Toward the end of last year, I was fortunate enough to travel to Tokyo for just over a week for work. It was a stressful, wonderful experience … and as I was pretty much on an independent shooting schedule from the rest of the crews, I had plenty of time to explore the city after I was done filming for the day.

And, of course, I also managed to sneak in some hiking trips on our ‘down days.’ This is a short hike I did on one of those days. I’ll post a few more of my more nature-oriented Japanese tales later.

Thursday was a production break for everyone, so we all got the entire day off to ourselves. As I’d spent the last week in one of the world’s largest and most densely populated urban areas, I needed some recharge time with a sylvan change of scenery. After deciding that Mount Fuji, while definitely on the list of Things You Must Do During Your Life, was probably more of a pain-in-the-ass than actually enjoyable, we instead opted for Takao-san – a smaller, more forested mountain closer to Tokyo.

Chris – another show writer – and I laced up and stepped out, proceeding to enjoy something I will never, ever get to do in Los Angeles – taking the train to a trailhead.

Literally, we boarded the subway right across the street from our hotel and got off at the foot of the mountain. How awesome is that?

The subway train became an above-ground line shortly after we boarded, so we got to see the clear and present transition from Big City Tokyo to smaller city suburb to small town, to straight-up agrarian village. We’re talking single-family houses with city-block sized patches of farms between them.

When the train finally pulled into the station at the end of the line, it might as well have been taking us to a different country altogether. Gone were the neon, the skyscrapers and the crowds and of Tokyo, replaced by a tiny two-street village, straddling a small river and tucked away into a valley surrounded by densely wooded mountains.

In other words, just what I needed.

I’d read about a popular paved trail up the summit of the mountain, which passed several temples and shrines, but was definitely looking for something a bit more … rugged for my hiking needs. Luckily, we managed to find a large and prominent trail map, displayed shortly off the train station. While there was no English at all on the map, I’d read enough topographical charts in my day to figure out what was going on, and which trails looked nicer.

We picked a route that would take us up to the top along a ridge, and back down near a waterfall shrine, and we headed out. Of course, when we got to the trailhead, we saw this:

I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know what it says. But Chris and I both assumed this sign meant that there were monkeys in this forest, and both immediately resolved to see them before we left.

A short three or four minutes into the trail, and we were completely surrounded by green. The contrast was striking, to say the least.

As we rounded a few bends and climbed some surprisingly steep switchbacks, we reached a long flat section of the trail that was literally right on the ridge of one of the mountain’s larger folds. Unlike the ridgeline trail I’d done on Mount San Antonio a few weeks prior, this one was blanketed on both sides by tall, thin conifers, forming a beautiful walkway through the soft, fern-covered ground.

I couldn’t tell you what kind of trees they were, but they felt like very young redwoods. Or at least relatives. The bark was very smooth, a bit flaky-looking, and soft to the touch. Chris was so taken with them that he actually hugged one. Let it be known that the actual Treehugger was not the first to literally hug a tree in Japan. Posterity’s sake.

But I did take this chance to fool around with my new camera’s macro setting.

It was much more humid there than it ever gets in Southern California, so I found myself getting tired a bit faster than I usually do while on the trail. But, after making a few more semi-vertical dashes up the boulder-strewn path, we finally made it to the last stretch before the summit – a straight bamboo staircase that seemed to continue far after we could stop making out its shape.

It is at this point I should mention that the trails in this park, while not crowded, were certainly well traveled. But instead of the twenty-and-thirty somethings I usually see when I’m up in the Angeles National Forest, here the hikers were almost exclusively late-middled aged, with many who looked like they were in their 60s or 70s. And no, this trail was not incredibly difficult, but there were parts that were very steep, and other parts that were very rugged. Certainly nothing I’d ever take my grandparents to and expect them to come out in any decent shape.

But there they were. Grandparents. In full-on hiking gear. Hats, sunglasses, CamelBaks, hiking poles, hefty boots, etc. And they were, rockin’ the trail like nobody’s business. I guess that’s what having a healthy diet, staying out of your car, and having a culture that respects the elderly will do for you. I only hope I’m still hiking when I’m that age. If I’m strapped to a bed in a home, for the love of God, please pull the plug and wheel me into the courtyard.

Blog posts are binding legal statements, right?

Anyway …

After climbing the long and never-ending staircase, we reached the summit of the mountain. Unlike the Californian peaks I like to visit on the weekends, which are barren and desolate unwalled monasteries, this peak was pretty developed. There were three or four small restaurants, some vending machines, and interpretive museums about the wildlife and temples on the mountain. And the whole thing was paved.

Oddly, I didn’t really mind this at all. Clearly, with bamboo staircases, cable cars, and temples, this was never really a wilderness in the same way the semi-impassable San Gabriel Range is. People had been here, living and working, for hundreds of years, if not thousands. I think I was more viewing this hiking experience as an outdoor museum than a full-fledged civilization retreat. And so, seeing a vending machine on the summit wasn’t that big of a problem. Also, I was pretty thirsty, and Pocari Sweat hit the sweet spot.

We still hadn’t seen any large temples yet, so we wanted to continue on and keep exploring. After a few more moments of nature-inspired peacefulness, the air became thick with incense, and we could hear an occasional bell ringing. We turned a corner and came upon a small shrine, attended by several elderly women in full kimonos. They were drinking tea, lighting incense, and appeared to be praying to three statues inside the shrine.

We approached to look inside, but were a bit apprehensive about actually entering. As the only Japanese I spoke was “hello,” “excuse me,” and “thank you,” I didn’t think I could reasonably ask if it was ok for foreigners to enter, let alone a couple of non-practicing Catholics. So we awkwardly stood outside for a few minutes, until one of the women gestured for us to come inside.

I don’t have any pictures of the next few minutes, but what happened was one of – if not the highlight of the entire Tokyo trip. A small group of grandmotherly women, who spoke no English, patiently instructed two Americans, who spoke no Japanese, in a Shinto-Buddhist prayer ritual.

They showed us how to properly light and extinguish incense, where and how to leave the burning incense, how to pray, kneel, ring a gong, and be generally reverent. Also, they gave us cookies.

After letting everything kind of sink in for a minute or two, we continued on the trail, which soon brought us to the top of the mountain’s large temple complex.

The quality, craftsmanship, and just general state of all of the wood and stoneworks was incredible. There is such an amazing level of detail and care, especially in the woodwork around the temple exterior … captured here by my amazing new 7.1x optical zoom lens:

The temple itself appeared to be closed, so we wandered down to a terrace below, where I wanted to more closely examine some of the stone tablets and iron tengu statues. While we were staring at the odd-looking bird-men-warriors of Japanese mythology, a young woman and her mother approached us, apprehensively asking “English?”

Since I was so used to being on the other end of that question, I was a bit confused. Was this person going to ask us for help? Directions? Oh God, please not directions.

After I finally said “yes” (in English), the younger woman told us – in very good English – that the temple we were looking at was usually off-limits, but we happened to be hiking there on the one day a month the inner temple is open to the public. Good fortune had smiled upon two befuddled American tourist-hikers that day. The ladies then took us back up to the temple, showed us how to go through the temple, and waited for us to get out.

Inside, the scene was incredibly austere. A silent monk guided us through a carpeted area to the main altar, which was surrounded by candles and incense. He then received us after they were done praying, and presented us with small bowls of sake to drink … which I guess must be the equivalent of drinking wine at a Catholic ceremony. All religions are down with boozin.’

When we got out, the ladies asked us how we liked it, and invited us to keep hiking with them to some place where you could hold up crackers and have crows take them right from your hands. But Chris and I were still on a mission to see some monkeys, so we thanked them for their tip and bade them farewell.

We also stopped to buy a few boxes of the temple’s incense. I don’t have an incense burner at home — and I also have several roommates who might not be as down with the whole incense thing as I was — but already just smelling the box brings me right back to that temple, and that’s good enough for now.

We kept walking down stairs, which led to more and more of the temple complex. By now, we’d realized that this temple was a lot bigger than we’d thought it would be. We’d also realized that we were probably not going to see any monkeys anytime soon, so instead took a side trail off of the paved temple path that led to a waterfall.

What we didn’t realize was that there would be another small shrine right at the base of the waterfall, and that this would be one of the most peaceful settings in a day full of peaceful settings. We could hear the waterfall from a few hundred feet away. Eventually, we could make out the river below the forest, and finally, we got our first glimpse of the shrine, surrounded by the forest and waterfall’s mist.

Honestly, I’ve seen some pretty incredible cathedrals and churches in my time, but none of them even come close to matching the beauty and peacefulness of this place.

On the way out, across the river from another tiny shrine tucked into a cave in the side of the canyon, a Shinto cleansing shrine was carved into the stone surrounding a pristine mountain spring. After washing my hands and rinsing out my mouth, I drank a bit of the water, too. I know it’s not the safest thing to go about drinking from mountain springs in foreign countries, but hey – when the hell am I ever going to get to do that again?

Sometimes, I do stuff like that.

Lots more pics are up on Flickr. With the fancy new camera. Forgive me for trying to figure out some of the new crazy-complex settings.

Originally hiked on September 21, 2006.

How to Get There:
– The Keio Line from Shinjuku Station will take you to Takaosan-guchi Station, which is literally right at the park’s entrance. It will take you about an hour to get there, depending on whether or not you manage to catch an express train.

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