Planning for a day trip from Kyoto ??.. I would highly recommend visiting mount Hiei.. Although it was not a popular tourist place, it was totally awesome. Visiting Enryakuji Temple at Mount Hiei are one of my favorite memory in Kansai trip early this year. The temple is situated on Mount Hieizan, near Lake Biwa (the largest lake in Japan) which lies on the border of Kyoto prefecture and Shiga prefacture. The Enryakuji Temple is a UNESCO world heritage site and is also a great religious importance being on of National Treasures and figures among the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto”. The Enryakuji Temple is in fact a huge Buddhist complex containing 3000 Buddhist temples, shrines, toriis, places for meditation, bell towers, lecture halls.
But what I love most about this place is not about the temple, but the whole ambiance. The place, the view, the journey, the environment, and the most important… the snow !!!… Its already end of winter season when we visited this place and we were quite surprise to see thick snow covering the mountain once we reached the top. Actually, the temperature on the mountain was few degrees lower than the below. The view of the temples with the background of white snow really beautiful. And top of the mountain also offers a spectacular view of Japan’s biggest lake, Lake Biwako. Anyone who want to visit Mount Hiei should spare at least half a day for it. Both Sakamoto and Mount Hiei are best covered on foot.
The Enryakuji Temple was actually accessible from either Kyoto by Eizan Cablecar and ropeway, or from Shiga side by Sakamoto Cablecar. Since we were visiting during winter season, both Eizan Cablecar and ropeway was not operated, so we did longer route from Kyoto to Shiga. This route is less favored by travel guides, but in fact you see more rural Japan and beat the crowd. Although it took longer time and further, but its totally worth it. The the best part is the whole journey is covered in the Kansai 3day Pass, including the Cablecar. Huge saving for us…
From Kyoto, we took the Keihan Railways line to Keihan Sakamoto Station. The 1hr train ride itself was quite exciting, passing through the countryside, looking at the glittering Lake Biwa-ko come into sight through train window on our right, and the luxuriant green of the range of Mount Hieizan, on the left. Leaving the station, we walk uphill through Sakamoto historic town along mossy stone walls, seeing temples, shrines and numbers of small streams from Hiei-zan. Sakamoto is famous for its beautiful stone walls and designated as an important traditional structures preservation area. In the tranquil precincts nestled in calm and deep cedar forest, we can feel that religions in Japan have an intimate relation with nature. Sakamoto once flourished as the temple town of the retired monks of the Enryakuji Temple.
We walked for about 1.5 km from the train station until we reached the Sakamoto Cable car station. We heads up to Hiei-zan by taking the scenic ride on the Sakamoto Cable which is the longest cableway (2025m) in Japan. The rides only takes 11 minutes to the top, and in any case the cableway is worth taking for the view it offers. We had beautiful views of Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan and saw some snow covering the trees along the way. Once reached the top station, we were very excited to see the whole place was covered by snow !!!. And yes.. its cold !!.. It was -2 degree at the top, compared to 2 degree at the bottom of mount Hiei.
After a 10-minute walk from the top station, we will arrive at To-do (Eastern-pagoda) area of the Enryakuji temple complex. The temple complex was huge, consisting of three separate areas, Todo is the main and largest one, and the other two, Saito and Yokawa… If you want to see all three of them and prefer a slow travel pace, you can easily spend the entire day on the mountain. But if you limit yourself just to the main Eastern area (Todo), the main sights can be covered in 1-2 hours on a normal pace. However, I spent almost 3 hours strolling around To-do area of Enryakuji temple complex. The area was very interesting . It’s a serene area, with white snow covering the temple compound and every footpath leading you to one of its numerous temples. It’s hard to pick out my favourite temple/building, but I recommend you visit each one. Just make sure to have enough time to see everything, because during winter season, the Sakamoto Cable car operates only until 4.30pm.
Finally, on our way back, again we stopped to enjoy the beautiful panorama towards the Biwa Lake before taking the second last cable car down mount Hiei.
Temple’s admission fee : 550 yen