In the forested foothills of the Tanzawa area in Japan, Oyama is a village of hilltop Shinto shrines, ancient Buddhist temples and unforgettable mountain trails. The perfect jumping-off point for hikes in the Tanzawa area, Oyama’s soaring viewpoints and temples are also easily accessible for those who are less mobile, thanks to the Oyama Cable Car. The historic ryokan inns offer plenty of opportunities for relaxation after your adventures in the great outdoors, while no visit is complete without tucking into Oyama tofu, the local delicacy.
Thanks to the Odakyu Electric Railway line between Shinjuku, Tokyo and nearby Isehara Station, you can reach Oyama from the capital in around 1.5 hours, meaning it’s perfectly possible to visit on a day trip. Odakyu’s Tanzawa-Oyama Freepass is designed for just this purpose, and includes a round trip from Shinjuku, Tokyo and unlimited bus, train and cable-car travel within the Oyama area.
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Shinto is the most ancient and popular form of Japanese folk religion, and is practised – often in conjunction with Buddhism – by much of the population. Shinto is an animist religion, meaning it is centred on the worship of nature spirits, known as kami. Fittingly for a settlement in the foothills of Japan’s most famous mountain, Oyama-Afuri Shrine is dedicated to the worship of a deity known as the Father of Mount Fuji. Other kami worshipped here are associated with rainfall, and farmers often come here to pray for rain.
The Oyama-Afuri Shrine sits high on Mount Oyama, which has long been held in esteem as a sacred mountain. Hiking the mountain’s trails, past primeval trees with their roots bursting from the earth, is an atmospheric and rewarding way to get to the shrine. From Oyama Cable, the nearest bus stop to Mount Oyama, it takes around an hour to reach Oyama-Afuri Shrine, but remember to bring hiking boots and some comfortable clothes to climb the mountain in, as the paths can be loose and slippery, especially after rain. Happily, there’s another, much easier way to reach Oyama-Afuri Shrine, thanks to the Oyama Cable Car. From Oyama Cable Station, next to the Suzu River in town, the cable car whisks you up to the lower buildings of the Oyama-Afuri Shrine in around six minutes.
Another historic religious building you can visit on the slopes of Mount Oyama is the Buddhist Oyama-dera Temple. The stairs leading up to this temple, lined with stone lanterns, are particularly beautiful in autumn, when the trees on either side of the staircase are ablaze with red and orange leaves. Climb the stairs to reach Oyama-dera itself, a beautifully preserved Buddhist temple said to have been established way back in 755. The temple grounds are home to statues of the protective god Fudo Myo-o and other Buddhist deities, adorned with red cloth bibs and hats, and walls hung with ema – wooden plaques with prayers written on them. Interestingly, the Oyama-Afuri Shrine was once part of the same complex as the Oyama-dera Temple, but it was moved to its current position during the Meiji era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was part of the government’s efforts to separate Buddhism and Shinto, which had fused into one syncretic religion, and reinstate Shinto as the state religion. If you’re unable to walk up the stairs to the Oyama-dera Temple, you can also ride the Oyama Cable Car here.
There’s more to discover in the Tanzawa area than just the temples and shrines of Mount Oyama. At Hadano, a 10-minute train ride west of Isehara, you’ll find the Nanohana Dai, a wooden viewing tower which affords panoramic views out to Mount Fuji and Mount Hakone on a clear day. It takes 30 minutes by bus from the Odakyu line Hadano Station.
From here, the Yabitsu Pass ascends through the mountains on a nine-hour hiking trail, taking in the slopes of Mount Ninoto, Mount Sannoto and Mount Tohnodake. The trail passes through verdant forests of beech, cedar and cypress and emerges at high clearings from where you can enjoy stunning views out to Mount Fuji.
While travelling through the woodland areas in summer, be wary of the yamabiru – an endemic species of leech which runs riot in the forest. While not dangerous, they will suck your blood at any given opportunity. Wear leech socks, long trousers and insect repellent to keep them away, and if you’re bitten, don’t force them off. Use DEET, alcohol, or heat from a lighter to encourage them to detach by themselves. Other inhabitants of the Tanzawa area forests include serow and raccoon dogs.
If you’re an intrepid hiker, you may wish to tackle Mount Tanzawa itself. This is normally a two-day hike involving a stay overnight at Sonbutsu-sanso Lodge, so you can wake up early to catch the sunrise from the summit before heading back down again.
In recent times, tofu has taken the world by storm. It’s protein-rich and plant-based, so it’s an obvious alternative to meat for those following vegetarian diets – and with its subtle taste, it’s a versatile addition to any dish. The tofu produced in Oyama is something of a local speciality, said to be particularly delicious and healthy because it’s made with pure spring water from the Tanzawa Mountains. There’s even a tofu festival held in Oyama every March, where participants take part in tofu speed-eating contests and there are tofu-making demonstrations in enormous cauldrons.
One particularly atmospheric place to try real Oyama tofu is Tougakubou, a 400-year-old ryokan, restaurant and hot bath which specializes in lavish multi-course kaiseki meals focusing on tofu. The tofu is made on site. Tofu-making is not the only quintessentially Japanese activity practiced at the inn, though. The ancient art of syakyo – a form of calligraphy which involves copying out Buddhist sutras (holy texts) – is alive and well at Tougakubou, and you can give it a try yourself.
Finally, while visiting Tougakubou, don’t miss the opportunity for a dip in the inn’s traditional bathhouse. This includes a lovely outdoor pool where you can soak in thermal waters by a cliffside, shaded by greenery – the perfect way to relax after a day in the mountain air.
Header image: the Tanzawa Mountains © Shutterstock