In the fall, Shinto gods from all over Japan gather in Izumo, draping the city in a special atmosphere. This mystical season sees the mountains surrounding Izumo dyed in the rich colors of changing leaves. On our fall journey, we enjoyed a stroll through stunning views of these leaves at the ancient Gakuenji Temple, and challenged ourselves to a hike on Mt. Tabushisan, a mountain overlooking the city.
Gakuenji Temple and Mt. Tabushisan are both located in northern Izumo. We began our journey from Dentetsu Izumo-Shi Station, which is on the local Ichibata Densha line. It is right next to JR Izumo-Shi Station, its entrance tucked away at the east end of the large station building. Nicknamed “Bata-den,” the Ichibata line also has a route to Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine, with one transfer at Kawato Station, and links Izumo to the neighboring Matsue City. <br>Ichibata trains are an attraction in themselves, allowing riders to enjoy a nostalgic atmosphere as they gaze out the windows at countryside scenery. Some of the trains are even themed after various sites in the prefecture such as Lake Shinjiko and Mt. Sanbe, and some cars feature a statue of the prefectural mascot, Shimanekko, on one of the seats.
After about 20 minutes on the train, we arrived at Unshuu Hirata Station. From a bus shelter directly next to the station building, you can catch the Seikatsu Bus – a “lifestyle bus” that serves the Hirata area. Before boarding the bus, we bought lunch at a nearby combini. Gakuenji Temple is roughly a 20-minute ride from the station.
Since it is in the northern half of the city and tucked away in the mountains, Gakuenji Temple tends to be colder than the city center, and its air is crisp and tranquil.
It is about a 15-minute walk from the bus stop in the parking lot up through the valley that opens into the temple grounds. A paved road winds through the forest and over rocky creeks, sunlight filtering through the thick tree cover. Wooden signs along the route depict scenes from Buddhist mythology, telling the story of the ancient temple. Before the road was built, less than 100 years ago, the only way to get to Gakuenji Temple was by hiking through the mountains.<br>Finally, we arrived at the temple’s front gate, or Nio Gate, where we bought our admission tickets, 500 yen per person. Beyond the Nio Gate is the head priest’s quarters. A steep stone staircase extends from this building far up the side of the mountain to the main hall, the konpondō. It is said that the legendary warrior monk Musashibo Benkei carried the temple bell on his back all the way from Daisen in Tottori Prefecture, up these very stairs.
Gakuenji Temple’s maple leaves are so vibrant and colorful that they are often called the best in the region. The trees planted on temple grounds are a variety commonly known as the Japanese maple, iroha momiji in Japanese. Their layers upon layers of leaves blushing red, orange, and yellow color the whole mountain. Words cannot do justice to the majesty of this scene.
Maple trees tower over the path from the gate to the head priest’s quarters, and form a deep red canopy over the stairs to the main hall. Leaves shower from the trees with every gust of wind, and the fallen leaves blanket each step. The latter half of November is the best time to experience this scenery, and thus it tends to be the busiest season for Gakuenji Temple. It feels as if the maple trees’ beauty is a seasonal ritual to remind us of prosperous eras of the past.
After offering a prayer at the main hall, we set off on another path. Off to the side of the bottom of the stairs is a mushroom-shaped hut, and behind that hut, a path leads into the forest. This path follows a mountain stream, winding into an uphill climb which takes about 8 minutes, leading to Furō no Taki Waterfall. The stone face behind this 18-meter-tall waterfall recedes into a cave, with a Zaōdō (a shrine to the Buddhist deity known as Zaō) built at the top of it. It is said that Benkei would stand under this waterfall as part of his ascetic practices, and there is an undeniably mystical atmosphere that make it easy to imagine such a scene.<br>The waterfall usually has a strong flow, but it was unfortunately somewhat dry on the day we visited. Regardless of the flow, be very careful with your footing around the waterfall, as the wet rocks can get slippery.
It is said that in the 6th century, the holy priest Chishun Shōnin prayed in front of Furō no Taki Waterfall to heal the Empress’ eyes of their sickness. When the Empress’ eyes healed, she ordered the construction of the temple to show her gratitude. It is also said that the same Chishun, who became the temple’s founding priest, once dropped his Buddhist altar chalice into the pool at the bottom of the waterfall. A shark swam up from the bottom, carrying the chalice in his teeth and returning it to the priest. “Gakuenji” literally means “the temple of the shark in the abyss.”
Next, we climbed back down the path from the waterfall, and returned to the main gate of Gakuenji. We ate a quick picnic lunch in the plaza there, where the light was tinted orange from the foliage. Our food tasted especially delicious as we fueled up for our hike.
Finally, it was time to hike. We decided to tackle the Tabushi-Gakuenji model course, which is maintained as part of a nature trail. The start of the course is located nearby Gakuenji Temple, and it reaches an elevation of 456 meters at Mt. Tabushisan’s peak, over 5.5 kilometers of paths on the mountain ridge.
Right from the start of the hike, we began to gain elevation, climbing for about 10 minutes at 50-degree incline. The surroundings are peaceful and still, with the only sounds to be heard the warbling of birds and our own ragged breath. The birds seemed to be cheering us on in their cute chirping songs.
After a bit of climbing, the course leveled out into a gentle slope. The ground was covered in a carpet of yellow, orange, and red leaves, and the warm autumn sun filtered onto the trail from between the trees. There were stretches of climbing and descent as we continued leisurely along the ridge. Signboards posted at regular intervals along to the trail helped keep us from losing our way.<br>The weather was quite warm for autumn, and we all worked up a bit of a sweat as we hiked. Be sure to bring a nice big water bottle to stay hydrated if you try this trail yourself.
90 minutes from the entrance to the trail, we made it to the promised land: the summit of Mt. Tabushisan. Right at the peak was a small bench, the perfect size for three people, with a laminated piece of paper displaying the elevation perched atop it. We clutched the paper and took a photo to commemorate our journey, feeling quite content with our accomplishment.
A 10-minute walk from the summit, there is a clearing that serves as an observation deck. From this height, you have a full, sweeping view of the Izumo plains. Feeling like Amaterasu Ōmikami looking down from the heavens, we could see from the Hiikawa River, said to be symbolized by an 8-headed serpent in the legend of Yamata no Orochi, to the far-off shores of Sono no Nagahama Beah from the Kunibiki myth, and even caught a glimpse of Mt. Sanbe. Though we were exhausted from the hike, the beautiful scenery was exhilarating enough to energize us for the trip down the mountain.
Before beginning the descent, we took a short tea break in the clearing. Sharing our favorite snacks amongst each other, we savored the tastes as we enjoyed the beautiful views of the city.
The next stop after this point is the finish line. It’s about 2 kilometers from the clearing to the end of the trail. In Izumo, the sun sets just after 5 PM in November. Be sure to plan your hike carefully so you can finish before it gets dark.
We got back onto the trail and began climbing back down. The course from this point contains a lot of wooden stairs, and we were mostly silent as we focused on keeping our footing. The descent took about an hour, but we finally made it to the end of the trail. All told, it was just under 3 hours on the mountain. Though we were quite tired by the end, we also felt both a satisfying sense of accomplishment, and of refreshment from all of the quality time spent in nature.
Next, we set off for our final destination for the day, Kōkokuji Temple. It is located about 500 meters away from the end of the hiking trail.
Kōkokuji is a historic temple built in the 12th century. The highlight of this temple is its garden, which has been ranked among the top ten Japanese gardens in the American magazine "Journal of Japanese Gardening." The famous karesansui-style dry garden and the natural pond at the foot of Mt. Tabushisan blend into a grand, harmonious landscape.
Gazing at this peaceful garden with the mountain we had just hiked in the background was a truly special way for us to close out the day’s journey.
Autumn is a special time in Izumo, the season when the gods gather. Today, we went on a journey which allowed us to fully experience that special autumn atmosphere within the city’s natural beauty. Izumo is not only a historical and cultural city, but a place for rich experiences with nature as well. Try hiking in Izumo for a unique adventure!
The train stations mentioned in this article do not accept prepaid IC cards, so be sure to purchase paper tickets at the station before heading for the gate. You will also need to pay cash to ride the bus. The Hirata Seikatsu Bus makes only five trips to Gakuenji Temple each day, leaving from Unshuu Hirata Station at 9:20, 11:56, 14:04, 15:23, and 16:11. Be sure to watch the clock and schedule your trip carefully so you aren’t left waiting.
If you want to try the hike, remember to dress in layers that can be easily taken off and put back on. It is a strenuous enough hike to make you sweat, but the mountain can also get quite cold as the sun starts to go down, especially in the autumn season. We also recommend bringing plenty of water. There are no convenience stores near the hiking trail, so plan accordingly before you embark on your journey. The convenience store at Unshuu Hirata Station is your last chance to buy drinks and food before heading into the mountains!