Japan has many great mountains, but one of the best for a heavy dose of Japanese culture is Mt. Takao. Not only is the climb good for beginners, but it’s home to a Buddhist temple, many Shinto shrines, a monkey hovel, and beer garden. And in Japan, roommates like those get along just fine.
There are several trails, and we decided on the Inari (Fox) trail, which passes a shrine dedicated to a white fox spirit. In ancient Japanese folktales, foxes were tricksters and at times even malevolent demons that possessed innocent victims. Until the very late 1800’s Japanese newspapers were peppered with stories of fox possessions. There was even one case of a woman beaten and left in a field to drive out an evil fox spirit. Like the shrine in Takao, however, some foxes were servants of the fox spirit from which the many-gated Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto gets its name. Thus, there were two forms of fox possession. One led to madness, and the other was a divine gift from the Fushimi Inari. Those lucky enough to be possessed by a divine fox were considered prophets. The unlucky got confined to rooms with padded walls.
Neither I, nor anyone else at Takao, were possessed by foxes, good or evil.
The Inari trail is easy enough to be a disappointment if you come looking for a tough climb though. Takao is just an enjoyable hike with pleasant scenery. It’s no Mt. Fuji, which, by the way, actually isn’t so horribly difficult.
Depending on which trail you take you might hit the monkey park. Japanese monkeys, the Japanese Macaque, don’t look like curious George. They are red-faced and red-butted with silver hair. Societies are matrilineal, with females ranking higher than their often temporary male partners. I’d been to a monkey park before, so I refrained from the one in Takao. Instead, I made it a point to see the Yakuoin temple that enshrines the Medicine Buddha, Yakushi Nyorai.
Although most forms of Buddhism hold him as minor, he was one of the first Buddhas imported from China to Japan. Thus, older forms of Japanese Buddhism like Shingon, which is the Takao temple’s sect, treat him as an major deity. He is believed to be the master of the Lapis Lazuli Buddhist paradise as well as play an active role in this world by curing diseases. Suffers will often rub his statue on the area of their affliction.
There are also smaller shrines dedicated to the tengu, occasional messengers of the Shinto gods who apparently also do some work for Nyorai. Buddhism and Shinto often mix in Japan, and this is one of many places you can see them side-by-side. Tengu were often portrayed as malevolent tricksters, but some folklore has them converting or at least serving Buddhist deities, such as in the case at Mt. Takao. Tengu are known for their long noses, though you’ll see many with flat beak-like ones. These are a kind of tengu-in-training, not full-fledged yet.
And on the way up you might pass the Beer Mount. What better medicine, right? Beer Mount is an all you can eat and drink buffet for 3,500 yen, as long as you only eat and drink for just two hours. After that it stops being 3,500 yen and starts costing 500 yen every thirty minutes. If you’re tired after you hike, it might be a good place to drop by. Just keep in mind that beer isn’t going to hydrate you any.
Or if it’s too early for drinking you can try one of the many shops at the summit. Don’t expect anything better than carnival food up there though. We chose the least carnie-looking one, which turned out to have some good tanuki udon, a type of noodle soup heavy on vegetables.
After your descent you can stop by the trick art museum near the station if you still have some energy. But that’s another post.