Mt Atago (愛宕山) is Kyoto’s tallest mountain (924m), standing around 70 metres taller than its rival Hieizan (比叡山, 848m) on the far side of the city. Local legend tells us that the two were originally of equal height, but after they became embroiled in a contest over the affections of one of the fair maiden river spirits in the valley between them, Hiei gave Atago an almighty smack on the top of his skull; the swelling produced by this can still be clearly seen in the form of the prominent bump on the mountain’s summit. Although Atago is taller, Hiei is the more significant of the two culturally speaking, as it guards the northeastern approach to the city – in Chinese geomancy (Feng Shui), evil spirits are said to approach from the northeast; thus, the existence of Hiei was one of the key reasons that the ancient capital was built in this valley, with one of Japan’s most important temples (Enryaku-ji) established on its summit at that time. However, Atago also has a vital role in protecting the city – not from evil spirits, but from the ravages of fire. Traditional wooden architecture and fire are obviously a bad mix (especially when you consider all those people cooking at close quarters, especially in the event of an earthquake…), and like most old Japanese cities Kyoto has burned to the ground many times during its long history – sometimes these fires followed major earthquakes, sometimes they were intentionally lit in times of war, and sometimes they were simply accidental. The resident kami of Mt Atago is a fire spirit, and so it was seen to be of major importance for Kyoto’s residents to pay due respect every year to protect the city; failure to do so could result in a major blaze.
Although the dangers of fire are not as great as they once were due to the largely concrete architecture and well-developed fire safety of modern Japan, the annual fire festival on Mt Atago is still a big deal. It’s held overnight on the night of July 31st every year, with pilgrims ascending in the hours of darkness (the way is lit with hanging paper lanterns, and participants in the procession bear flaming torches from the village to the shrine on the summit); while I’ve never seen this for myself, I’m sure it would be a most interesting time to do this hike!
Aside from the fire festival, the mountain doesn’t see great numbers of visitors. While Mt Hiei has two cable cars and a road by which people can go up, visitors to Mt Atago must walk to the top; and while Hieizan has a UNESCO World Heritage listed temple complex on the summit, Mt Atago’s summit shrine (despite its local cultural importance) is a very humble affair. This means that you can enjoy a peaceful hike without it being ruined by a huge swathe of concrete parking and vending machines at the top! And the shrine itself really is beautiful, with carved wooden panels around the tops of the walls depicting various animals both real and mythical – on the day I visited, the only other person I saw up there was a priest sitting in the courtyard and working on a carving. One thing to be said for Hiei’s massive car park is that it does at least give you a nice wide view of the city below – the views from Mt Atago are mostly blocked by the trees, but you do catch a few nice views here and there.
Once you’ve taken in the shrine and the views, had some lunch, and are ready to go down, rather than descending the way you came up on the main Mt Atago hiking trail you can instead take an alternative trail down via Tsukinowadera (月輪寺, ‘Full Moon Temple’), a spooky little temple halfway down the mountainside which feels abandoned but isn’t. This trail descends a little to the east of the main trail and is much narrower – you might have to look around a bit at the top to find it (look out for signs reading 月輪寺, or perhaps ask any shrine staff you can find). It brings you down to connect with the Kyoto Isshu Trail Kitayama Nishibu course – a right turn will soon take you back to Kiyotaki (where the main Mt Atago hiking trail starts from – see below) or you can turn left to hike to the small village of Takao (around an hour away).
Speaking of which, Mt Atago can also be climbed as a side quest while hiking from Takao to Kiyotaki or when doing the Kyoto Isshu Trail’s Kitayama Nishibu course. When I climbed it, however, I hadn’t yet been in Kyoto for long and wasn’t aware of either the Isshu Trail or Takao, and so I tackled Mt Atago by starting and finishing from Arashiyama without having any idea of how to get from Arashiyama to the mountain. I just took the train to JR Saga-Arashiyama station, got a bearing on where the mountain was, and walked towards it. While this did work, it wasn’t the most interesting approach, being mostly along roads. I also ended up having to go up and over a hill which the road tunnelled through, with no idea if there was a sensible route on the other side. As it turned out, on the other side was the village of Kiyotaki and the start of the main Mt Atago hiking trail. Again, while this did work, it isn’t remotely the best way to reach Kiyotaki.
So, if climbing Mt Atago is your goal, for the most interesting route I’d suggest starting your hike from Takao (after a spot of bad-karma-disc-throwing at Jingo-ji temple), following the trail towards Kiyotaki and diverting up Atago, before descending to Kiyotaki and continuing on to Arashiyama either by foot or on the bus, as described here, or alternatively walk along the river all the way to the enigmatic Hozukyo Station.
If, however, you don’t have time to include Takao, or you’re already staying in Arashiyama and just want to climb up Mt Atago from there and then head back, there are three good ways to get from Arashiyama to Kiyotaki; the scenic route walking along the Isshu Trail Nishiyama course, the path along the river from the fantastic Hozukyo Station, or the quick & easy way on the bus.
For buses to Kiyotaki from Arashiyama, you can take number 64 or number 94. There are three train lines by which you can reach Arashiyama; Hankyu, JR, and Keifuku (as always in Japan, check Hyperdia for trains; there’s a good explanation of how to use it here). There are bus stops immediately outside the Hankyu and Keifuku stations (for the latter, you should cross the street for a northbound bus), but if you arrive to JR Saga-Arashiyama station you’ll need to walk for ten minutes or so to Keifuku Arashiyama station. The bus takes about 20 minutes and costs 230 yen (at time of writing).
If you want to skip the bus and take the scenic route, I’d recommend starting from Hankyu Arashiyama station as it means you can take a stroll over the famous Togetsukyo Bridge, and also from the Hankyu station it’s very easy to pick up the Kyoto Isshu Trail for navigational purposes.
When you come out of the Hankyu station, there’s a kind of small plaza with the road over to the left, trees and a bus stop over to the right. Over near the bus stop you can find Kyoto Isshu trail Nishiyama board number 24:
It’s the wooden post with the little square white map on top. These boards are placed at regular intervals along the entire Isshu trail, and while the maps aren’t very accurate the boards are a useful navigational aid. For this hike, it would also be a good idea to get hold of a copy of the Kyoto Isshu Trail Nishiyama Course map, which also has the Mt Atago trail marked on it (available at the Maruzen bookstore in central Kyoto, see here), and you can read in detail about the Isshu trail here. Once you’ve picked up the scent of the trail, make sure you’re heading north and not south and it will take you over the bridge through Arashiyama and up the Kiyotaki-gawa river to Kiyotaki village. You can be sure you’re heading the right way by following the boards in descending order i.e. the board outside Hankyu station is number 24, so check the map and aim for board 23 next. Your first goal (before Atago itself) is board number 1 in Kiyotaki village. It takes around two hours to walk from Hankyu Arashiyama station to Kiyotaki. And if all that sounds like too much trouble to work out, just jump on the bus! (or, again, for an interesting alternative start from Hozukyo Station and walk up to Kiyotaki along the river, which takes about an hour)
Once you’re in Kiyotaki, the mountain trail is easy to find as it’s marked by a red torii gate and a warning sign which says you need 5 hours to hike up & down.
This is pretty conservative – I only took half that (despite the longer descent via Tsukinowadera), though to be fair I was walking at a very brisk pace because I’d started quite late in the day and I didn’t want to run out of light!
For more Kyoto hikes, see here
For hiking in the Tokyo area, see here
Have you climbed Mt Atago, or do you have any questions? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
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