Nokogiriyama: Sawtooth Mountain
Trips to the Eastern part of Japan frequently, and justifiably, focus on Tokyo and its immediate area. However, there are a number of hidden gems outside of the Capital that are well worth a day trip out. Places like Kamakura and Mount Takao are well known but one of the lesser known beauty spots is Nokogiri-yama situated in Chiba Prefecture, to the south east of Tokyo. It is accessible by train, road and sea.
As usual, let’s start with the basics: Nokogiri means ‘saw’ such as a carpenter may use and yama means ‘mountain’. The mountain garnered this moniker for its jutting peaks that thrust up from the horizon and look like the teeth of a traditional Japanese saw. The mountain is around 1000 feet at its highest, so not particularly high, but even so when looking out from the top of the mountain you can see out over the Tokyo Bay and, on a clear day, it allows for truly spectacular views. However, if Nokogiri-yama was nothing more than an interesting coastal mountain then perhaps it would not be as noteworthy as it actually is:
Nokogiri-yama has a large temple complex called Nihon-ji, hundreds of carved Buddhist arhat statues dotted around the mountain in alcoves and shallow caves, a very tall carved relief statue of Kannon (built back in the sixties) and, most awe-inspiring of all, the 100 foot high carving of Yakushi Nyorai, a seated stone Buddha representing that facet of the bodhisattva that embodies both the practice of medicine and healing in general.
The mountain was a once stone quarry providing stone for the ancient marshy city of Edo (modern Tokyo) and as you explore the mountain there are clear signs of its hand-chiselled past in the square cut walls and steps. The temple also has a long history, being founded back in the eighth century during the Nara period of Japanese history. However, the famous Buddha was not built for another thousand years, during the latter part of the eighteenth century.
This is definitely somewhere that it is worth setting aside a full day to visit, but you will need to set off early as it is a couple of hours on local trains from Tokyo, so definitely bring some entertainment for the train journey. Also, don’t forget to take a large packed lunch and refreshments, as it is a fairly rural part of Japan and if you intend to have a full day out here you will need plenty of liquids and energy.
The mountain is most easily accessible from the quaint Hamakanaya station on the Uchibo line. From this station it is no more than a short walk (just under 10 minutes or so) to a cable car (called a ropeway here) that takes you up to the top of the mountain and a fairly rudimentary observation area. If you have come via ferry to Hamakanaya Port then the signposts from here will also lead you to the cable car. A one-way trip up to the top of the mountain costs 500 yen but 900 yen for a return. However, I would recommend coming down the mountain on the other side so a one-way ticket would suffice. I will come to this a little later. Be aware that the cable car is only open from 9am to 5pm.
As mentioned, the view is amazing but it does get very windy (both on the way up and at the top) so I would pack a hat or earmuffs along with your camera. If you are squeamish when it comes to being high up you may, alternatively, hike up the mountain instead of taking the cable car. However, a day exploring Nokogiri-yama and Nihon-ji will inevitably involve a lot of walking up and down the mountain if you want to see everything, you may want to conserve your energy. From the summit you can walk around the wooded peak of the mountain and with this explored, you’ll naturally end up at the entrance to the Nihon-ji temple. It costs 400 yen to get in so make sure you have some change with you.
The temple complex is traversed by loops of paths, trails and stairs; many lined with Arhat statues and framed by the forest, tiny streams and thick flora that cover the mountainside. Paths go both up and down the mountain and it is worth taking your time and fully exploring the whole area. There are only a couple of good spots to have a sit down and tuck into your lunch so take advantage of these when you come across them. If you want to see all of the sights of the mountain you will be in for a long slog but I found it most rewarding. You can also find the large Kannon relief here. This is honestly quite breathtaking in scale and, although relatively modern, fits in very well.
All in all the upper part of the mountain really is quite a magical place and it reminded me a great deal of Alderly Edge in Cheshire, England (One of the rumoured resting places of King Arthur, Merlin and his knights).
Coming down on the other side of the peak will bring you to the Buddha and the current temple buildings and grounds. The Buddha really is big and photographs do not convey the weight and impact that the statue has in real life. It does have to be seen to be fully appreciated. In front of the statue is also a great place to take a break, have another sit down and another bite to eat.
From here you can follow the paths that naturally lead you down the other side of the mountain towards Hota Station, again on the Uchibo line. This route is not as steep, easier on the old knees and there are some good photo opportunities if you enjoy traditional Japanese temples. Another bonus with coming out on the Hota side of the mountain is that, on your way to the station, you will find a long beach. The sea here is frequently wild and extremely picturesque. It is a great place to unwind, do some beach combing and relax before the long trek back by train.
This is a great day out but you will be outdoors all day so choose your clothing wisely and keep an eye on the weather forecast before heading off.