Nokogiriyama – stepping it up on Sawtooth Mountain

Old stone quarries are fascinating places to explore.  They are full of man-made shapes and angles that nature is working to reclaim.  At Nokogiriyama (lit. Sawtooth Mountain) in Chiba–a perfect distance for a day trip from Tokyo–, part of the mountain was quarried away over several decades, leaving lots of fun nooks and crannies to explore, as well as some amazing panoramic views.

But the mountain offers much more than just nooks and crannies.  Nihonji, the adjacent 1,300 year old Buddhist temple, now controls and maintains the area, making it a religious site replete with Buddhist images, some freestanding and others carved into the living rock.  Nokogiriyama is also the site of Japan’s largest stone-carved Buddha.

Nokogiriyama sits near the coast of Tokyo Bay, about halfway down Chiba’s Boso Penninsula.  The mountain is comprised of tuff, a form of porous volcanic rock that became useful as a building material from the mid 19th century.  It’s likely that this rock exists throughout the penninsula but here was a bunch of it sticking out of the ground very near a good harbor.  Perfect for a quarry!

The quarrying had stopped by around WWII, leaving to nature a rather scarred looking mountain.  By the 1960s, locals and the monks charged with looking after it had turned the mountain top into a kind of park, with trails and stairways for use by visitors.  A ropeway from the base of the mountain to near the top, makes it easy for visitors to get there, too.

Of course, for the intrepid hiker, the mountain can be ascended on a variety of trails from the coastal town of Kanaya.  But for day trippers just interested in exploring the various unique features of the old quarry and the Buddhist relics, the ropeway is a time-saving shortcut.  It runs approximately every 5 minutes from 9 am to 4 pm (Nov. 16 to Feb. 15) and 5 pm the rest of the year (staying open until 6 pm in the summer months).  Covering a distance of 680 meters, the ropeway ascends 223 meters in just over 3 minutes.  One-way fare is JPY500; roundtrip tickets are JPY930.

About a five minute walk from the top of the ropeway, past a small Shinto shrine, is a parking lot (yes, there is a toll road to reach this far, if you come by car) and the “west” entrance to the park (admission: JPY600).  There are three other entrances further down the mountain, closer to the Nihonji temple itself, as well as the “north” entrance at the top of the main hiking trail.

At each entrance visitors get a useful colored map (English versions available) that shows the various paths crisscrossing the area.  The map is drawn in a way that demonstrates a bit of the topography, including showing precipices and stairs on the pathways.  There are lots of stairs!

There is a lot to see on this mountaintop.

If you head upward from the west entrance and take a branch to the left, the trail takes you into a section of the old quarry with high sheer walls.  You feel as if you are exploring a lost city.

You emerge into a clearing near the “north” entrance, still surrounded by high sheer walls of quarried stone, but on one wall is the Hyaku-shaku Kannon, a 30 meter tall statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy.  She was carved into the living rock in the 1960s as a prayer for world peace.

Above her, you get your first glimpse of the platform known as jigoku nozoki, the glimpse into hell.  Interestingly, as you’re standing below the stone platform, another remnant of the quarry, you’re viewing it from the perspective of hell.  (For what it’s worth, you don’t feel like you’re in hell until you’ve climbed all the stairs necessary to reach the jigoku nozoki.)

Jigoku nozoki is known as the glimpse of hell because you can look out from here and feel as if there is nothing below you but air and a drop to the foot of the mountain far below. 

It gets crowded, so there is a safety rail and a long wait to get onto it.

The views from here, and from just a little further on at the actual pinnacle of the mountain, are stunning.

But there is still much more to be explored and enjoyed on this mountain, including stone statues of arhats, Buddhists who have achieved enlightenment. Commissioning and placing arhats at a holy site is a form of indulgence often practiced by Buddhists aspiring to become arhats themselves some day.  There are approximately 1,500 of them placed all over this mountainside in various groupings.

Further down the mountain, just above 1,300 year-old Nihonji temple, is the mountain’s Great Buddha.  Part of this 31 meter statue is carved into living rock and part of it has been filled in with concrete and blocks to keep it in the correct perspective.  The statue sits with its back against the hillside, placidly looking out to the bay.  To be facing water with a mountain at your back is said to be the most fortuitous feng shui positioning.

At the inevitable stall selling amulets and incense, you can get a small plastic figurine of Jizo–a bodhisattva who dedicated himself to helping others overcome difficulties–that you leave here with your inscribed prayer for assistance in overcoming your own particular difficulty.

As they age, the little figurines are scooped into a pile to make room for new ones without disrespecting the old ones.  It seems to be a practice that is accepting of all, one of many nice sentiments one can absorb while clambering around Nokogiriyama.

Getting there:  It takes a couple of hours to get from Tokyo to Nokogiriyama by public transportation.  For maximum enjoyment of a day trip from Tokyo to Nokogiriyama, go there by taking a ferry across Tokyo Bay and return by train.

  • Keikyu line from Shinagawa to Keikyu Kurihama (express is best), then bus (10 min.) or taxi (5 min.) to the ferry terminal and take the Tokyo Wan Ferry across the bay to Kanaya (40 min. crossing); then an 8-10 minute walk to the ropeway.
  • From Hama-Kanaya Station (8-10 minute walk from the ropeway) on the JR Uchibo line, 80 minutes to Chiba, then change to Tokyo-bound train.  (Note:  if you get to the lower part of the mountain, around Nihonji and don’t feel like climbing back to the ropeway station, you can walk down to the highway.  Although I wouldn’t really recommend this, if you do it, continue south to Hota station, rather than trying to follow the highway back to Hama-Kanaya station.  The highway in the direction of Hama-Kanaya station goes through a long, narrow tunnel with no safe walkway.

© 2018 and Vicki L. Beyer
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