Soon the mountains surrounding Kyoto will transform into a spectacular array of colour. The landscape will completely change place on the colour wheel. Mount Hiei is the perfect place to take in autumn. Situated northeast of Kyoto city, it makes up part of the Hiei-zan range, dividing Kyoto and Shiga prefectures. The mountain boasts the UNESCO World Heritage site Enryakuji, the sacred home of the Tendai monks.
Upon reaching Enryakuji, the temple’s significance immediately becomes clear. Worshippers take their time in prayer. Incense hangs in the air among the cedar, until the breeze sends it into the forest. There is a seamless connection between the ancient temple buildings and the natural environment.
Enryakuji has a long history. It was founded in 788 by the monk Saicho, and then flattened in 1571 by Oda Nobunaga. Ruthlessly, Nobunaga sent 30,000 men to indiscriminately massacre all the inhabitants on the mountain. Ravaged by fire and war, Enryakuji has always bounced back – a true hub of Japanese religious belief.
From the Kyoto-side cable car, the walk to the main hall reveals a lookout, perfect for picnics. We spread our rug in the sun and enjoyed the panoramic view of mountains. After lunch, we had a conversation with another couple about the diverse wildlife found on the mountain, and the relatively easy hike up from Yase. We had taken the cable car but mentioned to them that we had considered hiking down to Yase that afternoon. We decided against it. Unsuitable shoes. The couple said the hike is moderate, but it’s long and often over uneven ground. This conversation about the terrain made it even more exciting to walk through the forest and think of the famous marathon monks. Those monks run for 100 days, covering 40 kilometres per day. They pound around the mountain with minimum sustenance and incredible endurance! Humbling. We were too chicken to even take Mt Hiei on downhill!
A highlight of the day was the Inextinguishable Dharma Light in the sacred Konpon-chudo hall. The light has burned for 1,200 years; a dedicated Tendai monk always attends the flame. The Dai ko-do training hall was rich in history, filled with ancient portraits of esteemed monks. Ultimately though, the best parts of the day were simple, just walking in the forest, the views and experiencing the significance and connection of the mountain to Enryakuji.
Ways and means
Take the Keihan Main Line to Demachiyanagi and catch the Eizan train to Yase-Hieizan-guchi. From there, you’ll need to take the Eizan cable car. Once on Mount Hiei, begin the short, sign posted, 2-kilometer walk to the To-do (Eastern area). The temple consists of three main areas the, To-do, Sai-to (Western), and Yokawa, with each area located in its own place on the mountain. If you want to see them all allow plenty of time. We enjoyed the mountain and focused our attention on the To-do temples.