Soaring straight out from the Sea of Japan at a height of 1729 meters, Mount Daisen is the highest, and holiest, mountain in the Chugoku region.
For centuries, yamabushi mountain ascetics have used Daisen as their spiritual training ground. Today, visitors wanting to explore this sacred source of spiritual energy can get away with a moderate three-hour hike to the summit for praise-be views of Tottori and the Sea of Japan. In the winter, you can take the gondola instead and feel like you’re skiing into the ocean.
A former thriving center for Shugendo mountain worship, Daisen’s cedar-lined slopes were once home to more than 3000 warrior monks taking part in extreme purification rituals on the uphill climb to enlightenment. Though the prosperity of Daisen as a temple town declined after the Meiji Era, four worship halls and 10 branch temples remain hidden away in shadowy forest clearings that can only be discovered by getting physically, and spiritually, lost.
Orient yourself at central Daisen-ji temple, a 1300 year-old vermillion wonder at the top of the paved slope leading away from the Daisen Tourist Information Center in the main part of Daisen town. To the left is the longest natural stone pathway in Japan which takes you to the poetically beautiful Ogamiyama shrine; the site of the Natsuyama Summer Opening festival where a medieval-style torchlight parade at night marks the opening of the climbing season on Daisen.
Hiking routes are well-signposted though you should stop at the Information Center, located in a Swiss-style chalet, to get the lay of the holy land and check trail conditions. The main route leading to the top, called Misen, is divided into 10 stages with markers letting you track your progress. At the end, raised wooden boardwalks make the path narrow which can be an issue during busy periods.
Winter time sees Daisen transform into a picturesque ski resort known for its epic views. The season typically opens around Christmas time across four ski resorts; Gouenzan, Nakanohara, Uenohara, and Daisen Kokusai. There’s snowshoeing too, and the mountain is still open to hikers aiming to channel the hardcore ways of the yamabushi.
Throughout the year, cozy minshuku or guesthouses offer family-style lodging in the main town and at various points along the hiking trails if you don’t want to stay in one of the big hotels. Campgrounds run by the National Park Service are another cheap and cheerful option for the warmer months.
There are some great non mountain-related things to do in the towns around Daisen. The Shoji Ueda Museum of Photography is a fascinating concrete anomaly among the endless emerald rice paddies, exhibiting photographic works from Tottori-native Shoji Ueda. If you’ve got kids in tow, head to Miruku-No-Sato, a dairy farm famous for its ice cream, or the Hanakairo Flower Park, one of Japan’s largest, which has some gorgeous views of Daisen in the distance.