If you’re visiting Japan, you’ll no doubt want to see a few shrines and temples. Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are main draws for all travelers, domestic and foreign. Especially if you’re traveling in the Spring or Autumn, however, I recommend you get off the beaten track a bit and take the some of the more scenic routes to these temples and shrines. During these shoulder seasons when the weather isn’t so hot, you’ll find many more opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors, and one way is to combine shrine and temple viewing with hiking to your destination.
In Japan, high places are considered sacred and are the abodes of the gods. Thus shrines and temples are often found on top of mountains. While most of these destinations provide a rope-way for easy access, you always have the option of walking up to the shrine or temple instead.
These are the original routes used before the ropeways (or paved roads to the top) and are generally well-maintained. You’ll be able to take in the autumn foliage or the spring cherry blossoms, while listening to birds chirping and rivers flowing. You may also see some wild deer or monkeys.
Here are three famous shrines or temples known for their high altitudes:
Mt Hiei offers the Enryakuji Temple complex at the top which is the headquarters of the Tendai Sect of Buddhism. This hike (800 meters) can be completed in an hour and a half. Don’t try this in wintertime, however, as it will be blanketed in snow! Mt. Hiei is famous for the “marathon monks” who wander the mountain.
Mt Misen—Hiroshima Prefecture
Mt. Misen (535 meters) is the sacred mountain of Miyajima Island, a world heritage site and home of Itsukushima Shrine and the Great torii gate in the sea (built in A.D. 593) The hike up takes a couple hours and is moderately difficult. The trail is immaculately groomed. You’ll definitely see deer on your hike! There is a small temple at the top and an eternal flame said to have been lit by the Buddhist monk Kukai after 100 days of meditation and has been burning for over 1,200 years. This flame was used to light the eternal flame in the Hiroshima Peace Park.
Kompirasan—Kotohira, Kagawa (Shikoku)
This shrine is famous for its 1,368 steps to the top! The mountain is officially known as Mt. Zozu, and the shrine known as Kotohira, but most people just call is Kompirasan. Kompirasan has been both a Buddhist temple and a Shinto shrine over the years and fisherman and those who make their living from the sea come here each year to pray to the deity of the sea who lives at the top. The main shrine is reached after 785 steps (about 30 minutes, 521 meters), and the remaining 583 steps (which seems to be optional) takes another 20 minutes.
JNTO website on Kotohira/Kompirasan
Learn more about the Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei in this incredible account by Holly A. Schmid.
Download a Miyajima/Mt. Misen Guidemap
Amy Chavez is a columnist for The Japan Times. Visit her website at http://www.moooobar.com