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Tokyo’s Best-Kept (Daytrip) Secret

Located in the neighboring prefecture of Chiba sits Mt. Nokogiri (鋸山), home to Japan’s largest sitting daibutsu (大仏/Great Buddha statue).

Founded in 725, Nihonji Temple is widely regarded as the region’s only Nara Period temple that was built by imperial decree. It was not until the late 1700s, however, that construction of the daibutsu was begun (1783). Having changed sects multiple times over its years, Nihonji is now a Soto Zen temple.

With a cable car to the summit—in addition to shuttle buses and taxis to the parking area—effort has clearly been made to make the area as convenient as possible. While this seems rather unnecessary as the mountain is only 330 m (1,100 ft) and a relatively easy hike, some will no doubt appreciate the option. Once up top, there are a number of mostly paved courses to wander.

The mountain makes for an ideal daytrip for anyone in the Tokyo, Chiba, or Kanagawa area looking for a welcome respite from everyday city living. There is no need for a guide or any “mountaineering” experience. Just go.

buddha

WHAT TO SEE
At each of the temple entrances are English-language maps and information brochures. These will offer a “best route” covering the mountain’s four main points of interest. Which entrance you decide on does not matter all that much, as you can easily visit all the points regardless of where you enter. There is a ¥600 (US$5) entrance fee to the temple.

The daibutsu here at Nihonji is more than just a little impressive. Towering above visitors, it stands over 31 m (100 ft) and has been sculpted directly into the mountain. By comparison, the famous daibutsu at Kamakura and Nara are freestanding statues made from cast metal and (not including their bases) only measure 13m (42 ft) and 15 m (49 ft), respectively.

From the daibutsu, there are a series of walkways leading up to the summit, with plenty to see and multiple courses (that basically all loop together). As such, you should probably plan on at least a few hours to take in all the sights.

routes

Not to miss is jigoku nozoki (地獄覗き/“a view of hell”). Near the summit, this is a lookout point where you can peer straight down some pretty massive cliffs. The lookout also offers a breathtaking view of the surrounding area, as well as a great photo op as the overhang is quite gnarly looking. Just across from here is an adjoining lookout spot and rest area that you can safely walk out on to get a great view/picture of the overhang.

lookout

Down below this area is hyaku shaku kannon (百尺観音/”hundred Japanese-foot Kannon”), a 30 m (100 ft) high relief carving of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Set inside a giant doorway-shaped alcove, this is impressive in its own right. If taking the main trail up the mountain, this will be one of the first sights you encounter upon entering the temple grounds.

kannon

The final “must” is 1500 Arhat Approach, a path with hundreds of stone-carved Buddhist statues. Ranging on average from 30 to 100 cm (1–3.5 ft), these statues are spread out among the many small caves and nooks along the path. Supposedly no two are alike and their faces, when recognizable, show a multitude of expressions.

The path can be accessed either coming up from or going down to the daibutsu, though there is a more direct route that avoids this trail. Quite a few of the statues remain in great condition, while others have been vandalized or beheaded (many since restored) during an anti-Buddhist movement early in the Meiji Period (1868–1912). While the name implies an original 1,500 statues, there does not appear to be anywhere near this number anymore. Whatever the total, it is still a very cool walk.

FOOD
There are a number of restaurants near Kanaya Port, and while all are more than acceptable nothing really stands out. Many of these do, however, offer great ocean views, especially at sunset.

The souvenir shop in front of the ferry terminal has plenty of Japanese snacks (many particular to this region), and there is also a 7/11 convenience store nearby, which offers typical conbini food.

If you plan on hiking then bringing a pack lunch is probably your best bet. Please make sure to “pack it in, pack it out,” though. This applies to PET bottles and plastic bento trays as well, so maybe keep a plastic bag on hand for refuse. Even if there are trash receptacles, it is considered polite in Japan to take care of your own waste.

Other than that, there are a few mom & pop shops along the walk towards the cable car, including ramen and other typical Japanese local cuisine. While the food in these places is also (and unfortunately) nothing special, the atmosphere is quite bucolic.

sunset

ACCESS
Taking the train is always an option in Japan. In this case, it just isn’t a very good one. The line tends to have only one train every hour, and while the scenery along the coast is nice, the train is a local and makes stops often. Translation: You will become bored rather quickly.

From Tokyo Station, it takes approximately 2–2.5 hours, and costs ¥1,940 (US$15). From the station, take the Sobu Line to Chiba Station. Transfer to the Uchibo Line and exit at Hota Station. With only the one transfer, this is the easiest way to get there.

At Hota Station, there are shuttle buses and taxis available to take you to the parking area just below the daibutsu. The shuttle buses are rather infrequent, though, and probably should not be relied on. As an alternative, Hamakanaya Station is one stop before Hota. If you get off the train here instead then it is just a 10–15 minute walk along the main road to the cable car. This is also where you would get off if going hiking, but more on that in a moment.

Another option via public transportation—and one that is a bit more adventurous and a lot more fun— is from Tokyo Station to take the Keikyu Line to Kurihama Station. Once there, take either a bus or taxi to Kurihama Port and get on the Tokyo Bay Ferry going to Kanaya. This is about a 40-minute ferry ride, and it’s a nice change of pace to be out on the sea. Tickets are ¥1,320 (US$10) for roundtrip, and are valid for seven days.

From Kanaya Port you have two choices, hike up the mountain (on one of two very easy trails) or take the cable car. If you have kids then it is understandable if you choose to take the cable car (¥500 one way; ¥930 roundtrip), but for those with two working feet it seems a bit of a waste.

You might need to ask a local where the main trailhead is, as it is somewhat behind an onsen (温泉/hot spring) off the main road, well before the cable car. But it is easy enough to find if you are looking, and the trail is well maintained. The other trail actually starts at the cable car, and seems more like a service route for maintenance staff. While it can be surprisingly overgrown in areas, especially after the rainy season when the grass grows tall and the trail is narrow in areas, it is easy enough to lightly bushwhack your way through, and the main trail should not require any such effort.

While the trails may average only 30–45 minutes in length, there are plenty of paved walking paths on top of the mountain that connect the different sightseeing spots. The path from the upper cable car station that heads toward the daibutsu is actually unpaved for a section and requires a pair of relatively comfortable shoes, so you might want to take that into consideration.

Whichever route you end up taking, as long as the weather is nice, you won’t be disappointed.

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