Japan Guides: Hiking Mt. Hiei
Mt. Hiei, Kyoto 比叡山
- spectacular mountain scenery
- azaleas in spring, Japanese maples in fall
- 850m (2500 feet) in elevation
- set in the hills east of Kyoto
- cable car up and down (for those not inclined to sweat)
- home to both warrior monks and marathon monks
- UNESCO World Heritage Site Enryakuji Temple at top
- trail head a 15-minute walk from Shugakuin Station
There are many reasons to hike Mount Hiei (比叡山): the trails, the flowers, the wildlife (monkeys, tanuki, boar, salamanders, Japanese nightingales, etc.), the views, and of course Enryakuji Temple. Enryakuji is where the Tendai sect of Buddhism was founded, on the top of the same mountain, in 788 CE.
Enryakuji was of course also the home of the legendary warrior monks, whose raids into Kyoto terrified the city. They were ultimately crushed by Oda Nobunaga. In a further show of strength, the shogun Nobunaga burned the complex to the ground in 1571 when he defeated the Enryakuji monks.
Enryakuji was thereafter rebuilt and is today the headquarters of the Tendai sect.
Though the warrior monks are long gone, another breed of near super human remains on Mount Hiei: the marathon monks.
The ordeal these monks endure is known as sennichi kaiho gyo (千日回峰行) in Japanese, or "one thousand day go around the peaks training." The monks set out to - and occasionally one will actually - complete a 1,000-day test of their endurance, perserverance, and both physical and mental strength.
Enryakuji Temple is situated on the verdant summit of Mt Hiei in north east Kyoto
Just 46 men have completed the "marathon" challenge since 1885. In part, it involves Buddhist training in meditation and calligraphy in addition to their daily duties at the temple. However, it is much more than that.
As the moniker suggests, it involves running. For the first 300 days, these monks run 40 km per day for 100 consecutive days. In the fourth and fifth years they run 40 km every day for 200 consecutive days.
It gets worse. In the sixth year they run 60 km each day for 100 consecutive days. Finally, in the seventh year they run 84 km each day for 100 consecutive days.
Moreover, the runs usually begin at night and are over rough mountain paths. Footwear is limited to straw sandals.
In addition, as they run the monks must carry maps, books with mantras that they will chant, food for offerings, candles, and a sheathed knife and rope (in the past monks who failed would commit ritual suicide on the trail).
Because of the many stops along the route - for offerings, etc. - the time necessary to run can last as much as 20 hours. That allows almost no time for rest.
Perhaps the most grueling aspect of the ordeal, though, is the doiri. For a period of seven days the monks do not eat, drink, or sleep. Instead they recite Buddhist chants and mantras. Two monks are with the marathon monk at all times to make sure that he does not fall asleep.
The purpose of the sleepless fast is to bring the monk face-to-face with death. According to legend, sense is so heightened during this period that the participants claim to be able to hear the ashes of incense falling.
With all of that that in mind, you are now ready for a day hike.
From Shugakuin Station, on the Eizan Line from Demachiyanagi, it is about a 15-minute walk to the trailhead.
You will head east from the station towards the mountain that looms in front of you.
Walk from the station to Shirakawa Dori. Cross the street. Follow the canal heading toward the mountain.
The black dots on the map below outline the route.
That will lead you to the trail. There are some signs; many, however, are in Japanese.
View of Mt. Hiei from Shugakuin Rikyu
The first 30 minutes are fairly hard going. The trail is narrow and in places steep. On a weekday, though, you are likely to be the only human being on it.
At the beginning, the forest is dense and deciduous. It will be humid. As you climb higher, you will come to flatter terrain for a while. From here you will begin to have views of Kyoto below.
Keep an eye out for mountain bikers. They sometimes come careening around corners.
As you near the top, deciduous forests give way to cedar trees. That means you will no longer see any animals as the forest floor is essentially a desert.
The trees though are majestic, and it is peaceful and shaded.
After several hours, depending on your level of fitness, you will come to a clearing at the top. There will be a small hut on your left and then a radio tower in front of you.
From here it is five minutes to the cable car station. Don't even consider going down just yet.
It is now an easy walk past brilliant fields of azaleas, a ski slope (now apparently bankrupt), and on finally to Enryakuji Temple itself.
The views are stunning. You can see down to Iwakura and the Kyoto International Conference Center.
The temples on Mt. Hiei are collectively known as Enryakuji, which is divided into three sections: Eastern Pagoda, Western Pagoda, and Yokawa. The pagodas are long gone but the name remains.
Most of the attractions are in the Eastern Pagoda area. There is also a good museum there, the Kokuhoden Museum.
For a set pass that allows entrance into all of the temples and the museum, the fee is 1,000 yen.
Going back down you can retrace your steps or head down via Sekizanzenin Temple. Or, for the weekend warrior, there is always a bus from the entrance to the temple - they run about once an hour - or the cable car.
Now your walk begins. Walk east towards the mountain (follow the dots). For those who wish to take the cable car up and hike down, continue on the Eizan Railways to Yase Hieizan guchi. From there it is a short walk to the cable car station.
Enryakuji Temple Details
Hours: 9 am - 4 pm (but you must arrive by 3:30 or so to get in) Telephone: 077 578 0001