Day hike from Tokyo: The big mountain

[Visited on July 9th, 2022]

There is a specific mountain that I use as a benchmark for my physical ability after a long break from hiking. I climb it so often, that I know every turn and every rock by now. Even its name is blunt: Mt. Ooyama – the big mountain. But don’t let this description fool you, the hike to the top of Mt. Ooyama is more than a simple pleasure.

The bottom shrine (下社) of Mt Ooyama

Mt. Ooyama (大山), with its 1,252 m tall stature, is one of the peaks at the edge of the Tanzawa mountain range. It is one of the most famous mountains in Kanagawa and a popular pilgrimage location since the Edo era. The custom dictated that pilgrims should carry a wooden sword to the top of the mountain, to devote it to the gods. The beauty of the mountain and the surrounding valley has been captured by famous ukiyo-e (woodblock) painters. Among them, Katsushika Hokusai (the one with the wave off Kanagawa) and Utagawa Hiroshige (the one with the 100 views of Edo).

A large torii gate at the shopping street outside Isehara station
Views of Ooyama by Utagawa (Ando) Hiroshige
(Valley of Approach at Ooyama in Sagami Province, 1852)
People bathing at a waterfall in Ooyama by Katsushika Hokusai
(Roben Waterfall at Ooyama in Sagami Province, 1827)

But first things first. To reach Mt. Ooyama, you need to get off at Isehara station and take a bus to the shopping street and the rope way. While on the bus, you are going to notice an abundance of rivers and streams. It is not by chance that Ooyama has the most famous tofu in Kanto. Clear running water is an essential ingredient to tasty tofu. Every year in March, a tofu festival is held in the area, which includes Shinto rituals and folk performances. In the past, the shops and inns were kept by monks. They would make wooden spintops (独楽, koma) and distribute them as lucky charms to the pilgrims who stayed at the inns. A spinning top is auspicious because it symbolizes money moving around, and to be frank, who doesn’t want a bit more money.

Don’t forget to count the tops along the pavement to solve the quiz at the beginning of the path
The rope way to the bottom shrine of Mt. Ooyama

Here is where you need to make an important decision. Although I mentioned a rope-way, I highly recommend climbing the steps up to Ooyama shrine. If you have trust in your knees, that is. At this mountain as well, there are two ways to climb up: either by the otoko-zaka (男坂, man slope) or the onna-zaka (女坂, woman-slope). Technically, otoko-zaka is harsher, steeper, but faster. Onna-zaka is supposed to be smoother and easier (for fragile ladies, I guess?). I can tell you that while this is mostly true, there is not such a big difference in difficulty between the two. Both have tall stone steps that go straight up and are covered by lush greenery. However, onna-zaka is lit up at sunset, therefore is safer for the way back.

The steps at otoko-zaka (they do not end, I warn you)
After a while, tree roots take the place of stone steps
More stairs

After a lot of steps and a few plateaus, you will reach the top station of the rope way. You are going to be all sweaty and sticky from the humidity, trust me. Three shops are there to quell your thirst and hunger, one of which even serves delicacies from the German cuisine and cold beers. Stop and catch a breath, because the path hasn’t even started yet. Immediately above the shops is the shrine of Mt. Ooyama. Actually, the shrine is split in two. The main shrine is at the top of the mountain, so this one at 696 m is the bottom shrine (下社, shimosha). From here, you can enjoy a clear view of the sea, including Enoshima and the Izu islands. Three gods are enshrined in Ooyama shrine: Ikazuchi, the god of thunder, Ama, the god of fishermen, and Toriiwakusubune, the god of ships. Before Meiji Restoration and the separation of religions, shinto faith was merged with Buddhism. Therefore, Ooyama temple, which is located a bit lower on the mountain, was also part of this religious complex.

Beware of bears …
… and deer
Shaved ice with syrup (kakigori) to cool you down

Did you notice the clouds and the drizzle? The alternative name of the mountain is Mt. Afuri (阿夫利山 or 雨降り山), a homonym to the phrase ‘rainy mountain’. If you were in dire need of a rainfall, that’s where you had to pray at. Another nickname is Mt. Kunimi (国見山), the one who ‘observes the nation’. The stature of Mt. Ooyama used to stand out when viewed from Edo (Tokyo) and was in line with Mt. Fuji. So, it appeared as a caretaker of the realm.

The staircase from the rope way station to Afuri shrine
Afuri shrine on a sunny day

There are a few cool things at the shrine, like statues of the twelve Chinese zodiac signs, a propaganda statue of school students and a brand new luxury café with maccha tiramisu and an awesome night view to the Sagami bay.

On the left side of the shrine building, you will find the entrance for the path to the mountain top. From here, it takes approximately 2 hours to reach the top. Expect fog and low-hanging clouds to come and greet you. You may be slightly rained on, but that’s OK. I don’t mind the humidity at this point, because it is not hot anymore. Temperature drops fast with altitude. The path is more rocky and uneven from here on. You may come across deer, peacefully grazing on grass. They are not scared of people – but they don’t come close either. One time, a deer appeared at the end of the path, amid the fog, under a tiny hole in the clouds from where sunlight could pass through. My Japanese friend thought it looked magnificent, like a messenger from the mountain gods.

The path to the mountain top is rocky and foggy
Sometimes, this is what it looks like outside the path
Stone lanterns covered in moss
The top of Mt Ooyama

At the top, you will find the main shrine, which is usually unmanned. There is also a mountain hut that serves soups and noodles, with a lot of benches. Did you ever wonder how the materials reach the hut? Well, it’s actually a part-time job. There’s a poster with the job description on the wall. Anyone can do it as long as they are capable of carrying 20-30 kg of materials and equipment to the hut, on foot. I’ve met a couple of those guys during my hikes in Kanto. Their thighs are huge, and they huff and puff from the weight, but somehow still manage to move faster than me. One time, I met a guy at the top, who was cosplaying as a neon-green sailor moon. I’m still not sure how they managed to hike on white heels or how they kept a full make-up intact from sweat. It seems I’m the weakest of them all.

Job description for those who want to carry stuff to the mountain hut
The inner shrine at the top of Mt. Ooyama

Now, you can either return the same way as you came, or be smart and take a slightly different route to the Miharashidai (viewpoint). Not only will you freshen up from the change in the landscape, you will also have a greater chance of meeting wild deer. Moreover, you can get a glimpse of Niju falls and the water dragon that protects it.

The benches at Miharashi-dai viewpoint
The rest of the mountain range
Niju falls
A wild deer on the path (and my Japanese friend in the back)

Back to simosha, and in order to make a nice loop, it’s better to take the onna-zaka. This passes through Ooyama temple. What’s the difference between shrine and temple, you ask? Shrine refers to Shinto religion, while temple refers to Buddhism. This temple was important for Tokugawa Iemitsu, one of the shogun. To be honest, in its current state, it’s probably the most untidy temple I’ve come across. Stone statues and repair equipment are scattered around, without any care. Nevertheless, it still looks quite pleasant. Statues of the 7 local seven lucky gods are guarding the path on the way down, so be sure to count them and receive their blessings.

The main hall of Ooyama temple
Buddhist statues with swords guarding the stairs to Ooyama temple

Most probably, by the time that you reach the shopping street at the base station of the rope way, almost all shops will be closed. There are a few restaurants that serve set menus with Japanese cuisine and local tofu. I usually just wash the mud off my boots at the rest area next to the bus stop, and grab a few packs of tofu at the shop just across. Instead of ice packs, they give you a bag of tofu scraps for cooling. Be careful, those are not edible!

A few surviving hydrangeas at the shopping street at the cable car

How did you like Mt. Ooyama? Did the humidity from the pictures reach you? You can check out today’s route at Alltrails. Stay tuned for the next post, there are a lot of hidden paths that I’m dying to tell you about!

Mt Ooyama loop from and to the bus station below the rope way

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