Mt. Daimonji lit during the famous O-Bon festivalOne often feels sorry for international tourists who only designate a day to Kyoto. Japan's best-preserved historical city is worth so much more than that. But beyond the many beautiful temples and shrines within, one of Kyoto's defining traits is the beautiful creation itself – indeed, the city is a work of art. A fine way to appreciate this is to leave the crowded streets and find some perspective. And there is no better perspective than that available from the top of Mt. Daimonji, sometimes called Higashi-Yama or Daimonji-Yama in Japanese.
Mt. Daimonji is most famous for its role in Kyoto's annual O-Bon Festival in mid-August, however, unbeknownst to too many travelers, Mt. Daimonji is a wonderful visit during the other 51 weeks of the year as well. Hiking Mt. Daimonji is a fun challenge even for those with little to no hiking experience. It is an especially common adventure for Kyoto's local residents, used to hiking the nearby mountains to escape the city's bizarre and uncomfortable weather extremes.
Mt. Daimonji from Nijo Castle
Make no mistake: this is a workout. Don't try to scale Mt. Daimonji in a traditional Yukata dress. Although the mountain is suitable to climb in any weather, it is important to remember to dress appropriately. The climb will warm you up, so if you go in winter, bring something removable. Make sure your shoes can handle the outdoors and won't slip or slide in the dirt and leaves. If you go up during the summer, you'll want some bug spray. And the earlier you climb, the better, because the hike can take longer than expected and daylight may vanish fast on descent. Got it? Still not scared? Great! Let's climb.
Actually finding Mt. Daimonji is bizarrely challenging, but reflects Kyoto's old city charm. The entryway is not some grand square with huge steps, nor is it heralded by a park or river or tourbooth – it's tucked away behind another famous temple, like some ancient Japanese secret. That famous temple is Ginkakuji, Kyoto's “Silver Temple.” Oddly enough, the “Golden Temple,” better known as Kinkakuji, is somewhat prominently placed in front of Hidari Daimonji, or “Left Daimonji,” the smaller of the two Daimonji mountains. You can speculate about the motive of the placing of these temples, or you can completely ignore it and get on with climbing the mountain.
Where were we? Oh, right in front of Ginkakuji Temple's front gate. Well, instead of going straight and entering the grounds of the Silver Temple, turn left. Walk down the street, and follow the road when it bears right (going straight should be blocked off). You will then be on the only path toward Mt. Daimonji's trail. Pass through a few parking lots and you'll find the foot of the mountain, marked by a Japanese sign. The search is easier than it sounds. But in the case of a busy traveler, it probably filters out more potential hikers than one realizes. The challenge hits early in unexpected ways. Persevere!
The hike begins. In the early stages the path is wide and well-traveled. Small streaks of mud coat the short wooden bridges. On display is the Japanese obsession with redirecting rivers through their own brick or concrete construction. But nature is beautiful on Mt. Daimonji, be it flowers in spring, foliage in autumn, stillness in winter or some combination of all of the above in summer. Meanwhile the rising slopes offer tempting glimpses of nearby temple grounds, although even in winter the trees can block a lot of light.
About a quarter way up the mountain is a small spring from which travelers can drink freely. Assuming it's been tended to, cups should be there as well, courtesy of local monks. Drink from it, and you may never find such fulfilling refreshment. Make sure you do - this is the only place to refresh yourself on Mt. Daimonji.
If you visit Mt. Daimonji in summer, you might find brush and grass populated by mosquitoes (again, bug spray). In the winter the ground may seem yellow and desolate. But the snow can provide a wonderful addition to the scenery.
Soon you will discover this flight of stairs, reminding some of martial arts movies long past:
Make what metaphor you will of this long challenge, not to be underestimated, with a worthy reward at the landing. Don't quit now: run if you have to!
(The stairs afford excellent views)
Take a moment to stretch once you arrive at the top of the stairs. What lies on this western face of Mt. Daimonji is one of the five famous “Gozan Okuribi Bonfire” sites. During the O-Bon festival in mid-August, according to traditional beliefs, the spirits of Japan's ancestors return to visit the living world. Part of their heralding welcome is a set of five characters of Kanji, written by these massive bonfires on the surrounding mountains. Visible to much of the city, the largest and grandest of these is Mt. Daimonji's, which you will have just discovered. Up close, it may not seem so grand. Rather it is just a large clearing with many cement pits which, during that amazing week, will hold massive flames. The Kanji spelled on both Daimonji mountains is “大” or Dai, meaning “large” or “great,” although from here it can be hard to read. Indeed, unsuspecting tourists might not understand what they are seeing as opposed to just a strange star formation. But look up! The beauty of this area is beyond it.
Here you will experience the best view of Kyoto available without a helicopter. Mt. Daimonji has a steep western face, which is somewhat hard to notice as you ascend its northern slope. But from the view at hand, it would seem one could throw a tennis ball into the windows of any home in the nearest block – underhand. The houses seem to be laid out almost to your feet, as if Mt. Daimonji were some sort of mountain in the sky, like something from Avatar.
Looking straight ahead once can see Kyoto's Imperial Palace, which served for a millenium as home of the Emperor of Japan. To the northeast – slightly to the right and closer – is the beautiful union of the Kamogawa and Takano Rivers after pinching around the Shimogamo-jinja Shrine, a World Heritage Site. Another World Heritage Site lays beyond the Imperial Palace to the east – Nijo Castle, home of the Kyoto branch of the historic Tokugawa Shogunate. If you have razor sharp vision on a clear day, you might be able to spot Kinkakuji, a little to the right of the Imperial Palace, at the end of the city before Mt. Hidari-Daimonji. Plainly visible further south is Kyoto Tower, rising over Kyoto Station, hoping Godzilla never pays a visit.
From this vantage point Kyoto's grid pattern, designed 1200 years ago on order of the Emperor to ward off potential evil spirits, becomes apparent. The Imperial Palace dominates the cityscape, as if all other shrines and temples – the green spaces – revolve around it. The city is indeed a work of art. How long did it take to plan? How often has it been redone? Where did the motives originate? These and other questions may arise from this experience. Indeed, discovery only leads to more mystery.
The mountain continues beyond this great view. Along the top stroke of the “大” bonfire site is a discreet set of stairs that lead further into the mountain. The trail leads to the summit of Mt. Daimonji.
Sometimes the mountain can be frustrating for inexperienced hikers. It often dips briefly before starting to rise to what might appear to be the summit. But that is only because behind each rise, the next phase of the mountain is obscured. This is why the hike is better to commence earlier in the day, so you don't have to worry about shortened daylight, especially if you'd like to spend some time on the mountain.
Toward the summit, the mountain thins, and observing eastern and western slopes simultaneously becomes possible. In spring and summer, you can see the difference in tree and flower growth along each side of the mountain. But in winter, a spectacular effect can happen in light snow. Towards the late afternoon, as the sun beats the mountain's western face, the snow cover retreats to precisely the eastern line of the trail. Here is a rare opportunity to witness a weather dividing line, one of many magical sights to behold on Mt. Daimonji.
At the summit are a series of benches to relax or have a picnic, with yet another fine view of Kyoto to enjoy.
Of course, this journey takes a while. If your time is short, rest-assured that the hike to Mt. Daimonji's Gozan Okuribi Bonfire site can be done very quickly and efficiently. And you'll never forget that view.
But there is a special feeling in reaching a summit, and on Mt. Daimonji, of fully experiencing one of Kyoto's best kept secrets.
Beauty is a feeling. Like Kyoto itself, Mt. Daimonji is better observed than explained, so give this hike a try and see the best the ancient city has to offer.