Mount Takao: Tokyo's other holy mountain

"Mount Fuji is very shy," says our guide, Yuji, when we ask him if – tomorrow – we might see Japan's most revered peak from the centre of Tokyo.

In the past three days, either clouds or poor air quality have obscured our vision of the iconic volcano, which lies roughly 100 kilometres to the west of the Imperial Palace.

However, this morning, fortune seems to favour us.

The weather forecast is for clear skies and we're on the train from the city centre to Mount Takao, Tokyo's other holy mountain.

From Mount Takao's summit, we will not only get a panoramic vista of the whole of Tokyo on the eastern plains below, but – Yuji assures us – we'll also be able to savour one of the classic views of Fuji to the west.

He even shows us a photo of the familiar, snow-capped, triangular cone which he took on his last visit to Mount Takao a few weeks ago. Fuji certainly doesn't seem shy in this shot.

You've probably never heard of the mountain known as Takaosan, in Japanese. Neither had I, and few Western tourists – let alone Australians – visit.

Yet the mountain is to Tokyo what the Blue Mountains are to Sydney or the Dandenongs are to Melbourne – a tranquil, timeless landscape that seems centuries away from the cacophony of an international city, though easily reached on public transport.

We board our suburban train at Shinjuku station, the busiest in Japan. Fortunately, we're heading against the flow, so after a few stations we all score seats, allowing us to observe a fascinating journey through Tokyo's western suburbs, little visited by tourists.

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The youngest member of our party has never travelled outside Australia. She is amazed both at the speed of the train (about 100km/h between stations) and the view it gives us of the tiny suburban houses backing onto the railway line – a total contrast to the vast metropolis we've just left.

Fifty minutes after boarding the train, we arrive at Takaosanguchi station, at the base of Mt Takao.

Having done a little research overnight, I know the following things about Takaosan.

It is home to Yakouin Temple, the third oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo, the site of which dates back to the eighth century. There's also a Shinto shrine, which was a place of pilgrimage for Samurai warriors for generations.

Its climate – on the boundary between Japan's temperate and sub-tropical forests – makes it an Eden of wildlife, trees and plants, which led to creation of the Takao 599 Museum (near Takaosanguchi station), devoted to the mountain's unique ecology.

There's also a hot spring bath house, the Keio Takaosan Onsen Gokurakuyu, next to the railway station, offering a range of traditional gender-segregated treatments.

And, for those who book ahead, the monks of Yakouin Temple have authorised a Y5000-a-head vegetarian Shojin Ryori lunch (similar to that served to generations of novice monks) – served in a tatami-matted hall with proceeds going to the temple.

But, of course, we're mainly here for the view Yuji has already showed us of Fuji. At 599 metres above sea level, the true summit will surely grant us – on this clear, crisp day – a perfect sight of the shy volcano.

We're here in mid-November and the mountainside is awash with red, orange and gold as the Japanese maples and other deciduous trees blaze as if they are alight, turning the mountain into a cauldron of colour.

Mt Takao is one of Tokyo's favourite koyo (autumn colour) spots – the equivalent of spring's more famous cherry blossom season – and it's lucky we're here midweek. From mid September to the beginning of December, weekends at Takaosan are uncomfortably crowded.

Some of the hardier bushwalkers begin their trek from Takaosanguchi station, but the lower part of Mt Takao is by far the steepest. So our group joins the queue for the cablecar, which turns out to be a little adventure of its own, whisking you up to the false summit in six minutes along a track that is inclined at a 32-degree angle.

Pilgrims have been coming to worship at the Yakuoin temple for 1300 years, Yuji explains as we manoeuvre past the tea houses, snack stalls and the monkey park (home to 40 Japanese macaques) that are gathered around the top station of cable railway.

Soon we come to the celebrated Octopus Tree (Tako-Sugi), a giant cedar with eight roots exposed like coils as it clings for dear life to a perilous bank.

The track ahead is both gentle and soulful, lined with giant cedars and stone tablets carrying verses from Japanese poems.

After 20 minutes, we reach the main hall of the temple, guarded by two giant tengu, mischievous Shinto mountain gods.

From the temple we press on upwards to the Shinto shrine, and then onwards another 20 minutes to the summit. Pensioners and primary school students are taking it slowly, but I'm in a rush. See those clouds forming?

Sure enough, by the time I reach the viewing platform a haze has enclosed the western viewing platform. A sign shows exactly where Fuji should be.

"I told you Fuji is shy," Yuji says when he reaches the summit with the rest of our party. "You must come again now you have made the acquaintance."

Sure, it would have been great to have seen Mt Fuji, but you know what? I'm happy to have experienced Mt Takao.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/japan

jnto.org.au

VISIT

Mt Takao, day trip from Tokyo: jnto.org.au/mt-takao-day-trip-from-tokyo

STAY

Keio Plaza Hotel, Tokyo: keioplaza.com

Steve Meacham travelled as a guest of the Keio Plaza Hotel, Tokyo.

FIVE OTHER GREAT TOKYO MOUNTAIN VIEWS

MOUNT MITAKE

Another popular local hiking mountain less than two hours from central Tokyo, with a shrine on the top and a cable car for those too young or old to complete the walk. See: gotokyo.org for all Tokyo mountains

MOUNT KAWANORIYAMA

Allow nine hours to reach the summit – not counting the rail trip to Okutama station, or the 20-minute bus journey to reach the start of the trail.

MOUNT KUMOTORI

Yet another mountain which promises a "magnificent view of Mt Fuji, weather permitting", this is the tallest peak – on the border of the Tokyo prefecture.

MOUNT TAKAMIZU

Actually three mountains in one – known in Japanese as Takamizu-sansan – there's (guess what?) a shrine near the top.

MOUNT FUJI

The best and most reliable view of Fuji, without even leaving Tokyo? Katsushika Hokusai, Japan's greatest artist – who influenced the French Impressionists and western art as a whole – is now honoured in a superb museum showing his famous woodcuts of Mt Fuji (including The Great Wave off Kanagawa). See: hokusai-museum.jp

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