Last summer, I was wasting time on Facebook when I scrolled past some of the most interesting photos I had seen in a while. A friend has posted pictures of a huge buddha in a forest with mist swirling all around it. He said it was one of the best hikes he had done in Japan, and that sealed the deal for me. We were going to hike to Mt. Takatori's Castle ruins 高取城跡 in Nara 奈良 as soon as we could. I think Josh and I were both surprised when we decided early one Sunday morning last July to go hiking. July gets nasty hot and humid here. No one in their right might would go hiking in July in Japan. I guess we weren't in our right minds.
Since we live farther south of Osaka city, we took the Koya line 高野線 down to Kawachinagano 河内長野駅 and switched to the Kintetsu line 近鉄線 bound for Yoshino to get to Tsubosakayama Station 壺阪山駅. It was a little more complicated than that, but you can google the route that best suits you. The most popular way would be to come from Abenobashiあべのばし. I had never been out this way before and the train ride left me impressed. We rode through some really beautiful little towns and I found out later the Asuka 明日香村 area in Nara has a lot to offer as is off the main tourist track. The train stations are very basic. We had to cross the actual train tracks to get to the opposite platform. As soon as we got out of the station, it was clear how far out in the country we were. There was nothing but closed shops and old buildings. I was in heaven. If you've met me, you know I have a serious love affair with all things run down, broken, and old. We followed the instructions from the blog Hiking in Japan and ended up in a beautiful little part of town filled with shops, temples, and traditional architecture. There is a small path behind the homes that runs next to a little canal, but make sure you don't turn down there. We got a bit confused and almost did. There is a dilapidated home on the left corner of the street you need to go down. After that you just go straight. We got a little confused by the website directions we were following, but if you just go straight eventually you'll cross a little bridge with metal barriers on each side. Turn left at that bridge and go straight a bit more. At one point, we were like "we suck, we're lost" and we saw some other hikers go by so we followed them. You'll know you're on the right path if you pass a water wheel and thatched roof hut on your right hand side. Make sure, when you get to the toilets and vending machines, to grab some water and use the restroom because the internet was not joking when it said this is the last chances for either of those things on this hike (this is no Kongo with cup noodle vending machines waiting at the top).
The hike is immediately gorgeous. We entered a lush, dense evergreen forest that was silent save for a few birds. We were almost completely alone. The hike has decent signage, albeit in Japanese, so we made sure to make a stop when we came across Sousenji 宗泉寺. What a treat this was. No one except the caretaker was in this area. There were 88 Jizo statues all throughout the premises and up the side of the mountain. There's a narrow trail you can climb up and it will take you past many of the Jizo. I know I reference Ghibli a lot here, but it's because the studio is so good at capturing the essence of Japanese culture. I felt like I was walking through a forest that might have had totoros or kodamas peering from behind the trees, wondering what my business was. I could have easily spent a long time in those woods, but we had to get on with the rest of our hike.
The hike felt a little intense at times, but I think part of that was due to the heat. The sky was clear and sunny, but this just meant it was broiling. Thankfully most of the trail is in complete shade. I was a little terrified of coming across hornets or snakes, but they steered clear of the hiking path that day. We stopped for lunch at Kumini-Yagura 国見櫓 viewpoint. There were logs to sit on (and bushes to pee behind) and the view was incredible. I think this view was better than the one on top of the castle ruins.
When we finally got to the top, the sun was out in full force and the sky was so hazy we couldn't get a clear view of the valley below us. There is a sign in Japanese that shows pictures of what Takatori Castle used to look like and what I gathered (and later confirmed) was that Takatori was voluntarily dismantled during the Meiji Period. Heartbreaking, isn't it? Takatori looked like it was an impressive piece of architecture and was supposed to be the largest mountain top castle in Japan. I can't imagine how they managed to drag all those stones up there. We found the highest point marker that told us we had climbed to an elevation of 584 meters. Quite a hike for people who don't get out much! Truthfully, I find castle ruins a bit boring (it's just a bunch of stones!), but the trees around it were fantastic. They were these huge monsters that blocked out the sun and dwarfed everything else.
On the way down we took a side trip to Hachiman shrine 八幡神社, a little shrine located at the top of some log steps. Honestly, if you're tired, you can skip this. It was interesting to see since everything was so old and worn, but those are some steep steps. The blog post we read says you can join the trail farther ahead, but that path was blocked off. You'll have to retrace your steps back down and then continue on. The hike down almost felt more difficult than up, but the best part of the entire hike was yet to come. The blog post tells you to watch out for this sign 五百羅漢遊歩道を経て壺坂寺. Take this path. On the way down there are buddhist statues carved into the sides of the mountain. I've never seen anything like this before in Japan. They were worn away and covered in green moss, but they were still clearly visible, serene for all eternity. I don't know the whys or the hows behind them. I was left mute, searching their faces for something, some answers.
We finally made it back to a paved road. It seemed a bit of a let down after what we had just witnessed. However, the looming, gargantuan buddha statues at the nearby Tsubosakayama Temple 壺阪山寺, put us back into that spirit of adventure. People are always talking about Todaiji in Nara, but I've never heard anyone mention the mammoth buddhas in that labyrinth of a temple. Of course, we didn't get any pictures of it. I really, really wanted to visit it, but the last bus was coming soon and we didn't want to walk 45 minutes back to the station after something like 5 or 6 hours out hiking. We were exhausted and in desperate need of a shower. It was time for home.
Takatori 高取山 is one of my favorite hikes in Japan. It has the perfect combo of views and interesting things to see and is off the beaten track. There are no English signs around this area, but keep a picture of the kanji and you'll be fine. We got zero reception while hiking so make sure you take screen shots of everything and refer back to it often. Remember to pack bug spray, food, and water because there are no facilities on top of the mountain. We bought all our supplies at a train station convenience store. Make sure you wear good sneakers when hiking this. There were some parts, particularly going down, where I was scooting on my butt it was so slick. Josh wore New Balance and he had a particularly scary slide down a dirt path. Going down this mountain sucked. It was only rated a 2 out of 5 for difficulty, but I'd hike it up to a 3 at least. The trail is not maintained in some places, like where the statues are located. The last bus is fairly early, before 5 p.m., so try to give yourself some time to see the temple. I plan on going back to check it out one day. Click here for the blog I referred to throughout the post. It's a great blog for hiking throughout Japan!