Miyajima gets all the attention and Mt Misen all the crowds. However, not far from the ferry port to the sacred island another ancient pilgrimage route. The trail up to the historic temple on top of the 693m high mountain passes 500 year old fir trees offers views over Miyajima. Nature trails continue to a beautiful lake, and on to an onsen where you can enjoy a soak and a nice meal before getting driven back down the mountain for free.
To the trail head
The Gokurakuji-yama trail head is just under 2km from Hatsukaichi Station. To get there, turn right out of the station south exit and follow the road along along the train tracks. Walk as far as you can go and turn right, cross a level crossing and continue on to the next major intersection. Here, on the left, you’ll see a 7-11 convenience store where you can stock up on provisions for the walk.
Cross the road and continue straight. The road starts to rise with residential houses on your left and you should be able to see the elevated bypass up ahead – this is where you are headed.
At the bypass, turn left and follow along the side of the embankment. On the left you’ll pass the old Kiku-jizo statue in an little shrine, now, somewhat strangely, hidden behind a community garbage station.
The road starts to dip down and you’ll pass a tunnel entrance going under the bypass on the right. Continue on until you come a second, slightly wider, tunnel. This is the Hera #3 tunnel and a sign with blue writing points towards the trail head 200m ahead and promises a 120min walk to the top of the mountain.
Go through the tunnel and follow the road as it climbs sightly past a mixture of residential houses, small fields and vegetable gardens. The path you are looking for that leads to the trail head is easy to miss, so count your past 4 rice fields on the left of the road. The path you are looking for is opposite the 4th rice field which is relatively large. The path is concrete and rises quite quickly, there should be a little white sign with 極楽寺山 (Gokurakuji-yama) handwritten in black on the ground, propped against the wall.
Follow the concrete path. After it bends left, it will take you very close to a private residence on the right – so close you may wonder if you are on the correct path. Keep going, follow the wall after the house and after a few meters you should come out at a row of newly built houses on the left. Take the steep white gravel path directly opposite the first of these houses and when you round the corner, you’ll see it turns into path that looks more trail-like.
The trail to Gokuraku-ji Temple
Once on the trail, it is regularly signposted (in Japanese) with indications of how long you have to go. Stone markers, which I’ve read date from the mid 18th century, also mark your progress: one 109m chou [丁] at a time. These are great, not only for reassuring yourself that you are on the right track and counting them off one by one, but also for practicing the kanji characters for numbers 一, 二, 四, 五, 六, 七 , 八, 九 and so on (look for the classical renderings of 20 and 30 as 廿 and 卅). It’s 37 chou to the top by the way. The first one I cam across was 七丁, number 7.
The trail passes a viewpoint where a large pylon stands and continues to the Gokuraku-ji Bridge which crosses the Sanyo Expressway.
From here, the trail gets better and better, leaving the crowded coastline behind as you make a series of climbs, punctuated by flat sections on which you can catch your breath. You pass signs indicating 60 minutes, then 40 mins to go, and you begin to pass by large boulders, as well as a small shrine housing a statue of Jizo on the left side of the trail.
After some more good views out to sea, the trail passes some benches before climbing to junction where a sign, pointing right, promises that you only have 20 minutes more walking to get to the top.
Following the arrow up the right fork, the trail flattens out, contouring through a beautiful stretch of forest, a bringing you to a serene spot where a Buddhist statue sits on top of a pile of large boulders.
From here, stick to the main path, ignoring tracks heading down to the left which go down to the campsite, and you will come to the bottom of some stone steps up to a large temple gate.
Pass through the gate and continue on up more rough steps which bring you to Gokuraku-ji Temple. The temple stands at 661m, and although not at the summit, the viewing platform here offers the only view of over the sea and surrounding islands. You’ll also find a simple toilet facilities and drink vending machines here.
Behind the main hall of the temple is a collection of 30 statues of Buddhist deities. Follow the road through a beautiful forest past stone steps on the right which take you through a miniature version of the Saigoku Kannon pilgrimage which takes you to the Oku-no-in inner temple buildings.
From here you can return to the main temple and head back down the mountain, or you can continue on to Jah-no-ike Lake (20min) and the Arcadia Village hot spring onsen resort (60m). Route finding from here can be a little tricky so it’s advisable to ensure you have a reasonable amount of daylight left if you intend to push on.
Continue along the road as it gradually descends until you come to a parking lot. Take the wooden steps immediately to your right following the wooden sign saying 展望広場 0.1km which take you up true 693m summit of Gokurakuji-yama. There is a shelter and picnic area here, but there, despite the promise of the signs (展望広場 means “viewing area”), there is nothing to see here but trees.
Another sign now points in the direction of the lake (蛇の池 0.5km). Keep following these signs 0.4km, 0.3km, until you reach the 0.1km sign pointing left. Descend through the campsite to Jah-no-ike Lake, which is full of lotus plants, colorful koi carp and turtles.
The sign board here shows your current position (現在地) as a red bullseye, the cherry tree area in pink and our destination, Arcadia Village (アルカディア・ビレッジ), in yellow.
Make your way through the park – there are nature trails you can take, but unless you are confident of your navigation and have plenty of time it may be safer to stick to the leafy road – until you come to an open area (this is Sakura-no-sato. Look for a narrow path at the corner of open field on the left (there is another sign board similar to the one at the entrance here).
A wooden sign on the corner points back to the temple 1.5km and on to Arcadia Village 1.0km (20min). Follow this path along the side of the field.
After passing another wooden sign after 100m the path forks at the top of the rise. Do not follow the edge of the field around to the right. Take the path that goes over into the forest (straight and then immediate right).
Follow the path through the forest, descend some steps with a sign saying 0.5km to go, until you come to two low, wide benches. From here you can go down the steps to the left which takes you through the adventure playground, or go straight along the firefly watching path – both bring you to the main Arcadia Village facility.
Arcadia Village has a separate onsen hot spring baths for men and women to enjoy. Put your shoes in a locker in the foyer and buy bath tickets from a machine across from the front desk (¥550 for over 12, ¥310 for children up to 12). You can also buy a small wash towel for ¥150. Hand over your ticket at the front desk and they will give you a locker key to be used in the bath. There are a few different baths, as well as a nice outdoor rotenburo bath.
Free buses leave from Arcadia Village at 09:00, 14:00 and 17:00 calling at Hatsukaichi City Hall and Miyauchi Kushido JR Station (30-45min). A restaurant is also open for lunch and dinner. Arcadia Village is closed the 1st and 3rd Thursdays of the month.