Mt. Hiei 比叡山
A holy mountain retreat that a sect of fearless warrior monks once called home
The latter was enough of a threat that shogun Oda Nobunaga decided to obliterate them and their temple in the late 16th century. The sect survived, however, and the temple structures you see today were built at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries.
If you're feeling adventurous, you may want to hike on Mt. Hiei's paths and get some idea of the terrain and wildlife the monks encountered. Others can choose the cable cars up to the summit.
- The breathtaking views of Kyoto and Lake Biwa
- Enryakuji Temple—home of the marathon monks
- Take a ride on the Eizan and Sakamoto cable cars
How to Get There
On the border of Kyoto Prefecture and Shiga Prefecture, Mt. Hiei can be scaled from either side.
Sitting on the east is Kyoto and the west is Shiga. For the eastern side, take the Keihan railway to Demachiyanagi. Transfer to an Eizan train to Yase-Hieizan-guchi, where you can take the Eizan Cable Car to the peak.
For the western side, take the JR Kosei line to Hiezan-Sakamoto Station. It's a short walk to the Sakamoto cable car, as well as the trail to hike up the mountain. It is also possible to reach Mt. Hiei's peak by car, and there are direct buses to the top from Kyoto outside of the winter months.
Taking the cable cars up the mountainside
Since Mt. Hiei's treasures are somewhat spread out, plan to take some time and use the Eizan and Sakamoto cable cars to explore. The Eizan connects with a ropeway at the top to head even higher. Sakamoto is Japan's longest funicular—a cable-car railway hybrid that scales the mountain.
Keep in mind that two different companies run the cable cars, so don't buy a round-trip ticket if you plan to go up on one and down on the other. The Sakamoto cable car runs year-round, but the Eizan cable car does not operate in winter.
One of the most spiritual spots in all of Kyoto
Just on the border of Kyoto and Shiga Prefecture, Mt. Hiei has long been considered the home of Shinto gods and demons. These days, however, you're more likely to see gardens, temples and shrines, and hiking trails.
Explore the history of Enryakuji
The most significant of Mt. Hiei's temples is Enryakuji , where the Tendai sect of Buddhism was founded in 788. The templshu monk sect use extreme physical exertion and abstaining from food, water and sleep for up to nine days to reach the path of enlightenment.
The super monks of Mt. Hiei
These Tendaishu monks—known as gyoja—are some of Japan's most fascinating spiritual figures. Also known as "marathon monks," they have to acquire special permission to engage in some of the most rigorous religious and athletic challenges on the planet.
They set out to complete a 1,000-day test, called kaihogyo, of their endurance, perseverance, and both physical and mental strength. Over a seven-year training period, the monks would make a pilgrimage to over 250 sites on Mt. Hiei, at the end running up to 84 kilometers for 100 consecutive days. Once the challenge was completed, a monk would have traveled far enough to circle the entire globe. Many monks have perished during their quest for enlightenment.
Hiking around the mountain
One of the most popular trails up Mt. Hiei to Enryakuji starts near Shugaku-in Station, and takes you through an imposing forest of cedars. Wear good hiking footwear for the course, which is unpaved and quite steep in places. Another approach is from the town of Sakamoto.
A trail called Yokawa offers an easier descent, following a small river down the mountain. Along the way you may come across black bears, tanuki (raccoon dogs), wild boar and macaque monkeys, so experienced hikers recommend wearing a bear bell.
Artifacts and treasures
If you have an entire day, visit the Kokuhoden Museum located in the Eastern Pagoda area, which exhibits National Treasures that include the set of statues of the Five Great Wisdom Kings as well as countless Buddhist statues, paintings and documents related to the Tendai sect. Entry is included in the 1,000 yen set pass that gives you access to the area's temples.