Mount Hiei (比叡山 Hiei-zan) is a mountain that lies to the northeast of Kyoto in the Sakamoto (坂本) district of Otsu city. It is famed for the extensive temple complex near the summit. Since many travellers come here from Kyoto, they often enter from the town of Yase (八瀬) at the base of the mountain on the Kyoto side.
The temple of Enryakuji, the first Japanese outpost of the esoteric Tendai sect of Buddhism, was founded atop Mt. Hiei by Saichō (Dengyō Daishi) in 788. The temple complex was razed by Oda Nobunaga in 1571 to quell the rising power of the Tendai's warrior monks, but it was rebuilt and remains the Tendai headquarters to this day.
There are several ways to reach Sakamoto and Mount Hiei.
From Kyoto, the JR Kosei line goes directly to the Hieizan-Sakamoto station which is a 1,200-m walk from the Sakamoto Cable Car or the trailhead to climb Mount Hiei on foot. Alternatively, take the Keihan Main Line to Demachiyanagi and transfer to an Eizan train to Yase-Hieizan-guchi (八瀬比叡山口). From here the Eizan Cable Car makes the trip to the top of Mount Hiei for ¥850/1080 one-way/return (incl. the ropeway: ¥820/1700 one-way/return), every 30 minutes daily from 08:30 to 17:30 (or longer, schedules vary a bit depending on the season). The last leg of the trip to the summit is a 3-minute ride on a ropeway, which departs at intervals of 10-20 minutes between 09:00 and 18:00.
Or, you could also take the Keihan Line to Sanjo Station and transfer to the Tozai Line bound for Hamaotsu Station in Otsu. From Otsu, you can take the JR Kosei line or Keihan Ishiyama-Sakamoto line to Sakamoto, although the Keihan station (the last station on the line) is more centrally located. The Hiyoshi Taisha shrine and the cable car to Mt. Hiei are about 15 min away on foot, both fairly well signposted.
Be careful: there are two different cable-cars up the hill, each ran by a different company. So, if you buy a two-way-ticket from one company, you cannot use this for the other railway and you'll need to buy a new ticket.
There are occasional direct buses from Kyoto station directly to the top, taking about 1.5 hours and all departing in the morning. Schedules are severely curtailed in the winter.
Sakamoto and Mt. Hiei are best covered on foot. For going between the two, you can use the Sakamoto Cable Car, which costs ¥840/1570 one-way/round-trip and runs daily from 08:00 to 17:00 once every 30 minutes. At over 2 km, this is the longest cable car in Japan and takes about 11 minutes for the journey. This cable car line was built in 1927 and refurbished in 1993. The European style cars have large windows with wonderful views of Lake Biwa.
A real pilgrim would of course scoff at mechanical contraptions and climb the mountain, which is fairly easy as this isn't really more than an oversized hill. The traditional route is a convenient path of mossy steps known as Honzaka (本坂), starting from Sakamoto, but it's still 500 m (vertical) to the top. There are also many other routes, with numerous small temples and waterfalls along the way, but watch out as signposting (even in Japanese) is lacking. You may see monkeys along the way.
Both the Sakamoto cable car from Lake Biwa side and the Hieizan Ropeway from the Kyoto side terminate near two broadcast towers and the Garden Museum Hiei, whose ticket booth has maps to Hiei's more traditional attractions, which can be reached by about twenty minutes' walk through atmospheric forest.
- Garden Museum (ガーデンミュージアム比叡). The Garden Museum features spectacular views of Lake Biwa, garden flowers, art galleries, a cafe, large outdoor reproductions of famous works of French Impressionism, and a lily pond with arched bridge that aims to replicate the Japanese garden designed by Claude Monet in Giverny, France and featured in many of his late paintings. It also houses the grave of Saichō (Dengyō Daishi) the founder of Japan's Tendai Buddhism, and attracts many Japanese bush warblers (uguisu). The entrance fee is ¥1000 for adults, ¥500 for children.
- 1 Enryaku-ji (延暦寺). The temples on Mt. Hiei are collectively known as Enryaku-ji, literally "Long Calendar Temple". The large complex is generally divided into three sections known as the Eastern Pagoda (東塔 Tōdō), the Western Pagoda (西塔 Saitō) and Yokawa (横川); neither of the pagodas actually exist any more, but the names live on. Most of the better-known temples are concentrated in the Eastern Pagoda area.
- Konpon Chudō (根本中堂). The central hall of the temple. It contains the Inextinguishable Dharma Light (不減の法灯), a fire that has been burning for 1200 years. There is always a monk assigned to tend the fire and chant sutras here.
- Bruno Petzold Monument. There is a station near the top of the Sakamoto Cable run called Motateyama. Walking a few hundred meters from this stop will bring you to a monument which has been erected to the memory of Bruno Petzold, a German Tendai Bishop and scholar who lived in Japan until his death in 1949.
- Kokuhoden Museum (国宝殿), 4220 Sakamotohonmachi, ☏ . As the head temple of Tendai Buddhism, a wide variety of artwork has been produced and acquired by Enryaku-ji Temple. This museum was built to showcase some of the many artifacts owned by the temple. The Buddhist statues are particularly interesting. 09:00-16:00 (closes at 15:30 in Dec).
Eat and drink
- Hiyoshi Sansō (日吉山荘) within the Hiyoshi Taisha shrine is a traditional teahouse in an extremely scenic little river gorge, particularly popular in fall. Food prices are quite steep (¥800 for soba!), but you can also bring your food for a ¥300 charge per head.
- There is a small restaurant by the Sakamoto Cable Car Mt. Hiei station, serving all the usual suspects.
There is a wide range of accommodation in Sakamoto, but many visitors choose to day-trip from Kyoto instead.
- Saikyōji Youth Hostel (西教寺ＹＨ, tel. +81 77-578-0013) in Sakamoto is a good but somewhat inconveniently located hostel on the northern outskirts of town, although you can take a bus from either station (5-7 minutes, get off at Saikyōji). While affiliated with and run by a temple, the building itself is modern. HI members pay ¥3255 a night plus ¥630/1050 for breakfast/dinner. As a bonus, Saikyoji is itself a Tendai temple complex worth visiting, especially because of its views of Lake Biwa and Japanese maple leaves (momiji) in autumn. There are what looks like footprints and handprints on some of the wooden slats in the roof circling the temple; these are rumored to be the old floor slats with bloody handprints and footprints from ritual suicides.