March 4, 2021

Kurama & Kibune

Kurama and Kibune are a pair of destinations in Kyoto that are respectively home to the spiritual attractions Kurama-dera and Kifune Shrine.

The lanterns that line the main approach to Kifune Shrine in Kyoto

It’s really no secret that I’ve not been a fan of Kyoto over the years. Though I am sympathetic towards the plight of the city now that the pandemic has ground all inbound travel to a halt, Japan’s former capital used to suffer greatly from overtourism. Even during the days where Kiyomizu-dera and other popular sights were swarmed with hordes of tourists though, there were always a handful of yet-to-be-discovered allures such as the venerable Iwashimizu Hachimangu. While the more mainstream spots were honestly nigh unbearable at times, these attractions were rarely, if ever, crowded.

On that note, I’d like to introduce the topic of this week’s article. In this piece, we’ll be taking a look at the dual hamlets of Kurama and Kibune. Located in the northernmost reaches of Kyoto, these two towns feel far removed from the hustle and bustle of the city’s center. In fact, were it not for their proximity to the rest of the charms in Kyoto, you’d be easily forgiven for mistaking that you had been whisked off somewhere to the bucolic boonies. It’s quite frankly a completely night and day difference!

Why should someone consider visiting Kurama and Kibune? Well, other than as a means of escaping the truly oppressive heat in summer, know that these twin valleys house a pair of truly ancient sanctuaries. In Kurama, you’ll find the spiritual Kurama-dera temple complex whereas Kibune is home to the amazing Kifune Shrine (pictured above — chances are high that you’ve seen it on the Gram before). Moreover, these convenient but rural getaways also offer some of the best autumn foliage in the vicinity of Kyoto.

Seeing as you need but a mere half of a day to explore the wonders of Kurama and Kibune, consider budgeting for around half of a day to experience these off of the beaten path attractions. I promise, you won’t regret it…

Getting to Kurama & Kibune

Kurama Station in Kyoto near Kurama-dera

Given their rural charm, Kurama and Kibune are extremely easy to get to all things considered. Frankly speaking, I’m actually ashamed that it took me this long to introduce the pair as they are an easy means of stepping off of the mainstream track. Of course, to enjoy Kurama and Kibune, you’ll first have to find your way to Kyoto. Seeing as Japan’s ancient capital is one of the areas that people almost always want to visit, this isn’t that big of an ask. I mean, are you really going to pass on Kyoto? No, I didn’t think so…

If you’re a first timer and not yet familiar with getting to and from Kyoto, just refer to the ever-helpful Hyperdia or a similar service to calculate train times. This will make both figuring out the bullet trains as well as your local connections all that much easier. That said, you’re going to want to be in Kyoto the night before your excursion up to Kurama and Kibune. This will let you get an early start on the day while still saving enough time to dine out in central Kyoto (I recommend checking out Pontocho by the Kamo River).

Anyway, to get to Kurama and Kibune, you’re going to want to take the Keihan Main Line to Demachiyanagi . From there, you’ll need to transfer to the Eizan Electric Railway. In previous years, you could take this all the way to Kurama but a landslide damaged part of the track in 2020. Since train service is now disrupted, you’ll need to instead take a bus to Kurama from Ichihara Station. While navigating buses in Japan may induce panic in some who have struggled with them before, know that everything is clearly labeled in English. While Kurama and Kibune are indeed rural, this still is part of Kyoto afterall…

Now, astute readers might have picked up on this in the previous paragraph but you’ll want to do Kurama first and then make your way to Kibune. The reason for this will become apparent in the coming sections but you’d do well to heed my warning here…

What to See in Kurama

One of the gates on the way to Kurama-dera’s main hall

Since I recommend you start with Kurama, let’s begin there. Best known for the antediluvian Kurama-dera temple complex, this part of Kyoto has long been a spiritual retreat for residents. What’s more, Kurama also has one of the most easily accessible onsen from downtown Kyoto. This makes it a popular retreat for residents of the former capital. Alas, during my recent stint in northern Kyoto, Kurama’s hot springs sadly seemed to be closed due to the ever-annoying coronavirus. Hopefully this is no longer the case for you during your visit to Kurama.

Getting back to Kurama-dera, understand that this mountaintop temple compound is the main allure in Kurama. According to the historical records, Kurama-dera was founded in the 8th century BCE but there’s much scepticism around this date. Allegedly, a Chinese monk by the name of Jianzhen awoken from a dream with the vision of founding an esoteric temple atop Mt. Kurama. If we are to believe the local folktales, this peak emanates a lot of spiritual power and Kurama-dera was the Buddhists attempt to control its overflowing influence.

While the buildings that comprise Kurama-dera today do not actually date from over a millenia ago due to a handful of fires, know that the compound still preserves much of its history. Thankfully for modern day visitors, the temple managed to safeguard all of its effigies which are now considered to be national treasures. Of these, a statue of Bishamonten, the Thousand-Armed Kannon and Goho Maoson (a.k.a. the “Defender Lord”) represent a trinity of objects of worship at Kurama-dera. While the originals are concealed from view, there are replicas on display for visitors to observe.

One particular oddity about Kurama-dera is that the entire area is rife with tengu paraphernalia. During my time on Mt. Kurama, I was actually puzzled as to why this region so regularly depicts tengu but upon further research, I eventually found my answer. As it turns out, the statue of Goho Maoson that is housed within Kurama-dera has a long beard, a big nose and wings. This rather odd rendition of the so-called “Defender Lord’’ bears a striking resemblance to the tengu. What’s more, Mt. Kurama is said to be the home of Sojobo, the ultimate patriarch of the tengu.

Putting #DonnyThings aside for a moment and returning again to the temple compound, know that there’s two ways to reach the top of Mt. Kurama where Kurama-dera is found. Those with enough youthful vigor can opt to take the thirty minute hike up. En route, you’ll get to enjoy the beautiful Yuki Shrine which is famous for its annual fire festival. Alternatively, those who rather save their stamina can instead elect to take the cable car up for the price of a mere 200 yen. Given how lovely Yuki Shrine is though, I’d encourage you to put in the extra effort to savor this 1,000 year-old shrine.

Hiking to Kibune from Kurama

The gnarled roots of a tree on the hike from Kurama-dera to Kifune Shrine

Over the years, Kurama-dera has gone through a number of Buddhist sects. These days though, the temple belongs to its own religious entity. This has allowed Kurama-dera to reconcile with the yamabushi and other miscellaneous adherents of mountain worship. Though the temple previously had to break its bonds with these groups over the years, Kurama-dera’s historic ties to asceticism are still quite visible. Perhaps nowhere are these roots more apparent than the path that leads over to Kibune in the neighboring valley. You can just tell that this route was used for some kind of training in the past!

Though you can certainly take public transportation, the most popular way to explore the twin towns of Kurama and Kibune is by hiking from one to the other. If you’re following my recommendation and visiting Kurama first, you’ll find the trailhead to the left hand side of Kurama-dera’s main hall. From there, the hike over to Kibune will take you around an hour. Though challenging at first, you’ll soon reach the highest point and it is all downhill from there. It’s for this reason that I suggest you do Kurama first. To be frank, the trek from Kibune to Kurama looks like one painful climb.

Note that while you‘ll want to wear a solid pair of sneakers or boots, the hike to Kibune from Kurama isn’t something you otherwise need to prepare for. This isn’t like ascending to the summit of Mt. Fuji or anything. That said, you might want to do a bit of extra planning in summer as it can get excessively hot and sweaty. Case in point, I was feeling comfortable in just a T-shirt despite visiting in the middle of February (to be fair, it was a warm day).

What to See in Kibune

The snow-covered stairs to Kifune Shrine during the months of winter

If you’re following my walkthrough for this part of Kyoto, you’ll arrive in Kibune quite sweaty and with trembling knees. Assuming that you get an early start on the day, this will be a great time to pause and have some lunch. Luckily, there are a great many number of spots to choose from in this charming area. Most of these restaurants serve kaiseki courses and will run you at least 3,000 yen. While pricey, it’s definitely worth it. Note that those vacationing in summer will have the option to dine atop covered platforms that are built out over the river. This is a great way to cool off and escape the sweltering heat.

Of course, Kibune’s main claim to fame is Kifune Shrine (which is how Kibune gets rendered in Japanese when you add the “jinjya” or suffix for shrines). Located smack dab in the middle of the hamlet, this ever-iconic sanctuary is impossible to miss. Dedicated to the god of water and rain, Kifune Shrine is regularly patronized by those who often take to the sea. Likely in homage to the deity enshrined within, Kifune Shrine offers a unique take on omikuji (a type of paper fortune). These slips only reveal what fate has in store for you after dipping it into the sacred water of the shrine.

In addition to Kifune Shrine’s primary areas, visitors to this valley will also want to pay their respects at the Oku-no-Miya. Located about one kilometer away from the main hall, this section of Kifune Shrine is the inner sanctum and the original location of the sepulcher. According to an ancient legend, the mother of Japan’s mythological first emperor sailed all the way up here in a boat from Osaka. When she could travel no further, a shrine was erected where her journey came to an end. Over the centuries, this grew into the present-day Kifune Shrine.

At the Oku-no-Miya, you’ll find a large rock that is known simply as the “Boat Stone” in English. Beneath this boulder allegedly lies the very same boat that the mother of Japan’s first emperor took all the way from Osaka to this mountainous part of northern Kyoto. From what I can gather, there’s also a superstition that many seafaring people hold to. If we are to believe what they say, taking a small pebble from atop the mysterious “Boat Stone” will grant you protections when out on the high seas.

Attractions Near Kurama & Kibune

The snow-covered Amida Hall of Mt. Hiei’s Enryaku-ji temple complex
“There are three things that I cannot control. The waters of the Kamo River, the roll of the dice, and the monks of Mt Hiei."
— Emperor Shirawaka

While a lot of foreign tourists sleep on northern Kyoto, there’s actually an insane amount of other draws in this part of the city. First and foremost, the northeast is home to sacred Mt. Hiei. Here, you’ll find the sprawling Enryaku-ji temple complex (which is technically located across the border in neighboring Shiga Prefecture). This mountaintop bastion of Buddhism is quite possibly the most influential religious establishment in all of Japan. Over the centuries, the monks of Enryaku-ji have meddled with the politics of Kyoto. Their sway on the city was so strong that even the emperors couldn’t control the monks.

As anyone who knows their Japanese history can tell you, the current incarnation of Enryaku-ji is but a mere shadow of its former glory. This is because the warlord Oda Nobunaga did the unthinkable and set the entire mountain ablaze after having enough of the monks’ meddling. While most certainly justifiable from a realpolitik perspective, this savage act earned Oda Nobunaga the nickname of the “Demon King.” Though Enryaku-ji would later be rebuilt in the years following, it never regained the status that it once had.

Honestly speaking, a trip to Enryaku-ji is a day-long adventure in and of itself. Because of this, it does take some additional planning to properly explore despite its proximity to Kurama and Kibune. So, if you’re looking for a more synergistic add-on, consider making a quick pilgrimage to Ichijo-ji’s Sagari-matsu. Here at this pine tree, the legendary warrior Miyamoto Musashi took on close to 100 men from the rival Yoshioka School. Be sure not to miss out on nearby Hachidai Shrine where you can pay your respects to Japan’s most highly esteemed swordsman!

Until next time travelers…