Walking in Kyoto: from Takao to Kiyotaki
I love walking in Kyoto. This hike from Takao to Kiyotaki is not to be missed: it eventually leads to Arashiyama
I find moving the sight of the mountains and hills that embrace Kyoto from all sides. They are the natural fortress that led the Emperor Kammu to choose this place as the capital in 794. But to me they evoke a sense of sweetness and mystery. In Japan, nature is linked to the world of the kami, the sacred, and when I enter the woods I can’t help but feel something beyond what I see. Maybe it’s because sometimes I meet a temple, a tied rope (shimenawa) indicating that a place is sacred. Or perhaps it’s simply because it’s an exotic scenario, one that I’m not used to: the trees, the sugi (Japanese cedar) are incredibly tall, huge. And maybe this is why I feel something otherworldly in this nature.
I always wanted to explore these mountains. During my first trip to Japan I ended up by chance in Ohara, a beautiful town, nestled among them. I remember the snow, the trees and this image has become part of my idea of this country. Too many believe Japan it’s just big cities: it’s not.
A day trip to Takao
Takao is a mountainous area north West of Kyoto. I get on a JR bus from Kyoto Station (free with the Japan Rail Pass). It takes about an hour: we move through neighborhoods that I don’t know and for a few minutes I imagine I am living in one of those houses that look all the same. I imagine myself as a commuter. This echoes the words of a Japanese guy with whom I had a chat yesterday at Gael’s Irish pub. “The buses are full of tourists”, he said. “The people say that they are too crowded, this is why everybody is going to work by bicycle”. But it should be the opposite: cycling in Kyoto is wonderful, and it’s the best way to see the city as a tourist. I’m on the bus just because this time I am going a little further away.
I get off the bus at Yamashiro Takao. Although it’s a small town, Takao is actually home to three very interesting temples of the Shingon sect, the most esoteric of Japanese Buddhism. The Kozan-ji, a little further away, is famous because there it can be seen what is considered by some to be the first manga in history, a satirical drawing with anthropomorphic animals. It’s from the eighth century.
Unfortunately I don’t have time to go to see it: it’s about a mile from the bus stop where I got off and is already getting late: I want to walk a short hike from Takao to Kiyotaki. Kozan-ji will be a reason to return, one day, even if I feel sorry for making this choice.
I go directly to Saimyo-ji and Jingo-ji, instead. The largest and most beautiful of the two temples, close to the bus stop, is the latter. I descend into a valley, then climb stairs that seem endless. I pass by kiosks closed for winter, which is low season (high season is autumn, with the forests that turns red with the Japanese maple, the momiji) and finally reach this temple, enveloped by a forest. Here I am alone and it’s so quiet.
Following a short path in the temple area I end up at a lookout point that dominates the valley, lit by a warm sun. It’s a delicate beauty, but in a way it’s shocking for me. For a long time I had imagined to come back to these mountains. And now I’m here.
The hike from Takao to Kiyotaki
It’s easy to find the path along the river that goes from Takao to Kiyotaki, just under an hour of walking without any real climb.
It ‘a flat path, which follows the river. I am completely alone. In the past I have always found snow in winter. This time is a little later and spring seems early. The sun is bright and warm.
In Kiyotaki there’s nothing, besides a bus stop and the trail that continues to Arashiyama. I ask how far it is to a Japanese man, coming on foot from that direction: it’s more than two hours of walking and there is quite a steep climb, he says. He also points to the bus stop: 10 minutes to Arashiyama from here.
But there is still time to do this last stretch. At the end I find it difficult to find my bearings when I get to Arashiyama. But somehow I end up in the famous bamboo forest.
I pass by Tenryu-ji, a beautiful Zen temple I visited during my first trip to Japan. I’ve been there twice already, but I feel a deep, stinging nostalgia. So I pay the 500 yen ticket and enter. I am rewarded by two apricot trees in bloom, announcing the imminent spring.
More info on Takao and Kiyotaki
- Trail desription on the Kyoto Trail site, and here is a map (use the translation function, it’s written in Japanese)
- The page on Takao on the always invaluable Inside Kyoto (this is where I first heard of this hike)
- If you hike in low season bring something to eat, as you will only find food in Arashiyama (and in Takao a vending machine for drinks)