Mount Hiei – The holy mountain in Kyoto
Mount Hiei, regarded as the holy mountain in Kyoto makes a nice little escape from the maddening crowds of other Kyoto’s main attraction. What makes this destination fascinating is the quietness, peacefulness that exists here, only a stone’s throw away from chaos of the city below. This is a mountain where history and modernity meets in relation to Japanese culture and religion. A sacred mountain believed to turn ordinary humans in pursuit of enlightenment to super beings for their endurance and perseverance.
Somehow, walking in the dense forest of towering cedar trees made me feel good.
My visit here was on a weekday and there were not many tourists around on that day which made navigation around the footpaths much more convenient and pleasant. There were moments when I was the only one there.
I would highly recommend that you visit this sacred mountain for its natural beauty and it is one of the many places in Japan where tradition meets history, a tradition that has existed for centuries being practised today. You might be pleasantly surprised 😊, so come along with me and walk in the footsteps of these “super human” monks and allow the serenity to speak to you. Read on and let me know your thoughts afterwards.
Mount Hiei is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site
The whole of Mount Hiei is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the banner of “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto”. The mountain is home to Enryakuji Temple where the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism was founded in 788. It was once, home to the “warrior monks” and is currently home to the “marathon monks.”
Mount Hiei is situated on the hills, northeast of Kyoto, on the border between Kyoto and Shiga Prefecture, Kyoto. It is at 850 metres (2500 feet) in elevation and at its summit, offers spectacular views over Old Kyoto and Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan. There are three ways (see below: Travel tips and Useful information: Getting to Mt Hiei) to get up here using transportation, but it is more popular amongst hikers who can complete the hike up in a few hours – whichever way you choose to get up here, it will make a nice day trip for solo travellers, couples and families of any age.
History of Mount Hiei
The temples in Mount Hiei were the guardians of ancient Kyoto. One of the most important monasteries in Japanese history was established here over 1200 years ago.
The Enryakuji Temple, the heart of the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism was founded here in 788 by Saicho. Saicho was a monk from China who introduced the Tendai sect Buddhism in Japan and established the headquarters in the mountains of Hiei. The mountain became the holy mountain with 3,000 scattered temples and thousands of monks. In Japan’s history, Enyakuji was the home to the “warrior monks” who raided and terrified Kyoto City.
In order to remove all rivals and to unite the country, Shogun Nobunaga defeated these warrior monks and burned the Enryakuji complex down in 1571. The Enryakuji Temple was thereafter rebuilt during the Edo period and became the HQ of the Tendai sect and remains as such till today.
The “Marathon Monks” of Mount Hiei
Although the warrior monks are long gone, legend has it that Mount Hiei became home to another breed of monks called, the “marathon monks” who continue to remain here till today. “Marathon monks” are called as such because they are regarded as “super humans” to have to undergo a challenge known as “sennichi kaihogyo” – a “one-thousand day go around the peaks training” in search of enlightenment in the here and now.
The One-thousand-day Challenge
The monks who set out on these one-thousand-day challenge will occasionally complete it. The one-thousand-day challenge is a seven-year training period.
Initially, the Buddhist spiritual athlete or “gyoja” will begin a 100-day stretch of training period and the “gyoja” must cover 52.5 miles daily. During this 100-day training, the “gyoja” must decide whether he wants to take on the challenge of the remaining 900 days. To complete the challenge will be a test of his endurance, perseverance and both physical and mental strength because of his death-defying fasts, his vegetarian training diet and his handmade straw running shoes.
The “gyoja” dresses in pure white kimono and carries with him a sheathed knife. According to the Tendai Buddhist tradition, if he does not complete his prescribed marathon – the walks, runs and tasks, he must take his own life. In addition, he also carries a small bag which consists of his secret holy book which will guide him on his journey and the 250 prayer-stops he must make. Some will be to honour monks of the past who died by suicide because they failed on their challenge. The bag will also hold some candles, matches, a small bag of food offerings to the deities, and a rosary. The “gyoja” will use handmade straw sandals on his bare feet and carry a straw raincoat and paper lantern.
To complete this challenge is truly a test of endurance, perseverance and both physical and mental strengths. It is no surprise that only 46 monks have completed this one-thousand-day challenge since 1885.
Find out more on Marathon Monks
If you are interested to find out more on the “Marathon Monks”, you can purchase “The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei” by John Stevens (2013) for only £13.14 or much cheaper for a used copy from Amazon.
Watch this video on the monk who started his one-thousand-day journey.
The Enryakuji Temple in Mount Hiei
As mentioned above, the Enryakuji Temple in Mount Hiei is the HQ of the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism. It is spread over three areas:
- Todo, on the East
- Saito on the West
- Yokawa – a few kilometres north of Todo and Saito
All three sites are linked by hiking trails that will take you through the woods and tall cedar trees. Of the three:
1. Todo in Mount Hiei
Todo is the main area and is the heart of Enryakuji with its three-storey pagoda where the monastery was originally built in the 8th century. The main buildings are also located here which includes the main hall, “Kom pon Chudo” and the Amida Hall which was added to the complex in 1937.
As with any visits to temples, you would always find shops for souvenirs, light refreshments and incense. You will find that Mount Hiei offer a great selection of these.
Enryakuji Temple and buildings in Mount Hiei, Kyoto
As Todo is the main area with many buildings, there were a number of tourists here. You can generally follow the crowd to get to the major attractions or you can explore on your own.
I felt safe to do so, and I found the trails were well-signposted.
A nice, quiet walk through the forest trail connects the Todo area to Saito.
2. Saito in Mount Hiei
Saito on the West houses many old buildings and amongst it is the mausoleum of the founder of Enryakuji Temple, Saicho. You will also find the Shaka Hall, the oldest building on the mountain.
Not too far off, you will find the Ninai Hall, where two halls are connected together by a central corridor.
Yokawa is on the north of Todo and Saito and is a little further. It is connected by a trail through woods. If you are feeling adventurous, I would urge you to make this trail through the woods, where you can admire the Chudo main hall which is built on wooden platform.
A beautiful walk in the forest of Mount Hiei makes a fascinating discovery
As you walk along these trails, in the midst of lush greenery, you will come across many small buildings and temples, way-shrines tucked away in the middle of the forest in between the lush greens, bell towers, lecture halls and places for meditation. All these buildings are well-connected with stone-paved steps and trails with stone-lanterns along the way.
One can imagine the beauty of the lighted lanterns in the evening or when in the dark – perhaps it is to light the path the monks once took before they entered the deep forest. It was pretty.
Walking around in my own thoughts and taking-in the serenity and calmness of the mountain, I was drawn to the sound of the bell.
The huge bell at Enryakuji Temple, Mount Hiei
I followed the sound and came to a huge bell where tourists were queuing-up to ring it. Every temple seems to have one of these but the bell at Enryakuji is huge, perhaps to signify its importance.
The bell has a huge wooden rod made from a log. The log is used to ring the bell. The bell is rung by a Buddhist faithful when entering a temple or when answering a call to worship. The bell symbolises wisdom and compassion which Buddhist believers and practitioners recognise as being the path to enlightenment. This particular site was very popular and to take a “tourist-free” photo was difficult!.
My conclusion on Mount Hiei, Kyoto
Like I said, if you want to get away from the maddening crowd of Kyoto, Mount Hiei is the place to be. You could spend the day here and still get back to Kyoto in the evenings and experience the the nightlife of Gion-shiji.
In retrospect, when I left London for Osaka, I did not know of Mt. Hiei(Read more on Why I came to Japan here). Being here, I found Mount Hiei to be truly a Japan experience because this is a place where Japanese traditions meet history. It gave me an insight into Buddhism, the test of perseverance and courage that the monks endure in their one-thousand-day challenge. Walking through the peaceful forest was an experience which I will not forget and I think I may have brought some of the serenity with me.
I sincerely hope that you will visit Mount Hiei in Kyoto.
Travel tips and Useful information
What route did I opt for to get up to Mount Hiei?
I opted for the bus-ride up from Kyoto Station which was an hour, purely because I wanted to experience the ride. The roads were narrow but very skilfully manoeuvred by the driver. As you ascend, you will feel the coolness set in and feel your ears…and of course, you are rewarded with the picturesque views from the mountain and the valley below as you ascend. It was certainly different but good.
How did I get back down to ground level?
For my return journey, I opted to take the Sakamoto Cable car to the Shiga side to the base of the mountain to Sakamoto Station because a visit to Lake Biwa was next on my itinerary. This two-kilometres, 11-minute journey proved to be well-worth the money as it offered an awesome view directly over Lake Biwa and an opportunity to stroll through the town of Sakamoto.
Other places to visit in Mount Hiei
Other places which you may wish to visit but I did not as I wanted to spend more time in the woods and make it to Lake Biwa for the sunset:
1. The Garden Museum, Hiei
This garden is about 1.7 hectares and is based on French impressionism and has about 100,000 blooms each year.
Entry: 1030 Yen
Opening times: 10:00 – 17:30 (Open later during summer and at night during summer weekends).
2. Tsukuri Soba
This soba restaurant is opened from 09:30 to 16:00
Take a light jacket with you as the temperature drops very slightly.
Wear proper walking shoes or hiking boots.
Take a bottle of water with you & some light snacks if you wish to have a break while you are exploring.
Getting to Mount Hiei: 3 routes
- From Kyoto side – by Eizan Cable car and Ropeway
- Take the Keihan Line from Kyoto Station and exit at Demachiyanagi Station, the last station.
- From Demachiyanagi, ride to the summit of Mount Hiei on the Eizan Electric Railway, Eizan Cable and Eizan Ropeway.
- The Eizan Electric Railway is a sightseeing line dotted with locations known for their harmonious balance of nature and the old capital such as Ohara, Kurama and Kibune. After about 15 minutes ride, you will arrive at Yase-Hieizanguchi Station. This part of your journey offers you with beautiful spring growth and autumn colours. There is a temple here, Ruriko-in Temple which has special openings in spring and autumn.
- From Yase, take the Eizan Cable Car, which is another 15 minutes journey, to the top of Mount Hiei. This is one of the steepest-ride in Japan, then transfer to the ropeway which will take you all the way to the top of the 840-meter summit. The summit is about six degrees Celsius cooler than downtown Kyoto, so it may feel cold at the top, so take a light jacket with you even when you are visiting in the summer.
Demachiyanagi Station to Yase-Hieizanguchi Station (Eizan Electric Railway):
Adults: 260 yen, children: 130 yen
Eizan Cable Car: Adults: 540 yen, children: 270 yen
Eizan Ropeway: Adults: 310 yen, children: 160 yen
- From the Shiga side – From Kyoto Station, take the JR Kosei Line to Hiei-Sakamoto Station; This train journey is approximately 15 minutes. Alternatively, you may want to take the Shinkansen from Kyoto Station to Hiei-Sakamoto Station.
- From Hiei-Sakamoto Station, it is a 15-minute walk to the lower station of the Sakamoto Cablecar, or a 5-minute bus ride;
- The Cable car ride takes about 11 minutes;
- From the upper station, the Todo area is about 5-10 minutes walk.
Kyoto Station to Hiei-Sakamoto Station (JR Kosei Line): Adult: 320 Yen (one-way);
Kyoto Station to Hiei-Sakamoto Station on the Shinkansen is covered by the JR Pass and you would not have to pay the 320 Yen.
Sakamoto Cable car: 860 Yen (one-way) or 1,620 Yen for a round-trip. You can purchase this ticket from a vending machine at the station.
- By Bus – This route is a toll-road and there are direct buses from Kyoto Station and Sanjo Station (Keihan Line) to Hieizan’s Todo area.
- From Kyoto Station, take Bus line 57 that leaves from bus-stop C6. Line-up for Mount Hiei.
- Journey time is one hour, one-way;
- There are 4 – 6 buses a day.
- Bus service do not operate between December and March
The one-way trip takes about one-hour and costs about 770 Yen.
Todo on the East:
March to November: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
December: 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
January and February: 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Saito on the West and Yokawa Area:
March to November: 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
December: 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
January and February: 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
You can get a combined ticket/pass to all three areas of Enryakuji Temple:
Adults: 700 yen
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August 2019 Update.