Takao-san: climbing down through temples

The lab PI carefully instructed the graduate students I’m working with to show me around Tokyo, to take me to locations off the beaten track whenever possible. Last week, they took me to Jindaiji, the second-oldest temple in the Tokyo area, about 1400 years old.  None of them had been there before, so it was a fun break to explore a quiet forest surrounded by urban Chofu.

On Friday, three of us played the Japanese equivalent of hooky (現実逃避, escapism) and met at the base of Mt. Takao (or Takao-san) to climb up the 599-meter peak. About 25 kilometers west of downtown Tokyo and a 35-minute train ride for me, Takao-san is a quasi-national park nestled in the verdant green hills.  Did I mention it was green and had trees?  I was reminded of the Bear Valley Trail in the Point Reyes National Seashore, but even more densely wooded.

Into the woods

The requisite cartoon map of the summit and shrines on the mountain showed the mountain in autumn and spring.

Takao-san temples

There are a few options for getting up Takao-san: walk, take a chair lift, or a funicular.  We opted to hike up the Number Six trail, but at the funicular base station you can buy just about anything, including popcorn (“poppukoon”) from a Hello Kitty vending machine.  With Hello Kitty crawling out of a popcorn bag, holding a bag of popcorn with popping kernels inside.

Hello Kitty popcorn (?) vending machine

Almost every tree, rock, grotto, and waterfall is holy and is marked as such.  Numerous vendors surround shrines, selling trinkets, prayer blocks, charms, and soba, apparently invoking life during the Edo period. Even so, it’s a bit disconcerting compared to how restrained the US National Park Service is—it’d be like having shops right at Old Faithful, General Sherman, or Half Dome.  Still, I’m trying to see this from the Japanese perspective, not one of interpreting the abundance of stores as blight or commercialization.

Every few bends in the steep trail saw another small shrine, or gathering of Buddhas, or a woman telling fortunes in a shallow cave, or bells hanging from a cliffside.  The Buddhas get cold in the winter, so someone comes along and knits them caps and bibs.

Caps and bibs

After the first half kilometer or so, the number of small shrines dwindled and it was just green, with big cedar trees punctuating the dense undergrowth.


A small stream to our right splashed down through waterfalls and tiny rapids.


The boys began protesting that the trail was too steep, they needed oxygen, that it was too hot… C’mon, guys, what do you think Fuji-san will be like next month? At least in this shot, Tatsuya is finally taller than Maro.

For once, Tatsuya is taller than Maro

The No. 6 path had a number of school groups hiking down it, and as they’d pass us we’d be greeted with a chorus of “konnichiwa!” Occasionally, upon noting my foreigner status, I’d get “hello!” and even “guten tag!”

We made it to the summit and saw a hazy view of western Tokyo.

View of Tokyo

The peak is marked with four rocks surrounding a pedestal.


A sad and wonderful example of English as decoration on a t-shirt.

Lack of hugs

The summit looked to the south and west, and on a clear day you can even see Fuji-san from Takao-san.

To the south

We took a broad path down the mountain, occasionally with big staircases, but sunnier and with more flowers.

Down the steps

Flowers and cobweb

This route wound through a series of temples and shrines, my favorite of which was ornately carved and painted.

Decorated shrine


Illuminated temple


Featured prominently throughout the shrines were tengu (天狗), or goblins, creatures having both Buddhist and Shinto attributes. Their kanji translates into something like “celestial hound”, but they’re more bird- than canine-like, what with their big wings. Throughout the last 1500 years or so, they’ve evolved from snatching children to returning children, to punishing those who abuse power and knowledge, to now being guardians of temples. There’s more on tengu here. One of the two recurring tengu was the Karasu Tengu, 烏天狗 (Crow Tengu).

Karasu Tengu 烏天狗 (Crow Tengu)

I have no idea what he’s holding. Perhaps Karasu Tengu moonlights as an auto mechanic?

Crow-beaked tengu, an early auto mechanic?

Even more popular than Karasu Tengu was Yamabushi Tengu, 山仏師天狗 (Mountain Monk Tengu), or Konoha Tengu, 木の葉天狗 (Tree Foliage Tengu). With his long nose and feathered fan, he was rendered in stone all over the mountain.

Tengu with the long nose

Not just carved in stone, but painted on wooden blocks you could tie to prayer racks…

Prayer blocks

… in papier-mâché on advertisements for food…

Something for 100円

… eating food…

Eating mochi on a stick

… and even as food.  (Notice the styrofoam cushioning? All fruit in Japan is packed like that.)

Watermelon/papier-mâché rendering of the long-nosed tengu

One shrine was dedicated to foxes, inari. Like their stone Buddha cousins down the hill, they too were wearing red cloaks.

Foxes and coats

Fox sculpture, detail

On a steep cliff covered in shrubs, an array of Buddhas dotted the hillside. Look closely for one or two more hiding in the bushes.

Buddhas up the hill

For completeness in terms of Buddhist data structures, we also have them in list form.


The map indicated an “octopus-root cedar tree”. We had to stop and admire the tako on Takao-san.

Octopus-root cedar tree marker

Octopus and tree

We descended into the haze of Tokyo, taking one last look at the view and up the mountain.

Tokyo, clearing up

Hazy light

Amazing that there’s such greenery within a short distance of Tokyo. More photos here.

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