Hiking from Kibune to Kurama
Temples, forests, onsens, Buddhist cuisine: here is one of the reasons you should stay a few days in Kyoto to explore the surroundings of the ancient capital. My hike from Kibune to Kurama
I get off the train and I suddenly find myself alone. There is a lonely road and woods everywhere. The few Japanese who took the train to Kibuneguchi with me, immediately rushed to the shuttle bus that was waiting with the engine running. But I like a stroll. I want to walk to the village, along this narrow valley among the hills just north of Kyoto. In the ancient capital one continuously spots the hills and small mountains that surround the city. It happens every time the horizon opens up between the buildings, in the less densely populated areas, or while crossing the Kamogawa on a bridge. And I love that sight.
When I think of Kyoto, what comes to my mind first it’s not the machiya, the maiko, the temples. The first image that comes to my mind is the placid flow of the river and the sight of the distant mountains.
I came to hike the mountain trail that links Kibune and Kurama, a dozen kilometers north of the city. It’s an easy hike, and a very popular one, particularly in summer. It’s also on the Lonely Planet guide, at the end of the long chapter on Kyoto. But for some reason not many foreigners come here. Many stop in Kyoto just two or three days, barely enough to see the most famous sights.
This time I am walking from Kibune to Kurama where, at the end of the path, I will find an onsen. I hope I will be able to enter with my tattoos.
The road climbs slowly towards Kibune among huge trees, following a creek. Approaching the village the valley narrows. Then I see ryokans, restaurants and the red torii gate of the Kifune-jinja and the steps leading up to the shrine.
Maybe, after the scenic steps, the shrine doesn’t look so special. There is also a bizarre plastic statue that evokes the ancient times, when a black horse was offered if rain was needed, white for dry weather.
But it’s quiet, peaceful. It’s nice to feel alone, listening to the water flowing in the stream at the bottom of the valley. I am surprised by a sign: the sanctuary is on Facebook, YouTube and also has wi-fi. I can’t resist the temptation, I take my smartphone out and connect. Modernity and tradition in stark contrast. It’s not a cliché: it’s typically Japanese.
On mount Kurama
I pay 300 yen and I set my foot on the path that climbs mount Kurama. It ‘a sacred place, full of history and ancient temples. And the history, or legend, is unique. Here is worshipped Mao-Son – says the brochure in English -, a spirit that fell millions of years ago from planet Venus. Perhaps, it is assumed, this and other similar legends originated from the fall of a meteorite in the area. After twenty minutes I get on the ridge, where the trail softens, and the first temples appear among the trees. But what really amazes me, much more than the buildings, are the huge trees, sometimes bound by ropes (called shimenawa), fenced, worshipped as places where the kami (spirits) manifest themselves. It is impossible not to perceive something otherworldly, superior, in their size in the different time they live in.
With its imposing structure the main temple looks almost out-of-place. And there are too many people. They arrived, I soon find out, with a cable railway that connects the train station with the temple. There are also girls in high heels, miniskirt and surgical mask, as in a typical shopping mall. But they throw a coin and pray, here. There is also something ancient and mysterious in the temple, founded in the Eighth century. I sit for a long time to listen to the monks and to look at the simple, repetitive movements of people in prayer.
Kurama, onsen e buddhist cuisine
At the end of the path, on the left, there is a small house, with a sign in Japanese. It’s Yoshuji, a restaurant specialized in Buddhist vegetarian cuisine (shojin ryori). There are cheap plates, such as soba. But I choose a full lunch set. Beautiful and with a wonderful taste. The quintessential Japanese meal.
The conclusion of my daytrip is at the onsen, connected to Kurama by a free shuttle that runs every 20 minutes, even though is just 20 minutes on foot. The indoor bath costs 2000 yen, while the rotenburo, open air bath, costs just 1100 yen (400 for the towel rental). I obviously choose the latter. Bathing in hot water among woods, mountains and snow is one of the best experiences that you can have in Japan. Men and women are separated, and tattoos are usually banned. I ask politely, since I have two tattoos, and I am let in. I suppose they decide on a case by case basis, here, as it sometimes happen. After all it’s a weekday in winter and the place is empty.
The water here is not too hot, and this allows me to stay in the water for a long time, enjoying the view and feeling my muscles relax. It doesn’t get any better than this.
The onsen website is also available in English.
How to get there
There is a very useful page on this daytrip from Kibune to Kurama on the excellent Inside Kyoto website. From the city, take the metro to Demachinayagi. There, change and take the train to Kurama (about 20 minutes, the second ticket costs 420 yen).Get off at Kibuneguchi and exit the station. From there, take the shuttle or turn right and walk. The temple and the trail are indicated by signs.
If you still have time, Demachinayagi is also worth a stop. It’s a pleasant area of Kyoto for a walk along the river. There is also the ancient and beautiful Shimogamo shrine.
Kibune is also famous for kawadoko, restaurants in the summer have very popular platforms on the river. In the hottest months it might then be a good idea to walk from Kurama to Kibune and then have a refreshing lunch close to the water.
Winter night illumination at Kifune Jinja
In 2017, from January 1st to February 28th, in case of snow Kibune Jinja will be illuminated during the night. It will be decided every day at 3 pm. And it will happen only on snowy days.
The event page is in Japanese (but has beautiful pictures).
This video is awesome