A beautiful, unassuming peak where hikers use sticks for walking rather than selfies, Mt Takao could well be the perfect complement to the popular Mt Fuji hike and one of Tokyo’s best day trips. Kyle Gillis explains why.
Shinto-Buddhist roots run deep on Mt Takao, but it’s the cedar roots that trip me up as I hike toward the summit on a crisp winter morning.
I’m climbing the 599m peak not for the high, but for the lows it offers. A swift 50-minute train ride from Japan's capital Tokyo, Mt Takao is free to climb and, though popular with locals, remains overlooked by tourists drawn to Mt Fuji’s celebrity; meaning low crowds and low costs. Blessed with tranquil trails, lush forests and Shinto temples, Takao makes an easy and memorable addition to any Tokyo itinerary without hiking your budget.
The spirit of Takao
Upon arrival, the first thing that stands out about Takao is how it doesn’t stand out. Takao rests shyly on the Kanto Mountain foothills near a small village of soba restaurants and sweet bun stalls.
Takao’s appearance may not be as dramatic as Fuji, one of the world’s great ‘selfie summits’, but what it lacks in drama it makes up for in spirit, quite literally. Statues at Takao’s base honour Jizō – the Buddhist god who protects the spirits of deceased children – and remind me of the mountain’s ethos: self-reflection over selfies.
Ten trails weave up Takao and I start up Trail 1, the most commonly-hiked trail lined with kanji-inscribed stones, lantern boxes and native cryptomeria trees. The trails vary in grade and difficulty, so everyone from casual hikers to rugged alpinists should find a route to their liking.
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Trail 1 leads to Yakuō-in, an impressive Shinto temple dating back to the 7th century with red arches and numerous prayer shrines set amidst towering oaks and cedars.
Early-morning temple visitors pray to Tengu, a mountain god with a rambunctious history. Some Buddhist stories depict Tengu as a heretical priest who possesses people; other stories call him the ‘Slayer of Vanity’. Not wanting to be possessed or appear vain, I decide it’s safest to show Tengu my respects, so I dip my hand in the temizuya (font) of prayer water and bow to his weathered statue.
I switch onto Trail 4, also known as the Suspension Bridge Trail, and it’s noticeably more challenging than Trail 1. I cross the Miyama Bridge, a 35m-long suspension bridge spanning a tree-filled gorge, and stumble up a steep grade of bulging root structures and rain-slicked rocks. Trail 4 should be renamed the Tengu Trail, because any vanity lingering within me is well and truly slain.
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A serene summit
One of my favourite aspects of climbing Takao in the morning is that, in a metropolitan area of 14 million people, you have a wonderful natural environment almost to yourself.
The few hikers I encounter are older locals who use sticks for walking rather than taking selfies, and utter prayers instead of snapping panoramas. Afternoon crowds of school children and local hiking groups will eventually stomp out our serenity, but for now the mountain is the most serene place in the region.
Takao’s summit is humble and peaceful, just the way the mountain gods intended. The peak is not marked with a Kilimanjaro-esque sign or cutesy directional post showing the distance to New York; only peace and a rising sun.
The clouds burn out on the horizon and Mt Fuji appears; undoubtedly one of the world’s most beautiful mountains when viewed from a distance, with its white snow cap and grey volcanic girth. Fuji has a parental loom, as if wondering why I would choose to stand on a lesser peak.
My climb, however, has proven to me that – relatively speaking – tiny Takao’s minimalist charm is a worthy complement to Fuji’s bucket-list appeal. I bow once more and take in the sunrise before coming down from my high – or is that low?