

Mt. Takao, located in Tokyo’s Hachioji City, is 50 kilometers west of the center of Tokyo. It is easily accessible: its nearest station, Takaosanguchi, is a 50-minute ride from Shinjuku on the Keio Line, and it is a popular tourist attraction, visited by three million people every year. With an elevation of about 600 meters, Mt. Takao is not very tall. Still, it has diverse botanical life, playing home to approximately 1,600 species of plants, as well as 100 kinds of birds and 5,000 types of insects, meaning that despite its location in the suburbs of a big city, it is a place where an abundance of nature remains.

In particular, after it acquired a three-star rating (the same as Mt. Fuji) in the 2007 Michelin Green Guide Japan, a travel guidebook published by the Michelin corporation, more overseas tourists started coming to visit Mt. Takao. In the high season, when the leaves turn red, the long lines that form outside the cable car station attest to how active it becomes.

When one disembarks from the cable car at Mt. Takao Station, the little townscape one encounters, including tea shops and souvenir stores, as well as a restaurant with an overlook and even a monkey park and a wildflower garden, leaves the strong impression that this is a place with the atmosphere more of a tourist spot than a mountain.

However, as one passes through the area, under the cedar trees lining the street, the atmosphere grows gradually denser, and the feeling of being on a sacred mountain that has been a holy spot since long ago fills the air.

Advance further, after one passes by the “Takosugi” (“Octopus Cedar,” for the shape of its roots), an enormous cedar tree said to be 450 years old, a big gate called the Joshinmon Gate will come into view. Through this gate are the grounds of Yakuoin, a temple affiliated with the Chizan sect of Shingon Buddhism. After one walks a little past the Joshin-mon Gate, taking either the steeper or the gentler slope, Mt. Takao’s rows of cedars, which form a natural heritage asset, will appear. The right side of the row is lined with wooden tags on which are written the names of those who have donated cedar seedlings. The road leads to the Shitennomon — the Four Heavenly Kings’ Gate. Through the Shitenno-mon, tengu statues of various sizes greet worshippers, beyond which one enters an area containing the Niomon Gate and the various halls of Yakuoin, including the large main temple building, Izuna Gongendo, Daishido, and the inner sanctum.

In the main hall of Yakuoin are enshrined Yakushi Nyorai, the temple’s original main deity, and Izuna Diagongen, the main deity of its return to prosperity.
As one walks along the pilgrimage path, one’s eye is drawn to the rows of wooden tags marked with the names of those who have donated cedar saplings to the temple. These tags are changed every year.
This large cedar tree, said to be 450 years old, is called the Takosugi, meaning “Octopus Cedar,” because thick roots grow out of it in a manner resembling the tentacles of an octopus.

Mt. Takao’s History as A Mountain of Faith

The history of Mt. Takao is also the history of Yakuoin. Yakuoin is said to have been opened by the Buddhist priest Gyoki in 744 CE, during the Nara Period, at the command of Emperor Shomu, as a temple of prayer for the gods of the Kanto area. The name is derived from the fact that, when it was first constructed, an image of Yakushi Nyorai, the Medicine Buddha, was installed as its principal object of worship.

Later on, in the Eiwa Period (1375-1379), Shungen Daitoku, who is known as the one who brought Mt. Takao to prominence, is said to have left Mt. Daigo, in Kyoto, to come to Yakuoin, then performed a goma ritual service, intended to ask the temple’s god Izuna Daingongen to grant wishes, in which 8,000 sacred sticks were burned in tribute to the god Fudo Myo-o, whom Izuna Daigongen is considered to be a form of. After that, Mt. Takao would develop into a base for Shugendo asceticism and Mountain Buddhism, in which Izuna Daigongen is worshipped, in addition to Yakushi Nyorai.

Izuna Daigongen is a Shinto-Buddhist syncretic god thought to have originated from the mountain worship cult of Mt. Izuna in the old Shinano Province (near present-day Nagano). He takes the form of a white fox who stands erect, carrying flames on his back like Fudo Myo-o, with a sharp beak and wings reminiscent of a crow’s, and snakes twined around his arms and feet. This form, which is considered to be an amalgamation of the attributes of the deities Fudo Myo-o, Karura, Dakini, Kangiten, and Benzaiten, is distinguished by the impressive power which it holds. Additionally, the tengus of various sizes, which serve as another symbol of Mt. Takao, are believed to have provided help to Shungen when he performed his goma ritual.

It is said that, during Japan’s Warring States period (1467 – 1615 CE), great faith was placed in Izuna Daigongen as a guardian deity for warlords such as Uesugi Kenshin and Takeda Shingen. In particular, Hojo Ujiyasu, whose stronghold was the city of Odawara (in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture), was deeply devoted to Izuna Daigongen, and in 1560 he donated land to Yakuoin so that Yakushido Hall could be repaired. Additionally, his son, Hojo Ujiteru, the lord of Hachioji Castle, also provided loving patronage to the temple, including making his own territorial donations. It is said that behind all of this is the fact that, in the Kanto of the Warring States Period, where the Takedas, Imagawas, and Hojos did battle with each other, Mt. Takao occupied a strategically important position for the Hojo clan.

An image of Izuna Daigongen is enshrined in the inner sanctuary of Izuna Daigongendo.
The Asama Shrine is currently placed in the interior of the inner sanctum.

Mt. Takao Develops as A Base for The Worship of Mt. Fuji

During the Warring States Period, while the various daimyos squabbled over their various domains, the highways went untended and it was difficult for ordinary people to travel long distances freely. Within that period, during the Tenbun Era (1532-1555 CE), an Asama shrine (a shrine dedicated to worshiping kami associated with Mt. Fuji) was transferred to the top of Mt. Takao by Hojo Ujiyasu, so many people began to treat Mt. Takao as a substitute place of worship for Mt. Fuji itself. 

“The Mt. Fuji Asama shrine that’s currently inside of the inner sanctum was originally at the peak of Mt. Takao. It was said that if you opened the front and back parts of it, you could see Mt. Fuji,” says Toshihiro Kuwasawa, the head of Shugendo at Yakuoin.

Eventually, when the Edo Period (1603 – 1868 CE) began, it became possible for ordinary people to travel to Mt. Fuji with relative freedom. Still, at the same time, a route to Mt. Fuji became established which took travelers by Mt. Takao’s Jataki and Biwa-no-taki Waterfalls, where they could perform meditation while sitting under the water.

“It’s thought that, in the Edo Period, a fair number of people climbed Mt. Takao on their way to climb Mt. Fuji. It seems that they would reach Mt. Takao, meditate under waterfalls at night, and when morning came they would watch the sunrise from the peak while praying to Mt. Fuji. This sort of pilgrimage to climb Mt. Fuji via Mt. Takao stopped for a while beginning in the Meiji Era in 1868, but we brought it back 13 years ago,” says Kuwasawa.

These days, pilgrimages to climb Mt. Fuji are done over the course of six days and five nights. About 20 monks and Shugendo practitioners take part, but members of the general public are not taken on as participants. On the first day, the participants perform saito goma, a form of the goma ritual, as well as meditating under waterfalls, and they sleep on Mt. Takao. From the second day on, they embark on their journey to climb Mt. Fuji, which they reach by way of places such as the village of Akiyama and the city of Fujiyoshida.

Additionally, in recent years, the religious ascent of Mt. Oyama, in Kanagawa Prefecture, has been added as a ritual in which ordinary people are allowed to participate.

“We work together with Kitaguchi Fuji Sengen Shrine and Oyama Afuri Shrine to carry out the holy climbing ritual,” says Kuwasawa.

The peak of Mt. Takao, from which visitors can gaze out at Mt. Fuji. Due to the donation of an Asama Shrine by Hojo Ujimasa, many people began to visit this place as a substitute for Mt. Fuji itself.

Donating Cedar Saplings and Protecting the Mountain’s Environment

As one walks through Mt. Takao toward Yakuoin, what draws one’s eye is the rows of wooden tags on which are written the names of those who have made donations of cedar saplings. 

“On Mt. Takao, for a long time, there has been a tradition in which people donate cedar saplings as an expression of gratitude that what they hoped for has come true. These days, the practice takes the form of monetary donations, which we accept at a valuation of 10 yen per sapling,” explains Shinji Sato, head of the Supply Department of Yakuoin. He tells us that these monetary donations are used for environmental preservation and mountain forest management on the grounds of Yakuoin, including periodic thinning and pruning of the trees.

Mt. Takao is located right in a transition area between temperate and subtropical climate zones, so one feature of its natural environment is a rich diversity of plant life. On the south face, which is affected by the subtropical zone, there is an evergreen broad-leaf forest, with trees such as evergreen oaks, while deciduous trees such as Japanese beeches grow on the north face, which is affected by the temperate zone. So the mountain is a habitat for various insects and birds, which make homes and feeding grounds of the abundant flora.

It is said that, ever since the opening of the temple by Gyoki, the abundant natural environment of Mt. Takao has been protected, in keeping with the principle of nonviolence that is held by Buddhist teachings. Additionally, for military reasons such as preventing invasion by enemy forces, Hojo Ujiteru strictly forbade the felling of trees or bamboo on the mountain, a policy which carried over into the Tokugawa Era; these facts are said to have contributed to the preservation of Mt. Takao’s environment.

When the Meiji Era began, as a result of the Meiji government’s policy of splitting up Shinto and Buddhism, most of the forest on Mt. Takao became the new government’s property. However, the fact that it was considered an imperial forest, belonging to the imperial family resulted in Mt. Takao’s environment being preserved.

To preserve and protect the environment of Mt. Takao, in 1967, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Meiji Government, the entire area of Mt. Takao was designated as “Meiji no Mori Takao Quasi-National Park,” at the same time as the establishment of Meiji no Mori Mino Quasi-National Park in Osaka Prefecture.

Additionally, that same year saw the opening of the Tokai Nature Trail, a long-distance path reaching up to 1,700 kilometers in length and linking Mt. Takao to Mino Quasi-National Park. This and other projects for the use and preservation of the environment of Mt. Takao were at the heart of the nation’s post-war environmental policy.

On Mt. Takao, in addition to the main pilgrimage path, an ascent called Route 1, several other ascent paths have been prepared, each with their own distinctive characteristics. The picture shows a statue of the bodhisattva Jizo, placed at the side of Route 6.
Kiyotaki Station, the departure point for the cable cars, is famous for its colorful foliage.
Route 4 starts at the Joshinmon Gate, goes around the north face of the mountain, then continues straight down from the peak. A valley along the path is spanned by a suspension bridge.

A Successful Campaign to Reduce Garbage to Zero

People have striven to protect the environment of Mt. Takao throughout its long history, but it seems that there were a variety of problems in the past. A representative example of this is the garbage problem.

In 1967, the Keio Line’s Takaosanguchi Station began operating, making it possible for large numbers of people to visit Mt. Takao casually. This was a good thing for the local tourism industry, but Mt. Takao became overflowing with garbage as a result.

So people with connections to Mt. Takao tourism implemented various strategies such as splitting into groups to pick up trash on the mountain and bringing in a garbage truck to deal with it, but this didn’t really solve the problem.

“So we started the ‘Take Your Trash Home’ campaign to get climbers to take their garbage with them when they left. The campaign started around the late 1970s, and we designated May 30 as “Zero Trash Day” and aggressively worked to create public awareness. Also, starting in November 1986, we removed all the trash cans from the mountain and saw to it that all climbers took their garbage with them when they left,” recalls Sato.

Additionally, Mt. Takao’s 2007 designation as a three-star tourist spot by Michelin served as the trigger for establishing the Mt. Takao Environmental Preservation Funding Association.

 “Yakuoin, the Lions’ Club, the government, and others joined together and cooperated not only to continue the Zero Trash campaign, but also on projects to do activities like repairing slopes that had been damaged in natural disasters.”

In this way, various entities with connections to Mt. Takao worked together, and the successful result of their long years of hard work was that, though there is currently not a single garbage can on the mountain, there is also no abandoned litter to be found.

Thanks to the cable cars, the mountain’s summit can easily be accessed.

The Charm of Mt. Takao, Created by Nature and Culture

Mt. Takao, which receives three million visitors a year, is said to be the world’s most climbed mountain. Quite simply, it’s not only the big city of Tokyo: one can certainly feel how Mt. Takao has the charm to draw in just as many people.

That charm comes not only from its natural environment, based in its diverse plant life, but in its deep history and culture, built up over 1,200 years of worship centered around Yakuoin. Eating and drinking at the teahouses and restaurants is another enjoyable aspect of Mt. Takao. Visitors can also learn a lot about the environment at its museums and visitors’ centers.

In addition to the cable cars, several paths up the mountain have been established. So, while anyone, regardless of age or physical strength, can access it, there are also ways up which those of higher skill levels can enjoy. By walking different routes, one can visit several times and not get tired of it.

With the diverse elements of nature, culture, and history, Mt. Takao can be enjoyed by a broad range of people, from the elderly to advanced hikers. On the mountain, various subjects and systems put environmental protection programs into practice. We can surely say that the charm of Mt. Takao is heightened by the combined power of all of these elements.

Animals on display at the Takao 599 Museum near Takaosanguchi Station.
An exhibit of plants and other things encased in acrylic resin.
Visitors can get a close-up look at these specimens of the diverse insect life that inhabits Mt. Takao.

Translated from the original article: Naoya Furuta (2019) Mt. Takao: A Charming Place Built by Nature and Culture, Chiikijin vol.42, pp. 70-75