Mount Takao is going to be crazy this weekend. It’s foliage season for god’s sake and everyone in Tokyo will be heading to this sacred mountain to snap selfies in front of the first blazing red ornamental maple tree they find.
Last year my family made the mistake of taking a Mount Takao jaunt during peak foliage season. The express train to Takaosanguchi Station on the Keio Line is an hour ride from Shinjuku Station, making Takao the mountain nearest to Tokyo proper. There are other mountains that make for good day treks from Tokyo, but none of them are as accessible as Takao.
The first mistake we made last year – we attempted to push our two-year-old son up the trail in a stroller. Technically you can do this at Mount Takao. Takao has seven established hiking trails, plus a cable car and chair lift that takes you 271 meters up the mountain. When we arrived last year, the line for the cable car station (Kiyotaki Station) stretched nearly a quarter of a mile all the way back to Takaosanguchi Station. We decided to take hiking trail number 1, which is basically a sidewalk that leads you to the top of the mountain. You could technically roll a stroller to the top of Mount Takao, however the two-year-old, surprise, surprise, was not cooperative. Thus I carried a toddler and a stroller 1.5km up the mountain to the first scenic rest stop.
This is where our second mistake occurred. As soon as my wife and I turned our backs to settle our packs, our four-year-old decided to bolt for it. Within a split second, he disappeared into a throng of people more frenzied than Shinjuku Station on a Friday night. Needless to say, we were panic-stricken. Long-story short, we found him, but lessons were learned that day. Not by our children, mind you.
This year we were again bitten by the Japan fall foliage bug and felt the need to return to Takao. Was it for vindication? No. Our sons are now nearly 5 and 3 and by god we needed to get them out of the house.
This last weekend was slightly rainy, which is the best time to go hiking in Japan. Nobody hits the trails in this country if there is the slightest sprinkle. Also, leaves had started turning, but the hillsides have yet to be covered in the blanket of fiery orange and red leaves Japan’s foliage hunters dream of. So, in a relative sense, we had the mountain to ourselves. The line to the cable car was only 1/16th of a mile long.
This was when we discovered there is a chair lift. See, the normal way to “hike” Mount Takao is to take the cable car. These crowded, suffocating refrigerator boxes jolt up a track at a near vertical position (technically the tilt is 31.18 degrees – the steepest cable car in Japan).
This is the accepted mode of scaling Takao, and during peak foliage season and on New Year’s Day people will wait for hours to ride the cable car, giving no heed to the fact there are quicker ways to reach the top. Since the title of this article says this is a guide, here are alternative ways to ascend Mount Takao besides taking a cable car.
Need a Lift?
First is the chair lift. This is essentially a ski lift, without any safety protocol. Just you sitting in a chair with your body bits dangling over the edge, no safety bar or even much of a handle bar to hold on to. The chair lift costs the same as the cable car (¥490 for adults one-way and ¥950 round-trip). The cable car takes 6 minutes. The chair lift takes 12 minutes and you don’t have to get up close and personal with Hideki from Kawasaki.
I had the two-year-old next to me during our chair lift ride, with strict instructions not to let go of him. Did I leave fingerprints on his wrist? Yes. But our feet were never more than a meter or so above the ground, or safety nets stretched across larger crevasses. It was a peaceful ride until a photographer perched on the side of the hill like a hunter behind a duck blind snapped a souvenir photo.
We reached the top with no lifelong-traumatic events occurring so it was another day of parenting well-done. The landing at Sanjo Station brings you to Takao-san’s commercial center. There are gift shops, soba stands, a beer garden, an observatory, a monkey park and somewhere down the trail Yakuo-in, the ancient, sacred Buddhist temple. There are women in high heels pushing their itty-bitty Pomeranians in strollers, little kids in flip flops and a group of pensioners sitting around a picnic table downing wooden cups of sake.
This is not most people’s idea of hiking, but hey, whose to argue with nature. From here, trails 1, 3 and 4 take you to the summit of Mount Takao (599m). Trail 2 is a scenic loop, while trail 5 is another loop around the summit. Let’s talk about trail 6.
The Pretty Route
Before we had kids, this is how we hiked Takao. One important note, during fall foliage season trail 6 – also called the Biwa Waterfall Trail – is a one-way route (ascending only). This 3.5km trail takes about 90 minutes one-way for average hikers (three hours round trip). To reach the trailhead, head to the Kiyotaki Station and go past the station, keeping left. You will follow the road, which starts following a cascading stream, and soon enough you are on a mountain trail.
This is a great beginner’s trail. It’s short and not too strenuous, but offers enough challenges such as crossing the stream on stepping stones, verdant scenery, the trail’s namesake waterfall, cool little shrines, signs of wildlife and a steeper last stretch to the summit.
As for the descent, the Inariyama Trail is a 3.3km hike that is essentially a stairway. Where there are no stairs, steps have been fashioned out of dirt and tree roots. A challenge to climb, this steep trail is a quick way down, and follows the mountain ridge, offering views of Lake Sagami below.
The Long Way
For those looking for even more of a challenge, from Takao Station walk over to bus stop 1 and take the bus bound for Jinba Kogen Shita to its last stop (about 35 minutes). Here you will find the trailhead to Mount Jinba. This 857m mountain offers little else other than the fact it is not Mount Takao. There is no cable car and thus there are no people.
The 5km hike to the top of the Mount Jinba is relatively easy, following switchbacks through the forest and takes about 90 minutes. Jinba translates roughly as “horse camp” and so a tall white horse statue serves as the marker for the summit. There is also a noodle restaurant serving hot udon and soba.
From there you can take a relatively flat trail that follows the ridgeline for 17km to Mount Takao, again offering views of Lake Sagami below. This is not a strenuous hike, but it is long and can take up to three hours. This is a great practice route for trail runners and you will see them whizzing by along the way.
No matter what trail you take to Mount Takao, they all lead to the beer garden. Just keep an eye out for lost children.
Feature image: slyellow | Shutterstock.com