For Great Hikes, Head for the Hills

Osaka | Fall, 2001 | 20 years old

When we speak of the wonders of Japan, we tend to focus on that which is man-made. Human innovation and achievement are unquestionably one of Japan’s greatest wonders, and modern technological feats along with the asthetic beauty of older temples and gardens are rightly a centerpiece to any first-time visit to Japan. However, Japan is also a country of astounding natural beauty. Nearly seventy percent of the country is mountainous, and due to a desire to live among others rather than in isolation, developed cities and towns often end abruptly at the foot of steep hills. When the road ends, that’s where the real tour begins, because for a small country with so many inhabitants, Japan still maintains a large and varied mountainous landscape that is sure to invoke thoughts of days-gone-by rather than days to come. Mt. Hiei (Hieizan) is one such recommended natural excursion, reachable via Kyoto’s rail system.

I was introduced to the beauty of Mt. Hiei by way of a Japanese history class I was enrolled in during my semester abroad in Osaka. It’s worth the trip for several reasons if you’re in the Kansai area. It’s easily accessible, holds a wealth of cultural treasures, and provides fantastic views of the forest, hills, and of course Lake Biwa. Our class convened one Saturday morning in early fall in a small town at the foot of the mountain just before the train turns to navigate the landscape toward Biwa. After filling up on onigiri and other snacks at a convenience store, we were all set to begin what our professor called a “strenuous hike” to its summit. Our plan was to hike up the Kyoto side of the mountain, forgoing the convenience of the cable cars for the views and the exercise. After the initial hike and lunch we would enter the central temple area of Enryaku-ji and tour some of the religious sites that were so central to Japanese Tendai Buddhism over the last 1200 years. We would end our tour with a descent down the Lake Biwa side of Hiei and pick up a train home from there.

I quickly learned that our professor had not used the term “strenuous” lightly. Our initial ascent was a steep and narrow trail that wound delicately through the dense forest and vegetation of the foothills. We reached the first overlook panting and out of breath, slightly amazed at our much older professor’s lung capacity and stamina. However, the fruits of our climb were evident within the first half hour, as we had already reached a clearing that afforded us a stunning aerial view of Kyoto and the mountain range that stretched far beyond to the north.

Additionally, our professor told us a rumor regarding a path to Buddha-hood that I have yet to substantiate, so I’m throwing it out there: We were told that one must go on a pilgrimage of a three year solitary hike around the mountain, and if they complete the journey, they will have earned the status of the Buddha. We joked, with a touch of genuine sincerity, that the three-year plan to Buddha-hood sounded a little better than the four-year plan to a BA. Finally, I must point out however that this information is totally un-verified, but makes for an interesting idea for a three year diversion.

We reached the temples at the at the top of the mountain shortly after noon. Branching from the first temple established 1200 years ago, the mountainous spiritual center (loosely defined and known as Enryaku-ji) at one point contained nearly 3,000 religious buildings and temples. Lots to choose from, however, there are several that should not be missed. Saicho , a Chinese priest who brought the Tendai sect of Buddhism to Japan, founded Kompon Chu-Do in 788. Due to disasters throughout the years, the hall has been rebuilt and expanded, with the last construction on the temple being completed in the 17th century. One of the largest and most beautiful temples is Enryaku-ji.  Stop to watch the flame in the temple’s Inner Chamber. It’s been burning for the past 1200 years. Another beautiful temple I would recommend is the Amida-do complex, a gem of an orange structure that was enhanced by the surrounding fall foliage. For some interactive fun, line up to ring the large bell near the main hall, you´ll feel the zen-like vibrations in your bones.

Coming down over the other side of the mountain, the trees began to break on clear blue water stretching out nearly off the horizon. The town of Biwa wraps around the lake and hugs the shoreline as the neighborhood meets the trails of the mountain. The trail curved back and forth through the mountain as we descended, ambling along until the houses and roads picked up the path .

This is a fantastic hike that I would recommend to anyone visiting Japan. However, if you’re not in the Kansai region, there are many more hikes like this one out there, just head for the hills!

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