While it pains me greatly to write this, the only place in Chiba Prefecture that most foreign tourists ever really visit is Narita International Airport. This is a real shame as the region is nothing short of a treasure trove of hidden gems that are just waiting to be explored. From the sprawling temple complex of Narita-san to the many historical buildings of Sawara, there’s just so much to see and do in Chiba. So, on that note, I’d like to introduce the topic of today’s article, Nokogiriyama (Lit. Sawtooth Mountain). Located right on the western coast of Chiba Prefecture’s Boso Peninsula, this 330 meter tall mountain is uniquely shaped and appeals to all demographics, experienced hikers included. These days I have a very long catalog of day trips from Tokyo yet Nokogiriyama easily ranks towards the very top of that list.
Never heard of Nokogiriyama before? Fret not. It was only recently that I too discovered this amazing destination when trying to figure out what I had overlooked in Chiba. Still, for a site with such a pedigree of religious and historical import, it’s amazing that Nokogiriyama isn’t more well known. You see, the western side of the mountain is home to the sprawling Nihon-ji temple complex. Here you’ll find the largest pre-modern stone Buddha in Japan as well as a number of other Buddhist effigies that will leave you in awe. On the other hand, the history buffs will be pleased to know that Nokogiriyama was also traditionally used as a stone quarry during the Edo period (1603–1868). Moreover, this man-made scarring is still picturesquely evident and rarely do you have authenticity staring you in the face like this.
If you’re in Tokyo and on the hunt for something different, I cannot more highly recommend considering Nokogiriyama. Whether you hoof it up the mountain or opt to take the ropeway, you’re sure to have an unforgettable time at this little known spot in Chiba Prefecture!
How to Get There
Before diving into the weeds on this one, let’s pause for a second to cover how one gets to Nokogiriyama because it’s not exactly what I would call an easy trip. For starters, you’ll need to get yourself all the way down to the southern reaches of Chiba Prefecture’s Boso Peninsula. To do this, you’ll want to start by taking one of JR’s trains that service Chiba Prefecture from central Tokyo. From there, depending on how your departure time stacks up against the train schedule, the fastest route changes drastically. To make matters simple, just refer to the ever-helpful Jorudan or a similar service. Your destination will be the sleepy Hamakanaya Station. Note that the swiftest means of reaching this station will undoubtedly be by a reserved limited express train but these come with added costs.
Once you arrive at Nokogiriyama, you’ll need to make a choice. Do you want to hike your way up the mountain or do you want to make the lazy choice and take the ropeway. Assuming that you’re not an adept mountaineer, you’re going to want to make your way to this point where you’ll find the Nokogiriyama Ropeway. This will take you close to the summit for only a mere 500 yen (or 930 yen round trip) and can be reached on foot from Hamakanaya Station in about ten minutes. Alternatively, for those insane gluttons for punishment out there who insist on eschewing modern transportation, do note that the hiking trail is pretty hard to find. Rather than waste time fumbling about, I suggest either looking for other climbers to follow or asking the station attendant for directions.
Lastly, before moving on, know that Nokogiriyama can also be reached via a ferry from Kanagawa Prefecture’s Kurihama on the other side of Tokyo Bay. While slightly slower than the train ride down, the cruise across the bay is particularly scenic. As such, I’m of the mind that it’s best to venture down to Nokogiriyama first by train then, after conquering the mountain, return to Tokyo via a ferry to Kurihama. For more information on this loop, refer to the “Other Nearby Attractions” section at the end of this article.
The Jigoku Nozoki
So, what’s Nokogiriyama got to offer? Well, for starters, how about the terrifying outlook pictured above. Lovingly known by the moniker Jigoku Nozoki (lit. “Hell’s Lookout”), this precipice is a remnant from Nokogiriyama’s time as a quarry. In a manner that seems to defy the laws of gravity, the Jigoku Nozoki juts out over a pathway cut into the stone far below. Those who can muster the courage to brave venturing to its thankfully gated edge will be rewarded with jaw dropping vistas of the Boso Peninsula, Tokyo Bay, and on a clear day, even Mt. Fuji and Tokyo Skytree. Just note that the commanding views draw a bit of a crowd so don’t be surprised if you need to wait ten minutes or so if visiting Nokogiriyama on a weekend.
In addition to the Jigoku Nozoki itself, directly below, you’ll also find a massive 30 meter tall stone etching of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Kannon. First carved into the mountainside of Nokogiriyama in 1966, this engraving is dedicated to all of those who tragically lost their lives in World War II. Moreover, due to is sheltered location amidst the towering quarry walls, I’ve also read that this particular Kannon is also worshiped as a protector of transportation. While I rather not push my luck, perhaps I can venture back to Okayama without risking my life now that I’ve paid my respects here. On second thought, maybe not…
Anyway, do note that the two aforementioned attractions are technically part of the Nihon-ji temple complex and entering this compound will run you 600 yen. Both the Jigoku Nozoki and the carving of Kannon are can be found nearby Nihon-ji’s northern entrance. For those who opt to scale Nokogiriyama without the aid of the ropeway, this is where you’ll end up following your arduous ascent. While it will certainly be a workout, one of the compelling arguments for scaling Nokogiriyama on your own two feet is that en route, you’ll encounter a number of well-worn markings and relics from the mountain’s former days as a major quarry site. Personally, I am a stickler for tidbits of history like this as I think they help to flesh out the narrative.
Nokogiriyama’s 1,500 Rakan
In a second, I’ll cover the sprawling Nihon-ji temple complex but first I want to take a second to introduce the approach to the compound. Here, you’ll find an impressive collection of 1,500 rakan (Buddhist disciples) statues that were carved over the course of 20 years by a master craftsman during the latter half of the Edo period (1603–1868). The many effigies can be found littered about Nokogiriayama’s various nooks and crannies. As you make your way along the approach, be sure to keep your eyes peeled as these guys are just about everywhere. What’s more, each of the 1,500 strong assortment is uniquely fashioned to have a different pose and expression than the rest. Frankly speaking, it’s amazing that the artisan responsible for these rakan statues was able to capture such a diverse array of human expression.
Alas, many of the rakan were tragically decapitated during the forcible separation of Shinto and Buddhism during the early Meiji period (1868–1912). As I’ve delineated many times in the past now, Buddhism and Shinto were historically not considered to be two separate religions. Instead, the two faiths were amalgamated into a single syncretic set of beliefs that is referred to now in Japanese as “Shinbutsu Shugo.” This all came to an end in the early years of the Emperor Meiji’s reign due to the powers that be basing their legitimacy on the Shinto notion that the imperial line is descended from the sun goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. Sadly, many sacred Buddhist sites like Nokogiriyama suffered greatly as a result of the sudden divorce.
By the way, there’s an interesting folktale about this host of rakan reliefs. Allegedly, among the 1,500 statues, there is one who most represents your true personality. To find it, pick any point and start counting one rakan for every year that you’ve been alive. Where you begin tallying seems to not matter so go with whatever your gut tells you here. Should you give this practice a try yourselves, do let me know whether or not the results are accurate!
Nihon-ji & the Daibutsu
Without further ado, let’s get on to the main attraction, the Nihon-ji temple complex. First founded in the year 725 at the order of Emperor Shomu, this facility is the only temple in all of the greater Tokyo region to be erected at the behest of an emperor. Over the years, the temple has belonged to a wide host of Buddhist sects and has endured several evolutions. Sadly, Nihon-ji, along with the aforementioned rakan statues, suffered greatly during the anti-Buddhist movement at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868–1912). Many of the temple’s buildings were leveled during the destruction. Though a restoration was undertaken in 1916, the structures were once again leveled by a major earthquake in November 1939.
While Nihon-ji has languished greatly over the years at the hands of both human and natural atrocities, the temple’s massive stone Buddha (pictured above) has stood the test of time. Standing at over twice the height of the more famous bronze Buddha in Kamakura, Nihon-ji’s representation is a sight to behold. The towering sculpture stands an impressive 31 meters tall and is created in the image of Yakushi Nyorai, the Medicine Buddha. If you look closely, you can see a container of medicine concealed in the statue’s left hand. From what I was told by Nihon-ji’s monks, a precious stone emerald lies within the canister which is believed to heal all ailments.
Lastly, note that just outside of Nihon-ji’s main area, you’ll find a historically styled Japanese tea house amidst a small garden. This well-kept secret spot directly overlooks a cliff and offers impressive vantages of the landscape below. While an additional fee of 500 yen is required to enter the tea house, visitors can enjoy a traditional Japanese tea ceremony experience. Frankly speaking, it’s a great way to refresh yourself, especially if you’ve had a long, grueling day of hiking up Nokogiriyama.
Other Nearby Attractions
So you’ve seen all that Nokogiriyama has to offer and you’re wondering what else there is to do in the area? Well, you’re in luck. You see, in addition to the mountain itself, the surrounding harborside is home to an ample host of eateries. Given their proximity to the sea, you’ll find all sorts of specialty restaurants serving up an assortment of delectable dishes. Ultimately, I ended up dining at a joint called The Fish but from what I saw, you’d do well to pop in whatever venue tickles your fancy. You really can’t go wrong here. In addition to places to grab a bite to eat, you’ll also find a fresh seafood market here as well.
Additionally, as I briefly mentioned way back in the “How to Get There” section, it’s also possible to take a ferry back across Tokyo Bay. This 40 minute cruise will cost you around 700 yen and will take you home via Kurihama in Kanagawa Prefecture. While you’ll still need to take an express train back to central Tokyo from Kurihama, opting to take the ferry on your return trip is the perfect way to end the day. Rather than bore yourself with another two hour train ride from Hamakanaya Station, why not add a little zest to your trip?
The ferry excursion really is the ultimate way to end a long day of adventure and especially so if you can, time your crossing to coincide with the setting sun on your journey home.
Until next time travelers…