One of the things I don’t do much of is wildlife photography. There just isn’t much in Tokyo. Some beautiful mejiro, and the kingfishers, if you have a good tele. Lots of stray cats. I saw a badger once, but it was gone before I got a photo. Even the area around Tokyo has been pretty much de-naturefied. The forests that surround Tokyo were all artificially planted, and then abandoned by the farmers that planted them, because foreign wood is cheaper, leading to the ceder-allergy insanity that is Tokyo. So, If I told you that Takao-san was a beautiful piece of nature right next to Tokyo, I’d be running the risk of having the ghost of FDR jumping the Pacific and beating me up in my sleep. But it’s the closest you’re going to get, and it is beautiful. It’s just not exactly natural.
One of the big things that makes it unnatural is the access. Japan is all about access, which, really, is an admirable thing. As a non-driver, there’s a lot of the really isolated spots that I never get to see in Japan, and the nature areas that are easily accessible have been made really accessible. Sometimes, standing at the peak of a mountain, you just have to shake your head and smile at the girls in stilletto heels. I’m not singling out women, I just have yet to see a guy in stiletto heels on top of a mountain. I’ve seen my fair share of them in Shinjuku, but not on top of the mountains. The less-than-mountaneering clothing choices are more of a side-effect of enabling small children, the physically imperfect, and the elderly to get to the top of the mountain and look out at Mt. Fuji, and I’m all for that. It’s a gorgeous view.
If you’re just heading up for the gorgeous view, then you can take either the cable car, or the chairlift. Yes, there’s a chairlift. But fair warning: I’m not tall, and at some of the places on the way up, I had to worry about my feet dragging on the ground. If your goal is to hit the peak of Takao-san, then these options are great, especially if your time is limited. You can leave Shinjuku at 1pm, and still get to the top of the mountain well before sunset, when I think is the best time to be taking photos from the top of Takao-san. If you’re in it for the hike, or want to snag some shots of the beautiful forest on the way up, I recommend taking route #6. Route #1 is pretty much the access road that cars use to get food and workers up to the peak. It’s less than exciting, from a photographer’s perspective. Route #6 has a small shrine with a river that has a lot of potential for photography.
Here’s the official map in Japanese, but I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. The trails are numbered. Trails #5 and 6 are off to the side, and good hikes, if you enjoy that sort of thing(and I do! I miss the National Park System!) Trail #1, is the access road, and I would rather just take the cable car or chair lift up, and then you’ve still got the nice part of the hike, through the shrine and past the monkey park. Trails #3 and #4 are a lot more nature-oriented, if you want to take the cable car up, but skip the shrine.
If you’re looking at just hitting the peak, then I think that you’d be well-served to only bring your tele glass. I feel like 85mm is about as wide as I’d be comfortable shooting on a 35mm camera, and, of course, your long end is only limited by your budget, and how badly you want to see Mt. Fuji up close and personal. If you’re taking route 6, then I’d bring something wide – maybe a 20mm prime, because weight is definitely an issue when hiking up a mountain. I’d also recommend a 50mm, because I feel naked without one, and some macro tubes or a macro lens – because you never know what kind of awesome bugs and plants you’re going to find. Personally, a good tripod and a shutter release are absolutely necessary, because I like taking those long exposure shots after sunset.
Speaking of, if you’re shooting the georgous light after sunset(and you should be), then you’re going to need to bring a flashlight for the way down. The path from the peak down to the cable car is going to be a bit hairy in the dark, and the side-path you take once they’ve closed the shrine is a bit tough to navigate in the dark. Once you’ve gotten back to the cable cars, you can take the access road(trail #1) back down to takaosan-guchi. It’s fairly well lit for being an access road in the middle of a mountainous wilderness, but a flashlight is still probably a good idea there. If you want to go the full 9 yards, bring a red gel for the flashlight. This will help you keep your night vision, but also help you if you happen upon any of the flying squirrels that are wild in the forests. I’ve yet to see one, but we ran into a family of tanuki on our last trip.
Every year around the winter solstice, there’s a few days when the sun sets directly into the top of Mt Fuji. This is called diamond Fuji, and it’s pretty sweet. I’m still working on trying to get a really good shot of it, but I’ll figure it out some day. If you’re going to shoot diamond Fuji, I can not stress this point enough: Get to the top early. Seriously. There’s going to be a crowd. If you want a good shot, you’ll want to get there early, set up your tripod, piss around it to mark your territory, and then sit down for a bite to eat – there is a restaurant at the top, but I always bring my own food. Ok, maybe the pissing isn’t necessary. There are two tiers to the observation area, and I prefer shooting from the higher of the two, but get what you can when it’s crowded. If it isn’t the solstice, then you probably won’t be fighting a crowd, but there’s always some photographers there.
Check the hourly weather forcast for Takaosan/Hachioji. Also maybe Fuji-shi. The weather in Tokyo proper may be completely different, and in order to see Fuji, you’ll need a nice clear day, preferably in the winter, and after a good rain. The best days in my experience have been ones where the weather was ugly in the morning, and the hourly forecast was declaring that it would get sunny at 3pm, and be clear after that. The 2012 diamond fuji shots I went up in the snow, and then the clouds broke, and it was amazing. Of course, a few days before that, I left in the sun with a group of good photography friends, and led them up into a mess of clouds. Sorry about that, guys. My bad.
From Shinjuku, you can take the Keio line to Takaosanguchi station. It should take about an hour. I do lead trips out to Takao-san, and if you’re interested in the trip, and want someone to play guide, and make sure the whole experience goes smoothly, send me an email. I’d be happy to help you out. I have a few more of my photos from Takosan over at Flickr.