With its oddly ear-shaped black-and-white striped body, the hammer-size mimigata tennannsho, a grass that grows in the depths of Mount Takao’s forests, has long been an object of fascination and loathing to hikers in the western Tokyo quasi-national park, where it’s not just its grotesque shape that repels, but the fact that it is semipoisonous as well.

Other more pleasing plants like the yaburegasa — whose name derives from its resemblance to a torn umbrella — have long been favored subjects for nature photographers in April. Then later, as summer arrives in Takao, other botanical oddities appear, like the ginryoso, which pokes its white, periscope-shaped head above the forest floor around June.

For the average Tokyo urbanite, it only takes an hour’s train ride from Shinjuku, a little imagination and a perceptive eye to reward them with a day trip full of earthly delights and natural surprises.

One of sacred Mount Takao’s more monumental wonders perhaps, is a 500-year-old cedar that towers near its peak. A sign posted near the tree tells its remarkable history: Centuries ago, when Buddhist monks were building a mountain path to the nearby Yakuoin Temple, they were ordered to cut down the tree as its massive, weblike roots were obstructing the proposed route of the path. However, when workers arrived with axes and saws in hand the next morning, they were astonished to find that the tree’s roots had mysteriously curled into the mountain’s flank. The phenomenon was declared an act of divine intervention by the Yakuoin monks, who later deified the giant cedar as the living god Takosugi (literally, “octopus cedar”), so ensuring its place as one of the mountain’s most popular natural attractions.

This same reverential Takosugi story however, has a rather ironic ring these days, considering the scale of environmental destruction now facing Mount Takao.

The entire mountain and its wildlife is being threatened by a tunnel project spearheaded by the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry that is part of a grandiose plan to build a 300-km road around Tokyo called the Ken-odo.

While less than 32 km of the multilane highway has been completed so far — from Saitama Prefecture to the town of Hinode in western Tokyo, plus a 1.5-km stretch in Ibaraki Prefecture — it is scheduled to one day encircle and connect Tokyo with neighboring Chiba, Ibaraki, Saitama and Kanagawa prefectures. En route, to shave minutes off journey times, two 10-meter-wide tunnels are planned to be blasted through Mount Takao’s core.

The situation is urgent, as anyone standing near the Takosugi tree and looking north toward the hamlets of Uratakao can plainly see. Striding across the valley below are row upon row of massive concrete pillars, some of them nearly 60 meters high, that will be the supports for a massive highway interchange weaving together at least 12 different access ramps connecting the Chuo Expressway with the Ken-odo.

Considering that Mount Takao is the nation’s most popular mountain destination, attracting around 2.5 million visitors a year, there has been surprising little media attention given to the Takao tunnels’ issue. To date, however, the actual drilling of the tunnels continues to be forestalled by an ongoing series of legal challenges filed by Takao-area residents and conservationists against the national government and the Japan Highway Public Corp.

However, Kotaro Sano, a wildlife photographer and director of the Citizens’ Association to Protect the Wildlife of Mount Takao — one of the conservation groups involved in the legal challenges — expects the worst if they fail to win and the tunneling goes ahead.

“Our greatest fear is the damage the tunnels may have on the mountain’s delicate underground drainage systems,” says 33-year-old Sano. “Loss of water can easily result in the extinction here of a certain flower, for example. Then this might lead to the disappearance of a certain insect species that survives off that plant, and so forth — that’s just how ecosystems operate.”

Botanical jewels

The damage done could be potentially disastrous. Though Mount Takao rises only a modest 599 meters, it is home to one of Japan’s most diverse ecosystems, comprising more than 150 species of birds, 5,000 types of insects, 12 different reptiles and 29 mammals, including foxes, wild boar and the mountain’s emblem, the nocturnal flying squirrel. More than 1,300 varieties of trees and plants also thrive there, including more than 62 types of wildflowers such as the Takao sumire (a violet) and the Takao higotai (a chrysanthemum) which are botanical jewels found only in the mountain’s lush, stream-filled forests.

If the Ken-odo tunnels construction currently under way at nearby Mount Shiroyama to the north — home of the endangered goshawk and site of the ruins of 16th-century Hachioji Castle — is any guide, however, ecologists can only fear and expect the worst.

According to 76-year-old Hiroshi Yoshiyama, a veteran biologist and expert on Mount Takao’s biological diversity, underground water levels at Shiroyama have been registering 13 meters below the norm since tunnel construction began just over a year ago. “Even the few remaining goshawks have since disappeared due to the noise pollution around the construction site,” he says. “But from a more human perspective,” he adds, “who in their right mind would want to go climb a mountain with a huge concrete highway going straight through it?”

Though he of course longs for success in the courts, the locally based biologist has another idea to save Mount Takao. He believes the entire mountain should be protected as a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“The number of flora and fauna in this small, 770-hectare forest is comparable to the total number found in the whole of Britain,” he says. “I honestly believe that the quality and quantity of nature here would justify the bid.”

In view of the recent designation of the sacred sites of Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan and Koyasan in the Kii Mountains of central Honshu (straddling Nara, Mie and Wakayama prefectures) as World Heritage Sites, Yoshiyama’s proposal is not without precedent.

However, while concerned citizens fear the ecological destruction of the area’s wildlife, other critics stress economic hazards involved in building the Ken-odo — much of it at the expense of the taxpayer.

The Tokyo Bay Aqualine, for example, the toll highway connecting Kisarazu City in Chiba Prefecture with Kawasaki City in Kanagawa Prefecture, was touted as encouraging a massive inflow of traffic into both areas. However, the ambitious half-bridge, half-tunnel project, which opened in 1997 and links to the Ken-odo, turned out to be a road-builder’s nightmare. The actual volume of traffic on the road — which took close to 30 years and 1.44 trillion yen ($11 billion) to complete — has only reached 28.5 percent of official initial estimates. Consequently, it is now losing more than 100 million yen a day.

Meanwhile, up until now, one key reason that has ensured Mount Takao’s forests remained in their natural state was the 1,200-year-old Yakuoin Temple’ strict Buddhist doctrines forbidding the destruction of any wildlife on Mount Takao, whether animal or vegetable. During the feudal era, Yoshiyama even says the felling of a tree was a crime punishable by beheading.

Those days of warlords and Takosugi-fearing monks are now long gone. Today, the Yakuoin Temple has taken a more passive stance regarding the protection of Mount Takao’s natural glories.

As one temple spokesperson put it last week: “We cannot take sides in matters of conflict, whether it be a war or the dispute over a new road. We must always remain neutral.”

From the perspective of the living Takosugi tree-god, it seems the future of Mount Takao no longer depends on the kind of divine intervention said to have spared the mighty cedar long ago, but merely on legal wranglings in courtrooms far away. But if a miracle could have happened there once, who is to say another may not yet come to rescue Mount Takao from its unholy, 21st-century predicament?

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