Mt. Takao

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Shujin Sato

    Main guest

    Main guest Shujin Sato is a yamabushi, a practitioner of traditional Japanese mountain worship who communes with nature while performing Buddhist ascetic practices. Sato became a yamabushi after graduating from high school, and has been continuing his practices on Mt. Takao for around 30 years. During the course of the program, Sato explains the particulars of his spiritual practice, what sorts of rituals take place on the mountain, and why Mt. Takao is such a popular place for visitors of all kinds.

close

November 14, 2017

Mt. Takao

*You will leave the NHK website.

Tokyo. As you read that word, the first image that came to mind was likely a bustling metropolis filled with people, trains and all sorts of ultra-modern Japanese technology. That image, while certainly not wrong, doesn't quite account for the geographical diversity on offer in Tokyo. Case in point: a 50-minute train ride from Shinjuku, one of the city's busiest urban centers, brings you to Mt. Takao, a verdant mountain that's technically within Tokyo metropolitan limits. A major attraction for both day-trippers looking for relief from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo life and visitors from abroad, Mt. Takao is the subject of this edition of Japanology Plus.

As we learn on the program, thanks both to its proximity to the city and its relatively easy-to-climb 599 m height, Mt. Takao is one of the country's most-visited mountains—around 2.7 million people make the trip each year. That includes both serious hikers, who often start at Mt. Takao and make their way to other peaks in the area, and first-timers who simply want a breath of fresh mountain air. Paved routes (and even a cable car) make the summit more accessible for children, seniors and those who may otherwise find mountain climbing a challenge.

Of course, just as Tokyo has not always been the cultural and political capital of Japan, there was a time when visits to Mt. Takao were not nearly so common. Long before mountain climbing was considered a form of recreation, Mt. Takao was the sight of spiritual practices by the ancient peoples of the region. It is said the Buddhist temple on the mountain, which expert guest Shujin Sato and host Peter Barakan visit, was originally founded in 744 on the orders of Emperor Shomu. He may be best remembered for ordering the creation of Nara's famous Great Buddha statue, which still stands today, but his decrees to spread Buddhism throughout the country extended to every province.

mt_takao_many_people.jpg

It can be shocking to see just how many people visit Mt. Takao, especially on weekends.

mt_takao_guest_and_barakan.jpg

Expert guest Shujin Sato shows Peter Barakan the ropes when it comes to the spiritual side of Mt. Takao.

By the 14th century, though, the temple was in need of restoration. Enter Shungen, a monk from western Japan who traveled to Mt. Takao and began to take part in ascetic mountain practices. It was Shungen who established the strong connection between Mt. Takao and these ascetic practices, known as shugendo, performed by yamabushi mountain monks like expert guest Sato. It is said that as part of the temple's restoration, Shungen performed a fire ritual known as goma, during which he received a vision of the principal deity now enshrined in the temple. These goma fire rituals, in which monks burn sticks representing people's defilements, are still performed daily at the temple (which also hosts regular rituals for, believe it or not, traffic safety).

It should be clear by now that Mt. Takao (like many Japanese mountains, with Mt. Fuji at the top of the list) is an important spiritual center of the region—but this should in no way put off potential day-trippers wary of ancient rituals and customs. Though hiking Mt. Takao does require some common-sense rules (as discovered by Matt Alt in this edition's adorable Plus One segment), engaging with the mountain in a spiritual sense is purely optional—and if you choose to, it's possible to do so entirely on your own terms.

Japanese spirituality is nothing if not flexible: shugendo, the mountain ascetic practice discussed in the program, is itself a combination of Shinto and Buddhism, with a bit of Taoism sprinkled in. And while being a yamabushi is nothing to sneeze at, it's been reported that more than a few of these mountain devotees are retired businessmen looking to get out of the house from time to time!

mt_takao_matt.jpg

In Plus One, Matt Alt gets a lesson in mountain manners.

Mt. Takao is packed with history, but it's definitely not frozen in time. In 2015, the train station closest to the mountain, Takaosanguchi, was refurbished with a design from none other than architect Kengo Kuma, who designed the currently under-construction 2020 Olympic stadium. This means visitors to Mt. Takao can get a look at an ancient temple and a piece of architecture from a modern master during the same trip.

Ultimately, though (for this writer, at least) a trip to Mt. Takao is less about the trappings than it is the act of putting one foot in front of the other until reaching the summit—and how this simple act really changes, at least temporarily, everyone who does it. It's a real sight to see the same Tokyoites who might usually brusquely push past each other in a crowded train station give each other a "konnichiwa" and a smile as they cross paths on the trail—and you can't help smiling and doing the same thing yourself.

mt_takao_momiji.jpg

Just try not to smile with scenery like this.

mt_takao_scenery.jpg

 

*You will leave the NHK website.