Japan is a nation rich in diverse cultural features, many of which are unique to the country. Buddhist temples built high on remote mountains are one of these features. Of course, the concept of a monastic outpost atop a steep summit isn’t unique to Japan. The relative ease with which one can access them is, however, quintessentially Japanese. While mountain temples in other countries still remain remote and inaccessible by design, Japan’s world-class transport infrastructure has ensured that its own lofty gems can be easily reached by the general public. 

Mountain temples are liminal spaces, where boundaries between earth and sky, man-made and natural, and height and depth melt away. Each individual mountain temple has developed over time in its own kind of isolation, creating a distinctiveness tied to every summit, forest, and human inhabitant. Wakayama’s Kо̄ya-san complex, Tokyo’s Takao-san Yakuoin, Nara’s Hо̄zan-ji and Kyoto’s Kurama-dera are just some examples. However, the mountain temple which has arguably influenced the course of Japanese history most profoundly is Mt. Hiei’s Enryaku-ji.

Making your way to the top of Mt. Hiei is an essential part of the Enryaku-ji adventure, and there are options to suit everyone. However, planning is key if you wish to make the most of your trip.

The full experience of Mt. Hiei and Enryaku-ji encompasses three ‘zones’ within the mountain. ‘Tō-dō’ is the central zone, home to Enryaku-ji’s main temple buildings, and most easily accessed by visitors. ‘Yōkawa’ and ‘Sai-tō’ house more temples deeper in the mountain, and can be accessed by ten-minute car or shuttle bus journeys from Tō-dō, or much longer walking routes. However, a visit to Tō-dō alone will take a half day, including travel time, and will give a well-rounded feel of Enryaku-ji’s unique spirit. This article will focus on the central Tō-dō zone.

There are three ways to access Mt. Hiei during spring, summer, and autumn (public transport routes are mostly closed during winter). Full details are in the ‘access’ section at the end of the article.

The views from Mt Hiei on a clear day are spectacular.

Enryaku-ji makes some major claims about its influence on Japanese Buddhism, with the backing of a long written history. A UNESCO world heritage site since 1994, this Tendai temple was founded in 788 c.e. by the monk Saichо̄, and has housed and schooled the founders of many other sects of Japanese Buddhism throughout history. This includes Eizai, who went on to found the Rinzai Zen school of Buddhism, to which many of Kyoto’s most famous temples (Nanzen-ji, Tenryu-ji, Tofuku-ji, Kennin-ji) belong. Further along in history were Dо̄gen (who further influenced the spread of Zen), Nichiren (who named an entire sect after himself), Hо̄nen, who founded the Pure Land sect, and Shinran, Honen’s most prominent disciple. 
All of these men lived at various stages from between the 1130s and 1280s, making it possible that they would have met each other, or at least known of each other. At its height, Enryaku-ji housed up to 25,000 monks at any one time. However, the complete temple grounds included over 3000 buildings, reaching to the outer edges of Mt. Hiei. As such, it may have been that these founding fathers weren’t actually ‘passing each other in the hallways.’

Today’s Japanese Buddhist monks are a mellow gang, although it’s arguable that ‘mountain monks’ (yamabushi) have always been, and remain, a breed apart. Life in the wilderness requires cultivating grit and ruggedness. As such, it’s unsurprising that Enryaku-ji gave birth to the ‘sо̄hei’: the legendary ‘warrior monks.’ Although the concept of a monastic militia seems to be an oxymoron, the sо̄hei class have also developed independently in other parts of the world. Most notably, this group includes the Xiaolin monks of China’s Henan province. Their existence often arose from a need for self-defence, as a nation’s soldiers were never stationed in remote mountain hideaways. 

As time passed, the martial prowess of Enryaku-ji’s sо̄hei moved ever further from pacifist ends, and they became tools to enforce the political demands of the Tendai order’s desire for greater power within Japan. In an almost inevitable fall from grace, the sо̄hei grew too big for their geta (wooden sandals) and were largely eradicated when warlord Oda Nobunaga laid siege to Mt. Hiei in 1571.

When you arrive at Enryaku-ji’s dedicated bus stop, you’ll pass a small food hall which will be open later in the day during the spring, summer and autumn seasons. Beyond this is a ticket gate, where your ¥1000 ticket will grant you access to all of the mountain’s temples. Access to the Treasure Hall costs an additional ¥500. A winding pathway will lead you up to the ‘Daikо̄-dо̄’ hall and the impressively large ‘Shо̄rо̄’ bell tower, housing one almighty bronze bell. Best of all, the bell is there for the ringing. When you handle the rope attached to the striking-log, be sure to hit the bell only once — an accidental second strike is supposedly bad luck. The Daikо̄-dо̄ (shoes off, please) is a who’s-who spectacle of the Japanese Buddhist world, and should definitely not be missed. The towering hall’s walls are packed with classical portraits of scholars, priests and rakan (ascetics) who have influenced and guided the path of Japanese Buddhism over the last 1300 years. In this hall, you’ll be able to buy a ‘shuin’; a hand-written amulet or seal, which is unique to the temple and can be pasted into a seal collector’s book, called a ‘goshuin.’

From the platform housing the Daikо̄-dо̄ and bell, you’ll approach the next set of temples by walking down a ramp and bearing left. As you walk along the eastern face of the mountain, the rising sun shines in hazy beams through the towering cedar trees. Follow the ramp down to another courtyard, and down again to the Konpon Chu-dо̄: the main temple building of the entire Enryaku-ji complex.

The Konpon Chu-dо̄ could presently be one of two things: a disappointment encased in scaffolding, or a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness, first-hand, the closely guarded secrets of Japanese temple-building. The renovations started in 2016 and are expected to last until around 2026. A decade of work makes this a highly unusual undertaking. Before renovation started, the Chu-dо̄ was a classic example of an ancient mountain temple. Built in the 1600s, four centuries of life in a mountainous forest interior had turned its cedar walls brown-black. Its roof tiles, onced a burnished copper plate, mellowed to a deep blue-green. These beautiful tones are a patina that can only be achieved through age. Truly, the sight of the temple surrounded by a misty cedar forest evokes a sense of a world only found in myth.

Although the Chu-dо̄ will start 2026 with a fresh new face and reinforced interior, the deepest halls of the temple will remain as they are, and have always been. Thus, this grand hall offers a unique top-down insight into ancient forms of Japanese craftsmanship, while retaining an inner sanctum that holds an unmodified connection to an ancient world.

Many of Kyoto’s extant temples were constructed in the 1600s, after a long period of civil war and damage to property that resulted from sieges and battles. We view them today with centuries of accumulated age; wood and stone are organic materials that carry on their lives after being hewn and carved into their final forms. Naturally, if we cast our minds back to their early years, it’s hard to picture something fresh and flashy. But at the time of their building, Buddhist temples were exactly that: a show of clout with more than a glimmer of splendour. Today’s dulled green copper plate tiles would have been radiant when first laid, and we can build a picture of these immense structures glowing as they reflect the rising sun from the face of the mountain slopes. On its completion, people will once again be afforded the rare sight of a box-fresh Buddhist temple — a truly accurate vignette of a bygone world.

Heading deeper into the temple leads you to the great butsudо̄, or Buddha hall. Here, each of Enryaku-ji’s most venerated Buddha statues are placed within their own ornate altars in a deep hall held aloft by towering wooden pillars. The front and rear platforms of the room are blackened by centuries of candle smoke and incense dust, and lit only by lantern flames. This flickering light dances across the faces of the statues, softening their features so that they almost appear to be breathing. This room has remained untouched by modernity, and gazing into the comforting gloom creates a sense that the surrounding world has slowly fallen away. Stare longer, and the passage of time and the certainty of distance shrink, rendered conceptual and strange. This dark, primordial room can create a feeling of calm and clarity akin to a religious experience, even for the most secular attendant. Deep in these remote mountains, dusty and untouched Buddha halls still transmit their teachings from heart to heart, flickering like candles in the night.

Eventually, you’ll have to drag yourself away from the all-encompassing tranquillity of the darkened Buddha hall and return, blinking, to the light of the outside world. The only way is up, via a long ramp or a steep set of stone steps. The latter is a workout; don’t rush. At the top, you’ll arrive at the ‘Monju-rо̄’, a hollow double-roofed gate containing further Buddhist artefacts, which is normally closed to the public. Winding woodland paths lead up and away from the building, offering a chance for some forest bathing before heading back down the equally steep steps on the opposite side of the hill. Larger buildings here are for temple residents, overlooking an incredible view of Lake Biwa. You’ll be able to catch slices of this view through the towering trees as you follow the mountain path back past the Daikо̄-dо̄ and bell tower, and on towards the Tо̄-dо̄ and Amida-dо̄: the Eastern Hall and Buddha Hall.

The Tо̄-dо̄ and Amida-dо̄ sit atop another flight of stairs, which offers another opportunity for unsolicited cardio (sorry). However, the climb is worthwhile, as the verandas of both buildings offer spectacular views over Lake Biwa. Enryaku-ji feels cosily enveloped in deep forest, and these momentary views into Shiga prefecture are a surprising reminder that you’re still at the top of a mountain. You can’t enter the double-tiered Tо̄-dо̄, but you can clearly see its interior through its open front door. The inner walls and ceilings are richly decorated with Buddhist motifs and painted wood-reliefs, and permeated with incense. The neighbouring Amida-dо̄ can be entered (shoes off, again), so long as a private ceremony is not taking place. This larger building houses a statue of Amida Buddha, and is hung with banners that reach high into the rafters; another scene that invites a sense of silent awe.

From here, visitors can return to any part of Enryaku-ji’s central buildings, or move on to the ‘Yōkawa’ or ‘Sai-tō’ zones for further exploration.

Dappled light plays across blackened doors.


Enryaku-ji’s English language website offers comprehensive information on all the ways of accessing the temple, and can be found here. If you want to take the Eizan ascent, you can buy a special ticket at Demachiyanagi train station. It’s called the ‘Hieizan Enryaku-ji Nyuzan Kippu’ and can be purchased from the station office for ¥2600, saving you about ¥640 overall.

Key points to remember: The top of the mountain is colder than the normal temperatures in Kyoto city. Be sure to pack extra layers for warmth. The food available at Enryaku-ji’s dining hall does not cater to special diets, and so it is best to pack your own food for the day. Finally, a visit to Enryaku-ji is best started early in the morning, with the aim of arriving at the entry gate, close to 9:00 am. The cable car and gondolas offer limited passenger space and have set departure times. As such, using them earlier in the day will prevent long waits, and lessens the chance of you being crammed like a sardine into a metal pod which dangles over a ravine as it ascends. 

Name: Enryaku-ji

Address: 4220 Sakamotohonmachi, Otsu, Shiga 520-0116, Japan. Enryaku-ji’s ticket office and entrance gate is here.

Open: 9:00am–4:00pm, seven days a week.

Admission: ¥1000

Website: https://www.hieizan.gr.jp/en/

Post by Japan Journeys.