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Mount Atago and Mount Hiei
Cool summer destinations

Mount Atago Ancient pilgrimage destination
A good shrine is very much the spirit of a place, and Atago Shrine, sitting at the very top of Kyoto's highest peak, Mount Atago in the west of Kyoto, is no exception. This is the mother shrine to more than 800 "Atago" shrines throughout Japan.

Atago Shrine was built in 781 by Wake no Kiyomaro at the Emperor's orders to protect the Imperial Court. The courts of the Nara and Heian Periods were especially prone to religious superstitions and daily life was regulated to conform as closely as possible to favorable times, seasons, and directions. The latter were especially important for it was believed that the directions of the compass had inherent and potent energies. Northeast was the direction from which evil originated and consequently the mighty Enryaku-ji Temple was built atop Mount Hiei to protect the city from the ill winds of that direction. The northwest, however, was considered the source of divine beneficence, and so on the highest mountain in that direction, Atago Shrine was built to function as a portal of blessing. Here the God of Fire was enshrined, and fearful of his wrath, the inhabitants of Kyoto came (and still come) often to pray for deliverance.

In the early Heian Era, the popularity of Buddhism surged and tended to absorb Shintoism. Atago Shrine became part of Haku-un-ji Temple at this time. It was only 1000 years later, in Meiji Era, when an edict forbade the association of shrines and temples, that Atago Shrine regained its independent status.

At the top of Mount Atago, the bustle of modern Kyoto seems far away. The air is pure, and the mountain serene. Architecturally, the shrine is simple, but its simplicity is perfection. The structures that make up the shrine are, after all, not so much for looking at--this is a place for obtaining something sacred. After the strenuous climb to the top of the mountain, one final flight of stairs brings one to the highest ground of the inner sanctuary. Here, grabbing the enormous cloth rope and ringing the bell, one feels, rolling along the spine, a real sense of communication with the life force of the universe. No wonder this shrine, along with those at Ise and Kumano, has long been one of the places the people of Kyoto perpetually turn to in time of prayer!

To get to Kiyotaki the starting point for this hike, start out at the Keifuku Arashiyama Station. From the bus stop in front of the station, take Kyoto Bus #62 or #72 to the end station of Kiyotaki (about 10 minutes). Then follow the well marked path up the mountain.

Mount Hiei
Center of Japanese Buddhism

Looming large as life to the northeast of Kyoto, Mount Hiei (or Hiei-zan as it's known in Japanese) is the city's second highest peak (848 meters). Known for its abundance of greenery and hiking paths, the mountain is also home to Japan's most influential religious institution, the headquarters of the Tendai sect, Enryaku-ji Temple.

At 848 meters (2,780 feet), Hiei-zan, as it is known in Japanese, dominates the Kyoto landscape. More than just a beautiful form of nature, Hiei-zan has for centuries played a major role in Kyoto's and Japan's political and cultural history. It all started over more than 1200 years ago, when a lone priest named Saicho was given imperial permission to build a Tendai sect temple to protect the newly founded capital.

Enryaku-ji, as the temple was called, eventually became Japan's most important center for Buddhism -a virtual city of priests and temples. The temple's influence and activities, which extended to punishing military raids on Kyoto power, came to an abrupt and tragic end in 1571. In a bloody assault, Oda Nobunaga, Japan's first warlord, destroyed the entire mountain complex (there were an estimated 3,000 temples on the mountain top in 16th century) and nearly every one of its 10,000 inhabitants. Rebuilt in part more than a century later, Enryaku-ji remains an awe inspiring and vast example of the esoteric powers of the Tendai sect. Surrounded by towering cryptomeria trees, these magnificent buildings still serve as places for worship, retreat, and the practice of religious austerities. If you go be sure to take the time to explore this unending place of mystery and wonder.

There are a number of ways to reach Enryaku-ji Temple's mysterious environs. Walking all the way up Hiei-zan is one of these, but it's a long walk. You can also take a bus from Kyoto Station or Sanjo Station to the top of the mountain. However, the most interesting way to the top of Mount Hiei is to use a combination of public transportation and foot power. Begin by taking the Yase-bound Eizan train from Demachiyanagi Station (platform #1). From here take a cable car up to a ropeway (a ride of 25 min. total; 530 yen for the cable car and 310 yen for the ropeway; one way!). A little higher up you can catch buses for Enryaku-ji Temple and the cable car line that leads down to Lake Biwa and where the JR line will whisk you back to Kyoto Stn. in about 20 min.