Mount Hiei in Kyoto

Mount Hiei, known as Hiei-zan, is one of the tallest peaks in the mountain ranges that surround Kyoto on three sides. Hiei-zan, with its distinctive profile visible from almost anywhere in the city, has been an important center for Tendai Buddhism and a critical historical foil of the ancient capital for more than a thousand years. Begun as a collection of mountaintop huts in the 8th century, Hiei-zan’s Enryaku-ji Temple and monastery complex boasted 3,000 temple buildings and a veritable army of warrior-like monks at the peak of its influence.

Mount Hiei in Kyoto Photo Gallery

Enryaku-ji grew perhaps too powerful and was completely destroyed by brutal warlord Oda Nobunaga in 1571. Reconstructed soon after, Enryaku-ji again thrives as a vital spiritual center spread in three main compounds across the mountaintop ridges and valleys of Hiei-zan, and is now a World Heritage Site. The Eizan cable car (the steepest in Japan) and ropeway ascend from the east bank of the clear, rushing Takano River through the unspoiled wooded slopes of Mount Hiei. A short hike through the quiet forest, home to deer, wild boar, and monkeys, leads to cooler air accompanied by bird song and temple bells on the mountaintop, with sweeping views of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest freshwater lake, stretching away in the distance.

Hiei-zan’s peak glows with a summer bonfire honoring ancestral spirits.

Konpon Chuo-do is Enryaku-ji’s most sacred temple hall.

Buddhist priests at Enryaku-ji’s Great Lecture Hall.

The austere temple compound of Ganzan Daishi-do dates to the 10th century.

Autumn on the Takano River at the foot of Hiei-zan.

Silk noren curtains and flip-up shitomido shutters at the Great Lecture Hall.

A wooden alcove for ema votive plaques.

The Daiko- do, Enryaku-ji’s Great Lecture Hall.

A classic stone pagoda at Amida-do Temple.

Forest surrounds the Shoro Bell Tower in the Yokawa precinct.

A procession of Enryaku-ji monks clad in ceremonial robes.

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