Day trips from Tokyo – Mitakesan

It is always easier to do something else than something, and that is particularly true when the something involves a long overdue tidying of the mound of paper that has accumulated on the desk – which makes this a good time to go back to the trip to Mitakesan a couple of days ago.

I had heard about the shrine on Mt. Mitake on my first trip to Tokyo in 2004 when one of the Japanese colleagues I was working with heard I liked to hike and suggested it as a good local destination. Through a comedy of errors I made it out to the general area and had a very good hike to a temple on the side of a mountain on a day off, but found out later that it wasn’t the one I was aiming for.

Mitakesan is not that hard to get to; if you are lucky you can catch one of the trains that goes all the way from Tokyo station to the station at the base of the mountain, otherwise it may require a transfer in Tachikawa or Ome. The problem is that it is popular, and as someone who goes hiking to enjoy time in natural surroundings I tend to avoid crowded trails if there are less crowded routes nearby. Fortunately my day off ended up being aligned with the last working day prior to the start of Japan’s national year-end holiday, so it was one of the few quiet days that provided an ideal chance to experience Mitakesan without crowds.

Though the days are slowly getting longer now, it still gets dark in the mountains west of Tokyo fairly early so the day started with a 7 AM train ride in order to get on the trail with enough light in the day to get a decent hike in before dark. Once off the train at Mitake station, I briefly considered taking the mechanized route to the top (a bus from the station to a cable car, then the cable car to near the top) but the way up is a big part of the hike, so I followed the road (and the bus route) for about a mile to the turnoff for the cable car parking area and then found myself heading up a moderately steep and narrow road for about another mile until I reached the parking area.

I was expecting the road to stop and turn into a trail, but instead it simply got narrower and steeper and soon it was clear that this “trail” was actually an access road for getting supplies up the mountain. Although it was pleasantly located in the woods and the uniform paved surface made for relatively easy walking, it was essentially like walking on a sidewalk. That said, the elevation change involved makes it one steep sidewalk… There were a few locations where the path came close enough to the cable car line for those so inclined to take pictures, but otherwise the views on the way up were simply of the forested hillside.

The trail ends more or less at the cable car station on a saddle between Mt. Mitake and the next peak on the ridge. A short walk further on leads to the Mt. Mitake visitor center, which was closed on the day I visited. Beyond that there is a small village with a youth hostel and a sweeping view down the valley into the outskirts of Tokyo. Several other trails also converge here leading deeper into the mountains for those so inclined. This may well account for some of Mitakesan’s popularity as it is one of the few places near Tokyo where you can essentially ride to the top of a ridge and then choose any of a number of further hikes to go down by. The main path leads into a narrow street at the base of the shrine lined with restaurants and souvenir stands and then up a short final climb to the shrine itself.

I am always impressed to come across culturally significant structures on a mountaintop, and more so when they are places of belief that served no direct security or economic purpose. Granted, the details may not be quite as nice, but in the back of my head I want to believe that the laborer who carried stones and materials up the mountain did so out of devotion to a belief and not simply because it was the best job at the time or a feudal mandate.

Once finished viewing the shrine, I returned to the base path and went a little further away from the village to a short path leading along a tongue of land to a viewpoint at the end. This area was well supplied with tables and benches, which I made use of for a lunch stop with a view while I looked at my options for returning. Based on the amount of daylight left, I opted to take a medium length return option that followed a side ridge for a bit and then gently cut down the flank of a mountain back to the valley and another train station.

The return trip was everything the way up had not been. There were several views of the shrine during the section along the ridge, and the descent through stands of hardwood and cedar had enough dried leaves and tree roots to require paying attention to where you stepped. It was in one of the transitions between hardwood and cedar stands that I found the needle ice pushing out of the ground.

All in all a good day

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