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Georgia got in touch with her inner hiker on a recent trip to Kyoto with tour leader, Richard Farmer. Bears, Buddhism and cherry blossom were just a few of the surprises at the top.
Getting outdoors in Kyoto
I like to think of myself as an outdoorsy sort of person. After my first time staying in a tent in my mid-twenties (properly – festivals don’t count as real camping apparently), I head out armed with giant tarpaulin and a Kelly Kettle every year.
But when it was broken to me by tour leader Richard Farmer that I would be walking up a mountain on the border of Kyoto and Shiga prefecture, I wasn’t enthralled. This wasn’t whiling away the hours under a tree with a giant cup of coffee, and it didn’t sound like a walk to me. A ramble, perhaps I could handle. I’m not cool or North American enough for a hike. While for a trek, surely I should have specialist gear and spend months in preparation, which was it to be?
Towards the end of my trip to Japan, on a bright and sunny day, I stood at the foot of Mount Hiei having been told that it wasn’t going to be impossible for me to reach the summit on a non-Californian, fully-Japanese hike.
We took the train from Kyoto to Shugaku-in Station and walked 20 minutes to the start of the trail. So far, so good. Although I could have happily stopped for a grape juice (the best flavour ever in Japan, please come to the UK) already. But let’s put it into context, Hiei is 848m high, whereas Fuji is 3,776m. A baby mountain really.
As we ascended, the changing landscape took us under a canopy of trees. My legs felt short before, but I had a sense of being positively dwarfed by the sky high cedars. It was a hot day in April, but the sunlight dappled through the trees and the stops we took felt casual, not urgent.
I was getting into the swing when a Japanese hiker strolled passed me on his way down. I heard him coming a way off because he had a couple of bells strapped to his rucksack.
“Konnichiwa”, I said as he passed and we exchanged a knowing look that I like to think is hiker to hiker. After all, this was a couple of hours in and I was starting to get into the whole thing. Perhaps I’d always been a hiker deep down. Perhaps I should be a professional hiker?
“Does he have the bells in case of an emergency?” I asked Richard, imagining an ill-fated hiker looking up at the trees.
“It’s more to let bears know that you’re coming”, Richard said before continuing to tell us about the history of the mountain.
I chuckled to myself. Bears. Here in Japan.
But it turns out that there are bears in this mountain, and we were three, each without a bell. Perhaps hiking was better suited to someone else professionally after all.
I concentrated on Richard’s explanations instead. As an expert on Buddhism, I wanted to appreciate the importance of this temple mountain in context. The top of the mountain is home to the head temple of the Tendai school of Buddhism, Enryaku-ji.
His description of disciplined practice Kaihōgyō was particularly fascinating. This path to the ultimate enlightenment for Tendai monks lasts for 1000 days over seven years. Between 100 and 200 days each year, monks take increasingly further hikes, from 30km per day, up to 84km in the seventh year. Most difficult of all though must be the seven and a half days in the the fifth year reciting a Buddhist holy mantra – all without food, rest or water. My short hike was starting to seem rather a small commitment.
After discovering this, the spring in my step became springier and I was surprised to find that we had been walking for two hours on arrival at To-do, the first of the three parts of the Enryaku-ji complex.
Temples dotted the landscape. Richard explained that there were actually 3,000 temples here until the 16th century, before a conflict with the warlord Oda Nobunaga saw them flattened. But not to be defeated, the monks reconstructed the current temples in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
Wandering around Hokke So Ji-in and Amida-do, I became quite enamoured by the rock garden. An arrow points between the rocks and crouching down, you can hear music from the floor!
Inside, Richard talked us through all of the beautiful paintings of the monks that line the walls. I had to catch my breath when I saw an expansive cavernous space inside with glowing lanterns and gold Buddhas up-lit by candles; the stillness and cool air here made me feel though I had stepped back in time. Guests can look in from afar while monks pray inside. Fittingly, cameras aren’t permitted here and frankly, the atmosphere wouldn’t the same if they were.
I associate all Buddhas with feelings of calm and tranquillity (yes I am one of those people that has one in my garden), so I was rather shocked when walking away I saw a poster of this guy.
This is Fudo Myoo. Despite his gnarly appearance, he is actually seen as a protective deity who burns away all impairments, helping followers on the journey towards enlightenment. You should never judge a book by its cover…
We stopped off at Enryakuji Kaikan, a small hotel with big views, for a spot of lunch. As a vegetarian, I had become quite fond of soba noodles, although I couldn’t quite embrace the slurping that is customary in these parts.
Powered by soba, we continued away from Enryakuji and paused at a viewpoint. Amazingly, despite this being the very end of April in Kyoto, cherry blossom was still thriving at the top. Apparently the cool air in the mountains helps it stick around for longer. Huge cedars stood uniformly against a backdrop of mountains and the blossom. In the hotel there was even a spectacular view all the way to Osaka.
All was blissfully serene, and amongst the peace I even spotted a monkey between the trees! As their home, they aren’t really up for petting, or saying hello, so we left them and went on our way.
We finally stopped for my favourite grape juice at the cable car station near the top. Although it is handy that you can take public transport for this view, I can hand on heart say that it wouldn’t have been the same. We ambled down at a steady pace making the most of the final fresh air.
As my last week in Japan, I had prepared to expect the unexpected, but Mount Hiei truly confounded any expectations. If you’re in Kyoto and you have a pair of trainers (I mean, sturdy boots would be better), and a good level of fitness, then I heartily recommend it.