Mt. Ibuki is the imposing mountain at the north end of Lake Biwa, marking the northernmost part of the Ōmi region. In winter, it’s covered thickly in snow while in summer, the top is a carpet of alpine flowers.
Mt. Ibuki is 1,377 m high, and it’s the highest peak in the Ibuki Mountain Range. The mountain is spread across the border between Shiga and Gifu prefectures, but the top of the mountain is part of Maibara in Shiga. It’s designated as the Lake Biwa Quasi-National Park.
Since ancient times, it’s been regarded as a sacred mountain, and a deity resident on the mountain appears in the Kojiki and Nihon Shoki ancient chronicles of Japan. It’s visible in Shiga, Gifu, Aichi, and Mie prefectures, and the school songs in each of these prefectures pay homage to Mt. Ibuki.
Ibuki-yama or Ibuki-san?
The name of the mountain in Japanese is in some dispute. Ibuki-yama and Ibuki-san are both possible pronunciations. In areas close to the mountain, there’s a tendency to call it Ibuki-yama, whereas in more distant areas, it’s generally called Ibuki-san.
In the late Muromachi period, Oda Nobunaga, warlord and the first unifier of Japan, is said to have established a garden of wild grass on the mountaintop. From the Meiji period, it became the focus of modern mountaineering. In the Taishō period, adventurer Nakayama Saijirō recognised Mt. Ibuki for its skiing potential. A bust of Nakayama is found at the 3rd station on the mountain. In 1964, when it was selected as one of Japan’s 100 famous mountains by Fukada Hisaya, it became known nationally as a mountain worth climbing due to the 100 famous mountain boom. After the Ibukiyama Driveway was opened in 1965, it was easy to get up to the 9th station, and the summit became a tourist destination.
Faith in the god of Mt. Ibuki
Since ancient times, Mt. Ibuki has been the object of faith as a mountain where gods live. The god of Mt. Ibuki is also called Ibuki Daimyōjin, and in the Kojiki it’s described as a large white boar like an ox, and in the Nihon Shoki as a big snake. In the Kojiki of 712, there’s a story about Ibuki Daimyōjin. Yamato Takeru, a legendary prince of the Yamato dynasty, blasphemed the god and was stricken with an illness. He recovered somewhat in the spring water at Samegai in today’s Maibara, but he died soon after.
At the top of the mountain, there’s a stone statue of Yamato Takeru erected in 1912, and another of the white boar that represents the god of Mt. Ibuki. On the west side of the 3rd station on the mountain path is a place called Takaya where Yamato Takeru met the mountain god. A small shrine was erected there in the Taishō period, and a wooden statue of Yamato Takeru was enshrined in it.
En no Gyōja, the founder of Shugendō, a syncretic sect combining Shintō and esoteric Buddhism, climbed Mt. Ibuki in the 600s and built the temples Yataka-dera and Taihei-ji. From that time temples were built all over the mountain for the practice of Shugendō, sometimes with the support of the government of the time. During the Warring States period, many temples were turned into fortresses and many were burned down in fighting. In the Edo period, there were still significant temples on the mountain, but these gradually fell into disrepair thereafter.
A mountain of medicine and healing
Oda Nobunaga gave Portuguese missionaries permission and land on Mt. Ibuki to establish a garden of medicinal plants. From 1558 to 1570, they planted about 3,000 varieties including common European vegetables, which gradually adapted to the new environment. In the final years of the Meiji period, a researcher was able to collect one thousand kinds of medicinal plants on Mt. Ibuki. Today, two hundred and thirty species of folk medicine plants and nineteen species of approved medicinal plants grow here.
Even before the mountain was planted by European missionaries, Mt. Ibuki was regarded as a cornucopia of medicinal plants since ancient times. Mugwort, angelica, and cnidium were considered the three major Ibuki medicinal herbs. Plants were often blended, and a popular product in the surrounding mountains were teas and bath additives made of potpourris of these herbs.
Mt. Ibuki is known as a producer of moxa used for moxibustion. A compilation of poems contains the line “The heat of love is like the moxa of Mt. Ibuki”, and the company Senefa still makes a product called Ibuki Moxa. In the late Edo period, Ōmi merchant Kameya Sakyō traded in moxa. The prostitutes of Yoshiwara in Edo were taught a song called “The moxa of Kameya Sakyō from the bottom of Mt. Ibuki”, and the name of Ibuki moxa spread throughout the country as the song became popular. In Kashiwabara, Maibara, there were more than ten moxa shops at the peak of its popularity. The joint company Kameya Sakyō Shōten is still in operation in Maibara.
Ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Hiroshige’s series The Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō shows the shop of Kameya Sakyō at Kashiwabara in today’s Maibara.
In 1998, the Ibuki-yama Medicinal Summit was established by local governments around the base of the mountain. A summit is held on August 9th every year to discuss herbal remedies. Products from the surrounding municipalities using medicinal plants are sold at the venue.
The geology of Mt. Ibuki
Mt. Ibuki is believed to have been a submarine volcano that erupted about 300 million years ago. Fossilized sea lilies and other primitive fauna are found on the mountain, and the formation was deposited on the seabed in the Palaeozoic about 250 million years ago. During that time, coral reefs were formed, and calcareous formations were deposited. From the middle to the upper part of the mountain, limestone formed in the Palaeozoic Permian is widely distributed. At the summit, karst topography such as giant limestone rocks can be seen, which contain a lot of marine fossils.
The foothills are known for their spring water. Snowmelt and rain percolate through the limestone layers and emerge as mineral-rich spring water. Maibara has numerous sites where this spring water rises such as Izumi Shrine and Samegai, and at the Mt. Ibuki trailhead in Ueno. This latter spring was a place where mountain ascetics heading to the top of the mountain cleansed themselves. Rivers originating from Mt. Ibuki include the Yodo River system that flows to Lake Biwa and the Kiso River system that flows to rivers in the Nōbi Plain.
Mt. Ibuki is in the seasonal wind path from the cold Sea of Japan in winter. The subarctic humid climate brings a lot of snow, and in February 1927, a snow depth of 11.82 m was recorded, an unsurpassed world record for snowfall in one place. In winter, the top of the mountain is as cold as the northernmost part of Hokkaidō.
In March 1915, adventurer Nakayama Saijirō climbed the mountain during the snowy season. A year later, he organised the first ski tournament in the Kansai region on Mt. Ibuki. For many years Ōmi Railway operated a ski resort on the south slope. However, due to declining demand and insufficient snow, it ceased operation in 2008 and the lift was removed.
Mining the limestone
Limestone was first mined around 1661 as slaked lime used as a raw material for lacquer. In modern times, it’s been mined in large quantities due to the demand for concrete and cement. Coinciding with the post-war recovery, major quarrying began in the early 1950s, and the southwest ridgeline was sharply cut away, changing the shape of the mountain. Since 1971, efforts have been made to green the southwestern slope, but quarrying is still carried out.
Flora and fauna of Mt. Ibuki
Mt. Ibuki is a low altitude, limestone mountain, conditions which make it favourable for colonisation by a wide variety of plant life. Botanists such as Makino Tomitarō and pharmacists have beaten a path here to study its unique plants. The foothills of the mountain are wooded with coniferous and broad-leaved species, with grassland from the 3rd station to the top where few trees grow. The mountain is populated with over 1,700 species of plants. Many species that were first found on Mt. Ibuki have the prefix “Ibuki” in their Japanese name, and there are more than twenty such species. Some of them are endangered, and measures are being taken to protect them from being trampled by visitors and eaten by deer.
The deer are problem animals on Mt. Ibuki. Since wolves became extinct a long time ago, they have no natural predators apart from golden eagles which also live on the mountain. Although the eagles can sometimes be photographed carrying young deer, their numbers aren’t sufficient to keep the deer in check. Other mammals include Asiatic black bears, Japanese serow, wild boars, Japanese badgers, and Japanese hares. Birds include grassland species such as cuckoos, nightingales, buntings, and pheasants, woodland species such as woodpeckers, flycatchers, jays, and tits, and bird of prey such as kites and golden eagles. Many birdwatchers gather near the 3rd station to photograph the eagles. The flowers attract many insects, including a wide range of butterflies. Snails also find the limestone environment hospitable.
Climbing Mt. Ibuki
From the Meiji period, Mt. Ibuki became a popular place for modern mountaineering. The foothills of Mt. Ibuki have always been an important route between eastern and western Japan, making the mountain convenient for climbing day trips. In 1965, the Ibukiyama Driveway was opened, making it possible to visit the 9th station by bus or car. This increased the number of tourists visiting the summit. In July and August, some people climb the mountain at night to greet the dawn at the summit. The best time for climbing is from April to mid-November. In winter, deep snow and strong wind present a challenge and hazard. People visiting the mountain are asked to put 300 yen in one of several boxes located in public places to contribute to preservation of the mountain and upkeep of its facilities.
Climbing routes ### Omote mountain trail
This route starts at Ueno, Maibara in the southeastern foothills, going up to the summit via the defunct ski resort on the southwest slope. There are about 30,000 users a year. There’s a bus stop near the trailhead, and a place to submit climber registration forms. The Shiga Prefectural Road No. 268 Ibukiyama Ueno Line, which is also part of this route, has been developed to allow cars to pass up to the 3rd station, but general vehicles are prohibited. From the 3rd to the 5th station, you can climb up the former ski resort, and in summer, camping facilities, rest facilities, and kiosks are open. From the 5th station to the 9th station, the slope gradually became steeper and with a dogleg hiking path. Since the route doesn’t pass through valleys and forests in general, except for the lower forest zone, there are spectacular views, but no shade from the sun or wind. From the 9th station to the top of the mountain, there are roped off colonies of grasses and flowers.
This route climbs the south ridge from Yataka in Maibara, and after the Castle Site triangulation point at 838.7 m, it becomes a vague path. It traverses around 900 m above sea level and meets the Ueno trail at the 5th station.
Jōhei-ji ridge trail
This route goes up from Jōhei-ji in Maibara climbing the ridge to the east of the Yataka ridge from Maibara joining the Yataka ridge at the Castle Site. On the route, there’s a square of grass where the main enclosure of Jōhei-ji Castle stood. At the point where the Yataka ridge and Jōhei-ji ridge join, there’s a ridge called Naka ridge that extends to the summit.
Mountain huts and facilities
There are five shops on the top of the mountain. In the warmer seasons, some shops are also open for night climbers as a place to have a nap. They’re closed outside business hours. In order to see the sunrise from the summit, mountain climbing is also popular at night. The lights carried by climbers can be seen in a row on the mountain in the middle of the night on weekends. At the 3rd station of the mountain trail from Ueno, there’s a path for observing the naturally occurring wild grass. At the 5th station, there are shops, vending machines, and rest areas. At the 6th station is an emergency hut maintained by Maibara City. The Ibukiyama Temple at the top of the mountain may be partly opened as an emergency shelter in winter. Camping in tents or bivvies is prohibited on the mountaintop.
Be aware that the toilets at the 9th station don’t have toilet paper in the cubicles due to the mist. It needs to be purchased from the machine in advance. However, the toilets on the mountaintop have free toilet paper in the cubicles.
The Ibukiyama Driveway from the foot of the mountain to the mountaintop is used by private cars, sightseeing buses, and local buses. From the car park at the end of the Driveway, there’s a path to the top of the mountain where there are more shops and restaurants.
This toll road goes from Sekigahara-cho, Gifu, up the east ridge to the 9th station. It costs 3,140 yen for cars, which must be paid in cash. At the 9th station is a car park that can accommodate more than 500 cars, as well as an observation deck, restaurant and shops. The road is sometimes used for bicycle hill climb competitions. It’s used by bird watchers for photographing birds of prey. It’s closed during the snow season.
Around the summit, wild grasses and alpine plants are protected with fencing to keep out deer, and in the summer, it becomes a colourful field of flowers. There are three trails that reach the summit in 20 to 40 minutes.
A mountain marathon event is held on a Sunday in late August. The course is about 10 km starting from the Ibuki Yakusō-no-Sato Cultural Center in Maibara, with the goal of reaching the top of Mt. Ibuki. From the start point of the first half to the 1st station, there’s a paved road (about 4.5 km), and from the 1st station to the summit, there’s a mountain trail (about 5.5 km). The course climbs 1,197 m. About 1,000 people take part.
From the Ueno trailhead, Omi Nagaoka Station on the JR Tōkaidō Main Line is the nearest railway station, which is less than 5 km away. There’s an Ibuki Tozanguchi bus stop near the trailhead, and the Kokoku Bus runs a route bus from Ōmi Nagaoka Station or JR Hokuriku Main Line Nagahama Station. You can also take a taxi up to the third stop of the trailhead. The 9th car park of Ibukiyama Driveway is operated by Meishin Highway Bus from the Sakurabashi Exit of JR Tōkaidō Main Line Ōsaka Station or the JR Tōkaidō Main Line Nagoya Station. In the summer, JR Tokaidō Main Line Ōgaki from Ōsaka Station and Sekigahara Station, Meihan Kintetsu Bus operates a local bus in season.
The Ueno mountain trail is about 10 km from the Nagahama interchange on the Hokuriku Expressway or the Sekigahara interchange on the Meishin Expressway via National Route 365 or Shiga Prefectural Road 551 Santō Ibuki Line. There’s a car park.
The entrance to Ibukiyama Driveway is about 3km from Sekigahara Interchange via Route 365.
Road Station Ibuki-no-Sato is located in the southwestern intersection of Shiga Prefectural Road No. 40 Santō Motosu along the wide-area farm road on the eastern part of the slope, passing through the foot of the southwest. The Ibuki observation deck is on the second floor.