Korena Di Roma, an editor with National Geographic Digital Media, shares an easy escape from the bustle of Tokyo.
With less than five full days to explore Tokyo, a friend and I were prepared to experience a fully urbanized existence, limiting our encounters with nature to the beautifully landscaped and sprawling public parks that offer necessary relief from neon-trimmed city life. And we had no regrets about choosing to stay in vibrant, commercial Shinjuku, with its wide, pedestrian terraces strung with blue holiday lights and its noodle shops serving soba at 3 a.m. But a combination of crowds flowing upward from Shinjuku Station and the well lit abundance of merchandise had us returning, on the third day, to an itinerary on which I had scrawled the name of a nearby mountain described as a refuge for weary Tokyoites.
We’d found that Tokyo’s railway system demands a bit of concentration, but finding our way to Mount Takao was relatively straightforward. A 370-yen (four-dollar), one-way ticket on the Keio line from Shinjuku brought us to our destination in about 45 minutes, and a clear day even offered us a view of Mount Fuji for most of the trip.
The stop at Takaosanguchi Station put us right at the base of the hiking trails. We stocked up on water at the large convenience shop directly under the track and, farther along, grazed the open stalls selling steamed buns filled with minced pork and ginger. This is where schoolchildren assemble and where groups of teenage girls buy bottles of tea and cans of coffee that come piping hot from the vending machines. Many were lining up for a cable car or two-person lift, about a five-minute ride to a midway point on the mountain.
We decided to hike it instead, and after scrutinizing a posted map, it was easy to pick a trail and get started. We chose Trail 6, which took us through a small valley in a quiet, broadleaf forest with hundred-year-old cedars and striking maples. The climb to the summit (nearly 2,000 feet) is moderate, interesting enough for avid hikers but not discouraging to families with children, elderly couples with walking sticks, or me.
Though it was almost mid-December, the beeches and maples were still brandishing their autumn colors, and the mid-morning sun illuminated pockets of red and gold leaves along the trail. We exchanged greetings of “konichiwa” each time we passed early risers on the descent, and no one regarded us strangely even though we seemed to be the only foreigners on the mountain. A little over an hour after we began our climb, we reached the top to a find a spectacular view of Tokyo to the east, a highland mountain range to the north, and the unmistakable, snow-capped cone of Mount Fuji itself.
Almost as captivating as the panorama was the unexpectedly festive atmosphere on the summit. Gathered on blankets and low stone walls were large families and groups of friends cooking noodles on hot plates and passing around bottles of sake or playing card games. The blankets held plates of pears, bowls of rice, steaming cups of tea. It was still early in the afternoon, but it looked like they had been there a long time, enjoying their picnics with the best view around. We hadn’t brought anything but bottles of water. Luckily, noodle shops along the perimeter serve tasty udon soup and bottles of cold Kirin beer.
We took a combination of trails to the bottom and decided that Trail 6 had been a good choice for the ascent. Some trails were fully paved and less interesting, though Trail 4 brought us across Mount Takao’s only suspension bridge.
Other sites on the mountain include a monkey park where you can get a close view of Japanese macaques, a wildflower garden, and the food stalls and souvenir shops around the cable car stop. Events and festivals are held throughout the year, and available English-language maps identify scenic lookouts, shrines, and seasonal flora and fauna.
Like Tokyo itself, the mountain can get crowded, particularly when autumn foliage or spring cherry blossoms peak.
We didn’t see all that Mount Takao has to offer, but we agreed that it was one of our favorite experiences on a too-short trip. Best of all, we were back in the heart of Tokyo in time for dinner.
Photo: Korena Di Roma