Mount Hiei – A fascinating Japan experience not to be missed

Mount Hiei | A fascinating Japan experience not to be missed

Explore the mountains where humans become superhumans,

and be amazed with the indescribable natural beauty and serenity that exists

among the towering cedar trees here.

Georgina

Mount Hiei – The holy mountain in Kyoto

Mount Hiei, regarded as the holy mountain in Kyoto makes a nice little escape from the maddening crowds of other Kyoto’s main attraction. What makes this destination fascinating is the quietness and peacefulness that exists here that transports you to a totally different world of complete zen! All of it within only a stone’s throw away from the chaos of the city below. This is a mountain where history and modernity meets in relation to Japanese culture and religion. A sacred mountain believed to turn ordinary humans in pursuit of enlightenment to super beings for their endurance and perseverance. A truly fascinating Japan experience not to be missed when visiting Kyoto.

As for me, walking in the dense forest of towering cedar trees, somehow made me feel good. I was totally amazed with the unspoiled natural beauty and serenity that exists here which is indescribable. There were moments when I was the only one among the trees. Navigation around the footpaths were convenient and pleasant. The area is well tended and has clear footpaths leading to various buildings in the mountain.

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The path leading to Todo tells the story of Buddhism and its leaders
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The path leading to Todo tells the story of Buddhism and its leaders | Image: georgina_daniel
Mount Hiei and the temples around the mountain.
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Mount Hiei and the temples around the mountain. There are several with walking/hiking routes which one could follow easily | Image: georgina_daniel

Why is Mt Hiei known as Sacred Mountain

Mount Hiei is popularly known as a sacred mountain because it is home to the “Marathon Monks” often regarded as “super humans”. These super human “Marathon Monks” uphold centuries old traditions – they preserve, observe and practise them today and in many ways as exactly as was practised many centuries ago. This mountain is one of the few places in Japan where tradition and history exists alongside a modern world.

I have uploaded a short video below for you to watch to get an idea of why the monks of Mount Hiei are called “Marathon Monks”

Besides being popularly known as a sacred mountain and the infamous “marathon monks” associated to this mountain, there are many other reasons why you should visit this beautiful part of Kyoto. I have listed a few, about 6 of them here:

1 | Mount Hiei is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site

The whole of Mount Hiei is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the banner of “Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto”. The mountain is home to Enryakuji Temple where the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism was founded in 788. It was once, home to the “warrior monks” – currently home to the “marathon monks.”

2 | The rich history of Mount Hiei

The temples in Mount Hiei were the guardians of ancient Kyoto. One of the most important monasteries in Japanese history was established here over 1200 years ago.

The Enryakuji Temple, the heart of the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism was founded here in 788 by Saicho.

Saicho was a monk from China. He introduced the Tendai sect Buddhism in Japan and established the headquarters in the mountains of Hiei. The mountain became the holy mountain with 3,000 scattered temples and thousands of monks. In Japan’s history, Enryakuji was the home to the “warrior monks” who raided and terrified Kyoto City.

In order to remove all rivals and to unite the country, Shogun Nobunaga defeated these warrior monks and burned the Enryakuji complex down in 1571. The Enryakuji Temple was thereafter rebuilt during the Edo period and became the headquarters of the Tendai sect and remains as such till today.

3 | The “Marathon Monks” of Mount Hiei

Although the warrior monks are long gone, legend has it that Mount Hiei became home to another breed of monks called, the “marathon monks” who continue to remain here till today. “Marathon monks” are called as such because they are regarded as “super humans” to have to undergo a challenge known as “sennichi kaihogyo” – a “one-thousand day go around the peaks training” in search of enlightenment in the here and now.

3.1 | The One-thousand-day Challenge

The monks who set out on these one-thousand-day challenge will occasionally complete  it. The one-thousand-day challenge is a seven-year training period.

Initially, the Buddhist spiritual athlete or “gyoja” will begin a 100-day stretch of training period and the “gyoja” must cover 52.5 miles daily. During this 100-day training, the “gyoja” must decide whether he wants to take on the challenge of the remaining 900 days. To complete the challenge will be a test of his endurance, perseverance and both physical and mental strength because of his death-defying fasts, his vegetarian training diet and his handmade straw running shoes.

The “gyoja” dresses in pure white kimono and carries with him a sheathed knife. According to the Tendai Buddhist tradition, if he does not complete his prescribed marathon – the walks, runs and tasks, he must take his own life. In addition, he also carries a small bag which consists of his secret holy book which will guide him on his journey and the 250 prayer-stops he must make. Some will be to honour monks of the past who died by suicide because they failed on their challenge. The bag will also hold some candles, matches, a small bag of food offerings to the deities, and a rosary. The “gyoja” will use handmade straw sandals on his bare feet and carry a straw raincoat and paper lantern.

As you can imagine, to complete this challenge is truly a test of endurance, perseverance and of both physical and mental strengths. It is no surprise that only 46 monks have completed this one-thousand-day challenge since 1885.

3.2 | Find out more on Marathon Monks

If you are interested to find out more on the “Marathon Monks”, you can purchase “The Marathon Monks of Mount Hiei” by John Stevens (2013) for only £13.14 or much cheaper for a used copy from Amazon. To purchase your copy, click on the link below.

Watch this video on the monk who started his one-thousand-day journey. It gives an idea of what is expected of them to fulfil their journey with the use of just the straw sandals, paper lantern and a straw raincoat.

Watch Marathon Monks of Mt Hiei

Legendary seven year test of endurance that only a remarkable few have ever accomplished

4 | The historical Enryakuji Temple in Mount Hiei

Entrance to Enryakuji Temple Mount Hiei
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Entrance to Enryakuji Temple, Mount Hiei, Kyoto | Image: georgina_daniel
Enryakuji Temple in Mount Hiei
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Part of the Enryakuji Temple in Mount Hiei | Image: georgina_daniel
Enryakuji Temple at Mount Hiei
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Part of the buildings formingEnryakuji Temple and buildings in Mount Hiei, Kyoto | Image: georgina_daniel

As mentioned above, the Enryakuji Temple in Mount Hiei is the HQ of the Tendai sect of Japanese Buddhism. It is spread over three areas:

  • Todo > on the East;
  • Saito > on the West;
  • Yokawa > a few kilometres north of Todo and Saito
There are clear sign-posting available to get you to the temples in Mount Hiei.
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There are clear sign-posting available to get you to the temples in Mount Hiei.

All three sites are linked by hiking trails that will take you through the woods and tall cedar trees.

4.1 | Todo, on the East of Mount Hiei

Todo is the main area and is the heart of Enryakuji with its three-storey pagoda where the monastery was originally built in the 8th century.

The main buildings are also located here which includes the main hall, “Kom pon Chudo” and the Amida Hall which was added to the complex in 1937.

Mount Hiei | Like other temples, there are shops for souvenirs in Mount Hiei
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As with any visits to temples, you would always find shops for souvenirs, light refreshments and incense. You will find that Mount Hiei offer a great selection of these.

As Todo is the main area with many buildings, there were a number of tourists here. You can generally follow the crowd to get to the major attractions or you can explore on your own. I felt safe to do so, and I found the trails were well-signposted.

Enryakuji Temple and buildings in Mount Hiei, Kyoto

Enryakuji Temple and buildings in Mount Hiei, Kyoto
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Enryakuji Temple and buildings in Mount Hiei, Kyoto
Enryakuji Temple and buildings in Mount Hiei, Kyoto
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Enryakuji Temple and buildings in Mount Hiei, Kyoto | Image: georgina_daniel

A nice, quiet walk through the forest trail connects the Todo area to Saito.

4.2 | Saito on the West of Mount Hiei

Saito on the West houses many old buildings and amongst it is the mausoleum of the founder of Enryakuji Temple, Saicho. You will also find the Shaka Hall, the oldest building on the mountain.

Not too far off, you will find the Ninai Hall, where two halls are connected together by a central corridor.

Saito in Mount Hiei: Ninai Hall - Two buildings connected by a small passage
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Saito in Mount Hiei: Ninai Hall – Two buildings connected by a small passage

4.3 | Yokawa

Yokawa is on the north of Todo and Saito and is a little further. It is connected by a trail through woods. If you are feeling adventurous, I would urge you to make this trail through the woods, where you can admire the Chudo main hall which is built on wooden platform.

5 | A beautiful walk in the forest of Mount Hiei

As I walked along these trails, in the midst of lush greenery, I came come across many small buildings and temples, way-shrines tucked away in the middle of the forest in between the lush greens, bell towers, lecture halls and places for meditation. All these buildings are well-connected with stone-paved steps and trails with stone-lanterns along the way.

Stone lanterns along the trail, paves the way to explore what's beyond and in the forest.
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Stone lanterns along the trail, paves the way to explore what’s beyond and in the forest. These are easily accessible, walkable trails.
Stone-paved steps connects the buildings in Enryakuji Temple. Easily walkable.
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Mount Hiei: Stone-paved steps connects the buildings in Enryakuji Temple. Easily walkable.

One can imagine the beauty of the lighted lanterns in the evening or when in the dark – perhaps it is to light the path the monks once took before they entered the deep forest. It was pretty.

A walk in the forest of Mount Hiei will lead you to discover buildings and temples dotted around – sometimes to pray and sometimes a place to meditate.

Buildings and Temples dotted around the forest in Mount Hiei. Sometimes to pray and sometimes a place to meditate.
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Buildings and Temples dotted around the forest in Mount Hiei. Sometimes to pray and sometimes a place to meditate.
Buildings and Temples dotted around the forest in Mount Hiei
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Buildings and Temples dotted around the forest in Mount Hiei. Sometimes to pray and sometimes a place to meditate.

I spent some time walking around, lost in the moment of my own thoughts, taking-in the serenity and calmness of the mountain when I heard the bell.

6 | The huge bell at Enryakuji Temple, Mount Hiei

The huge bell everyone queues for to ring at least once in Mount Hiei. You can hear it in the most part of the forest.
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The huge bell everyone queues for to ring at least once in Mount Hiei. You can hear it in the most part of the forest.

I followed the sound and came to a huge bell where tourists were queuing-up to ring it. Every temple seems to have one of these but the bell at Enryakuji is huge, perhaps to signify its importance.

The bell has a huge wooden rod made from a log. The log is used to ring the bell. The bell is rung by a Buddhist faithful when entering a temple or when answering a call to worship. The bell symbolises wisdom and compassion which Buddhist believers and practitioners recognise as being the path to enlightenment. This particular site was very popular and to take a “tourist-free” photo was difficult!.

7 | My conclusion on Mount Hiei, Kyoto

Like I said, if you want to get away from the maddening crowd of Kyoto, Mount Hiei is the place to be. You could spend the day here and still get back to Kyoto in the evening and experience the nightlife of Gion-shiji.

In retrospect, when I left London for Osaka, I did not know of Mount Hiei. Being here, I found Mount Hiei to be an unforgettable Japan experience. It gave me an insight into Buddhism, the test of perseverance and courage that the infamous “marathon monks” endure in their one-thousand-day challenge. Walking through the peaceful forest was quite an experience for a city girl like me and I think I may have brought some of the serenity back with me.

I sincerely hope that you will visit Mount Hiei in Kyoto. Below are some useful information for you to consider that may help you make that visit.

8 | Travel tips and Useful Information

Mount Hiei is situated on the hills, northeast of Kyoto, on the border between Kyoto and Shiga Prefecture, Kyoto. It is at 850 metres (2500 feet) in elevation and at its summit, offers spectacular views over Old Kyoto and Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan. There are three ways to get to Mt Hiei using transportation, but it is more popular amongst hikers who can complete the hike up in a few hours – whichever way you choose to get up here, it will make a nice day trip for solo travellers, couples and families of any age.

8.1 | What route did I opt for to get up to Mount Hiei

I opted for the bus-ride up from Kyoto Station which was an hour, purely because I wanted to experience the ride. The roads were narrow but very skilfully manoeuvred by the driver. As you ascend, you will feel the coolness set in and feel your ears…and of course, you are rewarded with the picturesque views from the mountain and the valley below as you ascend. It was certainly different but good.

8.2 | Route to get back down to ground level from Mount Hiei

Sakamoto Cable car - A ride from Mount Hiei to Sakamoto Station was just 2 kilometres.
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Sakamoto Cable car – A ride from Mount Hiei to Sakamoto Station was just 2 kilometres. | Image: georgina_daniel

For my return journey, I opted to take the Sakamoto Cable car to the Shiga side. This route was to the base of the mountain at Sakamoto Station which was the nearest station to my next destination. A visit to Lake Biwa was next on my itinerary. This two-kilometres, 11-minute journey proved to be well-worth the money as it offered an awesome view directly over Lake Biwa and an opportunity to stroll through the town of Sakamoto.

View of Lake Biwa from the cable car ride down to Sakamoto
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View of Lake Biwa from the cable car ride down to Sakamoto | Image: georgina_daniel

9 | Other places to visit in Mount Hiei

There are other places which you may wish to visit in Mount Hiei. Below are some that may be of interest to you. I did not visit these places as I wanted to spend more time in the woods and make it to Lake Biwa for the sunset

9.1 | The Garden Museum, Hiei

This garden is about 1.7 hectares and is based on French impressionism and has about 100,000 blooms each year.

Entry: 1030 Yen

Opening times: 10:00 – 17:30 (Open later during summer and at night during summer weekends).

URL: http://www.garden-museum-hiei.co.jp/

9.2 | Tsukuri Soba

This soba restaurant is opened from 09:30 to 16:00

10 | Useful Information

  • Take a light jacket with you as the temperature drops very slightly;
  • Wear proper walking shoes or hiking boots;
  • Take a bottle of water with you and some light snacks if you wish to have a break while you are exploring.

11 | Getting to Mount Hiei: 3 routes

From Kyoto side – by Eizan Cable car and Ropeway

  • Take the Keihan Line from Kyoto Station and exit at Demachiyanagi Station, the last station/stop on the route;
  • From Demachiyanagi, ride to the summit of Mount Hiei on the Eizan Electric Railway, Eizan Cable and Eizan Ropeway;
  • The Eizan Electric Railway is a sightseeing line dotted with locations known for their harmonious balance of nature and the old capital such as Ohara, Kurama and Kibune. After about 15 minutes ride, you will arrive at Yase-Hieizanguchi Station. This part of your journey offers you with beautiful spring growth and autumn colours. There is a temple here, Ruriko-in Temple which has special openings in spring and autumn.
  • From Yase, take the Eizan Cable Car, which is another 15 minutes journey, to the top of Mount Hiei. This is one of the steepest ride in Japan. Thereafter, transfer to the ropeway which will take you all the way to the top of the 840-metre summit. The summit is about six degrees Celsius cooler than downtown Kyoto, so it may feel cold at the top. Take a light jacket with you even when you are visiting in the summer.

Fares:

Demachiyanagi Station to Yase-Hieizanguchi Station (Eizan Electric Railway):

Adults: 260 yen | Children: 130 yen

Eizan Cable Car: Adults: 540 yen | Children: 270 yen

Eizan Ropeway: Adults: 310 yen | Children: 160 yen

From the Shiga side

From Kyoto Station, take the JR Kosei Line to Hiei-Sakamoto Station;

This train journey is approximately 15 minutes. Alternatively, you may want to take the Shinkansen from Kyoto Station to Hiei-Sakamoto Station.

  • From Hiei-Sakamoto Station, it is a 15-minute walk to the lower station of the Sakamoto Cablecar, or a 5-minute bus ride;
  • The Cable car ride takes about 11 minutes;
  • From the upper station, the Todo area is about 5-10 minutes walk.

Kyoto Station to Hiei-Sakamoto Station (JR Kosei Line): Adult: 320 Yen (one-way);

Fares

Kyoto Station to Hiei-Sakamoto Station on the Shinkansen is covered by the JR Pass and you would not have to pay the 320 Yen.

Sakamoto Cable car: 860 Yen (one-way) or 1,620 Yen for a round-trip. You can purchase this ticket from a vending machine at the station.

By Bus

This route is a toll-road and there are direct buses from Kyoto Station and Sanjo Station (Keihan Line) to Hieizan’s Todo area.

  • From Kyoto Station > take Bus Line 57 that leaves from bus-stop C6. Lin-up for Mount Hiei
  • Journey time is one hour, one-way;
  • There are 4-6 buses a day;
  • Bus services do not operate between December and March.

Fares:

The one-way trip takes about one-hour and costs about 770 Yen.

12 | Opening hours

12.1 | Todo on the East:

March to November: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
December: 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
January and February: 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

12.2 | Saito on the West and Yokawa Area

March to November: 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
December: 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
January and February: 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

13 | Admission

You can get a combined ticket/pass to all three areas of Enryakuji Temple:

Adults: 700 yen


Was this article valuable to you in planning your visit to Mount Hiei? If so, do let me know in comments below or via the Contact form. I would love to hear from you.

.Happy Adventures!

February 2021, Update

February 2021, Update

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Mount Hiei Kyoto
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Mount Hiei Kyoto
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Mount Hiei
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Escape the maddening crowd of downtown Kyoto to the dense forest of towering cedar trees and experience the indescribable natural beauty and serenity that exists here. A detailed travel guide on what to see, do and how to get to this mountain. via @GGeorgina_mytimelessfootsteps/
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By Georgina

Georgina is a Travel Blogger, Travel Writer, history buff, wine (red) enthusiast and a lover of all cultures. She gave up the corporate race to embrace a more meaningful lifestyle to travel more, to write and to share the very best of her adventures. Georgina has lived in three continents, and now, based at a stone's throw of London, which is her home. She has a special interest to bring the best of Britain to her audiences worldwide. Becoming newer from each travel, Georgina enjoys sharing her travel stories, drawing her readers into her world of boomer adventures while immersing them in the history, culture and food of a region. Together with her own informative, in-depth writing style, practical tips and suggestions on her blog, My Timeless Footsteps, Georgina make travel dreams a reality. She is happiest waking up to the chirpy sounds of the birds or sipping wine over sand in between her toes, while watching the rolling clouds melt into darkness.

34 comments

  1. You will love, love, love Mount Hiei! So much to see in very peaceful surroundings – a world away from downtown Kyoto. Look forward to reading your experience. So glad you like my photos – thank you.

  2. Mount Hiei seems to be the kind of place I will enjoy. I have visited Kyoto but not been here yet. Your photographs are awesome! I have saved your blog and this place will be in my itinerary when I visit Japan next. 🙂

  3. You are welcome, Jay. I admire their inner strength and courage to take on that 1000 day challenge!. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I appreciate it very much.

  4. Mount Hiei is absolutely beautiful! If you like nature, peaceful retreat, then this is the place to be when visiting Kyoto. Thank you for your encouraging words on the availability of logistics on my post which, as you correctly mentioned, is to help anyone planning their trip to Mount Hiei. I appreciate your thoughts on my post very much.

  5. You are absolutely correct – it is off the beaten path to some extent. Mount Hiei is definitely a place to visit – I can’t recommend it high enough. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Karthika, I appreciate it.

  6. Great! Thank you so much, Anna. Glad you found the post on Mount Hiei informative. Also happy to know you will be visiting Kyoto. Look forward to reading your experiences.

  7. Thank you so much for your kind comments, Jennifer. Really happy you liked my post and especially the photos. Hope you will visit Japan soon. Look forward to your reading your experiences.

  8. A visit to Mount Hiei will be splendid! Hope to read your experiences there when you return . Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Sarah. I appreciate it.

  9. Sooo tough! Some have completed the challenge though. Mount Hiei is so peaceful and quiet that it is a world away from the busy downtown Kyoto. Thank you so much, Jennifer for sharing your thoughts on my blog post. I appreciate it.

  10. Thank you! Glad you like my photos. Japan is beautiful – everything about it is – the people, culture, places and food of course. Could be a little expensive but it is okay. Hope you will visit one day.

  11. Absolutely! Kyoto is amazing and I would highly recommend a visit. Glad you liked my post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Kakush. I appreciate it.

  12. So glad to hear you are visiting Japan. Definitely a remarkable experience awaits you! Kyoto is beautiful that it is totally different from Tokyo. Mount Hiei is peaceful. It is located out of Kyoto but is worth the track. Look forward to reading your experiences when you return. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate it.

  13. You will be absolutely surprised at the peacefulness and serenity that exists among the trees in that mountain! It is not very far from downtown Kyoto and the transport links are conveniently located. Hope you will visit one day. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  14. Mount Hiei is not famously visited by tourists because it is tucked away from the main town of Kyoto. It is definitely worth a visit. Japan has many places that are really worth exploring and experiencing. Hope you will visit Japan one day.

  15. Japan is so beautiful. I never heard of Mount Hiei before, but then my knowledge about Japan is very limited. This is truly a fascinating adventure you described.

  16. I love the idea of escaping the crowds of Kyoto and spending some time exploring Mr Hiei and the surrounds forest. Beautiful.

  17. Mount Hiei looks like a beautiful, cultural experience. I hadn’t heard of it before, but we are hoping to visit Japan soon and will most likely go to Kyoto. I will keep this in mind!

  18. The thousand day challenge sounds tough! It is nice that you can visit the sacred mountain and the temples. They are so beautiful, and what an impressive bell!

  19. Loved this. I visited Kyoto a few years ago, but somehow I missed this. I was just talking with my partner about visiting Japan as he’s never been there and Mount Hiei would be a new destination for both of us 🙂

  20. I am fascinated with anything related to Japan and this seems like such a great trip to take that is off the beaten path to some extent.

  21. Gorgina, Wow! What a gorgeous place! I love the architecture and so much nature. Those stone lanterns are amazing. The history of the monks is also intriguing. Thanks for sharing so much detail about the logistics of the trip too. They are a big help for anyone planning to go.

  22. Wow a 7 year training period for those Marathon Monks! That’s a serious commitment. I wonder if it’s a bit of an anticlimax for them once they adventure is over? The more I read about Japan the more I realized I’ve missed out by not exploring this country sooner .. thanks for sharing your travel adventures with us.

  23. Thank you so much! You are absolutely correct – there is so much of history associated to this mountain. It is definitely a place worth visiting.

  24. Whow, this scenery is like taken from a fairytale 😀 What beauty! And by the looks of it, its not just beauty, its quite a lot of history as well, am I right? 🙂

  25. Absolutely a perfect place to head to if you need a break from the crowds! The commitment of the Marathon Monks – 7 years on a journey is something else – totally respect and admire them. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Much appreciated.

  26. So glad you enjoyed my article on Mount Hiei. Definitely a place not to be missed when you visit Kyoto. Thank you so much for your comments, appreciate it very much.

  27. Wow Georgina what a fascinating read. I have ever heard of the Marathon Monks, what a feat and a commitment. True dedication to spiritual enlightenment. Not sure it’s for me. LOL. I love this area of Kyoto and have Japan on my list and without the crowds this would definitely be a place to head for.

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