Mount Hiei – Day trip from Kyoto

Have you ever heard of Mount Hiei? Mount Hiei, located on the border between Kyoto and Shiga prefectures, is a mountain renowned for Enryaku-ji, a large temple complex founded in 788 by Saicho, the monk who introduced Tendai Buddhism to Japan.

Mount Hiei is a great destination for hikers and nature lovers, thanks to its scenic trails and gorgeous views over Lake Biwa and Kyoto. We took a day trip from Kyoto to Mount Hiei, and turned out to be one of the best days of our lives. Not only did we hike, see a UNESCO World Heritage Site and admire panoramic vistas, but we also got engaged at the top of this mountain.

You can see why it holds a special place in our hearts, and we invite everyone to add it to their Kyoto itinerary. In this guide, I will explain how to enjoy the perfect trip to Mount Hiei, including how to navigate the cable cars and the trails.

Mount Hiei – Day trip from Kyoto

Wanting to hunt for Kyoto’s treasures, we decided to take a day trip to Mount Hiei, which is home to Enryakuji, one of Japan’s most important monasteries. What attracted us to this mountain is that you can get a cable car to its top and then hike through a dense forest all the way back down. This adventure can be done in a day, and you don’t need any special gear. This was part of our 2 weeks in Japan trip.

Tickets to Sakamoto cablecar up Mount Hiei
Tickets to Sakamoto cablecar up Mount Hiei

How to get to Mount Hiei

You need to get the train from Kyoto Station to Hieizan – Sakamoto Station. The journey is covered by the JR Pass, or it costs 330 yen for a single ticket.

Japan Rail Pass

The optimal way to explore Japan is with a rail pass that is available for durations of 7, 14, or 21 days, offering unlimited travel across the country. Shinkansen included!

The Sakamoto Train Station is located about 15 minutes walk from the Sakamoto cable car. Purchase your ticket from a vending machine. The ride takes just over 10 minutes, and it costs 870 yen (single) or 1660 yen (return) – 2024 prices.

Sakamoto Cablecar in Sakamoto Station
Sakamoto Cablecar in Sakamoto Station

The Sakamoto Cable Car

One of the highlights of our trip to Mount Hiei was definitely the Sakamoto cable car ride. This is Japan’s longest cable car route, opened in 1927. You will enjoy going up through a wonderful path of dense forest. You will then reach a crossroad, where cable cars pass each other and the drivers exchange a special salute.

When you are almost at the top, you will have panoramic views of Lake Biwa. Honestly, it’s great fun and an attraction worth experiencing.

View of Lake Biwa and Kyoto from Mount Hiei
View of Lake Biwa and Kyoto from Mount Hiei

Views from Mount Hiei

Most people make this journey to visit in the Hieizan’s Todo area, which can be reached by walking for 10 minutes from the Sakamoto cable car station. There is a viewing platform with stunning views of Lake Biwa and Kyoto city from above.

We stayed a good 20 minutes here, taking photos of the views from all angles. It’s also where Greg and I got engaged, and many people asked to take our photo and celebrate with us. Highlight of our day!

Enryaku-ji Temple located on top of Mopunt Hiei
Enryaku-ji Temple located on top of Mopunt Hiei

Enryaku-ji Temple

Enryaku-ji Temple is a historic Buddhist temple and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While it is one of the most significant and influential temples in Japanese Buddhism, with a rich history that spans over twelve centuries, not many people know about it. Enryaku-ji Temple is known for its cultural and religious significance, as well as its beautiful natural surroundings, but thanks to its off the beaten path location, it remains a non-touristy secret gem.

Today, Enryaku-ji Temple is an active centre of Tendai Buddhism. It attracts pilgrims who come to explore its historical treasures and experience traditional Buddhist rituals.

The temple complex is divided into three main areas: Todo, Saito, and Yokawa.

Enryaku-ji Temple Map Todo Area Mount Hiei Kyoto
Enryaku-ji Temple Map Todo Area Mount Hiei Kyoto

Todo Area

The Todo area is the main complex and consists of several halls and structures. The most important hall is the Konpon Chudo, which enshrines a statue of Yakushi Nyorai, the Buddha of healing. This hall is considered the spiritual heart of the temple.

Saito Area

The Saito area is located to the east of the Todo area and is primarily used for training and meditation purposes. It includes a number of sub-temples and hermitages where monks practice rigorous ascetic training. The Saito area is the perfect destination for visitors seeking tranquillity and spiritual retreat.

Yokawa Area

The Yokawa area is to the west of the Todo area and has beautiful gardens and scenic views. Yokawa is home to the Yokawa Kompon Daito, a large pagoda that serves as a symbol of Enryaku-ji Temple.

Good to know: Mount Hiei has been a place of rigorous monastic practices, where monks known as “marathon monks” undertake a grueling 1,000-day challenge that spans seven years. This involves long-distance running or walking around the mountain paths, reflecting their spiritual dedication.

Hiking down Mount Hiei
Hiking down Mount Hiei

The trail down the mountain

To make the most out of your day on Mount Hiei, we recommend hiking down the mountain. The path is well-defined and easy to follow, although good walking shoes are a must. Although we used our hiking boots, we didn’t need any specialised equipment for this hike.

The walk is very pleasant and safe. You will enjoy a laid-back adventure which features some lovely views and great spots. We visited in December, so we were dressed for winter, but it wasn’t too cold.

Newly engaged Cory and Greg from You Could Travel on Mount Hiei
Newly engaged Cory and Greg from You Could Travel on Mount Hiei

Final Thoughts on Mount Hiei

The best part of my trip to Mount Hiei, was when Greg proposed on the top of the mountain. Although he planned the proposal for Japan, he initially wanted to pop the question in a different spot, at the Fushimi Inari Shrine. But, as we are adventurers and nature lovers, the top of Mount Hiei turned out to be the best place for a proposal. That’s yet another reason why Japan changed my life forever.

Cory hiking on Mount Hiei, in December
Cory hiking on Mount Hiei, in December

There you have it, Mount Hiei is a magnificent place to visit. I may be a little biased, given the sentimental value Mount Hiei now carries, but I do honestly recommend that you take a day trip to enjoy the Sakamoto cable car, the views and see the stunning Enryaku-ji Temple.

Tell me why you would like to visit Mount Hiei in Japan? Would you walk up to the top, or would you like to experience the cable car? Let me know in the comments section below.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to climb Mt Hiei?

For hikers starting from the base of the mountain, such as from the Sakamoto cable car station near Lake Biwa, it typically takes about 2 to 3 hours to reach the Enryaku-ji Temple complex on the summit. This is considered a moderate hike in terms of difficulty. It takes less than 2 hours to descent from the top.

Why is Mount Hiei important?

Mount Hiei is renowned for Enryaku-ji, the temple complex founded in 788 by Saicho, which played a crucial role in the development of Japanese Buddhism, particularly the Tendai sect. This mountain has been a center for religious practice and scholarly study for centuries, famous for its “marathon monks” who undertake a grueling 1,000-day ascetic challenge over seven years. Beyond its religious significance, Mount Hiei offers scenic hiking trails and stunning views.

Why did Nobunaga burn Mt Hiei?

Oda Nobunaga, a prominent daimyo during Japan’s Sengoku period, ordered the burning of Mount Hiei in 1571 as part of his broader campaign to unify Japan under his rule. This decisive action against the Enryaku-ji temple complex, was driven by several factors. Primarily, the warrior monks (sohei) housed within posed a considerable threat to Nobunaga’s ambitions, given their history of military engagement and potential alliance with his rivals. By eliminating this opposition, Nobunaga aimed not only to secure his vicinity from immediate threats, but also to send a stark message to any other factions challenging his authority. The siege led to the destruction of much of the temple complex and the death of thousands.

What animals are in Mount Hiei?

The area is a haven for birdwatchers, with species such as the Japanese grosbeak, varied tit, and the Japanese white-eye, among others. It’s not uncommon to see small mammals, such as Japanese macaques (snow monkeys), tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs), and deer.

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Cory from You Could Travel entering Senso-ji in Tokyo, Japan

Cory Varga – Cory Varga is a licensed travel agent and published travel writer. Her main expertise is writing about Japan, where she happily lives with her husband.
Cory published her first book on Japanese customs and manners because she’s obsessed with everything Japan and wants to share more about the local customs with the rest of the world.
While Cory has visited hundreds of destinations and has lived in 7 different countries, Japan remains her favorite place to live and write about. Cory is multilingual.

Comments

4 responses to “Mount Hiei – Day trip from Kyoto”

  1. phyllis mcmillan Avatar
    phyllis mcmillan

    hi walking back down the mountain would it be able to be done by a 77 year old lady. Taking my mother with me

    1. Cory Avatar
      Cory

      Hi Phyllis,

      I would advise against it. We descended one day after a storm and there were some uneven paths, some fallen trees and some stretches which needed a bit more attention. I would say going up and down with the cable car is the safest bet for your 77-year-old mom. She will love the scenery for sure. You can still walk a little at the top and go visit one of the temples located on the top of the mountain.
      I hope this helps.

      Kind Regards,

      Cory

      1. Jack Avatar
        Jack

        Hey Cory, How do you use Sakamoto cable car up and the other cable car to descend? Any advice appreciated.

        1. Cory Avatar
          Cory

          Hi Jack,

          The mountain can be ascended from either the Kyoto side by Eizan Cablecar and ropeway, or from the Shiga side by Sakamoto Cablecar.

          You can take the Sakamoto Cablecar as we did to the top. From the upper station, Hieizan’s Todo area can be reached in a 5-10 minute walk. From the summit, it is another 5 minute bus ride or 30 minute walk to the Eizan Cable car.
          The cable car and ropeway do not operate from early December to mid March.

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