I’d like to introduce you to a truly fantastic hike through a gorgeous Japanese town, up to a ruined castle, past ancient carvings aaaand then a pretty amazing Indian-style temple. Takatori is a beautiful town in the countryside, about an hour south of Nara city. The town was first populated by a group of people that moved north from Tosa (in Shikoku). They built Japan’s highest mountaintop castle in 1332, and it was only abandoned two and a half centuries later. Nowadays all that is left of Takakori Castle are the impressive walls. Still, those walls are blooming impressive!
The first time I did this hike was in the mist, so we didn’t see much at all. The second time, I went back with Marc and my friend Kat in the sunshine. These photos are a mix of the two days, so don’t expect the weather to change *quite* that dramatically in a single day.
Takatori hike map
Takatori hike – The basics
Distance: 11km (in a loop)
Time: Last time, it took us 4 hours. You could go quite a lot faster than that though, we had plenty of breaks and spent a long time exploring the castle ruins and temple.
Highest point: 584m
Trailhead: Start from Tsubosakayama station (壺阪山駅) in Takatori.
Facilities: There are loos at Sabo park and at Tsubosaka-dera temple.
Maps: I found a pretty good map for this hike here. I also found this website that shows more photos of what to expect along the route.
From Tsubosakayama station, you need to start by walking through the lovely Edo Period town of Takatori. If it is open, drop by the town’s tourist information center on your way there. They will be really happy to see you, and they normally have paper maps showing this trail.
Sabo Park (砂防公園)
When you get to the edge of Takatori, you’ll reach Sabo Park. Follow the path straight past here to head towards Takatori Castle.
Monkey Stone (猿石)
At one of the forks in the road, there is a cool Saruishi, or Monkey Stone. When you find it, one direction will take you towards Asuka (where quite a few of Japan’s ancient emperors are buried), and the other path takes you towards the castle ruins. I’m not sure what the monkey stone is there for, but he is pretty cool! This stone was probably moved from Asuka to Takatori Castle, as there are two other monkey stones down in the valley near one of the many mausoleums.
Takatori Mountain (高取山)
Now you need to walk up Takatori mountain! It is a pleasant walk, if a little steep. There are quite a few sign posts, so just keep looking out for directions to 高取城跡 (Takatori Castle ruins.) When we did this hike in April, we were pretty hot on the walk up, so later in the summer this will probably be a bit sweaty!
There is a really good viewpoint on the way up. This is better than the view at the top of Takatori Mountain, so do stop and take a peek.
Takatori Castle ruins 高取城跡
Takatori Castle was originally Japan’s largest mountaintop castle. It was build in 1332 and was spread over the whole mountain with massive walls, multiple baileys and even 27 towers. Nowadays only some of the impressive walls remain, but it is still a fantastic place to explore and look down on the surrounding countryside. This was my first impression of the Castle walls in the mist. They are pretty amazing aren’t they!
The atmosphere was completely different when we came back in spring. There are more than 3 kilometers of stone walls. From the lowest, to the highest, they climb up over 390m.
We brought onigiri (rice balls) and had a picnic on top of the castle walls. It is such a lovely place to relax.
Next, you need to retrace your steps slightly, and take a left turn, down some steep wooden steps down to a road. Then follow signs towards the Hachiman Jinja (八幡神社). You don’t want to leave this until too late in the day, as the trees are quite thick and it can be a little dark.
Ancient Carvings on Takatori Mountain (五百羅漢)
After that, you can start following signs towards Tsubosaka-dera Temple (壺坂寺). There are actually a couple of different routes, but the best option is to follow the sign that says 五百羅漢遊歩道を経て壺坂寺. This will take you past ancient Arhat carvings on the hill on the way to the temple. The sign says there are 500 carvings.
You need to keep your eyes peeled for these carvings. They can be really hard to spot! If you are unsure, watch out for the little white sign boards below each group of carvings.
Quite close to the ancient carvings, there are also lots more statues. Once you see these, you have missed the more ancient carvings.
Tsubosaka-dera Temple 壺阪寺
The path loops around and rejoins with the main path to Tsubosaka-dera temple. You need to follow a road for a further 10-15 minutes to reach the temple. This was our first view of the temple buildings through the trees.
It costs ¥600 to enter the Tsubosaka-dera temple, but it is a huge temple complex and really fun to explore. It is totally worth spending the money to peek inside. The temple closes at 5pm, so arrive before that!
I have never seen a temple quite like this, as it has a real mix of Indian and Japanese styles. It was originally built in 717 AD. More recently the temple raises money to support leprosy sufferers in the Jalma Institute of Leprosy in India. In return they have been presented with several Indian style Buddhas and bas-relief carvings all in white stone.
I never worked out why, but there were lots of oni, devil statues near one of the pagodas. They really brighten up that area of the temple!
The treasure pagoda and 3-story pagoda both date from the Heian Period (794-1185) and 1497. I think these are my favourite buildings inside the temple complex.
Tsubosaka Temple’s Senju Kannon
Inside the Octagonal Hall, there is a carving of a Senju Kannon, which is thought to cure eye ailments. It is beautifully carved.
We spent a bit of time exploring the rest of the temple, as there was so much to see.
The tallest statue is 20 meters tall. Isn’t she beautiful.
By the time we were leaving the sun was starting to set, so we wandered the final few kilometers back to Takatori.
This may not be a particularly traditional hike. Still, it takes you past so many interesting sights, and through several eras of Japanese history. I hope you like the sound of it!