When you hear the words Tokyo and mountain, you immediately think of Mount Fuji. There is another Tokyo mountain, though, that attracts millions of visitors annually: Mount Takao.
Mount Takao is located in Hachioji, West of Tokyo. It is only about 599.15 meters (1,965 feet) high but it offers a variety of breathtaking natural and innovative man-made attractions. The Michelin Green Guide highly recommends this mountain for tourists visiting Japan.
Get your hiking shoes ready for your trip to Japan, as you won’t want to miss this gem of an attraction. Let’s dive into everything you need to know before planning your trip here!
From Tokyo to Mt. Takao
You need one full day to do all the activities Mt. Takao offers: ride the cable cars or chair lifts; hike to the summit; visit the museums, parks, and temples; relax at the hot springs; eat at the restaurants; and buy souvenirs.
I suggest you go there early and prepare your itinerary in advance. If you have a clear itinerary, you can buy discount tickets from the train station at the start of your journey. You can save some money while still getting the full Mt. Takao experience.
The best way to go to Mt. Takao is to start from Shinjuku Station on the Keio Line. Take the 50-minute train ride from Shinjuku to the Takaosanguchi Station, the main gateway to Mt. Takao. During the train ride, you will see the scenery change from buildings to residential areas to a panorama of trees, specifically the cedar trees of Mt. Takao.
When you reach Takaosanguchi Station, a distinct building will welcome you.
Takaosanguchi was transformed in 2015 from a generic terminal into a masterpiece of architecture by internationally renowned architect Kuma Kengo. The new design blends Japanese aesthetics with modern technology, the natural world with man-made infrastructure. It features a sloping canopy and passageways made from local cedar trees and light fixtures that mimic local lanterns. Passing through Takaosanguchi feels like you’re going through a magical corridor from the mundane world to the sacred world of the mountain.
Takaosanguchi Station to the Summit
Since Mt. Takao has plenty of spots to explore, let me break up this trip into several Parts.
When you get out of the other side of Takaosanguchi, you will see what looks like a small village. There will be a big map showing the hiking trails or routes of the mountain. The main trails are:
- Trail 1, the Omotesando Trail, is recommended for beginner climbers and children. This is one of the longest routes but you will walk on paved paths most of the time from the base to the summit of the mountain. The route also passes through the main sightseeing spots. This trail is very popular so expect a fairly noisy crowd walking along with you.If you don’t want to hike from the base to the summit, you can take a ride halfway up the mountain using the cable car or the two-seat chair lift.
- Trail 2, Kasumidai Loop Trail: a short trail that circles the Monkey Park, Wild Flowers Garden, and some forests halfway up the mountain; does not have a path to the summit.
- Trail 3, Katsura Woods Trail: leads you through forests containing Katsura trees; beautiful during fall since the color of the trees’ leaves can range from yellow to orange.
- Trail 4, Suspension Bridge Trail: starts about a quarter of the way from the summit; passes through forests and the Miyamabashi Suspension Bridge.
- Trail 5, Peak Loop Trail: as short as the Kasumidai Trail but goes around the paths near the summit.
- Trail 6, Biwa Waterfall Trail: one of the most challenging routes; also called the “water trail” since it passes many water features like springs, river, and, of course, the Biwa Waterfall; you might see some monks undergoing water purification under the waterfall even during winter.
There are other trails beside these six routes. But if you’re visiting for the first time, it’s better to stick to the main ones. There are many signs along the paths but this is still a mountain and you could easily get lost if you veer off the main paths.
Kiyotaki Station and Sanroku Station
If you decide to save time and energy by riding the cable car or two-seater chair lift, you will need to walk to either the Kiyotaki Station (cable car) or the Sanroku Station (chair lift).
From Takaosanguchi, walk through the village for about five minutes. Along the way, you will see restaurants and souvenir shops. This place is important if you didn’t have breakfast before heading out or if you need additional hiking gear.
I cannot emphasize this enough, but you will be walking A LOT. So, if you need to change your footwear to something comfortable and appropriate, do so at this point.
When you reach either of the two stations, you again have a lot of choices. The cable car takes about six minutes. There is a sign that proudly states that it goes up the steepest slope in Japan. You will get off at the Takao-san Station, which is a bit further up the mountain than the chair lift station.
The chair lift ride lasts about 12 minutes. You will get off at the Sanjo Station. If you choose this ride, be ready to literally hang on to your seat. The chairs have no seatbelts and occasional heavy winds could make for a bumpy but thrilling ride. Of course staff will not allow any chair lift rides if the weather is bad.
You can buy round-trip tickets or one-way tickets. You can use the cable car to go up the mountain and the chair lift to go down, or vice versa. If you use the chair lift going up you can enjoy a leisurely ride and if you use the cable car going down you’ll feel like you’re in a roller coaster ride because of the steep slope.
Kasumidai Observation Deck
When you get out of the cable car, you will see the Kasumidai observation deck. Here you can take more scenic pictures. Telescopes stationed along the deck allow you to see Tokyo.
If you use the chair lifts, you can walk from the Sanjo Station to the observation deck.
Monkey Park and Wild Flower Garden
Walk for about ten minutes from the observation deck and you will arrive at the Monkey Park and Wild Flower Garden. You need to pay a fee to see the park and garden.
You can view Japanese macaques in their natural habitat through the glass enclosure of the Monkey Park. These “snow monkeys” are known to live in colder areas, a behavior considered unusual with non-human primates.
The Japanese macaque has a distinctive gray fur and red face. Ever seen one of those pictures of a monkey enjoying the waters of a hot spring while snow covers its exposed head? That’s the Japanese macaque.
- Trivia: Each macaque in the Monkey Park has a name. Some of them answer to these names and come to the Park’s staff when called.
The Wild Flower Garden contains about 300 native species of flowers that once blossomed profusely on the mountain. Some of the flowers cannot be found anywhere else. The Garden was actually constructed to preserve these flower species.
Just around the corner from the Monkey Park and Wild Flower Garden complex is the Tako Sugi (Octopus Shaped Cedar). According to legends, the tree wrapped its roots around itself just like what an octopus does with its tentacles so that it could not be cut down by a local farmer.
As you hike onward you will see the Yakuo-in Joshinmon (Yakuo-in Purification Gate). You can make a side trip from the Trail 1 path and go up the flight of steps to visit the Shinpen-yama (Divine Mountain) where you will see Buddhist statues and Jinbendo, a Shinto shrine.
Whether you make a side trip or continue on the path, you will eventually pass through the avenue of very old and sacred cedar trees called Takao-san no Sugi Namiki. Five minutes into your hike and you will arrive at the Takao-san Yakuo-in Yuki-ji Temple.
Mt. Takao has been considered a sacred mountain for centuries and the Yakuo-in Yuki-Ji is its main temple.
More popularly known as the Yakuo-in Temple, the structure was established in 744 by Gyoki Bosatsu, who is famous for having been part of the construction of the Great Buddha of Nara. The temple flourished during the 14 th century under the religious practices of Shungen Daitoku, a famous Buddhist monk from the most sacred mountain in Kyoto.
Shungen Daitoku established the Shugendo (mountain asceticism) followed by current monks. He also enshrined Izuna Daigongen as the main deity of the temple. Due to Shungen Daitoku’s efforts, Yakuo-in is now considered one of the three main temples of the Shingon Buddhism sect in Japan.
The temple is also dedicated to the Tengu, a winged demon of Shinto mythology said to be the messenger of the gods and bringer of good luck. Using Japanese fans called uchiwa, the Tengu drives away misfortune.
Statues of the Tengu dot the temple grounds. There are two types. A large Tengu with a big nose symbolizes an enlightened person. A small Tengu with a crow’s beak symbolizes a person undergoing religious training.
The etiquette for visiting the Yakuo-in Temple is a bit different. You do not bow at the gate before entering. Instead, by the main gate called the Shitenno-mon, you have to bow before a statue of Shungen Daitoku. You will have to perform the usual cleansing and praying rituals, though, so be sure to remember them.
After offering your prayers, you can visit the other halls and attractions of the temple. If you are into architecture, take a good look at the different styles of shrines and religious Statues.
Like other shrines and temples, Yakuo-in Temple holds festivals all-year-round. Some of these are the Setsubun on February 3, where people throw beans at “demons” to cast away misfortune, and the fire-walking event in March, where monks quite literally burn away impurities by walking barefoot on smoldering coals while chanting.
The temple also holds the Goma ritual daily at the Main Hall. Goma sticks represent people’s impurities or sins and are cast into the purifying fire of a brazier. Goma sticks with people’s prayers are also cast into the fire so these can be fulfilled by Izuna Daigongen. Afterward, participants are given gomafuda (wooden tablets) which are considered the incarnation of the Izuna and must be enshrined at their homes.
If you want to experience a little bit of the ascetic life of a monk, you can make a reservation with the Yakuo-in Temple to eat Shojin-ryori (Buddhist vegetarian food), the staple diet of the monks. The reservation is made only in Japanese, though, so better brush up your linguistic abilities or ask a Japanese friend to make a reservation for you.
After exploring Yakuo-in Temple, head to your final goal: the summit.
The road will become steeper as you walk onward and upward but keep on persevering because soon you will see the restaurants, plaza, and view deck of the summit!
You can now eat, mingle with other visitors, take pictures, and just relax while enjoying the spectacular view. There is a 599.15 meters marker that visitors use as photographic evidence that they’ve conquered Mt. Takao.
On a sunny day, you can have a great view of Mt. Fuji from Mt. Takao summit. During the winter solstice in December, the sun passes by the peak of Mount Fuji as it sets. There is one glorious moment when it crowns that mountain. This phenomenon is called Diamond Fuji and Mt. Takao is the perfect spot to take a picture of it.
Mt. Takao is also a good spot for Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) during spring, especially if you missed the viewing season in Tokyo. The trees on this mountain bloom a few weeks after the trees in Tokyo.
- Trivia: The best spot for a Hanami party is the Itchodaira observation deck, which is a 30-minute hike from Mt. Takao summit. The grove of cherry blossom trees known as Takao-san Senbonzakura is worth the additional miles of walking.
Of course, one of the best seasons to visit Mt. Takao is during fall when the trees are resplendent in yellows, oranges, and reds.
When you have taken some rest and fortified yourself with some food, it’s time to go down the mountain. To get a different experience of the mountain’s flora and fauna, try taking a different route on your way down the mountain. Trail 4 will still lead you to the Takao-san or Sanjo Stations while giving you a different view of the mountain.
Back at the Base
Before you ride the train back to Shinjuku, why not spend some time at three of the other attractions near Takaosanguchi: the Onsen Gokuraku-yu, the 599 Museum, and the Takao Trick Art Museum?
The Onsen Gokuraku-yu (Gokuraku-yu Hot Springs) is the perfect spot to rest your weary legs and feet. Most of the water is from natural hot springs. You can choose from different onsen types: micro-bubbles, sauna, outdoor, cold, very hot, or sitting. If you want to recreate a Biwa Waterfall purification experience, I suggest you try the last type. You sit under the gushing water and let it pound your head and shoulders. After your bath, you can enjoy the Onsen’s delicious food in the restaurant or in one of the private tatami rooms that can be rented. Be sure to try their specialty: tororo soba (buckwheat noodles with grated yam). Although they offer alcoholic drinks, minors (under 20) and those who will drive are forbidden from buying such drinks.
Speaking of rules, the Onsen forbids people with tattoos from entering the baths. They don’t allow even those who cover their tattoos with bandages.
The Takao 599 Museum is just five minutes by foot from Takaosanguchi. It focuses on the natural beauty, history, and culture that can be found on Mt. Takao. The interactive exhibits include resin replicas of seasonal flowers, trees, and animals. The museum also uses technology like projection mapping and monitors to showcase the four seasons of the mountain.
For very young visitors, the museum offers a small hill replica of the mountain so the little ones can also “hike” up Mt. Takao.
The museum has a café, souvenir shop, lawn with a pond where you can relax for a moment.
Takao Trick Art Museum
Across from Takaosanguchi is the Takao Trick Art Museum. You can’t miss it. The squat building showing a mix of Grecian columns and Egyptian mosaics can easily be seen from afar. Inside, you will find galleries of optical illusions and 3D paintings.
Let your imagination run wild and show you how to interact with the illustrations. There is a painting that makes you look like you’re in Alice in Wonderland. There is a big gorilla that wants to “eat” you. There is the big vampire that wants to trap you in a wine glass. From the entrance to the exit, you will want to keep snapping pictures for your social media account.
The friendly staff will be more than happy to take your pictures if you’re alone or if you want your whole group to be in the photo but you don’t have a selfie-stick.
A Gem Waiting To Be Hiked
There you have it, one activity-packed day at Mount Takao. Just a gem waiting to be hiked and explored by you. Mount Takao is typically skipped out on by tourists, but I cannot stress how much of a magical place it is that would make any trip to Japan awesome. Nature is almost nonexistent in Tokyo, but getting to Takao will give you a real taste of Japanese beauty, nature.