It’s a great day, the sun is shining, it’s not too cold, so how about a day of hiking in Tokyo?
Spreading out a map of the megacity, there’s not much in the way of green areas, and there are even fewer places with yama (mountain) or oka (hill) indicated.
But hold on, what’s this big blob of green on the west side of the metropolis? Some place called Takao-san. It looks as good a bet as any, and it’s easy to get to; at the end of the Keio train line, it’s just an hour by train from Shinjuku Station.
Rising a whisker shy of 600 meters, Mount Takao is a popular destination for city folks, and no more so than around New Year, when thousands flock to offer prayers at Yakuo-in, the temple halfway up. With well-worn and reasonably easy trails to the summit, it is perfect for a spot of exercise or a picnic and nice afternoon “stroll,” but for the less energetic there’s a cable car and a chair lift.
Over time, the peak has been scraped bare of all vegetation, except trees or bushes, by the feet of tens of thousands of walkers. So along with the bare mud, you’ll find a soba restaurant, a visitor center that offers maps and leaflets about Takao-san, toilet facilities and the ubiquitous vending machine.
Takao-san, on a clear winter’s day, is a popular destination near Tokyo where you can get superb views of the snow-capped Mount Fuji, away to the southwest. And if you face the opposite direction on a relatively smog-free day, the skyscrapers of Shinjuku can easily be seen, and you might even be able to see the Minato-Mirai building in Yokohama too, as well as Mount Tsukuba on the northeast side of the Kanto Plain.
Viewing Mount Fuji on crisp and sunny New Year’s Day 1984 was my Takao-san initiation. After slogging up the road via Yakuo-in temple on that first trip, with attendant Oshogatsu (New Year’s) crowds praying for a prosperous and healthy year ahead, I arrived at the summit (where an even bigger crowd had assembled) during the late afternoon. The sun was setting and Mount Fuji was silhouetted in all its glory against the skyline on that clear and cold Jan. 1 more than 20 years ago.
After arriving at Takaosanguchi Station, one of the termini for the Keio Line trains from Shinjuku, it is just a 5-minute walk to the plaza that acts as the entrance to all that lies on and beyond Takao-san.
Past the mom-and-pop store with its displays of various hats, walking sticks and local pickles spilling out onto the street, past the sweet-potato ice-cream shop, past outlets selling dango (sweet Japanese dumplings) and more pickles, and in front of souvenir shops selling very tasty, locally-produced udon and soba noodles, you’ll find a detailed illustrated map of the area, as well as the entrance to the chair lift and the cable car.
On one side of the plaza is the steep, paved road that snakes up to Yakuo-in temple and, eventually, the summit, and on the other side, steps to the Inari-yama trail begin across the stream right next to the cable-car station. Another trail (No. 6) begins a little further up the valley. Having decided on which trail you want to climb, allow at least an hour to get to the summit.
My favorite routes are either the Inari-yama trail, a well-worn pathway that follows the south flank of Takao through mature woodland, or the “No. 3” trail that begins (or ends, depending on which way you take it) next to Biwa waterfall and the adjacent small shrine. This trail, which is never too crowded, winds its way up to the summit along shaded pathways that cling to the hillside.
Sometimes Japanese squirrels can be seen scampering up or down tree trunks, and you often see evidence of where wild boars have been digging in the forest floor for roots.
With an abundance of trees Takao-san is woodpecker heaven, and at least three species can be seen: the tiny Japanese Pygmy, the boldly marked black and white Great Spotted, and the rarer, endemic Japanese green woodpecker. If you are really lucky you might even get to see a beautiful copper pheasant, another endemic species that lives in forested hillsides in Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu.
Takao is home to several hundred species of plants, bushes and trees, and during the spring white magnolia (honoki) flowers add a splash of color to the emerging greenness, and here and there yamazakura (mountain cherry) trees spread their pink petals above the trails just days before erupting in an explosion of fresh green leaves.
One of the rarer flowers that grows there is the Takao sumire (Takao violet), a small plant which sends up whitish blooms from among aubergine-colored leaves during mid to late April.
Come autumn, Takao is noted for its colors, and from late October until mid-November Tokyoites in their droves join the locals to view the momiji (red Japanese maples) and other autumnal tints.
Especially popular with hikers is the Momijidai area, on the west side of Takao, and places further along the trail that leads to the summit of Mount Kobotoke-Shiroyama, a couple of kilometers away.
If Takao-san, with its forests and wildlife, is a popular spot for day-trips and hiking, it has not gone unnoticed by developers, and there has been controversy in recent years over two tunnels which are to be dug right under the mountain. The tunnels are part of the Kenodo highway construction project, designed to alleviate congestion on the metropolis’ already chronically overcrowded roads.
On the north side, a state-of-the-art concrete intersection has been constructed leading off the Chuo Expressway, and developers have already started clawing their way into the mountain.
On the other side of the peak, things are different, and opponents have brought the contractors’ best laid plans to bore tunnels through the bedrock to a grinding halt.
At any time of the year Takao is a good place to be in: winter hiking, spring flowers, summer greenery and shade, or autumn colors, and, being near the heart of Tokyo, it is also the most convenient back-to-nature experience for jaded city-dwellers.