Mt. Hiei (Wikipedia) is the second highest mountain in Kyoto, at 848 meters (2,782 feet), and just a short distance northeast of downtown. It is more than just a pretty mountain though. There’s a famous temple complex at the top, Enryakuji Temple.
The mountain can be hiked (see below) or you can take a cable car to the top, experiencing a nice view on the way. There’s a large garden complex and restaurant at the top, which makes for a nice day out with friends or as a date.
Mount Hiei Hike
Mount Hiei is a beautiful hike, and features wildlife (deer, monkeys, tanuki, boar, brilliantly coloured beetles, lizards, birds, etc.), great foliage, and wonderful views of the city below. There are multiple routes up to the top. Up from Shugakuin Station, over the top and down to the station on the other side of the mountain takes about 5 hours. Using the cable car on the way down, if tired, will save time.
Getting to the trailhead means following a concrete-sided stream for a ways from town. Take a quick detour by going past the trailhead, following the stream up to a nice manmade waterfall, then up to the top of the falls another, natural waterfall. (There’s another trail past this waterfall, but us at WE have yet to explore it.) After enjoying the detour, return to the trailhead and resume course up Hiei.
From Demachiyanagi Station, ride the Eizan Railways train four stops to Shugakuin Station. From there, it is a 10 – 15 minute walk to the trailhead.
Leave Shugakuin Station and turn right, crossing the tracks. Walk up the road to a T intersection and turn left. Walk until you reach a concrete-sided stream. Turn right and follow the stream uphill towards the mountains. Walk up the stream until you reach a bridge and dam. Turn left and cross the bridge. About 30m up the trail are some fences and the trailhead. It’s easy to miss because you’ll be leaving the asphalt path. The asphalt path is actually a detour.
Optional Detour: Take a quick adventure by going past the trailhead, following the concrete path along the stream up to a nice manmade waterfall, then up to the top of the falls another, natural waterfall. (There’s another trail past this waterfall, but us at WE have yet to explore it.) WATCH FOR FROGS. There are many tiny amphibians all over the stream above the falls. They’re easy to step on and that’s just not nice. After enjoying the detour, return to the trailhead and resume course up Hiei.
Gallery of the Detour:
Main Trailhead Marker:
The walk up Hiei is a good, solid hike with some good climbs. The trail is a runoff valley. At one point you have the option of continuing the runoff trail, or taking a ridge line that follows alongside. Don’t worry, both end up at the same place later.
At the top of the trail is the cable car. Next to it is the Garden Museum. You can go around the large garden complex and continue down to Enryakuji Temple, a sprawling complex.
Going Down: There are 3 main options.
- Cable Cars, either down to the Shiga side of the mountain (Sakamoto Cable), or walk back up to the first cable car (Hiei Cable) you came to and return to the Hyogo side from whence you originally came.
- The long trail goes through more temple complex and down another side mountain before reaching the stations on Lake Biwa.
- The short trail starts next to a hotel at the edge of the main Enryakuji complex. It heads almost straight down the mountain to the Sakamoto Entrance.
On the Shiga/Lake Biwa side, walk straight down the street, past Keihan Sakamoto Station and go to JR Hieizan-Sakamoto Station. This will go directly to Kyoto Station.
Garden Museum Hiei
Lovely garden with many flowers, great view, little restaurant. Perfect for dates.
It’s not the prettiest temple, but it’s a large, sprawling complex worth checking out.
A UNESCO World Heritage site founded in 788 C.E., Enryakuji sits at the top of the mountain. Several centuries ago, Enryakuji was home to the so-called warrior monks, who fought running battles with and terrorized city residents for many years until the shogun Oda Nobunaga crushed them and burned their temple to the ground in 1571. (There are a LOT of signs warning people not to start fires. Perhaps the monks are still a little wary after the tragedy?)
The mountain is said to be home to many demons. Cool!
Today, in addition to its natural beauty and World Heritage status, Enryakuji is known for its “marathon monks.” These are monks in training who run progressively more marathons on the mountain over a seven year period. Most never come close to completing the grueling training. The few that do are feted by the city.
The temple was subject to a large scandal in 2006 when it was discovered to have direct ties to Japan’s largest Yakuza crime organization, the Yamaguchi-gumi. At the time they held large ceremonies for Yakuza members and accepted gangster money.
At Konpon Chudo, the main hall of the temple, there is the Inextinguishable Dharma Light. The flame has been burning for some 1200 years, and there is always a monk by it, tending to it, to keep it alight while chanting the sutra.
Enryakuji Gallery – see more
The museum holds the cultural treasures of Enryaku-ji temple, a 1200-year-old World Heritage Site . There are a large number of Buddhist statues, paintings and documents, writings by the founder, and other cultural assets. The museum was opened in 1992 to preserve these treasures and inform visitors about the long history of Mt. Hiei. The exhibits on the first and second floors include National Treasures and are periodically refreshed with selected works from the temple’s large collection. The name Kokuhoden (national treasure museum) comes from a famous sentence written by Dengyo Daishi (Saicho), the founder of Enryaku-ji temple and the Tendai sect of Buddhism: “Ichigu wo terasu” brighten the world at your corner is itself a national treasure.
The preeminent treasure in the museum is the set of statues of the Five Great Wisdom Kings. The installation of these statues in the Wisdom Kings Hall of the Mudo-ji temple by the priest Soo a thousand years ago established the seat of practice and training for the Tendai sect of Buddhism. As a grounding for the teachings of the Great Wisdom Kings, the statues are recognized as the foremost and most miraculous images in the temples of Mt. Hiei.
- Address: 4220 Sakamoto-honmachi, Otsu, Shiga
Hiei Hike 😍
Excellent length, a good 4-5 hours up and down with some cool detours and views. Easily extend the day by visiting the garden or temple. This makes it perfect for an athletic date or group activity. There’s wildlife, waterfalls, and lots of trees with some amazing variations. Unlike many hiking trails, you can spend most of your time in runoff channels shaped like Vs, giving it a very different feel.
Garden Museum Hiei 😀
Nice view and plenty of cute flowers.
Eryakuji Temple 😐
Not all buildings are the most beautiful of temples, but this place gets bonus points for having so many buildings and being spread over the mountain.
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