Far from the madding crowd

Escape the hustle and bustle of Tokyo to serene Mount Takao

It is raining in Shinjuku, one of the busiest districts in Tokyo, Japan. To avoid the strong wind, my guide Yuji "Dave" Otsuka decides to lead me into an underground walkway.

From Takaosanguchi station, Mount Takao can be accessed via cable car and chair lift. The serenity and peaceful atmosphere make it a nice place to spend an entire day. Along the way to the Yakuoin temple on the hilltop, there are a number of gigantic mountain pine trees. Peerawat Jariyasombat

"Keep close to me, we are about to walk through a number of pedestrians that flood out of the railways stations," Dave explains.

I try to walk fast while looking around at the crowd. The underground walkway is like a small town beneath the city. It is busy and confusing. On both sides, there are hundreds of shops, entrances to shopping malls, restaurants, businesses, kiosks and a tourist information centre. Intersections lead to bus terminals and subway stations on different lines. Every single minute, hundreds of people walk through.

"Even Tokyo residents find it quite complicated. I cannot find any locality map or it would be easier," says Dave.

After getting to the right station, we get on a crowded outbound train on the Keio Line, a heavily-used commuter service, with more than a million passengers a day. Some 30 minutes later, passengers gradually get off the crowded car. There are empty seats now and the atmosphere is more relaxing. I look around and find myself in the countryside. This is peaceful Tokyo, a place tourists may overlook.

From Takaosanguchi Station at the end of the line, we switch to a mountain train, which slowly makes its way through a forest to the mountaintop.

Mount Takao or Takaosan is 599m-high and is surrounded by an old forest and a view of cities in the distance. When the weather allows, Mount Fuji can be seen, too. This is an escape for many Tokyo residents who love hiking. This trip comes with a meal package offered by the Keio line and adds to the off-the-beaten track experience for foreign visitors.

"Japanese people believe that getting back to nature, to be among wilderness, will strengthen bodies and souls," Dave explains, while walking through the shady forest where gigantic 500-year-old pine trees line serene roads.

"Our love for nature and simplicity is also shown in our names. For example, Tanaka means 'in the centre of the field' and Kuroda means 'countryside'."

Along the way, we see elderly people and kids hiking. A few couples sit back and relax, soaking in the view of the countryside.

We leisurely walk to the mountaintop temple, Yakuoin. This Mahayana Buddhist temple is around 1,300 years old but the temple has been reconstructed many times after earthquakes. Visitors stop here to pray to Tengu mountain gods and other gods for good fortune.

The main pavilion houses a statue of Izuna Gongen, a principal god of Mahayana Buddhism, who rides a white fox. The unique thing about this temple is the white Thai-style stupa, which houses a Buddha relic from Thailand.

What I like most is the atmosphere. The ancient temple is set among a serene forest and its surroundings are peaceful. After lingering for a while I begin to agree with Dave -- the forest has hidden powers which sooth the body and mind.

After leaving the mountain, we ride a bus to a local restaurant for lunch, which is included in the package. The brochure says my lunch is grilled chicken. At first, I guess it is an easy lunch but once I arrive at the restaurant, it is a far cry from what I had imagined.

Set in a beautiful Japanese style garden, Ukai Toriyama restaurant welcomes guests with traditional Japanese Sukiya-Zukuri architecture. Each dining room is complete with tatami mats and opens to a breathtaking garden view.

Waitresses set up a charcoal stove and prepare the table. The right atmosphere, cute plate decorations and tableware change a simple lunch into an extraordinary dining experience.

It is a simple day-trip, taking a train to hike a mountain, visiting a peaceful temple and enjoying grilled chicken in a garden. But it is quite different from any trip to Tokyo I have ever experienced.

Designed by renowned Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, Takaosanguchi railway terminus is outstanding with a wooden canopy and wooden wall design. There is an onsen adjacent to the station. Peerawat Jariyasombat

Yakuoin Temple houses the Izuna Gongen god from Mahayana Buddhism. The statue is kept inside the pavilion, behind a door, but worshippers can contact the god by holding ropes leading to the statue inside. Peerawat Jariyasombat

On the way to Yakuoin Temple, there are a number of Jizo, one of the most beloved of all Japanese divinities. Jizo, a Bodhisattva in the shape of a novice, eases suffering and shortens the sentence of those serving time in hell, and fulfils wishes for better living, health, success, children and other general petitions. Jizos have achieved enlightenment but postponed their Buddhahood until they have saved mankind. Peerawat Jariyasombat

People come to the Yakuoin Temple to pray to the Tengu mountain god, a kind of Shinto god who has two versions. The first version, Krarasu Tengu, is half man, half bird, who lives in a forest and is a martial arts master. Japanese legend say Tengus handed down martial arts to mankind. The more powerful Dai Tengu has a red human face with a long nose and white hair. They may transfer some of their legendary skills such as swordsmanship or knowledge to mankind. For the Japanese, Tengu represents freedom. Tengu is found in different forms such as a doll or a cartoon character. Peerawat Jariyasombat

Another statue of Izuna Gongen god is in front of the white pagoda nearby. The pagoda in the back houses a Buddha relic presented by the Royal Thai Government in 1991. Peerawat Jariyasombat

Ukai Toriyama Restaurant is very impressive. It can fascinate diners with a stunning Japanese garden set on both sides of a crystal clear stream. Every detail is delicately decorated in traditional Japanese style. Grilled chicken becomes a very special dish when served here. Peerawat Jariyasombat


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