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Vegetarian's Japan Guide

The Best Guide to Mt. Hiei – Kyoto’s Most Sacred Destination

Mt. Hiei or Hieizan (比叡山), a mountain lying on the border between Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures, is considered one of the Three Holiest Places in Japan together with Kōyasan (高野山) and Mt. Osore (恐山). The worship halls and pagodas of the World Heritage Enryakuji Temple (延暦寺) are scattered throughout the mountain. The temple, which is the headquarter of Japan’s Tendai sect, has nurtured well-respected monks throughout history. Mt. Hiei was also the training ground for many founders of other sects in Japan. This is why the mountain is also known as the mother of Japanese Buddhism.

Whilst Mt Hiei is a religious tourism destination, it is also the main stage of many famous historical events in the turbulent period between the 12th century and the Sengoku period ending in 1615. To fully appreciate the remnants of the warring period in this area, the rest of this article will attempt to enrich your trip to Mt. Hiei with some prior knowledge of its history.

Although Enryakuji was registered as Kyoto’s World Heritage, its administrative area is actually Ōtsu City (大津市) in Shiga Prefecture.

A List of Contents

Explore Mt. Hiei and Sakamoto With a Guided Tour

If you prefer to be guided when you visit Mt. Hiei/Sakamoto, how about joining the below tour?

How to Get to Mt. Hiei

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Because Mt. Hiei is at the border of two prefectures, you can head up the mountain from Kyoto and end your visit at Shiga Prefecture, or vice versa. That was the approach we took when we visited Enryakuji previously, as the plan was to explore Shiga Prefecture after visiting Mt. Hiei.

For more information, refer to our article on How to Get to Mt. Hiei and Enryaku-ji!

You can also refer to our itinerary HERE!

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The Three Areas of Mt. Hiei

As per Buddhist doctrine, killing on the grounds of Enryakuji was forbidden. The vast precinct of Mt. Hiei is divided into three areas (refer to below). And just to be clear, there is no temple in the mountain called Enryakuji. It is the collective name for all temples in Mt. Hiei. The name Enryakuji is derived from the Enryaku era of Japan when the temples were erected.

For more information, refer to our article on the Tōdō Area!

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Ninaido-Saito-Mt.-Hiei-Shiga-Japan

For more information, refer to our article on the Saitō Area!

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For more information, refer to our article on the Yokawa Area!

Enryakuji’s Opening Hours and Admission Fee

  • The Tōdō area is open from 9 am to 4 pm.
  • The Saitō and Yokawa area is open from
    • 9 am to 4 pm from March to November
    • 9:30 am to 4 pm from December to February
  • The admission fee is
    • 1,000 yen for adults
    • 600 yen for high school students
    • 300 yen for elementary school students

Please keep the admission ticket at all times before leaving Enryakuji. It gives you access to the temple’s three areas.

Where to Go for Lunch and Staying at Mt. Hiei

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Nowadays, most of the restaurants in Mt. Hiei are no longer vegetarian. The best place to head to for lunch is Enryakuji Kaikan (延暦寺会館) in the Tōtō area. It is where you can spend a night at Enryakuji. The meals served in the restaurant on the second floor are all vegan. Not only is the food delicious, but the restaurant overlooks Japan’s biggest lake, Lake Biwa!

For more information, refer to our Enryakuji Kaikan article!

How to Make an Accommodation Reservation at Enryakuji Kaikan

Enryakuji Kaikan’s accommodation reservation can be made through their website HERE. If you are asked for a postcode, you can put in 000-0000, meaning overseas.

How Long Does it Take to Explore Mt. Hiei?

It is recommended to allocate a whole day to Mt. Hiei. This is especially the case if you rely on public transport or plan to get to different parts of the mountain on foot. Below is a general guide to how long you might spend in each area.

  • Tōdō (東塔): 2.5 – 3 hours (assuming you will check out the treasure hall – Kokuhō-den (国宝殿))
  • Saitō (西塔): Around an hour
  • Yokawa (横川): Around an hour

Please refer to HERE for a map of Mt. Hiei/Enryakuji Temple. If you love hiking, there are a few hiking trails marked in different colors on the map.

Tip: Download the Hieizan Enryakuji Temple guide app that will guide you around the sacred mountain when you get there. To do so, please refer to HERE!

Moving Between Each Area in Mt. Hiei

  • Between Saitō to Yokawa:
    • Around 90 minutes on foot
    • Around 10 minutes by bus
  • Between Tōdō to Saitō:
    • Around 20 – 30 minutes on foot
    • Around 5 minutes by bus
  • Between Tōdō to Yokawa:
    • Around 15 minutes by bus

Shuttle Bus Services at Enryakuji

Shuttle buses depart every 30 minutes from 9:30 am to 5 pm throughout the non-winter seasons. It is especially advisable to utilize the service if you want to get to Yokawa from Saitō because 5 km is a long way to trek.

While in Japanese, refer to HERE and click the first PDF file for the service’s timetable.

Important: The shuttle bus is not operating from the beginning of December to late March. If you plan to drive to Mt. Hiei during this period of the year, please equip your car with snow gear.

Getting the 1-Day Bus Pass to Save

If you plan to explore all three areas of Mt. Hiei, getting the 1-Day Bus Pass will save you money (refer to the last two photos in the IG post). From Tōdō to Yokawa, a one-way trip will cost you 700 yen. So a return trip will cost more than the price of the bus pass at 1,000 yen.

You can get the bus pass on board or from one of the places below.

  • On the bus from the bus driver.
  • Enryakuji Bus Center
  • Cable Sakamoto Station (ケーブル坂本駅)
  • Eizan Electric Railway’s (叡山電車) Demachiyanagi Station (出町柳駅)
  • L’Hotel de Hiei (ロテルド比叡)

If you read Japanese, refer to the official website HERE for more details.

Tip: Show your valid bus pass for a discount at Enryakuji Kaikan’s cafe and Enryakuji Kaikan’s souvenir shop. You can also receive a discount on the admission fee to Garden Museum Hiei (ガーデンミュージアム比叡).

The Best Time to Visit Mt. Hiei

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The most popular tourist season is in the fall, from late October to mid-November.

Summer is also a popular time when people come to the mountain for some cool air.

What to Wear When Visiting Mt. Hiei

Enryakuji is located at an elevation of 848 meters. There are many slopes and staircases throughout its precinct that you will be trekking through. So, travel as lightly as possible. Don’t forget the temperature difference between the mountains and the city’s center. So do bring extra clothes/jackets, especially during the chilly seasons.

Also, you will want to wear comfortable shoes and avoid wearing skirts or dresses.

The same applies if you are driving up the mountain. Try to lighten your car before you head up, as the heavier your car is, the slower it will be when climbing up Mt. Hiei.

A Brief History of Enryakuji

Enryakuji was founded by the revered monk Saichō (最澄) in 788. In the Kamakura period (1192 – 1333), along with Mt. Togakushi and Kōyasan, Mt. Hiei was known as Sanzenbō Sanzan (三千坊三山), which was used to describe the enormous number of practitioners and worshipers that were once gathered at Mt. Hiei. The three areas in Mt. Hiei are home to approximately 150 temples scattered over a combined 500-hectare precinct.

Saichō was the second son of the Sakamoto Clan, a powerful family based at the foot of Mt. Hiei back in the Heian period (794 – 1165). Instead of living a wealthy life, he left home at the age of 12 to study Buddhism. In the year 785, when he was 19, he entered Mt. Hiei and started his training in the mountain.

Three years later, he carved a statue of Yakushi Nyora and established a small and simple temple named Ichijō-Kaikanin (一乗止観院). This formed the starting point of Enryakuji.

Becoming the Guardian Temple of Kyoto

Since ancient times, the Japanese regarded the cardinal direction, “Northeast”, as where the human realms meet the realm of demons. Thus, the older capitals of the country had a temple or a shrine built in that direction.

As for Kyoto, northeast of the city center is where Mt. Hiei is. Hence, the mountain was also responsible for protecting Kyoto from any evil spirits.

Enryakuji – Gaining Its Power

In the mid-Heian period, countless monks undertook intense training at Mt. Hiei. Eventually, with substantial financial support from powerful families, Enryakuji expanded to an organization that functions similarly to an independent nation with its armed force served by monks.

The temple became so powerful that even the imperial court couldn’t control it at the time. This was when the 6th Shōgun of the Muromachi shogunate – Ashikaga Yoshinori (足利義教), subjugated Enryakuji in the early 15th century. However, Ashikaga was later assassinated at the bidding of Akamatsu Noriyasu (赤松教康). Once again, Mt. Hiei regained its power, amassing tens of thousands of monks in the temple’s army during the Sengoku period (1467 – 1615).

During the Sengoku period, Mt. Hiei was no longer a place to practice Buddhism. Under its influence, many became monks there only to drink alcohol and womanize. Oda Nobunaga’s army later attacked the temple in 1571 as it had sided with the Asakura (朝倉氏) and Asai Clans (浅井氏), who opposed Oda.

Towards the end of the Sengoku period, Enryakuji was slowly restored by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. The reconstruction of Konpon Chūdō (根本中堂), which is the main training ground of Mt. Hiei, was completed with the support of the 3rd Shōgun of Tokugawa Shogunate – Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光).

Click HERE to return to a list of temples in Mt. Hiei.

Ichigū wo Terasu (一隅を照らす)

Throughout Enryakuji’s precinct, you will see the phrase, Ichigū wo Terasu (一隅を照らす) or Ichigū wo Terasō (一隅を照らそう).

The phrase is one of Saichō’s teaching. It means become the light for others and do one’s best at all time. In doing so, a beautiful and peaceful world can be created that everyone can live in happiness and have a fulfilled life.

His teaching is symbolized by the three lanterns at Konpon Chūdō. Known as the Fumetsu no Hōtō (不滅の法灯), the lights that has been illuminated the space around them since Enryakuji’s foundation haven’t been put off for the last 1,200 years.

In 1969, the Ichigū wo Terasu movement was launched by the Japanese Tendai Sect. The movement doesn’t just focus on the traditional Buddhist practices, such as chanting or sutra copying, but also involves various charity activities on a global scale. As a result, the temples under the Tendai Sect in Japan has contributed to initiatives with positive impacts on environment and our societies.

Thus, you can see the phrase not only at Enryakuji, but also any Tendai Sect temples in Japan.

Other Attractions Unrelated to Enryakuji in Mt. Hiei

Besides the temples and museums in Enryakuji’s precinct, there are a couple more attractions in Mt. Hiei.

Garden Museum Hiei (ガーデンミュージアム比叡)

The first attraction that you will encounter after you step out of the ropeway station at the top of Mt. Hiei isn’t a temple but a French-style garden museum (´▽`*).

The garden was designed by a French designer with the motif of works drawn by French Impressionist painters. The artworks at Garden Museum Hiei are reproductions of the work of famous painters such as Monet, Renoir, and Van Gogh. Unlike a conventional museum where paintings would be displayed in exhibition halls, they are instead placed outdoors.

As you stroll around the garden, you will find paintings placed on ceramic plates here and there. This indicates that the garden view behind it replicates the scene in these paintings!

The flower season at Garden Museum Hiei is from mid-April all the way to mid-November.

Ⓒ 京阪電車

For the garden’s map, please refer to HERE.

From the rose garden, you can get a wide view of the beautiful Lake Biwa. On the other side of the garden, the landscape of Kyoto City unfolds below you.

Tips:
☛ Keep your admission ticket even after you exit the museum. You can use the same ticket to enter the garden again on the same day!
☛ You can rent a pram for 300 yen per day. Wheelchair rental is free.

Garden Museum Hiei’s Opening Hours, Admission Fee, and Access Information

  • The garden is open from
    • 10 am to 5:30 pm from mid-April to October
    • 10 am to 5 pm from November to the beginning of December
    • The last admission is 30 minutes before the garden closes for the day.
  • The admission fee is
    • 1,200 yen for junior high school students and above
    • 600 yen for elementary school students
    • Free otherwise
  • From late November, you will receive a 50% discount on the admission fee specified above.
  • Garden Museum Hiei is next to Eizan Ropeway’s Hieisancho Station (比叡山頂駅). If you plan to take Mt. Hiei’s shuttle bus, please get off at Hiei Sancho (比叡山頂).

Click HERE to return to a list of temples in Mt. Hiei.

Yumemigaoka Observation Deck (夢見が丘展望台)

Ⓒ photo-ac.com

If you are driving to Mt. Hiei or are staying at L’Hotel de Hiei (ロテルド比叡), stop by Yumemigaoka Observation Deck on Hieisan Driveway for a view overlooking Lake Biwa!

The observation deck is well known as a great spot for Ōtsu City’s night view. But you can also get a stunning sunrise view from here if you are an early bird!

At the back of the observation deck, there is a cafe and also a few somewhat exciting rides, such as a cycle monorail.

Important: Please note the facilities mentioned above are closed from late November to late March.

If you are in Japan in early August, Yumemigaoka Observation Deck is a great place to be for the Lake Biwa Fireworks Festival (びわ湖大花火大会).

Usually held around the 8th of August, around 10,000 fireworks are launched into the night sky.

But you better arrive early as this is Shiga Prefecture’s biggest and most popular fireworks event, with around 350,000 people gathering around Lake Biwa!

Ⓒ photo-ac.com

Click HERE to return to a list of temples in Mt. Hiei.

Hiyoshi Taisha Shrine (日吉大社)

If you visit Mt. Hiei from Shiga Prefecture, you can first stop by Hiyoshi Taisha. The shrine is particularly stunning for its autumn color. Also, if you are a fan of Rurouni Kenshin, you will want to visit the shrine because one of the scenes in the movie was set here!

For more information, please refer to our article on Hiyoshi Taisha (=゚ω゚)ノ.

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Discover Sakamoto, The Town that Thrived at the Foot of Mt. Hiei

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Click the photo to find out where you can get this awesome photo yourself!

Your trip to Mt. Hiei won’t be complete unless you stop by Sakamoto, a town that thrived because of Enryakuji.

A couple of shrines and temples in the small town have a deep connection with Mt. Hiei. One is particularly popular because of this reflection photo on the left!

For more information, please refer to our article on Sakamoto (=゚ω゚)ノ.

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