Mount Takao is one of my favorite mountains to climb. I’m not alone in loving Takao – it’s where many Tokyo urban dwellers head when they crave a getaway.
There are many reasons behind Mount Takao’s popularity. For starters, it is only an hour by train from Tokyo and is a nature lover’s paradise. Secondly, it has been home to mountain worship for well over a thousand years. However, you don’t have to be Buddhist, practice Shinto, or even be religious to appreciate what a lovely place this.
Beyond its stunning natural beauty, Mount Takao is guaranteed to get hikers’ blood moving as they sweat and propel themselves to the mountain’s 1,965 foot summit.
Brace yourself for an invigorating workout and a great time!
Japan is the only place I’ve ever heard the term “forest bathing” (shinrin yoku) used. The phrase refers to the process of being mindful, observant, and clearing your head of distractions. The Japanese recognize that being surrounded by nature is good for the soul. And just like a good bath, you feel clean and renewed after.
Mount Takao is situated in Meijinomori Takao National Park preserve, which is covered with maple, cherry, and cedar trees. You would never know that you’re only an hour away from the world’s most populous city.
One of the wonderful things about Shinto is that it honors every element of nature as being divine. As you hike up Mt. Takao, be on the lookout for trees that have a shimenawa (special rope) tied around the base, which mark them as being especially sacred. On Trail 1, one must-see marker is a 450 year old cedar tree. The tree’s roots are said resemble an octopus’ limbs, and it’s rumored that those who rub the sculpture next to the tree will be blessed with good fortune.
Temples and Religious Treasures
What makes a climb up Mount Takao so unique is that the path up Trail 1 is lined with spiritual guardians, from jizo to tengu. Because of their placement, you really come away with the sense that this is a very special mountain.
Mount Takao has been associated with shugendo, a mix of Buddhism and mountain spiritualism, for well over 1300 years. Yakuo-in Temple, established in 744, is located about 10 minutes from the summit. You can light incense and – if you’re very lucky – you may observe a ceremony and hear the priests chanting.
Another way Mt. Takao is a mountain unlike any other is that it has two waterfalls at which ascetics chant sutras and mantras while standing in the water dressed in white.
Come to Mt. Takao and you’re guaranteed to be impressed by the formidable Tengu.
What are Tengu?
The tengu are said to inhabit mountainous regions. According to some folk traditions, Tengu can be mischievous creatures who love to pull pranks and even run off with children. Did you encounter a giant flying squirrel during your hike? It might have been a tengu.
In others traditions, they are guardians of justice meant to expel evil and protect the virtuous. For this reason, Tengu statues are often depicted with a fan in their hand as they wave away bad luck.
Plenty of Hiking Options
Mount Takao’s most popular trail is Trail 1, also known as the “Omotesando Trail”. A fit hiker can cover the 3.8 kilometer ascent in 90 minutes. Although the route is paved and very well maintained, several signs warn that the path is not lit at night and that it is dangerous to climb after sunset. Trail 1 eventually diverges into two paths. The Otoko-zaka, literally “male hill”, on the left will take you up a robust 108 steps representing Buddhist disciple. The Onna-zaka “women’s hill” is a more gently sloped paved option.
I went up the “male hill”, fully intending to take the “women’s hill” on the way down. Alas, I wound up on the Inariyama path down by accident. The route is far steeper than Trail 1; consequently, I saved over 20 minutes. But because it is a such a sharp descent, my knees took a much harder beating. This route is much narrower, and is a combination of sturdy, well-built wooden steps and dirt path. For these reasons, those with mobility limitations should avoid Inariyama.
Whereas Trail 1 has many signs featuring birds and butterflies, Inariyama proudly displays a board that showcases the humongous variety of snakes. I had a bit of a chuckle over that — birds and butterflies on one side, snakes on the other. (Happily, I didn’t come across any.)
If you’re a non-hiker or have mobility limitations, you can still enjoy Mount Takao’s beauty by taking the cable car or chairlift. Both options take you to the halfway mark, near the Beer Hut and Monkey Park, for ¥490 ($3.40 adult, one way), or ¥950 ($6.58 adult, round-trip).
Fun fact: if you opt for the cable car option, you’ll be going up the steepest slope of Japan – it starts at an incredible 31 degrees.
The major downside to using the cable car and chair lift? Brace for some long lines. The day I visited, the estimated wait time was 30-40 minutes.
Delicious Food to Try
After a rigorous climb up Mt. Takao, you’ve definitely earned some tasty food. Once back at the base, I got some cold soba noodles with a bowl of frothy broth to dip them in. The idea of slurping down cold noodles is strange to many Westerners. However, rest assured, on a hot June day the cold soba noodles are refreshing and utterly satisfying. The wild vegetables and grated yam paired wonderfully with cold sake. Lunch cost ¥1430 ($9.97) – a total steal.
I strongly recommend waiting until after the climb is complete to eat soba. If you eat this meal before the climb, you won’t want to move much!
If you’re more of a grazer than a sit-down food lover, you still have plenty of options.
One of Mount Takao’s specialties is Django (rice balls on a stick). There are also lots of vending machines at select points on the mountain.
Free 599 Museum
If you still have energy after the climb, consider dropping by the 599 Museum. The museum is free of charge, and has a very nice display of Takao’s wildlife; from carefully preserved samples of native plants, to boars, monkeys, beetles, and giant flying squirrels.
Mount Takao vs. Mount Fuji
On a clear day, you can actually see Mt. Fuji from Takao’s summit. Although they are both gorgeous, the two mountains could not be more different.
- Climbing Mt. Fuji is more iconic and prestigious. At 12,388 feet, Mt. Fuji is over six times the height of Mt. Takao.
- You can only safely climb Mt. Fuji in July and August, which is why the mountain huts are closed outside of those months. By contrast, Mt. Takao has a much longer climbing season and is especially popular in the spring and fall. As beautiful as it was in June, I can’t help but wonder how gorgeous it would be after the leaves have changed. However, while Mt. Takao is a much more accessible mountain, no one should make the mistake of thinking it’s an easy hike.
- Another advantage of Mt. Takao is that because it is more accessible, hikers do not have to worry as much about the availability of food and water. You are never very far from vending machines and clean toilets. Unlike on Mt. Fuji, you are not charged to use them.
- Mt. Takao also offers a much broader variety of attractions, to include a monkey park and beer garden. Generally speaking, those who climb Mt. Fuji from the 5th station will start ABOVE the tree line and are much more exposed to the elements. Climb Mt. Takao and you’ll reap all the benefits of “forest bathing” and having “things to do”.
Which mountain is more enjoyable while you are climbing? I’ve got to say Mt. Takao.
If You Go
Climbing Mt. Takao was a truly joyful experience.
Looking for a bigger challenge? The super fit will enjoy the Mt. Jinba to Mt. Takao traverse, an eight hour ridge line hike that covers 17 kilometers. As awesome as that sounds, I was thoroughly tuckered out after eight kilometers of hiking (up and down).
Make sure you bring a backpack. Because there is no garbage disposal, hikers are expected to carry their own waste with them.
If you’re staying in Tokyo, it’s a super-convenient one-hour train ride. (If you’re coming from Yokosuka, plan on two hours.) The nearest train station, Takaosanguchi Station, drops you off a three minute walk from the cable cars and hiking trails. By leaving Yokosuka at 5:30 a.m., I lucked out and managed to get a seat on every train. If you’ve never used Japanese local trains before, you know that seating is far from guaranteed. Be careful about timing if you are taking the train – time it wrong, and you could be standing for two hours.
Here’s wishing you a safe and happy adventure!