In 2018, I met up with my Dutch friend and Japanese restauranteur Anja in Kamakura and Kyoto, so when she told me she would be available in October 2019, I made plans to go to Mt Takao and Fujinomiya together. We were joined by Dutch cookbook author and Japanese fermentation / pickling expert Peter van Berckel.
Despite living here almost 4 years, I had never visited Takaosan and enlisted the help of Keio Railways and TENGU English volunteer guides to make sure my friends had the best experience possible on Takaosan. My friends at Keio helped make bookings for Japanese shojin ryori at Yakuo-in, the historic Shingon temple famous for its fire festival.
We met our volunteer guides Shin, Tack, and Nabe at Takaosanguchi station at 08:30 and set out for the brief walk to the cable car station, meeting new friends along the way. Numerous Japanese of all ages strode past us with hiking poles and gear (Takao-san features a number of different trails to get to the top; Trail 1 is paved and wheelchair-accessible, but other trails like Trail 6 pose much more of a hiking adventure).
Our volunteer guides:
The cable car has the steepest incline in Japan, and it was quite a thrilling ride to the top! The view was spectacular from the cable car station observation decks.
It was refreshing to breathe in the clean, crisp air so unlike Yokohama or Tokyo.
On our hike, our guides told us about the variety of unique flora and fauna found on Mt Takao, legends, stories, and more. The Tengu statues that you see all over the mountain represent mythical Japanese supernatural beings / Shinto gods that are said to possess magical powers. There are two varieties: Daitengu, and Kotengu ("Lesser tengu"). Tengu are not unique to Mt Takao (you will find them at shrines and temples across Japan, including Kyoto and Daiyuuzan), but they are certainly very prominent here.
We explored Yakuo-in together before our guides dropped us off for an exquisite lunch.
Giant shoes worn by the tengu
I have eaten (and written about) shojin ryori around Japan, and this was some of the most creative and gorgeous presentation I’ve seen in a decade. We opted for the more expensive shojin lunch, and the beautifully plated dishes included mock liver, sashimi, meatballs, and ham, all completely vegan and all delicious!
The highlight was when one of the temple's priests (who is VERY well-traveled and multilingual!) came and interacted with our group on a very personal level, giving us a private tour of Yakuo-in and an amazing insider’s look at the fire ritual. (His father and grandfather were both priests at Yakuo-in and he is now a head priest at his family’s temple as well). The air crackled with a spiritual, mystical energy in his presence.
We also met one of the representatives from Keio Railways who welcomed us before we took the hair-raising Eco-Lift back down to Takaosanguchi; I have never ridden in a ski lift, but I had at the very least expected a bar or belt for safety. Nope!! It is you and a very open bench as you sway and stare down hundreds of feet to the valley floor (I had my doubts that the netting below would actually catch anyone in the event of a fall…) Thrilling in a sort of “my life is in my hands” sort of way…. We had a good laugh about it after.
We also stopped into the Takao 599 Museum, which is free and has done a tremendous job at promoting local flora and fauna for visitors through hands-on exhibits, dioramas, and taxidermy animals. There are also exhibits (in Japanese) about various hardwoods and crafts. The café and gift shop were very well thought out as well.
Takaosan is home to giant flying squirrels!
Next, we headed out on the bullet train for Fujinomiya. After checking in to our hotel, we headed down the street to a friendly Izakaya, where we conveniently met a Swedish woman living in Fujinomiya who translated for us. Perched in a cozy back booth surrounded by locals, my friends had beautiful sashimi and I snacked on various vegetables and salads (of course topped off with Japanese beer and whiskey…)
It was a very memorable and fun day with new and old friends!