Mt. Takatori (高取山)
Mt. Takatori is the site of Japan’s oldest mountaintop castle, and the hike takes you up, around, and through the ruins of the castle walls, with views of both the Yamato plain and the Omine mountain range. It makes for a great half-day excursion from Osaka or Nara cities.
The hike: From Tsubosakayama station, exit the ticket gate and take the road running perpendicular to the station. Cross over the busy two-lane road, walk about 100 meters or so, and then turn right on the stone paved street running through the center of town. You’ll see a wooden signpost that says 高取城跡 5.0km. The next 20 minutes or so is a pleasant walk through a traditional Edo-era town that is surprisingly devoid of tourists. If this town were in Kyoto there would be thousands of tourists, so appreciate the beauty of the old buildings and lack of people. You’ll find a lot of distractions while marching up the main street, including some paper-mache cows on a side road on the right, followed by another brilliant display of elegantly dressed dragons on your left. Continue heading straight on the road out of town, as it starts to narrow and follow a river. A little further on, you’ll see a brown sign in white letters that says 俳人·阿波野青畝生家 150m pointing straight ahead. The road turns a bend before reaching a traditional bark-thatched structure housing a waterwheel. It’s worth crossing the stream and walking down to the rustic structure before heading up the paved road towards the trailhead. After passing by a public restroom on your left (your first and only chance to use the facilities), the road will turn into a hiking path and enter the forest. A few minutes on you’ll reach a junction with a sign pointing towards Sousenji (宗泉寺) Temple on your right. There are 88 different jizo statues scattered on the hillside behind the temple, and watch out for that vicious dog tied to the rope just to the right of the main temple gate. Anyway, after a quick look around, retrace your steps back to the junction and continue on the path that leaves the forest road and starts climbing up towards the ridge. Follow the signs that point towards Takatori-Shiroato (高取城跡) as the route follows a small stream and zigzags through the quiet woods. After 20 minutes of hiking you’ll reach a junction with a sign pointing towards 岩屋不動 on your right. You can visit this as a quick side trip if you’d like or continue on towards the summit. I didn’t bother checking it out, so please let me know if it’s interesting if you choose to explore it. Your next landmark will be a trail on your left marked by a stone monkey statue. This path apparently leads down to Asuka, one of the ancient burial centers of the Nara era. Ignore this trail and continue as the path starts to follow the ridge. After passing by a small lake on your left (which is just off the trail), you’ll soon see some signposts marking the foundations of some old castle gates. The castle complex was massive, taking up most of the mounainside when it was originally built. Your next landmark will be a path on your right marked for Kumini-Yagura (国見櫓), the remnants of an old watchtower. You should definitely take this trail as a sidetrip, since the views over the Yamato plain are second-to-none. It’s also a good place to take a break, since there are some moss-covered wooden logs to sit on. It should only take about 5 minutes to reach the lookout point. After admiring the scenery, retrace your steps back to the junction and turn right, following the signs towards the main castle area (本丸). A few hundred meters on, you’ll reach yet another junction marked for Hachiman-Guchi (八幡口), but ignore this trail for now and head to the 本丸. Once you reach the castle walls, keep climbing up until you can climb no more. On the far side of the highest castle area there is a lookout to the north, where you can see the Omine mountain range on a clear day. Take a rest here, as you’re at the highest point in the hike. Once you’ve regained your strength, backtrack to the Hachiman-Guchi junction and turn left down a set of wooden steps towards a forest road. Once your reach the road, follow the signs towards Hachiman Jinja (八幡神社), which climbs a series of steep log steps through the trees. If you’re tired of climbing, you can ignore this path and continue on the trail that bypasses this shrine to your immediate right. Either way both paths will meet up a short time later. The shrine is interesting as far as small secluded mountain shrines go, and there’s a small view of the valley below behind the shrine. Descend down the steep unmarked path in front of the shrine, which will soon meet up with the main path. Turn left here and keep following the signs towards Tsubosaka Temple (壺坂寺). You’ll cross the forest road a couple of times, but as long as you keep following the signage you’ll be ok. At one point you’ll reach a junction with 2 different signs pointing towards 壺坂寺. This is an important junction because if you go left then you’ll miss all of the good stuff. Take the path marked 五百羅漢遊歩道を経て壺坂寺, which, after a short climb, will start to descend through the dense forest. Be on the lookout for rock formations with Arhat statues carved into them. There are hundreds of ancient stone statues carved into the hillside. Some of them are easy to miss, so look for the white signboards with Chinese characters on them. Eventually you’ll loop around and meet up with the main path, which turns towards the right and descends to the paved road. Walk down the asphalt road for about 15 minutes and you’ll arrive at Tsubosaka temple, which is famous for a 10 meter tall Buddha statue. The temple costs 600 yen to enter, but is well worth a look around. If you don’t have the time or money, then you can continue on the trail that leaves just to the left of the bus stop at the end of the parking lot. This path drops down to a stream and follows it for about 30 minutes until meeting up with the main road back into town. Turn right when you hit the road and meander your way through the back streets towards the station, following the signs for 壺坂山駅.
When to go: This hike is most popular in autumn, when the leaves are ablaze with color. Spring is also a good time to check out the mountain cherry blossoms. Avoid the middle of summer during the intense heat, but early summer can be a good time to see wonderful greenery.
Access: This is one of the few hikes that is approachable directly from a train station. From Abenobashi (阿部野橋) station in Tennoji, take an express train on the Kintetsu line bound for Yoshino (吉野) and get off at Tsubosakayama (壺阪山) station. The train takes about 45 minutes or so from Osaka. Don’t take a limited express train because you’ll have to pay extra money and it really doesn’t save very much time.
Level of difficulty: 2 out of 5 (elevation change ~450m)
Distance: 11km (3 to 5 hours)