Hiking, Japan, Mountains
Comments 6

On Shape-Shifter Mountain



The oddly pleasant smell of burning mosquito coils wafted through the upstairs-room window as I slipped into chu-hi-enhanced sleep. Then sometime after midnight I was shaken awake by tremors rippling through the tatami — wondered in the morning if I’d dreamed them till Andrew told me they’d originated up north, somewhere near the site of the Fukushima disaster.

Goodbyes to Andrew’s family. Again we walked the quiet streets to a local station, where we parted. He was heading to his school, I was Takao-bound. I win. Takao-San: my favourite local mountain, one of my favourite places anywhere. Hadn’t seen her for five years; when I lived in Tokyo I hiked her 20-30 times, ran her a few as well. And I’d scored yet more fabulous walking weather.

Back onto the Chuo Line, west to Takao station, where you already know you’re inaka — in the countryside. You’re also in Tengu country:


Tengu Central: Takao Station

Tengu. These are the mischievous goblin-like creatures, shape-shifting tricksters that are said to thrive in certain mountain forests. Sacred, densely wooded Takao-San is crawling with them. Buddhism, Shinto and folk mythology frequently overlap in Japan, and the Tengu emerged from that murky nexus. Over the centuries their mythology has evolved, as this very thorough Wikipedia entry explains:

Buddhism long held that the tengu were disruptive demons and harbingers of war. Their image gradually softened, however, into one of protective, if still dangerous, spirits of the mountains and forests. 

The temple near the summit, Yakuo-in, has statues of both the standard forms: the beaked bird-man…

At Yakuo-in, about 12 years ago

At Yakuo-in, about 12 years ago

..and the phallic-nosed and always angry-looking version that is most popular in the public imagination:

My friend Dave at Yakuo-in

My friend Dave at Yakuo-in

Tengu aren’t the only winged creatures that call Takao home. The musasabi, or giant flying squirrel, is another celebrated resident — right here in Tokyo Prefecture. I’ve never seen them other than in statue form…


Come Fly with Me — near Takao-San-Guchi

..but one scientist and musasabi specialist says:

The record [flight] from Yakuo-in [Temple] on Mt. Takao is 107 meters, but you can only dream about witnessing a flight like that. 

At Takao you change trains, one stop to Takao-San-Guchi, end of the line. Takao-San is 599m high, with swathes of old-growth sugi and hinoki (cedar and cypress) forest and over 1,200 plant species. My timing was great, with the midweek visit meaning near-solitude, at least going up. It’s a popular mountain — supposedly 2.5 million visitors annually — but a lot of them take the funicular train partway. That kind of sloth is a godsend to mountain ascetics/disgruntled loners like yours truly.

There are several courses…


“Don’t dump trash — you’ll attract pesky monkeys” (Maybe — I recognise the words for “monkey” & “trash”, anyway)

..but I already had a favourite route: the Inariyama Course up, and #6 down.

Inari is the kami [god] of foxes, of fertility, rice, tea and saké, of agriculture and industry, of general prosperity and worldly success, and one of the principal kami of Shinto. In earlier Japan, Inari was also the patron of swordsmiths and merchants (Wikipedia)There’s a small, crumbling shrine to her not far up the mountain. A quick visit to see my old friend…


Inari, the Fox God

..and I was walking!

This hike is just a pleasure year-round, an hour and a bit of brisk walking though a lot of people take twice that; my best running time all those years back was just over 20 minutes. I even went all the way out there before work a few times! I was mountain-crazy in those days…

Unlike in Korea, most Japanese hikers greet you as you pass — not so much staring at the ground. Bloody refreshing:


A final steep stairway-climb and you’re at the summit, with its cluster of eateries and a million people if your timing’s off. Today there were just a dozen or so of us — and happily, the ever-capricious Fuji-San had allowed us a glimpse. I’ve seen her from that point on a lot fewer than half of my hikes:


Fuji-San — Andrew & I once climbed that 3,776m brute from the bottom

I sat there a while watching the Fuji homage and starting on my feedbag of imported snacks. This whole Tokyo trip had been a last-minute decision with an ever-growing to-do list — now with Takao and a Fuji sighting, I’d killed two flying squirrels with one stone.

Time for some reminiscence. The hikes with friends. The hikes alone. The long ones, where this spot was just the start. The (slow) hike with the Japanese woman who’d never hiked before and claimed the sight of me bandaging a busted toe was “sexy” (she didn’t get out much). The time I night-hiked up, excited about my brand-new pack, and found a gibbering, frantic Japanese bloke who’d somehow got himself benighted without a headlamp; I had to lead him (slowly) down with mine. We made it without encountering any tengu — UNLESS HE HIMSELF WAS ONE…

Route #6 is brilliant. It hugs a stream and passes beneath some monumental cedars. I did have to negotiate a lot more traffic…


Hence the wear & tear



..but you’re rewarded with a sense of how lovely and wild so much of this country once was.

I’ll shut up and let the pictures do the talking:






Ever had the feeling yr being watched?


Another treat on #6 is the Biwa Falls (really just a single cascade) shrine, where devotees have to stand beneath the freezing (in colder months) waters:




Some more beautiful forest, with path-side wild hyrangea bushes shedding their fading blooms…


..and I was back out in the sunshine.

I bought some tomatoes from a front-garden stall, and trotted down to the station — only slightly disappointed by the lack of tengu sightings…


O-Jizo & the Seven Gods of Fortune on the station road

..with another series of trains and another important mountain from my past — bigger, far less popular, more remote — next on my itinerary for that afternoon and night…

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote



  1. Ha! I was thinking ‘long-nosed’, but you went for ‘phallic-nosed’! I like your style!

    If only the walks down here contained strange statues to break up things a little. I love all the mythology in this post!

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