Mount Hiei - The Richest Mountain in Japan
Mount Osore may be more haunting, Sakurajima more explosive, and Mount Fuji more famous, but Mount Hiei (Hieizan) bests them all when it comes to riches. While its financial ledgers are closed to the public, its vast accumulation of intangible assets built up over a millennium are on open display. Included in this public ledger are its position as the head of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, a designation as one of the three holy Buddhist mountains in Japan along with Mount Osore and Mount Koya, scenic views of both Kyoto and Shiga prefectures that delight any hiker, a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and over a thousand years worth of events and stories. All of these combine to make Hieizan a worthwhile investment for anyone visiting Kyoto.
Hieizan’s most visible asset is its natural beauty. The mountain is hikeable from both Kyoto in the west and Shiga Prefecture in the east. The western approach offers beautiful views of green valleys, while the side of the mountain itself is covered with flowering bushes that bloom purple, pink, and white in the spring. The eastern approach offers excellent views of Shiga Prefecture and Lake Biwa, which is the largest freshwater body in Japan. Both sides of the mountain can be hiked in a morning or afternoon, though the mountain’s temple complex is located on its eastern side, so that approach is the fastest.
For those not interested in hiking, there are also cablecar lines on both sides of the mountain that offer sweeping views. The Eizan cablecar and ropeway serves the Kyoto side, but is closed during the winter. The Sakamoto cablecar serves the Shiga side and is open year round. Busses also offer transport from the mountain to Kyoto, but they do not run from December to March.
Complimenting this wealth of natural beauty is a history that stretches back over 1,200 years. The monk Saicho founded Enraku-ji on Hieizan in 788 CE, and the temple became the center of the Tendai sect of Buddhism. This form of Buddhism became popular with the ruling class in the old capital of Kyoto, and the Tendai sect was able to wield considerable influence over the nobility from the Heian Period (794 - 1185) through the Warring States Period (1467 - 1603). This influence was assisted by an army of warrior monks, known as sohei, that would descend from the mountain top to help any doubters see the error of their way.
This manner of overt intervention in political affairs ended in 1571 when the warlord Oda Nobunaga surrounded the mountain with troops and set it on fire. The conflagration burned nearly all of the mountain’s structures to the ground and sent the power of the warrior monks into decline. Most of the current structures on the mountain date from the reconstruction that took place after this incident. Given this history with fire, it is perhaps ironic that the Konpon-chu Do, or main hall of the temple complex, houses a Buddhist statue that legend says has been lit by an eternal fire that has burned continuously since the temple’s founding in 788.
While the mountain’s political history may have been cut short, its religious wealth has continued to increase. Several schools of Japanese Buddhism developed from men who studied atop the mountain before leaving to form different sects. In the 12th century, Honen, who spent his early years studying Tendai Buddhism on Hieizan, founded Pure Land Buddhism, which has become the most widely practiced form of Buddhism in Japan.
Later on in the 13th century, Dogen, who spent his early years on Hieizan, founded Soto Zen Buddhism, which gained an international following in the 20th century. Other schools of Japanese Buddhism also had founders who spent time on the mountain, and Enraku-ji is still the center of the Tendai sect, which has temples scattered across the country. Anyone interested in Buddhism will find a pilgrimage to this location invaluable.
While not as easily accessible as some of the other major attractions in Kyoto, Hieizan is will offer an incredible return on any time invested in a trip to the top. Hikers and nature lovers will enjoy the hike up the mountain, history buffs will have more to enjoy than they can digest in a single visit, and even casual tourists will enjoy both the views a brush with one of the richest spiritual and historical locations in all of Japan.
Hieizan official website (in Japanese)