Mt. Mitake in Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park is a green and peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of nearby Tokyo. Only 90 minutes away, it is easily accessible and provides a non touristy cultural experience as you hike with the locals past shrines, waterfalls and a natural moss covered rock garden.
As I sat on the train, and the bus and then the cable car to get to the start of our hike on Mt. Mitake, I realized this would not be a typical day trip experience from Tokyo. My husband and I were the only non-Japanese present and many of those around us were dressed in full hiking gear – hiking boots, hiking sticks, wide brimmed hats, and back packs. I felt woefully unprepared with only my walking shoes, and camera. But since it was August, and the peak of the heat and humidity in Japan, we did remember to pack bottles of water in my day pack.
This was our first trip to Japan in the summer of 2015 and we were being shown around the area for the weekend by one of my husband’s business associates. His friend liked to hike and when he found out that we did also, he happily offered to show us Mt. Mitakesan which is not on the usual Tokyo day trip tourist route. Our guide offered us the option to hike the one hour to the top rather than take the cable car, but since it was only our second day in the country, we did not think our jet legged bodies would do well with that, especially in the 95 degree heat. Besides, why work so hard when there is a cable car that can whisk you to nearly the top in 6 minutes?
The Musashi-Mitake Shrine
As we started our hike, I learned that Mt. Mitake is not just a destination for nature lovers, but also an important spiritual destination. This became evident as we passed under a large torii gate not far from the cable car station, indicating that we were entering sacred grounds. The path leads through Mitake village and up to the summit. On the top of the mountain is the Musashi-Mitake Shrine, which is said to have been established over 2000 years ago, around 91 BC.
Walking up the main street of Mitake village from the cable car station, we passed many Shukubu, or hospice buildings that provide accommodations to pilgrims coming to visit the shrine. The village also offers traditional Japanese Ryokan and Onsen accommodations for visitors, which I think would be an interesting experience in such a scenic location. We also passed some restaurants and of course, gift shops. And little side shrines with stone Buddhas looking on.
On the climb up the many stairs to the shrine, we also learned the story of why the wolf is the symbol and protector for the Musashi-Mitake shrine. The legend tells of a warrior prince who got lost in the woods here after killing a deer that he believed to be an evil spirit. A white wolf appeared and saved the prince. The prince believed the wolf to be the incarnation of a good spirit, and told him to always stay in the area and protect it.
The steps to the shrine kept climbing up and up and up. Whimsical benches along the way provided opportunities for a brief rest.
Eventually the stairs took us to the summit with its main shrine and sub shrines, and expansive views toward Tokyo and other surrounding mountains.
I especially liked exploring the smaller and peaceful side shrines and side buildings, some of which also had very colorful details and intricate carvings.
Part of the complex is a museum that holds many national treasures such as swords, armor and documents from centuries past. And the local sake for the shrine’s festivals.
Living wolves are gone from Japan, but as the protector of the mountain, wolf statues were abundant.
The Rock Garden
From the shrine we continued our hike through the undeveloped portions of the national park. We walked through a forest of cedar trees that were tall and straight as arrows till we reached the area called the Rock Garden.
In Kyoto I saw Japanese gardens that were all moss with rocks artfully placed to achieve the greatest aesthetic impact. Here in the natural environment, mother nature placed the rocks every which way, and over time covered them in thick sheets of moss, with a creek adding sound and moisture to the scene. This scenery, though wild and without order, was no less beautiful than the perfect, planned gardens that it undoubtedly inspired.
We followed the creek upstream, watching it tumble over and through rocks covered with living blankets in shades of deep green. Eventually, we reached Ayahiro waterfall, a cute little waterfall in a peaceful setting. But unlike other waterfalls I have seen, this one is approached by going under another tori gate.
From the Rock Garden, we had the option to continue the hike for another hour to the top of Mt. Otake. But we were hot and sweaty and a cold sake was calling our name. So we turned around and headed back to the cable car, and then the bus, and the train and the subway to our hotel in Tokyo. As the cable car whisked us quickly back down the mountain, I contemplated how difficult it must have been for the pilgrims to hike up, or to bring up supplies to the 3000 ft summit, before the convenience of the cable car.
The hike was not that difficult and the lack of “proper” hiking gear was not a problem. The hardest part was climbing all the stairs to the shrine, especially in the heat of summer. I would suggest visiting in the spring or fall when it is not so hot and humid. Consider visiting for the annual festival. Each year on May 8, the Hinode festival Matsury takes place at the Mt. Mitake shrine, with a special procession of lighted lanterns the night before, on May 7.
Getting to Mt. Mitake from Tokyo does not have the most direct route, which may explain why we did not see any other international tourists during our visit. My husband and I had the benefit of having a Japanese friend act as our guide, but with Japan’s efficient transportation system, the trip can be done independently.
To get to Mt. Mitake, we started at Tokyo’s Shinjuku station where we took the JR Churo line to Ome station (about 75 minutes). At Ome station we changed trains for Mitake station (waiting on the opposite platform of the arriving train – 20 minute ride). Both train rides are covered by the JR pass. From the Mitake station, we took the bus to the lower station of the cable car (about 10 min).
Tokyo is a great city to visit. But if you are looking for a calming retreat, I suggest spending a day on Mt. MItake.
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