CHAPTER 17: All Roads Lead to Kyoto

Hieizan (Mt. Hiei) – July 2-3, 2018

This photo supplement tracks the events in Chapter 12 of CLIMB: Leaving Safe and Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. The captions offer “extra features” that didn’t make it into the book.

The Hieizan Cable Car: a quick way to “climb” the lower slopes of Mt. Hiei

To break up the nearly 8-hour journey from Mt. Daisen in Tottori Prefecture to sacred Kōyasan in Wakayama, I made an overnight stop in the Kyoto area–but this time, I bypassed the ancient capital itself and headed into the mountains that ring Kyoto for an overnight stay (and climb) on Mt. Hiei.

Hieizan Enryakuji Kaikan – a modern shukubo with ancient roots

It only takes about 90 minutes to travel from Kyoto Station to Hieizan Enryaku-ji, a mountain temple that has served as the headquarters of Tendai Buddhism in Japan since a Japanese priest named Saichō established both the temple and the sect in the early 9th century. The temple’s shukubo (temple lodging) is more modern than many temple accommodations, although it also maintains many lovely traditional elements, like tatami rooms and the ability to attend morning services at the temple’s spectacular worship hall.

Amida latte

In addition to offering lodgings, Hieizan Enryaku-ji Kaikan has an onsen (hot spring bath) and a coffee shop that serves both coffee and matcha lattes topped with stenciled Sanskrit characters representing various incarnations of the Buddha. Since my birth year (1971) is associated with Amida Buddha, I opted for the Amida cafe latte–a strange contrast to my traditional lodgings the night before, but also quite delicious.

Thunderstorm on Hieizan

A massive thunderstorm rolled in within minutes of my arrival at Enryaku-ji, putting an end to my plans to climb Mt. Hiei that afternoon. This was the fastest and most violent storm I had experienced in Japan, and although I was sad about canceling the hike, I was also relieved that the storm blew in before the climb began. This storm taught me an important lesson about respecting–and accepting–the fact that sometimes God and the mountain say “not today.”

Shojin Ryori at Hieizan Enryaku-ji Kaikan

Like most temple lodgings in Japan, Hieizan Enryaku-ji Kaikan serves shojin ryori, or Buddhist temple cuisine (one of my absolute favorite styles of cooking). True shojin ryori uses no animal products of any kind–which surprises many people who try it, because this ancient cooking style features (and, in fact, requires) a wide variety of flavors, colors, and textures in every meal. The picture above shows my dinner at Hieizan Enryaku-ji.

Vegetable Nabe (Hot pot), cooked at the table

In addition to the wide variety of dishes in the first photo, my dinner at Hieizan Enryaku-ji Kaikan included an individual-sized vegetable nabe (Japanese hot pot) cooked at the table. The vegetable broth was rich and savory, and included silken tofu, the fried tofu strips on the lower right above, onions, carrots, and two kinds of mushrooms.

Pre-dawn mist on Hieizan

The storm that prevented me from climbing the afternoon I arrived blew over in the night, leaving the mountain damp, misty and atmospheric. I woke up shortly before 5 a.m., with just enough time to climb to the summit (and back) before breakfast at 8.

“One by one, Enryakuji’s sacred buildings appeared through the mist”

The trailhead for the climb to the summit of Hieizan sits just behind the pagoda, on the grounds of Enryaku-ji.

“An earthen trail led upward through the forest”

The photo above shows the trailhead behind the pagoda. Dawn breaks early in Japan in the summer months–the sky begins to lighten before 4 a.m., and by 5, it’s more than light enough to see–or hike, as the case may be.

The trail up Hieizan

The trail to the summit of Hieizan consists of earthen switchbacks, periodically interrupted by flights of moss-covered wooden stairs. At 5 a.m., before the cable car and buses start running for the day, the only sounds were the sleepy chirps and morning songs of awakening birds and the drip of branches shedding last night’s rain.

On the summit of sacred Hieizan

I did not expect to find an asphalt parking lot on the summit of Mt. Hiei–but as it turns out, there is a parking lot, for visitors who choose to drive to visit the summit shrine and museum (which had not yet opened when I arrived).

“The rising sun transformed the mist to gold”

Sadly, this photo does not capture the golden warmth of the rising sun, or its magical impact on the misty trail. Like many sacred mountains, Hieizan and its sacred forests are managed by the temple to which it belongs. Forestry, as well as care for the complex ecology of the temple grounds and surrounding area, have been an important part of Buddhist practice for mountain monks in Japan for centuries.

Misty morning on Hieizan

Views like the one above are a large part of the reason I’m willing to get up at the crack of dawn and climb. Before beginning my 100 Summits quest, most of my experience with scenes like this came from books and magazines.

Moss covered Jizō, Hieizan Enryakuji

This statue of the bodhisattva Jizō, the patron of travelers, children, and the lost, sits about a three minute walk above the trailhead on Mt. Hiei.

Hieizan Pagoda in the mist

Shortly after passing this pagoda, I paused in front of the worship hall to write a haiku commemorating the morning’s climb–and promptly thereafter, had an experience that shattered the mood completely. (No spoilers…I’ll leave that bit for those who read the book.)

Lake Biei from Hieizan Enryakuji Kaikan

The photo above shows Lake Biei, as seen from the dining hall at Hieizan Enryaju-ji Kaikan on the morning after my climb. Directly after taking this, I traveled by shuttle bus, three trains, and a cable car to the start of a climb up another sacred peak.

I hope you’re enjoying this “behind the scenes” photo-companion to CLIMB! Please click through and join me for Chapter 18: Goddess of All That Flows

* This page is part of the photo companion to CLIMB: Leaving Safe & Finding Strength on 100 Summits in Japan. You can find the story behind these pictures (in hardback and ebook formats, and either in person or online) at your favorite local bookstore or at Amazon or Barnes & Noble (both in the U.S. and internationally).