Mount Hiei (Hieizan, 比叡山) is Kyoto’s most famous, most sacred, and second tallest, mountain; Mt Atago (愛宕山) on the far side of the valley is slightly the taller. Local legend tells the reason for this; the two were once of equal stature, but then they became embroiled in a contest for the affections of one of the fair maiden river spirits in the valley between them. This led to a fight during which Hiei gave Atago an almighty smack on the head; the resulting swelling can still be clearly seen in the form of the prominent bump on Atago’s summit, with Atago clocking in at 924m to Hiei’s 848m (though I’m still not sure who actually won the fight)
These days, Hiei and Atago are the twin guardians of Kyoto; Atago protects the city from fire while Hiei has the role of key protector, standing as it does at the northeastern corner of the valley. According to Chinese geomancy (Feng Shui), the northeast is the direction from which harmful spirits approach; having a large mountain there to block them gives the valley good energy, and this was one of the main reasons for Emperor Kanmu’s decision to establish his capital here in the 8th century (having surveyed the terrain from Shogunzuka). At the same time, he founded Enryaku-ji temple on Mt Hiei’s summit – in a city with rather more than its fair share of temples, this is perhaps the most culturally significant and historically important of the lot (although to be precise, it is in fact just across the prefectural boundary in neighbouring Otsu, Shiga, and not in Kyoto).
Enryaku-ji is one of the seventeen temples and shrines that together constitute the UNESCO World Heritage listing of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities)“, and was the home temple of the great warrior monk Benkei – a veritable beast of a man who died standing upright stuck full of arrows and who once stole the enormous bell from Miidera temple (at the bottom of the mountain) and dragged it to the top, singlehanded, and made it cry before kicking it back down again (it still bears the scratches). These warrior monks were greatly feared for centuries, and used to launch raids on the city from their mountaintop home (so much for Mt Hiei protecting Kyoto!) – this lasted until the temple’s wholesale destruction in the 1500s at the hands of the great warlord Oda Nobunaga as he unified Japan for the first time. The temple was rebuilt in the 1600s (which is when most of the present buildings date from) and remains one of Japan’s most important religious sites.
Anyway, aside from all the cultural significance, Mt Hiei is also simply a nice place for a hike through the forest! There are several Mt Hiei hiking trails, with the ‘main’ one being part of the Kyoto Isshu Trail; should you be doing the Isshu Trail, you’ll ascend Mt Hiei at the end of the Higashiyama course, and then descend from Mt Hiei to Ohara (大原) at the start of the Kitayama Toubu course. Even if you’re not doing the Isshu trail and just want to climb Mt Hiei in its own right, I’d recommend following the Isshu route by starting from the Silver Temple / Philosopher’s Path area and ending in Ohara (from where you can catch a bus back to Kyoto proper).
Alternatively, you can hike up and then descend using the cable car & ropeway (Eizan Cable, 叡山ケーブル, and Eizan Ropeway, 叡山ロープウェイ, connecting to the Eizan railway) if you’re feeling lazy – or, perhaps, if you made a bit of a late start after a few too many karaoke beers. That was in fact how I first climbed Mt Hiei – hungover after a rather long night out but not wanting to completely waste the day, I dragged myself out of bed at lunchtime, had breakfast, and headed out to the station. I didn’t get hiking until about 2pm, and reached the top in time for some nice sunset views but not in time to hike back down; the cable car took care of that, and the hike took care of the hangover!
There’s also a cable car down the other side of the mountain (Sakamoto Cable, 坂本ケーブル) to Otsu city in Shiga prefecture, so another good itinerary would be to hike up the Kyoto side, visit Enryaku-ji temple at the top, and then take the Sakamoto cable car down from there. Once at the bottom head to Sakamoto station (Keihan line) or Hieizan-Sakamoto station (a longer walk but necessary if you want to stick to JR lines) for a train back to Kyoto. Just be careful as the cable cars stop around 5 or 6pm (depending on the season) – don’t get yourself stranded as I once did.
To climb Mt Hiei, start from Kyoto Isshu Trail Higashiyama course trail board 52-1, located at the corner of Shirakawa-dori (白川通) and Imadegawa-dori (今出川通) streets. This intersection’s also near the northern end of the Philosopher’s Path (Tetsugakunomichi, 哲学の道), so you could start off by walking along that first and perhaps also visiting the Silver Temple (Ginkaku-ji, 銀閣寺). Allow at least an extra hour if you want to include Tetsugakunomichi and Ginkakuji.
From trail board 52-1, follow the Kyoto Isshu Trail through the residential district to the start of the forest trail, and all the way up to board number 74 at the upper cable car station.
It’s a good idea to get a copy of the official Kyoto Isshu Trail map for the Higashiyama course or Kitayama Toubu course (both cover Mt Hiei, but only the latter includes the Ohara side); for full details of the Higashiyama course click here, and for where to buy the maps click here.
Views on the way up:
From the cable car station you can have a look around at the top of the mountain before heading down on the cable car, visit Enryaku-ji before heading down the Sakamoto cable car, or you can continue following the Isshu trail all the way to Ohara. You can find trail board 1 of the Kitayama Toubu course (rather than the Higashiyama course you just came up) on the wall in the cable car station. From there, following the trail takes you past a weird old abandoned ski area towards Enryaku-ji.
If you take a detour up the path next to the ski slope, you’ll come to an observatory at the upper ropeway station (the short Eizan ropeway connects the upper cable car station to the top of the mountain). There’s some sort of garden museum there and a large car park – while I did find it a little jarring after walking for a couple of hours through a peaceful forest only to emerge at the top into this expanse of concrete, cars, bus stops, and vending machines, the car park does at least allow for some great views of the city (the true summit of the mountain is the slightly higher peak just behind the car park, although the summit itself is covered in some sort of concrete structure and communications mast arrangement, and surrounded by trees which block the view).
Looking over Kyoto from the car park near the summit:
Continuing on along the trail from the ski slope, you’re walking in the direction of Enryaku-ji. When you reach trail board number 6, the trail goes left across the footbridge over the road and down the steps past a sub-temple and on along the ridge, eventually descending to Ohara. Again, if you intend to descend to Ohara it’s a good idea to get the official Kyoto Isshu Trail map for the Kitayama Toubu course (click here for where to buy it); for full details of the Kitayama Toubu course see here.
If you go straight on past the footbridge, you’ll arrive at the back entrance to Enryaku-ji ten minutes down the path; there’s a small ticket office there where you’ll be expected to pay 500 yen for entry. After checking the temple out (it consists of a number of large buildings spread over quite a big area, so allow plenty of time) you can then either double back to trail board 6, cross the bridge, and continue hiking down to Ohara (you’ll need around four hours from Enrayku-ji… if you don’t have time, you could of course double back to the Eizan cable car and head down to Kyoto that way), or you can go out of the temple’s front entrance and take the Sakamoto cable car down to Shiga. There are also hiking trails on the Shiga side of Mt Hiei, which are also marked on the Kyoto Trail maps – but I’m afraid that while I did once hike up (part of) one of them, I’m not able to give any good directions as it was completely unplanned and I wasn’t paying much attention to where I was going, and ended up stranding myself at the top from where I was luckily able to hitch a ride down with a monk’s visiting relatives (and dog!)… but anyway, get hold of the map!
For the full hike from Isshu trail board 52-1, up Mt Hiei, and down to Ohara, you should allow around eight hours – adjusting accordingly if you want to have time to look around at the top of Hiei and / or visit Enryaku-ji. If you’re just going to climb up and then look around at the top before taking the cable car down, you’ll need around three hours for the climb plus however long you want to spend at the top – I’d suggest at least two hours if you want to check out everything up there including Enryaku-ji. Bear in mind the cable cars stop running some time between five and six.
While you can get away with just using the Isshu trail boards and Google maps as navigational aids, the small maps on the trail boards aren’t detailed or accurate and don’t give any indication of estimated walking times between posts. For that reason, it’s probably a good idea to get your hands on the Kyoto Isshu Trail Higashiyama Course map or the Kyoto Isshu Trail Kitayama Toubu Course map (the latter if you’re going to descend to Ohara) as these maps are detailed and accurate and specifically show the trail board locations. They’re available at Maruzen, a large bookstore in central Kyoto located in the Kyoto BAL building on Kawaramachi-dori (河原町通) between Sanjo-dori (三条通) and Shijo-dori (四条通), see here.
For the record, I’ve never actually done the hike from the Silver Temple to Ohara in one go. The first time I climbed Mt Hiei, I started too late (hungover) and had to take the Eizan cable car down; the second time, I climbed it by accident starting from my apartment in Keage and going via Daimonjiyama and then (illegally) walking partway up the toll-road before ending up ascending on the path up the Shiga side, looking around Enryaku-ji after it had closed and then finally having to hitch down the mountain; and the last time I visited Kyoto, I took the Sakamoto cable car up, blagged my way through Enryaku-ji without paying (or visiting any of its buildings), and then did the walk down to Ohara (this was one of the missing links I needed to do in order to have walked the entire Kyoto Isshu Trail). After all that, I’m pretty sure the best Mt Hiei hiking route is to follow the Kyoto Isshu Trail from trail board 52-1 to Ohara as described!
Have you climbed Mt Hiei, or do you have any questions? Leave a comment below!
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