Kyoto Nature Trail: Kibune to Kurama Hike through Kitayama Mountains
One of the reasons Kyoto was so attractive is the convergence of city, culture, history, and nature. Kyoto is surrounded by beautiful nature and I wanted to make sure we set aside ample time to experience it on our trip. One destination that is often left off of Kyoto itineraries is north of the city for a nature walk from Kibune to Kurama. I hope I am able to convince you otherwise and include this amazing day trip on your Kyoto trip.
While it is not a popular spot on the international tourist loop when visiting Kyoto, portions of the route can get crowded with Japanese tourists. Depending on when you are visiting, the heat may also persuade you to start this walk early. For planning, I used this blog post which was extremely helpful in finding information for our day.
The hike takes you from Kibune to Kurama and up Mt Kurama in between, It is about 7km / 4 miles to complete in one direction and it is structured so you do not need to back track to return to Kyoto which is great. There are some steep parts but overall it is an easy walk to complete and there are plenty of stops along the way.
When traveling from Kyoto, the journey to get here is very easy and transports you to another world. In Kyoto, get to Demachiyanagi Station where the Eizan Line and take it to the end. The second to last stop is Kibuneguchi Station and the very last stop is Kurama. Going there, get off at Kibuneguchi Station and then going back to Kyoto, get on at Kurama Station. We left Kyoto around 730AM and arrived at Kibuneguchi Station shortly after 8AM. This train ride is extremely scenic as it hugs the Kamo-gawa River into the Kitayama Mountains. Even just from the train ride alone I knew this day trip was going to be amazing.
We were the only ones that got off at Kibuneguchi Station and the train was basically empty, just highlighting again how off the tourist map this spot is. There is a very helpful map that validated everything we planned to do.
From here, it is a 30 minute walk along the river to get to the first official stop on the walk – Kibune Shrine. I was worried the walk was going to be boring but it was just the opposite. The river was rapidly flowing but waterfalls along the way. The trees towered into the sky up the mountains.
Before reaching the town of Kibune, there is a public bathroom so if that is of importance for our day, definitely make a pit stop here before continuing on.
The town of Kibune was magic – ryokan and restaurants lined the road overlooking the river leading up to the shrine. Staying here would be such a peaceful experience and there are many well rated kaiseki meals – many that get their fresh seafood right from the river that you overlook while you dine. Starting the trail this early meant nothing was open but it is definitely tempting to delay for this meal if doing a day trip. If you are able, consider these spots I had star’ed: Sagenta, Hyoue, Hirobun, Katsura, or Kibunejaya. I think an overnight in Kibune would be very special and definitely something to consider for your trip. If you have not experienced a ryokan during your trip, this would be another great reason to come experience an overnight in Kibune.
The first stop along this walk is Kibune Shrine. Due to legend and I am sure the proximity to the river, this shrine is known for water miracles and a place of prayer from safe passage on waterways or ample rain for agriculture. There are three sections to Kibune Shrine – the main shrine, Yui no Yashiro in the middle, and the Okunomiya in the back. Since we had a lot to cover today, we visited the main shrine which is th first part of the shrine you encounter coming from this direction.
The stairs up to the shrine are lined with red wooden lanterns and maples trees making for a picture perfect postcard. I can only imagine how magical it is in spring for cherry blossoms or fall when the leaves turn colors.
This tranquil area has something we have not seen anywhere else in our Japan travels – statues of two horses. The horses present a long tradition dating back to the Heian Period where horses were given as gifts as prayers for weather preference – black horses for rain and white horses for clear skies. This area also has a zen garden and shop for fortunes and lucky charms.
We returned to the front of Kibune Shrine and a short distance away is the West Gate of Kurama-dera Temple which is the entrance to the hike. It is easy to spot as a bright red bridge allows you to cross the river to access the trail. There is a $500 yen per person entrance fee and you will get a map of the trail. Additionally, there are free wooden walking poles that you can use for the trail and return at the exit.
We started the trail just after 9AM. Starting from the west entrance is a bit of a stair master to start the way is gradual and after 20 minutes, we reached the first stop. Mao-den Sanctuary. This story is one of my favorites we came across. Mao-son is the god of the mountain and six million years ago he split Venus and Earth apart – right here! Thanks for creating Earth, Mao-son. This is a wonderful place to rest before continuing on.There is also a sign for restrooms here if needed.
Climbing up is pretty much done for the rest of the trail. There are multiple smaller shrines that are along the way – some enveloped into the forest while others stand out more prominently. Especially early in the morning, the entire area is so peaceful, still, and serene.
The next spot of interest is Kinone-michi – the Path of Tree Roots. This area has tree roots emerging from the ground in a knotted maze – be careful where you step to not trip!
The next section took us towards the summit of Mt Kurama, passing more shrines and beautiful maple and bamboo trees along the way. We reached a bell tower so it felt that we were very close to the main shrine of this walk and the summit. And yes, we definitely took turns ringing the bell which I am sure resonated far beyond where we stood.
Just beyond the bell tower we arrived at the back of Kuramadera Temple – the main attraction of the trail. I am sure the way the temple is meant to be experienced is coming from the Kurama side but I have to say, I really enjoyed emerging from behind and being surprised at all the sites coming from the Kibune direction. Kuramadera Temple had quite a few people around – I would certainly not call it crowded – but it was the most people we saw on the trail. I am sure many people arrive in Kurama station and walk to then turn around – do not rob yourself of the entire experience it is so worth it. Kuramadera Temple was built atop Mt Kurama in 772 due to the location’s spiritual power and with a view like this, I think I believe them. We spent a bit of time enjoying the temple and views before starting the journey down to Kurama.
The area just beyond the temple is my favorite of the trail. I do not know what makes these wooden lanterns so attractive but I could not get enough. The bold red pain against the lush green landscape really makes for this marriage of the people working and integrating with nature as opposed to tearing it down.
From the summit, it is an easy twenty minute walk all downhill through switchbacks to reach the east gate and town of Kurama. At this point, I was much happier that we did not have to climb these switchbacks and instead did the stair master from Kibune – the switchbacks take much more time. The way down was lined with wooden lanterns and speckled with more shrines.
The Yuki Shrine stands out among the shrines in this part of the trail as there is a giant Japanese cedar tree which we learned is one of Kyoto’s oldest trees at 800 years old standing at 53 meters high!
The final steps of the trail are beautifully sculpted with more wooden lanterns and even a koi pond. As we approached the entrance of the East Gate, the stairway with giant maple trees and wooden lanterns was simply stunning. The East Gate is certainly more official as the starting point and much more crowded. We noted tourists, multiple school groups, and even a nursery field trip of young children exploring nature.
Want to visit Kuramadera Temple but unable to walk the stairs? There is a cable car option that takes you from the East Gate to Kuramadera Temple so consider this option when visiting.
After exiting the official trail at the East Gate, the walk concludes in Kurama. There are a few things to take advantage of while visiting Kurama. You can treat yourself to the Kurama Onsen for a day bath experience. This was unfortunately still closed post-pandemic for our trip. Another option is to do what we did – get lunch! Down the street is a small three generation family owned soba noodle shop – Nagomiya Kotengu. They only take cash and this was the most penny-pinching we did the entire trip to make sure we had enough money to eat and we emptied the cash we had to do so. Note – it was not because it is expensive, we were just at a point in the trip where we did not have a lot on us. We enjoyed our food tremendously and it was well earned after our trek. Highly recommend coming to Nagomiya Kotengu!
From lunch, it was a short walk to the Kurama train station where we started the journey back to Kyoto by taking Eizan Railway back to Demachiyanagi Station. The scenery is spectacular so this regular train really becomes a scenic railway through the mountains – do not forget to take it all in.
If you are visiting Kyoto, I would absolutely recommend this for your itinerary. For us, it was a half day out of the city and into the countryside – we were back in Kyoto by 1PM so there is still plenty of sightseeing time that you can spend either in Kyoto or extend the trip in Kibune and Kurama for a full day or even an overnight experience. And if you go for the overnight, you do not need to hike back, simply hop aboard the train one stop from Kurama to Kibune or vice versa. For this trail, there are pros and cons to starting at the West Gate vs the East Gate and while it is definitely the “right” way to start at the East Gate, and I preferred starting at the West Gate like we did. This is far less busy and gets the climbing part of the trail out of the way. It also saves the best parts of the trail for last so there is a good build up as the trail progresses. We saw many people enter the East gate and visit the Kuramadera Temple then go back – and while this part is beautiful, it misses the entire journey that is definitely worth exploring.